Source: The New Yorker
In the early summer of 2017, a little less than a year after his Presidential campaign had ended, Bernie Sanders spent a few days on a speaking tour in England, to promote the European version of his book “Our Revolution.” The Brexit resolution had passed twelve months earlier, a
In the thirty months since Sanders’s 2016 campaign ended, in the petulance and ideological strife of the Democratic National Convention, he has become a more reliable partisan, just as progressivism has moved his way. He begins the 2020 Presidential campaign not as a gadfly but as a favorite, which requires a comprehensive vision among voters of how he would lead the free world. In 2017, Sanders hired his first Senate foreign-policy adviser, a progressive think-tank veteran named Matt Duss. Sanders gave major speeches—at Westminster College, in the United Kingdom, and at Johns Hopkins—warning that “what we are seeing is the rise of a new authoritarian axis” and urging liberals not just to defend the post-Cold War status quo but also to “reconceptualize a global order based on human solidarity.” In 2016, he had asked voters to imagine how the principles of democratic socialism could transform the Democratic Party. Now he was suggesting that they could also transform how America aligns itself in the world.
In early April, I met with Sanders at his Senate offices, in Washington. Spring was already in effect—the cherry blossoms along the tidal basin were still in bloom but had begun to crinkle and fade—and talk among the young staffers milling around his offices was of the intensity of Sanders’s early campaign, of who would be travelling how many days over the next month and who would have to miss Easter. It was my first encounter with Sanders during this campaign. Basic impression: same guy. He shook my hand with a grimace, and interrupted my first question when he recognized the possibility for a riff, on the significance of a Senate vote on Yemen. His essential view of foreign policy seemed to be that the American people did not really understand how dark and cynical it has been—“how many governments we have overthrown,” as Sanders told me. “How many people in the United States understand that we overthrew a democratically elected government in Iran to put in the Shah? Which then led to the Revolution. How many people in this country do you think know that? So we’re going to have to do a little bit of educating on that.”
One condition that Americans had not digested was the bottomlessness of inequality. “I got the latest numbers here,” Sanders said. He motioned, and Duss, who was sitting beside him, slid a sheet of paper across the table. “Twenty-six of the wealthiest people on earth own more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population. Did you know that? So you look at it, you say”—here he motioned as if each of his hands were one side of a scale—“twenty-six people, 3.6 billion people. How grotesque is that?”
He went on, “When I talk about income inequality and talk about right-wing authoritarianism, you can’t separate the two.” No one knew how rich Putin was, Sanders said, but some people said he was the wealthiest man in the world. The repressive Saudi monarchs were also billionaire Silicon Valley investors, and “their brothers in the Emirates” have “enormous influence not only in that region but in the world, with their control over oil. A billionaire President here in the United States. You’re talking about the power of Wall Street and multinational corporations.” Simple, really: his thesis had always been that money corrupted politics, and now he was tracing the money back overseas. His phlegmy baritone acquired a sarcastic lilt. “It’s a global economy, Ben, in case you didn’t know that!”
When Sanders’s aides sent me a list of a half-dozen foreign-policy experts, assembled by Duss, who talk regularly with the senator about foreign policy, I was surprised by how mainstream they seemed. Joe Cirincione, the antinuclear advocate, might have featured in a Sanders Presidential campaign ten or twenty years ago. But Sanders is also being advised by Robert Malley, who coördinated Middle East policy in Obama’s National Security Council and is now the president of the International Crisis Group; Suzanne DiMaggio, a specialist in negotiations with adversaries at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Vali Nasr, the dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced Studies at Johns Hopkins and a specialist in the Shia-Sunni divide.
Few of these advisers were part of Sanders’s notionally isolationist 2016 campaign. But, as emergencies in Libya, Syria, and Yemen have deepened, the reputation of Obama’s foreign policy, and of the foreign-policy establishment more broadly, has diminished. Malley told me, “Out of frustration with some aspects of Obama’s foreign policy and anger with most aspects of Trump’s, many leaders in the Party have concluded that the challenge was not to build bridges between centrist Democrats and centrist Republicans but, rather, between centrist and progressive Democrats. That means breaking away from the so-called Blob”—a term for the foreign-policy establishment, from the Obama adviser Ben Rhodes. DiMaggio said, “The case for restraint seems to be gaining ground, particularly in its rejection of preventive wars and efforts to change the regimes of countries that do not directly threaten the United States.” She and others now see in Sanders something that they didn’t in 2016: a clear progressive theory of what the U.S. is after in the world. “I think he’s bringing those views on the importance of tackling economic inequality into foreign policy,” DiMaggio said.
Since the 2016 campaign, Sanders’s major foreign-policy initiative has been a Senate resolution invoking the War Powers Act of 1973 in order to suspend the Trump Administration’s support of Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen. Mike Lee, a libertarian Republican from Utah, and Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, co-sponsored the resolution; on April 4th, it passed in the House and the Senate. It was the first time that Congress invoked the War Powers Act since the law’s creation, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. When we met, Sanders said that he thought the Republican support for the resolution was significant, in part because it reflected the strain of conservatism that is skeptical of military interventions. It also demonstrated, he believed, “a significant mind-set change in the Congress—Democrats and Republicans—with regard to Saudi Arabia.” He added, “I don’t see why we’d be following the lead or seen as a very, very close ally of a despotic, un-democratic regime.”
Sanders was warming to a broader theme. Our position in the regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran should be rebalanced, he said. There has been, he went on, “a bipartisan assumption that we’re supposed to love Saudi Arabia and hate Iran. And yet, if you look at young people in Iran, they are probably a lot more pro-American than Saudis. Iran is a very flawed society, no debate about it. Involved in terrorism, doing a lot of bad things. But they also have more democracy, as a matter of fact, more women’s rights, than does Saudi Arabia.” As President, Sanders said, he imagined the U.S. taking a more neutral role in the countries’ rivalry. “To say, you know what? We’re not going to be spending trillions of dollars and losing American lives because of your long-standing hostilities.”
Sanders turned to the
It was becoming a somewhat more interesting conversation that I’d imagined it would be, in part because Sanders seemed to oscillate between proposing a characteristically transformational reimagining of American policy at the grandest scale and, in specific cases, more complicated approaches. I mentioned that Barack Obama, in a Democratic primary debate in 2008, had said that he did not just want to end the Iraq War but also “the mind-set that had led to the war,” and I asked Sanders whether he believed Obama had lived up to that ambition as President. “I think Obama was, in many ways, well intentioned,” he said, and then, without mentioning Obama directly, added that he thought Presidents ought to raise the profile of foreign policy for the average citizen. He grew a little abashed at his own certainty. “Look, this is very difficult stuff,” he said. “Let me—I should have prefaced everything that I said by saying I most certainly do not believe that I have all the answers, or that this is easy stuff. I mean, you’re dealing with so much—my God.”
Even so, it wasn’t hard to see the rhetorical contrast with Obama. In Sanders’s account of global affairs, Americans have been as likely to be villains as heroes. Six trillion dollars had now been spent on the war on terror since 2001. “It’s an unbelievable amount of money,” he said. “Is this going to go on forever?” Seven hundred billion dollars was being sent annually to the military, he noted. “Do we really need to spend more than the next ten nations combined on the military, when our infrastructure is collapsing and kids can’t afford to go to college?” Sanders mentioned an amendment he had offered that would have required one tenth of one per cent of the military budget to support exchange programs to bring foreign teen-agers to the U.S. and send American kids abroad. He remembered, in a gauzy way, a program he had overseen as the mayor of Burlington, in which kids from his city travelled to the Soviet city of Yaroslavl, and Russian children travelled to Vermont. “It was just an incredible experience to see these kids getting along as well as they did,” Sanders said. “You know, a lot of attitudes about foreign policy are based on lack of knowledge.” He went on, “To bring farmers from Turkey to farmers in Iowa. You know, just to get people to see each other as human beings. I think it could go a distance.”
So far, the Democratic primaries have had an unusually expansive quality—the candidates have weighed in not simply on health care or education policy but also on whether the most powerful nation on earth is excessively capitalist or sufficiently democratic, and whether the existential challenges of climate change create a moral imperative for deep structural reforms, including the abolition of the filibuster and the Electoral College. Is this what voters will ultimately want from the Democratic candidate, or is it a kind of fever? “It will be a close election in which a big national-security gap between Republicans and Democrats could cost us the election,” Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, told reporters last week.
The world is still filled with political and humanitarian emergencies on which the idea of a popular resistance against authoritarianism does not shed much light. As the crisis in Venezuela has deepened, many Democrats have called Nicolás Maduro, the country’s left-wing President, a dictator, citing allegations of fraudulent elections, corruption, and mass starvation under his rule; some have supported the Trump Administration’s decision, along with the governments of Canada, Colombia, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, to recognize Juan Guaidó, a young opposition politician and the president of the National Assembly, as Venezuela’s head of state. Sanders pointedly declined to join them, releasing a statement condemning the violence and illegality of the Maduro regime but also warning that the United States “has a long history of inappropriately intervening in Latin-American countries; we must not go down that road again.”
I asked Sanders whether he saw Maduro as part of the axis of corrupt authoritarianism. “Yeah,” he said. “It is a failed regime. From all of the recent evidence, it appears that the election was fraudulent. And, despite his ideology, what we need to see is democracy established in Venezuela. That does not mean deciding that some politician is the new President, who never won any election.” I asked whether, given the depth of Venezuela’s suffering, he had considered calling for a more muscular and immediate response than the monitoring of future elections. Sanders thought for a moment, said that military intervention was off the table for him, and added, “The world community has got to be mindful of the humanitarian suffering and the hunger that’s going on in Venezuela right now. But, at the end of the day, I think what you want in one of the largest countries in Latin America is free and fair elections, and we want to do everything we can to establish democracy there.”
The part of Sanders’s vision that I still could not reconcile to reality was his optimism. He had a clear view of the enemy, but it was hard to see much evidence for the global popular movement against the right that he hoped to ignite. When I asked about where he thought his allies might come from, he said, “Maybe I’m wrong on this, or maybe I’m seeing something that other people don’t see, but I look at climate change as a very, very serious threat—to the entire planet, to every country on earth.” Putin, he acknowledged, was an obstacle; “China is a mixed bag.” But the effects of climate change, he said, were dawning on the planet at once, and their evidence would compel coöperation. “Australia now is suffering from terrible drought. China. Russia. Every country on earth is suffering. And it’s only going to get worse,” he said. “It also is an opportunity to say, ‘You know what? We gotta work together. We have some technology you may not have in China. You are producing this and that, that we’re not producing. We gotta work together.’ ”
That is the optimistic scenario: that climate change will bring about a new spirit of international coöperation. The darker view is that we are already seeing its effects in politics. Perceiving an existential vulnerability, people around the globe have sought the reassurance of authoritarians. Perhaps the pressures of climate change will liberate us from this moment; perhaps they also created it.
In the summer of 2006, just as the last progressive wave was building, I travelled to Africa with Barack Obama. He had just launched his Presidential campaign, and the hopes for him were as broad and pristine as they would ever be. The first time I visited his Senate offices, he was graciously ushering out Samantha Power and Elie Wiesel. Two documentary crews accompanied his family to South Africa, eastern Africa, and the Darfur refugee camps, and, in the half-day ride out to his father’s ancestral village, through the western Kenyan countryside, there was not a moment when crowds did not throng the road, bearing welcoming signs. People compared his reception to that of the Pope. And yet, in his addresses there, Obama made a point—made it, perhaps, the point—to preserve some distance from the pandemonium. He urged Kenyans to build call centers, to take advantage of their fluency in English. He reminded them that he was only one senator from a faraway country, that his power was contingent. He made clear that no great transformation was coming. When I spoke with Sanders’s advisers last week, I heard some musing about why Obama’s foreign policy had not delivered on the revolutionary hopes that accompanied his ascent. One simple reason is that those hopes were not his. Power revealed steeliness in Obama, and an instinct for the consensus, and caution. Beliefs are not the whole business.
Around Sanders’s Senate offices last week, I heard some murmurs of optimism—that, for the first time, it seemed possible to imagine that this half-decade campaign might end with the boss as President. In the early polls, the only figure close to him is Joe Biden, who is not yet in the race; the early returns suggest that Sanders will likely raise more funds than anyone in the field. The young stars of the Democratic Party began as his supporters; he has bent the Party’s policies and priorities so that they largely match his.
Perhaps a half-dozen people, maybe fewer, can realistically imagine themselves as the next President of the United States, and Sanders has as strong a case as anyone except the incumbent. For the moment, the pressures of power seem to be working on him; the fiery-sermonizer figure is in retreat, and he is sounding notes of caution. Most of the other Democrats running for President have embraced broad structural reforms: the Electoral College must go, and perhaps the filibuster. Not Sanders. On Palestine, he now invokes the tradition of Carter and Clinton. If the newer candidates must demonstrate and defend their beliefs, then Sanders is undertaking a more subtle task, in trying to accomplish a turn in his public character as he nears eighty: to extricate the person from the ideology, and to suggest that he is not just a revolutionary but also a safe pair of hands.