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Sanders Can’t Turn Back the Clock on US Imperialism

Sanders gave his most progressive foreign policy yet, but it still falls short of providing a real left alternative to the US imperialist agenda.

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Credit: AP/Reuters/Joshua Roberts/Photo montage by Salon

In a speech delivered recently at Westminster College, Bernie Sanders laid out a vision for U.S. foreign policy that went deeper than anything he has put forward in that arena to date.

Throughout last year’s primary campaign, Senator Sanders was accused of having no foreign policy platform — a charge that contained elements of truth. Many of his proposals regarding American strategy abroad were limited and vague. Outside of his condemnation of Clinton’s Iraq War vote, foreign policy questions were generally avoided by Sanders. As the Intercept notes in an introduction to a recent interview, Sanders’s campaign website did not even include his foreign policy platform until several months in.

The reason for his virtual silence on foreign policy questions during the campaign was not, however, “inexperience,” as the Clinton camp suggested. Rather, it was his inability to differentiate himself much from Obama-era strategies or even those of the former Secretary of State herself. Like Clinton, Sanders approved of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Israel’s “right” to bomb Lebanon, and the NATO attack on the former Yugoslavia.

The Trump presidency offers Sanders the opportunity to present a vision distinct from the overt nationalism of “America First.” In the Westminster College speech, Sanders denounced the new $700 billion military budget (approved, by the way, by all but four Senate Democrats, including Sanders’s close ally, Elizabeth Warren), the skyrocketing level of inequality worldwide, and Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. The senator from Vermont went on to discuss what he calls the serious “unintended consequences” and hubris of U.S. interventions abroad. He invoked the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran, support for the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, and the land war in Vietnam. Sanders’s speech, which lauds Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower, differentiates between bad imperialism (coups in Iran, Chile etc) and good imperialism (Marshall Plan, the UN etc), rather than present a real anti-imperialist alternative.

Sanders claims that in the years following World War II, US imperialism played a progressive role in the world, and he wants the US to go back to playing that role today. But we know better. There is no such thing as progressive imperialism.

The Context for His Shift

There is no question that this speech represents a clear shift to the left for Sanders. To understand this shift, we must look at the context in which his speech took place.

Sanders delivered his address just two days after Trump’s U.N. speech, in which Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and suggested a withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal. The President outlined his vision for a world in which fewer international organizations and international agreements would get in the way of U.S. interests. With Trump’s ongoing rhetorical confrontations with North Korea taking the spotlight, Sanders recognized that he must outline a foreign policy agenda, particularly if he is to be a contender again in the 2020 elections. So while Trump soldiers on with a bellicose foreign policy against a new axis of evil (North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, ISIS), Sanders has called for a policy that would “champion the values of freedom, democracy and justice.”

On the domestic front, the events in Charlottesville demonstrated a political polarization that is sharpening by the day. A white supremacist and ultra-nationalist right, while still a relatively small force, has become increasingly emboldened, holding public marches and violently attacking left-wing activists — a topic that Sanders discussed at Westminster. At the same time, tens of thousands of progressive young people are turning away from the Democratic Party, seeking out new organizations, such as Antifa. While still holding illusions in the Democrats, the DSA represents a left phenomenon unseen in decades — a self-professed socialist party that has attracted tens of thousands of new members in less than a year.

This polarization is not only a U.S. phenomenon. In Germany, the far right earned close to 13 percent of the vote and won representation in the Bundestag for the first time in more than half a century. In the U.K. elections this past June, Jeremy Corbyn finished only a few percentage points behind Prime Minister Theresa May on a platform that include partial nationalizations, salary rises, and a reduction of the voting age to 16 — well to the left of the New Labour proposals of recent decades.

It would be naive to think that Sanders is unaware of this dynamic taking place nationally and throughout the world. Sanders, an adept politician, knows that in order to corral this radicalized sector of youth, he needs to present a “radical” platform.

Is Sanders an Alternative?

Sanders, therefore, sought to put forward a different vision from the nationalist imperialist plan of Donald Trump. The Nation lauded it as “The Progressive Foreign Policy Speech We’ve Been Waiting For,” while the Intercept said Sanders has given the Democratic Party a lesson in “radical foreign policy.” Writing for Jacobin, Branko Marcetic praises the speech as breaking from the Washington consensus. So, what does the self-described democratic socialist strategy entail? It is evident that his strategy differs from both Trump’s “America First” doctrine and the multilateral hawkishness of the Democratic Party establishment. But does Sanders’s proposition offer an alternative to oppressed people around the world?

From where we sit, the answer is no.

Sanders decries the hundreds of thousands dying in Afghanistan but fails to call for the one solution that could alleviate the suffering of the Afghani people — the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. Sanders continues to defend his 2001 vote authorizing the war to this day, while repeating the myth that the U.S. was “hunting down the terrorists who attacked us.” On the campaign trail, Sanders was in virtual agreement with Hillary Clinton, stating that “You can’t simply withdraw tomorrow.” The senator argued instead for a gradual exit of U.S. forces — a policy he maintains today. This is significant. Recall that Obama too promised a phased withdrawal of all troops from the country but at the end of his presidency, an estimated 8,500 troops remained.

Sanders rightfully calls for an end to U.S. support of the repressive Saudi regime. But no mention is made of the many other repressive and authoritarian regimes around the world that exist thanks to the generosity of the U.S., such as Erdogan in Turkey or el-Sisi in Egypt. In just the past year, the Erdogan regime has arrested over 40,000 people and shored up its executive power in a highly suspect “referendum.” El-Sisi, meanwhile, has continued to jail LGBT people, journalists, and striking workers, while torturing and murdering political opponents.

The most glaring omission in Sanders’s speech is the Israeli occupation of Palestine, one of the most important geopolitical conflicts in the world today. In fact, Sanders does not even mention Israel in his nearly 5,000-word speech. In the aforementioned Intercept interview, Sanders is forced to respond to the issue. He calls for a more “even-handed” policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and even hints that the U.S. could suspend military aid if the Middle-Eastern power failed to contribute to a peace process. But as the same interview notes, Sanders has rejected the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions call, known as BDS, and along with dozens of other Republican and Democratic senators, called on the U.N. to “improve [its] treatment of Israel.”

It’s a Crisis of Neoliberalism

The problem with Sanders’s speech, however, goes even further than these major political problems in that it profoundly mischaracterizes current global crises and provides solutions that are both anachronistic and imperialist.

In his address, Sanders harkened back to the era after World War II in which a new global consensus was built — one in which the U.S. played a central role. He praised the United Nations, echoing Eleanor Roosevelt who called it “our greatest hope for future peace.” He also celebrated the Marshall Plan, which he called “radical” and “unprecedented.”

In Sanders’s vision of the world, Trump and the emergent nationalist right wing have put the post World War II world order in jeopardy. Sanders continues, “In both Europe and the United States, the international order which the United States helped establish over the past 70 years, one which put great emphasis on democracy and human rights, and promoted greater trade and economic development, is under great strain.”

However, the world order that was established 70 years ago at the conclusion of World War II has long ended, marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the spread of capitalism to former workers’ states that covered up to one third of the globe. The imposition of neoliberalism became known as “the end of history” — the unequivocal victory of capitalism across the globe and, with it, massive defeats for the working class marked by the Reagan and Thatcher governments.

It is precisely this world order that is in crisis, and it is a crisis that did not begin with Trump or the rise of the right, but rather with the 2008 economic crisis, which demonstrated once again that capitalism is not a harmonious system. History is not over and the capitalists have yet to recover from that crash. One sector of the ruling class wants to continue the path of neoliberalism as it was (now embodied by French President Emmanuel Macron) and another wants to take a more nationalistic turn, a la Trump. The rise of a right that is skeptical of the old institutions like the U.N. and the EU can only be read in this context of the modern neoliberal crisis. Thus, Sanders’s speech prescribes a solution to a problem that he in turn mischaracterized. It’s a crisis of neoliberalism, not of the post-Yalta world.

You Can’t Go Back in Time

Of course, neoliberalism is built on the foundation of the post World War II, Cold War era when the U.S. emerged as the world’s undisputed capitalist superpower, with a huge military industrial complex. However, another major world power at this time contended with the U.S.: Stalin’s Soviet Union, which defeated the Third Reich. Later, the revolution in China and the Soviet control of satellite states in Europe brought one-third of the globe under Soviet influence — an influence the U.S. and the international bourgeoisie were desperate to curb.

From this emerged the United Nations, with the force of Stalinism playing a counter-revolutionary role that contained socialist revolutions around the world. The Soviet agreement to accept a world divided between capitalists and “communists” did not appease the Americans; the U.S. led a worldwide effort to squash workers’ uprisings and revolutionary movements. The global bourgeoisie, deathly afraid of their own proletariat, were more than happy to acquiesce to the new role of the U.S. as the global police.

The world order that Sanders defends emerged in the context of economic growth and capitalist unity against the “communist threat.” It was a utopia constituted by post-war policies meant for when U.S. hegemony was on the rise, not on decline. This world order saw its end with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union — an end that was quite favorable to capital, which could then be metastasized through former bureaucratized workers’ states. Now, the capitalist project of the post-Soviet world is in crisis, and the bourgeoisie is left grasping to find a way out of the stagnant economy that, quarter after quarter, refuses to grow significantly.

Furthermore, the post-war era of the U.N. and the Marshall plan was built on great imperialist carnage, the destruction of Europe, and the defeat of the revolutions in the West. This world was not built by peaceful cooperation between the nations, but based on the destruction of imperialist competitors. Sanders naively assumes that a new global consensus could be reached without major trade confrontations, inter-imperialist struggles, and even wars.

Marshall Plan and Coups: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Yet, Sanders’s mischaracterizations go beyond simple historical errors. In his speech, Sanders differentiates between benevolent leadership of the U.S. in the establishment of the U.N. and the Marshall Plan, on the one hand, and the malevolent leadership of the U.S. in supporting the coup in Chile and Iran and the war in Vietnam, on the other. However, this differentiation is arbitrary, as the U.S. always defends the interests of their national bourgeoisie — sometimes using military action and sometimes using “aid” as diplomacy.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of the Marshall Plan, a development plan to rebuild a Europe that was left in ruins after World War II. While Sanders glowingly describes it as an unprecedented act of benevolence, the Marshall Plan was central in guaranteeing profits for U.S. companies, as much of the funds went towards purchasing U.S.-made goods to rebuild Europe. Furthermore, the Marshall Plan also played a role in containing revolutions in countries left to deal with the destruction and misery in the wake of the war. The CIA was born almost in tandem with the Marshall Plan and received funding from it to form front groups in Soviet-controlled countries and disseminate anti-Soviet propaganda.

The role of the Marshall Plan is clear. Harry Truman said it himselfin a 1950 radio show, “The Marshall Plan checked the danger of Communist subversion in Europe; and, since that time, it has brought the free nations more closely together in a strong economic framework.”

Thus, the Marshall Plan, which Sanders lauds in his speech, shares the same motivation as the coup in Iran when Prime Minister Mossadegh was turning towards the Soviet Union, or the coup in Chile when President Salvador Allende expropriated key sectors and threatened US mining interests. The goal of these interventions was to protect the profits of American companies and hinder socialist movements — the same goal as the Marshall Plan.

No ‘humanity’ under capitalism

Sanders ends his speech by saying “Our job is to build on that common humanity and do everything that we can to oppose all of the forces, whether unaccountable government power or unaccountable corporate power, who try to divide us up and set us against each other,” a clear jab at the racist rhetoric of Donald Trump and the xenophobic right around the world.

Yet, Sanders’s flowery language merely covers up a politics that does not address some of the world’s major problems — U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Israeli occupation and the important dictatorial regimes that are U.S. allies. Sanders’s proposals, despite the adagio of its rhetorical strategies, are ahistorical and propose solutions made for a moment of economic growth and capitalist unity, far flung from today’s political-economic realities. Most importantly, Sanders’s foreign policy does not understand that US foreign policy, whether aid or bombs, whether in 1947 or 2017 protects the interests of US capitalists.

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Robert Belano

Robert Belano is a writer and editor for Left Voice. He lives in the Washington, DC area.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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