Bernie Sanders Offers a Foreign Policy for the Common Man

The senator is reviving Henry Wallace’s vision for global democracy—but he hasn’t yet addressed its key flaws.

Bernie Sanders
Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

Last Tuesday, Bernie Sanders delivered a speech entitled “A Global Democratic Movement to Counter Authoritarianism.” In so doing, he resurrected the legacy of a man mostly forgotten by the makers of American foreign policy: Henry Wallace.

Wallace is best known for his renegade 1948 presidential run, in which he argued for cooperation—not cold war—with the Soviet Union. But his most significant statement on foreign policy came six years earlier in a debate with the publisher Henry Luce.

In February 1941, Luce penned an essay in Life magazine entitled “The American Century.” America, he argued, should not just enter World War II. It should enter the war with the goal of dominating the world that followed. It was time for “Americans to accept wholeheartedly our duty and opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” By exerting its impact on the world, Luce argued, America—with its inherent goodness—would uplift the world, too. The United States was already “the sanctuary of the ideals of civilization.” Now, it should become “the powerhouse from which the ideals spread.”

Luce’s formulation—that America uniquely embodies ideals of freedom and democracy and thus has a special mission, and dispensation, to promote them—is now often called “American exceptionalism.”

Fifteen months later, at the Commodore Hotel in New York, Wallace—then Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president—answered Luce. “Some have spoken of the ‘American century,’” he noted, but “I say that the century on which we are entering—the century which will come into being after this war—can be and must be the century of the common man.”

Luce’s and Wallace’s visions differed in two critical ways. First, Wallace denied that America had any special or inherent claim on democratic ideals. “We ourselves in the United States,” he declared, “are no more a master race than the Nazis.” When citing models he hoped other nations would follow, Wallace mentioned not only the American Revolution but also “the French Revolution of 1792, the Latin American revolutions of the Bolivarian era, the German Revolution of 1848,” and, more dubiously, “the Russian Revolution of 1917.” The implication was that global progress would flow from a partnership of nations, each of which boasted traditions of liberty, rather than domination by an America that would mold the world “for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”

Secondly, Luce and Wallace disagreed about the kind of postwar economic order that would allow liberty to thrive. Luce emphasized that Nazism was “national socialism,” part of “the trend toward collectivism” that he decried in both Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and Roosevelt’s United States. In the American century, he insisted, a “system of free economic enterprise” must prevail.

Wallace, by contrast, saw unchecked private wealth as a threat to liberty. The “common man,” he argued, must “have the opportunity to form unions and bargain through them collectively.” If Luce saw Nazism as a species of socialism, Wallace saw it as the result of a toxic alliance between demagogues and big business. Citing “Herr Thyssen, the wealthy German steel man” who “gave Hitler enough money to enable him to play on the minds of the German people,” Wallace warned of “wealthy men who sincerely believe that their wealth is likely to be safer if they can hire” tyrants who “lure the people back into slavery.”

The Luce-Wallace debate ended conclusively: Luce won. After World War II, America took a hard line against the USSR, and America’s anti-Soviet alliances—in particular NATO—eclipsed the United Nations as the primary vehicles of American foreign policy. The phrase “century of the common man” faded into obscurity, but “American century” became a touchstone for hawkish politicians and commentators interested in signaling their support for American power and virtue. In 1997, William Kristol and Robert Kagan established the Project for a New American Century. In 2016, Marco Rubio made “A New American Century” his campaign slogan.

But today, Luce’s exceptionalist vision—in which America simultaneously dominates and uplifts the world—is out of place in both parties. Donald Trump is comfortable with American dominance but not the moral obligation Luce thought it entailed. Democrats, by contrast, are comfortable with moral obligation but increasingly uncomfortable with American dominance. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, called America the “indispensable nation.” We in the United States, she explained, “see further than other countries.” Democrats—who have been jaded by a series of failed wars, the financial crisis, and Trump’s election—rarely talk that way anymore. In 2017, only 19 percent of them told the Pew Research Center that “America stands above all other countries,” a lower percentage than said that “there are other countries that are better than the U.S.”

What is rising instead from the Democratic Party’s left is a latter-day Wallace-ism, an international vision based not on American exceptionalism but on the empowerment of what was once called the “common man.” Last Tuesday at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Bernie Sanders gave it its clearest articulation yet.

Sanders’ speech evokes both of the key themes of Wallace’s 1942 address. First: its anti-exceptionalism. Sanders, like Wallace, describes a global struggle between democratic and authoritarian forces. But he doesn’t see that struggle as pitting democratic America against its authoritarian foes. He sees it as pitting democrats across the world, including Americans, against their increasingly antidemocratic governments, which include Trump’s.

For Sanders, this era’s ideological struggle runs not between countries but through them. It also bisects geopolitical divides. When ideological descendants of Henry Luce like Rubio describe today’s authoritarian revival, they usually concentrate on America’s adversaries: Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran. Sanders, by contrast, includes America’s friends. Among the leaders he identifies as part of a “new authoritarian axis” are Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. This, too, reflects Sanders’s anti-exceptionalism. He not only denies that America inherently embodies democratic ideals; he denies that America’s alliances do, either.

The second way in which Sanders evokes Wallace is by linking authoritarianism to concentrated wealth. Wallace warned of “wealthy men who sincerely believe that their wealth is likely to be safer” if they support “demagogues.” Sanders notes that many of today’s authoritarian leaders are “connected to a network of multibillionaire oligarchs.” He cites Sheldon Adelson as an example. Like Wallace, who said that “men and women cannot be really free until they have plenty to eat,” the “global democratic movement” that Sanders envisions is also a movement against “global inequality.” The widening gap between rich and poor, Sanders argues, fuels authoritarianism in two different ways: It gives oligarchs the resources to fund despots and it drives the alienation that leads some in the working class to support them.

There’s much to admire in Sanders’s vision. Progressives need an international movement to counter the global alliance of xenophobes and bigots being assembled by Steve Bannon. And to fully participate in such a movement, Americans must not only challenge Trump’s authoritarianism; they must challenge the exceptionalist myth that, pre-Trump, the United States faithfully promoted democracy around the world. Sanders—who in a speech last year acknowledged America’s support for coups in Iran in 1953 and Chile in 1973—is one of the few American politicians who does that. He understands that Americans build true solidarity with people who struggle for democracy in other lands not by proclaiming America’s democratic virtue but by struggling to make democracy more real at home.

But progressives must resist the illusion that authoritarianism takes only right-wing forms. Wallace marred his legacy by insisting, as late as 1948, that the Soviet Union and the communist parties under its control were allies in the struggle for the common man. Leftist authoritarianism is weaker today, but it still exists, and it would have been useful for Sanders to acknowledge that by making clear that he sees leftist Venezuela as part of the rising tide of authoritarianism, too.

Even in democratic countries, choosing America’s allies can be tricky. When I asked Sanders whom he imagined partnering with in this global progressive movement, his first answer was British Labor Leader Jeremy Corbyn. But although Corbyn shares many of Sanders’s economic views, he has expressed sympathy for authoritarian movements like Hamas and Hezbollah and authoritarian regimes like those in Cuba and Venezuela. It’s a reminder that leftists abroad may define progressivism in ways that may—or should—make American progressives uncomfortable.

And even if Sanders does midwife a global progressive movement, that’s not the same as defining a progressive American foreign policy. Sanders is more comfortable talking about progressive values than American interests. Sometimes—on climate change, for instance—the two clearly go together. But there are other areas of American foreign policy where defining the world as a struggle between egalitarian democrats and oligarchic authoritarians offers little guidance. The world is becoming increasingly multipolar. China and Russia are establishing—or reestablishing—spheres of influence, and in so doing, pushing back against the military and political frontiers America established in the unipolar 1990s. Where, if anywhere, should the U.S. resist them? Knowing that democracy is better than authoritarianism doesn’t answer these questions. They require an assessment of American interests and American power.

It’s striking that in both his speech last week at SAIS and in a foreign-policy address he delivered last year, Sanders said virtually nothing about China, the most powerful authoritarian government on earth. One reason, I suspect, is that American hawks use China’s authoritarianism to justify higher military spending while Sanders wants to cut the defense budget. For Sanders, who wants to strengthen international cooperation on climate change and revive the United Nations, it’s crucial that this era’s new ideological struggle not promote a new cold war.

But even if you sympathize with that desire, the next American president must still decide which areas of the globe matter enough to American security to be worth risking conflict with China over, and which do not. Should the United States risk a naval confrontation to challenge Chinese control of the South China Sea? Should it draw closer to countries on China’s perimeter like India, Australia, and Vietnam? Should it keep troops in South Korea and Japan?

Progressives often shy away from these kinds of hard-power questions. In the early Cold War, Wallace struggled with them, too. Back then it took realists like George Kennan, Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, and Walter Lippmann to sketch a conception of American interests that avoided both Wallace’s naive faith in U.S.-Soviet cooperation and the insistence on fighting communism everywhere that ultimately led the U.S. into the Vietnam War.

Last Tuesday, Sanders outlined the moral principles upon which a progressive foreign policy should rest. His next challenge is to tackle those foreign-policy questions for which morality alone doesn’t provide a sufficient answer.