In the tradition of Henry Wallace, George McGovern, and Jesse Jackson, Sanders has decoupled progressive ideals from American dominance. In a speech last year in Missouri, he cited America’s coups against Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and Salvador Allende in Chile as evidence that “far too often, American intervention and the use of American military power … have caused incalculable harm.” Sanders also promoted the United Nations as a key vehicle for solving global problems. Then, last month, in a speech at Johns Hopkins, he included both U.S. adversaries such as Russia and close U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel as part of a “new authoritarian axis,” and suggested that combatting it would require a “global progressive movement.”
In his two speeches, Sanders called for a more peaceful, more just, and more environmentally sustainable world, but he never suggested that achieving those goals required maintaining America’s global dominance. In fact, he avoided the subject of great-power competition entirely. He mentioned China only three times: twice as a potential partner in fighting climate change and once as a potential partner in denuclearizing North Korea.
Peter Beinart: Bernie Sanders offers a foreign policy for the common man.
Warren’s alternative is less radical. Instead of separating the pursuit of progressive ideals from the maintenance of American dominance, Warren tries—uncomfortably—to square the two. Unlike Sanders, she doesn’t challenge the narrative of a virtuous cold war in which America rose to superpower status while at the same time spreading liberty and prosperity. She embraces it. “There’s a story we tell as Americans, about how we built an international order—one based on democracy, human rights, and improving economic standards of living for everyone,” Warren’s speech will declare. “It wasn’t perfect—we weren’t perfect—but our foreign policy benefited a lot of people around the world.” If Sanders is echoing Henry Wallace—the Democrat who in the 1940s challenged the necessity of a cold war—Warren is taking the more conventional path of depicting herself as the heir to Harry Truman.
For Warren, American foreign policy only started going wrong “in the 1980s,” when “Washington’s focus shifted from policies that benefit everyone to policies that benefit a handful of elites, both here at home and around the world.” The chronology is odd: American foreign policy benefited “everyone” in the 1970s, during Vietnam? It’s another sign that Warren is less interested than Sanders in challenging American exceptionalism, less interested in looking at the dark side of America’s history as a superpower.
That different history sets up a different description of America’s challenge today. Warren is no hawk: She wants to reduce the defense budget, end the war in Afghanistan, and end U.S. support for the war in Yemen. But she’s more comfortable with a foreign policy of us-versus-them, in which America bolsters its allies and contains its foes. Unlike Sanders, she doesn’t mention the United Nations, which Wallace saw as the vehicle for transcending great-power conflict. In a forthcoming Foreign Affairs essay, she instead calls for “strengthening crucial alliances like those with NATO, South Korea and Japan.” And Warren goes easier on America’s allies. In his Johns Hopkins speech, Sanders chastised Saudi Arabia by name 13 times. Warren mentions it only three times. Sanders devoted a paragraph to rising authoritarianism in Israel, something Warren ignores.