The Foreign Travels of Bernie Sanders

The Democratic presidential contender has used his journeys abroad to shape America’s global image, and hasn’t been afraid to criticize U.S. foreign policy.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

For decades, Bernie Sanders has traveled the world, pursuing an unconventional approach to diplomacy. American politicians often visit other countries to project influence abroad and strengthen existing alliances. Foreign travel can also be leisurely, allowing elected officials to play tourist and spend time in luxury hotels. Of course, not everyone sticks to the same script. Sanders has charted a different course, traveling abroad to dissent against his own government, and critique the way America wields power on a global stage. He has risked controversy by extending an olive branch to left-leaning governments shunned by the American political establishment. Along the way, Sanders has demonstrated a deep interest in foreign policy, and a desire to shape the way the world views the United States.

As a member of Congress, Sanders has visited at least 41 countries, including Mexico, China, Israel, Vietnam, and South Africa, over the course of more than two dozen government-sponsored and privately-funded trips. His travels have taken him to the Middle East to visit a refugee camp in Jordan, discuss the Syrian conflict with diplomats in Turkey, and meet U.S. military officials in Afghanistan. Sanders has traveled to Central America to warn against the dangers of flawed trade policy, and spent a considerable amount of time visiting Nordic nations that he now holds up as models for America to emulate.

While serving as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders made foreign travel something of a priority, a rarity for an elected official involved in city government. He even set off on a trip to the Soviet Union after marrying his wife, Jane, in an effort to cement a sister-city relationship. (“Trust me. It was a very strange honeymoon,” Sanders wrote in his updated memoir Outsider In the White House.)

Throughout his travels, Sanders has articulated the idea that domestic and foreign priorities are inextricably linked. He has consistently railed against corporate power and advocated for workers’ rights, applying the same lens to foreign policy that he uses to diagnose many of the problems he sees in American society. That’s the picture that emerges from an examination of public travel records and media coverage of his trips; Sanders’s memoir; a partial list of countries he has visited provided by his Senate office; and Legistorm, a database that tracks privately financed congressional travel.

Ever the activist, Sanders has traveled abroad to voice opposition to American foreign policy and U.S. military intervention. As mayor of Burlington, Sanders was an outspoken opponent of president Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy and visited Nicaragua in 1985 to show support for the left-wing Sandinista government, a regime Reagan worked to undermine. Sanders met with Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega during the trip, which was intended as a political statement. Sanders explained that his aim was “to convey to the Nicaraguan people that, in my view, a majority of Americans do not believe it is appropriate for the United States to unilaterally overthrow governments which it dislikes,” according to Steven Soifer’s The Socialist Mayor: Bernard Sanders in Burlington, Vermont.

In expressing dissent, Sanders outlined a vision for U.S. conduct on the global stage, arguing that America is at its best when it engages with the rest of the world on an equal footing, and not on the basis of brute force. “We want our nation to be bold and brave, but not with guns, and not with machine guns, and not with Napalm,” Sanders said in a speech during his trip to Nicaragua. Instead, Sanders argued, America should “work out problems based on mutual respect” with other nations. The message signaled his concern with America’s image abroad. Sanders seemed determined to put forward an alternative to the foreign policy ideals envisioned by the U.S. political establishment, to show that he and like-minded Americans were sympathetic to the concerns of citizens of other countries who might mistrust American foreign policy and military intervention.

Sanders hasn’t shied away from critiquing American policy even when it risks controversy and backlash. “Sanders’s trip to Nicaragua was a very bold move. Mainstream Vermont politicians did not quite know what to make of it,” Soifer wrote. In 2003, Sanders raised concerns over government surveillance and the Patriot Act during a trip to Toronto, Canada, at a time when many Americans were largely in favor of the law that stood at the heart of America’s war on terror. In 2011, Sanders called for an exit strategy for U.S. troops in Afghanistan after returning from a visit to the country, and suggested that military operations cost too much. “I think we can cut back," Sanders told a Vermont media outlet.

Far from shunning foreign policy in favor of a focus on domestic priorities, Sanders frequently expressed the belief that foreign and domestic policy are deeply intertwined. “I saw no magic line separating local, state, national, and international issues,” he explained in his memoir.

That idea underpinned Sanders’s efforts to strengthen ties between the U.S. and far-left governments that many Americans viewed with deep distrust. When asked to explain why he hoped to see a thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations before departing for his trip to the USSR in 1988, Sanders suggested that hostility between the two global powers had cost Americans dearly. “These people have been our ‘enemies,’ and in the name of that rivalry, we are spending hundreds of billions of dollars that in my view should be spent on health care and housing,” Sanders said, according to a report in The Boston Globe.

Sanders deployed similar logic to call for normalizing relations with Cuba in 2014 on the eve of a trip to the country. “American businesses are losing billions of dollars because of the economic embargo,” Sanders said. (That wasn’t the first time he had traveled to Cuba. In his memoir, he recalls a visit in 1989 where he hoped to meet with Fidel Castro, but had to settle for the mayor of Havana instead.)

While traveling abroad, Sanders engaged with global affairs through the lens of economic inequality. At times, he seemed to go out of his way to highlight what he saw as the pernicious impact of  trade policy on American and foreign workers.

In 2003, Sanders traveled to Mexico on a trip sponsored by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a major labor union, to study the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a trade deal signed by the U.S., Canada and Mexico. After returning, Sanders penned a scathing critique of economic globalization for The Nation, describing how rural farmers “had been devastated” by competition with American corporations.

Sanders visited China the same year amid concern that a trade imbalance had disadvantaged American workers. He used the occasion to again take aim at American corporations. “Sanders said his message to U.S. business officials in China will be: ‘The American people are catching on that you are selling out American workers,’” the Gannett News Service reported ahead of the visit.

As he crisscrossed the globe, Sanders has shown an interest in learning from other societies’ experiments and successes. In 1994, he traveled with a U.S. delegation that included his now-presidential rival Hillary Clinton to see Nelson Mandela sworn in as president of South Africa. Sanders suggested that America would do well to find lessons in the country’s effort to remake itself as a Democratic society. "What has happened in South Africa over the last three to four years really is in many ways a beacon of hope for people throughout the entire world,” Sanders said, according to an Associated Press report. “We have much to learn from their struggle," he added.

In the 1960s, Sanders volunteered at an Israeli kibbutz, a communal settlement where people typically live and work together. He has also traveled frequently to Nordic nations, notching three trips to Denmark in four years as well as visits to Norway and Iceland, a record that seems to align with his effusive praise for Scandinavia as a kind of left-leaning political utopia.

A review of Sanders’s foreign travel paints a picture of a politician with a set of remarkably consistent ideological convictions that have acted as a driving force for both his domestic and foreign policy agenda. Even as he has engaged with the rest of the world, he has remained unafraid to criticize U.S. policies he felt were flawed. As Sanders engages anew with foreign-policy debates in the midst of his presidential run, he’ll be drawing on these experiences that gave shape to his views on America’s role in the world.