Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders can unite Democrats on foreign policy

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders can unite Democrats on foreign policy
© Greg Nash

Are Joe BidenJoe BidenDonald Trump Jr. to self-publish book 'Liberal Privilege' before GOP convention Tom Price: Here's how we can obtain more affordable care The Memo: Democrats feel rising tide in Florida MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden wins Louisiana primary Oh, Canada: Should the US emulate Canada's National Health Service? Trump glosses over virus surge during Florida trip MORE on such opposite sides of United States national security that it will be difficult to unify Democrats come summer and fall? While the answer to this question might seem like yes at first, a closer look at their actions and proposals suggests that their ideas could actually be reconciled. Even if their respective supporters disagree most often on domestic and economic issues, foreign policy will weigh heavily in the election this year as well, so the question merits serious scrutiny.

Start with the Iraq War, since Sanders often does so himself. His criticism of that conflict is hard to challenge. While I still hope that the benefits of overthrowing Saddam Hussein will someday be equal to the costs, that day is not yet here. As far as Biden, his record on this issue is better than Sanders gives him credit for. Biden voted for the Iraq War, and many on the left will not forgive him for doing so. But as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before the invasion, Biden held numerous hearings on just how hard it could be to stabilize Iraq in the aftermath. President Bush did not listen, of course, as the administration prepared the invasion and operations. Despite their differences, both candidates were early dissenters to major aspects of the policy that unfolded here.

However, enough about history. Looking to the future rather than the past, there are certainly places where Sanders diverges from Biden, and where his qualifications as potential commander in chief can be challenged. His budgetary priorities suggest that his support for a strong military is shaky. Sanders relegates national security to a minor role in his overall rhetoric and policy agenda. A visit to his campaign website shows “honoring our commitment to our veterans” ranks 11th in his official pantheon of policy priorities. A “responsible foreign policy” comes in at 22nd on the issues.


But many of the specific proposals by Sanders are more mainstream than his favorable comments about Fidel Castro back in the day might suggest. Let us consider what his campaign website says about several subjects in international affairs, starting with the preamble and then addressing his points one by one. Keep in mind how they fit in with the party platform.

“The United States must lead in improving international cooperation in the fight against climate change, militarism, authoritarianism, and inequality.” It is hard to find anything to criticize in those words, even if one prefers to see additional mention of support for our allies and global stability as well.

“When we are in the White House, we will implement a foreign policy which focuses on democracy, human rights, diplomacy, peace, and economic fairness.” Again, while this hortatory language seems fairly unrevealing, it is certainly unobjectionable to members of the party.

“Allow Congress to reassert its constitutional role in warmaking, so no president can wage unauthorized interventions overseas.” Many experts have made this case for decades. The last time the United States properly declared war was to enter World War Two, and the mandate for all current operations across the Middle East dates back to the Authorization for Use of Military Force of 2001. The hardest part here is rewriting it to constrain presidents against adventurism while allowing flexibility facing a rapidly evolving set of threats. But Sanders is hardly wrong in his aspirations.

“Follow the American people, who do not want endless war. American troops have been in Afghanistan for nearly 18 years, the longest war in American history. Our troops have been in Iraq since 2003, and in Syria since 2015, and many other places. It is long past time for Congress to reassert its constitutional authority over the use of force to responsibly end these interventions and bring our troops home.” The only problem here is the language is a little bland. Everyone wants our troops home in principle, if that can be done responsibly, as Sanders agrees it must be.


“End United States support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen, which has created the worst humanitarian catastrophe.” This intervention has indeed been a debacle and crisis by any measure, as my colleague and hardened Central Intelligence Agency veteran Bruce Riedel, among so many others, have convincingly and publicly argued ever since it began five years ago.

“Rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement and talk to Iran on a range of other issues.” This set of views builds on the legacy of President Obama and is not radical. It does beg the question of what should come after the Iran nuclear agreement, which is due to begin expiring during the next term.

“Work with democracy forces around the world to build societies that work for and protect all people. Across the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, democracy has been under threat by forces of intolerance, corruption, and authoritarianism.” Sanders brings foreign policy back to domestic policy and his overall worldview here, but he does so in a way that does not threaten alliances or other core planks of the global order.

As for the coronavirus emergency at home and abroad, both candidates are rightly taking aim at President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeSantis on Florida schools reopening: 'If you can do Walmart,' then 'we absolutely can do schools' NYT editorial board calls for the reopening of schools with help from federal government's 'checkbook' Mueller pens WaPo op-ed: Roger Stone 'remains a convicted felon, and rightly so' MORE for an unsteady, insufficient, and political reaction to the crisis. Democrats need to take heart. At least at a broad philosophical and ideological level, it might not be so hard to find common ground within the party on matters of national security after all.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior policy fellow with the Brookings Institution.