Could America’s diplomats function under President Sanders?

Bonnie Cash

Imagine that you are a career diplomat who believes the world is better off with America on top, the unipolar superpower. It’s 2021 and you are now taking your marching orders from America’s first socialist president, Bernie Sanders, whose foreign policy is antithetical to your understanding of America as an influence for good in the world. 

As Jordan Schachtel of the Washington Examiner wrote, “Sanders suffers from a blame America first complex. When the people of Venezuela, Cuba and Iran are suffering, he is quick to dismiss that a tyrannical political system such as socialism or Islamic totalitarianism is to blame. Instead, it’s always America’s policies vis-a-vis Caracas, Havana and Tehran.” 

While critics highlight President Trump’s choice of loyalty over experience in intelligence and foreign policy appointees, or spin foreign policy for political advantage, the larger elephant in the room is the challenge America’s professional diplomatic corps would have in implementing a socialist foreign policy. That would dwarf any challenge the Trump administration presents. 

How would diplomats do their job? Would they be continually apologizing to every aggrieved nation where America has intervened and, rightly or wrongly, been blamed?

Democrats have lionized career foreign policy officials who risked their careers by blowing the whistle on President Trump. But how would diplomats and career officials respond to implementing a Sanders foreign policy that Politico called an “unprecedented threat to the status quo” if they believe it endangers American interests and allies? His isolationist tendencies and abhorrence of American power and exceptionalism could cross a line with State Department officials.  

According to the Atlantic’s Uri Friedman, “What most distinguishes Sanders from past American presidents (is) his rejection of U.S. military hegemony as a means of ensuring American security.”  

Today diplomats are empowered because America’s National Defense Strategy mission is “to provide combat-credible military forces needed to deter war and protect the security of our nation (while) reinforcing America’s traditional tools of diplomacy, (where) our diplomats negotiate from a position of strength.” 

Would it be appropriate or constitutional if the foreign policy establishment thwarted a Sanders agenda that might weaken us and bring us closer to Cuba, Iran, Venezuela and the Palestinian Authority? His fervent support of British politician Jeremy Corbyn and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, as well as his history of supporting the Sandinistas and communist Soviet Union, should concern everyone as a harbinger of the type of “friends” he values. 

Republicans have claimed that the State Department’s career diplomats are more politically aligned with the Democratic Party. That may be true for a Joe Biden or Michael Bloomberg administration, but that would not hold true for the revolutionarily different foreign policy of a Sanders administration. 

Can a career diplomat, in the name of being loyal to the constitution and traditional American values, deliberately slow-step or undermine the implementation of a duly elected executive for the good of the country in either a Sanders or Trump administration? 

There is a history of professional diplomats who worked against their governments’ stated policy but are glorified today. From Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg to Japan’s Chiune Sugihara to El Salvador’s José Arturo Castellanos, they all chose to ignore orders from their governments to save Jews fleeing the Nazis. Today we remember these people as heroes who didn’t follow what we consider unjust policy and laws. 

Will we see future American diplomats who choose to subvert American policy under Trump or Sanders as heroes or villains in retrospect? The impeachment inquiry made some government career officials heroes to Democrats and devils to Republicans. 

Despite our checks and balances, American foreign policy has been the province of the executive branch for many years, and any president — whether Trump or Sanders — can, through the power of executive orders and control of the State Department, implement policies that some could consider harmful to the American security interests.

This presents questions that we should address now, or after the 2020 election:

  • Are there any presidential actions that would justify career diplomats undermining the president’s agenda?
  • Can diplomats claim American patriotism to justify overriding an administration’s agenda? 
  • What would be crossing the line? Ending U.S. support of Israel? Ending border enforcement? Realigning and financially supporting Iran? Acquiescing to Chinese expansion in the South China Sea? Or removing U.S. troops from South Korea, leaving them at the mercy of North Korea? 
  • Would Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) be searching high and low to find impeachable offenses if President Sanders’s “foreign sympathies” endangered allies, supported adversaries or undermined traditional bipartisan national security interests?

All of these questions are theoretical, of course, but all are exponentially more possible in a Sanders administration than in that of one of his Democratic rivals.

Bottom line, unless the president crosses his constitutional limits, no matter how unpalatable, a career federal official’s duty is to follow the policies of the legitimately elected chief executive and leave it to the voters, Congress and the judiciary to hold the commander in chief accountable.

One thing for sure, our diplomats will be sorely tested over the next four years. Let’s hope they won’t be ordered to stand beside their desks every morning and sing the “Internationale.”

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides on the geo-politics of the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.

Tags Adam Schiff Bernie Sanders Communism Democratic socialism Diplomacy Donald Trump Joe Biden Michael Bloomberg progressives Socialism

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