By Jonathan Power*
Is Bernie Sanders still in with a chance? It is a slim one, but in these primary elections one never knows. There have been a number of surprising upsets.
Even if Joe Biden comes out on top and has to face Donald Trump for the presidency the Democratic Party has been pushed to the left by Senator Sanders. That is all to the good.
Biden needs to be more critical of capitalism, more prepared to encourage unionism among workers and more prepared to push for universal health coverage, more taxes for the wealthier classes, among many other things that Sanders has pointed out as necessary if the US is not going to shoot itself in the foot with a disintegrating body politic. If it wants a fair and stable society this is the way to go.
On foreign policy, Sanders has also pushed Biden to be more explicit about the need for the US to abjure further Middle Eastern military involvement. Biden has a bad record. He tried to push President Barack Obama to intervene in Syria and he supported the invasion of Iraq, a move that created both domestic chaos and ISIS. He has been a firm defender of Israel at a time when he should have only been a defender of Judaism.
It is an interesting exercise at this moment to ask the question posed recently by Foreign Policy’s writer Thomas Meaney, “What would a US foreign policy look like if Socialists ran Washington?”
The nearest attempt to do was the Jimmy Carter presidency. But it was partly disguised as being a human rights foreign policy, whereas a fairer label would have been socialist or social democratic. In many cases it did well and indeed saved a lot of lives. But in the end Carter contradicted himself by supplying military equipment to the Mujahedeen who were fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan.
Although President Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew his army the long-term effect of Carter’s policy was that it encouraged elements of the Mujahedeen to morph into the Taliban which became the West’s fervent enemy.
Is it daydreaming to think a left-orientated president could break through America’s institutional walls – the military-industrial-academic – (Harvard) complex that dominates foreign policy? Obama’s advisor and friend, Ben Rhodes, calls this the “Blob”. Corporate interests are a tough nut to crack. They contribute re-election funds to members of Congress who tend to be in crises pro-war, especially members of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee. (Hillary Clinton once belonged to this elite club.)
A left-wing foreign policy should concentrate on defeating poverty and disease, especially in Africa and the Indian sub-continent. As Meaney writes, “At a bare minimum, it should protect the world from the excesses of capitalism and counteract the violent implosion that US policies and interventions around the world have too often oxygenated, if not ignited.”
The US’s military footprint needs to be sharply cut back. The US has over 800 military bases and facilities around the world. (China has one and Russia 17) The defence budget in the first instance should be halved to release funds for both domestic social programs and foreign aid. At the moment, the US accounts for well over half the 420 billion dollars global arms industry.
A leftist foreign policy would pursue arms control with Russia and China. The treaty limiting Russia and the US to 1,000 intercontinental nuclear rockets would be quickly renewed. The nuclear treaties that Trump killed would be re-instated. Then once this is done the US should declare that it was unilaterally cutting its nuclear weapons to zero and would rely only on its conventional military and, where appropriate, UN forces. This is a policy of calling a spade a spade. As Gorbachev has explained nuclear weapons could never be used unless the governments of the US and Russia were run by madmen, “which they are not”. Surely Russia would follow an American initiative.
One suspects that such policies would be highly popular in both the US and Russia among ordinary people. Polls consistently show that the US electorate oppose aggressive foreign wars and interventions. In Russia there appears to be a popular weariness with Russian foreign policy. The Russian people want more attention, energy and expenditure given to domestic issues. Yes, Russians are rightly angry about the provocative expansion of NATO up to or near its borders but they would respond hand over fist if the US admitted that President Bill Clinton’s policy (followed by presidents since) was a bad mistake. It resurrected the Cold War.
Similarly, the Trump policy of confronting China, rather than calmly working out together solutions to problems that divide them would be ended. Trade policy with China – and elsewhere – should not be a zero sum game, with the US the winner. If the US and Russia got rid of their nuclear weapons so would China and India and Pakistan too. Unfortunately, for reasons unclear, Sanders has staked out a hostile stance towards China.
Like Obama, a leftist president would give priority to fighting climate change and protecting the US’s pristine areas, (policies which Trump rolled back).
Like Carter a leftist presidency should lead with its human rights foot. This could well bring it into conflict with China over the issues of Hong Kong’s promised but undelivered democracy and the plight of the Uighurs. But conflict does not necessarily mean confrontation. It certainly doesn’t have to be linked to trade policy.
A leftist policy is reasonable and doable. But is Biden prepared to implement it? If he wants Sanders’ unequivocal support he will have to face this question.
*Note: Copyright Jonathan Power. Website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com. The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune.