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A Progressive Foreign Policy Platform for Bernie Sanders

How the Vermont Senator can distinguish himself from other candidates with a global vision.

February 15, 2016

How the Vermont Senator can distinguish himself from other candidates with a global vision.

With a major victory in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders’ campaign now moves to the national stage. Sanders’ uncompromising focus on the rigged economy and inequality mobilized millions of young Americans, and even pulled Hillary Clinton’s economic policies to the left.

To win the nomination and the general election, however, Bernie Sanders also needs a progressive foreign policy platform that distinguishes him from Clinton and the Republican frontrunners.

His foreign policy must be based on three principles: non-aggression, détente and human rights.


Sanders must distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton and others by presenting a platform that artfully combines the respect for other nations’ sovereignty with an unconditional support for human rights.

His foreign policy platform must echo the principles and values that have made the United States an exemplary nation for millions around the world, while dispelling its long legacy of foreign interventions and human rights violations abroad.

The Sanders campaign needs to unequivocally reject the regime change doctrine and the United States’ overt and covert interventions in other parts of the world.

This is particularly crucial in the Muslim world, where past interventions have resulted in millions of deaths, unending violence and growing displacement.

Bernie Sanders’ career opposition to regime change as a centerpiece of his foreign policy was absent in the recent debate hosted by MSNBC.

It resurfaced in much greater detail in his answers during the PBS debate on February 11th, but typically he has focused instead on more generic calls for coalitions.

“So I would say that the key doctrine of the Sanders administration would be no, we cannot continue do it alone, we need to work in coalition,” Sanders said, for example, in the MSNBC debate.

Even George W. Bush or Dick Chaney would not disagree with this doctrine. The disastrous war in Iraq was carried out by the “coalition of the willing,” however small it might have been.

But building coalitions cannot be the basis of a progressive foreign policy doctrine. Opposing regime change can. That is what separates Sanders from the other candidates for the White House.

Sanders will be best advised to reemphasize his opposition to the Iraq War as an example of his unequivocal rejection of the regime change doctrine.


Détente is the second pillar of the progressive foreign policy for Bernie Sanders. Coupled with the principle of non-aggression, detente can reduce tension and the potential for war.

President Obama’s rapprochement to Iran and Cuba are useful examples of starting points for the Sanders’ campaign. Talking to Iran and establishing a line of diplomatic communications resulted in a historic deal that avoided yet another devastating war.

Clinton, by contrast, was critical of talking to Iran during her 2008 campaign and remains so today.

Sanders’ foreign policy platform needs to build on this successful model – and expand it in relations with other real or perceived adversaries.

Human Rights

Détente and normalized diplomatic relations with other states should not lead to silence on their human rights abuses.

Guided by economic or geopolitical considerations, the United States has in many cases ignored egregious rights abuses by its allies across the world.

The policy has resulted in the loss of trust among millions of people who otherwise embrace many American ideals and values. The problem is most acute in the Muslim world.

By making respect for human rights the basis of expanded trade and cultural relations with other states, Sanders will win the support of the progressives and the youth. They are increasingly dismayed by the United States’ cozy relations with Saudi Arabia and other rights abusers.

The international trade principle of “most favored nation” (MFN) can be used to expand bilateral economic relations with other nations on the basis of their respect for their citizen’s human rights.

A link between human rights and trade will further reinforce Bernie Sanders’ progressive platform for economic justice. It will curtail the power of the economic elite in influencing policy.

Ultimately, the Sanders’ campaign must convince the electorate this year of his conviction and ability to take on the Islamic State. The voters – and the other candidates – will challenge Sanders on this issue in the months to come.

Sanders’ foreign policy principles and philosophy will prove instrumental in the fight against the Islamic State.

Using social media and other electronic technology, the Islamic State has become a violent and fast growing global force. The Islamic state recruits among the disenchanted youth in search of respect and a vague notion of justice.

Unhappiness with the consequences of U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world has contributed to the Islamic State’s recruitment successes and its ability to expand.

A commitment to détente, non-aggression and human rights will contribute to drawing a wedge between the group and many of its potential recruits.


A Sanders doctrine could be based on the three principles -- non-aggression, détente & human rights

Sanders must distinguish himself by presenting a platform that respects national sovereignty.

Coupling non-aggression with détente, Sanders can reduce tensions and the potential for war.

Détente and normalized US relations with other states should not lead to silence on human rights.