Looking at the New Hampshire primary and the Nevada Caucus, Sanders vs. Trump seems a possible and increasingly likely showdown in the general election. American voters are fed up with the bipartisan system and are increasingly turning to leaders on the fringes of the political spectrum who want to upset the domestic status quo.1 While Sanders and Trump are running for opposite parties, their campaigns are rather similar on some major issues.2 So similar that Trump mistook a description of Sanders’ campaign for his own.3 Even when it comes to foreign policy, Sanders and Trump are closer than many would expect them to be. (Featured Image © Gage Skidmore, Gage Skidmore)
After Daesh (ISIS) orchestrated the Paris attacks, foreign policy issues have surged to the foreground of the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. Many news outlets have speculated about the upcoming election to be one where foreign policy and (inter)national security might decide the next occupant of the Oval Office.4 As a consequence, the presidential candidates’ foreign policy plans have been increasingly analyzed, mostly in Foreign Policy.5 Based on this material, what can we conclude about Trump and Sanders?
Tough Guy Trump
The Huffington Post went nuclear about Donald Trump’s New Hampshire victory. They called him a “racist, sexist demagogue”.6 Others have called him a realist, a nativist and a xenophobe.7 I believe him to be all of these things. The problem is that his proclaimed perception of the world is a lot simpler and linear than it is in reality. In this, Trump appears to be naïve. This is frightening for the international future of the US, regardless of whether this is his real opinion, or a simplified story he expects his voters can relate to and approve of. His foreign policy is basically unknown, besides the repeated catchphrase to hire the best and smartest negotiators.8 Names and functions have not been voiced, and his website contains only information about plans for taking back jobs from China and immigration reform.9 His most notorious idea is that “there must be a wall” between Mexico and the US.10 Generally, however, we are left in the dark about his intentions.
One thing we do know is the position Trump has taken throughout the last decades. He has taken a remarkably consistent hawkish, isolationist stance in the Jacksonian tradition.11 Referring to politics practiced by President Andrew Jackson, this approach is based heavily on fear and is inward looking. It is directed at white working class voters who are afraid of outsiders.12 They do not like spending a lot of money on wars to spread democracy or controlling a crisis in a faraway country. But when they are convinced America is under attack, Jacksonians become ferocious.13 They will do everything they deem necessary or useful to ‘protect’ themselves.
Trump believes the US should not interfere in foreign countries, unless they directly pose a threat to US security. His support for the war in Afghanistan seems to frame within the post-9/11 anger. America was under attack and a strong answer was needed. Trump stays very hawkish when it comes to terrorism.14 However, contrary to the hawkish neoconservatives and liberal interventionists who have been directing US foreign policy the last two decades, Trump claims to have been against the intervention in Iraq.15 Recent investigation, however, proves this claim to be false.16 Nevertheless, Trump’s main point remains that the US should not go in if it has nothing to win. His constituency believed for months that he was against the war in Iraq, supporting this view. Ultimately, now that the US is involved in the Middle East, Trump wants to strike hard and fast to eliminate the perceived threat, in this case being Daesh and Islamic terrorism. With claims such as his resistance against the Iraq war, Trump put forward an image of being against intervention on behalf of democracy, following his guts and going against commonly expected political correctness. His constituency, being frustrated with the current state of affairs, loves it.
While many perceive Trump to be impulsive, he is not. He strongly believes the US should not get entangled in foreign issues when there is no consensus with allies.17 He wants to let South Korea, Japan and NATO members pay more for their own protection.18 He wants to cooperate with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to solve the Syrian crisis and battle Daesh. Middle Eastern countries need to do more or pay more for their protection.19 This is very different from what other candidates such as Cruz and Rubio were saying during the Republican debate in New Hampshire. Cruz, for example, wants to expand missile capacity in South Korea, and “carpet-bomb” ISIS, looking unilaterally tough.20 Rubio wants to increase ground troops and the US navy to reassure allies.21 A “full spectrum” superpower, capable of maintaining security simultaneously in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.”22
According to Trump’s son, Trump is a very tough guy as well.23 He would “bring back waterboarding and worse”. He would, however, only use that power when the US is being threatened, supposedly not getting the US in more trouble. His focus on cutting funding for ISIS, and urging the Middle Eastern countries to do more seems a good indication of his reluctance for more American boots on the ground.
Bernie Sanders has only recently become a bit more comfortable talking foreign policy issues.24 In hindsight, Sanders has generally made “good calls” throughout his political career. Nonetheless there were some awkward moments and mistakes. For example when he voted in favor of the F-35 Joint Striker Fighter planes which costs twice the original price, yet fulminated against the wastefulness of the US military.25 Therefore it is interesting to look at the principles he bases his decisions on.
While his national policy plan is ideologically driven by a Scandinavian-style social democratic agenda, criticizing big business, banking, and billionaires, his foreign policy appears to be surprisingly pragmatic.26 As there are barely any foreign policy advisors on his team, he seems to have little knowledge, networks or credentials to rely upon. However, he is known to have contacted all sorts of foreign policy experts across the political spectrum.27 His mentality and derived judgment are in stark contrast to other more experienced politicians who keep adhering to the idea of an active US hegemony and employ establishment foreign policy advisors.28
Sanders’ view of what the US position in the world should be, looks surprisingly similar to Trump’s. During his victory speech in New Hampshire, Sanders said: “While we must be relentless in combating terrorists who would do us harm, we cannot and should not be the policeman of the world. Nor should we bear the burden of fighting terrorism alone.”29 The Saudi’s should do the fighting, supported by a coalition in which the US can play an important role.30 According to Sanders, the US must see through its commitment in the Middle East, but not get further involved in any new problems.31 Noteworthy is that Sanders voted against the intervention in Libya in 2011, of which Clinton even wanted to be recognized as its co-engineer.32 Like Trump, Sanders is propagating to let allies pay more for their safety. In the past he has called NATO a “waste of taxpayer’s dollars and not geo-politically sound.”33
Will It Matter?
If it would make an actual difference whether Trump or Sanders wins, remains unsure. What we do know is that the objectives and position of the US as liberal hegemon would be greatly rethought.34 Under either Sanders or Trump, the US will still occupy an important place on the world stage as a major economic and military power, but it would be more inward looking. The unilateral invasions on the behalf of ‘democracy’ would most likely be over. Trump has expressed an aggressive and hawkish version of US isolationism. Perhaps this is because being a tough guy is a recurring theme in the Republican Party, and by posing as one, Trump is trying to convince voters. Sanders, on the other hand, is more dovish in his wordings. He is actively betting on the US’ soft power and diplomatic ties to resolve issues and lead the world.35 If Trump has the best negotiators on his side (as he claims), diplomacy might also become his preferred medium. I believe this will depend on the people he ultimately hires as negotiators. Whether he would achieve what he wants through diplomacy is still an open question.
Besides, it is also possible that neither of them makes it to the general election. In that case, you should read about what this would mean for US foreign policy in “The Big 5 and the Sad State of Foreign Policy in 2015“, an excellent Foreign Policy article written by Stephen Walt.36