The surprise of the summer political season has surely been the rise of anti-establishment candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Trump and Sanders have captured the raw emotion of America’s political flanks and they consistently fill arenas by the thousands with their tell-it-like-it-is rhetoric. Trump has been at or near the top of the polls for months despite the party establishment’s efforts to undermine him. Meanwhile, Sanders has provided an unexpected challenge to Hillary Clinton especially in the early state of New Hampshire. Trump and Sanders have succeeded with a populist message claiming that the government no longer works for the common citizenry.
However, when Sanders or Trump transitions from railing against the Washington status quo to issues of foreign policy, they find themselves on much less comfortable turf. Quite frankly, Trump and Sanders have campaigned without prioritizing foreign policy. It has been disturbing to observe the rise of candidates who relegate the president’s most important responsibilities, those of the commander-in-chief, to the back burner in an election in which the direction of future American foreign policy is at stake.
Examining the Candidates
The more Donald Trump talks about international politics, the more he exposes his shocking lack of expertise on the topic. Trump’s words on the subject seem to focus on a lost American machismo, which he promises to restore using his supposed ability to out-negotiate devious foreign leaders. Far from offering a coherent Trump Doctrine, he suggests that if elected, “we will have so much winning…that you may get bored of winning.” Every time he wades into policy specifics, he makes a gaffe that would ordinarily sink the candidacy of any conventional politician, whether it be stating he doesn’t care about proposal of Ukraine joining NATO, or advocating the use of troops to take ISIS’s oil fields.
Trump entered the theater of the absurd with a policy of refusing to state specific plans for fear of notifying our enemies. So far, his most detailed proposals have more to do with the xenophobic nationalism that propelled him to the top of the polls than any rational foreign policy. He promises to send back all Syrian migrants, to deport all undocumented immigrants and to build a wall along the entire Mexican border (and make Mexico pay for it). Trump’s basic incompetence and inability to present a rational vision of world politics is laughable. However, the situation is far less humorous when you consider his persistence near the top of the polls. If Trump is elected president, no amount of reassurance or lofty promises will substitute for a coherent doctrine when issues of foreign policy come to the fore.
Unlike Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders doesn’t make outlandish foreign policy claims. Instead, he avoids emphasizing the topic altogether. He focuses on his call for a “political revolution,” on expanding social insurance, and on heavily taxing wealthy individuals and corporations to fund an ambitious slate of public programs. Sanders’s message has been incredibly effective. He has provided a singular voice and a national platform for rising liberal frustration with economic and political elites. He offers Democrats an authentic leftist alternative for those who feel Hillary Clinton is too centrist, too representative of the status quo, or too prone to political triangulation.
The rhetoric at Bernie Sanders’s rallies would have you believe that the position for which he is running involves issues entirely in the domestic sphere, but that is simply not the case. As president, Sanders would be the commander-in-chief of the most powerful country and military in world history. When Sanders is questioned about foreign policy or brings it up in his speeches, he almost always pivots to focus on the home front, bemoaning a focus on international affairs when many problems remain within our own borders.
What we do know is that Sanders is against globalization and foreign trade agreements, against meddling in the affairs of other governments, and generally against the use of military force. These positions suggest that he believes in a more isolationist, “nation building at home” concept of American foreign policy. However, Sanders refuses to make this ideology, or even foreign policy as a topic, a significant part of his campaign. On his official campaign website, there are 17 policy statements listed, ranging from LGBT equality to lowering prescription drug prices, but only two deal directly with issues of foreign policy — one tab for “War and Peace” and one for his position on the Iran nuclear deal. Compare this to Marco Rubio’s website where roughly half of his listed positions deal with foreign affairs, or Hillary Clinton’s 656 page tome, Hard Choices, on her time as Secretary of State. I am confident that the next president will have to devote more than 2/17ths of his or her time and energy to issues foreign policy related.
To be fair, Senator Sanders actually has a long legislative record to point to, unlike his populist counterpart Donald Trump. His record includes a vote against the Iraq war, which he and his supporters use both to differentiate their candidate from Hillary Clinton and to tout as proof of his foresight that military involvement would waste blood and treasure while only further destabilizing the region. But on further examination, Sanders’s voting record is more complex than the anti-war rhetoric he usually uses. Although he did indeed oppose the 2003 Iraq war, the aerial assault against Qaddafi in Libya, and the 1991 Gulf War, he also supported the 1998 NATO bombings of Serbia, the 2001 US incursion into Afghanistan, and the current air campaign against ISIS.
When pressed on these inconsistencies by Martha Raddatz in an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” Sander’s looked genuinely flustered while trying to rationalize his vision for the appropriate use of American military force. Just a few minutes earlier, Sanders appeared his usual loose yet animated self as he waxed poetic about his progressive economic agenda — a stark contrast from his apparent discomfort when he was hammered on foreign policy specifics. If elected commander-in-chief and leader of the free world, Sanders will not have the option of changing the subject to skirt uncomfortable issues of foreign affairs.
A Need for Policy Coherence
Trump’s and Sanders’s lack of foreign policy chops is particularly important because there is a problem in US foreign policy that strikes beyond these regional issues. That is, America’s allies and enemies alike don’t know what the United States stands for in the world — a phenomenon political scientist Ian Bremmer has titled “Question Mark America.” The US is fortunate enough to not face any existential threats today, but this means that the country must choose its own objectives abroad. The US won’t decide if it should focus solely on our domestic sphere, prioritize core international interests or stand for liberal democratic values across the globe. We don’t have clear criteria for the use of military force to achieve international goals or to prevent humanitarian crimes. America isn’t sure if it prefers global democratization, political stability, or governments that serve its interests. These are pressing questions, and it appears that neither Trump nor Sanders is eager to answer them.
President Obama’s doctrine of “don’t do stupid shit” has certainly been useful in avoiding costly military blunders like the Iraq war. But as Hillary Clinton has critiqued, it doesn’t go far enough and “great nations need organizing principles.” A nation as uniquely powerful as the United States can’t be so disorganized on its goals. Such behavior emboldens our enemies and confuses our allies.
This presidential election is a unique opportunity to gain greater strategic clarity and to create a framework for how the US should act on the world stage. Candidates, especially major ones like Trump and Sanders, should argue about the wisdom of and criteria for intervening for humanitarian purposes and whether such plans misuse American resources. Candidates need to finally decide what our goals are for the Middle East, whether it be democracy, regional balance of power, supporting our Sunni allies, or something else. They must determine our true goals and interests in the Russian sphere. Right or left, isolationism or the “indispensable nation,” humanitarian world police or interest-focused realists, I advocate not for specific policy choices, but rather for campaigns based on discussion of these important issues.
Only with a robust debate can we produce a framework for American foreign policy that fits the challenges we will face as a country in the 21st century with our resources, abilities and will to tackle those challenges. In an era of mounting global turmoil, it is imperative that presidential candidates present and campaign on clear and detailed visions of the future of American foreign policy. If Trump and Sanders want to transition from populist upstarts to plausible commanders in chief and resolve the uncertainties of “Question Mark America”, they must start by eliminating the question marks that surround their own foreign policy plans and expertise.
Jake Dow, a freshman studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.