Let me begin by thanking Westminster College, which year after year invites political leaders to discuss the important issue of foreign policy and America’s role in the world. I am honored to be here today and I thank you very much for the invitation.
One of the reasons I accepted the invitation to speak here is that I strongly believe that not only do we need to begin a more vigorous debate about foreign policy, we also need to broaden our understanding of what foreign policy is.
So let me be clear:
Foreign policy is directly related to military policy and has everything to do with almost 7,000 young Americans being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tens of thousands coming home wounded in body and spirit from a war we should never have started. That’s foreign policy. And foreign policy is about hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan dying in that same war.
Foreign policy is about U.S. government budget priorities. At a time when we already spend more on defense than the next 12 nations combined, foreign policy is about authorizing a defense budget of some $700 billion, including a $50 billion increase passed just last week.
Meanwhile, at the exact same time as the president and many of my Republican colleagues want to substantially increase military spending, they want to throw 32 million Americans off of the health insurance they currently have because, supposedly, they are worried about the budget deficit. While greatly increasing military spending they also want to cut education, environmental protection and the needs of children and seniors.
Foreign policy, therefore, is remembering what Dwight D. Eisenhower said as he left office: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
And he also reminded us that: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway””
What Eisenhower said over 50 years ago is even more true today.
Foreign policy is about whether we continue to champion the values of freedom, democracy and justice, values which have been a beacon of hope for people throughout the world, or whether we support undemocratic, repressive regimes, which torture, jail and deny basic rights to their citizens.
What foreign policy also means is that if we are going to expound the virtues of democracy and justice abroad, and be taken seriously, we need to practice those values here at home. That means continuing the struggle to end racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia here in the United States and making it clear that when people in America march on our streets as neo-Nazis or white supremacists, we have no ambiguity in condemning everything they stand for.
There are no two sides on that issue.
Foreign policy is not just tied into military affairs, it is directly connected to economics. Foreign policy must take into account the outrageous income and wealth inequality that exists globally and in our own country. This planet will not be secure or peaceful when so few have so much, and so many have so little — and when we advance day after day into an oligarchic form of society where a small number of extraordinarily powerful special interests exert enormous influence over the economic and political life of the world.
There is no moral or economic justification for the six wealthiest people in the world having as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population — 3.7 billion people. There is no justification for the incredible power and dominance that Wall Street, giant multi-national corporations and international financial institutions have over the affairs of sovereign countries throughout the world.
At a time when climate change is causing devastating problems here in America and around the world, foreign policy is about whether we work with the international community — with China, Russia, India and countries around the world — to transform our energy systems away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. Sensible foreign policy understands that climate change is a real threat to every country on Earth, that it is not a hoax, and that no country alone can effectively combat it. It is an issue for the entire international community, and an issue that the United States should be leading in, not ignoring or denying.
My point is that we need to look at foreign policy as more than just the crisis of the day. That is important, but we need a more expansive view.
Almost 70 years ago, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood on this stage and gave an historic address, known as the “Iron Curtain” speech, in which he framed a conception of world affairs that endured through the 20th century, until the collapse of the Soviet Union. In that speech, he defined his strategic concept as quote “nothing less than the safety and welfare, the freedom and progress, of all the homes and families of all the men and women in all the lands.”
“To give security to these countless homes,” he said, “they must be shielded from the two giant marauders, war and tyranny.”
How do we meet that challenge today? How do we fight for the “freedom and progress” that Churchill talked about in the year 2017? At a time of exploding technology and wealth, how do we move away from a world of war, terrorism and massive levels of poverty into a world of peace and economic security for all? How do we move toward a global community in which people have the decent jobs, food, clean water, education, health care and housing they need?
These are, admittedly, not easy issues to deal with, but they are questions we cannot afford to ignore.
At the outset, I think it is important to recognize that the world of today is very, very different from the world of Winston Churchill of 1946. Back then we faced a superpower adversary with a huge standing army, with an arsenal of nuclear weapons, with allies around the world, and with expansionist aims. Today the Soviet Union no longer exists.
Today we face threats of a different sort. We will never forget 9/11. We are cognizant of the terrible attacks that have taken place in capitols all over the world. We are more than aware of the brutality of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and similar groups.
We also face the threat of these groups obtaining weapons of mass destruction, and preventing that must be a priority.
In recent years, we are increasingly confronted by the isolated dictatorship of North Korea, which is making rapid progress in nuclear weaponry and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Yes, we face real and very serious threats to our security, which I will discuss, but they are very different than what we have seen in the past and our response must be equally different.
But before I talk about some of these other threats, let me say a few words about a very insidious challenge that undermines our ability to meet these other crises, and indeed could undermine our very way of life.
A great concern that I have today is that many in our country are losing faith in our common future and in our democratic values.
For far too many of our people, here in the United States and people all over the world, the promises of self-government — of government by the people, for the people, and of the people — have not been kept. And people are losing faith.
In the United States and other countries, a majority of people are working longer hours for lower wages than they used to. They see big money buying elections, and they see a political and economic elite growing wealthier, even as their own children’s future grows dimmer.
So when we talk about foreign policy, and our belief in democracy, at the very top of our list of concerns is the need to revitalize American democracy to ensure that governmental decisions reflect the interests of a majority of our people, and not just the few — whether that few is Wall Street, the military industrial complex or the fossil fuel industry. We cannot convincingly promote democracy abroad if we do not live it vigorously here at home.
Maybe it’s because I come from the small state of Vermont, a state that prides itself on town meetings and grassroots democracy, that I strongly agree with Winston Churchill when he stated his belief that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms.”
In both Europe and the United States, the international order which the United States helped establish over the past 70 years, one which put great emphasis on democracy and human rights, and promoted greater trade and economic development, is under great strain. Many Europeans are questioning the value of the European Union. Many Americans are questioning the value of the United Nations, of the transatlantic alliance, and other multilateral organizations.
We also see a rise in authoritarianism and right wing extremism — both domestic and foreign — which further weakens this order by exploiting and amplifying resentments, stoking intolerance and fanning ethnic and racial hatreds among those in our societies who are struggling.
We saw this anti-democratic effort take place in the 2016 election right here in the United States, where we now know that the Russian government was engaged in a massive effort to undermine one of our greatest strengths: the integrity of our elections, and our faith in our own democracy.
I found it incredible, by the way, that when the President of the United States spoke before the United Nations on Monday, he did not even mention that outrage.
Well, I will. Today I say to Mr. Putin: we will not allow you to undermine American democracy or democracies around the world. In fact, our goal is to not only strengthen American democracy, but to work in solidarity with supporters of democracy around the globe, including in Russia. In the struggle of democracy versus authoritarianism, we intend to win.
When we talk about foreign policy it is clear that there are some who believe that the United States would be best served by withdrawing from the global community. I disagree. As the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth, we have got to help lead the struggle to defend and expand a rules-based international order in which law, not might, makes right.
We must offer people a vision that one day, maybe not in our lifetimes, but one day in the future human beings on this planet will live in a world where international conflicts will be resolved peacefully, not by mass murder.
How tragic it is that today, while hundreds of millions of people live in abysmal poverty, the arms merchants of the world grow increasingly rich as governments spend trillions of dollars on weapons of destruction.
I am not naÃ¯ve or unmindful of history. Many of the conflicts that plague our world are longstanding and complex. But we must never lose our vision of a world in which, to quote the Prophet Isaiah, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
One of the most important organizations for promoting a vision of a different world is the United Nations. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped create the UN, called it “our greatest hope for future peace. Alone we cannot keep the peace of the world, but in cooperation with others we have to achieve this much longed-for security.”
It has become fashionable to bash the UN. And yes, the UN needs to be reformed. It can be ineffective, bureaucratic, too slow or unwilling to act, even in the face of massive atrocities, as we are seeing in Syria right now. But to see only its weaknesses is to overlook the enormously important work the UN does in promoting global health, aiding refugees, monitoring elections, and doing international peacekeeping missions, among other things. All of these activities contribute to reduced conflict, to wars that don’t have to be ended because they never start.
At the end of the day, it is obvious that it makes far more sense to have a forum in which countries can debate their concerns, work out compromises and agreements. Dialogue and debate are far preferable to bombs, poison gas and war.
Dialogue however cannot only be take place between foreign ministers or diplomats at the United Nations. It should be taking place between people throughout the world at the grassroots level.
I was mayor of the city of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was our enemy. We established a sister city program with the Russian city of Yaroslavl, a program which still exists today. I will never forget seeing Russian boys and girls visiting Vermont, getting to know American kids, and becoming good friends. Hatred and wars are often based on fear and ignorance. The way to defeat this ignorance and diminish this fear is through meeting with others and understanding the way they see the world. Good foreign policy means building people to people relationships.
We should welcome young people from all over the world and all walks of life to spend time with our kids in American classrooms, while our kids, from all income levels, do the same abroad.
Some in Washington continue to argue that “benevolent global hegemony” should be the goal of our foreign policy, that the U.S., by virtue of its extraordinary military power, should stand astride the world and reshape it to its liking. I would argue that the events of the past two decades — particularly the disastrous Iraq war and the instability and destruction it has brought to the region — have utterly discredited that vision.
The goal is not for the United States to dominate the world. Nor, on the other hand, is our goal to withdraw from the international community and shirk our responsibilities under the banner of “America First.” Our goal should be global engagement based on partnership, rather than dominance. This is better for our security, better for global stability and better for facilitating the international cooperation necessary to meet shared challenges.
Here’s a truth that you don’t often hear about too often in the newspapers, on the television or in the halls of Congress. But it’s a truth we must face. Far too often, American intervention and the use of American military power has produced unintended consequences which have caused incalculable harm. Yes, it is reasonably easy to engineer the overthrow of a government. It is far harder, however, to know the long term impact that that action will have. Let me give you some examples:
In 1953 the United States, on behalf of Western oil interests, supported the overthrow of Iran’s elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, and the re-installation of the Shah of Iran, who led a corrupt, brutal and unpopular government. In 1979, the Shah was overthrown by revolutionaries led by Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Islamic Republic of Iran was created. What would Iran look like today if their democratic government had not been overthrown? What impact did that American-led coup have on the entire region? What consequences are we still living with today?
In 1973, the United States supported the coup against the democratically elected president of Chile Salvador Allende which was led by General Augusto Pinochet. The result was almost 20 years of authoritarian military rule and the disappearance and torture of thousands of Chileans — and the intensification of anti-Americanism in Latin America.
Elsewhere in Latin America, the logic of the Cold War led the United States to support murderous regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala, which resulted in brutal and long-lasting civil wars that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children.
In Vietnam, based on a discredited “domino theory,” the United States replaced the French in intervening in a civil war, which resulted in the deaths of millions of Vietnamese in support of a corrupt, repressive South Vietnamese government. We must never forget that over 58,000 thousand Americans also died in that war.
More recently, in Iraq, based on a similarly mistaken analysis of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, the United States invaded and occupied a country in the heart of the Middle East. In doing so, we upended the regional order of the Middle East and unleashed forces across the region and the world that we’ll be dealing with for decades to come.
These are just a few examples of American foreign policy and interventionism which proved to be counter-productive.
Now let me give you an example of an incredibly bold and ambitious American initiative which proved to be enormously successful in which not one bullet was fired — something that we must learn from.
Shortly after Churchill was right here in Westminster College, the United States developed an extremely radical foreign policy initiative called the Marshall Plan.
Think about it for a moment: historically, when countries won terrible wars, they exacted retribution on the vanquished. But in 1948, the United States government did something absolutely unprecedented.
After losing hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the most brutal war in history to defeat the barbarity of Nazi Germany and Japanese imperialism, the government of the United States decided not to punish and humiliate the losers. Rather, we helped rebuild their economies, spending the equivalent of $130 billion just to reconstruct Western Europe after World War II. We also provided them support to reconstruct democratic societies.
That program was an amazing success. Today Germany, the country of the Holocaust, the country of Hitler’s dictatorship, is now a strong democracy and the economic engine of Europe. Despite centuries of hostility, there has not been a major European war since World War II. That is an extraordinary foreign policy success that we have every right to be very proud of.
Unfortunately, today we still have examples of the United States supporting policies that I believe will come back to haunt us. One is the ongoing Saudi war in Yemen.
While we rightly condemn Russian and Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter in Syria, the United States continues to support Saudi Arabia’s destructive intervention in Yemen, which has killed many thousands of civilians and created a humanitarian crisis in one of the region’s poorest countries. Such policies dramatically undermine America’s ability to advance a human rights agenda around the world, and empowers authoritarian leaders who insist that our support for those rights and values is not serious.
Let me say a word about some of the shared global challenges that we face today.
First, I would mention climate change. Friends, it is time to get serious on this: Climate change is real and must be addressed with the full weight of American power, attention and resources.
The scientific community is virtually unanimous in telling us that climate change is real, climate change is caused by human activity, and climate change is already causing devastating harm throughout the world. Further, what the scientists tell us is that if we do not act boldly to address the climate crisis, this planet will see more drought, more floods — the recent devastation by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are good examples — more extreme weather disturbances, more acidification of the ocean, more rising sea levels and, as a result of mass migrations, there will be more threats to global stability and security.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement was not only incredibly foolish and short-sighted, but it will also end up hurting the American economy.
The threat of climate change is a very clear example of where American leadership can make a difference. Europe can’t do it alone, China can’t do it alone, and the United States can’t do it alone. This is a crisis that calls out for strong international cooperation if we are to leave our children and grandchildren a planet that is healthy and habitable. American leadership — the economic and scientific advantages and incentives that only America can offer –is hugely important for facilitating this cooperation.
Another challenge that we and the entire world face is growing wealth and income inequality, and the movement toward international oligarchy — a system in which a small number of billionaires and corporate interests have control over our economic life, our political life, and our media.
This movement toward oligarchy is not just an American issue. It is an international issue. Globally, the top 1 percent now owns more wealth than the bottom 99 percent of the world’s population.
In other words, while the very, very rich become much richer, thousands of children die every week in poor countries around the world from easily prevented diseases, and hundreds of millions live in incredible squalor.
Inequality, corruption, oligarchy and authoritarianism are inseparable. They must be understood as part of the same system, and fought in the same way. Around the world we have witnessed the rise of demagogues who once in power use their positions to loot the state of its resources. These kleptocrats, like Putin in Russia, use divisiveness and abuse as a tool for enriching themselves and those loyal to them.
But economic inequality is not the only form of inequality that we must face. As we seek to renew America’s commitment to promote human rights and human dignity around the world we must be a living example here at home. We must reject the divisive attacks based on a person’s religion, race, gender, sexual orientation or identity, country of origin or class. And when we see demonstrations of neo-Nazism and white supremacism as we recently did in Charlottesville, Virginia, we must be unequivocal in our condemnation, as our president shamefully was not.
And as we saw here so clearly in St. Louis in the past week we need serious reforms in policing and the criminal justice system so that the life of every person is equally valued and protected. We cannot speak with the moral authority the world needs if we do not struggle to achieve the ideal we are holding out for others.
One of the places we have fallen short in upholding these ideas is in the war on terrorism. Here I want to be clear: terrorism is a very real threat, as we learned so tragically on September 11, 2001, and many other countries knew already too well.
But, I also want to be clear about something else: As an organizing framework, the Global War on Terror has been a disaster for the American people and for American leadership. Orienting U.S. national security strategy around terrorism essentially allowed a few thousand violent extremists to dictate policy for the most powerful nation on earth. It responds to terrorists by giving them exactly what they want.
In addition to draining our resources and distorting our vision, the war on terror has caused us to undermine our own moral standards regarding torture, indefinite detention, and the use of force around the world, using drone strikes and other airstrikes that often result in high civilian casualties.
A heavy-handed military approach, with little transparency or accountability, doesn’t enhance our security. It makes the problem worse.
We must rethink the old Washington mindset that judges “seriousness” according to the willingness to use force. One of the key misapprehensions of this mindset is the idea that military force is decisive in a way that diplomacy is not.
Yes, military force is sometimes necessary, but always — always — as the last resort. And blustery threats of force, while they might make a few columnists happy, can often signal weakness as much as strength, diminishing U.S. deterrence, credibility and security in the process.
To illustrate this, I would contrast two recent U.S. foreign policy initiatives: The Iraq war and the Iran nuclear agreement.
Today it is now broadly acknowledged that the war in Iraq, which I opposed, was a foreign policy blunder of enormous magnitude.
In addition to the many thousands killed, it created a cascade of instability around the region that we are still dealing with today in Syria and elsewhere, and will be for many years to come. Indeed, had it not been for the Iraq War, ISIS would almost certainly not exist.
The Iraq war, as I said before, had unintended consequences. It was intended as a demonstration of the extent of American power. It ended up demonstrating only its limits.
In contrast, the Iran nuclear deal advanced the security of the U.S. and its partners, and it did this at a cost of no blood and zero treasure.
For many years, leaders across the world had become increasingly concerned about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. What the Obama administration and our European allies were able to do was to get an agreement that froze and dismantled large parts of that nuclear program, put it under the most intensive inspections regime in history, and removed the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon from the list of global threats.
That is real leadership. That is REAL POWER.
Just yesterday, the top general of U.S. Strategic Command, General John Hyden, said: “The facts are that Iran is operating under the agreements the we signed up for.” We now have a four-year record of Iran’s compliance, going back to the 2013 interim deal.
I call on my colleagues in the Congress, and all Americans: We must protect this deal. President Trump has signaled his intention to walk away from it, as he did the Paris agreement, regardless of the evidence that it is working. That would be a mistake.
Not only would this potentially free Iran from the limits placed on its nuclear program, it would irreparably harm America’s ability to negotiate future nonproliferation agreements. Why would any country in the world sign such an agreement with the United States if they knew that a reckless president and an irresponsible Congress might simply discard that agreement a few years later?
If we are genuinely concerned with Iran’s behavior in the region, as I am, the worst possible thing we could do is break the nuclear deal. It would make all of these other problems harder.
Another problem it would make harder is that of North Korea.
Let’s understand: North Korea is ruled by one of the worst regimes in the world. For many years, its leadership has sacrificed the well-being of its own people in order to develop nuclear weapons and missile programs in order to protect the Kim family’s regime. Their continued development of nuclear weapons and missile capability is a growing threat to the U.S. and our allies. Despite past efforts they have repeatedly shown their determination to move forward with these programs in defiance of virtually unanimous international opposition and condemnation.
As we saw with the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, real US leadership is shown by our ability to develop consensus around shared problems, and mobilize that consensus toward a solution. That is the model we should be pursuing with North Korea.
As we did with Iran, if North Korea continues to refuse to negotiate seriously, we should look for ways to tighten international sanctions. This will involve working closely with other countries, particularly China, on whom North Korea relies for some 80 percent of its trade. But we should also continue to make clear that this is a shared problem, not to be solved by any one country alone but by the international community working together.
An approach that really uses all the tools of our power — political, economic, civil society — to encourage other states to adopt more inclusive governance will ultimately make us safer.
Development aid is not charity, it advances our national security. It’s worth noting that the U.S. military is a stalwart supporter of non-defense diplomacy and development aid.
Starving diplomacy and aid now will result in greater defense needs later on.
U.S. foreign aid should be accompanied by stronger emphasis on helping people gain their political and civil rights to hold oppressive governments accountable to the people. Ultimately, governments that are accountable to the needs of their people will make more dependable partners.
Here is the bottom line: In my view the United States must seek partnerships not just between governments, but between peoples. A sensible and effective foreign policy recognizes that our safety and welfare is bound up with the safety and welfare of others around the world, with “all the homes and families of all the men and women in all the lands,” as Churchill said right here, 70 years ago.
In my view, every person on this planet shares a common humanity. We all want our children to grow up healthy, to have a good education, have decent jobs, drink clean water and breathe clean air, and to live in peace. That’s what being human is about.
Our job is to build on that common humanity and do everything that we can to oppose all of the forces, whether unaccountable government power or unaccountable corporate power, who try to divide us up and set us against each other. As Eleanor Roosevelt reminded us, “The world of the future is in our making. Tomorrow is now.”
My friends, let us go forward and build that tomorrow.
Text of Sanders’ speech at Westminster College speech on September 21, 2017.