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Should Europe feel, or fear, the Bern? Transatlantic relations under a President Sanders

Although the Vermont Senator wouldn’t return to business as usual between the US and EU, Europeans have little to fear from a Sanders presidency.

European leaders have made little effort over the past few years to disguise their frustration with US President Donald Trump’s conduct on the world stage and its effect on transatlantic relations. At the recent Munich Security Conference, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier lamented that the “United States of America, under the present administration itself, rejects the idea of an international community.” French President Emmanuel Macron insisted that, faced with an uncooperative Washington, Europe needed to chart its own course in foreign policy. The discord in Munich came in the wake of the US assassination of Iranian General Suleimani, which plunged transatlantic relations to a new low. With transatlantic tensions so high, many Europeans hope that a Democratic challenger—almost any Democratic challenger—will defeat Trump in 2020.

Senator Bernie Sanders, though, might be different. At roughly the half-way point in the Democratic presidential primary, he has emerged as the sole remaining competitor to front-runner Joe Biden. Yet EU leaders seem ambivalent at the prospect of of a Sanders presidency as well. One senior diplomat told the Washington Post that Europeans are “all praying for Biden”. Others remarked that they would see a Sanders victory as further evidence of an isolationist turn in the United States. The Economist went so far as to describe a potential Trump-Sanders match-up as “appalling choice with no good outcome.”

Such fears are misguided, however, and it is wrong to suggest foreign policy equivalence between Trump and his chief competitor on the progressive side of the Democratic party. Although Sanders may be on the leftward end of the American political spectrum, his opinions hew more closely to a European Social Democrat than a true leftist. His views on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) favor restraint rather than renouncing mutual defense. While Sanders may not speak the language of the Cold War American foreign policy consensus, he does not represent as stark of a break with it as his critics fear (and many of his supporters hope for). The European elite has little reason to fear him.

Sanders and the US commitment to collective defence

One of the main fears that European leaders express about a Sanders presidency is his commitment to mutual defence. His past opposition to NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe—on the grounds that it would provoke Russian aggression—is held up as exhibit A of such hesitance. They allege that this is proof of ‘isolationism’ and an anti-Western outlook. Leftists like Sanders, however, were hardly alone in this opinion. George Kennan, an arch-realist and the architect of America’s Cold War containment policy, felt the same way. In 1990, he argued that NATO expansion would prove to be a “fateful error” which would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion” and could prompt a resurgence of East-West animosities. This was hardly an isolated viewpoint; a group of dozens of senior American diplomats shared this view at the time.

Although he opposed the expansion initially, Sanders has not expressed any desire to renege on the US’ existing commitments. In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, he said he would be willing to use military force to defend American allies and that he “believes in NATO.” He even supported the NATO bombings in Kosovo and has expressed his openness to humanitarian intervention. He may be unlikely to deploy new troops to the Baltics or further expand NATO, but Sanders hardly calls for the Alliance’s dissolution. Furthermore, even if Sanders wished to limit the US commitment to NATO, he would almost certainly be constrained by Congress. In an era of stark partisan divides, defending NATO has been one of the few policies for which there is bi-partisan support.

Sanders is also quite conventional on nuclear weapons policy. He advocates for arms limitation, a nuclear test ban and the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, but has not called into question the principle of deterrence. All of these positions are shared by his rival, Joe Biden.

In one sense, European NATO members might even find a Sanders presidency a relief: he might be the only contender to substantially back off from the US demand for other NATO countries to spend more on defence. Congressman Ro Khanna, who often speaks for Sanders on foreign policy, has said that as President, “Sanders is not going to push countries to be increasing their defense spending.” Although Sanders does believe in more equal burden sharing (as did Obama), he is unlikely to be nearly as belligerent as Trump in voicing this opinion.

International engagement under Sanders

Sanders’ long-standing opposition to free trade agreements (FTAs) is also held up as an area of concern for European policymakers. While he is sceptical of the relative lack of labour and environmental standards in current FTAs, Sanders hardly has an autarkic vision for the United States. His policy platform states that “trade is a good thing, but it has to be fair.” He emphasises stronger protections for workers, the environment, and human rights—all issues the European Commission prizes in negotiations. Far from signalling an end to transatlantic trade, a Sanders-appointed US Trade Representative would likely share many views with his or her EU counterpart.

As Europe works to find middle ground between the US and its ‘great power’ rivals, Russia and China, a less confrontational US President may be exactly what it needs. Whereas the Trump Administration insists that the EU sever ties with China, a future President Sanders is more likely to defuse tensions with America’s rival superpower. This could spare Europeans the painful decision between their security guarantor and one of their largest trading partners.

Significantly, Sanders has also been one of the Democratic candidates who said he would re-join the 2015 Iran nuclear deal with no preconditions. This agreement was a cornerstone of European foreign policy, and Trump’s dismantling of it—and subsequent imposition of secondary sanctions—has angered and embarrassed the EU. The US re-joining it would reduce transatlantic tensions and lessen the chance of conflict with Iran.

The Iran case also speaks to Sanders’ broader reluctance to impose sanctions, a tendency that is likely to reassure western European countries like France and Germany. Sanders has supported sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Ukraine, but has opposed many other measures. Of course, some Eastern European countries like Poland may prefer a hard line on Russia to a reduced threat of sanctions. However, much of the leadership in Brussels and western European capitals could rest easier without the fear the imposition of further secondary sanctions under a Sanders presidency.

A rejuvenated multilateralism

Far from being an ‘isolationist’, Sanders would seek increased engagement on many issues that are of key importance to Europeans. He has the most ambitious climate plan of any candidate, which would allow for critical US-EU cooperation to combat carbon emissions.  Since President George W. Bush’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, the US has been a hindrance on global climate negotiations. With his emphasis on the severity of the climate crisis and the need for a Green New Deal, Sanders would lead a remarkable reversal of America’s traditional position on climate.

Where Sanders would continue a rupture with the pre-Trump business as usual—such as limiting the US’ military footprint and curtailing support for FTAs—Europe must realise that the status quo ante was unstable and unlikely to persist. Because Washington views China as its chief rival, the US will likely shift its finite resources away from Europe toward East Asia, regardless of who occupies the White House. This trend toward a more focussed foreign policy is accelerated by domestic problems. With crumbling infrastructure and declining life expectancy, it is improbable that the US can maintain a global military footprint in its current form for much longer.   Similarly, a country that has experienced hundreds of thousands of lost jobs from free trade agreements should not be expected to support unfettered global markets indefinitely.

Sanders would lead a justified correction in these policy domains, while discarding much of Trump’s zero-sum thinking in favour of a re-invigorated multilateralism. In some ways, Sanders’ foreign policy opinions even sound similar to the quintessential foreign policy traditionalist in the race, Joe Biden. The former Vice President has argued for ending “forever wars” and has said that the US needs “a real strong dose of humility about [its] capacity to fundamentally alter circumstances around the world.”

Should Europeans still harbour any doubts about whether Sanders may be disinclined to use American resources to solve global problems, they can take solace in the Senator’s own words. When asked to name the best foreign policy decisions that the US has ever made, he listed the United States’ post-WWII Marshall Plan aid to Western Europe and the establishment of the United Nations in 1945. As two of the most significant internationalist and pro-European actions the US has ever taken, leaders across the Atlantic can rest assured that a President Sanders would serve their interests well.

Edward Knudsen is a Research Associate with the Dahrendorf Forum at the Hertie School in Berlin.

An earlier version of this article was originally published in the Berlin Policy Journal

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.