How Populism Will Change Foreign Policy

The Bernie and Trump Effects

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Shannon Stapleton and Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Washington’s foreign policy elites have been left just as disoriented by the rise of presidential hopefuls, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, as everyone else. In signaling the rise of populism as a dominant strain in U.S. politics, Trump and Sanders challenge the basic assumptions on which decades of U.S. foreign and domestic policy have been built. Although it is too early to determine the election’s outcome, it is already clear that the success of the next administration’s global engagement will turn on a correct reading of the mood at home.

The domestic conditions that Trump and Sanders have exposed are a yearning for a restored middle class, a sense of profound and increasing economic insecurity, and anger over wage stagnation and widening inequality. This dark mood carries with it serious implications for foreign policy, something the next president would be wise to consider. It will be impossible to simply turn the page on the 2016 election campaign without first contending with the populist forces that have already made this year one for the history books.  

The outsider candidates have directed their fiercest firepower at international trade. For Donald Trump, NAFTA “destroyed our country as we know it,” and to Bernie Sanders’ mind, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is “a disastrous trade agreement designed to protect the interests of the largest multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment and the foundations of American democracy.” Their opposition to trade agreements spurred similar statements from their competitors, and both Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz came out strongly against the TPP.

A Bernie Sanders action figure prototype, February 25, 2016. Brendan McDermid / Reuters

At first glance, restricting trade would seem an anomalous position in a country that has just five percent of the world’s population and has historically made securing markets abroad a national priority. For example, former President Bill Clinton signed NAFTA, an agreement negotiated by the George H. W. Bush administration. Meanwhile former President George W. Bush secured

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