In the second Democratic debate, Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listens, in Charleston, South Carolina, January 2016.
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listens at the Democratic debate in Charleston, South Carolina, January 2016.
Randall Hill / Reuters

Hillary Clinton’s narrow victory over Bernie Sanders in the Iowa caucuses made clear that the race for the Democratic Party nomination is far from over. Even if Sanders fails to secure the nomination, he can claim to have substantively changed the dynamic of the race. On domestic policy, Sanders has pushed Clinton to the left, bringing discussions of economic inequality and financial regulation to the forefront of the campaign. But when it comes to foreign policy, Sanders has been much less influential. Many assume that he just can’t compete on foreign policy with Clinton, who served as secretary of state for four years. In the last two televised debates, Sanders offered glimpses of his views on U.S. engagement with Iran and the need for multilateral coalitions to fight the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), but he has yet to offer a comprehensive foreign policy vision.

He would not have to look far for one. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the inspiration for the “democratic socialism” that underpins Sanders’ domestic policy, can also provide the inspiration for how Sanders might engage in foreign policy. By embracing Roosevelt’s pursuit of great power cooperation within international institutions and international law, Sanders can articulate what the Princeton University professor John Ikenberry has described as a post-hegemonic foreign affairs strategy: the United States would relinquish its dominant role in maintaining a liberal world order and instead share power with rising hegemons in a system that treats all states as equals. Under this framework, the United States would promote multilateral cooperation through international organizations such as the United Nations and by encouraging collective compliance with international law.

This approach would build upon U.S. President Barack Obama’s liberal internationalism while rejecting Clinton’s embrace of American exceptionalism, encapsulated in her remark in the first debate: “We’re not Denmark!” Sanders could thus turn Hillary Clinton’s supposed leadership and experience against her and define her as being allied with neoconservative views and out of touch with the Democratic Party’s redefined foreign affairs legacy. 


Roosevelt successfully pursued this strategy during World War II. As the historians Frank Costigliola and Alan Henrikson have demonstrated, Roosevelt saw his main diplomatic objective as achieving “Big Three cooperation” among the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union. He emphasized the shared interests between the United States and the Soviet Union despite Anglo-American animosity toward Moscow. FDR believed that only cooperation among the great powers could serve as the basis for a new postwar order embodied in the United Nations, international law, and respect for human rights.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) steps off a Black Hawk helicopter while visiting the Afghan National Police Academy in Kabul, Afghanistan, February 2011.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) steps off a Black Hawk helicopter at the Afghan National Police Academy in Kabul, Afghanistan, February 2011.
U.S. Navy Petty Officer Ernesto Hernandez Fonte / Handout / Reuters

Sanders has made a similar pitch with his call for a “coalition of wealthy and powerful states” to defeat ISIS, but he could make it more credible by suggesting that Iran would have a role to play in such diplomacy. The Obama administration’s success in negotiating the Iranian nuclear agreement, as well as Tehran’s presence at the Vienna talks on the Syrian civil war, suggest that Iran is willing to cooperate on shared interests in the region. The agreement has also empowered Iranian moderates, such as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, at the expense of hard-liners bent on regional domination. Given these developments, it is wise for Sanders to open the door to eventual diplomatic normalization with Iran, as he hinted he would in the last debate before the Iowa caucus. The long-term goal should be the development of a great power consensus about the final status of Syria and Iraq.

Although Iran has effectively been readmitted into international society after the nuclear deal, this degree of cooperation emerged only after the United States first used cyberattacks and multilateral sanctions to punish Tehran for pursuing nuclear weapons. This template for reciprocal cooperation could also work with regard to China and Russia, with the goal of achieving consensus about regional order in their respective theaters.  The United States should seek cooperative engagement with both regional powers but respond to provocations with deterrent actions consistent with U.S. security commitments. For example, Sanders should support planned deployments of heavy ground forces in eastern Europe and ongoing deployments of naval assets in the South China Sea. These defensive actions raise the costs of future aggression by Russia and China in both theaters yet do not rule out future cooperation—they maintain the geopolitical status quo.

Sanders could turn Clinton’s supposed leadership against her and define her as being out of touch with the Democratic Party’s redefined foreign affairs legacy.

A Sanders administration could complement its pursuit of great power concert with a renewed commitment to Roosevelt’s postwar vision of international institutions and law. Sanders’ rejection of regime change and the unilateral use of U.S. military force are good first steps in this direction. His next move should be to declare an end to U.S. exemptions from international law by signing and promoting the ratification of the many worldwide treaties and conventions otherwise ignored by Washington, including the Rome Statute, which binds states to the International Criminal Court. The United States should also increase its efforts to reform the UN peacekeeping system to include major U.S. participation in peace operations. These initiatives, combined with support for reforming the voting shares system that governs the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, would demonstrate a new U.S. commitment to global institutions that limit the power of any one actor and reduce military and economic competition.


Sanders defines himself and FDR as “democratic socialists” (really, European-style social democrats), based on their recognition of economic, social, and cultural rights that include the right to security, health care, housing, and a fair income. The United States has traditionally ignored these positive rights, viewing them as socialist principles alien to U.S. capitalism.

U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Cairo, June 2009.
U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tour the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, June 2009.
Larry Downing / Reuters

By ending U.S. exemptions to international law, Sanders would reaffirm his commitment to these rights, and especially to protections that make up the core principles of the International Labour Organization (ILO). A Sanders administration could further seek to reform international trade agreements by proposing that all new trade treaties, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, adopt legally binding ILO Conventions as the basis for labor protections rather than the nonbinding and vague ILO Declaration on Rights at Work. He could further improve the Trans-Pacific Partnership by pursuing multilateral state control of the investor state dispute settlement mechanism, which grants investors the right to sue foreign governments. Rather than tolerating the Department of Labor’s persistent nonenforcement of existing labor standards, Sanders could empower it to take an activist role in monitoring labor rights and punishing violations with cooperation from the ILO and international unions. These initiatives would ensure that trade deals protect working families across the world rather than support multinational corporations.

Sanders’ articulation of a post-hegemonic vision of foreign affairs could form the strongest challenge yet to neoconservatives in both the Democratic and Republican parties. For example, Sanders could contrast his openness toward Iran with Clinton’s persistent hostility and connect her past support for regime change to future attempts at dominance. By strongly embracing international law and human rights, Sanders could initiate a broader challenge to exceptionalist understandings of the United States’ role in the world. Over time, internationalist ideas might become more acceptable, in the same way that “socialist” positions have become increasingly popular today. If Sanders ran on a comprehensive internationalist platform, he could transform the approach to foreign affairs in the United States and eventually make possible congressional ratification of international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But he has to first make the case to Democratic voters. By articulating a post-hegemonic internationalist role for the United States, Sanders can propose his own alternative vision for foreign policy that turns Clinton’s strengths against her. In a long, drawn-out presidential primary, finding his voice on international issues can only bolster his chances of winning the Democratic nomination.

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  • STEPHEN PAMPINELLA is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations, State University of New York at New Paltz, and Fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement, Bard College.
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