Senator Bernie Sanders sharpened his foreign policy message into a warning about the potential outcomes of Trump-era leadership, delivering a speech Thursday tying authoritarianism abroad to the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month and blasting America's ongoing war on terror as a "disaster."
“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…is under great strain,” Sanders said to a capacity, mostly supportive crowd of students and teachers at Westminster College in Missouri.
“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,” he said.
Sanders also specifically called out President Donald Trump’s failure to more clearly denounce the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who demonstrated at Charlottesville last month, saying: “There are no two sides on that issue.” Trump was criticized for placing blame for the violence in Charlottesville on both the white supremacists and the counterprotesters, one of whom was killed.
The speech, delivered in the same setting as Winston Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain address, was billed as Sanders laying out his “vision of a progressive American foreign policy,” and the theme presented by the college was one of “Advocacy and Activism,” focusing on how individuals can respond to global conflicts. Ultimately, however, Sanders offered little in the way of personal advice, choosing to focus more on warning the audience about where he believes the world could be headed if changes aren’t made in the era of Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Sanders ripped into America’s war on terror, for example, calling it a “disaster for the American people and for American leadership.”
“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,” Sanders said, “using drone strikes and other airstrikes that often result in high civilian casualties.”
Sanders voiced a willingness to employ drones in counterterrorism operations during his 2016 campaign for the presidency, and did not make clear Thursday whether his point of view on the subject had reversed. But Maya Foa, the director of Reprieve, an organization that represents the family members of men and women who have been killed in U.S. drone strikes, released a statement applauding Sanders's vision, saying, "As Bernie Sanders correctly observes, the so-called War on Terror has tarnished America's image around the globe while playing directly into terrorists’ hands."
Foa spoke to Newsweek earlier in the week, saying she hoped Sanders would call for “more accountability and oversight” regarding targeted strikes in his address.
Sanders also tackled the subject of climate change, obliquely hitting Trump in calling it an issue that the United States “should be leading in, not ignoring or denying.” Trump, of course, has said he plans to pull the U.S. out of the global Paris climate agreement.
Trump recently downplayed the effects that man-made climate change may have had in exacerbating a series of devastating hurricanes to hit Texas and Florida in recent weeks by saying, “We’ve had bigger storms than this.”
Sanders, whose stature as a public figure has risen significantly in the time since his upstart campaign for the presidency failed to defeat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016, has not said whether he is running for president again in 2020, but the foreign policy address is unlikely to damper avid speculation that he will.
Prior to the address, Nomiki Konst, an investigative reporter who served on the Democratic National Committee’s Platform Committee and as a national surrogate for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in 2016, told Newsweek that she believed the senator from Vermont was responding to “a leadership deficit in the Democratic Party” by giving the address as Westminster College, rather than attempting to bolster his prospects for another run.
In addition to Churchill and Sanders, other speakers to give the prestigious John Findley Green Foundation lecture at the school include Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan.