Over the last two weeks, Bernie Sanders has done two remarkable things—things historians will write about decades from now, even if journalists aren’t paying much attention to them today. On June 8, he cast the lone Democratic vote in the Senate against a vast new bipartisan bill aimed at combatting China. On June 17, he penned an essay in Foreign Affairs entitled, “Washington’s Dangerous New Consensus on China: Don’t Start Another Cold War.”
Today’s progressives look back with admiration and wonder at Representative Barbara Lee’s lone vote, three days after September 11, 2001, against authorizing the “war on terror.” Future progressives, I suspect, will look back at Sanders’ actions this month in a similar way.
The reason is that now, as then, Washington is inaugurating a global conflict that could haunt the United States, and the world, for decades. As Kurt Campbell, Joe Biden’s “Asia Czar,” recently put it, “the period that was broadly described as engagement” with China “has come to an end.” Twenty years ago, America “got tough” on terrorism. Now it’s getting tough on Beijing. And Sanders is the highest profile Democrat yelling stop.
He’s absolutely right because a cold war with China—even if it doesn’t lead to World War III (a big if)—will carry immense costs.
First, the tougher America gets on China, the more China will threaten Americans. That may sound odd. But Sanders explains why in the first paragraph of his Foreign Affairs essay:
“The unprecedented global challenges that the United States faces today—climate change, pandemics, nuclear proliferation, massive economic inequality, terrorism, corruption, authoritarianism…require increased international cooperation—including with China, the most populous country on earth.”
The greatest threats that China poses to ordinary Americans stem from its viruses and greenhouse gasses. And as Sanders points out, the best way to mitigate those threats is through “engagement,” the very approach the Biden administration wants to retire. Over the last two decades, according to The Nature Index, which surveys scientific research across disciplines, no two countries have done more ground-breaking joint research than the US and China. In the field of public health, that kind of collaboration proved essential to limiting the spread of the H1N1 and H7N9 viruses, which originated in China, until Donald Trump dismantled much of that public health collaboration in the years preceding COVID-19. But as Villanova’s Deborah Seligsohn, a political scientist who worked at the US embassy in Beijing, recently told The Financial Times, “Joint US-China research on bat coronaviruses is going to be more important after this pandemic, not less.”
It’s also going to be harder now that the US is adopting a cold war posture.
The same goes for cooperation on climate. The Senate bill directs money to some useful efforts to jumpstart key American industries. But it also takes aim at important spheres of US-Chinese cooperation. For instance, it seeks to prevent Beijing from using the Inter-American Development Bank to lend money to Latin American countries. As Tobita Chow, Director of the activist group, Justice is Global (whose writing on US policy toward China is absolutely essential), has noted, “This threatens economic development in Latin America and, crucially, the kind of international cooperation needed to fight climate change.” In an analysis of the senate bill in The New Republic, climate reporter Kate Aronoff was even more searing: “Torching hopes for strategic engagement between the United States and China is a quick route to climate destruction, sabotaging both the supply chains and diplomacy needed to transition off fossil fuels.”
A US-China cold war won’t only imperil the cooperation necessary to prevent climate and public health disasters. It will also imperil civil liberties in the US. Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department unveiled its “China Initiative,” a massive crackdown on Chinese espionage (and supposed espionage) in the US. For ethnically Chinese scientists in the US, the consequences have been horrendous. As the President of MIT noted in 2019, “Faculty members, post-docs, research staff and students tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge – because of their Chinese ethnicity alone.” Asian-American groups have urged the Biden administration to scrap the initiative. It has not. And now the first case resulting from it, against former University of Tennessee at Knoxville associate professor Dr. Anming Hu, has gone to trial. Here’s how the Knoxville News Sentinel describes the proceedings:
“Trial testimony has shown federal agents falsely accused Hu of spying for China based solely on a Google search. After he refused to work as a spy for the U.S. government, agents stalked and harassed him for more than two years, leading to the destruction of his reputation and internationally renowned career.”
No one who remembers the red scare that menaced America’s universities during the last cold war will be surprised.
Finally, animosity between Washington and Beijing will give America’s presidents a new excuse to arm tyrants. Last fall, some Democrats in Congress introduced legislation to halt assistance to the Filipino military and police until President Rodrigo Duterte curbs a “war on drugs” so murderous that it has sparked an investigation by the International Criminal Court. But the Biden administration, intent on luring Manilla out of China’s orbit, says it will place “no restrictions” on US weapons sales. Here, too, Americans who remember the last cold war will not be surprised.
And that’s exactly the problem: Most politicians don’t want to remember. Since 1989, politicians and pundits from both parties have relentless glorified America’s half-century long showdown with the USSR. Republicans lionize Ronald Reagan’s crusade against the “evil empire” (forgetting that his greatest contribution to dismantling the Soviet empire was his embrace of Mikhail Gorbachev during his second term). Democrats glorify Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy’s containment policies (forgetting that Lyndon Johnson took them to their logical conclusion in Vietnam). For the last thirty years, America’s leaders have encouraged the American people to forget how destructive the cold war was. (How destructive was it? Read The Jakarta Method, in which Vincent Bevins details how the US backed an Indonesian anti-communist crackdown that killed roughly one million people between 1965 and 1966, and then used that as a model for US policy in other corners of the developing world).
Amidst this triumphalist amnesia, Bernie Sanders has been an exception. “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,” he told a crowd in 2017, “too often, American intervention and the use of American military power has produced unintended consequences which have caused incalculable harm.” He went on to describe America’s coups in Iran in 1953 and Chile in 1971 and “the logic of the Cold War, [which] led the United States to support murderous regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala” and to fight a war that “resulted in the deaths of millions of Vietnamese.”
Contrast that with Joe Biden, who last week, while scolding Vladimir Putin, asked—as it if were a hypothetical question—“How would it be if the United States were viewed by the rest of the world as interfering with the elections directly of other countries.” Biden is not unusual. On domestic policy, many Democrats have changed the way they talk about American history. Under pressure from groups like Black Lives Matter, they no longer glibly describe previous generations of American leaders as champions of freedom. But when it comes to foreign policy, the narrative of American innocence largely remains.
Only Sanders—along with Ilhan Omar and handful of lesser-known members of Congress—challenge it. In the most important sentence of his Foreign Affairs essay, Sanders writes that “the primary conflict between democracy and authoritarianism…is taking place not between countries but within them—including in the United States.” In that one sentence, he challenges the moral underpinning of America’s new cold war. Yes, the Chinese government does unspeakable things. So did the Soviet government. But a genuine struggle for freedom, Sanders is saying, begins with the recognition that America has done unspeakable things too. And cold wars—in which America’s leaders depict our adversaries are inherently evil and ourselves as inherently virtuous—make it more likely that we will commit such crimes again.
I’d love to see more Washington Democrats join Sanders but I doubt many will. He’s the inheritor of an unusual tradition, which runs from Eugene Debs to Norman Thomas to George McGovern to Shirley Chisolm to Jesse Jackson: Politicians who sought to lead the United States while still challenging the self-congratulatory stories America tells about itself.
None of his breed has ever won the presidency. Usually, their warnings are ignored. But decades from now, when Americans tally the costs of the superpower confrontation that both Democrats and Republicans are now rushing to embrace, someone will point out that Bernie Sanders predicted it would all end in tears.
On our Zoom call this Friday at Noon ET for paid subscribers, I’ll be joined by Zack Beauchamp, a Senior Correspondent at Vox. Zack is a very thoughtful writer who last month wrote an essay entitled, “In Defense of the Two State Solution,” which, as you might imagine, offered some criticisms of my point of view. I’m excited to hash the subject out with him. Become a paid subscriber and join us.
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See you Friday,
I really appreciated this essay as a Vermonter who was scared away from voting for Sanders in the primary. I think my vote for Warren was a mistake. Too frequently the centrist Democrats cite Bernie’s departure from the foreign policy consensus as proof of his lack of electability. We have to remember not to be afraid of voting for candidates who don’t accept the consensus of the blob. Obama and Ben Rhodes pushed back on the blob and Democrats are better off when we do.
I thought the same about his essay --- although I'd like to think we are not as fated as your conclusion portends.