Bernie Sanders’ Foreign Policy Adviser Matt Duss’s Comments at Quincy Institute’s Forum on “A New Vision for America in the World”

Matt Duss is Bernie Sanders’ adviser on foreign policy. He represents a mild improvement on post-Cold War foreign policy – he’s not a Neoconservative and he acknowledges that the Palestinians have rights.

However, I’ve noted some very poor takes by Duss on Twitter such as one comment in which he seems to suggest that the main problem with Trump’s Venezuela policy is that it has been handled incompetently and allowed “Russia to screw with us in our own backyard.” He invokes a cold war narrative against Russia and seems to suggest that our interference in Venezuela isn’t really a problem – all in one tweet. He did receive significant criticism from Bernie supporters about it.

More recently, he put out a tweet supporting an article in The Guardian in which he suggested that the United States should support democracy activists in Russia and highlighted Alexey Navalny as representing the democratic opposition there. Others had to school him on who Navalny actually is: a right-wing racist xenophobe who actually referred to Central Asian immigrants in Russia as cockroaches.

This underscores the problem with Bernie Sanders and his campaign’s dangerous ignorance on the world’s other nuclear superpower in particular, as well as with their overall Manichean framework of the world’s democracies taking on the world’s “authoritarian” governments as outlined in a major speech given by Sanders on foreign policy in 2017 at Westminster College.

Last week, Duss was interviewed at a conference put on by the new think tank the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which advocates for restraint in U.S. foreign policy. A video was posted this past weekend of the event and I watched the first half, which included a discussion with Gen. David Petraeus – who said what one would expect him to say while also engaging in a lot of what Tim Black would call ear fatigue, yammering on about a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with the question asked until most people in the audience were wishing someone would pull the fire alarm and force an evacuation.

Congressman Ro Khanna also made an appearance and said some reasonable things, which cleansed the palate a bit after the bad taste left by Petraeus.

About an hour and a half into the conference Matt Duss was interviewed, along with Joe Biden’s foreign policy adviser and program director at the German Marshall Fund, Julianne Smith. Here are a few highlights of what Duss said in response to an initial set of questions from the moderator, Jonathan Tepperman – editor of Foreign Policy Magazine:

Most worrisome foreign policy issue facing a new president – Duss said climate change. It needs a multilateral response and will affect many other issues such as immigration.

How can damage Trump has done to alliances and “rules-based order” be repaired – Duss said that based on some of his conversations with allies in Europe, the election of Trump and his policies has made them begin to wonder if they’d misunderstood the U.S. Duss, however, did state that we should realize that Trump is not such a departure from the U.S.’s foreign policy of the last 20 years – i.e. after 9/11, which saw the “securitization of immigration,” the vilification of Muslims and a general demonization of diplomacy.

Moving forward – Duss said that we shouldn’t necessarily just return to the past on all foreign policy issues. Some challenges will require creating a new consensus and a comprehensive review of what institutions and policies are needed to meet current challenges. He also said that foreign policy should be rooted in an overall U.S. political consensus. I wasn’t really sure what this meant as he didn’t elaborate.

Israel/Palestine – Duss reiterated the need to return to a 2-state solution framework and international law and resolutions governing this basic framework. He did note that Israel’s actions, such as expansion of settlements, has undermined this. He said that Sanders would be more willing to put pressure on Israel to abide by its obligations. He mentioned Sanders’ characterization of Netanyahu as a “right wing nationalist” and connected that to the campaign’s overall critique of “right wing” “authoritarians.”

At this point, questions from the audience were allowed.

Are there any justifications ever for regime change wars and, if so, what are they? – Duss eschewed regime change wars, saying simply “Let’s not do it.”

What is the guiding principle or “north star” of your foreign policy? – Duss said that the strength of our democracy would guide our foreign policy in addition to reliance on allies and partnerships with other countries to create a “democratic consensus.”

This sounded vague to me. What does this actually mean in practice?

What role should sanctions have in foreign policy? Individual v. sectoral sanctions? – Duss said there should be more coherence on the use of sanctions, acknowledging that there had been an “over use” of them and that they sometimes have the effect of preventing diplomacy. He seemed to be more amenable to individual sanctions over sectoral sanctions so as not to harm civilian populations.

Duss was asked about the Manichean framework of democracies v authoritarian governments and whether democracy promotion could just be used as a tool for regime change – Duss stated that Sanders is not neutral on the issues of democracy and human rights. Although the U.S. needed to be more humble in terms of intervening in other countries, there should be a push for international norms.

Again, I’d like to know what exactly this means. What types of intervention are acceptable under this framework and who defines what constitutes democracy and violations of human rights? Do small countries get to tell larger (more powerful) countries that they are violating democracy and human rights? If so, what recourse do they have in effecting change in the larger country? If the U.S. is going to decide whether Russia, for example, is violating democracy and human rights, what sources are they going to be relying on to determine that? Alexey Navalny? Matt Duss – who clearly knows squat about Russia?

Grayzone journalist Max Blumenthal asked Duss about Ro Khanna’s recent twitter comment in the aftermath of the Russiagate accusations against Bernie’s campaign that we should trust the intel agencies. He also asked why Bernie is not demanding proof of the allegations – Duss said that Sanders had been briefed convincingly regarding Russian election interference (for 2020) and that Sanders would oppose any election interference by any foreign country.

What should our nuclear posture and position on “no first use” of nuclear weapons be? – Duss said Sanders supported a no first use position.

Interestingly, one member of the audience asked about reining in the defense budget and how such a reduction could be implemented with respect to congress, etc. This question was ignored.