Masha Gessen on the ‘Cold War framing’ of Bernie’s foreign policy 

Photo: Gage Skidmore

At various points in his presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders has faced questions and scrutiny about his past associations with controversial leftist regimes and groups overseas. 

Last year, he almost cut short an interview with the New York Times podcast The Daily when Michael Barbaro, the host, mentioned Sanders’s outreach—during his time as mayor of Burlington, Vermont—to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Last month, after his huge win in the Nevada caucuses, Sanders was asked by Anderson Cooper, on 60 Minutes, about remarks he once made praising social programs instituted by the Cuban leader Fidel Castro. 

“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad,” Sanders replied. Castro “had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing?” The following day, Sanders doubled down on that view during a town hall on CNN, and added the example of China. “China is an authoritarian country,” he said, “but can anyone deny…that they have taken more people out of extreme poverty than any country in history?” Then, last week, the Times returned to a story it had told before—about Sanders’s efforts, as mayor of Burlington, to establish sister-city relations with Yaroslavl, in the dying days of the Soviet Union. The story’s conclusion, that Soviet officials saw Sanders’s overtures as a propaganda coup, got some pushback; the US ambassador to the USSR from the time called it “a distortion of history.”

Political and media commentary on Sanders’s foreign-policy views tends to cleave along predictable lines—pundits on the right and in the center accuse him of un-American apologizing for humans-rights-abusing regimes; his supporters on the left defend his positions as needed pushback on American imperialism, and empirically correct. 

Masha Gessen, of The New Yorker, sees shades of gray in between. She wrote an insightful, nuanced column criticizing Sanders’s remarks on Cuba (“It’s as if Sanders didn’t realize that all of these good things that he cites—literacy, public medicine, access to culture and public transportation, and being lifted out of poverty—are good because they create the conditions for human dignity, which is precisely what totalitarianism destroys”), then defended him against the Times piece on his Soviet ties. (“The language of the headline and the subhead promise disquieting news. In fact, the story that unfolds is innocuous and familiar.”)

CJR spoke with Gessen on Tuesday—before the results of that day’s primaries were known—on media coverage of Sanders’s foreign policy, the parallels with coverage of Donald Trump, and the tendency to rely on Cold War–era clichés. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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In your piece about Sanders and Cuba, you noted the predictable reactions from the right and the left to his remarks. It seems to me that that speaks to a broader lack of nuance in how we’ve been discussing his foreign policy. Do you agree?

I think it’s even bigger than that, actually—I think it speaks to a broader Cold War framework of thinking about foreign policy that hasn’t been updated thirty years after the end of the Cold War. It wasn’t a particularly sophisticated instrument for thinking about foreign policy during the Cold War, but it’s become just ridiculously outdated since. And that’s not true just about Bernie; it’s actually been true about Trump. Trump can’t actually be said to have a foreign policy, but we write about it as if he does have a foreign policy. He understands affinities in terms of power, and he understands power in terms of the ability to exert control and violence. The more power the foreign leader has, the more interested Trump is in relating to him. So that’d be the framework that I’d propose for understanding what Trump has been doing. But a lot of the media coverage has focused solely on Russia. All of the things that I’ve said are true about Trump’s love of Putin. But the reason to focus so exclusively on Putin is, I think, Cold War framing. 

And so this is somewhat similar [to the recent episodes involving Sanders], and in both cases, I’ve actually criticized the Cold War framing of the conversation. When Bernie said—ill-advisedly, I think—that Castro had a literacy program, he was attacked in an exact replica of the kinds of conversations that he was having and that we were all having fifty years ago, where the right would say, How dare you support the Russkies, and the left would say, You don’t understand, you focus on the bad stuff and you can’t see the good stuff. And they were both wrong. I’m not sure who was wronger. But certainly at this point, to reuse those tired clichés is equally wrong, I think, on both sides.

It’s not just the traditional pundits and news outlets who see American foreign policy through that kind of lens, is it? Is it also a conceptual problem for some emerging voices on the left of the spectrum as well?

Absolutely. And I think Bernie is at fault here, too. I think that he hasn’t updated his rhetoric since he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s. For that time period, I would certainly defend him, and I think that the Times piece was ridiculous. Not only was it applying a Cold War framing, but it was applying a Cold War framing to a time [the late ’80s] in which Cold War framing had already become irrelevant and erroneous. But what Bernie was doing when he made those comments about Castro—and then when he doubled down the next day in the CNN town hall, and said China had lifted people out of poverty, too—was engaging in the same sort of outdated rhetoric that really troubles me.

A story like [the Times’] shouldn’t be written without an effort to put out the context. That’s like, basic, right—you report on anything, you try to think about how it compares to other people doing similar stuff at the same time. Under what circumstances did this happen? Was this unusual? It’s one of the most basic journalistic questions. If this was extraordinary, in what ways was this extraordinary? And the problem with that story was that, had he [the story’s reporter, Anton Troianovski] called anyone who works on either Soviet propaganda or the history of the Soviet Union in the 1980s—the history of perestroika and glasnost, or the history of citizen diplomacy—he would have been told that there’s nothing extraordinary about this, and then he wouldn’t have had a story. 

When journalists talk about history, they often do it in an unnuanced way. Do you have any thoughts on how we might make coverage of bad regimes less cartoonish?

Well, I think that we should talk to academics more. I think that certainly there are a lot of people who write and speak about totalitarian regimes in a nuanced enough way. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. It just has to get you out of the territory of constant category errors. There’s a wonderful Bulgarian political scientist named Ivan Krastev, who’s actually a contributing opinion writer to the New York Times. He and I were on a panel together, and someone asked a question about Russia and its ability to influence American politics, and Krastev said, Look, you know, Russia is a terrible place to live, but it’s also a very weak power. And that’s not a very hard thing to understand. It’s not complicated. But it is nuanced. There’s no direct line from “a horrible place to live” to “Reds under the bed.” And if you say that Russia is not an existential threat to American democracy, that doesn’t actually exonerate Russia as a horrible place to live. 

So it’s not that hard. But it does require journalists to think. It does require journalists to question outdated framing, and I think it requires speaking to people who know something about the subject and who keep up with it. 

Do you think Sanders’s old foreign-policy positions have gotten too much attention during this campaign? On the one hand, they do sometimes seem to be used as gotcha questions. On the other, they are his foreign-policy record, to an extent, and he’s running for president. 

I think it’s a fair question to ask: What is his foreign policy, and more broadly, what are his views on the world? We’re very familiar with Sanders’s views on economic equality; we’re very familiar with his views on social justice. We really don’t get a whole lot of a sense of how he views this country in the world. And that’s problematic for a presidential campaign. Historically, the presidency has been largely a foreign-policy job. 

Another problem with the Sanders campaign, of course, is that it’s fairly inaccessible to media. So, if they’re not going to be proactive about broadcasting his view of the world, and there isn’t an ongoing conversation between journalists and Bernie Sanders himself about how he views the world, that contributes to the kind of lazy coverage and the kind of gotcha questions that you’re referring to. It doesn’t justify them; I think they’re still bad journalism. But I kind of understand where that bad journalism comes from, because the Sanders campaign is actually not giving us a whole lot to go on in terms of understanding what that presidency might mean to the United States in the world. And when he’s asked really stupid questions—like he was asked by Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes—he responds with pretty stupid answers. It’s like he hasn’t thought through the story; like he doesn’t actually have a story to tell that explains his foreign-policy trajectory, and that would make a case for him being the best candidate on foreign policy.

Since Nevada, Sanders’s campaign has struggled. Do you think the recent coverage of his old foreign-policy views has contributed to that?

I don’t know that we have enough information to figure out how [voters] are making those kinds of decisions. I think that it’s probably fair to suspect that the aftermath of the Cuba comments and the New York Times story are sort of grist for the mill of creating—or maintaining—the image of Sanders as a political outsider, and somebody who’s really marginal to the way Americans think. And I wouldn’t be surprised to find that that blows directly into Joe Biden’s image as familiar and comfortable and what we think politicians are. But this is totally my hunch, so I don’t want this to come across as my appraisal of why the primaries are going the way they are.

Aside from the constant stream of anecdotes about Democratic voters wanting to beat Trump and not seeming to care about much else, it’s hard to see inside voters’ minds.

Exactly. This is the problem with what we get out of polls these days. We have this closed feedback loop of horse-race coverage, basically, where all journalists want to know is who’s going to win, and what the pollsters want to know and work out is who’s going to win, but we’re not getting nearly enough information about actual public opinion. We’re not seeing public-opinion polling, we’re only seeing polling that could aid somebody who wants to place a bet on the presidential election.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.