Bernie Sanders on NATO

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed after World War II as a way to get the militaries of various western countries to agree on mutual defense strategies. Although Bernie Sanders is generally anti-war, he begrudgingly supported NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999. He did not vigorously oppose NATO’s 2011 military intervention in Libya, although he did voice concerns. He was also against NATO expansion.

Kosovo Crisis

In the 1990s, the Yugoslavian army conducted a mass ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, which was then a region of Serbia. Serbia would not cooperate with diplomatic efforts to bring peace to the region. Bernie ultimately voted in support of NATO’s bombing of Serbia because he felt it was necessary to prevent further genocide.

What happened during the Kosovo Crisis?

Kosovo had been a fairly autonomous area within former Yugoslavia until 1989, when Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic altered the status of the region by removing its autonomy and bringing it under direct control of Belgrade, the Serbian capital. The Kosovar Albanians opposed the move.

Their unrest eventually erupted in 1998, when conflict between the Serbian military and police forces and Kosovar Albanians resulted in the slaughter of over 1,500 Kosovar Albanians. The international community grew concerned as 400,000 people were forced from their homes. Their displacement was the result of Milosevic’s disregard for diplomatic efforts aimed at peacefully resolving the crisis.

As NATO considered ways to help achieve a peaceful resolution to the crisis, the situation grew dire. NATO decided to authorize airstrikes in order to support diplomatic efforts to make the Milosevic regime withdraw forces from Kosovo, cooperate in bringing an end to the violence, and facilitate the return of refugees to their homes. At the last moment, President Milosevic agreed to comply, and the airstrikes were called off.

In 1999, conflicts in Kosovo reignited. NATO threatened to use airstrikes again, this time sending the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to observe compliance on the ground from both sides.

Although the Kosovar Albanian delegation signed a peace treaty, the Serbian delegation did not, and after more attempts to make peace with Serbia, NATO launched an air campaign known as Operation Allied Force. After 77 days, NATO withdrew their forces and proceeded in a series humanitarian efforts to relieve the suffering of the many thousands of refugees forced to flee Kosovo by the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign.

What was Bernie’s opinion on the Kosovo crisis?

During a town hall event Bernie hosted regarding NATO’s air war in Serbia in May 1999, he started off by saying, “If anyone thinks there is a simple solution to this problem, then you know very little about this problem.”

Generally, Bernie did not want to engage in another ground war like the failed effort in Vietnam, and believed airstrikes would minimize U.S. military casualties and would be the likeliest way to stop a war criminal — Milosevic — who could not be dealt with diplomatically. In other words, he saw supporting the NATO airstrikes on Serbia as justified on humanitarian grounds:

So how did it all go down?

Ultimately, the Kosovo resolution won support from Congress, allowing the U.S.’ involvement in the airstrikes to go forward. NATO airstrikes began in late March 1999 and ended by mid-June that same year. Soon after the airstrikes ended, the Serbian government agreed to disarm, and its complete demilitarization was confirmed by September. Milosevic and other leaders were charged with war crimes by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Libya Intervention

In 2011, the Arab Spring came to Libya in the form of a popular uprising. After long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi responded by violently targeting civilians, NATO used military intervention on behalf of the rebels to end the war. Since then, Libya has not been able to achieve stability and continues to be wracked by conflict. Bernie takes a conservative stance on involvement in Libya, and believes we should have spent money on fixing America’s problems instead.

What was the situation in Libya in 2011?

Following the expulsion of the UNHCR – the United Nations’ refugee agency – in late 2010 and leaked diplomatic cables showing that the Libyan government mishandled nuclear materials, unrest began to brew in Libya. The arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel in early 2011 led to protests, clashes with police, and rioting in Benghazi, which subsequently spread throughout the country. This conflict quickly evolved into the Libyan Civil War, which ultimately involved NATO military intervention to topple the government of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Why did NATO intervene?

The international community watched in alarm as Gaddafi targeted civilians in his efforts to regain control over the country. In the U.S., the Senate unanimously passed a resolution urging the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone and encourage Gaddafi to step down. Soon after, a no-fly zone was imposed with the support of the U.S. However, this did not stop Gaddafi’s army from continuing attacks on civilians. In response, NATO conducted airstrikes in Libya.

Why was U.S. involvement in Libya so controversial?

President Obama made sure to notify Congress within 48 hours of his first announcement that the he had mobilized a U.S. military intervention in Libya, as prescribed by the War Powers Act. This initiated a 60-day period, during which he was required to obtain approval from Congress. If he did not obtain approval from Congress in that time, the act gave him at most 30 days to halt all hostilities.

After the 90 days were up, Obama’s counsel, Robert Bauer, reasoned that the president had the right to continue the military campaign in Libya without legislative support, effectively breaking an established law.

What did Bernie say about Libya at the time?

In a February 2011 interview, Bernie expressed concerns with Obama’s decision to circumvent the War Powers Act, saying:

“I think one of the things many people are upset about is this war took place without consultation of the Congress, without debate within the Congress. Look, everybody understands Gaddafi is a thug and murderer. We want to see him go, but I think in the midst of two wars, I’m not quite sure we need a third war.”

In a June interview later that year, he said:

“I have reservations about our involvement in Libya. I mean, we are in a huge deficit. We are in two wars. And I would become somewhat conservative on that issue.”

So how has he voted with regards to our involvement in Libya?

Bernie hasn’t had a chance to vote on bills regarding Obama’s choice to join the Libya airstrikes. The Kerry-McCain bill, drafted by Senate Democrats who wanted to show support for the president’s military intervention in Libya, was pulled from a vote in July 2011 because Republicans promised to vote against it “irrespective of national security interests,” due to an unrelated protest over the budget.

What happened after the NATO airstrikes helped to topple Gaddafi?

While the rebels did manage to form an interim government and hold elections after the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, the new government faced challenges from rival rebel groups and never managed to completely solidify its power.

On September 11, 2012, Islamist militants attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing the American ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three others. Bernie released the following statement after the attacks:

“I was deeply disturbed and saddened to learn of the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American consular personnel. I join President Obama in condemning the senseless acts of violence at our diplomatic post in Benghazi. The families of the four Americans who were serving our country are in our thoughts and in our prayers.”

Following the attacks on the American consulate, factional violence escalated. In 2014, full-blown civil war resumed, which continues to this day.

How did the U.S. react to the attack on its consulate in Benghazi?

The U.S. immediately increased security worldwide at diplomatic and military facilities, and began investigating the Benghazi attack. Through the investigation, it was discovered that the attack in Benghazi was premeditated, and not due to protests against an anti-Muslim video created in America, as had been initially theorized.

What’s happened in Libya since then?

Though the U.S. and NATO succeeded in the military effort to oust Gaddafi, they were not able to achieve their broader goal of setting Libya on a path toward democracy and stability.

Since the consulate attack in 2012, the U.S. and other Western countries have cut staff in Libya. After the Benghazi incident which had been the Obama administration’s top priority, the U.S. established an eight-year plan to train Libyan security forces after receiving direct request from Libya. However, the program was not able to begin due to the dangerous climate and the Libyan government’s inability to raise the funds required.

Today, Libya is considered by most observers to be a failed state and a humanitarian disaster.


Bernie opposes the expansion of NATO because it could lead to further aggression from Russia, which is territorially sensitive about the military alliance’s expansion eastward. Bernie also believes the U.S. foots too much of NATO’s bill.

Who are the current members of NATO?

NATO member countries include the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Iceland, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Turkey, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Croatia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Albania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Greece.

Which countries are interested in joining?

Bosnia, Georgia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Ukraine have all indicated an interest in joining NATO. Ukraine’s potential membership has become a hot-button issue in the past year as its conflict with Russia has raged on.

What is Bernie’s opinion on NATO expansion?

He’s against it, claiming it is a waste of taxpayer dollars and not geo-politically sound. In 1997, as a congressman, Bernie said:

“After four decades of the cold war and trillions of United States taxpayer dollars allocated to compete in the arms race, many of our constituents understand that it is not the time to continue wasting tens of billions of dollars helping to defend Europe, let alone assuming more than our share of any costs associated with expanding NATO eastward.”

Why would Bernie want to prevent countries from joining?

Bernie sees the eastward expansion of NATO as an unnecessary provocation of Russia — and, as stated in the quote above, he’s not interested in revisiting the Cold War era when Russia and the U.S. were constantly pitted against each other.

Even “pro-western” politicians in Russia have been hesitant to support NATO’s expansion to include Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, the Baltic states that were part of the former Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal envoy even suggested that Finland’s membership in NATO would start “World War III,” while Putin himself referred to Ukraine’s potential membership as a “direct threat” to Russian national security.

Learn more about Bernie’s stance on Putin at the Russia issue page.

Are there other reasons Bernie opposes NATO expansion?

American taxpayers pay for 22 percent of NATO’s budget, contributing nearly $712 million in 2010. Most of America’s NATO allies have been decreasing their military spending, while the U.S. contributes more than twice as much as the second-largest funder. Bernie believes Europeans should play a larger role in funding the defense budget of a primarily European coalition.