Disclaimer: I do not claim to speak for libertarians or classical liberals. I do not intend for this article to be an attack on libertarianism; rather, it is an observation compiled from several instances of foreign policy events and from theory.
Libertarianism has been described by Fusionist Jonah Goldberg as “the single greatest ideology except for two problems: children and foreign policy.” Now, while I disagree somewhat with Goldberg that Libertarianism outright neglects the issues of children, I have come to agree with him about foreign policy. This essay will contain no nationalism, no neoconservatism, and no illusions about imperialistic nation-building. Instead, I will analyze, from a reasonable classically liberal perspective, the holes in mainstream Libertarian foreign policy.
First off, I’ll define terms. Libertarian foreign policy is usually described as non-interventionism, and qualified by “a foreign policy where intervention is only used to directly defend American interests, and to extend/maximize peace.” This foreign policy is usually justified on the following grounds:
- The Founding Fathers supported non-interventionism,
- Intervention leads to blowback,
- Diplomacy will work because the US economy is such a large party of the global economy,
- Intervention causes nation-building, which is impossible to do right and difficult to stop, and
- Intervention leads to war.
However, it is my opinion as a libertarian leaning person, that many of these assumptions are incorrect, poorly conceived, or run counter to the general maximization of liberty and peace. Now, I fully recognize that the military (like most government agencies) is riddled with corruption, high costs, and inefficiency. Further, I understand that Iraq, Vietnam, and Afghanistan have served as important examples of the difficulties of both intervention and regime change. Yet I still think my point will hold.
So, following numerical order, we begin with the first claim that backs up libertarian non-interventionism: “The Founding Fathers supported non-interventionism.” Now, there exists plenty of philosophical basis for this claim, on surface value: George Washington’s farewell address warned against foreign entanglements, and both he and Thomas Jefferson strongly supported a limited use of military power. However, one must look at the context to tell the whole story of the foreign policy of the founding fathers. The U.S.A. was small, incredibly weak, and domestically barely united. The Founders’ government did not reach past the Appalachians de facto, and de jure it seemed that the Mississippi would be their furthest border. Especially considering the strength of Spanish, British, and Russian forces to their West, the early United States was essentially forced to avoid foreign engagement. Further, given the divisive and often difficult nature of war, it is only sensible that non-interventionism would be a good option for national unity. Therefore, it is really impossible to say what the Founders would have advocated for if given the power of the United States of today. I argue that they would like to maximize peace; I’ll get to that later.
In breaking down the second mainstream libertarian argument, “Intervention leads to blowback” I’ll start with the fact that I have a tough time with the logic. Just as Marxism claims that capitalism inevitably falls to socialism, I find that the absolutist nature here offputting. Though the installation of client or satellite states in a nation might erupt in discontent, the stationing of soldiers or supplying of weapons (especially in warzones) does not at all necessitate anti-American sentiment from civilians abroad. Further, I think that the claim of blowback is very strong, but limited by two issues: 1), that the United States should not avoid a foreign action simply because it might be unpopular (especially with people who were already predisposed to dislike the US), and 2) that blowback is just as often caused by instability as it is by nation building (See Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, and Kurdistan)
The third libertarian point, I write, is “Diplomacy will work because the US economy is such a large party of the global economy,” though in reality this essentially accompanies many views that the economy will supplement a pulled-back military policy. While I agree with Adam Smith that markets breed peace, one has to understand that foreign policy is the ultimate instance of a short-run issue: in seconds, a situation can change, and modern capacity to kill per instance of action means that it is incredibly easy for deaths to happen. Markets act, but they cannot act fast enough to stop rioting or bombs. Further, the US macroeconomy simply does not have the sway enough to effect policies abroad. Free trade with Iraq would be great; but a McDonald’s in Mosul and a Burger King in Baghdad would not halt the advances of the Islamic State.
Argument 4 deals with a couple misconceptions on the libertarian side of things; it states that “Intervention causes nation-building, which is impossible to do right and difficult to stop”. Now, of course I can see how one might look at Iraq and say that it’s a classic example of how building a nation leads not only to a puppet regime but also to instability after pulling out. However, intervention simply does not necessitate nation-building. Having an active, global foreign policy allows for the freedoms of markets to exist with ensured security all around the world. Further, having soldiers present in an area allows for American military expertise to enhance the actions of governments abroad. While some might note that governments, in the libertarian view, are corrupt and inefficient, I will remind you that they still need to exist. The services provided by government are vital to the well-being of these areas too undeveloped and too war-torn for market processes.
Now, the 5th argument is the most important of these, and the one I still sympathize with the most: Intervention leads to war”. In refuting it, I will start with a Burkean argument: that the natural order of a free civilization tends to be halted at national borders, and that above all, nation-states work. Planet Earth is, in reality, in a state of international anarchy, and said anarchy means that disputes cannot all be civilly settled. While some argue that war is always immoral because it is force illegitimately used against non-citizens, this point of view ignores the importance of pragmatism. The argument that preventative intervention and/or non-defense military action are stepping stones to war is legitimate; but I still hold that the Western World is always relatively weak, and has to be conserved with the capacity for force. Even in broadest terms (including nations like Ukraine and Chile, though barring India), just 1.64 billion people on the planet live in western nations. It is imperative that a respect for human life and local culture temper military action, but the fact of the matter is that intervention does not beget war.
In the end, I think the libertarian view of foreign policy becomes too ideological. Things like constitutional law, government power, organization of government, the economy, and social legislation can and should be beholden to strong principles. But foreign policy is different, and it is my contention that ideology should only act as a counter to practical concerns. When ideology guides the conversation around foreign affairs, libertarians often fall into what Arnold Kling describes as “the freedom vs. coercion axis”: they ignore rhetoric that does not express foreign policy as an issue of freedom (presumably of foreigners) versus coercion (by military force). Indeed, he argues that they even slip into the left-isolationist argument of “oppressed vs. oppressors,” turning conservatives off from the important points libertarians have to offer.
It is my theory that, in terms of classical liberalism, world peace and universal (but not necessarily global/international) liberal republicanism should be the two goals of foreign policy. Empirically, we see that peaceful transitions from power (from the French monarchy to the French Constitutional monarchy, from the British to the Indians, from the Pope to the unifying Italy, from the Georgian monarchy to the British people, etc.) tend to come about when two things are present: 1), relative stability (I.e., nonviolent protest) around the time of power-transfer, and 2), a threat of military force on the part of higher authority to prevent a power vacuum from occurring. The French Revolution failed not because it was too extreme, but because the government failed to suppress the radicals and sans-culottes. Similarly, it is my argument that an isolationist foreign policy will fail to ensure that steps made toward liberal government won’t create instability. Stability, after all, can lead to organized elections, peaceful transition of power, and a minimization of casualties without nearly as much risk as untouched instability. So many lives are lost from the failure to intervene in conflicts abroad, the failure to use American power as a tool for advancing peaceful Western goals, and the failure to recognize that self-government is an American Right first and foremost. By understanding and embracing American capacity, we can effectively use it to facilitate the organic creation of free societies, even at the cost of short-term military rule. Imperialism is a permanent system of national hegemony over an international sphere: intervention is a temporary system of national action to effect the outcomes of otherwise unpredictable and chaotic political situations.
Thus, In order to promote world peace and Western liberties, we have to hold all other things equal in nations with difficult foreign policy situations. We will have to have invasions, and interventions for economic or moral reasons (indeed, genocides should illicit government support for human lives faced with barbaric practices abroad), and even wars. But in the use of military might, we must be both cautious and wholeheartedly rational in how we interact with the world.