US Foreign Policy, Rudyard Kipling, and the Libertarian Theory of the State

Toward a libertarian theory of foreign affairs

by , October 07, 2009

How is foreign policy made? In these, the last days of America’s imperial decline, when the Constitution is but a ragged piece of parchment relegated to the Museum of Archaic Documents, our relations with other countries are entirely governed by the executive branch: all decisions are made by the president and his appointed national security bureaucrats. A recent news story reporting on the procedure whereby President Obama is going to make a decision about whether to escalate the war in Afghanistan illustrates how the process is supposed to work:

"The White House said Tuesday that President Barack Obama considers it ‘tremendously important’ to listen to Congress about the flagging war in Afghanistan but won’t base his decisions on the mood on Capitol Hill or eroding public support for the war. ‘The president is going to make a decision – popular or unpopular – based on what he thinks is in the best interests of the country,’ press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters. As for support from lawmakers, Gibbs said Obama is focused on getting his war strategy right, not on ‘who’s for or who’s against what.’"

In the age of the imperial presidency, where Congress and the people play only an advisory role, the emperor can certainly choose to "listen" to various petitioners, whether they be members of Congress or just ordinary non-titled mortals, but in the end The Decider decides – and he does so, we are told, in a void, as the vessel of a perfect objectivity, in utter isolation from both lobbyists and the voters who put him in office.

This is utter bollocks.

In reality, all government policy, both foreign and domestic, is made as the result of political pressures brought to bear upon key decision-makers, who must constantly make sure that their hold on power is secure. The idea that our rulers are disinterested scholarly types, "technocrats" removed from the political context of the decisions they make, is self-evidently false: far from being objective, they are concerned with justifying their past actions and statements and ensuring that their future actions don’t expose them to the risk of losing the power, prestige, and pelf they have accumulated up to this point. They may have "ideals," ostensibly "humanitarian" goals, and other objectives seemingly unrelated to the self-interested pursuit of pure power, but in the end, none of these professed ideals mean anything unless they can be implemented and acted upon, and they cannot do this out of power. In any conflict between holding power and their ideals, the latter must be dumped – and this is especially true when it comes to the self-professed "pragmatists" in the Obama White House. So forget all the campaign promises, the words that thrilled the antiwar movement as Obama moved to take the nomination and then the White House: all of this is just so much baggage waiting to be thrown overboard.

In a democracy, where elections are held periodically, the chief executive must answer to the public, at least in theory. In practice, however, it often doesn’t work out that way, and this is especially true when it comes to foreign policy issues. In America, you see, we have only two legal political parties. The others, the so-called third parties, are quasi-legal in that they do not have ballot status and – just ask Ralph Nader – they can be kicked off the ballot if enough lawyers can be paid to continually harass them via the courts. This is all quite aside from the machinations of partisan election officials. If the War Party controls both parties, then the people can never vote against war and for peace: the interventionist monopoly is a function and consequence of the two-party monopoly in this country.

When it comes to the vital issue of war and peace, the vaunted partisan divide ends at the water’s edge, as the old aphorism goes. The leaders of both major parties staunchly support the Empire, differing only in how best to maintain and expand it. None question the basic assumptions of a foreign policy premised on the notion that America must intervene globally in order to ensure its own security. Which means Americans have never gotten to vote on the question of whether or not they want an empire of bases and "interests" that extend from Iraq to "American" Samoa.

This is why a White House spokesman can brush aside eroding public support for a losing, futile war as irrelevant and a rude distraction from the president’s reflections on whether or not to commit the U.S. to a decade(s)-long military occupation at a cost of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives. Obama’s Olympian detachment is seen as a virtue, a sign of "leadership" – yet another indication of how low we’ve fallen. Our forefathers would have viewed this godlike isolation as the mark of a tyrant, and that is precisely what the president is when it comes to foreign policy. Ever since a certain failed haberdasher sent U.S. troops to Korea without deigning to ask Congress, the essential power invested in the State – the decision to make war – has passed from Congress and the people to the president. Only Congress, according to our Constitution, has the power to declare war, but in the age of Empire such declarations are redundant. As a global empire, the U.S. is always at war, often covertly. Imperialism is the policy of perpetual warfare: it ensures that somewhere, by some means, the nascent Global State is always expanding, pushing the frontiers of empire as far as resources and public support will permit – and then some.

There has been much debate over the question of whether dictatorships are somehow inherently aggressive. Advocates of this view have extended this dubious principle to the proposition that democracies never attack each other, and this in turn has served as a rationale for intervention and regime-change in the Middle East. If we can only "democratize" societies that have no democratic tradition, peace will reign and the lion will lay down with the lamb. Adherents of this democratist doctrine are somehow blind to one glaring example that refutes their democracy-means-peace paradigm, which is the United States of America. Go here for the list of the wars we have fought: it conjures a litany of folly and reckless wilding unrivaled in world history. Only the British and the Romans come anywhere close to the sheer scale of our world-spanning imperial ambition.

Of course, ideologues both Right and Left will contend that these wars were purely "defensive," that we were fighting some threat – fascism, communism, terrorism, or some other equally world-threatening and sinister -ism – and in doing so we were simply fulfilling our duty. You’ll note, however, that the Right and the Left pick and choose their wars. Vietnam was a righteous crusade to the Right, a shame-inducing albatross for the Left. For the "progressive" Left, Clinton’s Balkan adventure was a heroic reenactment of World War II, albeit on a less dramatic and destructive scale; for the Right, it was a case of international do-gooding that enabled our Islamist enemies to rally their forces.

Be that as it may, these disagreements are episodic and only serve to mask the essential unity of the official Right and the "serious" Left (i.e., the Democratic party) when it comes to the basic question of whether the Empire is worth keeping. When I talk about the Empire, I don’t just mean the empire of bases Chalmers Johnson talks about, or such extensions of U.S. power as NATO: I mean also the presumption of "leadership," the imperial ethic – inherited from the British – as dramatized in the famous stanzas of the Kipling poem:

"Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child."

The modern mindset may rush to condemn Kipling as an exemplar of vulgar racism, but this obscures the essentially "liberal" impulse of moral and material uplift that animated the author, who, in order to make his editorial intent unmistakable, subtitled his 1899 ode to imperialism "The United States and the Philippine Islands." As the scion of an empire that was already passing from the scene, Kipling was symbolically handing the imperial baton to America, the rogue colony he hoped would eventually come to resemble its parent. Reading him today, one is struck by his prescience:

"Take up the White Man’s burden –
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride."

We have followed the path laid out for us by the British bard so many years ago, right to the very end: today we fight "to veil the threat of terror," but the enemy turns out to be a phantom who changes form when cornered and then disappears, only to turn up again somewhere else. As for checking the show of pride, what check is there on our own?

Unrestrained by the Constitution, Congress, or popular sentiment, the president and his advisers sit in closed meetings, hashing out the details of what is to be at least a decade-long commitment to "nation-building" in Afghanistan. There are to be no "town hall meetings" and no real debate in Congress over this: it’s all done in secret, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates imploring both military and political leaders to convey their concerns to the Dear Leader "in private," rather than in public speeches.

Obama will arrive at a decision that suits his own political interests right here at home. All this guff about what’s in the "national interest" is just so much window-dressing. The "national interest" and the interests of those who hold office are for all intents and purposes inseparable, of that you can be sure. Yet this doesn’t mean the policy arrived at will conform to the popular will. In foreign policy, it is almost always quite the opposite.

The reason is that popular sentiment in America when it comes to foreign affairs – notoriously "isolationist" – is nearly always inconsistent with the interventionist bias of our rulers, whose first inclination is invariably expansionist. This aggressive impulse is derived from a simple principle: all governments always seek to expand their own power and influence. This is just as true of democratic governments as it is of dictatorships, and it extends to the overseas realm as well as the home front. Which is why the contention that democracies don’t engage in aggressive wars is such nonsense, aside from being empirically indefensible. All governments are systems of organized coercion, and, as such, are inherently and incorrigibly aggressive.

In a constitutional republic, a vital check on the pride of elected officials is the dispersion of power and the need for the consent of the governed. In a decadent democracy such as ours, however, where the president is more powerful than any king in history, the show of pride – in this case, a truly overweening hubris – is the context in which Washington operates, the equivalent of the very air its denizens breathe. So ingrained is this impulse in the psychology of our rulers that not even the looming threat of national bankruptcy is a sufficient deterrent.

Against that kind of blind recklessness there is no effective defense. We can only wait for the president’s decision, like Russian peasants importuning the czar – and listen for that shattering sound as the unchecked pride of our world-conquering leaders crashes into the rocks of economic and political reality.

Read more by Justin Raimondo