Looking at the ‘Big Picture’

Libertarian realism: a theory of foreign relations

by , November 11, 2011

Our day-to-day concerns here at Antiwar.com, and the anti-interventionist movement more broadly, are mainly centered on debunking and exposing the War Party’s machinations, as they occur, whatever they might be. It is, in short, a job for journalists. There are, however, other tasks which, while less immediately pressing, are in the long run more important. One involves developing the realm of theory, i.e. an overview of international relations that gives us the tools to analyze not only what is happening but why it is happening. In short, we need to develop a "big picture" analysis of American foreign policy in order to understand how and why we became a global empire.

According to my theory of the policymaking process, which might be called "libertarian realism," how decision-makers react to events beyond our borders is decisively shaped by domestic political considerations. It is, in short, a subjectivist view, one that attributes external actions – wars, trade relations, and a nation’s posturing on the world stage – to an internal dynamic. This is directly opposed to the prevailing objectivist view, which identifies certain objective "forces" as determinative factors in the making of human history – a view that, in the end, turns into a kind of mysticism.

The old-fashioned Marxists believed in the iron laws of History, which predetermined human destiny – a worldview steeped in Christian eschatology, in spite of the official atheism of communist ideologues, as Murray N. Rothbard pointed out at length. The communist theory of foreign relations followed from the Marxist axiom that the world proletariat, embodying the spirit of History, was destined to rule the earth.

This allowed the Kremlin to pursue a relatively passive foreign policy after World War II. Handed Eastern Europe by the victorious Allies at Tehran and Yalta, the ruling Stalinist elite could rid themselves of their Trotskyist rivals – who called for exporting the Revolution abroad – and sit back and wait for the World Revolution to take its supposedly inevitable course. This policy ended up ditching "internationalism" in favor of reversion to the historically cautious foreign policy of the Czars, under the guise of building "socialism in one country."

Fascist and National Socialist intellectuals conjured visions of the State as a semi-mystical body and invoked mythic themes of "national destiny" to justify their expansionist program. Taking the opposite tack from their Marxist competitors, the right-wing collectivists evoked a mythical past, rather than an improbable future, which they promised to restore. Mussolini thought he could recreate the old Roman Empire by invading Abyssinia, Albania, and Libya: Hitler and his followers saw the Fuehrer as the modern day incarnation of Charlemagne.

Both right and left-wing narratives, although different in important ways, were united in their disdain for methodological individualism: human behavior, in their view, could only be understood as one would explain the movements of a school of fish.

These European ideologies, alien to America, never took root across the Atlantic, although they had their sympathizers. Here a different form of State-worship arose, one that was based in the religious revival that swept nineteenth century America: a post-millenial pietist version of Christianity which sought a "heaven on earth," and, in its secularized form, took on the ideological coloration of "progressivism." Domestically, this led to the rise of the welfare state and the growth of government power in every aspect of American life: in foreign affairs, it meant the world-saving messianism of Wilsonian internationalism, in which America’s mystic destiny was to "make the world safe for democracy." That this was just window-dressing for the corporate and political interests that directly benefited from World War I is an argument that both the Marxists and the libertarians would make.

Earlier on, Teddy Roosevelt’s brand of interventionism roughly approximated one of Walter Russell Mead’s useful categories: the "Hamiltonians," whose version of the "national interest" is identical with certain corporate interests. It was Teddy, the "trust-busting" progressive and Morgan tool, who set us on the road to empire in Cuba and the Philippines: his bombastic nationalism gloried in war and the sacrifice of the individual to the State. In response to pressure from domestic corporate lobbyists and the nascent military-industrial complex, formerly "isolationist" America made its entry onto the world stage as a frankly imperial power.

More recently, the neoconservatives have merged Teddy’s bombast and Wilson’s hubris to create a monstrous hybrid that combines all the worst impulses in American intellectual life: in foreign affairs, this amounts to a messianic militarism that openly proclaims "global hegemony" as the proper goal of American foreign policy. I would argue that this reflects the origins of neoconservatism on the far left and its evolution into a kind of Trotskyism turned inside out, with George W. Bush’s wars fought in the name of a "global democratic revolution" displacing, in their hearts, the old Leninist dream of an international communist revolution.

In reaction to this trend we have seen the rise of the "realists," who chafe at the neocons’ grandiose pretensions and instead assert that the US ought to pursue a more modest policy, based on a narrow interpretation of the "national interest." It’s an admirable effort, but it carries within itself a fatal flaw.

The idea that nations have some sort of collective "national interest," or even a "manifest destiny," is not realistic in any coherent sense. There is no "national interest," because only individuals have real interests: the "national interest" is a floating abstraction, a ghost. American foreign policy is made by people: specific individuals who act in what they regard as their own interests. These individuals – our rulers – may differ greatly in terms of ideology, and personality, and yet they all have one motive in common, and that is the continuation and extension of their own power.

In analyzing the ebb and flow of America’s relations with the world, libertarian realists take this guiding principle as their starting point – yet it is only the beginning of our analytical efforts. What must follow is an empirical examination of the relevant facts and relationships, and, most of all, a focus on individuals and their interests – the key decision-makers whose beliefs, ambitions, delusions, and idiosyncrasies can set us on a course for good or evil.

What good is all this theory, anyhow? What do we need it for? We need it to understand the world – and to predict the future. Of course, no one has a crystal ball, or any mystical power to unlock the secrets of the future. Yet, given some basic axioms – the main one being that politicians are solely concerned with keeping and expanding their own power – we can establish the parameters of the probable, and – in a necessarily limited sense – chart the course of things to come.

Keeping all this in mind, one can say with some confidence that the political stars are perfectly aligned for war in the Middle East – specifically against Iran. Although no one can know for certain when the first blow will be struck, the coinciding interests of our political elites in both parties, and the strenuous efforts of certain foreign lobbyists and their American fifth column, are rapidly propelling us into a conflict of global dimensions.

As disastrous and destructive as such a war would be for ordinary citizens, such a course would benefit the ruling elite in this country in innumerable ways. The "unity" our political leaders and their court intellectuals find so sadly lacking in their subjects would return with the first bombing raids, as both parties join hands and march down the road to war. What an inspiring sight it will be, as the wartime "emergency" breaks Washington’s infamous "gridlock" and brings about a sudden Grand Compromise consisting of higher taxes and draconian cuts in "social services" – with no concomitant cuts in the military, naturally.

The very great danger this poses cannot be overemphasized. What the markets are telling us is that the oil shock following the outbreak of hostilities could spark a worldwide economic implosion – especially if it occurs in conjunction with the collapse of the Eurozone and a subsequent wave of "too big to fail" corporate casualties extending to our side of the Atlantic. Yet if one believes this economic apocalypse would have come in any event, then even if war would bring it on sooner it would also give our rulers a new weapon, a new means to not only hang on to power but also to greatly expand it.

The idea that the world economy is being deliberately sabotaged invites the question: by whom? One could easily draw up a long list of individuals, as well as political and corporate entities, who would benefit greatly from such a catastrophe. In my own shorthand, I refer to the "War Party," but in establishing this broad category we are only at the beginning of our task of determining who are the warmongers among us.

Our task here at Antiwar.com is two-fold: to show how we are being lied into war, and by whom. Only by studying – and exposing – the techniques, components, and motives of the War Party can we hope to halt the rush to World War III. That’s why Antiwar.com is so important: it is a vital part of an educational campaign to effectively debunk the increasingly hysterical war propaganda emanating from the "mainstream" media – and unmask the war-makers.

While this is really a subject for another column, by way of warning I have to say it isn’t just the same old neoconservative gang of intellectual hoodlums and dubious "scholars" who are trying to pull this one off. As the war cries get louder, you’ll see the "liberal" hawks take wing once again, flying in perfect formation with their neoconservative cousins, the whole flock cawing and shrieking like vultures over a battlefield.

Read more by Justin Raimondo