Doing Foreign Policy

Libertarianism and war

by , December 09, 2011

Libertarians "don’t do foreign policy," writes Leon Hadar, a foreign policy analyst who for some years was associated with the Cato Institute, an institution whose principals like to think of it as the premier pro-liberty Washington thinktank. As evidence for his contention, Hadar cites a seminar he gave on anti-interventionism at a 1993 Libertarian Party convention, where less than ten people showed up: 

"’Don’t take it personally,’ a LP functionary was trying to cheer me up. ‘Libertarians in general are not interested in, and don’t put a damn on foreign policy,’ he said. He went on to explain that for most libertarians foreign policy and national security are confined to the goals of defending the homeland and expanding international peace through free trade. ‘I doubt that you would find anyone here who would be interested in joining the Foreign Service or working in the Pentagon or CIA,’ he added." 

Of course, since libertarians oppose the very existence of the CIA, they would hardly be inclined to work for it. As for the Pentagon, he’s probably right that working there would hardly be a dream job for most libertarians, however the idea is not completely counterintuitive or unknown: after all, a libertarian society would still need to be defended from external enemies, although the main danger to liberty is always on the home front

There is, however, another aspect to what Hadar sees as libertarian ambivalence when it comes to dealing with the Empire, and that is the schematic mindset that dominates the libertarian movement. Libertarianism as High Theory is a series of formulations that tend to be abstract: the non-aggression axiom, the economic arguments for free markets, and the very structure of libertarian thought as explicated by the Greats – Mises, Rothbard, Hayek, et al – are all based on a priori concepts, i.e. the nature of human action, which can be deduced from undeniable axiomatic concepts.  

This methodology, however, applied promiscuously, can lead to error – and, in the realm of foreign policy, to disaster. Because what is required above all in this area is empirical knowledge

This not to say that general principles don’t apply: above all, the first principle of libertarianism as it applies to the relations between states is that all efforts by governments to extend their control over new territories – i.e. all aggressive wars – must be opposed, and for the same reason libertarians oppose the extension of state power over fresh areas of the economy and society at large. 

In applying this principle, however, what is required is knowledge of specifics: e.g., in opposing the Iraq war, it was necessary to acquire knowledge about the history of Iraq, it’s relations with the West and, specifically, withthe United States. In order to project the probable deleterious consequences of the invasion, one had to know about the religious, ethnic, and economic rivalries — a petri dish in which terrorist groups would thrive and turn our efforts to promote "democracy" into an expensive and bloody failure.  

In short, foreign policy analysts of the libertarian persuasion have to know what they’re talking about: it isn’t enough to cite the non-aggression axiom, and deduce the rest. Very few people have the kind of specialized knowledge required to make these kinds of arguments – after all, how much does the average American know about, say, Iraq? – and little reason to acquire it, and this includes libertarians. 

However, as foreign policy became a more important issue – perhaps the central question at the heart of American politics – in the post-9/11 era, this knowledge gap became a real problem, especially for libertarians. Because, as Hadar points out, some alleged libertarians, especially in and around the Washington Beltway, wound up jumping on the pro-war bandwagon. Hadar explains this as a consequence of the fall of the Soviet empire and a libertarian variation on the "end of history" thesis that so enthralled neoconservatives at the time: 

"There was certainly something very inspiring in this vision—a variation on the "End of History" and the wider globalization narrative of the 1990s—in which the free flow of information, ideas, people, labor, products, and finance was going to erode the foundations of the nation-state and create a more prosperous and peaceful world. In that bright future, issues of national security and traditional diplomacy, or for that matter national sovereignty, were going to become passé. Wake up and smell the free-market cappuccino and democracy espresso. We’re all liberals now!" 

The internet, too, you’ll recall, was supposed to liberate us all from the confines of government control, a theory that didn’t work out so well for Julian Assange. Indeed, Assange’s persecution is one of many post-9/11 realities confirming Hadar’s contention "that the Political Man remained alive and well, including in these United States. Notwithstanding the end of the Cold War, fresh rationales emerged for perpetuating our warfare state—political Islam, a resurgent Russia, a rising China, climate change, humanitarian disasters." 

That these habitués of the Beltway naively discounted the persistence of Political Man, and innocently repeated the error of 19th century classical liberals who saw the progress of mankind toward liberty as inevitable and irrevocable, is hard to believe. And, indeed, Hadar does more than hint that "libertarian" support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and the "color revolutions" in the former Soviet republics – was very far from an innocent error. The anti-interventionist libertarian critique of these wars, he writes, 

"Received very little attention in the first stages of the military response to 9/11 and during the invasion of Iraq [and this] could be explained by the disproportionate influence of pro-war libertarians operating from think tanks and magazines affiliated with the movement. Brink Lindsey, for example, then with the Cato Institute, called for invading Iraq in a January 2003 Reason online debate, suggesting among other things that regime change "offers the opportunity to attack radical Islamism at its roots: the dismal prevalence of political repression and economic stagnation throughout the Muslim world" and that "the establishment of a reasonably liberal and democratic Iraq could serve as a model for positive change throughout the region." 

" …There was also a powerful political and institutional force that explains why antiwar views were marginalized on the right, even in libertarian magazines and think tanks, as long as the war in Iraq seemed to be heading towards victory. The war, after all, was orchestrated by a Republican administration that was also committed to free-market policies like cutting taxes and privatizing Social Security. And the same businesses that helped fund President Bush and other Republican politicians also provided financial backing to the leading libertarian think tanks." 

The Lindseyites had (have?) an ideological rationale for their betrayal of libertarian principle, perhaps best expressed by climate-change enthusiast and Reason magazine science correspondent Ron Bailey, who claimed in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq that the existence of liberty in the US is dependent on the establishment of libertarian societies abroad, and that if we had to use military force to do it, well then so be it. This "libertarian" version of Trotskyism had appeal to the Lindseyites, who also believe that "the age of abundance" is upon us, and that the rising level of wealth, both in the US and the world, assured the victory of market principles. That the agency of this "new stage in human history" would be the US government – and, specifically, the US military – didn’t bother the Lindseyites. They had long ago made their peace with official Washington: indeed, they had become the most ardent militarists of them all, out-warmongering even the neocons.  

Hadar, however, offers us a Washington-centric view of the foreign policy debate: in his view, libertarian anti-interventionists were "marginalized," and the self-styled libertarian "intelligentsia" so generously subsidized by the Brothers Koch are brought to center stage. However, it is these so-called "cosmopolitan" types who were marginalized by subsequent developments, as Hadar is forced to implicitly admit: 

"Against the backdrop of rising public disenchantment with the Iraq War, the media started to pay more attention to the antiwar agenda of Ron Paul and other figures on the right—including such conservatives as former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, columnist George Will, and historian Andrew Bacevich. But contrary to the wishful thinking among antiwar libertarians, the Republican Party and most of the conservative movement—including the Tea Party—remained committed to America’s strategic preeminence and role as a crusader for freedom." 

The line between "wishful thinking" and the projection of current trends into the future is pretty vague. However, with Ron Paul running in the top tier, these days, and polls showing even Republicans are weary of war and want to address problems closer to home, the reality is that it is the Beltway "cosmotarians" who are now marginalized and irrelevant. Who cares about Brink Lindsey and his tiny claque when Young Americans for Liberty(YAL) – which is militantly anti-interventionist – is on the march, with thousands of college students campaigning for Paul and writing another proud chapter in the history of the libertarian movement? It’s fascinating, to me, that the liberal web site Talking Points Memo could post a report on the sympathies of the Washington-based "libertarian intelligentsia" without even mentioning Ron Paul by name! What planet are these people living on? 

Hadar’s piece creates an dichotomy between purely "economic" issues, which libertarians are supposed to be almost exclusively concerned with, and the realm of foreign policy, which libertarians are supposedly uninterested in. Yet this division has always been somewhat arbitrary, and this is especially true in the post-9/11 era. As Garet Garrett put it, back at the dawn of the cold war, one of the signs of empire is that  

"Domestic policy becomes subordinate to foreign policy. That happened to Rome. It has happened to every Empire. The consequences of its having happened to the British Empire are tragically appearing. The fact now to be faced is that it has happened also to us. It needs hardly to be argued that as we convert the nation into a garrison state to build the most terrible war machine that has ever been imagined on earth, every domestic policy is bound to be conditioned by our foreign policy. The voice of government is saying that if our foreign policy fails we are ruined. It is all or nothing. Our survival as a free nation is at hazard. 

"That makes it simple, for in that case there is no domestic policy that may not have to be sacrificed to the necessities of foreign policy—even freedom. It is no longer a question of what we can afford to do; it is what we must do to survive." 

Garrett’s prophecy has since come to pass with a vengeance, and with it the brand of "isolationist" (i.e. pro-peace) conservatism he espoused has reappeared. As they witness the rapid erosion of basic civil liberties, not to mention thecrushing financial burden of maintaining a global empire, conservatives are increasingly crossing over into the anti-interventionist camp. 

Hadar downplays this development, and ascribes it to the fact that a liberal Democrat is in the White House — but so what? This is part of the learning process conservatives are going through, and if partisanship is a factor in their conversion then we’ll take it. An entire generation of pre-World War conservatives learned this lesson, as did the Midwestern populists who initially embraced FDR and later came to hate him as a warmongeringwould-be dictator. Republicans are ready to learn this lesson again, and the evidence is the success of the Ron Paul movement within the GOP.  

Hadar’s Washington-centric perspective causes him to misperceive what is really happening in this country. Recalling his tenure at the libertarian Cato Institute, he bemoans the fact that Republican lawmakers routinely asked Cato’s advice on domestic matters, but neglected to consult them when it came to foreign policy. Yet the idea that libertarians can be "advisors" to Establishment figures, and that a winning strategy is to whisper in the King’s ear, is based on Cato’s longstanding modus operandi of appealing to the elites, and somehow, in the end, converting them to libertarian ideas. This strategy, however, is doomed to failure for the simple reason that libertarianism, by its very nature, is opposed to the status quo, and is therefore hated by its guardians, the political Establishment. We don’t want to "advise" our rulers, we want to overthrow them – peaceably, of course.  

Hadar is too much a prisoner of Washington: he needs to get out more. The libertarian movement of today is strong, and growing – and its opposition to the Empire is at the core of its self-conception, rather than a mere afterthought. This is in large part due to Rep. Paul, who rarely passes up an opportunity to underscore the key link between opposition to Big Government and a non-interventionist foreign policy.  

Contra Hadar, libertarians do do foreign policy – and the influence they’re having on the policy debate is growing by the day.  

Read more by Justin Raimondo