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The War Over Libertarian Foreign Policy

The War Over Libertarian Foreign Policy

9 Mins
April 1, 2008

The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war on Islamic jihadism divided virtually every ideological faction in America. On the far left, Christopher Hitchens lost his post as a columnist for The Nation. The Atlantic Monthly’s Michael Kelly said of more mainstream liberalism: “September 11 cleaved the left.” Conservative author David Brooks observed: “The splits on the right have been quieter, but no less important.” And Jacob G.

Hornberger, founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation, wrote that “responses to the September 11 attacks have split the libertarian movement like no other issue I have seen since I discovered libertarianism almost twenty-five years ago.”That these divisions remain, readers of The New Individualist know only too well. In the January/February issue, Stephen Green called Congressman Ron Paul’s remarks on foreign policy “the most dangerous kind of wishful thinking.” As the letters this month and last attest, that view is controversial, to say the least.

But why do individualists differ so much—and so heatedly—when it comes to foreign policy? The more I look into it, the more complicated the issue becomes. All parties start out with something approaching a common premise: that the sole job of a government is to protect the individual rights of its citizens from domestic criminals and foreign aggressors alike. But as individualist writers employ this fundamental idea to develop concrete foreign policy principles, they begin to diverge, and, in the end, no two writers think alike. Comparing the extremes, one can hardly believe they started from the same premise.


These divisions among individualists (and/or libertarians) are typically said to involve “isolationism” or, more neutrally, “anti-interventionism” or “noninterventionism.” But what does that mean? As TNI editor Robert Bidinotto asks: Who, specifically, argues, “My foreign policy is interventionism”?

A superb attempt to define the dispute can be found in a bibliographic essay by Justus D. Doenecke: “The Anti-Interventionist Tradition” (available at the Online Library of Liberty). Having surveyed isolationist literature from the first half of the twentieth century, Doenecke (quoting Manfred Jonas) concludes that the single element linking the many different positions is: “the avoidance of political and military commitments to or alliances with foreign powers, particularly those in Europe.” Another term used to describe this policy is “the free hand,” meaning that in a crisis the United States would have a free hand to decide what action was in its best interests.

This version of “noninterventionism” is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it says absolutely nothing about the causes for which the United States ought to intervene militarily in foreign affairs. It simply rejects any pre-commitment to the defense of another country, such as the treaties that brought on World War I or the British-French guarantee to Poland that brought on World War II. Insofar as it goes, therefore, this traditional sense of “noninterventionism” is completely compatible with the war in Iraq—and even with the interventions in Somalia, Haiti, and Serbia.

Why do individualists differ so much—and so heatedly—when it comes to foreign policy?

So, when Congressman Paul says, “Mr. Republican Robert Taft didn’t even want us to be in NATO,” it may sound as though Taft held to some sweeping form of isolationism. But in fact, his anti-NATO stance was highly specific to the provision that “an attack on one is an attack on all.” In A Foreign Policy for Americans (1951), Taft’s only book on the subject, he actually went beyond President Truman’s containment strategy and advocated a more aggressive approach to the Cold War—a proto-Reagan Doctrine, then known as “the forward strategy,” that would have had the United States conduct “an underground war of infiltration in Iron Curtain countries.”

The second point to notice about this core meaning of “American isolationism” is that it is not obvious how the policy is supposed to link up with the principle that a government’s sole job is to defend its citizens’ rights. One might argue that giving the United States a free hand to decide when to go to war is the best strategy by which to defend American citizens, but how does that follow from individualist principles? Might not a small, free country embedded in Europe, such as Estonia, decide that a mutual defense pact with neighboring free countries was the most prudent means of deterring a large unfree neighbor from initiating an invasion?


A second, closely related foreign policy is “strategic independence,” put forward by Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for foreign policy and defense studies at the Cato Institute. By itself, the term “strategic independence” might suggest a policy identical to traditional isolationism: no prior commitments. But Carpenter adds additional content. He says, “Strategic independence . . . specifically embraces economic, cultural, and diplomatic engagement with the rest of the world. It is only in the arena of security policy that it mandates a cautious approach, reserving the use of military force solely for the defense of vital American security interests.”

Thus, the limits set by this second type of “anti-interventionist” policy are somewhat narrower—they would clearly rule out the adventures in Somalia and Haiti—but they are still sufficiently vague to allow for huge disagreements. What, we want to know, is and is not allowed by the standard of “using military force solely for the defense of vital American security interests”? Surely, one would think, it must include depriving an Islamist, terror-sponsoring country like Iran of the ability to make nuclear weapons. But according to Carpenter, it does not. In his 2002 book Peace & Freedom: Foreign Policy for a Constitutional Republic, Carpenter rejects what he calls “the Osirak option.”

Well, then what would his standard allow, beyond fighting off an invasion of U.S. territory? Would it permit any other kind of military action at all? Oddly enough, Carpenter has actually recommended invading Pakistan in pursuit of al Qaeda, even if that action is opposed by Pakistan’s government. Now, I yield to no one in thinking that the destruction of al Qaeda is a vital American security interest. But invade Pakistan? The possibility of provoking anti-American Islamists into overthrowing a nuclear-armed government sounds like that “blowback” we hear so much about, and blowback carried to the nth degree. Clearly, when it comes to Carpenter’s version of “anti-interventionism,” the devil is again in the details. In principle, it appears, he is open to a wide range of military interventions.


Neither of the two “anti-interventionist” attitudes described above would likely produce heated arguments among individualists. Fifteen years ago, I wrote a series of articles on foreign policy for a predecessor of The New Individualist (The IOS Journal), and my policy recommendations coincided closely with those one would expect from advocates of “the free hand” and “strategic independence.” Specifically, I urged that NATO be dissolved and that future bilateral and multilateral understandings should “lack the solemn and automatic commitment to joint defense that characterizes an alliance.” I also opposed the adventures in Somalia, Haiti, and (more reluctantly) Bosnia.

Why, then, do I so often find myself disagreeing profoundly with other individualists when it comes to international issues? The answer, I think, lies in a third variety of libertarian foreign-policy analysis. The most extreme version of this view is associated with Murray Rothbard, but elements of it pop up among more moderate libertarians and its sentiments seem to circulate more widely still. In his book For a New Liberty, Rothbard wrote:

In foreign affairs, the goal is the same: to keep government from interfering in the affairs of other governments or other countries. Political “isolationism” and peace­ful coexistence—refraining from acting upon other countries—is, then, the libertarian counterpart to agitating for laissez-faire policies at home. The idea is to shackle government from acting abroad just as we try to shackle government at home. Isolationism or peaceful coexistence is the foreign policy counterpart of severely limiting government at home.

I will say this for Rothbard’s view: It does try to derive foreign policy from libertarian philosophy—something that theorists of the “free hand” and “strategic independence” approach do not attempt. And that, I think, is why the “nonaggression” approach has influence far beyond those who explicitly endorse it. Many libertarians are attracted to the logic of a pure “nonaggression” policy but feel the need to add an exception for “vital interests.” The exception is prudent, no doubt, but it rankles. It has an ad hoc and unjustified feel to it, and the temptation consequently is to sharply delimit its application.

In any case, the core of Rothbard’s argument is obviously the analogy between a nation’s citizens and foreign countries. That argument says: Just as force may used within a country only to deter and punish coercion—a principle sometimes called “the nonaggression axiom”—so it is also true that no country may morally initiate force against another country, but may use force only to deter and punish another country’s initiation of force. Isolationism is therefore analogous to laissez-faire. (Rothbard himself went much further, saying that a country could retaliate only against the specific foreign citizens who committed aggression, thus effectively precluding any possibility of war.)

This “nonaggression” approach to foreign policy came up, amusingly, in a joint interview that Milton and Rose Friedman had with the Wall Street Journal editorial page (July 22, 2006). “Mr. Friedman here shifted focus. ‘What’s really killed the Republican Party isn’t spending, it’s Iraq. As it happens, I was opposed to going into Iraq from the beginning. I think it was a mistake, for the simple reason that I do not believe the United States of America ought to be involved in aggression.’ Mrs. Friedman—listening to her husband with an ear cocked—was now muttering darkly. Milton: ‘Huh? What?’ Rose: ‘This was not aggression!’ Milton: (exasperatedly): ‘It was aggression. Of course it was!’ Rose: ‘You count it as aggression if it’s against the people, not against the monster who’s ruling them.’”

As it happens, I think both Friedmans were wrong, but Milton Friedman was evidently employing something like the Rothbard analogy—an illustration of just how widespread that view has become. The exact fallacy involved in the isolationism/laissez-faire analogy is too large a topic for the present column, involving as it does an explication of the nature and origin of individual rights. Besides, the only important point here is that many libertarians do as a matter of fact evaluate U.S. foreign policy by means of some such “nonaggression” touchstone. And the first result of employing the “nonaggression” test is that one immediately realizes it is very far from the foreign policy the United States has actually adopted. So, the next step is to ask: If a “nonaggression” policy is the one that a free country would pursue, what has motivated America’s government to act so differently?

It is, I believe, the attempt to answer this question that stirs up such deep antipathies among individualists when they discuss foreign policy.

The “free hand” analysts have excellent arguments against “entangling” alliances such as NATO—no problem. The “strategic independence” analysts will argue on a factual basis that the freedom of Taiwan or South Korea is not a vital national interest to America—fine. But individualists who are more or less committed to the “nonaggression” test must make a much broader sort of argument. They must explain a whole history of U.S. foreign policy that is, in their eyes, one long series of evil, criminal acts.

And the explanation many have found—sophisticated and ready-to-hand—is the one offered by the extreme left: America is an imperialist state controlled by big corporations, and it intervenes abroad on their behalf to secure natural resources and favored trade status. That many libertarians have adopted this analysis from the far left, and are not troubled by its source, can be seen in their approving remarks regarding Noam Chomsky, Gabriel Kolko, Richard Barnet, Gore Vidal, and others of that outlook. Naturally, those of us who look upon America as the last, best hope of mankind—and business as America’s most benign institution—are deeply alienated when people we had considered to be individualist allies form an intellectual alliance with the most fervent anti-American anti-capitalists.


For what it is worth, my own vision of an appropriately individualist foreign policy was given a quick sketch by Ron Bailey in the August/September 2003 issue of Reason magazine, where he said the following:

First, it is clearly in the interests of the United States to foster the creation of a world populated by commercial republics. One of the keys to achieving this goal is vigorously promoting free trade abroad. The prosperity engendered by free trade soothes resentments and fosters the spread of the ideals of liberty. Second, citizens from countries living under tyrannical regimes should be encouraged to spend some time in the United States so that they can experience the operation of our free institutions directly. Third, and most crucially, the U.S. government should revive the Reagan Doctrine. That is, our government should support, train, and finance insurgent movements aimed at overthrowing tyrannical regimes. And the U.S. should provide not just military training but also training in the advantages and operations of the institutions of constitutional liberalism: the rule of law, protection of minority rights, freedom of religion, private property, free markets, a free press, civilian control of the military, an independent judiciary.

This comes close to the approach I urged in my 1993 essay “Rethinking Foreign Policy.” Still, one must respond to the criticism of Bailey’s view made in that same issue of Reason by Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute: “This is global libertarian utopianism. By this logic, freedom-loving people will use government action to mold a perfect, free world. But if libertarians are opposed to government action to make a perfect domestic world, why discard those principles beyond the water’s edge?”

Preble here echoes Rothbard’s comparison of isolationism and laissez-faire, and the very short answer is, again: bad analogy. A government that acts as Bailey suggests is not like a government trying to run an economy or civil society. It is like a government that is trying to bring law and order to an anarchic territory. It is like a group of civilized people surrounded by tribes of lawless savages. The first order of business is for the civilized people to defend themselves, certainly. But not wanting to live forever in an armed camp, their long-range goal would be to use persuasion and force to bring their neighbors into a condition of peace and freedom.

How that analogy should be transposed to foreign affairs must be the subject of future columns.

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