Libertarians are often accused of being utopians. Well, Reason Magazine devoted its January 2015 issue to realism – in this case, realism regarding foreign policy and non-intervention. “In Search of Libertarian Realism: How should anti-interventionism apply in the real world?” Contributors include Sheldon Richman, Christopher Preble, William Ruger and Fernando Tesón.
I will frame my review as a minarchist, although regular readers know that I believe such a position to be not only contradictory to libertarian theory (after all, non-aggression means non-aggression), but not realistic or reasonable in a world populated with human beings.
The Case for Realism and Restraint, Will Ruger
Right off the bat, you will see why I must approach this as a minarchist (else there would be little point):
The U.S. should adopt a foreign policy that is both consistent with a free society and aimed at securing America's interests in the world-in other words, libertarian realism.
So, I will stick to the minarchist fallacy that only a government monopoly can provide such services.
The primary goal of the state should be to protect the territorial integrity of the United States and the property rights—broadly understood, including throughout the global commons—of the people residing within it.
Why “broadly understood”? Such open doors are sufficient for interventionists to cause all manner of havoc.
Why “throughout the global commons”? I assume this means the oceans and the airspace above same. Why not outer space as well? Can you envision a government powerful enough to effectively patrol and secure three-quarters of the world’s surface area, the skies above this same area, and the entire universe beyond the atmosphere of earth?
Can you envision such a government in any way consistent with a free society? The US government cannot effectively exercise this control today, yet look at the size and reach of the current leviathan.
Why “throughout the global commons”? Why should a US resident expect protection via the US government in the “global commons”?
…a libertarian realist foreign policy will have positive benefits for Americans and people of other countries beyond achieving these fairly limited ends.
Of what business is it to the US government to concern itself with benefitting citizens of other countries?
In the military realm, the watchword of U.S. policy should be restraint. The restraint approach harkens back to the traditional American thinking about defense that dominated from George Washington's Farewell Address to the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898.
With the ability to effectively secure the peace on and over the world’s oceans, as well as throughout space, can restraint be envisioned, realistically? Who are the generals and CIA directors that will command this restrained omnipotent power? Jesus and the Twelve?
Defense and deterrence will be the primary methods of meeting U.S. security needs. However, this is not the absolute noninterventionism or the functional pacifism often advocated by left-liberals and libertarians.
Get ready for wise and considered pragmatism, as opposed to anything unrealistic, like principle:
Aggressive military action should be on the table where and when warranted, such as what might have been necessary had the French, in the early 1800s, been unwilling to sell New Orleans and threatened to forcibly close off our trade down the Mississippi.
Get this? A libertarian that doesn’t believe in property rights. What is “libertarian” if not being for property rights?
Restraint, rooted in realism, requires the maintenance of a very strong—but smaller and more focused—military, with the Navy and the Air Force having the most important roles and the Army sustaining the deepest cuts.
The “global commons” cannot be protected via a smaller and more focused Navy and Air Force. These branches cannot protect the “global commons” today. How can these branches of the military be made smaller and still succeed at this surrealistic defense policy?
Restraint also requires a capable intelligence community, though one focused abroad and respectful of American civil liberties at home.
On what planet? I cannot think of one instance where a country that developed significant surveillance capabilities did not turn these against their own citizens. OK, there might be one – but I can put up ten for every one that anyone might discover.
The U.S. is exceptionally safe today…The country has an extremely favorable geographic position, with two huge "moats" separating us from strong or threatening powers.
A minarchist might build a good case with this as the starting point, if he didn’t include the global commons in the discussion. Why not build on this reality? Instead, Ruger introduces the justification, chanted as a mantra, for every intervention in the last decade:
Appropriately, then, restraint does not a priori rule out the use of military force against terrorist groups and their state supporters when necessary. Afghanistan in 2001 was one such case where war was justified even within a restraint framework, since the regime in Kabul provided a safe-haven for the notorious terrorist group which carried out the deadly attacks of 9/11.
911…911…911…911. The justification for every violation. We now come to the author’s criteria for restraint: the US government should only act aggressively when it has absolutely no evidence to support its justification; for example, 911.
Americans should not have to spend their own blood and treasure policing the globe, even assuming that we could do so successfully (which recent history has demonstrated otherwise).
Somehow a military and intelligence capability powerful enough to secure the property rights of Americans in the “global commons” will also restrain itself from any other mission.
That is surreal.
Libertarianism Means Noninterventionism, Sheldon Richman
A noninterventionist foreign policy is the natural complement to a noninterventionist domestic policy.
The upshot is that even if a well-intended, risk-free interventionist foreign policy could be conceived in the abstract (leaving aside the problem of taxation), its chances of being carried out correctly by any real-world government are virtually nonexistent.
I could stop here (but I won’t), as I agree with Richman’s post; Richman is a realist on this subject.
He appropriately notes, for example, that a government powerful enough to reach globally will not limit itself domestically:
U.S. government policies and technologies developed to efficiently carry out the occupation of foreign societies eventually "boomerang" on Americans at home…
Richman also notes that aggression is justified only against those who have aggressed:
On the foreign side, wars and occupations immorally threaten noncombatants...
Enough said about Richman. Bravo!
Don't Underestimate the Costs of Inaction, Fernando R. Tesón
Current events in Syria and Iraq have rekindled talk about humanitarian intervention. The amply documented atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State (ISIS) range from public beheading to rape, forced conversion, and expulsion. The United States and a few other countries are already attacking ISIS from the sky and giving some aid to resistors on the ground. But these bombings will not be sufficient to stop ISIS' crimes. By all appearances, only a full invasion with ground troops could get the job done. And Americans are weary of invasions.
I am already done with Tesón after his opening paragraph. Was it intervention or non-intervention that birthed ISIS?
In any case, the rest of his essay poses questions for which no one can know the answers – even assuming the analysis was done by and decisions were made by men of goodwill. Even Tesón admits the questions are often unanswerable, yet concludes that this should not preclude intervention.
So why bother asking the questions in the first place? Why does he bother suggesting these questions should be asked if he also believes they are unanswerable? What value has Tesón even added to the dialogue? In other words, Tesón advocates pretty much a continuation of the status quo. Thank you, John McCain.
Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy, Christopher Preble
Preble delivers a pretty good, minarchist evaluation of war and foreign policy. As I stated up front, I approach this analysis from the minarchist viewpoint despite my anarchist-libertarian views. So I have not much to say regarding Preble’s comments.
From “For a New Liberty,” by Murray Rothbard:
The true utopian is one who advocates a system that is contrary to the natural law of human beings and of the real world. A utopian system is one that could not work even if everyone were persuaded to try to put it into practice. The utopian system could not work, i.e., could not sustain itself in operation.
Realism requires accepting the world as it is, not as one wishes it to be. Realism requires accepting political and military leaders as they are; there is no realism in ascribing to these leaders the characteristic of “what would Jesus do.” Realism requires understanding and accepting that those who reach the highest levels of government do not make decisions in the same way market participants do.
The only realistic conclusion to draw from this – even for a minarchist – is non-intervention.