In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Libertarian Foreign Policy

The canonical foreign policy position of libertarianism is non-interventionism; that has not always been the case. For example, the Cato Institute’s slogan is ‘Individual Liberty, Free Markets and Peace’. Libertarians adhere to the non-aggression principle, validating only defensive responses. Fracture between libertarians and conservatives in the US came over the Vietnam War. The draft – the state’s claim on the bodies of its young citizens – gave powerful reasons to revolt against an unstable alliance.

Joseph Sobran said:

War has all the characteristics of socialism most conservatives hate: Centralised power, state planning, false rationalism, restricted liberties, foolish optimism about intended results, and blindness to unintended secondary results.

War, even wars in self-defence, has the effect of ratcheting state powers. Most clearly, the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed both World Wars established new floors on state spending. Powers, given in the fog of conflict, are rarely returned. Certainly, war proposals should be treated with scepticism.

World War I and II both placed new floors under state spending. (Photo: IFS)

World War I and II both placed new floors under state spending. (Photo: IFS)

A common response to the advocacy of non-interventionism is conflation with isolationism. Isolationism comprises of military abstinence and economic protectionism, including tariffs, subsidies, trade embargos and immigration restrictions. Libertarian foreign policy is actually quite active, at least in promoting trade.

Barbary Wars and Blowback

The historical citation of non-interventionism is Thomas Jefferson, who said: “Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none”. This is a fine ideal, but is often interpreted as applying only to a country’s mainland. This ignores Jefferson’s actual record: the Barbary Wars. Barbary corsairs and crews scourged the Mediterranean, capturing merchant ships and demanding exorbitant ransoms. The Barbary States – Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and the Sultanese of Morocco – sought tribute to allow safe passage. When these tributes reached one-sixth of the entire US budget, Jefferson created the United States Department of the Navy to fight attacks on American ships. Unlike the Armed Forces, the US Navy does not require Congressional permission for its continued existence.

The Barbary Wars were launched against state sponsors of piracy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Barbary Wars were launched against state sponsors of piracy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

An idea popularised by former Congressman and famed libertarian Ron Paul is that interventionism leads to ‘blowback’. The intuition is that being ‘hit’ by a nation will lead to hatred and terrorism against that nation. When applied to modern terrorism, this argument becomes inherently flawed. Most violent deaths in these countries are caused by terrorist groups themselves. The King’s College London found only 12% of Iraqi civilian deaths between 2003 and 2008 are attributable to coalition forces. According to the ‘blowback’ theory, civilians in one country, enraged by the terror of Anglo-American imperialism, then support the deaths of civilians elsewhere. This theory also suggests that sadistic mass murderers, by indiscriminate explosions, are channelling a lukewarm cause of international justice. Also, the 2005 Pew Global Attitudes survey found that “support for terrorism has generally declined since 2002 in the six predominately Muslim countries included in the study”.

Few states are genuinely non-interventionist, as most nations are signatories to the Genocide Convention, which mandates military action in response to the commission and threat of genocide. A hyperactive foreign policy may be disastrous, bloody and expensive; absolute non-interventionism is certainly a flawed policy.

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This entry was posted on September 14, 2013 by in National Politics and tagged , .
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