Forcing Freedom

Can liberalism be spread at gunpoint?

Earlier this year, Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey published a short, provocative column at reason online that sketched the outlines of what he considered a properly libertarian foreign policy. Based on the large and heated response -- pro and con -- to Bailey's ideas, reason asked him to expand on his original piece. We also asked three prominent writers on foreign policy to respond. What follows is that exchange, with a final reply by Bailey.

Should Libertarianism Stop at the Water's Edge?

Ronald Bailey

Libertarian philosophy amply justifies the limited role that government should play in the lives of the citizens of a free society. But what is the proper role for the government of a free society in managing relations between and among nation-states, some of which are definitely not free societies? In opening such a discussion, it's important to keep several points in mind.

First, the spread of liberal, free market democracy in the 20th century has been accomplished largely by force of arms -- largely, in fact, by force of American arms. Would the same fat, happy, complacent Europe that opposed U.S. intervention in Iraq now exist had not the United States helped to liberate that continent in World War II?

Germany and Japan are free societies today because free institutions were imposed on them by the victorious Allies. Additionally, would the Iron Curtain have lifted from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics without a 50-year policy of containment and, later, a strategy of confrontation known as the Reagan Doctrine? Reagan's active support of insurgent movements in Central America, Africa, and Central Asia was aimed at overthrowing Soviet client states and sapping Soviet resources. The policy worked, even as it created regrettable side effects, such as rogue rebels in Angola and a cadre of rootless mujahedin in Afghanistan. But it worked -- the Soviet empire is no more.

Second, a world that is half free is dangerous to liberty at home and abroad. In a half-free world, free societies must protect themselves from the ambitions of tyrants motivated by ideology (Hitler and Stalin) or greed (Saddam Hussein). In the face of tyrants and terrorists of the Al Qaeda variety, politicians in free societies persuade anxious voters that we need tighter borders, increased spying on visitors and citizens, and detentions based on the slimmest of national security pretexts.

The result is a growing national security apparatus, including a bigger military, a new Department of Homeland Security, and expanded domestic and international spy agencies. All of these diminish domestic liberty and soak up more and more of our citizens' wealth. These expanded state powers have even tempted some conservatives to agitate for the establishment of an American empire. In the past our government justified supporting unsavory regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Zaire as necessary allies in our nation's struggle against even more menacing tyrants and terrorist organizations. Not surprisingly, to people yearning to be free of their tyrants, our support of their oppressors looked like hypocrisy and thus often encouraged them to adopt anti-liberal ideologies as guides for their struggles against oppression.

Third, libertarians certainly believe in self-defense. Most Americans support going after Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda for the 9/11 atrocities. But what about pre-emption, the most controversial element of George W. Bush's foreign policy? A person doesn't have to wait until someone hits her or shoots her before she can defend herself. Similarly, free societies certainly have the right to defend themselves against imminent attack.

Of course, the definition of imminent is crucial, and it's worth considering it in terms of Saddam Hussein's murderous regime in Iraq. Regardless of whether weapons of mass destruction -- the primary motive for the U.S. invasion -- ever turn up, even supporters of the war such as myself always understood that Saddam had no intention of directly attacking the United States in the near future. But it's reasonable to assume that, had he been left to run his country in peace, Saddam or his Ba'athist successors would have, like Libya and Sudan, ended up supporting groups that eventually would have struck at the United States. That is the main point: The existence of unfree regimes necessarily threatens the peace of free societies. And what if Saddam, who initiated wars with Iran and Kuwait, had been able to obtain nuclear weapons? If he had then gone to war against his neighbors, what country would have risked nuclear holocaust to rein him in?

In order to better guard domestic liberties over the long run, a libertarian foreign policy should be aimed at building a free world sooner rather than later. The ultimate aim of such a policy would be to guarantee liberties at home by removing the justifications for an intrusive national security apparatus. What's necessary for that to happen?

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.

There is no guarantee that U.S.-backed insurgents will establish free societies when they come to power. But if it is understood that, should they fail to do so, the United States would turn around and back another group of liberal insurgents, that would encourage U.S.-supported groups not to stray from the liberal path.

Think for a moment what it would mean if the world were not barely half free. What if every nation in the world were a prosperous commercial republic? What would international relations look like? They would look a lot like what is happening within Europe today -- growing peaceful integration of economies, increasingly open borders, and shrinking military forces. By aggressively expanding the scope of free institutions worldwide, we ultimately guarantee our own liberties at home.

Ronald Bailey , Reason's science correspondent, is a former producer for the PBS foreign affairs series American Interests.

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