Non-Intervention: A Libertarian Approach to Defense

We must realize the world is no longer in our control and adapt accordingly.


The 1976 contest between the two major parties took some strange turns, but it was normal in its indulgence in hypocrisy—the gap between the inevitable promises and the predictable performance. But the really important hypocrisy in political behavior—especially in the conduct of foreign policy—is the suppression of costs and the entertainment of contradictions.


As for costs, many of us care about what our government does with our money. Many would prefer that we stop defending other countries, for themselves, and put the resources that might be saved back in the pockets of the people from whom they were taken. This sensible notion is often called simplistic and naive, especially by the captive professors of foreign policy, the average area specialists, and the executives and lawyers and investment bankers of American-based foreign-oriented multinational firms—the reservoirs that provide a disproportionate share of governmental foreign policy advisors. These people gather in their habitual circles and ruminate on the "necessity" of maintaining our expensive alliances with 50 or so countries around the globe, never reckoning or mentioning what it might cost.

Take Korea, for example. One of those tedious foreign policy discussions—by a professor, a Korea specialist—was recently presented to one of those organizations that constitute the foreign policy community. As one might expect, the chances of ever ransoming our troops and weapons from the Korean peninsula, 30 years after their introduction there, were rated as dim. The option of disengagement was mentioned—just long enough to invite something between condemnation and ridicule. Needless to say, there was no mention of the costs of this virtually permanent deployment. And if the professor were invited to estimate the costs, he would undoubtedly understate them by a factor of ten. Well, the full cost of our Korean commitment, including the "tail" of forces that stretches back across the Pacific and the continental United States and including all the overhead, is (in current dollars) $5 billion a year.

When are we going to have foreign policy "makers" and advisors who can calculate costs and trade-offs and make elemental investment decisions? And when are we going to have institutions that allow these decisions to be put to the people: Would you rather pay $100 every year per average family to defend South Korea, or would you rather take the money and buy something you want—assuming the government doesn't contrive to take it back in some other way?


The other hypocrisy is the entertainment of contradiction. The platforms of both major parties are rife with it. One party—the Republican—says that we can suppress inflation and yet increase defense budgets by 10 to 15 billion dollars each year. The other party says that we can have global influence, and even a new license to become the world's moral policeman, and yet save defense dollars.

During the campaign season and the primary season that preceded it, all sorts of "advisory groups" constituted themselves to influence candidates on foreign policy. The real function of these groups was to re-create the "consensus" of foreign policy elites after the supposed schism of Vietnam. But this revived consensus is built on the spanning of contradictions. It is nothing but a laundry list of predilections, an amalgamation of foreign policy "goals"—nice things that they would like to see happen—that in most cases contradict one another.

Here is an example of the goals of one such advisory group (a New York Times editorial called them "reassuring"):

"Vigorous pursuit of detente"…but "without making any inequitable concessions to the Soviets."

"Establishment of diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China"…but "without abandoning Taiwan."

"U.S. support for defending human rights more vigorously…advocating our own democratic values against competing ideological systems"…but "without being preacher or policeman."

After enumerating these pairs of contradictions, the report exults in the fact that "there is such widespread agreement on principles." But, with a slight twinge of apprehension, it notes that many of the authors of the document "perceive unusual disarray in our foreign policy." It ascribes this "apparent confusion" to the complexity of the issues, the parochialism of foreign policy professionals, and a certain disagreement on the implementation of the principles. It spares us from the thought that "principles" that embody essential contradictions cannot be implemented at all; as soon as they are challenged by events, they are bound to produce "disarray." But the report concludes, happily, that "the most basic foreign policy task of any future administration must be the 'successful management of contradictions' in a manner that elicits public support"—itself a double contradiction, as well as a statement that is breathtaking in its optimism and audacity.

The largest contradiction of all is between our global pretensions and our constitutional system. How to resolve this constitutional problem will not be found in public opinion surveys (Q: "Do you think we should abandon our responsible role in the world and revert to an isolationist, Fortress America posture?" A: "Heavens, no!") Nor will it be found in the wishful thinking of those elites who are not under the stress of real choices. The answer will lie in the logic of national decision—how the real choices of the people filter through our political system.

People do not articulate their real positions verbally, in advance. It may well be that on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays they think about the "threats" and responses; and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays they count the costs—taxes, conscription, and infringements on civil liberties. But these things do come together, inexorably, in our complex political process.

The trouble is not—as the foreign policy elites are fond of saying—that the people are ignorant and without views. The people do have implicit stands. Most important, they have a sense of limits, in every significant area of foreign and military policy. The trouble is, first, that they don't know, in advance, what things cost—for example, what it really costs to defend Europe, Asia, and other areas of the world. Second, they don't know the wiring diagram—how commitments, contingencies, bases, forces, weapons systems, and costs are related. Third, and perhaps most important, they don't have a sense of their political competence, particularly in the foreign policy area. Much of the blame for this falls directly on the elites, who believe in the autonomy of foreign policy—that it does not, and should not, have anything to do with domestic affairs, and particularly with the expressions of ordinary citizens. What they really mean by a "nonpartisan" or "bipartisan" foreign policy is: don't disturb our monopoly on the discussion, let alone the practice, of international relations.


The people, if they were allowed to "know" their own views, might turn out to favor a noninterventionist foreign policy, in the sense that they would be unwilling to pay the costs and take the risks of the present interventionist foreign policy. Comparing the costs and benefits of intervention (and of maintaining the capability to execute it) with other objectives, including domestic, does not require experts. It is a political judgment. The American people, and their representatives in Congress, should be encouraged to develop some confidence in making this judgment.

What would a noninterventionist foreign policy be like? What would be its elements, its logic, its implications for domestic affairs such as the Federal budget, the character of our political system, and the integrity of our individual liberties?

There is a certain irreducible basis for our foreign and national security policy: the avoidance of direct conflict between the United States and any antagonist that has a strategic nuclear force sufficient to destroy directly a significant part of our homeland. (At present, there is such an antagonist, and only one—the Soviet Union.) That is our fundamental, "vital" security interest—the source of any others.

There is a derived proposition, which bears on the question of limited conventional war: we should not edge near the substantial possibility of nuclear confrontation. Some think that this implies an extended forward defense, all over the globe. But I would maintain that the avoidance of nuclear war is better served by avoiding lower-level, regional conflicts, since escalation to nuclear war is more likely from regional conflict than from a situation of disengagement. The trouble, for the formulation of national security policy, starts at this point. For most members of the foreign policy "consensus" believe that a wide range of American values are implicated in possible regional challenges.

Here we get down to a point that is deeply embedded in the notion of foreign policy. What is the purpose of foreign policy in the first place? Why have a foreign policy at all? This is an impolite, even outrageous, question to the practitioners of this art. But it is a legitimate and necessary question if we are to align our national goals and our national efforts. I would say that the function of foreign policy is to preserve a core of essential American values that most people would agree are to be preserved, almost unconditionally, as part of the definition of our national identity and the condition of our national sovereignty. Those essential values are our political integrity (the autonomy of our chosen political processes) and the safety of our citizens and their domestic property.

Why think that foreign policy should do anything more in the world than insulate a nation's citizens from harm and avoid the waste of their resources? We ought to challenge the very foreign-ness of foreign policy. Its ultimate test is how well it serves domestic policy. One might almost call foreign policy an extension, or a limiting case, of domestic policy. It certainly is not autonomous, and it certainly does not have a unique, or a primary, claim on the energies and sacrifices of citizens.

But most members of the foreign policy consensus would go far beyond that core of defensible values. They would assert, for example, that we must also defend and propagate in the world certain democratic or participatory forms of government and certain "human rights" that we enjoy in our own country—that these objectives ought to be assimilated into our foreign policy and, by extension, our national security policy.

It is not hard to see that this larger spectrum of values is more likely to be challenged or threatened by the practices of other nations than is the tighter core of essential values. The more we contrive to defend in the world, the greater will be our exposure to conflict; the greater will be our risk of inviting, under certain circumstances, the destruction of our homeland, the larger will be our defense budget; and the more pervasive and repressive will be the hand of our own government in our lives.

Now we must admit that some of our foreign commitments at least run parallel to the interests of the United States. But, contrary to the foreign policy consensus, few of these foreign interests are truly "vital" and few require military defense. After all, we maintain economic relationships with Communist countries.


But the real point is that we are now beset by tight and unyielding constraints, both international and domestic. We can't get everything we might want. We must make tough substantive choices. Furthermore, we are no longer in a situation where there are many easy cuts to make in the defense budget. Although there is still some "fat"—inflated weapons systems, inefficiencies—the savings here might amount to no more than four or five billion dollars a year. Moreover, as Gene McCarthy said so piquantly during the election campaign; When it comes to the defense budget, the fat isn't so bad; what we have to worry about is the lean.

For impressive and long-lasting savings in the defense budget, we have to cut missions. We can't do the same job in the world—even if we should be doing it—for significantly less. Substantial cuts in the defense budget imply a fundamentally different foreign policy. We have to put limits on our competition with global adversaries and limits on our support for friends. This would amount to a noninterventionist foreign policy.

What would be the military posture, force structure, and defense budget appropriate to such a foreign policy?

In Asia, a noninterventionist policy would entail a mid-Pacific posture: no American forces or bases west of Guam; no military assistance to Asian clients; phasing out all military alliances and defense commitments. The United States would abandon its ability to fight a land war in Asia and could expect an indigenous "balance" to establish itself among the three great territorial powers in this region, China, Japan, and the Soviet Union. The force structure for such a program in Asia would cost about $13 billion a year, saving about $12 billion from the structure proposed by the present administration for fiscal year 1978. Withdrawal from Korea alone, saving one division and all associated costs, would be worth about $5 billion a year.

Europe (including the Mediterranean and the Middle East) is the source of the greatest potential savings, but the application of a policy of nonintervention here would require exacting and patient diplomacy and consequently would take at least a decade to implement. We might hope for an orderly devolution of military power and defensive responsibility to our present European allies themselves; but we could not insure that they would pick up this burden. Ultimately, they would have to make their own judgments and decisions.

In the Middle East, also, our policy should be one of disengaging from, rather than intensifying, involvement. We have been aggravating the strategic and diplomatic dependency of Israel and other nations on the United States. The present administration seems, if anything, to have picked up the expanding commitment of its predecessor and has no design for the Middle East except to give Israel more extensive and explicit American security guarantees—not particularly welcome or even credible—in return for our distinctly unwelcome pressure to give up territory and accept a Palestinian state on the West Bank. At the same time, however, we seem to have mortgaged our Middle East policy to Saudi Arabia in return for a more flexible attitude toward the price and future delivery of oil. On the contrary, all our moves with regard to the Middle East should be directed toward hedging more seriously against involvement in any future conflict and against the economic effects of another disruption of oil supplies.


At the end of a decade of adjustment, there might remain in Europe no American forces and in and around the United States, in some sense oriented to Europe and the Mediterranean, 3 1/3 land divisions with associated forces. This residual force structure would cost about $23 billion a year (in 1978 terms), saving, ultimately, about $32 billion from the force structure requested by the present administration for Europe for 1978. (Besides these forces loosely oriented to regions, we would keep a strategic reserve of about 2 2/3 divisions and other related forces—costing about the same as now.)

Actually, the forces retained here still constitute a formidable armed establishment. Prudent instincts counsel that we would still want such a "second-chance" force, as a modest hedge against unknown-unknowns and commensurate with our continuing importance in the world. Quite the opposite of many critics, I would rather have too many forces for a more modest schedule of missions than too few forces to support a continuing global responsibility.

With regard to strategic nuclear forces, we must recognize that the inexorable creep of technology—Soviet accuracy and MIRVed warheads—has begun to render our present fixed land-based missiles vulnerable. Thus, the continuing presence of these missiles on our soil exposes our homeland to destruction and actually diminishes our security. But, instead of trying to remedy this vulnerability by the expensive deployment of mobile land-based missiles (the MX), we should accept this challenge as an opportunity to eliminate our land-based missiles entirely and move to a combination of stand-off bombers and submarines. And even within this set of strategic forces, it makes sense to cancel and stretch out certain very expensive individual weapons systems—respectively, the B-1 bomber (which could cost as much as $100 billion over its 30-year lifetime) and the Trident submarine (which is costing over $20 billion just to procure 10 submarines).

Altogether, this noninterventionist force structure would provide 8 land divisions, 19 equivalent tactical air wings, and 6 carrier task forces. It would require 1.25 million men and, at the end of a decade of adjustment, would cost about $70 billion a year (in 1978 dollars). This contrasts with the present administration's scheme of 19 land divisions, 45 tactical air wings, and 13 carrier task forces, with 2.1 million men, and requested spending authority of over $120 billion a year. Of course, the cost of a noninterventionist force would rise with inflation, year by year, but so would the administration's force structure. By 1985, the administration will, if not checked, be spending over $200 billion for "defense" and we could save, from that figure, as much as $85 billion a year.

No matter how "vital" our elites consider our overseas interests, the American people should be asked whether they want to lay out the extra two-thirds of a trillion dollars that this will cost in the next decade. Yet there is scarcely a place in our decision-making apparatus where these issues can be raised in this form and presented for popular consideration and judgment.

The standard objection when anyone gestures toward the horizon of nonintervention and defense savings is: "What about the Russians?" It has become traditional for secretaries of defense—and more recently, many others—to cite fearsome increases in Soviet military activity.

There are several answers to these concerns. The first is to point out that the Soviet buildup does not yet add up to the conclusion that the United States is "behind," even if we keep score as the warhawks do. Nevertheless, it is quite plausible that next year, or the year after that, the Russians will fulfill this year's hawkish estimates. And what will we say then?

The real answer to the comparative numbers game is: "So what?" National security is not a tennis match. Our defense programs are derived from our foreign policy objectives, which in turn must have something to do with protecting our citizens and their property and their political system. "Second to none" is not the appropriate criterion. "Enough" is enough.

There may well be some "weaknesses" or "imbalances" in our worldwide military posture and our overall force structure. But these conditions are less likely to be rectified by the devotion of more resources than by the curtailment of our global mission.


Of course, in a complex world there are other components of national security than military force. In trying to restore the constitutional balance at home and the balance of resources and goals abroad, this country can still be responsive, compassionate, and effective in many nonmilitary functions without breaching the canons of a noninterventionist policy. But the concept of intervention does place some limits on the reach and the fervor of many of our global activities.

We can collaborate, cooperate, align policies with other nations over a wide range of economic, social, and humanitarian issues in a common effort to relieve pressures and grievances that could boil up in aggressive and destructive actions by other nations or peoples. But the very fact that the world is becoming—as the jargon goes—more "interdependent" means that it is even more urgent that all these functional issues be treated in noninterventionist ways in order to contain and localize any conflicts that might arise. The presumption that trouble, of any kind, anywhere in the world, has to be made an item of universal strategic contention must be reversed. What is at stake here is the need to adjust our own nation to living in a world that is out of our control.

Talk about the advent of a multipolar world has become fashionable, at least since Henry Kissinger made this point in 1968. But our foreign policy and our defense preparations have not really taken this fact into account, in practical and tangible terms. We have been sliding into a more confused, less manageable world, where the various forms of power are more diffuse and less usable. One of the consequences is that we don't know, to the same extent as before, who our friends are and who our enemies are; and even if we know this now, we don't know for how long, and to what extent, and on what issues, friends will be friends and enemies will be enemies.

Yet, so pervasive has been the illusion of control in the past 25 years that a proposal of adjustment to a world that is out of control strikes many observers as, not only aberrant, but irresponsible and even threatening. They cast charges of "Fortress America," "isolationism," "turning our backs on the world." Well, is this "isolationism"? Does that even matter? Isolationism—even if we are willing to call it that—has a long and largely honorable history in our country. Far from being an unstable and aberrant stance, "isolationism," of various types, has been, if anything, the fundamental American orientation toward the world.

But the real point is not whether our arguments are congenial or heartwarming. Foreign policy is not a matter of listing preferences and trying to bully the country into supporting them with large donations of resources, blood, and trust. We must take into account the cost side of the equation. Whether we do or not, history will do the accounting for us. And not all of the costs are economic ones.


There is a connection—which libertarians recognize more acutely than most people—between what we aspire and pretend to do abroad and the way we are governed at home. It is a myth that democratic political procedures and what our elites are pleased to call foreign policy "effectiveness" reinforce each other, that they run in the same direction. In fact, there is a trade-off between these two.

During the past several years, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has stalked the Western world, reminding us of our values and our obligations to others. Anyone reading or hearing Solzhenitsyn must be impressed with (1) his passionate devotion to liberty, and (2) his imposition of an obligation on the West—particularly the United States—to help establish liberties in the Soviet Union and other countries that do not now enjoy them. (Certainly the Carter administration has taken these injunctions more seriously than its predecessor and has given them a new relevance in the actual conduct of diplomacy.)

But few people detect the practical contradiction in these two propositions, the contradiction with important implications for another concern: the "effectiveness" of our government's foreign policy. For we live in a world of national communities, and to bring about even the most benign effects in other countries implies and requires sustained, concerted national action. In the face of heterogeneous attitudes and different degrees of concern among our individual citizens and groups, we can scarcely have that kind of sustained, concerted foreign policy output. Or worse, as we know from our own recent national experience, we can't have it without mobilization or regimentation or deception or repression, that is, without the negation of the contract between a representative government and its free citizens—in short, without the subversion of our constitution.

Thus, we have what I call the "Wilsonian paradox." It begins with a pretense of expansive concern for the propagation of our ideals in the world, and it ends with stunting and shriveling the very liberties we might have hoped to bring to others.

We have just completed a year of bicentennial reminiscences. But, to many who respect the founders of this country, the celebrations had a hollow ring, because those who were putting on this show didn't understand the statesmen who founded this country. Those founders were smarter than the ones who have been governing our country more recently. Even if they didn't have the ineffable benefits of systems analysis and think tanks, they had certain basic relationships straight. They knew that, in trying aggressively to extend the benefits and the characteristics of our political system abroad, in external adventures, we would not only dissipate our resources and our energies but would wreck the balance of our polity.

In the wake of the excesses of the Nixon presidency, it became a cliche to say that the most important task of a president would be to restore public trust in government. Of course, that begs the question of what a president does with that trust, even if he could restore it. But, in any case, this country was founded on distrust of government. It can survive distrust of government precisely because it was designed to survive and operate very nicely in the face of a healthy skepticism from citizens.

Well, let's test the temper of our times. Let's say that any one of those founding fathers were to return and say: "I hate the notion, the spectacle, of presidential monarchy. I'm more concerned for the integrity of our freedoms than for the political character of some nation halfway across the globe. And, if it came to that, I'd rather take a loss—if you can call it that—somewhere in the international system than compromise or damage the fabric of our society and our constitution. And I would, if I had the chance, work to restore a situation in this country where those principles would prevail."

How many of the self-appointed elites of our present foreign policy community would entrust one of those who founded this country, if he were to appear again, with power? How many—ever among those liberals who, briefly, a few years ago, were complaining about the "imperial presidency"—would consider him fit to hold public office?

That is the constitutional tension that exists today, and that tension defines the primary political task of thinking, caring citizens-not to make the world safe for anything in particular, but to make this country safe for liberty; to make that notion respectable enough to command a hearing again; to reverse the burden of proof of patriotism, honor, and good sense.

Earl C. Ravenal worked in the Defense Department, 1967-69, and now teaches at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown. He has contributed to Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and other journals and newspapers.