Wishful Thinking Is No Defense

A political scientist challenges libertarian foreign policy myths


It is time to realize that libertarian foreign policy positions, ranging from a call for American unilateral disarmament to a call (in the person of the party's presidential candidate, Roger MacBride) for American neutrality and minimum nuclear deterrence, would be the death of us all. We must face the fact of a hostile and aggressive Communist philosophy—the precise opposite of the libertarian creed. The only barrier protecting existing freedoms is American military strength and will, but this barrier is about to crumble. And many libertarians, who above all should fear Communism in all its totalitarian varieties, are weakening this barrier further. They are contributing not only to their own eventual demise but to the end of what freedoms mankind still enjoys.

On what basis do I assert this? I have provided the necessary evidence on the growth in Soviet military power and American weakness in Peace Endangered: The Reality of Detente. What I want to do here is, not to repeat details and technical arguments, but to bring my conclusions to the attention of others who love freedom and to relate these conclusions to the libertarian perspective. Let's consider, then, various libertarian foreign policy positions.


That the State should be dismantled, including its role in foreign policy, is a solid libertarian position. But it is a goal toward which we must work, while recognizing the need for a transition during which the functions the state has monopolized are transferred gradually to private enterprise. It is folly to dismantle the city fire department while it is fighting a major downtown blaze. Eliminating welfare and social security in one day would create major dislocation and human suffering. Similarly, suddenly dismantling the State and Defense departments would open the door to those totalitarian states with the means to march in.

We must discriminate between long-run goals—a libertarian direction—and immediate necessities. In the short term, we may need to increase the state's power in some areas to preserve our ability to move eventually toward the libertarian goal. This is seen no better than in foreign policy. Clearly, were we attacked by Soviet military forces our government would have to be given more power to counter this threat and defend the freedoms we do have. We could not wait for private initiatives;* adequate defense would require our accepting more centralized state command and control.

We are precisely in this situation. We are under attack, although by all means short of nuclear war. And we are losing. Moreover, the Soviets almost have the capability (if needed to overcome our sudden realization of imminent peril) to shift the attack to the nuclear level.

But this immediate need for the state to protect us from the dangerous Communist offensive requires neither a return to the draft nor higher taxes.

Libertarian methods can aid in increasing our defense, even though through the state. For example, if Americans are informed about the war we are now fighting, if the evidence is presented fairly, they will rally voluntarily to defend our liberties. Americans are basically libertarian, and, rightfully and historically, they believe in a strong America.

In other words, the libertarian solution is to call for a defense of freedom in the spirit of freedom. It is ludicrous to eliminate state-run defenses without an immediate replacement.


Related to the recommendation that the state be summarily dismantled is the idea that the disappearance of a state anywhere is a happy event for libertarians. The implication of this position is that libertarians should be opposed to any U.S. involvement against Communist aggression elsewhere. This is libertarian abstractionism carried to absurd lengths.

Should a libertarian rejoice if the end of a state militarily overrun by another ends in thousands of executions that otherwise would not have occurred? The Soviet Union "absorbed" Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia; and millions were subsequently liquidated. But four states were reduced to one. North and South Vietnam are now "unified." Over 200,000 Vietnamese are now in concentration camps; thousands have vanished; all liberties in the South are gradually being eroded; and a blood bath is inevitable. And need I mention the 500,000 to 800,000 Cambodians who were butchered in a single year by their new Communist elite? Why go on? It is mainly American power extended abroad that protects existing freedoms elsewhere. Withdraw that power, and mass slaughter and slavery follow.

Libertarians often fail to distinguish the many shades of gray between black and white. True, our big government restrains and frustrates us in countless ways (and as one who has founded both a private research institute and a small business, I am particularly sensitive to this). But compared to Communist societies, we have infinite freedom—including that to organize, speak, and teach openly for an end to our government.

We are involved now in a global struggle for freedom against slavery. The further loss of freedom elsewhere diminishes our own. But in addition to that, can the libertarian, morally, stand by as the liberties of others are denied, as people are killed en masse? We live in an age when human lives by the millions are snuffed out in order to eradicate any trace of libertarian thought. Should libertarians isolate themselves from this?

Again, however, U.S. involvement abroad need not mean the draft nor higher taxes. Again, libertarian solutions are possible, albeit in the short run through the mechanism of the state. If the issue is correctly focused, and the nature of the struggle emphasized, people would gladly offer their services and their wealth. And I am pleased to believe that libertarians would be in the forefront.


Another position advanced is that the United States should be neutral in international affairs. We could be—if we wished to commit suicide. A neutral United States would mean the gradual Finlandization, satellization, or absorption of the rest of the world by the Soviet Union. The reason for this is clear. Only American power organized by the foreign policy of containment has restricted Soviet aggression, until the Nixon-Kissinger policy of detente. Without the United States, no combination of countries has the power jointly to stand up to Soviet demands. Even China could not long resist Soviet military power.

Ah, but it is said, the Soviet Union is not aggressive. It would not fill the vacuum created by an American policy of neutrality. But libertarians, above all, should understand that state power aggrandizes itself and that totalitarian power must expand. The United States can be no Switzerland, which, happily, as a minor country centrally placed in Europe, serves as a convenient neutral ground among contending big powers. Switzerland would not have survived had Hitler won the Second World War or had Stalin succeeded in communizing Europe after the war.

In today's nuclear world, only the United States and Soviet Union count. And if the United States declares neutrality, there is no other balancer.

Within an otherwise communized world, could the United States long remain free? Of course not. Trade and the raw materials essential for our defense would be cut off, our borders would be permeable to subversive movements and supplies to internal guerrilla groups, and we would become an armed camp—a garrison state. We would become the South Vietnam of this hemisphere, but in this case without external aid.

What about securing our neutrality by maintaining a minimum nuclear deterrence? Could we not maintain sufficient nuclear weapons at the current or a reduced level to deter aggression? The answer is no. It's questionable whether libertarians really want to kill 100 million Russians if attacked, but in any case our present strategic forces have become so weakened compared to the Soviet's offensive power that within a year they could have a first-strike capability. They could annihilate much of our strategic retaliatory force and that which survived—largely in our Polaris and Poseidon submarines—could kill, at most, only four percent of the Soviet population. This is well within acceptable costs to Communist rulers who already have killed well over 20 million of their own people to maintain their totalitarian grip.

We must, above all, recover our strategic superiority over the Soviet Union. Our current vulnerability and their growing strength will soon beg a Soviet first strike or nuclear blackmail. No libertarian should anticipate with equanimity superior nuclear power in the hands of totalitarian elitists. This libertarian cannot.

In any case, the arguments of many libertarians boil down essentially to this. We in our house can be neutral and safe while thugs are terrorizing others on the block, even though the carbines and grenades for the block are stored in our house. Indeed, we can throw most of these weapons out the window. But if our house is attacked, we'll either retreat to the bedroom and fight it out there or, in the more "sophisticated" version, level all the other houses on the block, thugs and neighbors alike. What is not realized is that while we have grenades and carbines, the thugs are hauling in cannons and machine guns.

I submit: the necessary libertarian approach would be to organize the block against the threat to everyone's freedom.


At this point, many respond that, even if internal Communists took over or we were occupied by Soviet forces, the country is too big and diverse to control—libertarians could wage an effective underground campaign. With modern electronic equipment and weapons, however, plus the power of pure terror to control a population, the United States could be managed, and opposition could be reduced to irrelevant pockets, to be eliminated gradually. Consider the effective Communist control in the Soviet Union and China, which are far more geographically and demographically diverse and larger than the United States.

The libertarian must understand that the modern technology of repression and terror means that once our freedoms are lost a new dark age, centuries long, will descend on man. The only hope remaining will be that the slow forces of history—of internal schism and decay—will bring a new flowering of freedom. At the unthinkable cost of how many billion lives?

A similar response is that even if Soviet forces were to win a global victory, their inefficient and inept bureaucracy and economy would not allow them to encompass and control Western, developed socio-economic systems. Of course, from a rational economic perspective the backward Soviet system could not centrally administer nor absorb the more developed, semi-socialist economies of the West. But, the Soviets dominate economics by coercion, terror, repression. Were they to politically subjugate the West, they would gradually transform Western economies into Soviet economic satellites (as they did the far more developed East Germany after 1945, and Czechoslovakia after 1948; as North Vietnam is now doing to the South), while structurally transforming them into their sort of inefficient economic systems.

Power, not economics, is the name of the game. How else can one explain the gradual transformation of the American free market into the more inefficient, semisocialist bureaucratic system we now have?


Somewhere in this debate one usually encounters the claim that the United States knowingly brought about the Pearl Harbor attack and caused the Cold War and, furthermore, that all States have been aggressive in foreign policy. The cause of war is the state—agreed. As states expand in internal control, wars intensify. The best hope of peace is the cultivation of libertarian societies, as can be shown by scientific research on war.

The United States may have maneuvered Japan into a Pearl Harbor attack, although it seems more likely that we made unacceptable demands on Japan, anticipating a possible military confrontation in Indochina or the Philippines. And the United States may have stimulated the Cold War, although, if at fault, I believe it was as a victim who creates a struggle by resisting a mugger. But assume that the United States did purposely provoke the Pacific war and the Cold War. So what?

The issue is not that all states are aggressive but that we (our state, if you will) are now threatened by the most powerful incarnation of statism: the Soviet Union. This threat is not an illusion created by elitists, statists, militarists. It exists. The Soviet elite constantly reiterate their goal of defeating capitalism everywhere (which goal they call peaceful coexistence). And their surging military expenditures (which now are 42 percent greater than ours) attest to their veracity. Our problem—the libertarian issue par excellence—is how, in a libertarian manner, to protect from aggressive Communism what freedoms we have.


Then what might a libertarian foreign policy be? It should be a policy of realism, one that knows that the bed-rock American national interest is the support of liberty, wherever it exists and wherever it is under threat. The rights of the individual to the freedom of speech, of religion, and to pursue his own life and happiness are still the essence of America. Ours is still a land of unequaled opportunity, affluence, and liberty. In this interdependent world, whenever the freedom of one is diminished, that of free men elsewhere is threatened. Our liberty could not be preserved as an island in a sea of totalitarianism.

A policy of realism recognizes that the primary struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union is between liberty and totalitarianism. It is not a struggle of geopolitical interests, of resources, of spheres of influence. It is not a competition between states. It is a moral struggle. It is between whether man will determine his own life or have it forcibly determined for him by some self-selected elite; whether man will enjoy the inalienable rights to be protected from the state or be totally subject to the state.

The struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States is a protracted conflict in which the central and long-run goal of the Soviet elite is to defeat Western freedoms and bring the world under Communist influence and control. Short-run Soviet agreements and negotiations are always a part of a matrix with this one, long-run dimension.

What, then, can a policy of realism suggest about our relations with the Soviet Union? Such a policy should be guided by the following six principles.

First, we must take every opportunity to contrast the freedoms Americans now have and the libertarian ideal with the totalitarianism enslaving Soviet citizens. We should reaffirm our fundamental support of freedom and recognize our identity of interests with free men everywhere. We should understand that a strong national interest can be based only on moral ideals and that America still has the ideal of freedom woven into its national fabric.

Second, we should inform Americans about the truth of our military inferiority and about Soviet aims and military power. Americans will back voluntarily a strong national interest in freedom if they know the truth about the threats we face. People must be enlightened at every turn about what it is that endangers us, about life under Communism, about the tens of millions of Soviet citizens killed, about the terror and repression used to maintain Communism. Then American dedication to protect freedom against this absolute tyranny can be reborn.

Third, we should rebuild our conventional military capability to meet Communist threats whenever they occur and whatever their nature. This should raise the threshold for using nuclear weapons and for the risk of an escalation to nuclear war.

Fourth, we should improve the invulnerability of our offensive strategic forces and more than match the Soviet strategic drive. The probability of nuclear peace depends on an American strategic superiority. Moreover, we must appreciate that deterrence can still fail and that we must therefore protect our cities, through active and passive strategic defenses, against blackmail and attack.

Fifth, we should stop aiding the Soviet Union. Soviet investment in military superiority is eased by American and Western aid and trade. Moreover, the ability of Soviet leaders to control their people is enhanced by American and Western technology and products. If Communism is truly superior, let it show this without help from its capitalist enemies.

Finally, while we must continue to negotiate with the Soviets on issues and mutual problems, we must accept, as they do, only terms that are to our immediate and practical benefit. We should avoid agreements that enable the Soviets to harvest short-run gains by giving lip service to long-run abstractions like peace, cooperation, or relaxation of tensions.

A policy of realism recognizes that Communism is the libertarian's self-proclaimed enemy. It comprehends that freedom with dignity and with peace can be bought only by asserting our national interest in freedom, by informing Americans about the threat we face, by rebuilding our military power. Thomas Paine expressed this well in the year of our birth as a nation—

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.

R.J. Rummel teaches political science at the University of Hawaii and is director of the PATH Institute of Research on International Problems. He is the author of numerous books and articles on international politics and war.