Libertarianism in One State?

Does freedom stop at the water's edge?


Libertarian philosophy amply justifies the limited role that government should play in the lives of the citizens of a free society, but what about international affairs? What is the proper role for the government of a free society in managing relations between nation-states, especially between nation-states, some which are definitely not free societies?

Shortly after the Founding, George Washington warned in his Farewell Address in 1796, "'Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent Alliances, with any portion of the foreign World." Similarly Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address declared his policy to be "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." These views are still adhered to by many who favor limited government. But can a reasonable case be made for intervening abroad? I think the answer is yes.

Let's consider three issues.

First, the spread of free market democracy in the 20th century has been largely accomplished by force of arms, largely by force of American arms. Would the same fat happy complacent Europe that is hectoring the Bush Administration now exist had not the United States liberated that continent in World War II? (The Economist recently wrote that "Europe has never a met a dictator it didn't want to appease.") Germany and Japan are free societies today because free institutions were imposed on them by the victorious Allies.

For that matter, would the Iron Curtain have lifted from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics without a 50-year policy of containment and eventually a policy of direct 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 although it must be admitted that it had some regrettable side effects (rogue rebels in Angola and creation of a cadre of rootless Mujahadeen in Afghanistan). But it worked. The Soviet Union 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 feel that they must protect themselves from the ambitions of tyrants motivated by ideology (Hitler and Stalin) or just old-fashioned greed (Saddam Hussein). Domestically, we see politicians arguing for tighter borders, increased spying on visitors and citizens, and detaining people on the slimmest of national security pretexts. We see a growing national security apparatus including a bigger military, a new Department of Homeland Security, expanded domestic and international spy agencies, all threatening domestic liberty and soaking up more and more of our citizens' wealth, not to mention the support of some conservatives for the establishment of an American Empire as part of a "National Greatness" project.

With regard to international affairs, we are given justifications, now and in the past, for supporting unsavory regimes (Saudi Arabia and Zaire) as necessary allies in the nation's struggle against even more menacing regimes and terrorist organizations. Naturally, to people yearning to be free of their tyrants, our support of unsavory allies looks like hypocrisy and thus undermines whatever respect and affection for our country they might have.

Third, when is it legitimate for the United States to attack another country? Libertarians certainly believe in self-defense. Most Americans certainly support going after Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda for the 9/11 atrocities. But what about preemption? A person doesn't have to wait until someone hits them or shoots them before they can defend themselves. Similarly free societies certainly have the right to defend themselves against imminent attack. But as Bill Clinton might say, "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'imminent' is." And that's where we are come to the murderous regime running Iraq today. Frankly it doesn't look like Hussein has any intention of directly attacking the United States in the near future. However, a reasonable argument can be made that if he is left to ruin his country in peace, that much like Libya and Sudan, Hussein or his Baathist successors will end up supporting groups that will eventually strike at the United States. That is the main point—the existence of unfree regimes necessarily threaten the peace of free societies. And, what if he were to obtain nuclear weapons? Assume then that Hussein goes to war against his neighbors; what country would risk nuclear holocaust to rein him in?

We must keep in mind that when Washington and Jefferson offered their advice on foreign affairs, the United States was the only free republic in a world of tyranny. Nevertheless, under President James Monroe, the United States adopted a foreign policy aimed, at least in part, at trying to expand the sphere of liberty. In 1823, Monroe asserted to Britain, Russia, Spain and Portugal that "as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved…the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers." This stand became known as the Monroe Doctrine.

So I believe that libertarians need to devise a foreign policy aimed at building a free world sooner rather than later. The true ultimate aim of such a policy would be to guarantee our liberties at home by removing the justifications for an intrusive national security apparatus. So here are some of my suggestions for such a policy:

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. Secondly, we need to encourage citizens from countries living under tyrannical regimes to come to the United States to be educated so that they can experience the operation of our free institutions directly. Thirdly, and most controversially, the Federal government should revive the Reagan Doctrine—we should support, train, and finance insurgent movements aimed at overthrowing authoritarian regimes. And not just military training, but also training in the advantages and operations of free institutions. There is no absolute guarantee that such insurgents will in fact establish free societies when they come to power, but if it is understood globally that the United States backs such regimes, they would be bucking a worldwide trend.

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