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?
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.
War Can Be an Engine of Dynamism and Innovation
The question as put by Ronald Bailey is both more and less severe, in its implications for libertarians, than it first appears. To what extent does libertarianism, or any other philosophy, take the existence of a constitutional and continental United States for granted? Is libertarianism, to put it more shortly, protected by state power?
The bluntest instance of this problem in practice might be that of Abraham Lincoln, who was not only prepared to kill any number of actual or potential United States citizens, and to level and bombard their cities, but also ready to suspend habeas corpus and other protections, even for those who agreed with him. Many have compared Lincoln's "nation building" to the erection of the over-mighty state, and Gore Vidal openly suggests in his wonderful novel Lincoln that Honest Abe belongs in the same category as Bismarck. The fact must also be faced that the Emancipation Proclamation—prelude to the full abolition of chattel slavery and the holding of people as property—was conceived as a limited war measure only.
War is the health of the state, as was pointed out by the leftist Randolph Bourne in the early years of what was then called the Great War. But war has also, like revolution, been an engine of dynamism and innovation (let's agree not to call this "progress" too glibly). It's also been an occasion, at least sometimes, for the extension of rights and of the role of the autonomous citizen.
It would be nice to think that we could choose our allies or proxies on the basis of their similarity to our "own" ideals. But we would first have to be sure that these were, in fact, our ideals. And we would in any case have to make a prudent guess as to how long it might take for us to be vindicated in that choice. The Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, for example, was as far as I can see a much better ally than the Taliban. But how far can I, or any of us, be expected to see?
I have never heard it argued that Lincoln's extra-ordinary measures on the legal and authoritarian front, any more than his permission for Unionists to pay others to take their place in the ranks of the army, actually advanced the cause. One might well have had one with-out the other(s). Censorship in wartime, for example, usually turns out to be even more stupid than censorship in peacetime. The trade-off between freedom and security, so often proposed so seductively, very often leads to the loss of both. It is plain to anyone that John Ashcroft is too doltish to hold the office of attorney general in war or peace, is illiterate as regards the Constitution, and despises the idea of church-state separation for which, in part, we are supposed to be fighting. Who can propose that we are made safer by being denied even the names of those who are imprisoned under his special legislation?
It has been encouraging, to me at least, to see how many libertarians and conservatives have been willing to challenge the more exorbitant points of the USA PATRIOT Act. It's also been depressing to have made their objection to Ashcroft into an underhanded opposition to a war against a clear and present danger. The requirement of an oath to the Constitution is that it commits you to uphold it against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Given the fact that a very convincing attempt has been made to form a secret army within our borders, and to connect it with a lethal theocratic movement overseas, I'm very unimpressed by anyone who wants to counterpose these two elements of the commitment.
I somehow doubt that a superpower, however defined (even as a democratic or liberal superpower) can ever practice a "libertarian" foreign policy. Neither the populist nor the elite version of such a system seems to lend itself to limited government. However, it can perhaps be made, with a protracted struggle, to uphold the anti-totalitarian and above all secular values for which it claims to be contending. These are not easy times to be a libertarian, whether civil or social. But the easy time for that will never arrive. It's supposed to be difficult.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His latest book is A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (Plume).
The Perils of Global Libertarian Utopianism
The state poses the greatest threat to liberty, and the greatest expansions of state power occur during times of threat—both real and imagined. To protect us from these threats, and ultimately from the state, Ronald Bailey advocates an aggressive foreign policy "aimed at building a free world sooner rather than later." Bailey argues that this policy would be only temporary, and that the ultimate goal would be the creation of a new order, whereby liberty could be guaranteed at home without the need for "an intrusive national security apparatus."
This is global libertarian utopianism. By this logic, freedom-loving people will use government action to mold a perfect, free world. But if libertarians are opposed to government action to make a perfect domestic world, why discard those principles beyond the water's edge?
The practical and moral difficulties of welfare-statism on the domestic front pale in comparison to those of global libertarian utopianism. For one, Bailey vastly underestimates the capacity of the state to hold onto power once that "new" world is created, once the unfree are made free. He also underestimates what it would actually take to force democracy down the throats of the approximately 3 billion people who currently live under some other system of government.
An overwhelmingly powerful national security state would certainly be needed. Bailey implies it would be only temporary, but how long is that? A decade? A century? How will we know when we have won, when we can return to our happy cocoon, safe from external threats, and therefore content to demobilize our armies, scrap our ships, and leave our airplanes to bake in the desert? Talk of temporary measures enacted in the name of defense should consider how other "temporary" measures—from federal tax withholding to mohair subsidies to NATO—seem stubbornly permanent, even after the crises in question (World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, respectively) have long since abated.
The state will always find new justifications for its existence. The end of the Cold War should have opened the door to a reduction in the threats posed to Americans and American interests. But other threats rose to the surface. Liberal governments might have taken action to mitigate the threat from global terrorism, but for a variety of reasons most looked the other way. September 11 refocused our attention.
It should also have refocused our attention on the proper means for dealing with threats. A reflexive return to the Cold War model, focused on state actors, is particularly unwise because Al Qaeda is not at all like the Soviet Union. Since the 9/11 attacks, more harm has been done to this loose-knit network of terrorists and fanatics through timely intelligence gathering, cooperative law enforcement, criminal prosecution, and international financial pressure than by laser-guided bombs and cruise missiles.
Yet the Bush administration seems determined to implement an over-ambitious strategy that often deals only tangentially with Al Qaeda and that draws most heavily on military resources to accomplish the mission of eliminating all terrorism. In this environment—filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of threats, both real and imagined—there will be ample opportunities for the state to expand its power over the individual. The most obvious manifestation is the American military machine, which is now projected to consume nearly $400 billion in fiscal year 2003 and over $500 billion by fiscal year 2009. Very little of this spending buys anything that will protect us from terrorism.
In the interest of protecting individual liberties, liberal democracies are constrained in their use of power. The most important of these constraints is the limitation on the use of force abroad, which is tied to the notion that states may act only when their vital security interests are threatened. To lift these constraints, and grant liberal governments the authority to engage in military action when vital interests are not at risk, ultimately would erode the very notion of a democratic peace that is at the core of the global libertarian utopian vision.
This is not to say that freedom-loving people must sit idly by while half the world's population struggles under autocracy. Libertarians know what works best to promote positive change in the domestic realm: political and economic freedom. Men and women advance the cause of liberty every day not by government edict but out of self-interest. We should be no less optimistic about the power of economic activity, trade, voluntary exchange, and person-to-person cultural contact to change even the most illiberal and autocratic countries in the world. Peaceful, voluntary exchange is far more in keeping with classical liberal principles than an empire of force, dedicated to the principles of compelling "illiberal" nations to heel. Liberal governments can best promote democracy not at the point of a bayonet but rather at the point of sale.
Liberal, free market democracy spreads naturally, from free states to unfree states, from dynamic societies to stagnant ones. And we all know why. Classical liberalism encourages intellectual inquiry; autocracy stifles it. Free markets reward entrepreneurial spirit; the state punishes it. Growing, vibrant liberal states combine the traits of political and economic freedom to defeat their autocratic neighbors not by killing their soldiers, bombing their cities, and jailing their leaders, but by luring away the most ambitious, intelligent, and gifted individuals. Faced with this exodus of talent, illiberal governments have only two choices: isolation or reform. Isolation leads to collapse—not immediately, but eventually. In the meantime, for individuals living in free countries, the threat posed by the self-isolated states is typically quite small; when and if these unfree states actually do pose an imminent danger, the free states are in a far stronger position to prevail militarily.
Aside from these rare instances, however, we should be far more fearful of the state's insatiable appetite for power, and we should avoid inviting government to pursue illiberal ends abroad under the guise of promoting freedom at home.
Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.
Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace
Ronald Bailey's argument essentially is, "Let's fight wars, with their concomitant requirement for bigger government, now so that we will have peace and reduced government later." This tack is similar to Woodrow Wilson's often-parodied slogan about "the war to end all wars" or historian Charles Beard's astute and sarcastic aphorism about waging "perpetual war for perpetual peace."
Even if the United States spent the trillions of dollars needed to depose—directly or indirectly—the remaining tyrants in the world (and there are a lot of them left), the voracious security bureaucracies would think up new threats to justify an interventionist foreign policy and to maintain defense spending at levels exceeding Cold War averages. Deposing the world's tyrants is only the first of many difficult steps to utopia. As the United States keeps rediscovering in the developing world—for example, in Panama, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and now Iraq—even after the despots' rule has been removed, rebuilding societies that have little experience with freedom into republics has not been very successful. The accomplishments in Japan and Germany were achieved by industrial societies with much human capital, a strong sense of national identity, and (in the case of Germany) some experience with representative government.
More important, although an argument can be made that World War II had to be fought to safeguard U.S. security (U.S. intervention in World War I, by contrast, tipped the balance toward the Allies and created the conditions leading to the rise of authoritarianism and World War II), wars usually stifle rather than expand liberty. Despite the liberation of some peoples during each world war, the net outcome of each global conflict, and the civil wars spawned or aggravated by it (major conflagrations often lead to civil unrest in the belligerents, such as the Russian revolution during World War I and the Chinese civil war after World War II), was that far more people were under the yoke of oppression than ever before.
Furthermore, the hypothesis that no war would exist in a world of democracies is a theory based on flawed logic and twisted historical evidence (as the War of 1812, the American Civil War, and World War I illustrate). Thus, Gulf War II and other future brush-fire wars championed by Bailey to democratize the planet have little to do with ensuring U.S. security, and will most likely undermine it. Bailey believes that petty despots of small, relatively poor rogue states—for example, Saddam Hussein—are a threat to a superpower. But rogue states, which have known addresses, have no incentive to give—or track record of giving—weapons of mass destruction to radical groups who could get them in big trouble with the nuclear powers. Even if a rogue state (North Korea, for example) obtains a few nuclear warheads, it can be deterred from attacking the United States by the world-dominant U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Horrific blowback from terrorists reacting to interventionist U.S. foreign policy is now the biggest threat facing the country. The terrorists say, and polls of Arabic and Islamic public opinion confirm, that U.S. interventionist foreign policy—not U.S. culture or economic and political freedoms—is the cause of terrorist strikes against U.S. targets. Attacking foreign countries raises hatred of the United States in the world, increases retaliatory terrorism, and thereby ultimately increases—not reduces, as Bailey claims—U.S. government intrusion into civil liberties at home.
Because of such ill effects on government activism at home, the nation's founders advocated staying out of foreign wars. They learned from history that wars lead to bigger government and the accumulation of power by the ruler. James Madison said it best: "Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the dominion of the few….No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
In the 20th century, war was the primary cause of U.S. government growth, and not just in areas related to national security. Massive government intrusion into civil society during World War I provided a precedent—as well as administrators and renamed government programs—for the Depression-era expansion of the state. Restraining U.S. government intervention internationally is fundamental to reducing the role of the state domestically, and government coercion abroad is as immoral as it is at home.
It is puzzling that "libertarian" interventionists are skeptical of state activism at home—where the U.S. government has at least some legitimacy—yet have great faith that Uncle Sam can successfully conduct social engineering abroad, where he has no legitimacy. Furthermore, opening markets at gunpoint isn't free trade. Some libertarians, possessing an affinity for the right, find it difficult to move away from the right's bread-and-butter issue—a statist, interventionist foreign policy and concomitant bloated defense budgets. All U.S. presidents since World War II—not only Reagan—intervened excessively in strategically marginal areas of the world in the name of fighting communism. Such puttering around at the edge of the Soviet Union's sphere of influence to sap its resources undoubtedly had less of an effect on communism's collapse than its nonviable and grossly inefficient economic and social system.
Bailey goes out of his way to praise Ronald Reagan—a president who increased government spending faster than Bill Clinton and who, in his proxy war against the Soviets in the unimportant backwater of Afghanistan, created one of the few threats to the American mainland and way of life in the history of the republic. Bailey refers to this monster, now called Al Qaeda, as one of the "regrettable side effects" of Reagan's heroic Cold War struggle. But Reagan's intervention, instead of moving Afghanistan toward democracy, strengthened a proxy that became the devil incarnate. Such unintended and counterproductive blowback from unnecessary wars may be one of the best reasons not to get involved in them. Instead of using coercion unbecoming of a republic, the best way to help other nations onto the path of freedom is to lead by example.
Ivan Eland is director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute, and author of Putting "Defense" Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World (Praeger).
Fighting for the Rule of Law
Christopher Preble and Ivan Eland want to avoid U.S. military adventures abroad and the creation of a national security state at home. So do I. Naturally, they agree with the first two pillars of my proposed libertarian foreign policy: expand global free trade and lead by example, showing foreigners how our free institutions operate at home. We're all for "peaceful voluntary exchange." We all also acknowledge the right of the United States to self-defense. So far, so good. But then they apparently think I am advocating "perpetual war" and "an empire of force." Not at all. Nor am I in favor of an open-ended War on Terrorism.
Preble asks, "If libertarians are opposed to government action to make a perfect domestic world, why discard those principles beyond the water's edge?" Because those principles can't and don't apply to relations among nation-states. Individual liberty exists within the context of the rule of law and limits on government power, i.e., constitutional liberalism. As earnestly as one might wish it otherwise, there is no such thing as the rule of law among states. While it seems unlikely that any state (other than perhaps North Korea) would directly attack the United States, it is undeniable that many illiberal regimes are ideological breeding grounds for enemies of liberal democratic capitalism, and some even offer safe harbor for groups that do plan to physically attack the United States. Most libertarians would agree that the U.S. liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban regime that was giving refuge to Al Qaeda terrorists was clearly justified on grounds of self-defense.
Preble also accuses me of wanting to "force democracy down the throats" of people living under tyrannical regimes. Again, not so. Instead, I am calling for the revival of the Reagan Doctrine. President Reagan defined it this way in his February 1985 State of the Union address: "We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives…on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua…to defy Soviet aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth. Support for freedom fighters is self-defense." The Soviet Union has been tossed into the dustbin of history, but there are still plenty of people willing to risk their lives fighting against their own tyrants to secure for themselves the blessings of liberty. It should be our policy to help them. Setting aside a discussion of the merits of the war with Iraq, it would have been a wiser policy to have earlier trained and supported Iraqi rebels to overthrow the Ba'athist regime.
Preble believes I underestimate the state's capacity to hold onto power once an alleged emergency has passed. That's certainly a valid concern. But a policy of supporting liberal insurgencies will eliminate national security as a rationale for expanding state power at home. The immediate aftermath of the Cold War is instructive here. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the fact is that the U.S. did substantially "demobilize our armies, scrap our ships, and leave our airplanes to bake in the desert." For example, active duty U.S. Army forces were cut by about 40 percent in the 1990s, and the U.S. Navy is down from 594 ships in 1989 to around 300 today. Yes, as Preble notes, "the state will always find new justifications for its existence," but recent experience shows that America's liberal democracy is capable of containing its military when perceived threats to our national security recede. Consider further that the post-Cold War defense budgets of most European countries are still declining as the peaceful economic and political integration of that continent proceeds. (By the way, nowhere do I advocate an increase in the U.S. defense budget.)
Ivan Eland notes that transforming societies the U.S. military has invaded recently—e.g., Panama, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo—into republics has not been very successful so far. The chief problem is that few people in those places are committed to liberalism; they remain essentially tribal loyalists. The goal of a libertarian foreign policy is to train insurgents first in liberalism and then in military competencies. Tyrants throughout history have appealed to tribalism and its modern incarnation, nationalism, to justify their rule. Liberalism breaks the bonds of tribe and teaches people who disagree how to live peaceably together. There would be no need for a War on Terrorism in a world of liberal commercial republics.
"Attacking foreign countries raises hatred of the United States in the world," Eland claims. Maybe so, but attacking countries is not the goal of a libertarian foreign policy; helping people liberate themselves is. Eland also claims "libertarian interventionists" have "great faith that Uncle Sam can successfully conduct social engineering abroad." No more "social engineering" than helping tyrannized people to establish constitutionally limited governments is contemplated here. America's support of the mujahedin in Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviet invaders led to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But would it have been better to have just left the Soviets to do as they wanted there?
Christopher Hitchens is right that none of us has perfect foresight. But a more engaged policy along the lines being discussed here—one in which the U.S. trained cadres of Afghans who then returned to their country after it was liberated from the Soviets—might have derailed the Taliban's rise to power. Our shortsighted policy was to get the Soviets out, then hope that free market democracy would develop naturally. It didn't work.
"Is libertarianism protected by state power?" Hitchens asks. If he means, "Is libertarianism protected by a constitutionally limited government enforcing the rule of law equally among its citizens?," well, yes, that's the idea. Of course, the U.S. today is not a libertarian utopia, but it is certainly not the sort of arbitrary tyranny under which hundreds of millions still groan across the globe. I will forego Christopher Hitchens' invitation to refight the constitutional legalities of the Civil War, but the liberation of the slaves was a moral imperative, period. It also is worth noting that if a nation could not continue half-slave and half-free, neither should we expect the globe to continue half-slave and half-free. It is true that the federal government never fell back to its antebellum size, but habeas corpus and press freedom were restored. I wholeheartedly agree with Hitchens that there is no tradeoff between freedom and security. The chief domestic benefit of a libertarian foreign policy would be that, with the development of a world of liberal commercial republics, Americans could not be bamboozled into supporting intrusive measures like the USA PATRIOT Act.
The bottom line is that a libertarian foreign policy ultimately recognizes that support for genuine freedom fighters is the best self-defense.