Left, Right, and Wrong

Desperately searching for a libertarian foreign policy


In his 2007 essay What's Left?, Nick Cohen wonders how it is that many on the political left have lost their souls, at least on the defining matter of human rights. Why is it that a left faced with the collapse of socialism and the triumph of market economies, which at one time stood against fascism in defense of the individual, should now find itself excusing parties and regimes of the far-right, "as long as they are anti-Western"?

The question is well posed, but it would be useful to bring our own libertarian brethren into the discussion. Why is it that libertarians, for whom the benchmark of political, economic and social behavior is the individual, and American libertarians in particular, find so little to say about the defense of the individual in foreign affairs? Why is it that those who have reminded us of this lacuna, those who first imposed the human rights and democracy agenda on foreign policy thinking, are mainly figures of the left? Not surprisingly, given the rightward drift described by Cohen, some of these gadflies have since turned into exiles of the left.

One such exile, Christopher Hitchens, told Reason's Rhys Southan what he saw as a problem in the libertarian critique: "I threw in my lot with the left because on all manner of pressing topics–the Vietnam atrocity, nuclear weapons, racism, oligarchy–there didn't seem to be any distinctive libertarian view. I must say that this still seems to me to be the case, at least where issues of internationalism are concerned. What is the libertarian take, for example, on Bosnia or Palestine?"

This came after Hitchens had ended a two-decade-old relationship with the left-wing The Nation because, as he angrily wrote, the magazine was "becoming the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that [then-U.S. Attorney General] John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden." For Hitchens, like Cohen, the petty hatreds of the left, American or British, had thrown hitherto valued priorities out of whack.

Another exile of the left had similar misgivings. In an interview I conducted for Reason with the Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya, he had this to say about the notion of breaking Iraq up into sectarian or ethnic entities: "I fear attempting to carve [Iraq] will only plunge [its] people … into greater paroxysms of violence. And nothing is worth that in my opinion. I judge everything in relation to one overriding criterion, namely how many fewer Iraqi lives a particular course of action will cost. That is the be-all and end-all of politics as far as I am concerned these days."

That was simply put, but also very much expressed a thought at the heart of the libertarian ideal: that one is free to pursue ones own choices, as long as these don't encroach on the rights and freedoms of others. Building a workable corpus of foreign policy thinking around this single idea would represent a monumental challenge. However, and let's be blunt here, in the absence of a serious critique on how to address deficiencies in freedom overseas, libertarians, "realists", and those on the political left ceded vital terrain to the neoconservatives around President George W. Bush in the post-9/11 period. Only the neocons, it seemed, had an explanation for why 19 young men from the Middle East had decided to kill thousands of innocent civilians for no apparent reason. The neocons claimed that a major problem was the dearth of democracy in the Arab world, which had turned frustrated youths into mass murderers.

One might dispute the neocons' interpretation, and condemn its outcome, but the fact is that when decision-makers in Washington were looking for insights into what had happened and tried to do so, like most Americans, by explaining the individual motivations of the hijackers, libertarians, political realists, and much of the left had little to say. Instead, many libertarians and liberal leftists turned to examining the domestic abuses of the Bush administration, while realists either opportunistically latched onto Bush's policies or ridiculed the idea of Arab democracy–a way of saying Arabs merited repression. In several cases, those deriding Arab democracy were former policy-makers who, when in office, had helped ensure the United States would disregard democracy promotion.

However, the neocons were not especially original. Their diagnosis of the Arab malady as being an absence of democracy, their denunciation of American support for Arab absolutists, was a refrain heard throughout the Cold War years, and it largely came from a left not yet enamored of Arab tyrants viewed as worthy foes of Western "neocolonialism." Once again, however, we have to wonder why those most taken with individual rights, at least in theory, were nowhere to be seen in this conversation.

Recently, French President Nicolas Sarkozy appointed a liberal internationalist, but also a scion of the old 1960s left, to be his foreign minister. The elevation of Bernard Kouchner was odd for two reasons. First, the other person on Sarkozy's short-list for the post was Hubert Vedrine, also a socialist, who is in every way Kouchner's opposite. Vedrine, a former foreign minister, is smelted in the style of traditional French foreign affairs, someone who finds dictators distasteful, but who in the name of sovereignty and a vague sense of Gallic fatalism, remains tolerant of their crimes and stalemates: a practitioner of an amoral art rather than a devotee of moral crusades. Here is a man who, in indignantly denouncing American unilateralism and "arrogance," showed an affinity for the time-honored concept of a balance of power between states. Click on his Wikipedia entry and you will see him in a most natural pose, chatting pleasantly with Tunisia's autocrat, President Ben Ali.

Kouchner, in contrast, is a former communist, a doctor who became a guru of international humanitarian intervention. Here is someone who always expressed intolerance for France's baroque compromises with thugs, a backer of foreign interference in Bosnia to save the Muslims, when France always tended to favor the Serbs. Kouchner returned to the Balkans in 1999-2000, as head of the United Nations mission in Kosovo. His method in his early years of prominence was not to improve the world through revolution, but through medical and humanitarian assistance. In 1971 he helped create Doctors Without Borders, which was destined to be, in the words of Paul Berman, "a more political Red Cross", with socially conscious doctors who "instead of carrying AK-47s … carried medical bags, in order to serve the poor and the oppressed."

Kouchner's position on the war in Iraq was more ambiguous. Though he wrote in the February 4, 2003 issue of Le Monde that he was both against war and against Saddam, he threw in a critical caveat: "[W]e do not want the suffering of the Iraqi people to continue." If war was the only means to alleviate that suffering, then it really made little sense to oppose war.

The second reason Sarkozy's choice was so odd was that Kouchner perhaps best embodied France's 1968 legacy that the new president hoped to bury through his electoral victory. This was the legacy of the May 1968 demonstrations that supposedly overhauled what the left saw as the smugness of postwar bourgeois France. Oddly enough, it was Kouchner's revolutionary dislike of that status quo, the one supposedly represented by Charles de Gaulle, which seemed to appeal to Sarkozy's own dislike of the French status quo hardened by his predecessor Jacques Chirac.

Bu one can also hope that Kouchner's appointment is more than that: confirmation that even in a place like France, with its venerable history of diplomatic hardnosedness, foreign policy is being refocused on the individual, on human and political rights, on the advancement of democratic values. It would be silly to declare victory; the indifference generated by state-centered realpolitik will remain with us. But the most urgent task is for those who would place the individual at the center of social or political action, to find something useful to say when it affects victims abroad whose individuality is battered on a daily basis.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.