Libertarian Gary Johnson Clarifies Foreign Policy Stances

Anti-Iran deal but pro-trade, wants to encourage China to curb North Korea, and too experienced with the actual complications of governing to want to rethink World War II on the fly.


Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson (former Republican governor of New Mexico) made various pronouncements about foreign policy at the Libertarian National Convention that seemed outside the general "no intervention outside the national borders ever" Libertarian consensus. Along with that consensus usually comes great doubt about various stories the national security apparatus tells that make foreign intervention seem necessary.

Gage Skidmore via Foter.com/CC BY SA

Johnson's preferred description for his foreign policy outlook has been "skeptic" for at least a few weeks now, certainly in preference to "noninterventionist" or the usual insult of "isolationist" often attached to libertarians.

At the last debate between the Libertarian Party's would-be presidential candidates, Johnson was happy to declare radical Islam a serious threat and merely to say he'd make sure it was fought in collaboration with Congress, not via unilateral executive action, that we "need an open debate and discussion on how we do deal with" the threat, and "that is something that has not happened."

Some of Johnson's positions were read ambiguously or mistakenly, by me or other reporters, after his comments at that C-SPAN aired debate with the other Libertarian presidential contenders that occurred a week ago in Orlando. (His answer about World War II seemed particularly controversial, more on which below.)

I took his precise comments on stage about North Korea—which came unbidden, he was not specifically asked about the rogue nation—to mean that he was prepared to ally with China to quash the threat they pose with military action. "The greatest threat in the world is North Korea," he said at the debate. "At some point Kim will have intercontinental ballistic missiles that work. How about engaging China" to say "let's do something about North Korea, let's do something about Kim, unify the Koreas and be able to withdraw the 40,000 troops in South Korea."

My interpreting that as a call for military action along with China was dead wrong, Johnson said in an interview on the convention floor. He let me know first that he got his ideas about North Korea and how to deal with it from libertarian movement luminary Ed Crane, now-retired longtime chief and co-founder of the Cato Institute. (Crane is now running a SuperPAC supporting Johnson, as I reported yesterday.)

What he really meant, Johnson said, was "we need to ally with China, they recognize how rogue North Korea is" and convince them via diplomacy and negotiation to realize "it is in their best interest to" deal with their own regional threat on their own. Not by helping them with American military might to essentially conquer North Korea, I ask?

"Just the opposite. It was a message of persuading China through diplomacy to deal with what is a regional crisis."

While many libertarians supported the idea of the Iran deal for its hoped-for damping of the chances of another Middle East war waged by us, Johnson is skeptical and at the debate said that he does not support the deal.

"Iran is categorically proven to finance terrorism," Johnson said at the debate. "It's the number one financier of terror around the world" and thus Johnson thinks unfreezing what he thinks is their "$165 billion" in funds was a mistake since "some of this money would go to terrorism. No, we should not have signed the Iran deal. We should not have unfrozen those assets."

He walks a fine middle ground, though. While against the asset unfreezing, he made clear in a later interview from the convention floor that he thinks we can and should have ended the general embargo and "opened up trade with Iran without unfreezing assets."

When I asked if he had an elaborately detailed plan of how to deal with Iran on the international stage, he admitted he did not and that he "did not want to misspeak" on the topic by speculating wildly on the fly. Charmingly, Johnson troubled himself to delicately but firmly correct my own consistent mispronunciations of the former Persia's name. "EE-ran," he kept correcting me whenever I said "I-ran."

The most widely and sillily misunderstood comment on the foreign policy of long ago came when debate moderator Larry Elder, interested in exploring the strangest and most alienating areas where libertarian thought sometimes goes, asked such gotcha questions as, was it wrong to enter World War I? World War II? Was the Hiroshima bombing an act of evil?

The Hiroshima question came first, and Johnson answered that he "didn't want to judge" the actions. "Truman was faced with an obviously difficult situation," and Johnson brought up the usual arguments of the pro-bombers, that hundreds of thousands of American lives would have been lost had we chosen to invade instead of nuke. He did mention that he wasn't entirely sure two nukes were totally necessary.

Not a particularly bleeding heart answer. Yet later, he chose to just not rise to the bait of the World War I and II questions and answered them with a simple, "I don't know." 

This lead some journalists and tweeters to question Johnson's foreign policy competence or sanity. I didn't make much of it as in the context of the debate I interpreted his "I don't know" entirely as "I'm not going to play this gotcha game."

Joe Hunter from Johnson's media team gave this response to the controversy over the World War II answer:

"Having actually governed, Governor Johnson is very conscious of the reality that decisions are made in the context of the times, and based on what is known at the time. He is thus very cautious about speculating as to what he would have done 50, 60, or 100 years ago if presented with the circumstances of the time. Any decision about deploying military force would be based on a fundamental determination of what is necessary to protect the people of the United States, as opposed to unnecessary interventions of recent years."