Thinking About Libertarian Foreign Policy
The 2016 election did not provide much hope for libertarians. Yet some libertarians oddly found President Donald Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements to be a silver lining on an otherwise dark cloud. Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton represented, in many ways, the worst possible candidate from a libertarian perspective—a nanny state liberal domestically and a hawkish interventionist internationally—which led some libertarians to see Trump as the lesser of two evils. Sure, his candidacy was built on protectionism and anti-immigrant sentiments—and he also called for bringing back waterboarding as an interrogation practice and massively expanding military operations against the Islamic State—but his denigration of nation-building and America’s military alliances warmed some libertarian hearts.
I would like to use this post to provide some preliminary thoughts on libertarian foreign policy that are part of a larger project the Niskanen Center will be launching in the near future. And to start, I want to lay out a basic premise:
If Donald Trump’s foreign policy has any relationship to libertarian foreign policy, something is probably wrong with libertarian foreign policy.
Libertarians have an uneasy relationship with foreign policy. The state, after all, is the primary actor in international relations. In many situations, the alternative to action by the American state is not the action of a private sector or civil society actor, but rather the action of another state. In many cases, action by more repressive or brutal regimes may well be worse for American interests and the world at large than action by the U.S. government, for all its many failings. For libertarians, who want the state to do less, not more, this fact can be hard to stomach.
In general, libertarians recognize that foreign policy is the purview of the state. Absent the abolition of the state, the libertarian impulse is to argue that the American state has little reason to act—that it should “do less” abroad. For many libertarians, this circumscription of action by the American state is to be achieved by an a priori non-interventionism in the internal affairs of other states married to a general principle of non-aggression in which the use of military force should be strictly prohibited except in cases of narrow self-defense. However, identifying an aggressor is difficult enough in interpersonal relations—let alone in international affairs. And even when the action of the U.S. government may be superior to that of another government, many libertarians have a difficult time acknowledging that government action is justified. For those reasons, many strict non-interventionist libertarians find themselves openly embracing illiberal governments that they claim are resisting American imperialism and condemning any American criticism of autocrats as a prelude to “regime change.”
Smart libertarian foreign policy thinkers—most notably, my former colleagues at the Cato Institute—have used realist international theory as an intellectual justification for the American government to “do less.” Realism as a school of international relations is broadly concerned with power politics. States are the primary actors in an international system that is anarchic—that is, it lacks a global sovereign—and each state therefore must provide for its own security. The distribution of military capabilities determines the relative security of each state, and states “balance” against threats either by building their own military capabilities (internal balancing) or combining capabilities with other states facing a similar threat through military alliances (external balancing).
Realism is attractive for libertarians because the United States faces no major threats, and therefore does not need to balance either externally or internally. Washington can do away with its alliances, which might cause it to get dragged into a war for a purpose other than narrow self-defense. And it can reduce the size of the military and the warfare state that supports it. These are major tenets of a grand strategy proposed, most notably by realist international relations scholar Barry Posen, known as “Restraint”.
Non-interventionism, realism, Restraint, and generally speaking, “doing less” abroad, are supposed to serve libertarian ends by undermining the case for a large standing military force, high levels of defense spending, and other intrusive aspects of the national security state. Trump’s denigration of nation-building and American alliances has led some to latch onto the hope that he actually will “do less” abroad. With American foreign policy “restrained” to narrow concepts of self-defense, the warfare state can then be reduced.
But Trump said throughout his campaign, and in a recent executive order, that he wants to expand the size of the warfare state. The libertarian embrace of Trump’s foreign policy is therefore contradictory to the goals of libertarians. Moreover, we embrace the very things that Trump rejects internationally: free trade and free movement of people.
The embrace of Trumpian foreign policy by some libertarians is the embrace of something fundamentally illiberal. Trump’s rejection of the Beltway foreign policy establishment warmed the hearts of some libertarians because libertarians have long rejected the foreign policy establishment—seeing neoconservatives and liberal internationalists as two sides of the same hawkish coin. But the enemy of one’s enemy is not necessarily one’s friend.
Many of these same critiques of libertarian foreign policy views could be applied to many progressives as well. Daniel Nexon, a political scientist and scholar of international relations at Georgetown University, has been exploring a similar project to the one I’m involved in from a progressive perspective. In a recent post at the international relations blog Duck of Minerva, Nexon identifies similar problems in progressive foreign policy circles to the ones I mentioned above among libertarians, particularly a belief that progressives must stand wholly apart from the foreign policy establishment.
But Nexon does not believe this is true. He writes:
Trumpism highlights not only how neoconservatives and neoliberal internationalists are in the same family, but that progressive foreign policy also belongs to that family. This is not to downplay the significance of our differences. For instance, the Iraq War, targeted killings, and the like are matters of life and death. But we are arguing on similar terms. Trumpism, however, represents a stream of thought about the American role in the world that was, until now, marginal—and marginalized—in the post-war era.
I believe libertarians are part of this same family as well. The differences between libertarians and the neoconservative-neoliberal internationalist establishment—like those between progressives and the establishment—are important. Libertarians, for example, believe that regime change and nation building through the use of military force is unjust and more often than not doomed to failure. They are right. And libertarians should continue to assert themselves on these issues.
But libertarians have also rejected other aspects of America’s post-World War II grand strategy—namely, America’s military alliances and the web of international political and economic institutions they underpin—that have served the causes of peace, free trade, and a more interdependent world. The result of this web of institutions has been a liberal international order that encourages peaceful, commercial relations between states that had previously been rivals. It helps ameliorate security competition and establishes expected patterns of behavior that encourage cooperation instead. This order has not been without its flaws and, as Nexon highlights in another post, serious reforms should be explored. But it has also helped underpin previously unseen levels of peace and prosperity. As Nexon writes, “we should not confuse two different questions: ‘which liberal order?’ and ‘whether liberal order?’”
Donald Trump may reject nation building, but he rejects the liberal international order as well. Libertarians should not join him in doing so.