Commentary

No Libertarian Case for Empire

Before becoming wedded to statism in America, liberalism was a philosophy of liberation. Around the world it stood for liberty and tolerance, battling equally against conservative aristocracy and radical socialism. A global community of those who believe in this older, or classical, liberalism remains active, generally championing free markets, expansive immigration, civil liberties, free speech, and social tolerance. But while leading liberals of the past, such as Great Britain’s John Bright and Richard Cobden, advocated peace, many foreign liberals today favor war—at least, if conducted by Americans at American expense.

For instance, Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest chess player ever, has heroically taken on the thankless task of battling for democracy in his Russian homeland. Less commendably, he is surprisingly generous with other people’s lives. He recently declared in the Wall Street Journal: “Anything less than a major U.S. and NATO-led ground offensive against ISIS will be a guarantee of continued failure and more terror attacks in the West. It is immoral to continue putting civilians—Syrian and Western alike—instead of soldiers on the front line against terrorists.”

Kasparov is confused over cause and effect, since terrorism most often follows intervention, as did the recent Islamic State strikes against France, Hezbollah and Russia. But there is a more basic point. It’s easy for a celebrity Russian living in the West to argue that it is the job of Americans, with maybe a couple Europeans tossed in, to destroy ISIS, save Syria, pacify the Mideast, contain Russia, save Ukraine, and more. But there’s actually nothing liberal in pushing a broader, longer war on others.

Kasparov is not alone. Slovak Dalibor Rohac, ensconced at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that non-intervention “is unwise and reckless, and would ultimately jeopardize libertarian principles of individual freedom.” He cited three Europeans—Lithuanian, Russian, Swedish—who established a website criticizing former Rep. Ron Paul. They contended that “compelling [libertarian] arguments can be made for both advocates of globalist and non-interventionist foreign policy positions.”

Actually, that’s true only so long as one isn’t paying the cost of the foreign policy. As foreigners typically do not for American intervention, unless it is directed at them. In the abstract wars for liberty sound pretty grand. In practice they typically break down. Foreign policy is specific, not general. That is, it only makes sense tied to a particular nation at a particular time in a particular set of circumstances.

Americans who want liberty at home should be wary of expats who seek U.S. intervention abroad.

In contrast, economic principles are universal: free markets work irrespective of person or place. Different cultures may generate different institutions, but incentives operate the same. The essence of the human person, any human person, demands respect for life, liberty, and dignity. But when should a government impose sanctions, create an alliance, threaten attack, or launch a war? That depends on many things. And today, for the United States, non-interventionism is the policy most consistent, indeed the only one genuinely consistent, with a commitment to liberalism, meaning limited government and individual liberty.

For the most part those foreign liberals who call for intervention do not support intervention by their nations. Rather, their discussion usually is about one other country: America.

After all, the Russian government is interventionist—“globalist,” if you will—but not in a way supported by Kasparov and other Russian liberals. Sweden is a wealthy, sophisticated nation, but has precisely 15,300 men under arms. That’s not going to result in a lot of globalism, whatever that means. Slovakia has a few more men at the ready, 15,850, but is notably poorer than Sweden. That explains why no one even cares whether Slovakia has a foreign policy. Lithuania’s military comes in at 10,950 people. Better than none, perhaps. Although not by much.

About the only foreign policy option for all three is to ask someone else, namely America, to defend them. (Slovakia is part of NATO, but isn’t likely to answer Vilnius’ call and send its few troops to patrol the borders of the Baltic States.) There’s nothing wrong with asking for defense charity. Indeed, I probably would make the same plea in the same position. But it represents nationalism more than liberalism. Lithuanians, Slovaks, and Swedes don’t want to be swallowed by Russia. Fair ‘nuff. Some people want to preserve whatever liberties are present. Others don’t want to be ruled by outsiders. It works out about the same in practice.

Thus, when Rohac argued that libertarians should support “creation of collective security arrangements and investment into military capability that can deter predatory behavior,” he really meant Americans should do the creating and investing—and, ultimately, fighting. Slovakia, which devotes a tad over 1 percent of GDP to the military, isn’t likely to do so. Nor will Lithuania—which last year spent less than one percent of GDP on defense despite complaining mightily about the Russian threat. Nor Sweden, which also barely breaks the one percent level.

But American liberals of the classical variety have no obligation to do what foreign liberals desire. That is, U.S. foreign policy should, indeed, must, be guided by what is in the interest of those doing the paying and dying, namely the American people. Any government action should be constrained by moral principles. But the Pentagon exists to protect the American people, and the liberal republic which governs them, not conduct grand “liberal” crusades around the world, no matter how attractive in theory. Thus, support for limited government and individual liberty at home necessitates a commitment to a foreign policy of restraint, even humility, to quote George W. Bush before he gave in to the Dark Side.

There are several reasons to make intervention and war a last resort to protect only the most serious interests. First, as social critic Randolph Bourne warned, “War is the health of the state.” Military spending is the price of one’s foreign policy, since it’s hard to fight without men and materiel. This is why Washington accounts for around 40 percent of the world’s military outlays. It is expensive to try to dominate the entire globe. It is far more expensive to project power than to deter intervention.

Moreover, war kills, disables, and wounds. Today the home front also becomes a battlefield, since unconventional adversaries find unconventional ways to strike back, most commonly terrorism. The national security state generates economic controls, restraints on civil liberties, and restrictions on political freedoms. This is hardly a policy consistent with creating a government of limited power which respects citizens’ abundant liberties. Americans pay the costs of intervention, while those cheering from outside America’s borders typically contribute little or nothing.

Second, U.S. alliances act as a form of international welfare. Washington doing it ensures that no one else will do it. This is why circumstances are so important. It made sense for the U.S. to protect war-devastated Western Europe at the end of World War II. But not today, when the European Union enjoys a greater GDP and population than America. Indeed, the Pentagon has become an endless defense dole for wealthy allies throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East which are capable of protecting themselves. Classical liberals around the world might enjoy benefiting from someone else’s largesse, but there’s no libertarian reason for the U.S. government to redistribute money from Americans to other peoples who seek to lighten their military burdens.

Third, an interventionist, warlike policy kills. Not just Americans, but foreigners. By embarking on a gloriously foolish crusade into Iraq while botching the occupation, Washington unleashed sectarian war that killed perhaps 200,000 Iraqis before ebbing, only to flare again under the Islamic State, a malign force spawned by the conflict. Forcibly dismembering Yugoslavia saved some Kosovar lives while killing many Serbs. Tepid intervention in Libya lengthened a bloody low-tech civil war and left chaos afterwards.

It’s easy to spend one’s time in a Washington think tank arguing over whether the benefits ultimately exceed the costs. But sacrificing some lives for others, deciding who will live and die, isn’t properly Americans’, let along the American government’s, role. People, whether American service personnel or foreign civilians, should not be treated as gambit pawns in someone else’s grand geopolitical game, liberal or otherwise. A good standard for U.S. foreign policy would be the medical principle, first do no harm.

Fourth, Washington does badly at social engineering at home. It does far worse attempting to remake the world. Indeed, it beggars belief that the same faithless politicians and selfish bureaucrats routinely excoriated for their domestic failings magically metamorphose into far-seeing statesmen and women able to transcend religion, geography, history, culture, tradition, ethnicity, and more able to transform other nations into a lands of milk and honey in which opposing sides sing Kumbaya by the fire every evening.

The vision is simply mad when applied to the Middle East. Kasparov’s apparent belief in Washington’s ability to defeat the Islamic State and fix Syria is either charmingly naïve or criminally negligent considering the extraordinary hash America has made of just about every alliance and war in the Middle East. After all, ISIL wouldn’t exist absent George W.  Bush’s misguided invasion of Iraq. Which Washington once supportedin an aggressive war against Iran. One thing of which Americans can be certain about the war against the Islamic State: there will be blowback and unintended consequences, which will be used to justify future interventions.

Given these realities, the kind of aggressive U.S. policy toward Russia desired by many foreign liberals—in fact, the most important issue seemingly motivating Kasparov, Rohac, and others—would be foolish and, yes, illiberal, for America. Russian activities harm the liberties of other peoples. But doing more to stop Moscow would do greater damage to the liberties of Americans. And that should be the primary focus of the U.S. government.

Yes, Vladimir Putin is a thug. Russia’s actions are unjustified. Moscow manipulates the facts. Putin’s intentions are malign. Russia uses ethnic grievances for its own advantage. Liberals around the globe believe that Moscow should stop doing what it is doing. Nevertheless, American policy first and foremost should protect the lives, liberty, prosperity, and territory of Americans.

Thus, Washington should calibrate its response to the interest affected. Which isn’t much. Russia doesn’t pose a threat to the U.S. The former ain’t the Soviet Union. There is no global military contest, no world-spanning ideological battle, no international military confrontation, no comparable global ambitions. The much faded Evil Empire’s behavior demonstrates that it has receded to traditional great power status—insisting that other states treat it with respect, take its global interests into account, and accept its territorial security.

Nor does Moscow any longer even threaten to dominate Europe. The continent enjoys around eight times the GDP and three times the population of Russia. No one imagines a revived Red Army marching on Berlin, Paris, Rome, and London. Europe’s eastern border lands remain vulnerable to pressure, but the American purpose is not to risk war with nuclear powers to rescue states in bad geopolitical neighborhoods. During Russia’s war with Georgia—which started the shooting, according to European observers—the Bush administration reportedly debated striking the tunnels through which Moscow was sending its combat forces. Such a policy might have stirred the hearts of European liberals, but would have been complete madness for Americans. After getting through the entire Cold War without triggering a hot conflict, the U.S. would commit an act of war that almost certainly would spark bloody retaliation. Washington has no more reason to court war with Moscow over Ukraine, which is viewed as a vital rather than peripheral interest by Russia.

Is the result a nice, just, fair, pleasant, or good outcome? No. But nothing in liberal philosophy requires residents of the globe’s most powerful “liberal” nation to bankrupt themselves, sacrifice their liberty, and court national destruction to try to make the earth a better place. Rohac spoke of America’s leaders having “responsibility for the world that exists outside of America’s borders.” Foreign policy involves sacrificing other people’s money and lives. That should be done by the U.S. government only when those paying the cost, the American people, have something fundamental at stake.

The dilemma is nicely captured by the American revolutionaries who sought French military assistance against Great Britain. They did so not to fulfill their liberal philosophy, but on eminently practical, essentially nationalistic, grounds: absent outside aid the British Empire likely would prevail. Paris responded, but not out of any liberal sentimentalities. After all, the French monarchy was decidedly illiberal. France acted out of perceived self-interest. Americans benefited, but only because the French thought they would do so as well.

Undoubtedly, liberals from other nations will continue to lobby Washington to advance their home countries’ interests. No surprise there. But they shouldn’t complain if American liberals choose priceless domestic peace and prosperity over costly international charity and conflict. An American who values individual liberty and advocates limited government should oppose further inflating the Washington Leviathan to “do good” elsewhere. The U.S. government should concentrate on keeping Americans out of the tragedy of war rather than eagerly looking for new conflicts to join. Choosing peace might seem churlish, but actually is the true application of classical liberalism. The lion may not yet be ready to lie down by the lamb, but at least the U.S. government could avoid feeding more Americans to the marauding jungle king.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.