Is Liberty Worth Fighting For? Rethinking Libertarian Foreign Policy

foreign policy

Editor’s note: The following article was submitted before the Trump administration’s decision to attack Syrian military targets.

Libertarians are, as we all know, anti-war. And for very good reasons, even the “good” wars can have terrible consequences such as the Japanese-American internment camps during WWII. War has long been an excuse by governments to clamp down on the rights of its citizens, or even to remove political opponents outright. And then you have the horrors of actual combat: countless soldiers killed in conflicts they don’t understand, countries destroyed, displaced nations of people and ruined economies. Anything short of an extreme aversion to starting wars is outright irresponsibility.

But not everyone cares about those consequences. North Korea invaded South Korea, and dictators use machine guns on protestors. Time and again, the enemies of liberty have proven more than willing to resort to violence to gain and keep power.

And yet, how do most libertarians respond to Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities, such as massacring 13,000 of his own people in a single prison? The better of us say “not my problem.” The worst of us hope he succeeds, and criticize Western governments supporting Syrians trying to oust him. After all, they say, he’s better than ISIS right? That the various factions in Syria are currently fighting over ISIS’s corpse show’s that assessment is also so, so wrong.

To me, the libertarian debate about Syria should be “do we support the FSA or SDF more?” I should never have had to make a case against a murderous authoritarian dictator to libertarians. It was this issue which first got me questioning the “libertarian” perspective on foreign policy. After a while, I realized that we are in fact more anti-war than pro-liberty. I’ve already made the case for why we should be anti-war, but then we are also anti-taxes. Very few of us support actually abolishing taxation (despite it being theft, of course). We simply have a very healthy skepticism about it; I propose the same response to war.

Hearing libertarians talk about why we shouldn’t be fighting for liberty abroad (or supporting freedom fighters), I get the vibe of “A single American life or dollar is too high a cost to pay in a conflict that doesn’t directly affect us.” It is often heavy with implication that the liberty of people in our nation is worth more, much more, than the liberty of those abroad. If that sounds familiar it’s because we’ve heard this before.

Libertarians and nationalists have the exact same foreign policy for nearly identical reasons. If that’s not raising alarm bells for you, it should. We are completely opposed to them. Nationalists are, I firmly believe, one of the greatest threats to liberty that we currently face. Ignoring the cause of liberty abroad is distinctly un-libertarian because it is anti-liberty and a better libertarian case can be made for globalism (and global thinking) than isolationism or America-Firstism.

Something else I hear rather frequently is that our interventions don’t work. I believe this is mistaken, or at least relatively so. For those who lament that the Middle Eastern countries we’ve intervened in are not yet democratic paradises, I implore you to look at South Korea. After the US and UN fought and bled to keep it free, going up against the massive Chinese army and sometimes the Soviet air force, it took a long time to see a return on that investment. The country was even a dictatorship for some time, and the economy took decades to significantly improve. Now, the Korean peninsula is a testament to the superiority of capitalism and the recently impeached president is proof of how strong its democracy is.

I often hear people talk about the ‘disaster’ that the Libyan intervention was, but I believe this is a poor assessment. Handily, we have a perfect example of what would be happening right now if Gaddafi hadn’t been deposed early on: Syria. Endless parallels exist: largely non-ideological authoritarian dictators, countries drawn up with arbitrary lines, the exact same pro-democracy/liberal/libertarian movement demanding reforms…I could go on for ages. Libya isn’t in great shape; the situation there is volatile and precarious. But Islamists have been almost eradicated militarily, whereas in Syria they are well established within both regime and rebel forces. There are also the death toll and humanitarian situation, which is many times worse in Syria. If it weren’t for the intervention, Libya would be what Syria is now and with an intervention, the current situation in Syria could have been avoided.

It is for these reasons that I believe we libertarians need to craft our own foreign policy. We need a departure from the anti-liberty policies of isolationist nationalists, but nowhere near the war hawkishness of the neocons. So, what should this foreign policy look like? I have a few ideas.

“There is no weapon or wall that is more powerful for American security than America being envied, imitated and admired around the world.” – Garry Kasparov

I’ve focused fairly heavily so far on war and conflict, but foreign policy encompasses so much more than that. Another area where we should depart from the nationalists is our approach to intergovernmental organizations such as the UN and NATO. As libertarians, we need to be wary about them gaining too much power, but without ignoring the immense good they can do. The UN does a lot of fantastic humanitarian work, and both organizations are very useful for reducing or averting conflict amongst their members, and, in NATO’s case, deterring Putin’s imperialism.

Another area of use is foreign aid, be it financial, arms, supplies etc. With the exception of humanitarian aid, only giving them to non-authoritarian countries incentivizes peaceful reforms. During the latter part of the Obama administration, he tried to provide support to some of the remaining Communist countries in Southwest Asia, to turn them into allies against China. I propose doing the opposite, supporting capitalist and democratic countries in the Pacific region. Spurning countries that compromise our values gives people in oppressive countries something to strive for. Despite obviously not being an-cap friendly, these strategies can help reduce war and improve global liberty at relatively little cost.

As I have stated, war can only be a last resort. At present, one of my greatest concerns is the potential for a war with Iran. While Iran is a brutally authoritarian theocracy, I believe peaceful reform is possible, and the mere existence of an authoritarian government is not justification for starting a war. Iraq is a superb example. The US invasion was completely unjustified, and care needs to be taken to ensure that the mistake is not repeated. Despite Saddam Hussein being a ruthless dictator with a penchant for invading other countries as well as crimes against humanity, that simply wasn’t enough in and of itself to warrant foreigners starting a war.

Almost ten years after the Iraq invasion, the Arab Spring occurred and added a layer of complexity to the dynamic of the Middle East which libertarians have abjectly failed to address. We saw Western bombs and arms used in wars against Arab dictators, and sure enough, there were similarities to Iraq. But the Arab Spring wasn’t an unprovoked invasion motivated by, at best, incompetence; it was a grassroots, peaceful, pro-democracy, even libertarian, movement demanding reforms from dictatorial regimes across the Arab world. We libertarians should have been as proud and happy about this movement as unsurprised when the governments responded to the protestors with machine guns instead of reforms. Instead, when the people returned with weapons of their own to fight for their rights and liberties, we completely turned against them. The only concept more foreign to us than “liberty or death” is helping them achieve liberty and avoid death. Some even talk about how these tyrants are the best hope for stability in the region and that overthrowing them is that last thing we should want.

So, what should we have supported doing in response to these wars? I would like to refer back to the American Revolution, one of the most celebrated historical events by American libertarians. Like the Arab Spring, it started with a largely peaceful and political libertarian movement, and spiraled into war when the government cracked down. It had a grassroots movement, political support, and former military personnel like Washington. However, what is often overlooked is the American Revolution would have been a failure if not for large quantities of French arms, money, and the direct assistance of their navy. This is exactly what I propose. No starting wars, avoiding boots on the ground at all cost. But should it come to war, and a popular movement tries to depose an authoritarian government, providing support would be remarkably easy and cheap for us and makes all of the difference for them. This includes providing arms, air support, logistics and supplies. Doing our utmost to screen the recipients of arms is also incredibly important. Just as I am adamant that supporting authoritarian regimes to fight terrorism is not worth it, the inverse in true as well.

“‘Tyranny or terrorism?’ Neither, always neither. If you condone, excuse, or normalize either, then you are NOT a voice for liberation.” – Iyad el-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed Islamic Libertarian and Arab Spring activist.

* Caleb Horner is a college student and a relatively new member of the liberty movement. He loves to explore history, politics, philosophy and economics in his spare time.

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  1. The flaw with your argument as intervention being better for the Syrian people is that the Assad regime probably wouldn’t be killing as many of these people if the State Dept./7th Floor Group didn’t incite a revolution, and arm and train the opposition to escalate protests into a full fledged civil war. The Syrian government response was what the average lefty wanted to see happen to the Tea Party movement.

    Like Libya, like the lies that sold the Iraq invasion, we destabilized a region that typically has volatile and violent shitheads, and more for the benefit of ‘allies’ like Turkey and Saudi Arabia than ourselves. I guarantee that more anti-American jihadis have been created by these interventions.

  2. Good article. Good beginning. this misses one critical aspect of libertarianism. The reason libertarians and nationalists get along is that they decentralize power at this time. When nationalists are centralizing power within their own country, then we as libertarians oppose them.

    The good things about nationalists can’t be ignored. While we also have to be international and global. The main way to do this, is a long lines you suggest. We must support decentralizing and freedom fighting forces around the world, and in times of peace especially. Building instutional forces that stabilize countries and decentralize power create a form of power that then can be used during times of crisis and war, that brings countries back to the stability.

    The UN is not a route to take for this. It will only grow into a centralizing authoritarian institution.

  3. No political philosophy, libertarianism included, can provide a guide to success in this complicated world. As far as “The Arab Spring” is concerned, you have been bamboozled by liars. The vast majority of the people protesting wanted an end to corrupt governments. But they also wanted societies governed by Islamists (of various stripes), not libertarians. The Afghanis want freedom, which they define as Islam and no foreigners. Libertarianism is a small fringe philosophy, advocated by a few people, in a tiny corner of a big world. If you enjoy political philosophy I suggest you read Machiavelli and Hobbes. All other political philosophy is childish nonsense.

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