Watching the presidential and vice presidential debates at this weekend’s Libertarian National Convention, I was disheartened to see the high level of dismissiveness many of the candidates showed toward the state of the United States military.
I’m not here to defend the massive expense of keeping bases scattered across western Europe, or the runaway spending that Congress and the Pentagon permit. But it is important to understand and appreciate the fundamentally important position that American military power plays in the current world order.
Right now, it is the vast (and, admittedly, expensive) American military that serves as the backstop for a world commercial and diplomatic system that has ensured a high degree of stability (relative to past eras) in which great and regional powers rarely if ever engage each other in war, and generally on far less expansive terms.
The US Navy in particular, has been a crucial component of this system. With a blue water navy that is radically larger and more advanced than the entirety of the navies of the rest of the world, the sea lanes have been kept clear, well patrolled, and opened to commerce. In past generations piracy or the actions of warring powers could severely disrupt trade and destroy the property of free-traders.
What would happen if the United States removed this backstop all at once?
The answer is, of course, that no one knows for certain. But when we observe the revamping of the Russian navy and China’s full-steam effort to build a credible blue water navy, we can see the perils to commerce and liberty American withdrawal could bring. Without providing a feasible alternative to the US guarantee, we run the risk of surrendering much of the world to forces that openly hostile to the principles of liberty and free trade that libertarians stand for.
The fears of rising great power rivalries is clear in this election year. It is the anxiety of America’s eroding position of strength that has served in part to fuel the rise of Donald Trump. So it was very worrying when candidates who wished to carry the banner of the Libertarian Party into the next election not only demonstrated a tin-ear toward these anxieties, but also propose what sounded like unilateral withdrawal to our own borders.
There was also, with the exception of Governor Gary Johnson, near total dismissal of the value of US membership in organizations like the United Nations. I am no great fan of the UN; it too frequently serves as a platform for anti-American grievance mongering and is certainly an expensive and largely ineffectual organization when it comes to direct actions. Yet it serves the valuable purpose of bringing diplomats together and can act as an arbiter of disputes between nations. Certainly if a Libertarian administration wants to draw down the military, such centers of diplomatic resolution will be more, not less important.
The Libertarian Party should be standing for a foreign and military policy that protects the freedom of its citizens and free commerce in the world. That means taking a realistic look at the interests of the other nations of the world and not behaving as if we live in a vacuum. We should gradually pressure other states with a vested interest in the security and stability the US currently provides to take a larger role in the international security order. Sharing the burden would allow us to reduce the bloated military budget without compromising the security of our citizens or the disruption of our commerce.
For the Libertarian Party to succeed, it must address the world as it is, not how we wish it to be.
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