Libertarians and Foreign Policy, Part II

I have previously argued against the existence of a doctrinaire libertarian foreign policy stance in favor of non-interventionism or isolationism (//, and intend to return to this topic in a subsequent post. For the moment, however, I wish to examine a view that, while not purportedly compelled by any libertarian axiom, is nevertheless extremely popular in libertarian circles. It is promoted by Ron Paul, the Cato Institute, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and is an article of faith for a majority of libertarians.  This argument holds that virtually all military action beyond the actual defense of the homeland, including humanitarian interventions, the maintenance of alliances, and the use of military bases, is unwise because “when our government meddles around the world, it can stir up hornet’s nests and thereby jeopardize the safety of the American people.” Ron Paul, The Revolution: A Manifesto, p.19.

The problem with this notion when used as a general guide to foreign policy is that it flies directly in the face of our of common experience. Sadly, we as a society have become all too well acquainted with serial killers, child molesters and other monsters who prey on the innocent. When we encounter such persons we are not tempted to wonder what their victims might have done to provoke them. No, we understand that these sociopaths either enjoy their crimes or cannot control themselves.

We are also familiar here with individuals and groups who are simply bigoted and hateful, and who focus their irrational, unprovoked anger (and often violence) against specific ethnic, religious, racial or other minorities. Here again, we properly do not consider it necessary to ponder much about what their targets have done to justify such hatred.  

I don’t believe that the psychological make-up of foreigners is fundamentally different from our own. Accordingly, it is not clear to me that when we (or our allies) are subject to violence perpetrated by foreign dictators or terrorist leaders we should automatically assume that it is in response to something we have done. Or, that if it was, it was a reaction to rights-violating conduct or aggression on our part.

I think we must examine each situation carefully, in its own light, because it is entirely possible that many foreigners hate us for no good reason.  If (as I suspect) there are such groups, they will opportunistically employ violence against us, not for anything we have done, but simply for the values we hold. And, they will not be appeased by our severing alliances and shuttering bases. In fact, such measures may be an entirely legitimate means of responding to or preempting such attacks.

Even if foreign-directed violence against us is in response to our actions, it seems obvious that the implications for our foreign policy will depend on the nature of the conduct that gives rise to it. If what we did was entirely innocent, or at least within our rights, then the appropriate response to an attack may be to punish those responsible, rather than to change our behavior. Here again, this decision will require a careful case-by-case assessment of our national interests, a point lost in the isolationist view. 

Obviously, I am not attempting a comprehensive defense of an activist foreign policy here, but merely highlighting the inadequacy of any prescription that rests on the assumption that the possibility of “blow-back” should drive our strategic  posture.


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