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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 [1] 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 [2] 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.

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 supported in 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 [3].

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "No Libertarian Case for Empire"

#1 Comment By Rambler89 On December 9, 2015 @ 3:29 am

A beautiful summing up, Mr. Bandow!

As you note, no-one even cares whether countries like Slovakia have a foreign policy. Also worth noting is the absence of **Europe** when it comes to discussion of miltary exertion. On any other subject, Western Europe’s prominent voices like to bloviate about **Europe** (with stars audibly bracketing the word) just as much as the U.S.’s prominent voices (Democrat interventionists and neo-con Republicans) like to bloviate about **America**.

Unlike Slovakia, however, the EU is roughly in the same class as the U.S. as regards size, population, wealth, and technological know-how. But when it comes to serious military committment, or to putting themselves at the risk of serious geopolitical backlash, “Europe” vanishes. It delivers only speeches and symbolic agreements. As an absolute last resort, to prevent an upheaval in domestic elections or to keep the U.S. from dumping them in disgust, the richest individual Western European countries will make some military gestures, always trivial compared to what the U.S. is expected to contribute. (Serious geopolitical backlash means something on the order of military invasion, missile attacks, or major economic reprisals–something that might put politicians out of office. A few hundred people killed in a terrorist attack is not serious geopolitical backlash in the eyes of cynical or starry-eyed politicians–it’s just collateral damage and an opportunity for grandstanding.)

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 9, 2015 @ 10:02 am

Noted is the obligatory “Putin is a thug” meme. But let’s be honest: he’s not the one using threatening and insulting language, the way our pols do. I guess this is the price for the other good arguments being taken seriously in certain quarters, where they desperately need to be.

#3 Comment By SDS On December 9, 2015 @ 10:54 am

“The U.S. government should concentrate on keeping Americans out of the tragedy of war rather than eagerly looking for new conflicts to join.”

Absolutely- But that will probably require us leaving NATO; and I don’t see that happening anytime soon…..

#4 Comment By SteveM On December 9, 2015 @ 11:12 am

Re: Fran Macadam “Noted is the obligatory “Putin is a thug” meme…”

As usual, I agree with Fran. In characterizing Putin, Doug Bandow should have gone full Godwin/Hillary and compared him to Hitler for completeness.

My repeated observation of why the U.S. – Russian relationship is warped is because Obama has personalized it. Obama is a pathological narcissist who hates Putin because Putin doesn’t play the sycophant. Moreover, Putin shows up Obama to be the hypocritical rank mediocrity that he really is.

So connect the dots in Obama’s mind; he is narcissistically contemptuous of Putin, Putin = Russia, so Obama is contemptuous of Russia, so the U.S. – Russia relationship is warped.

And as usual, with American Power Elite arrogance and stupidity, it’s the taxpayer who has to pay for the geo-political psychopathology.

#5 Comment By LouisM On December 9, 2015 @ 11:52 am

I don’t understand how the US could reduce its nuclear stockpile, change its nuclear missiles from multi-warhead to single warhead (while Russia and China and North Korea and India and Pakistan are building new multi-warhead missiles).

I don’t understand how we could be reducing next generation fighters, bombers, littoral destroyers and space based weapons systems.

Yet at the same time our neoliberals / neoconservatives want us to be the worlds bully, the worlds policeman, the worlds supra-government leader. To me its completely incomprehensible and schizophrenic. I long for the days when the US was a isolationist/passivist mercantile nation and only had to worry about international trade.

#6 Comment By SteveM On December 9, 2015 @ 12:07 pm

Re: LouisM “I don’t understand how we could be reducing next generation fighters, bombers, littoral destroyers and space based weapons systems.”

That one’s easy. All of those systems had plenty of platforms written into the original program plans.

Then the Pentagon and the crony defense contractors proceeded to blow those plans up with hyper-busted cost and schedule overruns. To say nothing of the systems that were cancelled outright. E.g. The Army Future Combat System.

The Pentagon brass (that works hand in glove with the Merchants of Death cronies) scurrying back up to Congress to plead a fear-mongering “hollowed out” force structure is akin to the kid that kills his parents and then throws himself at the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.

Then Congress, bedazzled by anyone with stars on their shoulders, writes even bigger checks.

Welcome to their world…

#7 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 9, 2015 @ 12:10 pm

“Noted is the obligatory “Putin is a thug” meme.”

I was bit jarred by this comment as well. It diminished the overall advance.

#8 Comment By RM On December 9, 2015 @ 12:41 pm

Since we provide this essential service of “protection” we should be paid for it. We can rent our military forces, either by the day or the conflict. Customers can choose various packages that include combinations of ground troops, air cover, and naval instruments. Sign up for one of our subscription plans for ongoing ethnic conflicts.

A 50% deposit must be made in advance in the form of Bitcoins.

#9 Comment By David On December 9, 2015 @ 1:35 pm

Agree with Fran Macadam and SteveM. Putin’s been in power for about 15 years, during which time he’s annexed Crimea and supported the rebels in Ukraine. During the same period, we’ve bombed and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, bombed Libya and made a mess of the Middle East. So who’s the thug?

#10 Comment By Will Harrington On December 9, 2015 @ 1:39 pm

Steve M

Another reason for continued US hostility toward Russia is the Fundamentalist/Evangelical Chiliastic identification of Russia with either Gog or Magog, I forget which. This recent interpretation felt right when the USSR was a threat, but even then was pretty darn spurious. Still, we have the Russia is Evil idea being an item of faith for many Americans.

#11 Comment By Ken Hoop On December 9, 2015 @ 6:26 pm

Some of the ultra conservative Catholics such as with the Fatima “Russia must be consecrated and convert to Rome” vibe also chip in.

#12 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 9, 2015 @ 6:34 pm

“Another reason for continued US hostility toward Russia is the Fundamentalist/Evangelical Chiliastic identification of Russia with either Gog or Magog, I forget which.”

I seem to be considered a fairly literalist Evangelical, but I don’t take this seriously, unless in some future unknown time it really does happen. At this point, I’m more skeptical of U.S. claims to exceptionalism that are rather shallowly conflated with religion. For those who are thinking Evangelicals, such an interpretation is difficult to sustain, given Russia’s at least nominal restoration of Orthodoxy and the metamorphosis of the west’s culture, now including the United States, into de facto materialist, appetite-driven paganism.

Much more important is the bureaucratic inertia of an imperial military pact founded to oppose the Soviets and has no raison d’etre other than to keep fighting the same geographic foe long after any threat from communism ceased. So it does to perform its first duty, to its own continued existence. Sometimes we don’t just go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, but in order to create them. That is useful to military industrial economic aims and its corporate cash flows. It is also driven by the policy supposedly driven by national security concerns, Full Spectrum Dominance, in which the neocons succeeded in establishing the self-destructive narrative that in a global zero sum game, all foreign governments must become subservient to the U.S., politically, economically and militarily.

It’s a given that there will always be resistance to such hegemony, but there aren’t many nations powerful enough to openly and possibly successfully resist, and Russia is again one of the two.

#13 Comment By Steven Markley On December 10, 2015 @ 9:53 am

I think Mr. Bandow could have made his argument without attacking Putin’s character. But respectfully, I think the people running to Putin’s defense are missing the essential point Bandow is making here. That being, no matter how reprehensible a given person might be, the U.S. should only act against them militarily if it’s in the interests of our national security.

So let’s say that Putin is a big mean jerkface (because he in fact is). Further, let us suppose he is an Annanuki reptile alien Antichrist and the reincarnation of Hitler, and furthermore eats babies and is banging your mother; I have it on good authority that this is in fact the case. Does this warrant intervention? No. Bashir is a reprehensible human being, and so was Hussein and Qaddafi, and we can see the cost of intervening there. So while someone might deserve to die, that doesn’t make killing them the right or intelligent thing to do.

#14 Comment By muggles On December 10, 2015 @ 12:28 pm

Amen to the others commenting about the misplaced slam on Putin. No, he’s no saint but compared to whom? He’s a Russian patriot who is far less imperialistic than St. Obama.
As to Bandow’s main thesis, yes, “welfare interventionists” are as bad as “welfare rebels” (i.e. Syrian rebels)who argue that it is the US or Europe’s burden to do the fighting or intervening. Quite telling that the psuedo libertarians arguing for more US involvement don’t instead argue for Russian, Swedish or Slovkian involvement. Do US libertarians write essays demanding that these countries have “moral obligations” to do this and that? And thus milk their own taxpayers for the obscene costs?
This mindset reflects a sick and dangerous belief that force exerted will create good outcomes. History proves that is rarely the case. Meddling is force projected on others.
Putin has been far more hesitant to do that than NATO leaders.

#15 Comment By Jim Houghton On December 10, 2015 @ 12:53 pm

The United States, in its commitment to its own exceptionalism, has set itself up as the arbiter and enforcer of “freedom and democracy” for the whole world. Not that it actually succeeds at the task, but no one thumps their chest as loudly, nor has such a big chest to thump (thank you, American taxpayers). So the U.S. shouldn’t go whining to Mommy when the rest of the world says, “Okay, tough guy, YOU handle this problem!”

#16 Comment By Emilio On December 10, 2015 @ 5:33 pm

The only thing America owes to Europe and Europeans is
1. The fact that it exists in the first place
2. Most of its population, thus its national power
3. Most of its social, cultural, religious and linguistic foundations, thus its national identity

Other than that, American interests are naturally and completely independent of Europe, and every American has the God-given right to laugh at pathetic Lithuanian armies, because a hapless dwarf like Lithuania could never give anything worthwhile to a champ like America. Right?

#17 Comment By Cornel Lencar On December 12, 2015 @ 5:01 pm

Interesting article. I would like to add a bit to what other commenters have inserted here.

1. The jibe at Putin is unwarranted. Why is Putin and Russia more of a thug compared with the U.S. government and Obama? Facts on the ground in fact would suggest otherwise. If we are to look at Crimea – one needs to consider the Frankenstein nature of the Ukrainian state; the mad doctor (Russia) found that part of the monster actually useful and or essential, so it took it back, given that the monster became someone’s tool.
2. The U.S. is asked so much of for several reasons: a) the U.S. wants the world as little armed as possible (less the weapons makers); b) U.S. having the privilege of printing the world currency, others expect something for the privilege; c) the U.S. sees Russia-China-Iran alliance as a possible threat to the dollar domination and the domination of its brand of financial capitalism.
Most of the analyses at TAC miss following the money…