Two libertarians familiar to TAC readers—Robert Murphy and Sheldon Richman—have lately offered critiques of my “Why Liberalism Means Empire” essay. Libertarians consider themselves liberals, or at least heirs to classical liberalism, and have been among the most outspoken opponents of “empire” in contemporary American politics. So on the face of it, they have good reason to object to the connection I draw between their ideology and global power they abjure. The trouble is, the objections don’t stand up, and liberalism remains deeply implicated in the security conditions of empire.
Murphy attacks my argument at its strongest point, the case of World War II. “Look at what the Soviets did to Eastern Europe after the Americans provided them with all sorts of aid and attacked Germany from the west,” he writes. “If we dislike that outcome—and McCarthy and I do both dislike it—then to have achieved a more balanced outcome, surely the US should not have jumped in on the side that ended up winning.”
Soviet domination of half of Europe after the war is certainly an undesirable outcome. Can we imagine a worse one—or three? Easily.
Without the U.S., the outcomes available to Europe as a whole in World War II, West as well as East, were a.) Nazi control, b.) Soviet control, or c.) divided Nazi-Soviet control. Would any liberal prefer one of these outcomes to what occurred with U.S. intervention, namely d.) divided U.S./Western-Soviet control?
U.S. intervention certainly did strengthen the USSR. But strength in international affairs is a relative thing. A weaker USSR still strong enough to prevail against Nazi Germany without American help would have been more than strong enough to subdue war-torn Western as well as Eastern Europe. Stalin had fifth columns at the ready among resistance forces in France and elsewhere. As it happened, the USSR was in no position to claim France, Italy, West Germany, and Greece after World War II because the U.S. and the allies America rallied stood in the way. Without that check, little would have prevented Stalin from doing to Western Europe what he did to the East.
Alternatively, had a weaker USSR fallen to Hitler, the Nazis would have had an even easier time consolidating control of the Continent. What force could resist them? Franco and Salazar were not about to do so, whatever their differences with Hitler. Finally, had a USSR not supported by the United States fought the Germans to a standstill, the result might have been the worst of all worlds, with all of Europe unfree and the internal resistance to each totalitarian bloc being drawn toward the ideology of the other totalitarian bloc. A Cold War between the USSR and Nazi Germany would by any measure be worse than the one we had between the USSR and United States.
What of the hope that a draw might have brought anti-totalitarian revolution to Nazi Germany and the USSR? Murphy, Richman, and I all agree that war is bad for liberty and liberalism—but for that very reason, wars fought between totalitarian powers are unlikely to have a liberalizing effect on them. Quite the contrary: wars and crises tend to create conditions that allow totalitarianism to arise in the first place, and war is one environment in which the totalitarian ethos seems to thrive. The idea that the USSR and Nazi Germany, fighting one another, would each have collapsed, giving way to some tolerably liberal government, could only be believed by someone whose ideology insists that he believe it. It’s Lysenkoism applied to history.
Richman has better arguments, but they tend to be tangential to my points. He writes:
McCarthy has a rather liberal notion of liberalism—so liberal that it includes the illiberal corporate state, or what Albert Jay Nock called the “merchant-state,” that is, a powerful political-legal regime aimed first and foremost at fostering an economic system on behalf of masters, to use Adam Smith’s term. (The libertarian Thomas Hodgskin, not Marx, was the first to disparage “capitalists” for their use of the state to gain exploitative privileges.)
What Richman calls a loose, “rather liberal notion of liberalism” is intended to be a broadly accurate description of real-world, actually existing liberalism. A few years ago I commissioned Richman to write an essay on “free-market anti-capitalism,” a term that might sound like a contradiction to people who equate capitalism with free markets. What we have here is a parallel case: just as capitalism in practice is often antithetical to market freedom as understood in theory, so liberalism in practice—a state system involving capitalism, free trade, representative government, legal individualism, religious liberty, etc.—often falls short of the tenets of liberal theory. The problem is, practice comes first.
My essay claims that the security provided by the British Empire and later U.S. hegemony—or American Empire, if we want to be indelicate—has promoted liberal practice, and liberal practice, messy and imperfect though it might be, has promoted liberal theory. The claim here is not deterministic at the individual level: it’s plainly not the case no one can come up with liberal ideas amid an illiberal environment. Rather, a liberal environment is more conducive than an illiberal one to the extension and refinement of liberal thought among a populace.
This is why the largest concentration of classical liberals in 19th-century politics and the greatest volume of classical-liberal literature were to be found in Britain, and it’s why libertarianism today finds the most followers and is most strongly institutionalized—in think tanks, magazines, and a nascent political movement—in the United States. Liberalism is a luxury security affords, and hegemons have the security in the greatest abundance.
Security by itself is not enough, of course: a state that enjoyed tremendous international security, as Japan did for centuries, might or might not spontaneously develop broadly liberal ideas. Given the presence of liberal seeds, however, security seems to encourage their growth—this was true even in the Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc during the Cold War and in the USSR itself.
The extended Soviet Empire was distinctly illiberal in ideology but enjoyed supreme security: there was never much prospect that NATO would simply invade Eastern Europe. (Just as NATO deterred the Soviets themselves from doing any invading of the West.) What liberal ideas survived Soviet repression or otherwise made their way through black-market channels into Soviet-controlled domains often met with a welcoming audience, and over decades, under conditions of peace, those liberal ideas grew stronger while the totalitarian ideology of the USSR grew weaker, including in Russia itself. Ironically, the Soviet Union’s greatest success—its conquest of Eastern Europe and guarantee of Russia’s security—contributed to its undoing. It created conditions in which liberalism could grow.
(And note, alas, what is happening in Eastern Europe and on Russia’s periphery now that security competition has returned: nationalism and even fascism is gaining ground.)
Anyone as an individual may be able to hold almost any idea at any time. But of the many ideas to which our minds give rise, only a few find substantial political expression. “McCarthy is wrong in thinking that power, that is, force, rules the world,” Richman writes. “There is something stronger: ideas.” In fact, only some ideas rule the world—the ones that succeed in acquiring power.
But power is a protean thing; it doesn’t just mean state power but any kind of hold over human beings. This highlights one of the paradoxes of liberalism: the ideology gains more power in terms of popular appeal at the expense of the states that make it possible. This is a good thing to the extent that liberal attitudes check abusive government. It’s a bad thing to the extent that liberal attitudes deprive states and populations alike of the wherewithal to combat external threats when they do arise. Pacifism, as a cousin or acute manifestation of liberalism, is a case in point. It’s one of the ideological luxuries made possible by security, but if adopted generally there would soon be no security left to leave it a choice for anyone but martyrs.
What’s more, radical liberals may call for complete nonintervention, but most self-identified liberals, including a contingent of libertarians, favor humanitarian warfare and aggressive efforts to “liberalize” countries that are insufficiently liberal and democratic. This is another irony of liberalism: it was fostered by non-ideological empires—Britain obtained hers in a fit of absence of mind; America acquired hers with tremendous reluctance and a troubled conscience. But once non-ideological empire has promoted the growth of liberal ideology, that ideology takes on a more radical, demanding character: a liberal minority adopt the anarcho-pacifist position, calling for dismantling the empire today; while a larger number of liberals call for using the empire to promote liberal ideological ends. Reining in empire thus requires reining in the demands of liberalism—realism as an antidote to ideology.
Murphy and Richman both point to the ways in which war and empire have made the United States less liberal in practice. War’s illiberal effects are indeed a major part of my argument: war is the opposite of security, and conditions of war—i.e., the absence of security—are dreadful for liberty. The question is what minimizes conditions of war and maximizes conditions of security.
That’s not a question that can be answered in the abstract; it’s one that must be answered in the context of particular times. In the case of 19th-century Europe, a balance of power safeguarded by the British Empire as an “offshore balancer” seems to have done the trick. In the case of 20th-century Europe, a 45-year balance between the United States and a contained USSR kept the peace from the fall of Nazi Germany until the collapse of the Soviet Union. One thing I hope my essay will do is prompt libertarians to think more seriously about historical security conditions and what viable “libertarian” options there may have been in the foreign-policy crises of the past. If there were no viable libertarian options, that’s a problem for libertarianism.
It’s a practical problem being confronted by Rand Paul right now. What liberal or libertarian thinkers can he draw upon for practical foreign-policy advice? There are a few, but most radical libertarians are simply not interested in real-world foreign-policy choices. And once libertarians do engage with reality, they start to seem a lot less libertarian.
Richman compares the hazards of foreign policy to those of domestic economic planning. In the case of the economy, the libertarian alternative is the free market; no planning. In the case of foreign policy, is the libertarian alternative also no policy? How can a state in a world of states—all of which, as libertarians know, have a coercive character—have no foreign policy? It’s true that the less power foreign-policy planners have the less trouble they can get up to. This is something on which libertarians and realists who favor restraint can agree. But realists recognize that this tendency for too much power to lead to abuse must be weighed against the dangers of other states’ power. Libertarians seem to see no danger in that direction at all.
Any people that has ever been invaded might find that perverse—indeed, my libertarian friends are often confounded by how their fellow libertarians in Poland or Ukraine can be so hawkish. But the U.S. is in an exceptionally strong geostrategic position. Invasion is highly impractical, if not impossible. My essay, however, notes that world conditions can have a dangerous influence on the U.S. even without foreign boots on our soil. On the one hand, foreign ideologies exert a certain attraction to Americans; and on the other hand, Americans have historically been rather paranoid about foreign ideological influence. Threats both real and imagined attend insecurity, and both kinds lead to illiberal policies.
Luckily, there are at present only a handful of geostrategic positions around the planet that offer secure bases for power projection and ideological dominance. North America is one of them. The second is the European continent. And the third is East Asia, which of the three is by far the least island-like and defensible.
Preventing a hostile power from dominating Europe and keeping a balance in East Asia is “empire” enough. Beyond that, prosperity and industrial strength, along with our nuclear arsenal, are the keys to our security. This is a historically realistic vision, one that solves the great problems of the past—what to do about Nazi Germany or the USSR—and the otherwise insoluble problems of the present, such as what to do about the Middle East: namely, minimize our exposure to crises that we cannot fix and that do not affect the top-tier distribution of power. Today what is most ethical and what is politically and strategically realistic coincide reasonably well: we should not seek to enlarge our commitments; we should preserve our naval power; we should use diplomacy and economics to advance our interests and contain disruptive powers.
This is not a strategy of hard-heartedness toward the oppressed peoples of the world. A secure and prosperous U.S. is in a position to be an ideological counterweight to any illiberal state or insurgency, and it can act when necessary only because it does not act when not necessary. Morale is as limited as men, money, and materiel, and wasting any of these—on a strategic level, we wasted them all in Iraq, as the present crisis demonstrates—is bad for our prosperity, our security, and everyone else’s as well.
Realism and restraint are the watchwords. If libertarians have a stronger strategic argument, I’m eager to hear it.