Freedom-loving people are almost always nice and genial. I count them among my best friends, and in fact, I think of myself as one. Some of them have sharp intellects, publish great stuff, are brilliant discussants and all of them are prepared to take on the left-leaning, social liberal (for American readers: liberal) majority anytime. They never tire of pointing at the mistaken views of others. Yet at the same time, most libertarians (for sake of brevity I shall not go into the possible subdivisions and other definitional options when using this term) fail to recognize their own weird ideas about international relations. To quote Murray Rothbard: ‘thinking about international affairs is a weak point of libertarians’.
While I am not particularly impressed by Rothbard’s own ideas on international relations, he did make a valid point here. When searching for a particular quaint idea among libertarians, what comes up first is the idea that trade fosters peace. There are variations and the related idea that democracies allegedly do not fight each other will be left aside [which is hardly more convincing though, when closely scrutinizing the methodology and data used in this type of research], the basic idea is that international trade relations promote a peaceful world. There are several main mechanisms behind this. First, at the level of the individual, increasing numbers of international contacts lead to more international friendship and understanding, and consequently a diminishing wish to fight the trading partners . Second, businessmen and other citizens benefitting from trade (e.g. everybody) will act as domestic pressure groups, if need be forcing their leaders to refrain from international military action. Third, economic ties between countries mean these countries become interdependent. War between them would destroy this economic entanglement, therefore it is not the interest of leaders of states to initiate or maintain such destructive conflicts. The overall conclusion is: the more trade, the more peaceful the world becomes.
This is a fairy tale. Even though most libertarians do not go as far as to claim that trade has the capacity to eradicate all international conflict, it is nonsensical to claim that it fosters peace in any consistent way. A few objections. At the individual level, trade does not change human nature. While the rationality needed to preserve peace (acknowledging that war making is sometimes perfectly rational from an individual stance) may dominate the emotions once in a while, it cannot do so perpetually. Let alone in all people, everywhere at the globe. At the collective level, history shows that ‘citizen coalitions for peace’ hardly ever make a difference. Public opinion is often war prone, as for example free trade star Richard Cobden, who strongly argued trade would make public opinion more peaceful, painfully found out during the previous Crimea crisis in the 1850’s. At the political level economic interests are just one factor among many others (geopolitical, religious, domestic, personal, et cetera) when considering international military action. So perhaps sometimes a vital economic interest is too important to risk a war, yet at other times it does not count for much. Take the current Crimea crisis, where President Putin clearly prioritized the strategic objective of ensured naval capacity and access in the Black Sea above possible detrimental effects of economic sanctions.
There are also a number of other counter-arguments against the ‘trade-leads-to peace-hypothesis’. As for example David Hume and Adam Smith acknowledged and emphasized, trade also has the side-effect of promoting conflict. After all free trade make people and countries wealthier. Often this leads to increased defense expenditure, which may then lead to international belligerence, because previously poor states can for example make (renewed) territorial claims. Currently, China is a good example of this. Also, there is the completely neglected question of the nature and volume of trade. Does any amount of trade have peaceful effects, or is there some minimum? Also, does it matter what is traded? Does trade in oil and gas have more or less peaceful effects, compared to say textiles or fruit? Just to claim that ‘trade’ has peace enhancing effects is again unconvincing.
It is perhaps relatively harmless to foster fairy tale ideas in the study, at universities or to write them down in books and blogs. Yet in my mind these kind of ideas seriously hamper the appeal of libertarianism to other people. In a globalized world, people expect the ideas that guide their political behavior to have serious ideas about world politics. As is the case in for example economics or philosophy, libertarian ideas need to offer serious alternatives to make a difference and have the capacity to convince others. The idea that trade fosters peace is not a serious contribution to international relations discourse. It is high time the liberty loving people leave their fairy tale ideas on international affairs behind.