Foreign Policy in the Liberal Tradition: The Real Story

Over at the Niskanen Center, Matthew Fay wrote a blog entitled “Thinking about Libertarian Foreign Policy.” Brandon was so nice to point this out to me.

Fay’s main point is that, apparently contrary to what some libertarians think (Fay leaves them unnamed, no references either), there is big divide between the foreign policy pronouncements of Donald Trump and libertarian views on foreign policy. So far, so good. I have no dispute with that.

Yet Fay’s blog post is seriously lacking at other points. The main one, and the focus of this post, is that he mixes up different views on international relations within the liberal tradition at large, which is in some way not so surprising because he appears to be ignorant of those differences to begin with (at least in this piece). That is not very comforting for those concerned with this issue, as the Niskanen Center is about to start a larger project on foreign policy. Should it indeed be born in neglect and oversight, it won’t add much to our knowledge, I am afraid.

Conceptual mess

Fay’s essay gets off to a false start as he fails to properly introduce “libertarian.” He then continues to use this label for all kinds of theoretical ideas, originating from both liberal political thought, and international relations theory. To make things worse, Fay routinely claims that there is one unified libertarian position on foreign policy.

This is erroneous, as classical liberalism, libertarianism, and social liberalism all have partly different views on the matter. The various thinkers associated with those different liberalisms have different views on domestic and international politics. Any meaningful analysis on foreign policy from a libertarian or other liberal position should acknowledge that, and use it to the reader’s advantage. It is impossible and perhaps even deceiving to enter into a topical debate when your own position is a conceptual mess. This applies to all debates, academic and otherwise.

Proper conceptual approach

So what should Fay have done instead? Simply acknowledge there is more to liberal thought on international relations, and work from there.

To keep this blog to a readable length, I will just present these differences very briefly. My presentation is based on the writings of the British political theorist Michael Freeden. He argues that every political ideology (and liberalism is one of them) should be seen as a framework (which he calls morphology) composed of a number of political concepts. These concepts vary in importance while their meaning is contested within the ideology. It is possible to distinguish core, adjacent, and peripheral concepts, which together make a unique set of political ideas. While some of the individual concepts overlap, there is significant variation between the frameworks. This enables the distinction between different liberal variants, which are still part of the larger liberal family.

For example, the concept of liberty is key to all liberal variants, but liberty has different meanings. Isaiah Berlin’s famous divide between positive and negative liberty is relevant here. The latter can be defined as ‘the freedom from interference by others’, the first ‘the freedom to fully enjoy one’s rights and liberties’, which often demands some support of the state. Classical liberalism is associated with the negative conception and social liberalism with the positive meaning. Yet the meaning of negative liberty may be further contested. The protection from interference by others may be taken as absolute, which is far more stringent than the classical liberal interpretation, which does allow for compulsory taxation of individuals to pay for public services. Now we are entering the libertarian domain, which is in itself divided into those who hold an absolute idea of negative liberty (the anarcho-capitalists), and those who permit a minimal infringement of property rights to pay for police, external defense, and the judiciary (the minarchists). This is also why conservatism is not as closely related to the liberal family as is sometimes thought. For conservatives, individual liberty is not a core concept at all.

Applied to liberalism and conservatism is comes to this:

Table 1: The Morphology of Liberalism and Conservatism

Classical Liberalism Social Liberalism Libertarianism Conservatism
Core concepts Negative freedom, realistic view of human nature, spontaneous order, limited state Positive freedom, positive view of human nature, social justice as self-development, extended state Negative freedom, realistic view of human nature, spontaneous order, natural law including strict defense of property rights Realistic view of human nature, organic change, human order with ‘extra-human’ origins, counter movement
Adjacent concepts Natural law, rule of law/constitutionalism Modern human rights, rule of law and neutral state, social contract (Mill: utilitarianism) Minarchism: minimal state, rule of law Groups/family, hierarchy, active state, sometimes: spontaneous order
Peripheral concepts Social justice, strict defense of property rights, democracy, utilitarianism Property rights, spontaneous order Social justice Individual (property) rights, freedom

Source: Edwin van de Haar, Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (Transaction Publishers, 2015).

Liberalism and international relations

Interestingly, yet of course completely logical, these differences also translate to views on foreign policy and international relations:

Table 2: Liberalism, Conservatism, and International Relations

Classical liberalism Social liberalism Libertarianism Conservatism
Nation as limit of individual sympathy Yes No No Yes
State as prime actor in world politics Yes No No Yes
International governmental

institutions/regimes

No Yes No No
Can war be eliminated No Yes Yes No
Does trade foster peace? No Yes Yes No

Source: Edwin van de Haar, Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (Transaction Publishers, 2015).

So, in contrast to Fay’s approach, it is not so simple to claim all kinds of concepts and ideas for just one liberal label. There is far more to it. I shall leave it at this for the moment, but for those wanting to read more about this, see my longer essay at libertarianism.org, or my books Degrees of Freedom and Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Foreign Policy in the Liberal Tradition: The Real Story

Please keep it civil

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s