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.

Trump Is Right!

It is easy to emphasize all that is bad about the new American President. For sure, I think he is a clown who will do a few bad things to the US and the world at large. His protectionist agenda is of course a libertarian nightmare, which will also make the people who elected him worse off. Still, the US President is not a dictator, so some trust in the institutions and the actors that fill them still seems appropriate.

Trump is also plainly right on a number of issues. Foremost, his plea (also in yesterday’s inaugural address) for the partners of the USA, especially in NATO, to contribute in equal measure. This is not new, all recent American Presidents have pointed this out to their European allies. It is simply outrageous to let Mrs Jones from North Dakota pay for the defense of other rich countries, such as my home country of The Netherlands. The Europeans got away with major free riding. Only recently did they start to get their act a little bit together, as the Russian threat is looming again. The defense budgets in almost all European NATO members have decreased drastically since the early nineties, which is plainly immoral if you are in the world’s most important security organization together. So hopefully Trump will pressure them to the max.

He is also right in pointing out that many US foreign interventions have been a disaster. And it is good that he wants some closer scrutiny from now onwards. I am not a great fan of military intervention, although I also do not want to rule them out them perennially (as opposed to many others in the liberal tradition). Many of the interventions over the past few decades have lead to nothing though, and created their own follow-up problems. So it’s pretty good if that same Mrs Jones is not likely to lose her son or daughter at the battlefield in some faraway country.

And of course Trump is right in asserting that the government is not ruling the citizens, but is just a service provider on behalf of the people, and fully accountable to them. Sure this is bit more complicated in practise, but it is the only proper principle.

So in these three respects: hail to the new chief! Hopefully he sticks to them and does not screw up too dramatically at all other policy fields.

The Asian Age

I love Asia. Ever since my student days I have had a keen interest in South East Asia and China, with my course on the Politics of the Asia Pacific at the London School of Economics in the run up to the handover of Hong Kong as a high point. This was followed almost a decade later with four years of living in Manila, with time spend as a freelance journalist covering Philippine politics and society, as well as teaching for three years at the European Studies Program at the elitist Ateneo de Manila University. I also had the opportunity to travel to almost all countries in the region (with the notable exceptions of Laos, Taiwan and the Koreas, but one should keep something to be desired). I admire the resilience of the Asians, their humour, great work ethics, the beauty of their countries, and of course their sumptuous food.

As a classical liberal I always have a keen interest in the economic developments of the region, which to me serve as the prime evidence for the great and positive impacts freeing up economies have. The rise of Asia in essence is the empirical proof that classical liberal ideas work, that capitalism has the capacity to improve the life of millions of people, in a very short term. This despite the imperfect implementation of capitalism throughout the region, so there is much room for further improvement. In this light it is also interesting to see how long economic freedom and political lack of freedom can co-exist. Classical liberal ideas predict, most clearly expressed by Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom, that one follows the other. Economic and political freedom cannot be separated forever (nor forever suppressed together, as the experiences in the former Soviet bloc continue to make clear, even despite Putin’s increasing autocratic rule).

For an international relations observer from Europe, the developments in the Asia Pacific are of particular interest, because the rise of Asia seems to go together with the fall of Europe as a geopolitical player. Or more precisely: the fall of the middle rank European powers, as the European Union itself is a significant player in trade politics only, the only field where it represents all member states and policy is determined at the European level, with a leading role for the European Commission.

The recent book Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century, by Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman, deals precisely with this issue.

blog-easternisation

It is a great book, bringing together Rachman’s extensive experience in the US, Asia, and Brussels. Often, books written by journalists lack sound analysis for the mid to long term, and historical perspective. While Easternisation is not an academic tome either, it does provide sufficient deep analysis, especially by tackling developments in all important countries which play a role in the process. It is not just another volume of simply USA or EU bashing, as we have seen before with the huge literature on the alleged Japanese take-over of the US economy.

Rachman’s main argument is that the influence of the West, Europe in particular, has crumbled. This may lead to a major conflict in the Asia Pacific, most notably between China and the US, which also endangers the global economic order. Yet many other conflicts are also building up, in a region which heavily invests in armaments. In short, in the 21st century, ‘rivalries between the nations in the Asia Pacific will shape global politics, just as the struggles between European nations shaped world affairs for over 500 years from 1500 onwards’. I think this is an important message, which should be taken seriously by everybody. Certainly by the Europeans, who are in danger of just inhabiting the world’s largest open air museum within a few decades.  One thing is certain: the Asians will not wait for them to come to terms with the current shift of power.

The ugliness of international politics

What has been widely feared is about the happen, it seems. President Assad’s troops, supported by the Russians, are winning the battle over Aleppo. That is not great from a lot of perspectives. To name just a few: first of all for the civilians, who are killed and bombed continuously. Secondly, the crushing of the rebel forces there means the further weakening of what are ‘natural’ allies of the West, as they are against Assad and against ISIS. Thirdly, this victory (if it all continues this way, of course) strengthens Assad’s position, making it even more unlikely that he will disappear from the scene anytime soon. The only good thing seems to be the further weakening of ISIS.

Like many others, I do not like this development at all. I think Assad is a ruthless murderer of his own people and should therefore be taken to justice, preferably in its most definitive form. I wish the Syrian people all the best and would like them to decide over their own fate in liberty. I also deeply hate ISIS and all that it stands for. And the interference of foreign powers (either Russian, Turkish, Iranian, Western) certainly does not do much good either, although I also think it has been inevitable. Public opinion, perceived and real interests, and the defence of allies all foster these kind of interventions. These are of course just a few of the important variables in an enormously complex war.

So what to do, or aim for, as Western countries? Obviously, most Syrians are better off in a stable situation without war, than with any currently viable alternative. This means that negotiations about cease fires should commence, or at least be fostered, which will then hopefully lead to a permanent settlement. I do not dare to predict how long it will take for this approach to be successful. Yet any alternative is worse. These negotiations, whenever feasible, should have all parties at the table, Assad included. No vetoes against him being part of future talks, as has previously been the case. The man will stay around for a while, and we better get used to the idea. This is surely deplorable, yet inevitable. The situation in Syria shows once again the ugliness of international politics, with very limited roles for international law and justice.

Let it be a lesson for those within the liberal tradition who still think differently.

Classical Liberalism and the Nation State

Barry’s response to my earlier post is another interesting read, yet it is also rather broad brush historical. I think he is erroneous if he claims that ‘it did not occur to classical liberals, on the whole, to question the state system as they knew it’. In fact the founding fathers of classical liberalism, David Hume and Adam Smith, were very much aware of other, often cosmopolitan ideals of world order. Yet they argued that the nation was attached to individual emotion, which could not be the case for entities beyond the nation state. This was also the position of later classical liberals such as Von Mises and Hayek, as I show in Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory (Palgrave, 2009).  Let me elaborate a little, also in the wider context of international political theory.

Liberalism is the political expression of individualism, yet cooperation of individuals in groups is valued positively. For classical liberals the nation, or the country, is the largest group in society which is the object of human passion, both positive in the sense of national pride and negative in the sense of shame and humiliation. Hume noted that there are few men entirely indifferent to their country, and both he and Adam Smith underlined that humans sympathise more with people to whom they are close than with strangers or foreigners. Feelings for the nation are strong, natural motivational forces for individuals.[i]

This also applies in the age of modern states and nationalism. Despite the atrocities committed in the name of national glory throughout the twentieth century, Mises and Hayek never predicted nor called for the end of the nation state. Mises thought that language was the essence of nationality, and with the fragmentation of the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire in mind he argued that multi-language countries were doomed to failure. His solution was an increase in possibilities for individual self-determination and group secession, but not in the expectation that this would lead to a world without sovereign states.[ii] Hayek saw the nation as a prime source of human bonding and individual loyalty, but recognised the negative aspects of nationalism. He valued the nation, but nationalism was a poison,[iii] not least because he saw a strong relation between nationalism and imperialism. After all, it is a small step from thinking good about one’s country to trying to rule and civilise allegedly inferior others. Often, although certainly not in all cases, the nation as a group is politically organised as a sovereign state. In the classical liberal view, states are the most important actors in international relations.

To maximise individual freedom the state should only have a limited number of tasks. The state is an important protector of natural rights, but history has shown that it is also the biggest abuser of these rights. The principle of the rule of law intends to protect the negative liberty of individuals. Classical liberals think the state can best be bound by a combination of constitutions; separation of the legislative, executive and judicial powers; and the limitation of positive law.

In international affairs this means that states should be cautious about concluding and ratifying treaties and other forms of positive law. These are often binding commitments that are very hard to change or to get rid of, with a large possible negative impact on individual freedom. Some international agreements may be useful to smooth the working of the international society of states, or to settle practical matters. But the dangers of overregulation are just as real in world politics as they are in national politics. Besides some specific cross-border issues, the classical liberal rule of thumb is that there is no need for international state action if there is no domestic state task.

Consequently, attempts to build a better world by establishing international organisations and regimes are rejected. Mises and Hayek were strong critics of the League of Nations and its successor the United Nations, and Hayek was a fierce critic of the International Labour Organization. Their main concern was that these and other organisations were taking up tasks they should not perform, just like overactive states in national circumstances. Social constructivism is bad, no matter at what level it is performed.[iv]

In Degrees of Freedom (Transaction, 2015)  I have tried to illuiminate the differences between the different forms of liberalism (and conservatism, also see my earlier post on the differences between them entitled “Let’s clear up the liberal mess”), including their views in international relations. In summary it looks like this:

Liberalism, Conservatism and International Relations

Classical liberalism Social liberalism Libertarianism Conserva

tism.

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).

That also explain partly why Barrry can rightly argue that the ideas of Kant, Mill and to a lesser extent Montesquieu differ from those of Hume, Smith, Mises and Hayek: they are not classical liberals but social liberals.

Notes:

[i] Hume, Treatise,79, 317; Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982), 299; also Edwin van de Haar, ‘David Hume and International Political Theory: A Reappraisal,’ Review of International Studies, 34:2 (April 2008), 225–242.

[ii] Ludwig von Mises, Nation, State, and Economy. Contributions to the Politics and History of Our Time (New York and London: Institute for Humane Studies & New York University Press, 1983), 39–40, 82.

[iii] Friedrich Hayek, Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 143.

[iv] Mises, Nation, State and Economy, 90–91; Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government. The Rise of the Total State and Total War (Grove City: Libertarian Pres, 1985), 292–294; Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (London: Routledge, 1997), 176.

Classical Liberalism, Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism

In another thought-provoking post on Facebook (does the guy ever write mediocre stuff, I wonder?) Barry raised the question of the relation between classical liberalism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. He wrote the following:

“On the capture of classical liberal/libertarianism by anti-cosmopolitans. This is very influential at the heart of the ‘leave’ ‘elite’ in the UK, and can only be destructive of classical liberalism/libertarianism. The immediate political consequence of Leave is the elevation of Theresa May to Tory leadership/Prime Minister’s office on a much more ‘Red Tory’, communitarian, corporatist foundation than existed under Cameron. ’To the extent to which the current wave of populism maps into a conflict over national versus transnational identity (Dan Drezner is unconvinced), the problem is not an excess of cosmopolitanism but rather its absence, especially on the conservative, free-market right.”

He seems to take a positive relation between classical liberalism and cosmopolitanism as the default position. Of course Barry did not provide definitions in a FB post, but here I take cosmopolitanism to mean “the idea that all human beings, regardless of their political affiliations, belong to a common moral community. Cosmopolitans often believe that all individuals have the same basic moral status, and tend to downplay the importance or desirability of national political institutions. [They are] opposed to nationalism” (source: Matt Zwolinski (editor), Arguing About Political Philosophy, Routledge, 2009).

I argue that Barry overlooks that classical liberalism combines a cosmopolitan side, with a strong defense of national political institutions (e.g. the state). The cosmopolitan side is perhaps easiest to see, if one takes the idea of free trade as the guiding principle. Free trade is by nature morally neutral for the individuals involved, and has numerous positive economic effects; it fosters cultural exchange as well as innovation and knowledge sharing. In that sense classical liberalism is indeed related to cosmopolitanism.

Yet this stops where the national state comes into play. Classical liberals never predicted any positive political effects of trade (see my earlier notes on this topic) and, just as importantly, they actually favor a strong state, with a limited number of tasks. At the same time, from Hume and Smith onwards to Mises and Hayek, they strongly dislike the idea of transnational political institutions, because these lack any substantial emotional basis which nations do posses. Also, these large political institutions easily become a threat to individual liberty, even more so than national states with too many tasks. So, there is no really no relations between political cosmopolitanism and classical liberalism at all.

There is also no relation between nationalism and classical liberalism. A preference for the national state does not lead to nationalism, which is the vicious and poisonous belief in the superiority of one’s country, often accompanied with a dislike of allegedly inferior neighboring countries or peoples or groups. This is collectivism turned even worse, which is a double ‘no’ from a classical liberal perspective. This said, if patriotism is defined as national pride, then classical liberalism and patriotism can and will go together. There is a fine line between the two sometimes, but patriotism is not violent and dividing, but a binding force between individuals sharing a national state.

The last point is on the European Union. Hayek and Mises have been on record with strong support for a European Federation, primarily as a remedy to war-torn and nationalism-infected Europe. In these circumstances the default position of an international order as a society of states no longer functioned, so there was a need to seek an alternative. Needless to say their federation had little resemblance with the current super state we know as the European Union, which has become a classical liberal nightmare in terms of liberty and property rights violations it commits on a daily basis.

The current EU has some classical liberal traits (the imperfect common market is the single most important one), which is of tremendous use to all European individuals. It is, however, way too cosmopolitan in the bad political way. A likely consequence of Brexit is that this will become even worse, now that the French and their allies will get more room for their collectivist fallacies.

The European Union is Pathetic

So here we are. Prime Minister Cameron got his ‘special deal’ from the rest of the EU leaders. It is pathetic, from both sides. I like the Brits, and admire their great tradition in political thought. Because of their constant doubts about the EU, they are (potentially) the most informed about it, if the enormous flow of publications pro and con is a sign, which have seen the light since the eighties. Therefore, one questions the sincerity of Cameron, who has repeatedly said he will campaign against Brexit. His pathetic result seems a sure vote winner for the No side though. I find it hard to belief that anyone can be seriously convinced to stay in, if his four main results should do the trick.

These four are: a minor semantic thingy (Britain is exempt from striving to a closer union); a complicated procedure for a majority of national parliaments to reject or change intended European regulation (a comparable procedure has been a failure); the possibility to decrease the amount of children allowance for children who do not live in Britain to the purchase power parity level of the country concerned (especially aimed at Eastern Europeans); and finally an emergency break on social security benefits. Great results to build a campaign on…

These results are mostly symbolic, and while symbols are important in politics, it still amounts to little. So the other European leaders were not willing to change much in the way the EU is now run and its enormous amount of laws, rules and legislation. This is by far the saddest of it all. The leaders  let the moment pass to really change the EU, to not only address the British fear and frustration, but also those of the people of many other member states.

This is especially relevant for The Netherlands. On April 6 there is national referendum on the association treaty with Ukraine. The No-camp is leading the polls. If rejected (and the government acts accordingly, which it is not obliged legally), the whole treaty has to be discarded by the EU. We have been in this situation before. In 2005 the French and Dutch populations rejected the EU constitution by large margins. Only to have force fed on their throats a marginally different constitutional treaty a year later. So strange support for the EU had been decreasing for years.

The EU cannot make a fist in foreign politics, not in defense and security affairs, not in the current refugee crisis. It fails to ensure free competition in services, it still wastes billion of euros in subsidies on agriculture, regional support, industrial policies, et cetera. In short: it is a mess, the EU fosters the development of turning itself into an open air museum: admired for its culture, laughed at for its dismal politics and economics. Thanks a lot for the leadership, European Council.