1. Against dogma Henry Hardy, Footnotes to Plato
  2. How “collective self-defense” leads to more war Bryce Farabaugh, Niskanen Center
  3. English language and American solipsism Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  4. Towards a new internationalism David Hendrickson, the Nation

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


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, or my books Degrees of Freedom and Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory.

Why Republican Libertarianism? I

(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)

Republicanism has been on the rise as a term in political theory debates since the late 1990s, where it has joined egalitarian liberalism (that is a version of liberalism in which the state decides on income and wealth distribution, markedly more flat than the distribution achieved by the market, at least in intention), communitarianism, and libertarianism in the main recognised streams of political theory along with radical democracy, deliberative democracy, and Marxism.

The egalitarian liberal position emphasis rights, justice, and rational political procedures claiming that constituently employed they lead to a morally based economic pattern of distribution distinct from the relatively spontaneous activities of the market and civil society. Libertarianism (covering anything that might be regarded as classical liberal or libertarian) tends to have the same basis and argue that correct understanding leads to a more market based individualistic view of how economic goods should be distributed.

Communitarianism is most economically egalitarian but includes social conservatives as well as social liberals. It argues that views about justice have proper foundation in the rules according to which humans live in, form, and maintain communities, rather than individual rights. It tends to be anti-libertarian but a communitarianism based on voluntary communities below the level of the state, or independent of the state, can converge with form of libertarianism emphasising the freedom to create voluntary communities of those with shared visions of the good life, socialist, capitalist or anything else.

Marxism is, I presume, well known enough to need no introduction and radical democracy is the attempt to make Marxism, or something like it, compatible with liberalism in democracy and rights, and maybe even compatible with libertarianism in some social and moral issues. Deliberative democracy is the view that political institutions and laws should rest on a constant process of public discussion and negotiation, presumed to engage most of the population.

Simply explained, republicanism is the view that political institutions and laws rest on the tendency for human communities to have a political aspect, and liberty to have some aspect of rights of political participation, where there is some life is devoted to discussion of the best institutions, laws, and policies for maintaining liberty. If all this sounds rather libertarian, it has to be said that republican political theory in its current manifestation, which goes back to the late 90s, has used there same arguments as egalitarianism, but taking the understanding of liberty in a different direction.

In the egalitarian liberal understanding, liberty is just as much to do with state designed economic equality, or limitations on inequality, as individual rights to life, property, and freely chosen version of the individual good life. From the egalitarian liberal perspective, which theorises the views of new liberals, constructive liberals, social liberals, and progressives since the late nineteenth century, ‘liberty’ must include the idea of some equality in the distribution of economic goods as part of the fairness or equality of respect, which is part of those aspects of liberty concerned with individual rights under law.

The idea of republicanism as now discussed in academic circles, at least those largely concerned with a ‘normative theory’ approach to political theory emphasising conceptual analysis  was developed by the Irish philosopher Philip Pettit (long based between the US and Australia). Pettit rests his arguments on a mixture of a historical republican tradition going back to antiquity, and arguments about the meaning of liberty and what kinds of liberty there are. The arguments in Pettit, like many other discussions of liberty, refer back to a famous paper by the philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958), which rest on a view of the history of political ideas, so again we come back to a historical argument.

Republicanism in recent political thought has another inspiration, (at least for those concerned with the more cultural, literary, historical, and interpretative aspects of political theory) from an a mid twentieth century writer on politics and philosophy, Hannah Arendt. Arendt is hard to situate politically, and has been taken up both by radical democrats and conservatives. She was rather evasive on the subject of socialism versus capitalism, however the basis in her thought for this was that political issues should be distinguished from social welfare issues, which certainly seems to exclude the possibility of socialist or even egalitarian liberal ideas entering into her basic political assumptions.

Arendt looked back to ancient Athens, in contrast with Pettit who takes Rome as his starting point, and to a culture of competition to prove excellence, which was aristocratic in origin. Athens at the the time it was home to Aristotle, as well as many other notable cultural and philosophical figures, was a democracy based on citizens meeting in the centre of the city to make laws and make the major decisions about state actions.

For Arendt, the political culture of the democracy took up the aristocratic tradition of competitiveness to produce a political life that itself cultivated excellence through contests, and a concern with the public good, at the same time as it was producing great culture, as part of the same pattern. She points to the largely political decision making of the assembly, which was not engaged in attempts to change shares of economic goods.