From the Comments: A libertarian solution to Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) and the civil war in Syria

I have 3 scenarios in mind, and multilateralism is a must for all of them. 1) I’m still a proponent of recognizing the separatist aspirations of Mideast factions and introducing new, smaller states into the international order (haphazard though it may be). This was done after WWI but in the wrong manner. There was an international element to it then (UK, France, etc. working together), but there were also representatives of various Mideast factions at the table and they were ignored (the reasons why are many and I won’t delve into them here). This time, placing those Mideast factions on an equal footing with Western players (and Russia) is a must for things to work out.

2) North America has to perform a delicate balancing act now that Ankara screwed up. NATO has to stand strong against Putin’s public condemnations and tough talk and back Turkey in all public and behind-the-scenes forums. At the same time I would use Turkey’s mistake to initiate a new state in the Kurdish region, one that is not explicitly Kurdish of course but one that encompasses most of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Use the UN Security Council to do it; exploit Putin’s anger and get him to renege on his policy of not recognizing separatist aspirations because of the sovereignty argument. Then get him to recognize that a new state in the Kurdish region (that doesn’t change Turkey’s current borders) is more than enough revenge for shooting down a plane.

3) North America should get out of France’s and Russia’s way in Syria for the time being (this should be done in tandem with the diplomacy I advocate above). Let them work together and let off some steam. The two of them, with Assad’s help, might be able to destroy ISIS (neither Russia nor France is as careful as the US when it comes to civilians, and in this scenario their ruthlessness might be a plus for long-term peace; the fact that the US won’t get blamed for the violence is a big plus, too). Assad would then be able to stay in power, but this is a big MAYBE and he will have lost the the Kurdish part of the state (remember Russia helps with Kurdistan becoming a reality because it angers the Turks). With hundreds of thousands of dead people from all over the world and millions of displaced people, Assad’s record of incompetency will most likely force the French and Russians to find a way to push him out of office and usher in a new strong man (only a strong man can govern a state like Syria). While Paris and Moscow search for a strong man, the West should continue its policy of recognizing regions that want out of Damascus’s orbit; keep Russia in the loop on this. By the time Paris and Moscow find a new strong man, what’s left of Syria might actually be able to hold elections and have a government that is constrained by a constitution and the strong man won’t be needed.

3b) ISIS in Iraq: Recognize ISIS’s territorial claims in Iraq (the ones that don’t overlap with Kurdistan’s, of course). That’ll force it to actually govern and will bind it to international law. We’ll see ISIS quickly collapse, and in its place will be a small country that is war-torn but with manageable problems (unlike in a large state like Iraq). This new country would be free to join up with Baghdad again or it could choose to go its own way. There would be at least three states in what is now Iraq, a big step forward in a world that is more interconnected economically and thus less in need of a big bad military to fight massive, bloody wars over territory.

(I’d be happy to argue with others about how libertarian my argument is, too.)

This is from yours truly, in response to a question from Professor Amburgey about libertarian foreign policy. Is this feasible? Absolutely. Is it likely? No, but when has that ever stopped libertarians from using logic and history to debunk statist fantasies?

Libertarians try to build off of the individual when it comes to policy, which means their policies are going to be both internationalist and skeptical of the state’s ability to accomplish an aim. I think my short answer in the threads does this in a mostly competent manner. It’s a multilateral approach which eliminates any ‘central planning’ aspect, and it acknowledges both the process of the rule of law (however haphazard it may be) and the inability of large states to govern populations competently (thus my argument for decentralization – through the legal process).

Nations, States, and Foreign Policy Fantasies

Below is my attempt to make sense of the world, especially that of the Middle East. It’s best viewed in tandem with two earlier posts on the subject, and deals with military intervention (as opposed to outright war).

This post concerns the issue of scholars, journalists, intelligent laymen, and activists continually evoking the nation-state as their point of reference for discussing and analyzing foreign affairs. Here are two general examples:

I don’t think all nation-states are morally equal.


The list of nation-states involved in the Syrian fiasco are few in number.

This is logical as far as it goes, and there is something to be said for using the nation-state as a tool for better understanding the world around us, but in the post-colonial, developing world there are no nations attached to the states there.

Let me see if I can explain. The nation-state is a rare and parochial political unit found only in Europe and in parts of East Asia. Notice the hyphenation of the words “nation” and “state.” These are two very different concepts, and yet they are applied – together – nonchalantly in nearly every study or report to be found on international relations.

The interwar economist and patron saint of the present-day libertarian movement, Ludwig von Mises, studied nations after World War I out of a desire to better understand why large-scale violence occurs and how it can be prevented. I appeal to the authority of Mises on this matter because of the attempt by some libertarians today to simply disparage understandings of collectivist concepts such as “nation” with a brusque “the world is composed of individuals and nothing else, so your argument is invalid as well as incoherent.” It is true that individuals should be at the forefront of any question asked about society, but attempting to do so with tabula rasas won’t get you anywhere.

Here is Mises on nations, in the first chapter of his excellent 1919 book Nation, State, and Economy (pdf; and one of only two books I’ve read by Mises), making my point for me much better than I could ever hope to do:

If we wish to gain insight into the essence of nationality, we must proceed not from the nation but from the individual. We must ask ourselves what the national aspect of the individual person is and what determines his belonging to a particular nation. (34)

When a libertarian points out that the world is composed of individuals he is correct, but when he brushes aside any and all attempts to understand collectivist ideas such as nationalism he puts himself at an intellectual disadvantage. Perhaps this is because many libertarians, especially the post-Ron Paul 2008 ones, don’t want to think things through anymore. Perhaps it’s power they crave, rather than liberty and truth.

At any rate, Mises continues his thoughts on nationality with this sentence: “We then recognize immediately that this national aspect can be neither where he lives nor his attachment to a state. (34)” Nationalism isn’t even a phenomenon that can be tied to a specific geographical location, much less a specific state. (It’s worth noting that this is still the rough understanding of “nation” that sociologists and anthropologists have today. Many other theories about the “nation” have been swept away into the dustbin of history. I point this out because classical liberals tend to produce works that stand the test of time, and this is because of their commitment to the individual.) How can a conception of “nationhood” not be directly tied to territorial or political attachment?

I don’t claim to know, but here is how I break this recognition down. The tie-in to US foreign policy is coming, I promise.

The New World (Canada, the US and Latin America) is home to a small number of large republics that broke away from an imperial center at some point in the past. This is a very different arrangement from the large number of small nation-states in Europe and Japan/Korea mentioned earlier. There is no Brazilian nation to speak of. No American nation or Colombian nation to brag about. Only Brazilian, or American, or Colombian citizens are found in the republics of the New World.

While there are arguments to be made about the seriousness of nationalism in the New World republics, I don’t pay them much heed because the distinction between ‘citizen’ and ‘nation’ explains well Europe’s and Japan’s inability to assimilate immigrants as successfully as the republics of the New World.

The chronic bouts of fascism afflicting Latin America (and FDR’s United States) are largely the result of attempts to create a nation out of citizens.

In the Old World not consisting of Europe and Japan/Korea (i.e. the developing, post-colonial world), there is a small number of Western-educated elites who have been attempting, like the caudillos of Latin America, to create nations where there are none. These nation-builders are, consistent with their conformist Western education, national socialists. They borrow from liberalism its secularism but not its other laissez-faire underpinnings.

The advocates of Western military intervention, including Dr van de Haar and Dr Delacroix here at NOL, firmly believe that replacing the “bad” national socialists, such as Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, and Bashar al-Assad, with “good” national socialists will bring about viable, meaningful change in the region. Just sprinkle some fairy dust and – poof! – the new batch of national socialists will behave differently.

When pressed on this inevitable scenario, libertarian-ish military interventionists will renege on removing a dictatorship and replacing it with an alternative (which, again, will itself inevitably become a dictatorship). They recognize the futility of such an enterprise. Instead, they change tact and argue that a protracted bombing campaign would be a better option. This option, of course, has the effect of prolonging a conflict, which is blatantly at odds with the supposed humanitarianism of a military intervention in the first place.

The military interventionist simply assumes that a nation actually exists in these post-colonial, developing states, but nationhood is a concept that is limited to a small elite. An elite, I might add, that is just as illiberal as its Islamist (and other conservative) enemies.

Historians have long attributed the rise of the nation-state in Europe to wars and the absence of a hegemonic power. The decentralized nature of Eurasia’s backwater western region created the nations and states of Europe. Wars forced states to harness the potential of their citizens through political, economic and social nation-building. The lack of a hegemon forced these same states to compromise in otherwise uncompromisable situations.

Prolonging the war in Syria through a protracted bombing and arming campaign against ISIS, as military interventionists advocate, will not only keep the blood flowing, it will prevent a clear winner from emerging. “Humanitarian” intervention will prevent dialogue about what it means to be a nation. Indeed, it will prevent dialogue period.

If military interventionists truly want freedom and a lasting peace for the Middle East (and it is not clear that this is what they want) they would do well to stop relying upon the logical inconsistencies that they have fed to themselves over the past century. No amount of fairy dust or unicorn shit will be able to compensate for their fatal conceit.

What is missing from the Middle East is a vibrant sense of nationhood. It is no accident that the peoples in the Middle East with a strong sense of nationhood – the Turks, the Palestinians, the Kurds, and the Israelis – have had to fight for survival over the last 100 years or so to create, to retain, and to promote the cause of their nations.

Preventing dialogue, preventing compromise, and preventing victory in Syria by inadvertently playing different sides off on each other is not a humanitarian option. It’s not even a good “smart power” option. The military power of the West has been overrated for about a hundred years now. Its true power rests in the international institutions – international governmental organizations (IGOs) – it has been creating piecemeal over the past five hundred years. I blogged about wielding this influence most recently here and here. (and here is an older one). Also, open borders is an option that is never entertained by the international relations community (which is probably because it can only be implemented with some sort of political integration).

A few remarks on interventions in Syria and Iraq

After a few busy days at the office I finally have the time to take up Brandon’s challenge and write a few lines about interventions in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, as Brandon writes in some of the comments the basic classical liberal and liberal position is that interventions are a bad idea. They are a breach of the sovereignty of other states, and rarely achieve their goals. Military interventions upset the international order and the international and regional balances of power, and open the door to all kinds of counter-interventions. They are especially prone to failure when their goals are extensive, such as a desire to construct democracy in countries without democratic traditions. This is an act of rationalist constructivism, long associated with communism and socialism rather than liberalism.

Whether all interventions also weaken and possibly destabilize the intervening power, as some libertarians (and Brandon) claim is another matter. This surely depends on so many other variables that it is hard to take as a general rule. Indeed, to welcome a Chinese intervention to fight ISIS/ISIL in the expectation this would seriously weaken authoritarian China (again see Brandon’s thought provoking blog a few days ago) seems a few bridges too far.

Still, it is too simple to rule out all interventions, in all circumstances. While a duty to intervene cannot easily be defended, the right to intervention is a different matter altogether. For example, while generally opposed to military interventions for humanitarian purposes, David Hume and Adam Smith did allow prudent political leaders to intervene. Hardly ever for humanitarian reasons, but for reasons of state. Important principles they embraced, for example found in the work of Hugo Grotius, were the rights to punishment, retaliation, preventive action, the protection of property rights and the protection of subjects against other countries.

Applying the wisdom of the Scots to our current world does open the door for some military action by the West against ISIL in Syria and Iraq. For the US and Britain, the beheadings of their subjects are clear reasons for action. Also, ISIL clearly upsets the fragile regional balance of power, where the West has a clear stake given the recent intervention in Iraq (regardless what one thinks of that intervention, but that is all water under the bridge). Also, ISIL’s state formation is not a case of regular secession which libertarians may sympathize with. While it has its supporters, this is mainly a  case of state formation at gun point, against the will of most people inhabiting the land controlled by ISIL.

Of course, this does not mean President Obama’s plan is going to succeed. While military action may kill many of the ISIL leaders and perhaps ultimately minimize its military capacity, it seems highly unlikely that foreign intervention is able to eradicate ISIL. After all, interventions do not change the mindsets of people. Surely, this ideology will remain with us, in one form or the other. That is no reason to abstain from intervention, yet it is a reason to set clear and limited goals, and to be honest and modest about its inevitably limited long term effects.