- Explaining the Japan-Korea dispute Matsuda & Park, War on the Rocks
- Mosul and the fall of the Caliphate David French, National Review
- Technology and madness in computational capitalism Leonid Bilmes, Los Angeles Review of Books
- Indian nations and colonial ambitions along the Mississippi Jacob Lee, Origins
As I write (10/22/19) the pause or cease-fire in Northern Syria is more or less holding. No one has a clear idea of what will follow it. We will know today or tomorrow, in all likelihood.
On October 12th 2019, Pres. Trump suddenly removed a handful of American forces in northern Syria that had served as a tripwire against invasion. The handful also had the capacity to call in air strikes, a reasonable form of dissuasion.
Within hours began an invasion of Kurdish areas of Syria by the second largest army in Europe, and the third in the Middle East. Ethnic cleansing was its main express purpose. Pres Erdogan of Turkey vowed to empty a strip of territory along its northern border to settle in what he described as Syrian (Arab) refugees. This means expelling under threat of force towns, villages, and houses that had been occupied by Kurds from living memory and longer. This means installing on that strip of territories unrelated people with no history there, no housing, no services, and no way to make a living. Erdogan’s plan is to secure his southern border by installing there a permanent giant refugee camp.
Mr Trump declared that he had taken this drastic measure in fulfillment of his (three-year old) campaign promise to remove troops from the region. To my knowledge, he did not explain why it was necessary to remove this tiny number of American military personnel at that very moment, or in such haste.
Myself, most Democrats, and a large number of Republican office holders object strongly to the decision. Most important for me is the simplistic idea that
I grew up in France. I know the French language inside out. I follow the French media. In that country, France, people with a Muslim first name are 5% or maybe, 7% of the population. No one estimates that they are close to 10%. I use this name designation because French government agencies are forbidden to cooperate in the collection of religious (or ethic, or racial) data. Moreover, I don’t want to be in the theological business of deciding who is a “real Muslim.” Yet, common sense leads me to suspect that French people who are born Muslims are mostly religiously indifferent or lukewarm, like their nominally Christian neighbors. I am not so sure though about recent immigrants from rural areas bathed in a jihadist atmosphere, as occur in Algeria, and in Morocco, for example. Continue reading
- The demise of ISIS is greatly exaggerated. Good analysis, but Whiteside is still asking the wrong question
- 10% of DR Congo’s landmass is dedicated to national parks and other protected environmental areas. Guess how well they’re protected. Privatization might not work here, though. Why not go through traditional “tribal” property rights first, and then, eventually, mix up the customary land rights with private property rights?
- Has Stephen Walt been reading reading NOL? This great essay suggests he has…
- Russian politics. Authoritarian regimes have factions, too
I’d like to announce a new weekly series of posts that I will be making: the Mid-Week Reader. Every Wednesday (hopefully), I will post a series of articles that I find interesting. Unlike most ventures in micro-blogging, though, I will try to make all the articles focus on a specific topic rather than leave you with a random assortment of good articles (which Branden already does so well most weekends). This week’s topic: with Trump bombing Syria last week despite ostensibly being a dove (hate to say I told you so), I give you a series of articles on the justice, historical background, and press reaction to the bombing.
- Fernando Terson and Bas van der Vossen, who are co-authoring on the topic of humanitarian intervention, each have interesting pieces at Bleeding Heart Libertarians debating the bombing of Syria from the perspective of Just War Theory. Terson argues that it was just, Vossen disagrees.
- Over at The American Conservative, John Glasser of the Cato Institute has an article arguing that Trump’s invasion is neither legally authorized nor humanitarian.
- Any discussion of foreign policy is incomplete without Chris Coyne’s classic paper “The Fatal Conceit of Foreign Intervention,” a political-economic analysis of foreign policy which concludes all sorts of foreign intervention are likely to fail for similar reasons that socialist economic intervention fails.
- As perhaps a case study of Coyne’s analysis, Kelly Vee of the Center for a Stateless Society has an article summarizing the history of United States’ actions in Syria going back to World War II and how it’s gotten us into the current situation.
- At Vox, Sean Illing interviews CUNY professor of journalism Eric Alterman on how the press fails to critically assess military intervention.
I typically prefer to abstain from writing too extensively on electoral politics. For one, it’s not my area of expertise and I simply don’t enjoy it that much, but also I think the type of issues that come up in electoral politics are a sensationalist distraction from the meaningful policy debates that actually go on in the back rooms of congress and think tanks, as well as the deeper and more important philosophical, economic, and cultural issues that plague our political situation. Thus, I prefer to write in more detail about public policy or more theoretical economic and philosophical issues rather than the day-to-day drudgery of superficial political news. However, the recent discussion on foreign policy on the campaign trail surprisingly has the potential to become at least mildly substantive, so it is in my mind worth analyzing in greater depth. It should be noted that I am far from an expert in foreign policy, so apologies in advance for any errors and if this article as a whole is a farce.
The purpose of this article is to lay out and critically assess Donald Trump’s foreign policy. It is my contention that Trump does have some fairly consistent underlying instincts, if not principles, on foreign policy that may be inferred from his public comments on the issue. This may be characterized by a concerning belief that the ultimate end of foreign policy should be to aggressively promote America’s interests abroad, akin to a radical, new type of Jacksonian colonialism. If I am right about Trump’s underlying views on foreign policy, a Trump presidency would result in disaster. It would mean massive violations of humanitarian rights and would fail to meet the goals even Trump himself is seeking to attain.
Clinton on Trump’s Foreign Policy
Yesterday, Hillary Clinton delivered a major speech ostensibly criticizing Trump’s foreign policy. Unfortunately, most of her speech was more of an attack on the narrative of Trump’s campaign and Trump himself than his actual foreign policy. This is largely because she thinks Trump doesn’t really actually have a foreign policy; his positions, Clinton thinks, are incoherent, ignorant, or just not even positions at all. This is probably the most quoted passage of the speech:
Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different — they are dangerously incoherent.
They’re not even really ideas: just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies. He’s not just unprepared, he’s temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility. This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes — because it’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.
Clinton’s strongest case against Trump was that he is “temperamentally unfit to hold office.” She makes this case even more persuasively elsewhere in the speech:
Imagine Donald Trump sitting in the Situation Room, making life-or-death decisions on behalf of the United States. Imagine him deciding whether to send your children into battle. Imagine if he had not just his Twitter account at his disposal when he’s angry, but America’s entire arsenal.
Do we want him making those calls – someone thin-skinned and quick to anger, who lashes out at the smallest criticism?
…I’ll leave it to the psychiatrists to explain his affection for tyrants. I just wonder how anyone could be so wrong about who America’s real friends are. But it matters. Because if you don’t know exactly who you’re dealing with, men like Putin will eat your lunch.
I typically don’t find these types of arguments convincing. After all, it doesn’t matter so much the character of public officials as the institutional incentives they face. But in matters of foreign policy problems of temperament and character do matter because the social situation between foreign leaders in diplomacy can often make a huge difference. Bad manners can and have caused wars (eg., there’s an argument to be made that Jefferson’s bad manners towards British diplomat Anthony Merry helped lead to the War of 1812). These points are confirmed by the fact that world leaders are terrified by Trump and how the intelligence community is afraid he could spill security-sensitive confidential information. (Of course, Clinton also has a less-than-optimal track record on the matter of intelligence security).
What is Trump’s Foreign Policy?
However, Clinton is only partially correct in claiming that Trump’s ideas on foreign policy are “incoherent” or that he doesn’t really have a foreign policy at all. It is true that, as with every other issue save immigration and free trade, Trump switches his positions a lot. But underneath the prime facie incoherence is an overarching vision for a foreign policy that is both somewhat coherent and terrifying.
First, a common misconception needs to be clarified about Trump’s foreign policy views. The press commonly treats Trump as if he’s more of a dove on war and foreign intervention than Clinton, citing his recent criticisms of the Iraq War and Libya. This myth is particularly peddled in pro-Trump “libertarian” circles (with an emphasis on the scare quotes). It is widely accepted that Trump’s foreign policy are less interventionist than Clinton’s fairly hawkish views. However, this is decidedly not the case.
Zach Beauchamp has persuasively made the case that Trump is, in fact, more hawkish in some sense than Clinton. The most consistent point that Trump has made for years now is that America should be waging, in Beauchamp’s words, “colonial wars of conquest” for the purpose of taking resources from other countries. Beauchamp notes:
He first debuted this plan in an April 2011 television appearance, amid speculation that he might run for the GOP nomination. In the interview, Trump seemed to suggest the US should seize Iraqi oil fields and just operate them on its own.
“In the old days when you won a war, you won a war. You kept the country,” Trump said. “We go fight a war for 10 years, 12 years, lose thousands of people, spend $1.5 trillion, and then we hand the keys over to people that hate us on some council.” He has repeated this idea for years, saying during one 2013 Fox News appearance, “I’ve said it a thousand times.”
Trump sees this as just compensation for invading Iraq in the first place. “I say we should take it [Iraq’s oil] and pay ourselves back,” he said in one 2013 speech.
As Beauchamp says, “To be clear: Trump’s plan is to use American ground troops to forcibly seize the most valuable resource in two different sovereign countries. The word for that is colonialism.”
This type of colonialism is even more extreme than the colonialism of American imperialism of the early twentieth century, where colonial wars of conquest were typically justified in terms of America’s “manifest destiny” to spread democracy throughout the world that would eventually benefit the conquered, often coaxed in racial terms (as typified by Kipling’s famous poem), rather than explicitly justified by looting natural resources.
Many people alleging Trump’s dovishness point to his recent criticisms of US intervention in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The idea that Trump is a dove on these issues, however, is largely a myth. The actual record shows that what Trump’s comments over the past decade or so on foreign policy are largely in line with what Beauchamp sees as his colonialism.
As Beauchamp points out, Trump actually supported intervention in Libya at the time and called for even more aggressive intervention than the Obama administration engaged in (which, as a reminder, included Hillary Clinton at that point):
In a March 2011 vlog post uncovered by BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski and Christopher Massie, Trump full-throatedly endorsed intervening in the country’s civil war — albeit on humanitarian grounds, not for its oil.
“Qaddafi in Libya is killing thousands of people, nobody knows how bad it is, and we’re sitting around,” Trump said. “We should go in, we should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick. We could do it surgically, stop him from doing it, and save these lives.” In a later interview, he went further, endorsing outright regime change: “if you don’t get rid of Gaddafi, it’s a major, major black eye for this country.”
Shortly after the US intervention in Libya began in March 2011, Trump criticized the Obama administration’s approach — for not being aggressive enough. Trump warned that the US was too concerned with supporting the rebels and not trying hard enough to — you guessed it — take the oil.
“I would take the oil — and stop this baby stuff,” Trump declared. “I’m only interested in Libya if we take the oil. If we don’t take the oil, I’m not interested.”
What to make, then, of Trump’s more recent comments where he says he “would have stayed out of Libya”? He’s either incoherent, as Clinton claims, or he’s lying. The first possibility has largely been explored and, though plausible, is uninteresting for present purpose. Therefore, I’ll focus here on the latter (and, in my mind, more likely) possibility. I would argue that Trump is engaging in what could be called, in Arthur Melzer’s understanding of Straussian terms, a sort of dishonest perversion of political esotericism. But unlike the political esotericism of early modern political philosophers who sought to make the world more tolerant, Trump seeks the exact opposite ends. He’s recently been hiding his colonialist views in anti-war rhetoric to attract votes from Americans fatigued with perpetual nation-building through the Bush and Obama administrations. In reality, one of the only sincere substantive positions he’s retained throughout the years is a colonialist desire to wage war for oil. He could not be much further from an anti-war candidate.
As for Iraq, Trump has repeated the claim that he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning many times. Just yesterday, in reaction to Clinton’s speech, he repeated this yet again. “Crooked Hillary said, ‘Oh, Donald Trump, his finger on the button,’,” he said. “I’m the one that didn’t want to go into Iraq, folks, and she’s the one that stupidly raised her hand to go into Iraq and destabilize the entire Middle East.”
In reality, Trump himself wanted to stupidly go into Iraq at the time. In a 2002 interview with Howard Stern he said he supported invading Iraq, adding “I wish the first time it was done correctly.” How did he think it should have been done? Though he wasn’t specific in that interview, his later comments suggest he thinks a “correct” invasion of Iraq would be more aggressive and, of course, focus on taking their oil. Despite being sharply critical of the war later in the Bush administration (though note how he critiques the way it was “handled,” not getting involved in the first place), he supported McCain’s position in favor of the Troop Surge when endorsing him in 2008, claiming, though he wanted to pull out as soon as possible, he wanted to pull out with a victory. Even his most recent comments “critical” of the war, when viewed in the context of his overall foreign policy motivations, aren’t really dovish at all. As he said in 2013, “When I heard that we were first going into Iraq, some very smart people told me, ‘Well, we’re actually going for the oil,’ and I said, ‘All right, I get that.’ [But] we didn’t take the oil!”
Recent comments by Trump against the Iraq War, I think, are well explained by his aforementioned dishonest political esotericism. The record shows Trump disagreed with Bush’s Iraq policy because the motivations were too humanitarian and weren’t aggressive enough prior to the surge. Indeed, Trump’s dishonest claim to dovishness on Iraq has been widely proven false in the press (and yes, each different word links to a different source saying the same thing).
Beauchamp points out that Trump’s views on Syria can’t be described as doveish, as he is largely in agreement with Hillary Clinton:
But the two of them support more or less the same military escalation in Syria. Both Clinton and Trump have proposed carving out “safe zones” in the country, which means clearing out a chunk of its territory and protecting it from aggressors.
Trump sees this as the answer to the Syrian refugee crisis — if you can keep the Syrians there, they won’t have to come over here (or to Europe). “What I like is build a safe zone, it’s here, build a big, beautiful safe zone and you have whatever it is so people can live, and they’ll be happier,” he said in a campaign appearance. “I mean, they’re gonna learn German, they’re gonna learn all these different languages. It’s ridiculous.”
Similarly, both candidates have emphasized the need to bomb ISIS in Iraq and Syria — with Trump famously summarizing his policy as “bomb the shit out of” ISIS. But the way in which Trump plans to wage war on ISIS is far more aggressive — and illegal — than anything Clinton proposed.
He goes on to show that Trump endorses killing the families of suspected terrorists and supports torture for detainees, both of which are illegal war crimes. The killing of suspected terrorists’ families, in particular, is far more extreme than anything Clinton’s proposed and a violation of international law.
Trump essentially views other countries in one of two ways, the way he seems to view people: either as enemies to be defeated economically (eg. China and Mexico) and militarily (eg. Lybia and Syria) or assets to be exploited for American interests via colonial conquest (eg. Iraq). Indeed, he combines the worse elements of neoconservative interventionism with the worst elements of isolationism that my fellow Notewriter Brandon Christensen points out. Like isolationists, he opposes international organizations like NATO and the UN, is generally skeptical of alliances, and fiercely opposes trade agreements; but he also supports costly, unnecessary, and unjust foreign wars and efforts to intervene in other countries’ affairs like neoconservatives. He manages to be both an isolationist, thinking the American government should only protect its own interests at the expense of the citizens of other people, and an interventionist, thinking the government should wage unjust wars to that end, at the same time.
Beauchamp notes how Trump’s foreign policy positions can best be described as Jacksonian:
But historically, there are lots of other forms of American hawkishness. Trump fits well with one of those — one that Bard College scholar Walter Russell Mead calls the “Jacksonian tradition,” after President Andrew Jackson.
Jacksonians, according to Mead, are basically focused on the interests and reputation of the United States. They are skeptical of humanitarian interventions and wars to topple dictators, because those are idealistic quests removed from the interests of everyday Americans. But when American interests are in question, or failing to fight will make America look weak, Jacksonians are more aggressive than anyone.
… Unlike neoconservatives or liberal interventionists, who have well-fleshed-out foreign policy doctrines, many Jacksonians think about war and peace more instinctively. “With them it is an instinct rather than an ideology — a culturally shaped set of beliefs and emotions rather than a set of ideas,” Mead writes. Sound familiar?
Of course, Trump is Jacksonian in more ways than just his foreign policy. His general populism and affection for strong-man leadership are very Jacksonian through and through. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson’s criticisms of Andrew Jackson himself could just as easily be leveled against Trump today (and echo Clinton’s words):
I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President. He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place. He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions, and is, in fact, an able military chief. His passions are terrible. When I was President of the Senate, he was Senator; and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings. I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage. His passions are, no doubt, cooler now; he has been much tried since I knew him, but he is a dangerous man.
A Critique of Trump’s Foreign Policy
Besides the obvious criticism made very persuasively by Clinton that Trump is temperamentally unfit to engage in diplomacy, what is wrong with foreign policy? In a word: everything. But for the purposes of this post, I’ll confine my criticism to three points.
First, Trump’s style of Jacksonian foreign policy is largely responsible for most of the humanitarian atrocities committed by the American government. Second, Trump’s economic foreign policy is antithetical to the entire spirit of the liberal tradition; it undermines the dignity and freedom of the individual and instead treats the highest good as for the all-powerful nation-state (meaning mostly the politicians and their special interests) as the end of foreign policy, rather than peace and liberty. Finally, Trump’s foreign policy fails for the same reasons that socialism fails. If the goals of foreign policy are to represent “national interest,” then the policymaker must know what that “national interest” even is and we have little reason to think that is the case, akin to the knowledge problem in economic coordination.
On the first note, Beauchamp quotes Dr. Mead on how the Jacksonian tradition in America has resulted in some of the most atrocious abuses of human rights in American history:
In the last five months of World War II, American bombing raids claimed the lives of more than 900,000 Japanese civilians—not counting the casualties from the atomic strikes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is more than twice the total number of combat deaths that the United States has suffered in all its foreign wars combined…
Since the Second World War, the United States has continued to employ devastating force against both civilian and military targets. Out of a pre-war population of 9.49 million, an estimated 1 million North Korean civilians are believed to have died as a result of U.S. actions during the 1950-53 conflict. During the same war, 33,870 American soldiers died in combat, meaning that U.S. forces killed approximately thirty North Korean civilians for every American soldier who died in action. The United States dropped almost three times as much explosive tonnage in the Vietnam War as was used in the Second World War, and something on the order of 365,000 Vietnamese civilians are believed to have been killed during the period of American involvement.
This is because the Jacksonian view dictates that we should use full force in war to advance our interests and the reasons for waging war are for selfish rather than humanitarian purposes. We have good reason to think human rights under Trump will be abused to an alarming degree, as his comments that we should “bomb the hell out of” Syria, kill the noncombatant families of suspected terrorists, and torture detainees indicate. Trump is literally calling for the US to commit inhumane war crimes in the campaign, it is daunting to think just how dark his foreign policy could get in practice.
As mentioned earlier, many “libertarians” such as Walter Block seem to be under the delusion that Trump’s foreign policy is somehow compatible with the liberal tradition’s aspirations of individual liberty and peace. As he wrote when he endorsed Trump and created the oxymoronically named group “Libertarians for Trump:”
When put in this way, it is clear that The Donald is the most congruent with our perspective. This is true, mainly because of foreign policy.
…We readily concede Mr. Donald Trump is no Ron Paul on foreign policy or anything else for that matter. However, compared to his Republican alternatives, the Donald stands head and shoulders above them. He has said, time and time again, things like “Look at what we did in Iraq. It’s a mess. Look at what we did in Libya. It’s a mess there too. And we’re going to repeat our mistakes in Syria? Not on my watch.” …Yes, future President Trump wants a strong military, but with only a few exceptions, fewer than the other Republican candidates, only to defend our country.
Ignoring the glaring factual inaccuracy that Trump’s criticisms of Iraq and Libya were that we weren’t fierce enough and the main reason why he wants war is not to defend our country but to loot oil, nothing could be further from the truth that Trump’s foreign policy views are anywhere near to congruent with libertarianism.
To reiterate: Trump’s foreign policy views are just a particularly nasty version of imperialism and colonialism. Mises dedicated two entire sections of his chapter on foreign policy in Liberalism: The Classical Tradition to critiquing colonialism and revealing just how contrary these views are to liberalism’s commitment to peace and liberty. In direct opposition to Trump’s assertions that we should go to war to gain another country’s wealth and resources and that we should expand military spending greatly, Mises argues:
Wealth cannot be won by the annexation of new provinces since the “revenue” deprived from a territory must be used to defray the necessary costs of its administration. For a liberal state, which entertains no aggressive plans, a strengthening of its military power is unimportant.
Mises’ comments on the colonial policy in his time are extremely pertinent considering Trump’s calls to wage ruthlessly violent wars and commit humanitarian crises. “No chapter of history is steeped further in blood than the history of colonialism,” Mises argued. “Blood was shed uselessly and senselessly. Flourishing lands were laid waste; whole peoples destroyed and exterminated. All this can in no way be extenuated or justified.”
Trump says the ends of foreign policy are to aggressively promote “our” national interests, Mises says “[t]he goal of the domestic policy of liberalism is the same as that of its foreign policy: peace.” Trump views the world as nations competing in a zero-sum game and there must be one winner that can only be brought about through military conquest and economic protectionism, Mises says liberalism “aims at the peaceful cooperation between nations as within each nation” and specifically attacks “chauvinistic nationalists” who “maintain that irreconcilable conflicts of interest exist among the various nations[.]” Trump is rabidly opposed to free trade and is horrifically xenophobic on immigration, the cornerstone of Mises’ foreign policy is free movement of capital and labor over borders. There is no “congruence” between Trump and any classically liberal view on foreign policy matters in any sense; to argue otherwise is to argue from a position of ignorance, delusion, or to abandon the very spirit of classical liberalism in the first place.
Mises wasn’t the only classical liberal critical of Trump-style colonialist foreign policy. The classical liberal editor of The Nation Edward Lawrence Godkin was also sharply critical of the imperial foreign policy of the progressives and populists in his time. In a 1900 article entitled “The Eclipse of Liberalism,” in which he lamented the decline of the liberal emphasis on limited government, Godkin wrote:
Nationalism in the sense of national greed has supplanted Liberalism. It is an old foe under a new name. By making the aggrandizement of a particular nation a higher end than the welfare of mankind, it has sophisticated the moral sense of Christendom. Aristotle justified slavery, because Barbarians were “naturally” inferior to Greeks, and we have gone back to his philosophy. We hear no more of natural rights, but of inferior races, whose part it is to submit to the government of those whom God has made their superiors. The old fallacy of divine right has once more asserted its ruinous power, and before it is again repudiated there must be international struggles on a terrific scale. At home all criticism on the foreign policy of our rulers is denounced as unpatriotic. They must not be changed, for the national policy must be continuous. Abroad, the rulers of every country must hasten to every scene of international plunder, that they may secure their share. To succeed in these predatory expeditions the restraints on parliamentary, even of party, government must be cast aside. [Emphasis mine]
Though Godkin’s broader arguments against the “inferior races” argument for imperialism may not apply to Trump himself per se, it certainly does apply to some of Trump’s dangerously backward white nationalist supporters (at least one of whom Trump has publicly appointed) who are helping to drive his rise.
It wasn’t just Godkin in the United States, an entire organization was formed to oppose these policies: The American Anti-Imperialist League, which formed specifically in opposition to the Spanish-American War and the annexation of the Philippians and Cuba. Though it was certainly a diverse collection of anti-imperialists with a wide variety of motives, many of them were classical liberals. Their platform emphasized the incompatibility of small government and imperial conquest:
We hold that the policy known as imperialism is hostile to liberty and tends toward militarism, an evil from which it has been our glory to be free. We regret that it has become necessary in the land of Washington and Lincoln to reaffirm that all men, of whatever race or color, are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We maintain that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. We insist that the subjugation of any people is “criminal aggression” and open disloyalty to the distinctive principles of our Government.
Trump’s incompatibility with classically liberal goals is not of unique interest to libertarians. In many ways, both neoconservatives and liberal interventionists aim for a similar end of peace among nations in foreign policy for which classical liberals aim (or at least, I hope they share such an aim). The three viewpoints just disagree on the best policy means to reach those ends. Trump decidedly does not take peace as the end of foreign policy. He takes the ruthless promotion of America’s economic interests to be the goal, often at the expense of peace and at the expense of the lives of innocent people.
Additionally, even if we take Trump’s nationalist ends as given, the policy means Trump prefers of violent military intervention likely will not be successful for similar reasons to why socialism fails. Christopher Coyne has argued convincingly that many foreign interventions in general fail for very similar reasons to why attempts at economic intervention fail, complications pertaining to the Hayekian knowledge problem. How can a government ill-equipped to solve the economic problems of domestic policy design and control the political institutions and culture of nations abroad? Coyne mainly has the interventionism of neoconservatives and liberals in mind, but many of his insights apply just as well to Trump’s Jacksonian vision for foreign policy.
The knowledge problem also applies on another level to Trump’s brand of interventionism. Trump assumes that he, in all his wisdom as president, can know what the “national interest” of the American people actually is, just like socialist central planners assume they know the underlying value scales or utility functions of consumers in society. We have little reason to assume this is the case.
Let’s take a more concrete example: Trump seems to think one example of intervention in the name of national interest is to take the resource of another country that our country needs, most commonly oil. However, how is he supposed to know which resources need to be pillaged for the national interest? There’s a fundamental calculation problem here. A government acting without a profit signal cannot know the answer to such a problem and lacks the incentive to properly answer it in the first place as the consequences failure falls upon the taxpayers, not the policy makers. Even if Trump and his advisors could figure out that the US needs a resource, like oil, and successfully loots it from another country, like Libya, there is always the possibility that this artificial influx of resources, this crony capitalist welfare for one resource at the expense of others, is crowding out potentially more efficient substitutes.
For an example, if the government through foreign policy expands the supply of oil, this may stifle entrepreneurial innovations for potentially more efficient resources in certain applications, such as natural gas, solar, wind, or nuclear in energy, for the same reasons artificially subsidizing these industries domestically stifle innovation. They artificially reduce the relative scarcity of the favored resource, reducing the incentive for entrepreneurs to find innovative means of using other resources or more efficient production methods. At the very least, Trump and his advisors would have little clue how to judge the opportunity cost of pillaging various resources and so would not know how much oil to steal from Libya. Even ignoring all those problems, it’s very probable that it would be cheaper and morally superior to simply peaceably trade with another country for oil (or any other resource) rather than waging a costly, violent, inhumane war in the first place.
Of course, I’m probably giving Trump way too much credit in that critique. Chances are, given Trump’s (nonexistent) economic literacy, he is just under the delusion that more resources always mean a better economy no matter what–opportunity costs, resource allocation, and entrepreneurial innovation be damned–and that government policy can be run just like a business.
Not only is it difficult for policy makers to know what the national interest is, as Christensen has argued it is unclear what “national interest” even means to begin with. He defines national interest as “an excuse for a policy or set of policies that should be taken in order to strengthen a state and its citizens (but not necessarily strengthen a state relative to other states…).” He further claims, “There’s no such thing as a national interest.” I’d take it even one step further: the rhetoric of “national interest,” it seems to me, is just an ideology (in the critical theory sense) for the foreign policy elite and their lobbyists to justify using coercive force to advance their arbitrary private interests rather than the (largely indeterminate) interests of the public or the country at large. Even if the “national interest” does have any meaning other than as a rhetorical ideology for the military industrial complex, the only way such a concept could become known is via the spontaneous process of the voluntary interchange of individuals, often time between citizens and non-citizens, and will likely never be known by a single individual mind. At the very least, there’s a public choice problem here: how is Trump realistically to differentiate his personal interests and those of his cronies from those of the general public? Given the fact that Trump likely has narcissistic personality disorder, I don’t have faith that he will.
The only positive potential to foreign policy under a Trump administration is the possibility that he will wisely not intervene in foreign affairs when no argument can be made that such an intervention would be in the national interest or give us oil. But given Trump’s record on the matter, and the arbitrary and elusive nature of the concept of “national interest,” I doubt that this will be a major factor in the way Trump actually implements foreign policy.
Trump vs. Clinton on Foreign Policy: Who is Preferable?
It is clear that underneath the prima facie inconsistencies in Trump’s comments on foreign policy, there is an underlying consistency that he thinks the goal of foreign policy is to quite aggressively promote US interests. This goal is impossible to reach as it represents a naïve understanding of the knowledge public leaders can possess, and generally represents a selfish, reckless, nationalist disregard for human dignity. The means he wants to undertake for this end are unnecessarily cruel and would likely constitute massive human rights violations. They contradict the high (and in my mind correct) aspirations of classical liberals of peace and individual liberty, and they’ll likely fail to accomplish their stated goals.
However, none of this necessarily means that Clinton’s foreign policy will be all that much better. Sure, Clinton’s motives are likely purer, but her record shows that the means she undertakes are uncannily similar to Trump and fail for similar reasons. She’s shown a similar lack of judiciousness in her handling of classified materials, just what the intelligence community fears of Trump. Her record shows her diplomatic skills yield mixed results at best, and she’s widely a progressive interventionist on foreign policy matters whose policies will subvert the liberal goals of peace and individual liberty. It is somewhat ironic that the Democrats have such great opportunity to go after Trump on foreign policy, but have chosen the absolute worst person in their party to make that case as their nominee (akin to Republicans and Romney on ObamaCare in 2012).
Comparing the two candidates point-by-point, therefore, is very difficult. Though there are many underlying consistencies to Trump’s comments on foreign policy and Clinton is still largely right that his stated positions have been somewhat incoherent. Unlike Trump, we have a record of Clinton actually implementing foreign policy and our only knowledge of the Donald’s policies only comes from occasionally off-the-cuff and contradictory remarks about others’ policies. Thus there is a degree of uncertainty as to what Trump’s foreign policies will actually look like and, though I think his comments reveal there is a high probability they will be atrocious, there is a small chance that they could be marginally better than Clinton’s (whose record shows she will implement almost certainly failed foreign policies). Trump’s very concerning comments on foreign policy alone do not make a slam-dunk case that Clinton is preferable on these matters.
Having said that, I’d still argue Clinton’s foreign policy is at least marginally preferable to Trump’s. With Trump we risk not only a fairly high probability of atrocious policies—quite possibly worse than Clinton’s—based off of his comments, we also risk the added problem of regime uncertainty in foreign policy. Also, some of the concrete policies Trump has called for—like torture and the murdering of families—are a cause for serious concern. Further, Clinton is likely to be far more diplomatic and will be less likely to offend other leaders and alienate the US from the world. Her point that Trump is “temperamentally unfit to lead” is very well taken, and was only confirmed by Trump’s response to her speech which in which he largely stuck to the non-substantive screaming of insults in his typical childish fashion. None of this at all means anybody should vote for either candidate as there is a lot more to voting than the issues of foreign policy. For what it’s worth (which is very little), I for one will most likely not be voting in the next election. If I were forced to, it would be for the Johnson/Weld ticket.
…we’ll take ISIS. ISIS has flatbed trucks and machine guns. Assad represents the strategic arch from Tehran to Beirut, 130,000 rockets in the hands of Hezbollah, and the Iranian nuclear program.
That’s from Michael Oren, a prominent Israeli lawmaker and a former ambassador to the United States. I got the quote from an excellent bit of reporting in the Wall Street Journal by Yaroslav Trofimov on the Syrian war as viewed by the Israelis. (Read the whole thing.)
ISIS isn’t a privatized security force per se, but it is definitely a denationalized one. So the Israelis, or at least one prominent faction of Israelis, prefer ISIS to Assad. The big question, though, is whether or not people in what is presently called “Syria” are better off under ISIS (a non-state actor) or under a pseudo-state that is inevitably going to be governed by a strong man…
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).
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).
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.
Dr Khawaja makes an excellent point in the threads of my post the libertarianism of ISIS:
As for the Hitler comparison, I think that issue really needs to be opened and discussed from scratch. One relatively superficial problem with the Hitler/ISIS analogy is that ISIS is not plausibly regarded as the threat to us that Nazi Germany was, or could have been. But at a deeper level: instead of regarding war with Nazi Germany as beyond question, we ought to be able to ask the question why it was necessary to go to war with them. Once we grasp that nettle, I think the Hitler comparisons really lead in one of three directions: either they show us how different the Nazi regime was from ISIS, or they cast doubt on the “need” to fight the Nazis in the first place, or they prove that we “had” to fight the Nazis only because we put ourselves on a path that made fighting inevitable. But we shouldn’t walk around with the axiom that if x resembles the Nazis, well, then we better fight x…or else we’re dishonoring our forbears. Which is about the level of neo-conservative discussion on this topic.
The reason why we went to war with Nazi Germany is that the Nazis (credibly) declared war on us after we declared war on Japan–after Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor (after we challenged Japanese imperialism in East Asia…etc.). Granted, there was naval warfare in the Atlantic before December 1941, but we might have avoided that by not supporting Britain (and the USSR) against the Nazis in the first place. War with the Nazis became an inevitability because of our prior involvement in a European quarrel, not because of the unique turpitude of the Nazis (much less because of the Holocaust). I don’t mean to deny that the Nazis were uniquely evil. I mean: that’s not why we fought. The reasons we fought were highly contingent, and might, given different contingencies, have led to not fighting at all.
The preceding suggestion seems off-limits to some, but I don’t think it is. Suppose we had not supported Britain in 1940-41, not had a Lend-Lease program (“An Act to Further Promote the Defense of the United States”), and the Nazis had not declared war on us after Pearl Harbor. Was war with them necessary or obligatory? I don’t see why. If we could go decades without hot war with the USSR or China, why not adopt a similar policy vis-a-vis Germany? (Yes, Korea involved some hot war with China, but my point is: we could have avoided that, too.) And if there is no good case for war with the Nazis under a consistently isolationist policy, the Hitler comparisons in the ISIS case are worse than useless.
What we have in the ISIS case is just an exaggerated version of the “inevitabilities” that got us into war with Germany. By overthrowing Saddam Hussein, we ourselves created the path dependency that gives the illusion of requiring war against ISIS as a further “correction.” In that sense, the Hitler comparison is quite apt, but entails the opposite of what the hawks believe. We’re being led to war to correct the disasters created by the last war, themselves intended to correct the problems of the war before. Isn’t it time to stop digging? Perhaps we shouldn’t have gotten onto any of these paths. The best way to avoid traveling down the highway to hell is to take an exit ramp and get the hell off while you still can. Not that you’re disagreeing, I realize.
Indeed. Be sure to check out Dr Khawaja’s blog, too (I tacked it on to our blogroll as well). My only thoughts are additions, specifically to Irfan’s point about taking an exit ramp. I don’t think there are enough libertarians talking about exit ramps. There are plenty of reactions from libertarians to proposals put forth by interventionists, but there are precious few alternatives being forth by libertarians. Dr van de Haar’s (very good) point about alliances is one such alternative. (I wish he would blog more about this topic!) Another option is to initiate deeper political and economic ties with each other (through agreements like political federations or trading confederations). Libertarians rarely write or talk about realistic alternatives to military intervention, especially American ones.
Richard Epstein, the legal scholar and libertarian Republican known for his erudite wisdom in the fields of law and economics and tort law, has recently joined in the chorus of Right-wing critics attacking Senator Rand Paul (and President Obama) for arguing that the US government does not have enough information to carry out an attack or launch a military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and that further action on the part of Washington will only make things in the region worse rather than better.
Unfortunately, Epstein’s argument represents the best of what is essentially a quick-tempered fallacy that’s short on details and long on moral posturing. Epstein, for example, provides absolutely no outline for what action the US government should take against ISIS. Should the US bomb targets from afar as it has been doing in Pakistan? Should the US government put combat troops back on the ground in Iraq? Should the US invade Syria and strike ISIS from there? If you read carefully the arguments put forth by proponents of attacking ISIS, you’ll notice that none of them have an outline for what the US government should do about it (even the usually sharp Professor Epstein refrains from providing a coherent outline). Instead, readers are treated to ad hominem attacks that liken Senator Paul to the worst-possible person imaginable: the Big Government-loving Commander-in-Chief of the US Armed Forces, Barack Obama. Oh, the horror!
Epstein’s argument lays a great foundation for any starting point that discusses what a libertarian foreign policy should be. He writes:
Libertarian theory has always permitted the use and threat of force, including deadly force if need be, to defend one’s self, one’s property, and one’s friends. To be sure, no one is obligated to engage in humanitarian rescue of third persons, so that the decision to intervene is one that is necessarily governed by a mixture of moral and prudential principles. In addition, the justified use of force also raises hard questions of timing. In principle, even deadly force can be used in anticipation of an attack by others, lest any delayed response prove fatal. In all cases, it is necessary to balance the risks of moving too early or too late.
Of course, none of this provides any helpful hints for what the US government can or should do going forward to deal with ISIS. Libertarians, like everybody else in the West save for a few disgruntled young Muslims, think that ISIS is morally bad. It does not follow, though, that the use of military force is the best (or even fifth-best) option going forward.
Unfortunately, many libertarians (though not Senator Paul) erroneously fall back on the fallacy that because the US government is unable to coherently attack ISIS (much less define it), Washington should simply adhere to a policy of non-intervention. So what follows is a modest proposal to implement a more libertarian foreign policy toward ISIS.
The interwar Austro-Jewish economist and one of libertarianism’s patron saints, Ludwig von Mises, wrote in his 1927 book Liberalism that:
The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars (109).
This observation – a basic tenet of libertarian political theory – ties in quite well with one stated goal of Islamist political theory, which seeks to partition the Sykes-Picot states of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon into smaller states in order to destroy the influence of Western “imperialists” in the Middle East. Lest detractors start accusing Islamists of being closet libertarians, it is worth noting that Islamists also seek to break all economic ties with the non-Muslim world in favor of an inter-regional protectionist union (to say nothing of Islamism’s views about religion and society).
The words of Mises summarize nicely not only where libertarians and Islamists can agree intellectually, but also points – if ever so subtly – to a new leadership position for a benevolent liberal hegemon like the United States to take up in an increasingly Balkanized world.
Instead of blindly attacking ISIS with no real plan in place, the West should temper the prudence of President Obama and Senator Paul with the libertarian notion of self-determination by recognizing the existence of the Islamic State and swiftly incorporating it into the existing IGOs – such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the IMF – that the West has built up and maintained since the end of World War 2.
This policy would do much more than strike directly at the legitimacy and power of the authoritarian Assad and Maliki regimes by carving up their territories without their permission; it would also place the burden of governance directly upon the Islamists who have proclaimed an Islamic State.
ISIS has obtained power only because of the vacuum left behind by the Bush administration’s fatally flawed decision to remove regional strongman (and secularist) Saddam Hussein from power. ISIS has therefore had no responsibilities to date – despite its claim to govern territory – save to plunder and murder in the name of religion. Placing the burden of governance directly on the shoulders of ISIS would necessarily alter its foundation of power, and when it becomes apparent that Islamism’s political and economic theories leads directly to despotism and poverty, the benevolent liberal hegemon will be waiting to recognize the independence of regions within the Islamic State that aspire to independence or union with another state.
This policy would also shift the ability to make and enforce international rules and norms back to Washington and would bring a semblance of order to the Middle East by placing a benevolent liberal hegemon into a position of leadership that is capable of recognizing and engaging with the Arab public’s desire for liberty. A liberal hegemon could achieve much of this peacefully and legally.
It is unfortunate that many libertarians – especially in the United States – have adopted the reactionary stance of non-intervention in foreign affairs. Aside from being impossible, non-intervention is also inimical to libertarianism’s social individualism. In the same vein, the calls for military action and the personal attacks against politicians unwilling to act blindly in the realm of foreign affairs does more harm than good as it distracts citizens from focusing on the issue at hand: namely, what is to be done about ISIS. Senator Paul and President Obama have so far made the right decision, but unless Islamism is tackled directly – intellectually – the woes and fears of the West will only continue to mount.
It is time for the West to adopt a more libertarian foreign policy.