Some thoughts on “Thinking About Libertarian Foreign Policy”

Brandon asked me to leave some thoughts on “Thinking About Libertarian Foreign Policy”, By Matthew Fay, here. Edwin van de Haar already did that in his “Foreign Policy in the Liberal Tradition: The Real Story”, but as I tend to follow a different path from van de Haar, I believe I may have something original to say here. So lets go.

First, unlike Edwin, I’m not going to go in the direction of discussing who is a libertarian, who is a conservative, who is a classical liberal, and so on. For one thing, I think that this kind of discussion is really boring (sorry Edwin, no offense intended, believe me). Other than that, it seems to me that discussing vocabulary is tremendously counterproductive. During the Cold War the US defined itself as a democracy. The USSR defined itself as a democracy as well. Both could meet and discuss who was really democratic, without any real gain. The same can be said about discussions within the socialist bloc: Chinese and Russians could discuss forever who was more Marxist, almost going to war because of that, without any real profit. Personally, I think I lost a lot of time some years ago discussing if Venezuela was democratic or not. And then they ran out of toilet paper. So I care not if communists want to call Venezuela a democratic state or not, the fact is that I don’t think any of them are willing to live without the simple but precious item of capitalist modern life.

With that said, if Matthew Fay wants to call his international relations perspective “libertarian,” so be it. But here are some commentaries from someone who usually calls himself libertarian:

“Libertarians have an uneasy relationship with foreign policy. The state, after all, is the primary actor in international relations.”

I wouldn’t say that. First, I’m a libertarian who studies foreign policy more than anything else. Second, I don’t think that we should say that “The state, after all, is the primary actor in international relations.” That’s simply not a good phrase to use when talking about International Relations. Better to say that the state is very often regarded as the primary actor in International Relations theory, especially by theorists who identify themselves as Realists. Other theorists would say that individuals, or international institutions, or international organizations are as or more important than the states.

“For libertarians, who want the state to do less, not more, this fact can be hard to stomach.”

I identify as a libertarian and I don’t exactly “want the state to do less.” I want the state to do some things and not others. I know that many libertarians (specially people at the Mises Institute, following Murray Rothbard) understand that anarcho-capitalism is the natural and logical conclusion for libertarians. I’m still not convinced. For example, I would like the state to do a lot about prosecuting murders and nothing about what I put in my own body.

“identifying an aggressor is difficult enough in interpersonal relations—let alone in international affairs.”

That’s something that goes at least to Robert Jervis’ 1978 article “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma,” but I openly disagree. If they are not invading your territory, then they’re not aggressors. They may be potential aggressors, or they may be aggressive, but they’re not aggressors. As an individual, I choose to carry a gun, or even better, to avoid certain neighborhoods. The states should, if possible, avoid certain neighborhoods. If that’s not possible, carry a gun. And definitely keep a gun at home and learn how to use it.

“even when the action of the U.S. government may be superior to that of another government, many libertarians have a difficult time acknowledging that government action is justified. For those reasons, many strict non-interventionist libertarians find themselves openly embracing illiberal governments that they claim are resisting American imperialism and condemning any American criticism of autocrats as a prelude to ‘regime change.’”

First, I don’t think that one can prove that US intervention is superior to anything, ever. It’s basically a broken window fallacy. And I don’t embrace any illiberal government. I just don’t think that it’s the US government’s job to overthrown them. Also, I don’t think any autocratic governments are primarily resisting imperialism.

“Realism is attractive for libertarians because the United States faces no major threats, and therefore does not need to balance either externally or internally.”

Realism in International Relations theory is in general attractive for me because it seems to reflect the reality. Among International Relations theorists, my personal favorites are John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. I believe they are very liberal (in the classical sense) at heart but, like me, they are very suspicious of states. By the way, I’m Brazilian and I don’t live in the States, so the second part makes no sense either. There are many libertarians outside the US, by the way, and I think it would be very interesting to check what they think about all this.

“Libertarians, for example, believe that regime change and nation building through the use of military force is unjust and more often than not doomed to failure.”

I don’t think that. The American Revolution and the Puritan Revolution were great examples of regime change and nation building through the use of military force. They worked just fine. I just don’t believe that we can force this on other people.

“But libertarians have also rejected other aspects of America’s post-World War II grand strategy—namely, America’s military alliances and the web of international political and economic institutions they underpin—that have served the causes of peace, free trade, and a more interdependent world. The result of this web of institutions has been a liberal international order that encourages peaceful, commercial relations between states that had previously been rivals. It helps ameliorate security competition and establishes expected patterns of behavior that encourage cooperation instead. This order has not been without its flaws and, as Nexon highlights in another post, serious reforms should be explored. But it has also helped underpin previously unseen levels of peace and prosperity. As Nexon writes, ‘we should not confuse two different questions: ‘which liberal order?’ and ‘whether liberal order?’’”

I’m not sure if “America’s post-World War II grand strategy have served the causes of peace, free trade, and a more interdependent world.” Again, it’s a matter of opportunity cost, or another broken window fallacy. I’m also unsure if “the result of this web of institutions has been a liberal international order that encourages peaceful, commercial relations between states that had previously been rivals.” I have a really strong tendency to say it didn’t. The problem with theorizing in social sciences is that, unlike in natural sciences, you can’t take things to the laboratory and run consecutive tests. That is, by the way, one of the reasons why I reject positivism as a research methodology. I’m not sure if Matthew Fay embraces it, but the fact is that for me we are better with praxeology, or at least some version of methodological individualism. And with that in mind, we can’t be so bold to say that American foreign policy in the post-WWII Era was the main cause of peace and everything else. It just seems to me that without US intervention in WWI there would be no WWII (and no Russian Revolution, at least not a successful one, by the way). The Founding Fathers were right: Europe is a mess. The farthest you get from it, the best.

Foreign Policy in the Liberal Tradition: The Real Story

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

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

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

Conceptual mess

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

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

Proper conceptual approach

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

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

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

Applied to liberalism and conservatism is comes to this:

Table 1: The Morphology of Liberalism and Conservatism

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

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

Liberalism and international relations

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

Table 2: Liberalism, Conservatism, and International Relations

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

institutions/regimes

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

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

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