100 years after World War 1

In the five weeks since the Germans first requested peace negotiations, half a million casualties had been added to the war’s toll. As the delegates talked, Germany continued to collapse from within: inspired by the Russian Revolution, workers and soldiers were forming soviets, or councils. Bavaria proclaimed itself a socialist republic; a soviet took over in Cologne.


But can we really say that the war was won? If ever there was a conflict that both sides lost, this was it. For one thing, it didn’t have to happen. There were rivalries among Europe’s major powers, but in June, 1914, they were getting along amicably. None openly claimed part of another’s territory. Germany was Britain’s largest trading partner. The royal families of Britain, Germany, and Russia were closely related, and King George V and his cousins Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II had all recently been together for the wedding of Wilhelm’s daughter in Berlin.

There is more here. Isolationism, or non-interventionism, often sounds good to American libertarians when World War I is brought up and discussed. And who can blame us? I think, though, that non-interventionism is one of the least libertarian positions you could take on matters of foreign policy.

I got an email the other day from an (American) economist who said that he wasn’t an isolationist because he favored free trade and open migration. Instead, he resolutely trotted out the same old dogma that he was a non-interventionist. I’ve got to bury this cognitive failure on the part of American libertarians.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. A rifle’s journey from Belgium to Gaza
  2. No Libertarian Case for Empire (this is the piece that sparked my little tirade yesterday)
  3. A dust-up over dissenting views at Ohio State law
  4. What really happened on Thanksgiving (le duh; this screams “why Econ 101 is so important”)

Fairy Dust and the National Interest: Squaring the Round Humanitarian Peg

This is a further continuation of my explanation for how post-colonial societies operate and how Western military intervention makes bad situations worse in these areas of the world. Last time I wrote of the general factions that exist in the post-colonial world using the state of Syria as a case study. Again, the explanation put forth here can be applied to any poor country that was created from the ashes of European imperialism, and can be used as a stepping stone for understanding how politics works in rich, industrialized states.

Often, when one reads a tract advocating military intervention overseas, you will come across the ambiguous catchphrase “National Interest.” Social scientists and historians generally define a state’s “national interest” as _____ (fill in the blank with whatever pet policy you favor). A national interest can sometimes be used to override constitutional protections guaranteed to citizens of a state in the name of security. It can also be used to justify protectionist policies, or to justify free trade policies. In general, the national interest is 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; see Delacroix on American exceptionalism for more on this subject).

Proponents of Western military intervention in Syria seem to think that arming the weakest trifecta in the Syrian conflict – the anti-Assad national socialists – will help to stop the violence there. Thus they couch their calls for military intervention in the language of humanitarianism. Here is the rub, though: Proponents of Western military intervention in Syria believe it is also in the national interest of the United States. If the US does nothing militarily, then Russia and Iran will seize on Washington’s doting and become more powerful at the West’s expense.

Let me take a step back for moment.

  • Military interventionists seem to believe that arming the anti-Assad national socialists will prevent al-Qaeda from getting their hands on American weapons.
  • Other military interventionists seem to believe that arming the anti-Assad national socialists will prevent bloodshed.

Both – if you will notice – have not dared to elaborate upon their arguments on these two points. Both refuse to think or to talk about the implications of their policies. Both believe that their good intentions – and the good intentions of the Obama regime – are enough to stop the civil war.

In all fairness, many proponents of intervention – at least on the Right – have admitted to having at least one other motive for imperialism aside from humanitarianism: that of US national interest.

However, once the implications for a US national interest are drawn out, readers will see that these “national interests” are directly at odds with the humanitarianism hawks have been relying upon to justify their preferred policies. Here is the question I want you to keep in the back of your minds as I spell out the implications of the “national interest” argument: If the excuses for military intervention are indeed contradictory, and I think you will find them to be, is incompetence or dishonesty to blame?

The national interest angle has nothing to do with Americans or Syrians, and everything to do with Iran and, to a lesser extent, Russia. The latter two help fund the Assad regime. The Assad regime has virtually won the civil war. To the interventionist, this means that Iran and Russia have won the civil war, too, and at the expense of the West.

Therefore, the West should arm not the strongest contender (the Islamists) but the weakest of the trifecta (the anti-Assad national socialists), in order to prevent Assad’s total victory.

Makes sense, right?

Let me rephrase the goals of military interventionists who claim to be advocating policies in “our” interest in a way that is a bit more blunt: instead of letting the Assad regime win (which would stop the bloodshed), hawks want to arm the weakest rebel factions in order to keep the Assad regime from winning outright (which will guarantee more bloodshed). The implications of such a policy are squarely at odds with the supposed “humanitarian” intuition that interventionists shield their desires with.

How, exactly, does a prolonged conflict in Syria enhance US national interests?

And how, exactly, does a prolonged conflict square with the “humanitarian” desires of military interventionists?

Let me be clear: I think the contradictory arguments of military interventionists are entirely subconscious. They don’t think about the implications of their arguments because they believe that there is really no need to. When you are on the side of righteousness, of law, and of power, why think about implications? If none of those things will make the world a better place, then just sprinkle some fairy dust on every (oft-repeated) policy and watch as things turn out different this time.

I think the criticism of American libertarians and their lack of depth foreign policy-wise is a good one. This lack of sophistication is not brought up often enough. I think Dr van de Haar and Dr Delacroix are doing everybody an important service when they do bring it up (Delacroix’s penchant for strawmanning notwithstanding). And yet, a lack of depth or sophistication is not a bad problem to have; faced with whether their governments should support national socialists (such as Assad), Islamists (such as ISIS), or none of the above, American libertarians come out looking fairly good (so, too, does Syrian society). Libertarian hawks on the other hand, when presented with the same set of choices (national socialists, Islamists, or none of the above), tend to change the subject instead of giving a direct answer.

Fairy dust used in a good fairy tale is one thing. Fairy dust used as an excuse for real life policies is quite another.

Secession and international alliances go together

It is important to scrutinize the intellectual strength of libertarian ideas about international relations. Here are a few – admittedly only partly systematic- thoughts about the relation between secession and international relations. Or more precise: some libertarians are positive about secession, yet at the same time negative about international alliances. How does that relate?

Pleas for secession can be found in the works of Von Mises, Rothbard, Hoppe and other luminaries of libertarian thought, broadly defined. In an informative chapter on the issue, Mises-biographer Jörg Guido Hüllsman (at mises.org) defined secession as the ‘one-sided disruption of (hegemonic) bonds with a larger organized whole to which the secessionists have been tied’. Recent examples are the bloody secessions of South Sudan or Eritrea. Yet the issue also remains topical in Western Europe, for example in Scotland. It is not my purpose to emphasize the practical failures and wars associated with secession. From a libertarian perspective the principal benefit of secession is that a group of sovereign individuals decide for themselves how and by whom they are governed, and in which type of regime this shall happen. So far, no problem.

Let’s assume a world where secessions take place freely, peacefully and more frequent than in the past twenty-five years, where the number of sovereign states just went up by approximately twenty recognized independent countries. The logical result will be the fragmentation of the world in numerous smaller states, or state-like entities, of different sizes, composed of different groups of people. Perhaps some of these states will comply to an anarcho-capitalist libertarian ideal, so with a strict respect for property rights and the use of military defense only for clear-cut violations of these rights by others. However, it is unlikely that all states will be characterized in this way. Consequently, there remain a lot of causes for international conflict and war. For example, as there are more borders, there are also potentially more border disputes, about natural resources, water, stretches of land, et cetera. Of course humans are not angels, and no libertarian ever claims they will be. It simply means none of the other causes of war are perpetually eradicated in a world of free secession either.

So how to defend oneself in such situation, particularly when your state is much smaller than one or more other states in the vicinity? In such a situation you are unable to defend yourself against the most viable threats. Even if you declare yourself a neutral state it is unlikely this will always be respected. After all, it takes at least two to tango in international politics. Of the many possibilities to defend your property rights and sovereignty, the negotiation of agreements with other countries, or joining an international alliance seems logical and potentially beneficial (of course depending on the precise terms). It would amount to a system of multiple balances of power around the globe, very much like for example former Cato Institute scholar Ted Galen Carpenter favored for the current world. Surely, this would not be ideal, and would not be able to eradicate war either. Yet it will prevent many wars and safeguard the liberties and property rights of the participants.

This differs significantly from the pleas by people who simultaneously favor secession while calling for a non-interventionist foreign policy without alliances, such as Rothbard, Ron Paul (see for example in a column), or many contributors on www.lewrockwell.com.

Admittedly, most of these anti-alliance commentaries are directed against particular parts of current US foreign policy. However, it is still fair to demand theoretical consistency. Either these writers overlook there might be an problem, or they choose to ignore it. Still it is important to acknowledge there is an issue here. It is too simple to reject international alliances while embracing secession at the same time.

Middle Eastern Musings: Why I Blog

The news from Syria seems to have dwindled to nothing in the last couple of months. The hawks have focused their continued, never ending ire on the peace process between Tehran and Washington that the Obama administration has courageously initiated. The lack of news is too bad, of course, since the (quite unintended) consequences of Western meddling in the region are now beginning to be felt by everyday Syrians. PRI (“you’re listening to The World”) reports on the misery Syrians are now forced to endure:

It’s been a trying week for Syria. The United States and Britain suspended providing even non-lethal aid to the country. A prominent Syrian opposition leader has gone missing. And now winter has brought snow and cold weather.

The cause of suspended aid? Why, the fact that the anti-Assad national socialists have lost out to the Islamists militarily, politically and economically, of course. Instead of letting the anti-Assad national socialists fight it out with the pro-Assad national socialists and the Islamists – which would have produced a quick winner and thus reduced the suffering of Syrians – the West remained content to heavily arm the least prominent faction involved in the fighting (the anti-Assad national socialists). The result, of course, has been the continued bleeding of Syrian society as a war that could have ended years ago continues to drag on.

In Iran, a mild brouhaha has emerged over the censorship of most of the World Cup draw in Brazil (Iran’s national soccer team made the World Cup, and the draw – a huge deal in most of the sporting world – was held in Brazil, which is hosting the event next year). According to PRI, the state-run media in Iran had to censor most of the draw’s coverage due to the lack of coverage on Brazilian supermodel Fernanda Lima’s big, beautiful breasts.

While the effects of the state-run media are fairly straightforward, I find the cultural implications of this episode to be most fascinating. PRI reports:

The Islamic Republic doesn’t allow women deemed to be dressed immodestly on television, so every time the camera focused on Lima, the picture was dropped on Iranian TV.

This made for terrible viewing for Iranian soccer fans waiting to find out who Iran was going to be playing at the World Cup.

So, who do Iranians blame for this debacle? Lima or FIFA? The many abusive messages left on Lima’s Facebook page seem to suggest they are blaming her.

Comments ranged from insults to suggestions she should have worn a hijab, so everybody around the globe could watch the draw.

The abuse got so bad Lima had to take down her Facebook page. But then, a lot of Iranians started to apologize for the abuse, saying Iranians are not really like this. This, in turn, triggered posts by Brazilians saying, not to worry, Iranians are still welcome in Brazil.

Nationalism is prevalent in Iranian society, but so is a yearning to open up to the world. In my anecdotal experiences, I have found this nationalism to be very common among all young men in the non-Arab Muslim world. I suspect this nationalism is also prevalent in places like the Balkans and Arab Mediterranean world as well. I have no reason for suspecting this, except for the fact that in each of these parts of the world, relatively young states exist but nations are still being defined.

In Western Europe and, to a lesser extent Japan and South Korea, states and nations have long ago melded together through wars, policy battles, trade and sophisticated diplomacy. Along the peripheries of these areas the narrative of nation and state has not occurred, and may never occur (this type of nationalism is altogether absent from the New World republics for a number of fascinating-but-digressing reasons). I think the factions that encourage this narrative, national socialists all of them, are just as bad for their respective societies as are the conservatives (Islamists in the Muslim world, monarchists in other parts, Confucianists-cum-communists in China, etc., etc.). Only liberalism can bring about peace and prosperity to these societies.

The people apologizing for the actions of their fellow Iranians are a natural fit for liberalism’s humble creed. Unfortunately, I think the national socialists and the conservatives know this, and therefore advocate for policies that will keep their societies insular (and apart from the world of ideas that only liberalism has produced).

This brings me to a final thought for the day: What can I do about this, if anything? The regimes that hawks wish to destroy are bad guys, to be sure, but I have yet to see a regime that has been destroyed by an outside power give way to a regime that is benevolent and just. In fact, often these new regimes are worse than those they have replaced. The battle for ideas can only be won with the pen, and wars will only ever be won by ideas.

This realization, I think, is why I continue to write and to blog. Thanks for reading and, more importantly, for adding your thoughts to my own in the ‘comments’ section.

American Foreign Policy: Predictions, Assumptions and Falsehoods

On November 1st 2011 I got into an argument with Dr Delacroix about US foreign policy. During that time, if you’ll recall, a debate on the merits and demerits of bombing Libya was raging across the blogosphere and in the halls of power. Here is what I wrote in the heat of the moment two years ago today:

Time will tell, of course, which one of our predictions comes true. In two years time, Tunisia, which did not get any help from the West, will be a functioning democracy with a ruling coalition of moderate Islamists in power.

The Egyptian military will be promising the public that elections are just around the corner, and Libya will be in worse shape than it is today. Two years from today, Dr. J, you will be issuing an apology to me and making a donation to the charity of my choice.

Since you are very good at avoiding the facts on the ground in the name of democratic progress, I think we should establish a measurement rubric by which to measure the progress of Libya. How about GDP (PPP) per capita as measured by the IMF?

Not too shabby, eh? In case you haven’t been staying up to date on current events in the Middle East, Tunisia is a functioning democracy with a ruling coalition of moderate Islamists in power. It is not Switzerland or Iceland, but it is doing much better than the two states who were on the receiving end of US “help” during the Arab Spring.

Egypt, for example, is currently being run by the (US-funded) military, and the military is promising Egyptians that elections are just around the corner.

In Libya, GDP (PPP) per capita for 2013 started off the year at $11,936 (in international dollars). In 2011, prior to the uprisings and subsequent US bombing campaign, Libya’s GDP (PPP) per capita clocked in at $14,913 (you’d have to look at 2010 to see where Libya started off). That’s a nearly $3,000 drop in purchasing power parity. Here is the relevant IMF data (it starts off in 2010 and you can go from there).

Perfectly predicting the current mess in the Middle East has less to do with my genius than it does with applying a general libertarian framework to the situation. For example, I know that government is very bad at doing nearly everything. Government is a name we have given to an organization that has a monopoly on force. This monopoly on force is usually consented to because it is expected that it will provide an honest court system and a way to interact with other polities (“diplomacy”). When this monopoly on force is applied to anything other than these two functions, peace and prosperity give way to war and impoverishment. The trajectory that war and impoverishment take in a society depends on any number of variables, but the general libertarian framework I just outlined never fails to impress.

Now, my perfect prediction was made in the heat of the moment during an argument. If my argument was right, what did the other side of the debate have to say? Is it at all possible that Dr Delacroix had an argument that somewhat conformed to reality as well? Decide for yourself, and remember, this was written near the end of 2011:

There are several benefits to the Libyan/NATO victory for this country […] First, rogues and political murderers everywhere are given a chance to suppose that if you kill Americans, we will get you afterwards, even if it takes twenty years […] Two, Arabs and oppressed people everywhere are figuring that we mean it when we say we like democracy for everyone […] Three, this Obama international victory will cost him dearly in the next election. A fraction – I don’t know how large – of the people who voted for him the first time around oppose all American military interventions.

I don’t know about you, but it looks as if Dr Delacroix got Libya, the rest of the Arab world and American domestic politics horribly wrong, and on every level possible. If I am being disingenuous or unfair to Dr Delacroix’s argument, please point out to me where I go wrong in the ‘comments’ section.

Let’s take a second to reflect on something here. I was factually correct in my assessment of what would happen in the Middle East if the US intervened militarily. Dr Delacroix was factually incorrect. I think the drastic difference in outcomes occurred because our assumptions about how the Middle East works are informed by different history books. This is odd because we agree on nearly everything else.

Were I proved to be wrong, and shown how devastating the effects of my assumptions on societies could be,  I know I would do some deep questioning about my prior assumptions of how the world works.

There are four assumptions Dr Delacroix makes, in recent blog posts, that I believe are unfounded. When these unfounded assumptions have gained traction policy-wise, the consequences have been devastating. When these unfounded assumptions have been defeated in open debate, the consequences have been minute. By pointing out these assumptions, and ruthlessly criticizing them, I hope to provide a framework for those who read this blog to use when thinking about foreign affairs.

  • False Assumption #1: “Bullies will try to pull off worse and worse brutalities until they become intimidated. The unopposed brutalities of one bully encourage others to go further. Some who had the potential but never acted on it will be encouraged by the impunity of others to become bullies themselves.”

Comparing leaders of authoritarian states to schoolyard bullies is a bad way to go about understanding international relations. I think this is done on purpose, of course, in order to obfuscate the reality of a given situation. Dictators in authoritarian states often enjoy broad coalitions of support from the populaces over which they rule. In Iraq, for example, Saddam Hussein enjoyed support from Sunni Muslims, Christians, secularists, socialists, trade unions, domestic corporations, women’s rights groups and the poor. Dictators often enjoy broad support from their populaces because of the fact that they bully, to use Dr Delacroix’s term, the bullies (see False Assumption #2 for more on this).

Here is another example: Bashar al-Assad has broad support in Syria because he protects religious and ethnic minorities from the passions of the vulgar mob. Dictators rarely care about the actions of dictators in other countries, unless it serves their own domestic purposes, and slaughtering people randomly is something I have never heard of a dictatorship doing. A dictator’s attacks are calculated, quite coldly I admit, so as to bolster support from the factions they are allied with. Dr Delacroix would like nothing more than to have the Middle East actually be a place where dictators take comfort in the actions of other dictators. Were this to be true, his argument would be right. His predictions would come to pass. Alas.

  • False Assumption #2: “By the way, as little as four years ago and even less, Western liberals and misguided libertarians were still blaming the American military for Iraqi on Iraqi violence. The US military is gone; the violence is rather worse.”

Attempting to sweep the violence and high death count associated with the US invasion of Iraq under the rug does nothing to inspire confidence in Dr Delacroix’s framework. The Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence occurred after the US military illegally removed the bully’s bully from his position of power. Prior to the US military’s illegal invasion, the Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence Dr Delacroix points to was kept in check by Saddam Hussein’s heavy-handed tactics. When Hussein gassed Kurds, for example, he did not do so simply because the Kurds “revolted” against his rule. He did so because the Kurds had been murdering Arabs and engaging in terrorist activities that targeted Iraqi infrastructure. The intrastate warfare in Iraq was quite negligible until the United States decided to break its own laws and illegally invade and occupy Iraq.

Of course, you can always choose to believe Dr Delacroix’s theory of events, but I think the results of our predictive power speak for themselves (on the inevitability of intrastate warfare in post-colonial states, see the discussions about “post-colonialism,” “secession” and “decentralization” here at NOL).

  • False Assumption #3: “In World War Two, we could have stopped the genocide of the Jews or slowed it to a crawl. We did not because there was a strong but vague reluctance to ‘get involved.’”

In 1939 France and the United Kingdom had worldwide empires. The Soviet Union was 25 years old. So were the small, independent states of Turkey, Hungary and Austria. Germany, despite its defeat in World War 1, was an industrial power. The was no such thing as cruise missiles. There was no such thing as jet airplanes. There was no such thing as satellites. Or the internet. The Jews that were slaughtered in Europe lived in places that could not be reached by the American military of 1939. Indeed, they lived in places in Europe that could not be reached by the American military of 1945. The Eastern Front in World War 2 was many things, but certainly I think you can see why it wasn’t a “reluctance to get involved” on the part of the American people that is partly responsible for the Holocaust. To assume that the American military could have marched into Eastern Europe during World War 2 and stopped, or even slowed, the Holocaust is delusional.

  • False Assumption #4: “Today, I am ashamed to be an American because of our passivity with respect to the slaughter of Syrian seekers for freedom.”

Since the end of World War 2, when the US assumed its place as the world’s most prominent polity, Washington has continually opted to support the socialists (Ba’athists, Nasserists, Ghaddafi, etc.) over the Islamists in the Arab world (liberal Arabs simply, and unfortunately, emigrate to the West). The most obvious reason for this support is that the socialists do not send their agents to fly planes filled with people into commercial buildings filled with people. Pretending that the US is putting its head in the sand is disingenuous. Washington is well-aware of the consequences of letting Assad fight it out with the Islamists. We have made our decision after weighing the costs and benefits of every option available. We did this through open debate. Socialists make better enemies (and allies) than Islamists.

Now, these are just some small examples of jingoism and delusions of grandeur I have picked out. There are many more examples, especially in the national press, but Dr Delacroix’s are much, much better reasoned than any of those. If you are reading the op-eds in the national press rather than Dr Delacroix you are going to be woefully misinformed about the nature of the world. Your brain will be slightly more malnourished than it otherwise would be (this is one of the reasons why I like blogging with him). His arguments are informed by a lifetime of prestigious scholarship; they are informed by somebody who has the benefit of understanding two distinct cultures in an intimate way.

And look how incredibly wrong he has been proven to be. Assumptions matter. So, too, does truth and falsehood.

Obama’s Newest War Campaign: Syria?

I’ve written about how disastrous a war campaign in Syria would be before. You can check out the archives here. At this point I think my track record for predicting what will happen when the US attacks another country is pretty damned good.

Here’s how I’ve accomplished this: government is, at best, an arbitrator of last resort (“courts and diplomacy”). If societies begin to grant a government’s scope much more than this minimum, expect to see bad things happen. Bombing another country for ambiguously stated purposes will lead to bad things. These bad things will be much worse than the bad things currently in place.

Don’t believe me? Look at Iraq. And Libya. And Afghanistan. And Vietnam. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Mark my words: if the Obama administration bombs Syria we will have much more to worry about than “projecting weakness.” An onslaught of chemical weapons, horrific ethnic cleansing campaigns, and decades of civil war will be in the books. The war would have been over by now if the Obama administration had not armed Islamist rebels. I wrote at length about Syria and the US’s strategic blunders here. Feel free to check it out.

Islamists, by the way, are people that adhere to the same type of philosophy as al-Qaeda, the organization responsible for 9/11. These are the people the Obama administration and Republican hawks support, and have supported, on and off again for five decades.