What does it mean to have a libertarian foreign policy?

This essay will present the basics of what a libertarian foreign policy is and how it fits into the wider discussion of American grand strategy.

In the broadest sense, libertarianism is a political doctrine that defends personal liberty at the expense of collective goals, such as equality or order. The libertarian ideology addresses the relationship between the individual and his government and it’s assumed that if rights are symmetrical, decisions should be voluntary and free from government coercion. The obvious conclusion is that libertarians prefer a government with a limited number of responsibilities. Exceptions for government intervention usually include market failure such as public goods.

There are two main strands of libertarianism and both share the described outlook. One is a rights based libertarianism which argues that individuals have a moral right to freedom which exists prior to society. Rights include self-ownership and ownership of property and the purpose of erecting government is to protect these rights. Any initiation of force that goes beyond this is considered illegitimate.

The other type of libertarianism is consequence based and is known as consequentialism. This style of libertarian thought shares many of the conclusions of a right based libertarianism but arrives at policy positions by focusing on the unintended consequences of policy. Consequentialist argue that the unintended consequences of public policy are usually perverse, often harming those it was intended to help. These libertarians usually refrain from using moral language to frame policy issues and argue against intrusive policy due to its inefficiency.

In my opinion, it is the consequentialist strand of libertarianism that is more convincing and it is usually the strand of thinking that influences the more respectable arguments for a libertarian foreign policy. I therefore present the basics of a libertarian foreign policy by using the framework of the consequentialists.

So how does a consequentialist outlook translate into foreign policy? A consequentialist foreign policy argues for a limited number of objectives which mostly pertain to the physical security of the state. The two dominant themes of a libertarian foreign policy are non-intervention and non-entanglement. Non-intervention means that the United States should refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of other states. Non-entanglement means that the United States should avoid permanent security alliances and the indefinite stationing of its military abroad. Non-intervention and non-entanglement are referred to as a strategy of restraint and are at odds with the current US grand strategy of liberal hegemony. In place since the end of the Cold War, current grand strategy is hegemonic because America seeks to retain its dominant position in the international system. It is liberal because it seeks to spread liberal values and its associated institutions, most notably democracy. It seeks these two goals through both selective engagement (intervention) and extended deterrence (entanglement). Those who own a libertarian outlook consider the unintended consequences associated with such an active foreign policy to be self-defeating.

Intervention can take a variety of forms, from “smart sanctions” to outright regime change and those who favor intervention often argue for humanitarian goals, such as protecting unarmed civilians or spreading democracy. While such goals are laudable, consequentialists are usually reluctant to support intervention because of how historically divorced intentions are from outcomes. Consequentialist assume that social orders are spontaneous which means that they are the result of human action but not human design. Interveners often fail to appreciate the wide range of local and historical factors which give shape to a foreign culture and to try to reengineer a society from the outside will often backfire. This is especially true when using such a blunt instrument as military force. An informative example is the 2011 humanitarian intervention in Libya. The NATO directed military strikes were designed to protect civilians during the Libyan uprising yet the intervention lead to regime change which eventually lead to a humanitarian crisis. Under Gaddafi, Libya was comprised of a loose collection of clans which were kept in order by his dictatorial style of rule. The military strikes lead to the unraveling of this arrangement, turning Libya into a failed state. It is today composed of competing tribes, including ISIS, all of which have committed gross human rights violations. The intervention also had repercussions outside of Libya as the military strikes produced a refugee crisis, instability in Mali, complicated a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s nuclear program, and alienated rival powers who considered it disingenuous of the west to use the authorization to protect civilians to engage in regime change. Gaddafi was clearly an unsavory leader yet his removal lead to a series of events that arguably add up to something worse.

The other theme of a consequentialist foreign policy is non-entanglement which means to avoid permanent security alliances and the stationing of military troops overseas. As of 2016, the United States has approximately 800 military bases abroad and has signed security treaties with nearly 70 countries. Despite most of these security commitments being relics of the Cold War, there is a pervasive logic to retaining them as they are thought to provide the public good of security. The two main mechanisms at work are deterrence and assurance. The United States security commitments deters third party attacks on its allies. American assurance prevents American allies from preparing for such an attack, thus avoiding a spiral into conflict and in certain situations, nuclear proliferation. Yet, the extensive network of alliances is not cost free and has unintended consequences which include shirking, moral hazard, and the power problem. Shirking describes the tendency of American allies to not provide for their own defense and free ride on the American tax payer. This is an obvious problem in Western Europe as all but a small handful of NATO members meet their contractually obligated defense outlays. As described by MIT’s Barry Posen, NATO today is essentially “welfare for the rich.” The moral hazard of America’s security architecture describes a situation in which an American ally becomes more risk tolerant knowing that it can pass the costs onto the United States if their gamble backfires. Such a situation was displayed by Saudi Arabia’s escalation of the Yemen conflict. One reason why Saudi Arabia was so inclined to pursue a military solution in Yemen was because of the tacit insurance given by the United States if its adventurism failed. As many have pointed out, this is exactly what happened as the United States was dragged into cleaning up a humanitarian catastrophe it did not create. The last unintended consequence of the American alliance system is the most serious and is referred to as the power problem. Coined by CATO’s Christopher Preble, this is the irony that a stronger military often results in its promiscuous use, usually producing a less secure environment. The United States wide network of alliances and far reaching military presence creates a temptation to use it, often for non-strategic reasons. This attitude was expressed by Madeline Albright when she asked Colin Powell “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”  Such hubris was demonstrated in Iraq. The Iraq War had several causes, but at the heart of the American motivation to invade Iraq was an overconfidence in what the worlds most powerful military could actually achieve. The leadership that lead the United States into the Iraq War genuinely assumed that it would be easy for the world’s sole superpower to introduce liberal institutions to a society with no prior experience with them. The two dominant cultural themes of Iraq, tribalism and Islam, generally retard democracy, but encouraged by its abundance of hard power, the United States proceeded anyway. The unintended consequences are legion. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein turned Iraq into a chaotic mess, gave birth to ISIS, extended the influence of Iran, produced a mental health crisis among returning veterans, and strained American relations with other democracies.

Not all consequences are negative and those that are not should be considered when weighing foreign policy options. The United State may have failed in installing democratic institutions in Iraq but its demonstration of military power may have possibly deterred others from testing its capabilities. Yet, the evidence produced by 30 years of liberal hegemony indicates the United States needs to become more libertarian and scale back its foreign policy objectives. All attempts to export democracy have failed. America’s large coalition of security dependents at best free ride and at worst drag the United States into messy situations of little strategic value. And the liberal hegemony policies of intervention and extended deterrence have resulted in the sloppy use of force which has destabilized the international environment. Using data produced by the Congressional Research Service, the United States used its military approximately 40 times during the Cold War (1945-1991). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has used its military almost 200 times. Without an opposing force, the United States has used its armed forces in every non-strategic way possible. As a police force in Somalia to democratic reformer in Iraq, the United States is best described as a liberal hegemon on the march. The unintended result of such an overreaching foreign policy is that the United States has created humanitarian crises, turned manageable situations into unstable ones, and incentivized its rivals to set up rival alternatives to the liberal world order.