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.

Good Review of Posen’s “Restraint”

Second, liberal hegemony is liberal, Posen explains, because “it aims to defend and promote a range of values associated with Western society in general and U.S. society in particular.” Democracy looms large among these values, particularly because this approach identifies “failed states, rogue states, and illiberal peer competitors” as the primary source of threats to the U.S. and global peace. In short, these latter-day Wilsonians believe that “the United States can only be truly safe in a world full of states like us, and so long as the United States has the power to pursue this outcome, it should.”

 

Posen argues that this strategy has not performed very well in the post-Cold War era and will only “perform less and less well” in the changing world of the future. Liberal hegemony has been, and will continue to be, quite costly in terms of blood and treasure: the U.S. has fought four wars since 1992, spent trillions of dollars in these conflicts and on maintaining the armed forces, and has suffered great opportunity costs in the process.  Liberal hegemony provokes other states to engage in “sustained obstructionism,” if not outright balancing against the U.S., and it has incentivized our allies, such as NATO and Japan, to “cheap ride” when they could contribute more—thus making the benefits of U.S. security commitments incommensurate with the costs.  Worse, some allies, such as Israel and Iraq, are “reckless drivers” that “do the wrong things,” and the U.S. has little ability to rein them in.

Both the book and the review were published in 2014 but I’m only reading this review now. You can read the rest of the review here.

Graham Allison on the clash of civilizations

The impending clash between America and China that is. It seems that what separates China and American (culture) and what they have in common (a superiority complex and obsession to be number one) all lead to war. 

I’m more optimistic, but what is laid out in the article is compelling.

Here is one bit regarding the Chinese view on America’s most prized export.

 

For Americans, democracy is the only just form of government: authorities derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed. That is not the prevailing view in China, where it is common to believe that the government earns or losses political legitimacy based on its performance. In a provocative TED Talk delivered in 2013, the Shanghai-based venture capitalist Eric Lichallenged democracy’s presumed superiority. “I was asked once, ‘The party wasn’t voted in by election. Where is the source of legitimacy?’” he recounted. “I said, ‘How about competency?’” He went on to remind his audience that in 1949, when the Chinese Community Party took power, “China was mired in civil war, dismembered by foreign aggression, [and] average life expectancy at that time [was] 41 years. Today [China] is the second-largest economy in the world, an industrial powerhouse, and its people live in increasing prosperity.”

Highly recommended you read all of it which can be found here.

An obvious way to shift the burden of managing China’s rise.

Good and brief discussion of the Quad written in the South China Morning Post today.

Proposed in 2007 by Japan, the Quad would consist of Japan, Australia, India and the United States.

The proposed alliance (which arguable already exists) is more than capable of confronting China if need be. Collectively they represent approximalty 25 percent of the worlds population (compared to 18.6 percent for China) and approximately 36 percent of the worlds GDP (compared to 15 percent of China).

There would be possible shrieking but there are strong incentives to cooperate on such a self-interested task. For one, all 4 have comparable ideologies and political systems. But 2, and most importantly, all 4 own genuine interests in shaping the rise of China.

Instead of being the dominant player, the self anointed leader of the free world should pursue a more distributive role and allocate more responsibility to its regional allies.

 

Good overview of the diplomatic nuances of the North Korea situation.

Here is one bit.

Number three, we have to work as closely as we possibly can with China in particular to work toward more of a coordinated strategy. The game we have played with China, and that China plays with us, is that we always tell China, “You could bring these guys to heel; if you really, really wanted to do it, you could.” The Chinese will say, “You Americans, you’re the threat to them,” and so on. We blame one another — that creates running room for North Korea.

You can read the rest here.

State building over multiple nations in Afghanistan.

The aim of the Trump “mini-surge” is largely a repackage of policies already seen including the training of Afghan forces and an increased focus on counterterrorism operations. The logic defending the continued American military presence in Afghanistan is to help provide the physical security that would allow for the strengthening of Afghan governance. Those in favor of the surge argue that it is not possible to improve Afghani governance unless pursued in a physically stable environment. Along with the dismantling of Al-Qaeda and its terrorist camps, this has been the reasoning that defends keeping the American military in Afghanistan.

So, if the argument for more American resources being sent to Afghanistan is that it will help build a self-sustaining Afghanistan government, then we should evaluate progress based on that criteria. What has the United States put into Afghanistan and how does it compare with the return received for its investment?

The investment? American troop strength has varied over the past 16 years, with a peak around 100,000 in 2010. In addition to troop deployments, the United States has provided Afghanistan $117.26 billion for relief and reconstruction since 2002. Note that this doesn’t include contractors or the contributions made by American allies.

The return? In rule of law, regulatory quality, control of corruption, government effectiveness, and political stability, the World Bank ranked Afghanistan at or near the very bottom in each category for the past 18 consecutive years. Freedom House ranks Afghanistan as “not free” for every single year of the American war. Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Afghanistan 169 of 176 in its metric of corruption perception.

Why has America achieved little to any progress in erecting an effective Afghanistan government despite sending so many troops and investing so much aid? Surge defenders argue that the lack of success in Afghanistan is because of mistakes made by the intervener; that is, the failure of America in Afghanistan is a result of relying on a combination of air power, special forces, and indigenous militias instead of a full-blown occupation. These are the people who always argue that “we would have been successful if we had a bit more resources.” It is still difficult to take these surge arguments seriously when the amount of time and money spent in Afghanistan is already far larger than what the United States invested in both Japan and Germany, combined. There is also the obvious fact that little to anything changed in the quality of the Afghan government after the 100,00 troop Obama surge.

The fact is that the poor performance of the Afghanistan government is not because of American commitment. The poor performance of the Afghanistan government is because America is trying to build a central state over multiple nations.

A state is a self-sustaining set of institutions that govern over a well-defined and internationally recognized area.

A nation is a collective identify of people rooted in a combination of a common language, shared traditions, and most often, ethnicity.

The United Kingdom is a state with four nations. The Kurds are a nation without a state. Japan is a nation-state.

For most of its history, Afghanistan has been multiple nations exercising local autonomy under a weak state. Even after the billions spent and hundreds of thousands of troops deployed, this is Afghanistan today.

As of 2016, Afghanistan had about 33 million citizens, 40 percent who identify as Pashtun, 33 percent who identify as Tajik, 9 percent who identify as Uzbek, 11 percent who identify as Hazara, and 8 other groups who number between 1 to 2 percent of the population. Ethnic fueled fighting is nothing new to Afghanistan. Just before the arrival of the coalition troops in 2001, Afghanistan was recovering from a series of ethnic civil wars that claimed an estimated 100,000 Afghans. The Taliban, America’s main antagonist in the conflict, is largely drawn from the Afghan Pashtuns and the only thing that the other tribes have in common with each other is a fervent hatred of Pashtuns. Ethnic tensions of Afghanistan are so strong that their Census is not even able to record tribe membership of the results producing violence.

The tendency to identify with the tribe and not as an Afghanistan makes it difficult for the state to consolidate power. Franky, an interest for a strong Afghan government is largely limited to Washington D.C. and among those Afghans who run it. America needs to better set priorities and recognize building a central government over competing and distrustful ethnic groups is neither strategic and, most probably, possible. Instead, the United States should look to gradually turn over all security operations to the Afghan National Army, cut its losses, and not fight against centuries of Afghan history.

Naval Collision Adds to Fears About U.S. Decline in Asia

Ecellent reporting in the NYT on the growing incompetence of the 7th fleet.

Here is one bit.

Dr. Thayer, the Asia-Pacific security expert, said: “The U.S. Navy is still very powerful, but its aura of invincibility has taken a huge hit. American credibility in the region has taken a big hit.”

The rest can be found here.

Iraq was not the first illegal US-led attack on a sovereign state in recent times. The precedent was set in 1999 in Yugoslavia.

The legality of the war against Iraq remains the focus of intense debate – as is the challenge it poses to the post-second-world-war order, based on the inviolability of sovereign states. That challenge, however, is not a new one. The precursor is without doubt Nato’s 1999 attack on Yugoslavia, also carried out without UN support. Look again at how the US and its allies behaved then, and the pattern is unmistakable.

Yugoslavia was a sovereign state with internationally recognised borders; an unsolicited intervention in its internal affairs was excluded by international law. The US-led onslaught was therefore justified as a humanitarian war – a concept that most international lawyers regarded as having no legal standing (the Commons foreign affairs select committee described it as of “dubious legality”). The attack was also outside Nato’s own remit as a defensive organisation – its mission statement was later rewritten to allow for such actions.

This article is old (it was first published in 2003) but is relevant for understanding current Chinese suspicions of American hegemony.

You can read the rest here.

The Fatal Conceit of Foreign Intervention

The fatal conceit is the assumption that the world can be shaped according to human desires. This paper argues that the logic of the fatal conceit can be applied to foreign interventions which go beyond the limits of what can be rationally constructed by reason alone. In suffering from the fatal conceit, these interventions are characterized by: (1) the realization that intentions do not equal results, (2) a reliance on top-down planning, (3) the view of development as a technological issue, (4) a reliance on bureaucracy over markets, and (5) the primacy of collectivism over individualism. These characteristics explain why interventions extending beyond the limits of what can be rationally constructed tend to fail.

The authors are Christopher J. Coyne and Rachel L. Mathers and you can read the rest for free here.

Chinese-American tensions in the South China Sea.

China also established its first overseas military base, conveniently located in Djibouti, near a valuable global shipping lane and just four miles from a U.S. installation. In addition, Chinese warships have been popping up all over the globe, including near Alaska, Japan, and Australia. While their movement thus far has been through international waters, and therefore not in violation of any international law, it is a clear sign of China’s desire to be taken seriously as a global military power. Too bad Beijing doesn’t respect that same right when other countries attempt to exercise their freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas.

and there is this as well.

There is a slight cause for optimism on this front. An exclusive story from Breitbart last week claims the White House has approved a proposed plan crafted by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to conduct regular freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, or FONOPs. According to an anonymous U.S. official, Mattis wants to change the nature of conducting FONOPs. Instead of sending discrete requests to the National Security Council each time the U.S. Navy plans such an operation, he allegedly outlined a schedule for conducting them regularly throughout the rest of the year.

 

Carrying out FONOPs is a good way to challenge Beijing’s claims on the high seas. Despite China’s aggressive provocation, the Obama administration put an end to FONOPs from 2012 to 2015, and only conducted three in 2016 out of fear of upsetting Beijing (because appeasing a revanchist power always turns out so well). So far this year, the Trump administration has carried out three FONOPs and clearly has plans for several more. Let’s hope the Breitbart story is accurate and these become much more frequent as the year wears on.

You can read the article in its entirety here.