Among those who regard themselves as libertarian there is a divide over foreign policy issues. At its core is the question of how to apply libertarian principles to interactions between countries.
In some areas, such as free trade, there is complete agreement. Anyone who would interfere with another’s ability to sell goods or services to people in another country, or to buy goods or services from people in another country, is by definition not libertarian.
However, the debate can get heated when it comes to military conflict, national security and occasionally immigration.
Some libertarians use as their starting point Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote of 1801, “Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none” to argue for a non-interventionist, mind your own business foreign policy.
America’s status as the world’s largest economy and strongest military power adds a layer of complexity that is often unhelpful. For the purposes of this discussion I prefer to focus on underlying principles rather than consider the position of America (and invite the anti-American bias that often seems to accompany such discussion). Therefore I propose to look at it from the perspective of a middle-ranking country, Australia.
On one side of the argument are those who say that Australia should never intervene in another country unless that country directly threatens Australia. They also typically favour maintenance of a small military.
Applying that standard, Australia would not have sent troops to East Timor or the Solomon Islands, or obviously Iraq and Afghanistan. Vietnam, Korea and WW1 would also have been unjustified, although perhaps not WW2 and the Malayan crisis.
This position depends on the definition of what constitutes a threat to Australia. The threat of invasion is obvious, but what about a threat to a country with which Australia has a mutual defence treaty? Should there be such treaties? What about a naval blockade of our oil imports? Would the seizure of Australian assets in response to assaults on Indian students be such a threat? What if there was intelligence indicating a nuclear bomb was being prepared for detonation in Australia?
Some are tempted to think in terms of our region, but the world is a pretty small place these days. A nuclear device could be moved from anywhere in the world to Australia in a matter of hours. In any case, I am interested in principles here. What would constitute the relevant region for a country that happened to be located in a more crowded part of the world?
There are some excellent libertarian arguments against military intervention based on what tends to come with it. It is often used as a pretext to increase government authority through conscription, internment, higher taxes, loss of civil rights and so on. These concerns are frequently mentioned in the context of the ‘war on terror’ and opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are well founded. Military action is also regularly used by politicians to divert attention from their own inadequacies.
But what if those issues could be somehow neutralised and the issue became purely about intervention? If it was impossible for the government to ever go to war for domestic political advantage, and was prevented from using it as justification for increasing its powers, how should it be viewed?
In that context I see myself as being on the other side of the argument. Not that I favour intervention in general, but think it is contrary to libertarian principles to talk about intervention in terms of domestic and foreign considerations. Libertarians are concerned about individualism, not collectivism, and there is hardly anything more collective than a national boundary.
If the libertarian ambition is to free individuals from authoritarian government intrusion, there is no reason it should halt at a national border.
An example might help. Suppose the Tasmania government were to declare martial law, dissolve parliament, imprison all the judges and begin executing those reliant on public funding, starting with welfare recipients with eyebrow piercings and dreadlocks but eventually moving on to all kinds including public servants.
As libertarians we would naturally be horrified at this massive abuse of government authority, even if we suspected a few of those executed might not be missed. Libertarians promote a live and let live approach rather than particular moral values, making it irrelevant whether we approve of the choices other people make. Our concern is to minimise government power so it cannot be misused at all.
In an ideal world we might hope a privately funded militia would intervene in Tasmania to throw out the government and restore freedom to its citizens. But we know that is next to impossible (especially since the citizens have been largely disarmed) and would expect either the Commonwealth or another State government to do it. It would certainly not be libertarian to argue that they are prevented from freeing Tasmanians from tyranny because of a State boundary.
If Tasmania was replaced by East Timor or perhaps Fiji, you can see my point. Why should national boundaries be different from state boundaries? Or put another way, if national boundaries are so important, why aren’t state boundaries or even local government boundaries equally important? My contention is that, in libertarian terms, none of them are relevant. Libertarianism is about opposing coercion of individuals, wherever they are.
Of course, there are practical limitations on how individuals in other countries might be freed. Australia is only a middle ranking power and our military can only do so much. Some will suggest that if we can’t free everyone from tyranny, there’s no point freeing anyone. I disagree – freeing some people from tyranny is better than freeing none. Some will argue that we are seeking to impose our values on those we free, a claim often directed at America because it faces fewer military limitations. Again I disagree – most people will prefer liberal democracy over other forms of government, but there is no need to make it compulsory. However, nobody chooses to be oppressed.
Obviously somebody has to pay for any intervention, and libertarians dislike taxes. There will inevitably be a trade-off between the cost and the benefit of freeing people from oppression, but it is not libertarian to argue that the cost is inevitably too high. Freedom has a price.
It might be true that a strictly non-interventionist policy is safer in libertarian terms, given the history of governments to use intervention to erode our freedom. But that is simply based on pragmatism – let’s not give the government another excuse to intrude on our freedoms. It is not a position based on libertarian principle.
I prefer to focus on Australia rather than America, but America faces the same questions. It has the capacity to free hundreds of millions of people all around the world from government oppression. If that could be achieved without the loss of rights and freedoms such as have accompanied the ‘war on terror’ of the last decade, and the cost to American taxpayers was acceptable to them (perhaps by eliminating the massive amounts spent on corporate welfare), is there any compelling reason it should not do so? Speaking as a libertarian, that is.
Finally, the Liberal Democratic Party has attempted to reflect these views in its defence policy. Some people have reacted angrily because it does not rule out intervention under any circumstances, but nobody has offered a libertarian argument to support that. See what you think.