5 Foreign Policy Problems Libertarians Need To Address


One of my biggest concerns with extreme libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism is foreign policy. I believe that the existence of states within the international structure prevents the collapse of the state to voluntaryism.

After an embarrassing show of “I-am-more-libertarian-than-thou” in a recent comment thread at The Libertarian Standardit has become apparent to me that many libertarians have ill-thought out conceptions of foreign policy and national security. Like those who say “we shouldn’t legalize gay marriage because government shouldn’t be involved in marriage in the first place,” these libertarians need to match up their philosophy with the realities of the world. This article aims to bare five painful truths about foreign policy, with which libertarians must reckon.

1. War is Fought Between States, Not Individuals

Because the world is anarchic, there is no guarantee that a United Nations, or other supragoverning power, will solve conflicts between nations. Thus, states build up militaries in the interest of their state’s survival. The best way to survive in a world of force and dog-eat-dog? Have the biggest and baddest military, which, naturally, the government controls. The concept of states being top priority is essential to understanding international affairs. Consider this: after 9/11, the United States “declared” war on Afghanistan, not Al-Qaeda. The state was still paramount to the terrorist organization behind the attacks.

Individuals within a state can certainly affect state action, but by in large, a state will act as a unified whole. Within foreign policy, a state will act within its own interests, mostly to maximize security; a state will act as if it itself is a self-interested individual. Inevitably, maximizing security will lead to conflict and war. Should a state “fall” to voluntaryism or anarcho-capitalism, it would be in a surrounding states’ best interest to conquer and eliminate. International relations detests a power vacuum. Thus, if one state has no monopoly of force, another monopoly of force will take over.

Given this state of the world, fully collapsing the state is hugely dangerous. Another government will move in, and its benevolence is not guaranteed.

2. The Non-Aggression Principle is Insufficient

According to our friend Wikipedia, the Non-Aggression Principle is,

“A moral stance which asserts that aggression is inherently illegitimate… Aggression, for the purposes of NAP, is defined as the initiation or threatening of violence against a person or legitimately-owned property of another. … In contrast to nonviolence, the non-aggression principle does not preclude violence used in self-defense or defense of others.”

Under the non-aggression principle, the state can do a whole lot in the name of self-defense. This includes:

  1. Sweden going to war with Britain because of acid rain damage to private property.
  2. Japan going to war with North Korea because of verbal threats.
  3. The United States using nuclear weapons in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Self-defense is like a blank check to behave at-will in national security dilemmas. Sure, a state strictly adhering to NAP might prevent some war, but self-defense is such a loose term that it’s difficult to take seriously. I frequently hear libertarians advocating to go to war with Iran because of Iran’s anti-American sentiments and quest to build nuclear weapons. Is that in line with the NAP? Some may say yes, others will say no.

The bottom line is that the Non-Aggression Principle is a terrible heuristic to gauge foreign policy, and should not be invoked when talking about international relations.

3. Nuclear Weapons Are Actually Really Great At Making Peace

I hear this a lot: “Nuclear weapons were created by the government and likely would have not arisen without the government,” therefore we should not talk about nuclear weapons.

This “argument” tends to be the pathetic fallback when libertarians are faced with nuclear problems, such as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and proliferation. Yes, nuclear weapons (likely) would not have existed without governments to coordinate collective action, but this reality is 70 years old. Nuclear weapons exist and must be dealt with. Libertarians should abandon this line of thinking because it’s antiquated and irrelevant.

Luckily, nuclear weapons are a really great tool in international policy making. Libertarians should be grateful that great powers have access to nuclear weapons. Consider this: since the proliferation of nuclear weapons, there hasn’t been an open great power war since WWII—the longest span of great power peace in documented history. Nuclear weapons are defensive in nature; they deter war.

In the past 70 years, states have done a good job of not blowing each other up because they are concerned about state survival. Should nuclear weapons become dispersed, that assurance no longer exists.

4. Trade Does Not Guarantee Peace

Free trade has never guaranteed peace;  it is fairly well known in the field of IR that no empiric study has ever found a strong correlation between trade levels and peace (consider this study that argues, “Extreme interdependence, whether symmetrical or asymmetrical, has the greatest potential for increasing the likelihood of conflict”). All that has been written on the subject is in theoryland. Consider:

Free trade is more of a symptom of good or bad relations, not a cause.

As a libertarian, I naturally advocate that free trade is good for everyone, but we are deluding ourselves if we think that it can prevent war.

5. An Absolutist Foreign Policy Is Dangerous

The world is not black and white; if it were, then national security would be really easy. What should be done with spies from other countries? How should the United States have reacted to the Cuban Missile Crisis, 9/11, or Pearl Harbor? What is a reasonable amount of force in a war of defense? Is it ethical to abandon Afghanistan after obliterating their economy? These questions have no easy answers, especially for libertarians.

I am no hawk; I believe that war should be avoided at all costs, if possible. That does not mean that I am not in tune with reality. Libertarians need to better educate themselves on foreign policy. Domestic policy is important, but so too is international affairs. It’s time for libertarians to step up to the plate to create a foreign policy plan that is more congruent with the realities of the world.

  • Arnold

    Your statement in #4 “no empiric study has ever found a strong correlation between trade levels and peace” is incorrect.

    McDonald’s 2004 JCR piece, and any number of articles by O’Neal and co-authors (http://www.yale-university.com/leitner/resources/docs/HORJune09.pdf) (http://jpr.sagepub.com/content/33/1/11.short) (http://jpr.sagepub.com/content/36/4/423.short) all assert a strong correlation between trade levels and peace.

    It’s not uncontroversial, but you’re overstating your case and are missing a substantial literature that asserts a correlation (and in some cases the authors try to argue causation) between the two.

    • Arnold,

      I’m familiar with this study. There were a number of research problems with it. Consider the following:

      – In their model, they “limit our study to politically relevant pairs of states: those that are contiguous and those containing at least one state defined as a major power,” which eliminates some of the most important and damning relationships in the world.

      – They only analyze the Cold War era, where states, in large, were choosing between the West and Soviet Union

      – They rely on democracy is a variable. I’m not one to argue with DPT, and neither are they; their research proves little that’s new.

      – They rely on IMF data, which is known to be incomplete for the Cold War period. In Eastern Europe, they only had data for Hungary, Poland, and Romania.

      – They don’t control for sector preference in their interdependence model.

      • Arnold

        There is certainly a controversy in the literature, which I mentioned in my comment. But these are several articles that passed peer review and published in reputable IR journals. Empirical evidence you disagree with isn’t the same as no empirical evidence.

        This is especially true considering your first two critiques are about limitations to the generalizability of the conclusions rather than the correctness of the conclusions. And if we disqualify every article written in IR with incomplete or poorly coded data then we’re going to eliminate virtually every article written in the subfield, starting with the COW dataset.

        • True, but I think we can both agree that some studies are better than others.

  • Kevin Boyd

    I agree with this piece and I’m glad someone wrote it.

    I would of course quibble with you on parts of your third part, but it’s irrelevant to your general point so I won’t do it.

    But sadly, I don’t see libertarians coming around to our foreign lolicy views anytime soon. Case in point, I frequently engage in Twitter wars with libertarians who somehow view the mere presence of an embassy in a foreign country as a sign of an “engtangling alliance”.

  • Robert Kenneth Kirchoff

    I take serious issue with broad swathes of 1) and 5), and have many nits to pick elsewhere, but that would be a full on foreign policy discussion that warrants specific attention. Something I would love, by the way, but I don’t wish to hijack.

    I do wish to say that numbers 2), 3), and 4) are absolutely on the mark, and I’m glad someone else in the libertarian world will say so.

    Your end point is good, I just don’t think your lead-up is going to be very convincing to your target audience. Castigation is seldom a successful argumentative technique. You’d be better off arguing from a point you almost made in 1): the institutional case.

    Foreign policy is a delicate balance, but today’s balance is fairly good. The world is more peaceful than ever. This is largely a function of the fact that, despite their bigger-than-ever size, modern states are relatively powerless to influence or upset the foreign policy status quo. That is, states are less in control of the state of international affairs. The world is more resistant to state control than ever, as demonstrated by massive American expenditures yielding results so poor they strain the use of the world “results”.

    Libertarians should celebrate this and carefully examine the institutions and circumstances of peace, and how to further empower those institutions that herald peace, weaken those that herald war, and bringing about more of the kind of technological and social changes that make war untenable. That is both a realistic and libertarian message.

  • John Chapman

    Think this a timely, actually overdue, discussion on Foreign Policy. Thank you Rachel for the finely written piece. I am in agreement with almost everything you state, and you make good arguments for your position.
    You lost me on the 2nd paragraph of #1 on the list. I don’t agree with your line of reasoning. That’s ok. I’ll take the opportunity to educate myself further on the topic.
    Happy Birthday!

    • Thank you John!

      • Pochy

        Can I debate you on this. Your Article, while well written, wants me to debate you

  • Grant

    Movement libertarians still want to reckon with the state. Instead of endorsing the actual philosophy of libertarianism, the movement tends to embrace the government policies of libertarianism.

    Yes, we need a better state – the ultimate goal, however, is to be stateless.

    Good points and concerns are raised in this article – but none-the-less, here is my retort.

    1. War is Fought Between States, Not Individuals – but it is individuals who fight the wars for the political/economic ruling class.

    The original argument screams of the “we are the state” fallacy. Yes,
    states wage war on other states – but it is living, breathing human
    beings who have to follow orders and fight wars. The logic behind the
    post suggests that individuals are the state in war-time – this has
    grave implications.

    An executive order sends troops to war, if one dissents – let’s say
    Bradley Manning – and morally objects to their situation and decides to
    expose war crimes, then any punishment sent that person’s way (illegal
    detention, torture, possible life imprisonment) is all voluntary. The
    author is right, states wage war against one another but on a piece of
    paper. Human beings have to deal with the consequences of executive
    decree – be it death or otherwise.

    The Author notes that after the 9/11 attacks the US declared war on
    Afghanistan and not Al-Qaeda. OK, fair enough, but that is because the
    US could not declare war on a terrorist group – it was not that
    Afghanistan as a state was more important than Al-Qaeda, it is because a
    war on terror is ridiculous so a defined battle ground (which has now
    seeped over numerous national borders) was needed. Afghanistan was the

    Her final argument is: “if one state has no monopoly of force,
    another monopoly of force will take over.” This is to say if a
    libertarian stateless society is realized then another government will
    just invade and poof – another state. Later in her article Burger notes
    herself as an Anarcho-Capitalist – only “anarcho” in so far as we would
    still need an aggressive, violent state to provide for the common
    defense I guess. The OG An-Cap Murray Rothbard would disagree – as would
    I. A stateless society could absolutely (especially one with the
    infrastructure of the United States) provide its own defense… And without the offense this job would only become easier.

    2. The Non-Aggression Principle is Insufficient – Uhm… so?

    The argument here is that by adhering to the NAP the state can do a
    whole lot in the name of self-defense. To that I agree. In a truly
    libertarian society, however, the absence of force means the necessary
    abolishment of centralized power, and of ALL bureaucratic, hierarchical
    institutions so that the true market form will be able to build
    society. It is not in the interests of human beings to die in offensive
    attacks for false defense. It is in the interests of human beings to
    seek peace, and without centralized aggression, this is much more

    3. Nuclear Weapons Are Actually Really Great at Making Peace – Especially when we all rest in peace.

    The argument here is that Mutually Assured Destruction has led to the
    greatest peace time the world has ever known. Burger believes “Peace
    through Strength” has worked.

    I dissent. Nuclear arms are the absolute in technological supremacy
    and hegemony. They are terrifying. They threaten the existence of human
    civilization. A simple look at human history can dissolve this idea: the
    most violent creation of humankind has been the state. States are
    agents of repression and the number one threat to liberty.

    Mutually assured destruction fits its acronym rather well – belief in
    peace through mutual destruction certainly is MAD. I would point out
    how close the world came to nuclear war during the JFK administration.
    One policy error (and humans a prone to errors) and the world would end.
    States escalate violence quickly. Currently states are engaged in
    economic warfare, policy warfare, information warfare, etc. There is
    also the scaling up of militarization among powerful nation states –
    militarization of space, national borders, technology and so forth. In
    the shattering event that nuclear arms are ever used it will prove to be
    the end the human experiment.

    Championing nuclear arms is incredibly short-sighted.

    4. Trade Does Not Guarantee Peace – Right.

    I agree that trade does not guarantee peace. Free market exchange and
    social organization are great tools for peace, however. A utopia is not
    attainable in the near future (if ever) for a number of reasons – but
    in a way that is the true beauty of markets. Our creative labor, in a
    liberated society, will build true peace.

    5. An Absolutist Foreign Policy Is Dangerous – OK, I will play ball.

    So the premise here is we have a state so how do we handle foreign
    policy in war-time? Simple. Stop allowing the state to commit
    atrocities. The official policy of the state when it comes to foreign
    policy should be non-interventionism. If the state was not involved in
    so much economic and social engineering there would be much less blow
    back and much more peace. Instead of dedicating so many tax dollars to
    nation building and the spread of democracy, let the state and its
    private partnerships utilize all of the military industrial complex mega
    trillions on true defense.

    Now, in a stateless society, markets would realize how destructive
    state foreign policy is – to liberty, peace, economics and the human
    condition. Libertarians should all reject the state, and begin (right
    now) building a new society within the shell of the old. Major foreign
    policy problems (the biggest of which is war) exist because of the state
    – lets let markets build policy in the public arena.

    • Andrew Patton

      How do you propose to let markets build policy? More bluntly, how do you propose to defend your homeland if it is attacked? After the American Revolution, Poland enacted a Constitution establishing a much more democratic constitutional monarchy than previously existed, securing the rights of peasants and stripping the Sejm (the Polish legislature) of some of their powers, such as the ability of any one legislator to void the entire session at will. The response from the neighboring states of Russia, Prussia and Austria was to invade and partition Poland, lest such ideas spread to their own countries.

      Moreover, there lies the question of what to do with the existing state’s stockpile of weapons and weapons precursors. If the state collapses, to whom do such things as nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers belong? And what prevents a nuclear engineer from walking off with several pounds of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium- enough to build a bomb for anyone willing to pay? This was a very real concern after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and America’s response was to help the Russian Federation keep those scientists on the payroll by agreeing to buy large amounts of down-blended formally weapons-grade uranium, which would then be sold to our power plants as fuel.

      Besides which, anarchy is internally unstable. It can only exist as long as everyone obeys the non-aggression principle, or else as long as the vast majority do AND protect one another in the event anyone acts aggressively. Any deviation from this situation drives rational actors away from libertarian anarchy and to centralized authority. Furthermore, such centralized authority is not likely to be democratic or peaceful. The most likely successors to an anarchy are gangs led by warlords or a theocracy, because in the absence of any legitimate claim of succession, power will be assumed by either the strongest and most unscrupulous people or by those who can convince the masses their authority is ordained by God.

  • Earl of Sandwich

    Very good piece.
    Over @ Reason/H&R there was some discussion recently that led to a sidebar tete-a-tete about “Libertarian Foreign Policy”; I started poking around looking for more detail and eventually came across this. I believe you correctly identify at least *some* of the fundamental problems inherent in the (as currently stated) libertarian FP ‘principles’ of “free trade w/ all, coupled with broad non-intervention”
    I find it fairly rare to find someone who is pretty savvy about Foreign Policy issues who is also comfortable with libertarian ideals, given the former is often fundamentally ‘pragmatic’ and the latter somewhat ‘idealistic’. They tend to use almost incompatible vocabularies at times. Many libertarians even object to the term ‘mutual best interests’ of states as being too-‘communitarian-minded’.
    I see nothing wrong with libertarian ideas providing ‘general guidelines’ in foreign policy stances. However, watching people attempt to strictly apply these principles in real-world scenarios reveals them to be completely insufficient. If there is a compromise between strict libertarian thinking and more Realpolitik-oriented internationalism, I think it needs to be identified.
    thanks again