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.