Ran across a useful and interesting argument between the generally conservative and generally libertarian views of our foreign policy – especially as it relates to war and the use of force in general. Here is Noah Rothman arguing against the essentially libertarian idea of non-intervention (using Syria as an example of why we should, at times, intervene), and here is the retort by Nick Gillespie forcefully arguing the libertarian viewpoint. Both articles repay reading – but my view is that both of them got it wrong, to a certain extent.
Do you want an example of a nation following the libertarian ideal in foreign policy? I present to you the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That Empire – the remnant of what was once the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne – was at peace continually from 1866 until 1914. While every major – and a large number of minor – powers were engaged in war at various times during that span, Austria-Hungary remained blissfully at peace and, indeed, did all it could to conciliate other powers and maintain the general peace. Austria-Hungary was also the least militarist of the European Great Powers – spending less on armaments than Germany, Russia, Britain and France. Austria took no part in the European scramble for colonies in Africa, fell for no “white man’s burden” nonsense, did not become jingoist. And how did the world repay this extended period of not fighting, not building up a massive military-industrial complex and not rocking the global boat? Well, Austria-Hungary was attacked, out of the blue, and thus got in to war in 1914…and because she lost the war, the entire country was dismantled. So much for the benefits of taking the libertarian approach to foreign policy.
On the other hand, there is the interventionist policy – these days closely identified with so-called “neocons”, but really just a type of policy which has been advocated by people of widely divergent political views ever since the end of the Second World War. Rothman neatly summed it up in his article:
…it is incumbent on the United States to maintain the stewardship of a global order which has resulted in relative peace and stability since the end of the Cold War…
Relative peace and stability? Really? We’ve had wars and massacres and civil wars and genocides aplenty since the end of the Cold War – if this is peace and stability then give me some war and instability – it’d be easier, and probably less bloody. The global order we’ve maintained really since the Second World War hasn’t even ensured that Europe and the United States have remained untouched by war – though, of course, the United States and Europe have gotten off far more lightly than Africa, Asia and South America.
In sum, both the interventionist and the libertarian ideals about American foreign policy and war making are “morally vacuous and historically ignorant”. Neither actually work – because neither take the world as it is and neither tailor the American response to the situation as it arises. To have a foreign policy which is morally defensible and in tune with historic reality is going to require a rather large shift in view points. The most important element of it will have to be a determination to discover where right and wrong lay in each foreign policy issue and seek as far as possibly to bend American foreign policy towards whomever is most right in a dispute.
To take just two examples – we are ignoring history when we try to deal with Islamism as if it is some aberrant feature of Islam. While not all Muslims are prepared to blow themselves up in a terrorist attack, a great deal of Muslim theology gears quite a few Muslims to so prepare. By ignoring those aspects of Muslim history which actually render blowing up non-combatants explicable we are hamstringing our ability to actually approach the Muslim world on the level and work out ways and means to deal with those elements of Islam which are bloody minded. We are ignoring who is right and who is wrong when we, say, insist that in the recent dispute between China and Japan over some small islands that they work it out peacefully – China is being aggressive and is in the wrong, and we should say so and make it clear that any Chinese attempt to upset the status quo by military means will result in our going to war…not because the islands are important, but because the principal of no Power being able to arbitrarily change the status quo is crucial to any rational functioning of the world.
What we have in our policy right now is just a muddle – and a muddle which can lead to World War Three as those around the world who are bent on evil perceive (incorrectly) that the United States lacks the will and the grit to see a terrible thing through to the end. We are not speaking with a clear voice. Heck, we’re not even speaking with an intelligible voice…what is China to make of us when they actually threaten military action against our ally Japan and we don’t immediately bristle with aggressive intent towards China? What are our Islamists enemies to think of us when we say out of one corner of our mouth that we oppose Islamist extremism, but then go about helping to midwife Muslim extremism in places like Egypt and Libya? We’re not being clear, and so our various enemies are acting based upon a false presumption about who and what we are…and people working on false assumptions about the United States often wind up at war with the United States (see Germany, Japan, eg).
I would have us recast our entire foreign policy – ditch those elements such as the UN and NATO which were cobbled together with a mind towards keeping Germany down (the UN) or keeping Russia out of Germany (NATO). Whatever purpose they might have served, the purpose is over with. I think this, actually, is what Washington may have meant by “entangling alliances”…not that alliances, per se, are bad but that to keep up an alliance which merely keeps us on the hook for the follies of others should be avoided like the plague. No more interventions if, by this, it is meant that we will apply military power without a declaration of war – if we are to war, make it official, legal and something which can only end with a peace treaty. If we war, also, it is war to the finish – we identify why we’re fighting and we don’t leave off fighting until the enemy agrees to do as we wish in the matter of contention (this does not mean, by the way, that we have to level a nation as we did to Germany and Japan during World War Two – but it does mean that we don’t make a peace agreement before the enemy has agreed to do what we want…now, if the enemy wants to keep fighting long after he’s actually defeated – as the Germans, especially, did in World War Two – then the additional destruction to be visited upon the enemy will really be his own fault).
There aren’t too many nations I’d actually have us in military alliance with these days – and those alliances would be predicated upon joint military planning against the possible aggressor, with each contracting party having rigidly defined amounts of military contribution to the collective effort (Israel, Japan, South Korea, Philippines – I’d make alliance with Vietnam and India, as well…everyone else can shift for themselves for the moment). And for any nation allied with, the alliance would end if the potential threat ended (so, if ever the Muslim world would cease looking for the massacre of the Jews of Israel, there would no longer be a need for military cooperation between the United States and Israel; so, too, with China – if it could start to be relied upon that China was plotting no aggressive moves, then maintaining alliance with, say, South Korea would no longer be necessary). We have to maintain at least some freedom of movement – proposing, as we do these days, to defend all of Europe, all of the Middle East, all of Asia is just absurd…we can’t do it all and, also, it isn’t necessary for us to do it all.
Be neither isolationist nor interventionist – look at each global situation as it arises and think about what is best for the United States. If intervention looks necessary, then make military alliance with any other nation which shares our basic view of the problem, and then oppose whomever is causing the trouble, even to declaring war and compelling the enemy to do our bidding. If no vital, United States interests are at stake, then stay out of it. Whatever we do, don’t get locked in to any sort of “system” of foreign policy – the world is run by people and people don’t keep themselves neatly within a system. They do bizarre, strange things – and our reaction has to be tailored to each thing; don’t be asinine and try to make the things happening fit a pre-conceived notion of how the world should be working.