In last week's Republican debate in Florida, libertarian Congressman Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) proposed relaxing Washington’s rigid policy toward Cuba and engaging with the Castro regime. This latest of Paul’s pronouncements raises renewed questions about how a libertarian foreign policy would look. In fact, the image is highly blurred, for libertarianism is at its vaguest in that field. Beyond an aversion to unnecessary warfare, libertarian thought on international relations is wide open. Reports of the ideology’s dangerousness are thus highly exaggerated. By sharply curbing America’s use of force, libertarianism would preserve global peace rather than endanger it.
Ironically, libertarianism owes much of its current prominence to the fiscally liberal, socially conservative George W. Bush. His disastrous missteps in Afghanistan and Iraq created a huge constituency for opposition to military adventurism overseas (and a political boost for gadflies like Ron Paul). Libertarianism provides a principled basis for that opposition, for war generally destroys not only life and property but also liberty — and not only civil liberty. Government tends to grow in wartime, and with it, its levels of spending and power across the board.
Libertarians thus oppose misconceived wars of choice like the one in Iraq, or the strike against Iran that war hawks continue to advocate. Many decry the Trumanesque practice of beginning hostilities by presidential fiat, without congressional declarations of war. They also seek to limit more justifiable engagements like the war in Afghanistan to clear, national-security-oriented goals, rather than allow them to become protracted nation-building campaigns. Government social engineering is just as anathema to libertarians “over there” as it is here at home — if not even more so.
Yet beyond military matters, libertarianism is a much more flexible creed. Foreign aid has been criticized as fiscally wasteful, but it is really only a drop in the bucket of federal spending; it does not have to be eliminated in the quest to reduce government spending. A libertarian administration need not end U.S. leadership in the global village, either. U.S. membership in international institutions is harmless to individual freedom at home, and may even enhance it. For instance, the free trade that libertarians support would suffer without organizations like the WTO to secure it. Even the U.S. military’s global reach is not necessarily incompatible with libertarian thought. It can actually preserve liberty by contributing to a safer, more peaceful international climate. Libertarianism is not pacifism; it need not reject the ancient Roman dictum, “If you want peace, be prepared for war.” Some of history’s bloodiest conflicts could have been averted by the vigilance of a well-prepared sentry.
A governing libertarianism would probably disengage U.S. armed forces from many of their current posts, especially in places like Europe, where they continue to guard against long-gone threats. It would also entail less use of non-military international coercion, such as the ineffectual embargo on Cuba. Ultimately, however, a libertarian foreign policy would encompass a wide variety of policies, the common thread being that they not threaten liberty. Beware of doomsayers who warn that libertarians in power would lead the world into a chaotic abyss. The philosophy of minimal government and maximum freedom is a big tent, and Ron Paul is not the only tent pole.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons