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by Howard Cincotta

With a growing momentum in American domestic affairs, Libertarianism is a political philosophy that must be taken seriously. How would a Libertarian foreign policy differ from the traditional approach taken by both U. S. major political parties? The author of this commentary, who is not a Libertarian, attempts to provide an answer. –The Ed.

Protracted conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, a new military engagement in Libya, bankers in China, and jihadists in Pakistan–now, more than ever, appears to be the opportunity for a new approach to foreign policy, one based on the principles of libertarianism as espoused by its most prominent national leaders, Texas Representative Ron Paul and his son, Rand Paul, the new senator from Kentucky.

Yet despite the growing influence of libertarian ideas domestically, it is difficult to locate even the vague contours of what a libertarian-based foreign policy would mean for the nation, or how it would operate in practice.

Recent statements on the Middle East and Libya by the Pauls, father and son, offer a revealing glimpse into the libertarian mindset – its appeal, paradoxes, and limitations – and why libertarians have such difficulty in the foreign policy arena.

Libertarian Rise

Libertarianism in various forms has been part of America’s DNA since the nation’s founding (“Don’t Tread On Me”). However, we can probably date its present incarnation to two texts: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957) and Austrian economist Fredrick Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944). Most people may not be familiar with Hayek, but Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s earlier book, The Fountainhead, have been a rite of passage for generations of high school and college students.

The libertarian creed is perhaps its most powerful attraction: “Each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others,” according to David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute. Translated into political terms, this means governments are generally freedom’s foes, not its protectors. Except for handling minimalist national security, police, and legal requirements, government should be as small and unobtrusive as possible.

For all its emphasis on the core American values of small government and individual liberty, however, it would be fair to say that libertarianism has long been considered “the crazy uncle of American politics,” as Christopher Beam wrote in New York magazine.

No longer. Libertarianism may not be mainstream, but it has achieved unprecedented prominence and influence in recent years. Along with Rand Paul’s election to the Senate last fall, his father won the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2011 for the second year in a row. On April 26, Ron Paul announced formation of an exploratory committee for a possible presidential run in 2012. Although libertarianism is by no means synonymous with the Tea Party, Walter Russell Mead, writing in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, points out that the “Paulites” constitute an important wing of this powerful national movement.

Rand Paul and Libya

On March 29, Senator Rand Paul spoke on the subject of the No Fly Zone over Libya. Earlier, Representative Ron Paul addressed U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

Of the two statements, Rand Paul’s was the more conventional, questioning the decision to impose a No Fly Zone and complaining that only Congress can declare war. Both assertions echo similar views from both Republicans and Democrats and contributed no fresh ideas to the debate.

We are not the world’s policeman, as Rand reminded us. That is easy to state, easy to agree to. Still, what would be the consequences of standing by and watching the systematic slaughter of the residents of Benghazi? Is it really self evident, with much of the Arab world seized by democratic revolutions, that we have no national interests in Libya?

Senator Paul was silent on these questions. He did provide one highly revealing statement, when he rhetorically asked whether the Libyan rebels are “adherents to Jeffersonian democracy or bin Laden’s radical jihad.”

This makes about as much sense as asking whether Americans are enlightened, European-style social democrats or obese, beer-swilling yahoos. The inability to treat people as more than walking abstractions is not unique to Rand Paul, but it’s a perennial problem for an ideologically driven movement like libertarianism.

Ron Paul and the Middle East

Representative Ron Paul’s statement on January 26 is an entirely different animal. Septuagenarian Paul may not be the crazy uncle of American politics, but he is still an eccentric relation.

In his remarks on the House floor, Paul criticized our current level of military and political involvement in the Middle East, which he characterized as a “20-year war.” He pinpointed the origins of our current difficulties not as a result of geopolitical or historical factors, but with our ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, and her July 1990 meeting with Saddam Hussein prior to the invasion of Kuwait.

Specifically, he cited the 2010 Wikileak publication of Glaspie’s July 25, 1990, cable as evidence of hiding “the truth from the American people.”

There are several problems here. First, the allegation that Glaspie inadvertently gave Saddam a “green light” for invading Kuwait has been largely discredited.

Second, Ambassador Glaspie testified at length in open session before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1991. And contrary to Paul’s assertions, the State Department declassified this particular telegram in 1998; it can be found through the George Bush Presidential Library and in Lexis Nexis. What Representative Paul needed wasn’t Wikileaks, but Wikipedia.

Apart from his cavalier treatment of the facts, Paul failed to acknowledge that the ambassador, like any professional diplomat, was acting on instructions from Washington, and that U.S. policy had favored Iraq throughout its eight-year war with Iran, which was seen as the greater threat to American interests.

The larger and more interesting question is how, at the time, the United States might have conducted a very different kind of foreign policy, one often termed neo-isolationist, although Ron Paul has said he prefers “noninterventionist.”

How, for example, would a libertarian approach have dealt with Saddam in 1990? Would it not have stressed America’s refusal to get involved in such disputes? Or as Ambassador Glaspie actually stated, “We took no position on these Arab affairs” – the very words Paul cited as encouraging Saddam to invade.

True to its noninterventionist principles, a libertarian administration would undoubtedly have refused to support military action of any kind to liberate Kuwait. And it is here, in the practical realities, that such a policy founders.

Kuwait would hardly have satisfied Saddam’s appetites, and it is easy to construct several plausible, and ominous, scenarios that might have followed. Iraq would have been positioned to threaten the entire gulf region, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. With a cowed international community, Saddam could have pursued his nuclear plans without hindrance, and ultimately targeted Israel.

In other words, a strict policy of nonintervention would likely have destabilized the Middle East and triggered a regional nuclear arms race, resulting in a much more dangerous world for the United States in the 1990s.

Foreign Policy Fundamentalism

The common criticism of libertarianism is its lack of “realism” in dealing with a world of hard facts and limited, often distasteful choices. True enough, but as the Rand and Ron Paul statements illustrate, the problem goes far deeper.

Libertarianism not only offers few guidelines for conducting foreign policy, it largely rejects the necessity of policymaking altogether.

A good example is Ron Paul’s 2007 essay, “The Original American Foreign Policy.” In it, Paul attempted to explain how a libertarian-based foreign policy would function. It is revealing that his statement makes little attempt to address current issues – whether the Middle East, jihadist extremism, or nonproliferation – and instead focused on the founding fathers, especially George Washington’s admonition to avoid all “entangling alliances.”

Paul’s message is simple: times may have changed, but the wisdom of Washington and Jefferson has not. In a kind of foreign policy fundamentalism, Paul declared that George Washington’s warnings remain valid today, just as the passage of time hasn’t altered our first and second amendment rights to free speech and to bear arms.

“The founding fathers had it right when they argued for peace and commerce between nations and against entangling political and military alliances,” Paul wrote. “In other words, noninterventionism.”

Let’s take Representative Paul at his word and see how we might apply this formulation to a short list of contemporary foreign policy issues: Iran’s nuclear program, Chinese trade practices, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Russian aggression in Georgia, terrorist havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, drug violence in Mexico, and global climate change.

The libertarian answer to all such questions: do nothing. U.S. involvement, much less leadership in any of these areas would clearly violate the bedrock principle of libertarian foreign policy: no entangling alliances, consequences be damned.

To my mind, the question isn’t whether George Washington was wise about protecting a fledging nation at the end of the 18th century. The relevant question is whether he would be so stupid as to hold to fast to those same views in the 21st.

What Ron Paul, understandably, does not wish to address are the outcomes of his fundamentalist foreign policy. In fairness, we could assume that a President Paul, for practical reasons, would maintain America’s membership in NATO or even the United Nations (although he has called for the United States to withdraw from the world body). But the era of American leadership in world affairs would be over. No peacekeeping or humanitarian initiatives, an end to government foreign aid and nonproliferation efforts, no intermediary roles in the Middle East or elsewhere. In many countries, the U.S. diplomatic presence would shrink dramatically or disappear altogether.

American involvement in international affairs would not end, of course. “It does not mean that we isolate ourselves,” Paul hastened to add. “On the contrary, our founders advocated open trade, travel, communication, and diplomacy with other nations.”

This dodges the question: How, exactly, would the United States protect its “open trade” interests at a time of minimal international engagement? Forget currency manipulation and product dumping by China; how would we handle trade and investment issues with our friends and allies in Europe and the Americas?

Morality and Foreign Policy

One consequence of a libertarian-based foreign policy is clear: America’s international activities would become much more privatized and militarized. The 2008 Libertarian Party platform is quite explicit on this point:

We would end the current government policy of foreign intervention, including military and economic aid, guarantees, and diplomatic meddling. We would end all limitation of private foreign aid, both military and economic.

By default, U.S. foreign policy would be shaped almost exclusively by corporations and other private interests. The exception would be direct threats to our national security, one area of explicit governmental responsibility.

For the most part, our range of options in facing such threats would be limited to doing nothing or initiating military action. Collective diplomacy, economic aid, sanctions, “nation building” in any form, even support for civil society groups – all would be off the table in the name of libertarian nonintervention.

Richard Nixon’s Vietnam-era fear of the United States acting “like a pitiful, helpless giant” might well come true.

Liberty First and Last

The reason libertarianism appears so moribund in foreign affairs is precisely what makes it so attractive: its concentration on individual liberty. For libertarians, the United States is a collection of individuals each “living his life in any way he chooses.” In such an atomized society, any organization or governmental entity with even the potential of constraining individual action is suspect.

When libertarians look beyond our borders, they see a world of individuals who should be allowed to operate in a similarly autonomous manner. Since international organizations and collective action are necessarily constraints on such individual pursuits, they are largely illegitimate. National boundaries must be respected at all costs to avoid involvement in others’ affairs. Not even extreme violence or genocide can override this maxim, only threats to our national security.

Libertarians may treasure the rights and freedoms of all people, but they will only act to defend American freedoms.

Ron Paul can call his policy nonintervention, but it begins to look very much like the Fortress America that isolationists preached in the years leading up to World War II.

Yes, we are not the world’s policeman, and we cannot even pretend to take responsibility for correcting the human rights violations of other nations. The libertarian critique of our excessive military and political commitments around the world is in many ways well founded. Moreover, the suggestion that we could somehow lay down these burdens and walk away – and feel good about it – is enormously attractive.

But we can’t walk away, and if we did, many extremely unpleasant consequences would follow, ones that libertarians like Rand and Ron Paul have no more wish to contemplate than the rest of us.

One way of looking at the problem is to ask: What would a libertarian-based foreign policy actually look like if it were implemented by a major power? We don’t have to speculate. We have an example right in front of us: China.

China is not populated by Jeffersonian democrats, but it does embrace nonintervention in the affairs of other nations. In its campaign to lock up control of national resources around the world, China advertises its indifference to political and humanitarian considerations, whether in Sudan, Burma, Iran, or even North Korea. China is all about business, and little else.

In a recent column, Michael Gerson described the Chinese approach in Africa. The Chinese don’t seek military bases or encourage ideological revolution, he wrote. Instead, they provide development assistance to secure long- term access to natural resources, arrangements that may not be in Africa’s long-term interests, but are “conspicuously good for China.”

Gerson contrasts China’s showy building projects – financed with long-term loans that increase African debt – to the U.S. approach of tying assistance to good government and anti-corruption efforts through the Millennium Challenge Corporation. As clear-cut an example of Western meddling in the affairs of other nations as you could find, and one that good libertarians abhor.

On the other hand, the Chinese model, operating on the principle of unabashed self-interest, would seem to have all the elements that libertarians should admire and support.

Whether the American people would ever settle for a foreign policy as morally bankrupt as China’s is a separate question.

Foreign Policy and Government

In an era of unprecedented change, America’s role in the world can always benefit from serious reassessments of how we should realign our commitments with our capabilities. Libertarianism, however, with its blinkered, ideologically driven, neo-isolationist approach, is painfully ill equipped to provide such an assessment, much less offer credible alternatives.

We all crave clear, simple answers, and libertarianism, indeed, offers them. But admonitions about individualism and George Washington, no matter how appealing, do not constitute a plausible foreign policy so much as a road paved with good intentions. And we all know where that particular road leads.

“Do we believe in the individual or do we believe in the state?” Rand Paul asked his supporters on Election Night 2010, neglecting the possibility that the state exists to protect the rights and liberties of the people.


Floor Remarks on Foreign Policy, Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas), U.S. Congress, January 26, 2011, Video and text:

Wikileaks release of July 25, 1990, State Department cable from Ambassador April Glaspie:

NSC copy of Glaspie cable declassified 1998 (from George Bush Library via Margaret Thatcher Foundation)

The Original American Foreign Policy, Representative Ron Paul. March 16, 2007

Senator Rand Paul’s Response to President Obama’s Libyan Address, March 28, 2011, Video and text:

The Trouble with Liberty, Christopher Beam, New York Magazine, December 26, 2010

The Tea Party and American Foreign Policy, Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2011. (Registration required to read full article)


Howard Cincotta
Howard Cincotta

Howard Cincotta was a writer and editor with the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) for more than 30 years. He worked on USIA magazines for Africa and the former Soviet Union and headed a special publications office that produced a wide range of print materials for international distribution. Cincotta later directed electronic media operations for USIA and IIP and has continued to write feature articles and speeches for the State Department.


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