A Libertarian Foreign Policy

An important criticism of both libertarian political ideology and practical policy is the lack of positive goals in international relations.  Libertarians are often derided as isolationists, and even Ron Paul’s self-classification as a “non-interventionist” perpetuates the perception that libertarians can only talk about foreign policy in terms of “doing less”. But this criticism can be broadly rebutted on two fronts.  The first is that the libertarian opposition to military engagement and advocacy for military reduction is not only a healthy and needed reality check, but ultimately better for our national security.  The second is that there are other paths besides military power which should be emphasized, notably free trade, which policy in the past decade has largely ignored.  I should note that my goals in this post are pretty modest.  It is my belief that any foreign policy position labelled as libertarian would have difficulty finding mainstream acceptance, yet given these two moderate positions, I believe I can construct a foreign policy platform most ideological libertarians (and actually most Americans) would agree with.

The first point is something I wrote about almost three and a half years ago on my old blog, since it is a point so simple, even a freshmen in college could figure it out.  What that blog post in 2010 noted was that America spends far more than any other country in military outlays.  This was the chart from 2009:

The chart from 2013, four years later, does not change much:

In 2009, US military spending was $660B which was more than almost the next 20 countries combined. Today it is still as much as the next 10 countries’ spending combined:


There are important differences between now and 2009.  One is that American spending has actually decreased marginally  by 10% (all numbers here adjusted for inflation) while other unfriendly countries have seen significant increases in military outlays; namely, Russia has increased spending by close to a third while China has seen spending increase by 70%.  Other western European countries have seen slight decreases in spending in line with the US. This point should be interpreted as a strike against my position, since a less aggressive foreign policy and reduction in expenditures would be out of place in a world where America’s geopolitical opponents’ are ascending.  But it is also important to note that in 2009, the Iraq war was still draining resources and the Afghanistan War still had several years left to play out. In 2013, neither of these conflicts remained as large budget items and yet the military budget remains roughly unchanged.

Where is all this money going? Doubtless much of it is contracted out as political kickbacks, but the truth is that we actually don’t know.  And I don’t mean that I couldn’t find the data because it was classified: the GAO, the office responsible for auditing government agencies found the DoD’s budget statements so disorganized and unhelpful, an audit was actually impossible, and has been impossible for the past 12 or so years.

But the military budget is not limited to incompetence and political kickbacks.  This $640 billion also helps to fund some $30 billion in intelligence spending (the exact number is classified) which fully pays for a vast domestic spying operation, vacuuming up swaths of data on American communications every day in violation of Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights.

It is clear from this data that the United States is not in a vulnerable global position because it is spending too little; it is vulnerable because it wastes so much, if indeed it is vulnerable at all.  And there is more than the systemic cost of a ludicrously large bureaucracy; even money spent “correctly” over the last 15 years on an aggressive hawkish foreign policy has pushed the United States into a position where it no longer has the same leverage on the world stage.  With two hugely expensive conflicts, a war weary America does not have the same political and economic capital to confront new challenges in the same aggressive manner of the past decade and simultaneously has little to show for the cost incurred.  While terrorist attacks are emotionally jarring, by allowing them to dictate past policy, contemporary and more formidable geopolitical threats must be left unopposed.  Had we followed a more restrained policy in the previous decade and focused on tackling tougher geopolitical problems, we would be much better off today.  A terrorist attack is bad, but a Syrian civil war with hundreds of thousands killed or wounded and several million displaced is not even comparable.  Adding a belligerent Russia on top of the growing influence of China and declining influence of Europe, and it is clear our foreign policies priorities have been out of whack.  This is not to say that a libertarian foreign policy could have prevented these events, only put the United States in a better position to deal with them.  So it’s time to rethink a policy that is unnecessary and dangerous to America and time to start considering a policy that makes us better prepared for the modern world.

But what about the positive aspects of this policy? We’ve provided a solid argument that a more aggressive interventionist policy is detrimental, but a foreign policy needs to do something, and this is always where libertarians run into trouble.  But there are actually a great deal more options to construct positive actions than one might think listening to Ron Paul.

The first and perhaps most overlooked is promotion of trade. The Economist notes that in just the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) the world economy could gain $600 billion in benefits.  Stronger trade has impact beyond the economic: while there is still debate, there is solid evidence that economic interdependence can increase a country’s cooperation with the international community.  Moreover, trade is something that this administration, and to a lesser extent, the previous one, has largely ignored despite the fact that freer international trade is unequivocally beneficial and desirable.  What better to place on a libertarian centerpiece than a foreign policy that pushes a broader market into the world with an easier flow of goods between nations and a reduction in diplomatic tensions in concert with economic integration.

A free trade agenda should be coupled with a policy that condemns all forms of political and economic oppression and promotes liberal ideas of free thought, free elections, and an unbiased judicial system.  While libertarians might push back against aggressively forcing “democracy” on countries, e.g. the Iraq War, diplomacy remains an important part of foreign affairs, and diplomatic goals that emphasize freer political discourse and respect for private property rights go hand in hand with freer trade.  By engaging through economic integration countries that would normally scoff at human and individual rights, economic interdependence can precipitate cooperation in human rights goals that everyone across the political spectrum can agree with.  Moreover, a free trade engagement policy can not only accomplish the goals of spreading democracy, but do it far better than an interventionist war mongering strategy ever could.

China is an important exception to the notion that a freer economy creates a freer society and thus a challenge to this policy plan, but current policy towards China is already fairly close to my proposal.  China’s immense size and growing economic power have allowed it to avoid most external pressure from the international community to reform its oppressive political regime, but this same size is creating reform tensions from within China far more powerful than external forces could ever be.

Thus we not only have a strong libertarian critique of current foreign policy, but also an alternative for any future libertarian president to strive towards in the international arena. The benefits of free trade are vast, even when looking at only the economic growth potential, but using trade integration as a tool to achieve stronger individual rights protection throughout the world only makes it more powerful.  But current policy would rather ignore these economic benefits and instead opt for costly, unrewarding military ventures which lead to overwhelming waste and mismanagement, all the while making it more difficult to confront tough geopolitical threats in the modern world.