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The foundation of libertarianism is mutual respect. It is a principle that extends to our relationships with people throughout the world.
In his first inaugural address, President Thomas Jefferson cited the essence of a libertarian foreign policy, "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations -- entangling alliances with none." This echoed the advice of President George Washington that "the great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible."
The twin pillars of a sane foreign policy are:
(1) Building positive relationships, with an emphasis on free trade, and
(2) Avoiding negative relationships, with an emphasis on military non-intervention.
Free Trade: the Foundation of World Peace
While the economic benefits of trade are discussed constantly, more attention is needed to its role in producing peace. Europe experienced a remarkably long period of relative peace and prosperity that began in the mid-19th century and lasted for more than half a century. Key to this golden age was the decision by the British Parliament to repeal virtually all restrictions and tariffs on imports from other countries as of 1849, primarily in response to pressure from British consumers suffering from high food prices. The other major nations of Europe virtually all followed suit in order to enjoy the same benefits, and the thriving international trade built friendship throughout the continent and kept military conflict to a minimum.
Alas, politicians having motives that aren't always aligned with the public, a return to trade barriers began late in the 19th century, starting in Germany, and as French economist Frederic Bastiat warned, "when goods don't cross borders, soldiers may," with the decreasing trade being accompanied by increasing militarism and, ultimately, everyone taking sides in what is now recognized as one of the most pointless conflicts in history, World War I.
Although America benefits enormously from being a gigantic free trade zone, US politicians have frequently been reckless in international policy. Perhaps the biggest tariff increase in history, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, was signed into law in 1930 by Herbert Hoover. Not only is it now considered by many economists to be a key factor in precipitating the Great Depression, but it led to massive retaliation by other countries and a trade war that virtually destroyed international commerce and, once again, was accompanied by an increasing militarism and an even more destructive world war.
Since the end of World War II, there has been a more concerted effort to lower trade barriers throughout the world, although special interests have regularly interfered and turned what should have been simple mutual barrier reductions into complex trade agreements that typically added restrictions as well as removed them. Nonetheless, international trade has increased greatly over these decades and both the frequency and destructiveness of wars decreased to the point that the first decade of the 21st century had the fewest war deaths of any decade in the entire post-WWII period.
Armed Neutrality: The Swiss Model of Defense
Of course, it seems odd to describe the years since the start of the 21st century as a relatively peaceful time, but that is because, as Americans, we are living with a military-industrial complex whose financial future depends on keeping us as scared as possible for as long as possible. Our country, as a result, has been a laggard. And US attempts to choose winners and losers in other countries have been marked by repeated disasters: Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi all received military support from the US before they became US enemies.
The military budget of the United States, conservatively measured at around $700 billion (but probably closer to $1 trillion once all security measures and veteran benefits are considered), is approximately equal to all of the military budgets of all other countries combined. If the US military budget were cut in half, it would still be the largest in the world. Then, if it were cut in half again, it would STILL be the largest in the world. Then, if it were cut in half a third time, reduced to only one-eighth its current size, it would STILL be the largest in the world. And that's using the conservative measure.
Whatever motivates this enormous budget, it is certainly not for the defense of American soil. Indeed, when the Department of Homeland Security was created, this was a virtual admission that the Department of Defense had goals other than homeland security. No foreign army has the slightest capacity to invade the United States, and as North Korea has demonstrated, even the possession of a single nuclear weapon is enough to deter invasion.
When the United States was founded, Switzerland was close to celebrating 500 years as an independent republic. Many founders expressed admiration for the Swiss model of defense, which historian Stephen Halbrook summarizes as "armed neutrality." Switzerland managed to stay out of both world wars as well as innumerable other European conflicts over the past seven centuries by a policy of non-interference in other countries combined with the mandatory ownership of firearms by every household in the country. Of course, libertarians oppose compulsory gun ownership as consistently as we oppose gun prohibition, and given that the United States is blessed with both geographical and population advantages the Swiss lack, merely respecting the right to keep and bear arms can provide a voluntary reserve militia sufficient to deter invasion.
There is another Swiss tradition worth emulating. While the Swiss government has a strict policy of non-intervention, Swiss citizens have long been free to personally provide military and security services outside the country. In the past, Swiss individuals often chose to serve as soldiers in foreign regiments protecting neighboring countries, and to this day the Swiss Guard, a private group, protects the Vatican. In the 1930s, groups of Americans were concerned about fascism in Europe and tried to establish the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” to fight that menace, but relentless harassment from the U.S. government for violations of neutrality laws prevented them from securing the funding and leadership that a free society would have permitted. As a result, American citizens were forced to do nothing until government officials decided otherwise. Private soldiers committed to taking on international bullies can act with organized efficiency without involving their neighbors. And so long as they are answerable for their actions, private soldiers shouldn’t be any more objectionable than private security guards.
Dealing with Terrorism
Criminal attacks on innocent civilians are not, properly considered, military issues, but policing matters. Having by far the largest military budget on earth obviously did nothing to prevent the bombing of an Oklahoma federal building in 1995 by American Timothy McVeigh or the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaida. Preventing terrorism is a matter of intelligence, both in the sense of obtaining information and using our brains. So let's try both.
Louise Richardson, in her book WHAT TERRORISTS WANT, identifies three basic motivations for terrorism: revenge, renown, and reaction. McVeigh made it clear that the purpose of his action was to avenge an FBI siege of a religious group's compound in Waco, Texas two years before (the Oklahoma bombing took place on the second anniversary of the fire that ended the siege). Al-Qaida stated clearly, even before 9/11, that their plan to attack Americans was a response to three ongoing US policies: (1) the stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia, (2) the embargo of food and medicine that had so far killed over a million Iraqis, and (3) support of Israeli persecution of Palestinians. Osama bin Laden also stated explicitly that his goal was to get a reaction from the United States government that would bankrupt the empire.[Note: like any good prosecutor, we are seeking the motives of the criminal right now, not justifying them.]
Charles Kurzman notes in THE MISSING MARTYRS that there are remarkably few Muslim terrorists: less than 1 Muslim in 15,000 has even gone as far as attending a terrorist training camp, let alone engages in terrorism. Muslims have often provided the tips to arrest terrorists, and the intelligence needed to prevent or punish terrorists would undoubtedly be greater in a world where the US government didn't build up so much ill will. That is another sense in which current policy is unintelligent.
We cannot indulge the ignorant desire to blame anti-American terrorism on a "hatred of freedom," "72 virgins," or other such nonsense. After a suicide truck bomber killed 241 US Marines stationed in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983, President Ronald Reagan wasn't justifying this massacre when he decided to withdraw American troops from the Middle East. He understood that people, all people, hate foreign armies on their soil. Unfortunately, his successor, George H.W. Bush, went back into the Middle East to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and his stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia after that war was specifically cited as the primary reason for Al-Qaida's declaration of jihad against America. Since then, of course, the US military has undertaken attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya. If you were a Middle Eastern Muslim, might you think of some reason to hate Americans other than not liking freedom?
The best form of anti-terrorism insurance is to remove all troops from the Middle East, stop attempts to either preserve or change their current governments, and end all government-to-government aid.
It is time for American troops to come home, not just from the Middle East but from Europe, the Pacific, and everywhere else. At the same time, let’s drop all barriers to trade and travel and turn enemies into friends. Polls have long indicated that the rest of the world likes Americans far more than they like the US Government and admires America’s reputation as a land of opportunity and productivity. We have a great opportunity now to bring both peace and prosperity to our country and the world by restoring that reputation.
As stated earlier, the globe has been turning toward trade and away from war. There is great cause for optimism, and we should make the choice to abandon international offense in the name of national defense before we are forced to do it. On top of killing or displacing millions of innocent foreigners and making Americans less safe, the massive US military budget is bankrupting the country. In the 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union resulted in a temporary decrease in the US military budget, people talked openly about the "peace dividend" the economy received. It's well past time for another, more permanent such dividend.