Over at the Volokh conspiracy, Randy Barnett poses the question of what Libertarianism as a political philosophy tells us about foreign policy, and comes up with the conclusion “not much”, particularly in relation to war. He says his views are tentative and invites others to contribute to the debate. I’ll accept, partly because it’s intellectually interesting, partly because Jim Henley (who could, I think have done a much better job) has gone into hiatus, and partly because I think internationalism (at least my version of it) shares some points in common with libertarianism, while being opposed on others.
Barnett begins with a claim which I think is clearly inconsistent with libertarianism, as follows
But would the U.S. Army been acting unjustly on Libertarian grounds it it goes to the aid of innocent civilians in Somalia, the Sudan, or Iraq? I do not see why. If these people are indeed the victim of horrible rights violations a solder regardless of whether his uniform is American or Iraqi would be justified in going to the defense of the victim according to Libertarian first principles. So if “defensism” is a proper principle of foreign policy, it does not appear to follow from Libertarian first principle, since either going to the assistance of the innocent and not going to her assistance is an equally justified act.
But the US Army is not a person, and US soldiers are not acting as libertarian free agents. The correct question is “Can the US government justly compel US citizens to finance, and US soldiers to implement, policies aimed at preventing rights violations in Somalia and elsewhere”. Just as with ordinary foreign aid, libertarianism implies that, while individual Americans might be justified in assisting people in other countries, the US government is not. Obviously, this is not a position with which internationalists would agree, though there is still plenty of disagreement among internationalists about the conditions under which humanitarian intervention is justified.
The main focus of Barnett’s discussion is “defenseism”, that is ” intervention is justified if the U.S. is responding to an attack or an imminent threat can be shown.” Here, there’s no problem with referring to the US as if it were a person. Since the US government may be regarded as a mutual defence pact among its citizens, responding to attacks is among its legitimate functions.
But, as Barnett points out, this criterion doesn’t help much in relation to debates about pre-emptive war, which end up turning on what is meant by “imminent”, a point on which libertarianism does not seem to have much bearing. Still, I would have thought that libertarianism would have implications regarding the kinds of evidence that ought to be accepted in assessing the claim that some particular government (such as Saddam’s) presents an imminent threat. In particular, I would have expected libertarians to be particularly sceptical of claims that rested on the authority and trustworthiness of government officials, and on the reports of spies, secret intelligence agencies and the like. With a few exceptions, this was not the case, at least as far as the blogosphere is concerned.
Finally, there are a lot of other potential justifications for war, none of which are justified from either a libertarian or internationalist viewpoint, and nearly all of which were invoked in support of war with Iraq. These included assertion of national (state) greatness, projection of (state) influence in the region concerned, revenge for past wrongs and access to resources such as oil. On all of these points, I’d assert that these arguments rest on a view (traditionally linked to the Peace of Westphalia) of states as being natural sovereign units that have rights and interests independent from, and in fact superior to, those of the individuals that make them up.
The fact that the Iraq war was being advocated on such unacceptable grounds should have been a factor in the thinking of those who oppose war in general, but are willing to countenance defensive or humanitarian interventions in some cases. This is because, whatever your own reasons for supporting the war, its management was inevitably going to be, at least in part, in the hands of people who advocated war on unjust grounds, and would therefore pursue it in an unjust fashion. Clearly this has been the case with the Iraq war.
fn1. There’s a second-order question here. Given that private military ventures by Americans may provoke retaliation from foreign governments, is the US government justified in prohibiting or restricting such ventures ?
fn2. The best evidence that Saddam did not have weapons that could threaten the US came from the inspections undertaken by UNSCOM, also a quasi-government agency. But we didn’t have to take the word of Hans Blix that the sites he’d inspected were not active weapons facilities, as claimed by Bush. The inspections were conducted in a very public fashion, unlike the intelligence efforts that produced the various dossiers invoked in support of the war.
fn3. Of course, in 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia was signed, the parties were real sovereigns, claiming divinely ordained rights over their subjects.