TCS Daily

Idealism at the Water's Edge

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - April 13, 2005 12:00 AM

"I'm a small-l libertarian Republican who studies international relations, which means I'm frequently conflicted between my laissez-faire instincts and my clear-eyed recognition that there is no substitute for nation-states in world politics."
-Daniel Drezner

The conflict of which Professor Drezner writes is one that faces libertarianism in general. As coherent as libertarianism is on a whole host of policy issues (whether you believe that libertarians are right or not is immaterial, we are talking about whether you can understand the libertarian message) some libertarians have had major problems constructing an attractive and workable set of foreign policy principles. TCS contributor Ryan Sager has already noted this problem (see Radley Balko's response here). This debate deserves renewed attention.

The orthodox libertarian foreign policy platform is one of minimalism and non-involvement bordering at times on isolationism. To be sure, libertarianism does not present a monolithic front on the issue of foreign policy, but as Sager notes, the minimalist libertarian approach to foreign policy is alive, well and thriving in libertarian circles.

Sager challenges libertarians to "get serious" by working out positions on issues like nation-building, democracy promotion, the war on terror and intelligence reform. All of these topics are worthy ones for libertarians to address, but a more fundamental topic also needs attention; the realist theory of international relations and how it undercuts the school of libertarian minimalism. Libertarian minimalists suffer from being thus far unable to respond to realist counterarguments against the minimalist foreign policy platform.

Recall the basic realist principles -- the world is fundamentally anarchic, nation-states are the prime actors in this anarchic world and nation-states seek to maximize power, either for power's own sake or for the preservation of security. The search for power causes nation-states to sometimes engage in offensive war, though a significant portion of the realist school posits that through balancing and defensive alliances, nation-states can achieve security and power without waging offensive war.

Recall as well that realism is not meant to serve as a set of policy prescriptions. Rather, it is a theory designed to explain past and present nation-state behavior, and to predict future nation-state behavior. This means that while realists may not like the way the world works, they argue that realist theory is the best way to understand how it does work. Whether realists are comfortable with what their theory says about the international system is a different and separate topic altogether.

Now, people are perfectly free to reject realism, and indeed many do. But realism is the dominant school of thought in the study of international relations and has been for many years. Since you generally can't beat something with nothing, it helps then to have an alternative theory explaining the international system if you want to reject realism.

If the international system really does place a premium on the maximization of nation-state power, it would behoove nation-states to run an activist foreign policy in order to maximize their own power. This could involve launching offensive wars, or entering in a series of diplomatic and military alliances in order to balance against a hegemon or a perceived threat. Quite clearly, all of this activism runs counter to the libertarian minimalist school which advocates a restrained and constrained foreign policy. But while the libertarian minimalist school purports to explain how the world should work and how foreign policy should be conducted (namely by the United States since the libertarian minimalists we are addressing are Americans), the realist school purports to explain how the world actually does work and how foreign policy is conducted. What the libertarian minimalists appear to lack, therefore, is an alternative explanatory theory of how the international system works, one that would perhaps serve as the intellectual foundation for the idealist foreign policy platform of the libertarian minimalist school.

Speaking personally, I am -- quite like Professor Drezner -- a realist with libertarian inclinations. For me, therefore, much of the doctrinal conflict is resolved. I want my government to be small in accordance with my libertarian-conservative principles, but I believe that when it comes to acting within the international system, the United States has to run an activist and internationalist foreign policy. Such a foreign policy does not entail any kind of hyper-aggression, but it does understand that we live in a Hobbesian world where life is nasty, brutish and short and that we should act accordingly. Much of my political philosophy stems from what I interpret the mandates of the Constitution to be (indeed, my admiration for the Constitution stems in large part from my perception that it expertly blends libertarian and realist principles), and there is a great deal of discretion left in the Constitution on how foreign and military policy should be conducted -- discretion that perhaps stems from the influence of realist Founding Fathers like Alexander Hamilton and which makes the Constitution impressively responsive to the dictates of the Hobbesian international order.

The libertarian minimalists will likely find my outlook to be anathema to their own. But in order to effectively respond to it, it is not enough to fashion an idealistic foreign policy. Libertarian minimalists must take the extra step to fashion a doctrine that debunks realism and supports their own foreign policy outlook. They must seek to explain how the international system is not a Hobbesian stage where the maximization of power is the central foreign policy goal, or that if it is, libertarian minimalism can somehow be consistent with the Hobbesian realist outlook. Unless they do so, libertarian minimalists will continue to be perceived as "not serious" about foreign policy.

I hope to see a comprehensive attempt at a rebuttal of realist theory by the libertarian minimalist school. It will take the debate over the intellectual rigor of realism to a whole new level, and it will allow libertarians in general -- and libertarian minimalists in particular -- to find their own voices on foreign policy. Happily, it would appear that serious libertarians have started this dialogue. Let's hope it continues and that more people join in. Serious foreign policy thinkers -- whether or not they are libertarians -- will benefit mightily if they do.

The author is a lawyer and frequent TCS contributor. Find more of his writing here.


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