TCS Daily

What Realism Isn't, and What Libertarianism Is

By Justin Logan - April 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Pejman Yousefzadeh recently published an article in TCS that seems to misunderstand both realism and libertarianism. In his article, "Idealism at the Water's Edge," Mr. Yousefzadeh's explanations of the two concepts are muddled to the point that both realism and libertarianism are unrecognizable.

Yousefzadeh finds it necessary to renew the tired old debate over why libertarians think what they think about foreign policy. Like commentators before him, Yousefzadeh worries that libertarianism is unsatisfying -- incoherent, even -- if it cannot support the Bush doctrine. But these dissenters are employing what Matt Yglesias has called the Pundit's Fallacy: claiming that the key to political success is adopting one's own policy views. In truth, abolishing the FDA and the Department of Education, privatizing the health care system, and other central tenets of libertarian thought are just as unpopular and, dare I say "unserious" as are libertarian views on foreign policy. However, changing them to fit with a certain politics would change what libertarianism is as a political philosophy.

To open the battle, Yousefzadeh wheels out the old straw man of libertarian "isolationism" -- a term that, as Walter McDougall has pointed out, was invented only in the twentieth century explicitly as a slur against non-interventionists. Regardless, if one were to read the voluminous literature from libertarians on issues of trade, diplomacy, and even the war on terrorism itself, he would have a hard time swallowing this line about libertarians' "isolationism." As a great statesman once put it, "Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations..."

The article's thesis, though, is quite interesting: "the realist theory of international relations...undercuts the school of libertarian minimalism." Yousefzadeh asserts that in order for libertarian foreign policy prescriptions to stand, libertarians must "fashion a doctrine that debunks realism and supports their own foreign policy outlook." To advance this argument, Yousefzadeh offers only this short passage:

        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. 
        (emphasis added)

In fact, though, none of that activism runs counter to the libertarian minimalist school, for which I would venture to speak. Since the United States is currently unchecked in its ability to project force abroad, we do not have to worry about balancing against a rival power.[1] That leaves only the notion of "perceived threat," which inevitably reopens the Iraq debate. It ought not to be controversial today to assert that by any reasonable definition of "threat," Iraq missed the mark. Yousefzadeh is then left holding only the neoconservative argument for war, which can be debated on its own merits and demerits, but has little to do with realism.

Since Yousefzadeh offers only one faulty argument to support the claim that realism is incompatible with libertarianism, he does nothing to prove the point. Indeed, most libertarian IR theorists would label themselves as realists, affirming that realism can inform us how international politics works, but not how any given state should act in the conduct of its foreign policy. This is because realism does not tell us how to assess threats.

In the 1960s, for example, many realists advocated U.S. military involvement in Indochina in order to prevent a Communist domino effect in Southeast Asia. Other realists, like the late George F. Kennan, argued vigorously against military action in Vietnam, on the grounds that the threat posed to the United States by the region's politics was small, whereas the potential for sapping our national strength by going to war there was high. The intra-realism debate turned on varying perceptions of threat, as it does today.

But Yousefzadeh clearly implies that realist orthodoxy finds his and President Bush's side of the current foreign policy debate preferable to that of libertarians. Is this true?

Quite the opposite.

University of California, Berkeley emeritus professor Kenneth N. Waltz, for example, found the Bush doctrine odious enough to hint during the presidential campaign that a Kerry presidency may be preferable: "I don't think that Kerry is dumb enough to get us into situations like [Iraq], and he'll get us out faster than Bush would," said Waltz.

Offensive realists like John J. Mearsheimer also think that the Bush course is wildly off the mark. Aside from voting for John Kerry "with enthusiasm" because of Bush's foreign policy, Mearsheimer has repeatedly rebuked Bush for poor judgment.

Stephen M. Walt, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a longtime realist, penned a piece for Boston Review damning the Bush foreign policy and calling for a radical correction.

Kennan was clearer still. In 1999, ├╝ber-realist Kennan stated his thinking plainly: "I would like to see our government gradually withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights. I submit that governments should deal with other governments as such, and should avoid unnecessary involvement, particularly personal involvement, with their leaders." That idea sits across the table from Bush's foreign policy, to be sure.

Or Yousefzadeh could have plucked a few names from the membership of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy (Mearsheimer, Waltz, Walt, Jack Snyder...) to discover that the leading lights of realism are much more comfortable with libertarian minimalism than they are with Yousefzadeh's prescriptions.

There are a lot of reasons realists, including libertarian ones, disagree with Bushism. Most importantly, realists understand that while the United States is powerful, it should be careful not to squander its power on issues that are not vitally important. For his part, Yousefzadeh seems to confuse the use of power abroad with the existence of power. Far too often, as we are seeing currently, the former reduces the latter.

For example, after thousands of American casualties and more than $200 billion flushed into Iraq, with the head of the Army Reserve warning that the reserves are "rapidly degenerating into a broken force," and with tens of thousands of Americans yanked out of the productive economy, how much of our power has been squandered and for what? Was installing a new regime in Iraq truly a vital national interest? What sorts of dangers would the United States be facing today had we not invaded?

But what about state power? After all, Yousefzadeh's was a treatment of foreign policy and libertarianism. And libertarianism is nothing if not a critique of state power. What does libertarianism contribute to the discussion of the "should" of foreign policy?

Libertarians believe in the primacy of individual rights, and that government is legitimate when it protects the rights of those it governs. Obviously, a vital role of government is to protect its constituents from foreign threats. Thus, libertarians believe that government should extract from its citizens enough resources to provide for a military that can defend the country and its vital interests, properly defined.

The Yousefzadeh prescription, by contrast, is to issue the government a blank check to pursue an "activist foreign policy" in order to "maximize [its] own power." This notion is bizarre on its own, but in no sense is it libertarian. How does he define "power"? Does he mean that libertarians should seek to maximize the amount of power the state has, or the amount of power it uses? How would a state that is infinitely powerful abroad act at home? Would it act libertarian? More basically, should libertarians be concerned first and foremost with maximizing the power of the state, or the liberty of its constituents?

Libertarians also contribute to the debate a unique skepticism about the concentration of power -- one that too rarely penetrates discussions of foreign affairs. Knowing that governments always seek to accumulate more power, we believe in a stark separation of powers domestically, and in limiting the government by a constitution that clearly delineates what each branch can and cannot do. The foundation for this skepticism lies in the belief that branches of government - or governments themselves - that hold too much power will use too much power.

Thinking of international politics as a system of governments, then, one can see that the relative concentration of too much power in one part of the system is problematic from a libertarian analytical perspective.[2] Massive defense budgets, a sprawling global archipelago of forward-deployed bases and other resources not needed for defending the country will inevitably be used and expanded, leading other states to seek more power for themselves in order to balance against the United States. International relations theory refers to this phenomenon as the security dilemma. We could minimize the risk of other states arming against us by enunciating a humble foreign policy and hewing to it closely.

Aside from the fact that taxing U.S. citizens for purposes other than defending their rights is unjust from a libertarian perspective, governments frequently use power in ways that are clumsy and yield negative consequences. Overzealous foreign policies have led to U.S. citizens being needlessly murdered, have allowed foreign governments to entangle our diplomats in regional political squabbles, and have led our government to become increasingly responsible for managing world affairs. A state that seeks and embraces those duties could hardly be called libertarian.

At the end of his article, Mr. Yousefzadeh links approvingly to the Neo-libertarian Network. Perhaps a new, analytically state-centric libertarianism is being formed. If so, I for one am prepared for a hearty debate (which has already started) between our two camps. But that debate would be well served by the acknowledgement that there is indeed a coherent, consistent libertarian view on foreign policy, and that those who do not agree with it simply belong to a different school of thought on the issue. That would be preferable to the misrepresentation of libertarianism (and realism) that the Neos have offered so far. We unhyphenated libertarians look forward to the discussion.

Justin Logan is a foreign policy analyst living in Washington, DC. His website is

[1] There is some dissent among realists on this question - many realists, like John J. Mearsheimer and Christopher Layne, fear that China's aspirations will eventually clash with U.S. hegemony, and that we would do well to start thinking about how to deal with that conflict now.

[2] This is not to say that all state power is equally malignant. It is certainly fortunate that the United States is the unchecked global hegemon rather than, say, China, but it is neither desirable nor sustainable.


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