Libertarians in the United States feel a new-found momentum on the issues most important to them. Their preferred candidate for the presidency, Rand Paul, has consistently ranked high in pre-election opinion polls. America has never seemed so reluctant to intervene overseas. And the federal government has faced significant pushback for its intrusive surveillance methods, into whose net many Americans have fallen.
However, the growing non-interventionist impulse of Americans highlights a shortcoming in the libertarian position: its insularity. Most libertarians are “America firsters” in that their values seem to apply only at home. That would be fine, except when it has a bearing on the single issue that most defines libertarians, namely liberty.
I speak as someone of the house. I have long written for the libertarian Reason magazine, where I am a contributing editor. The libertarian position on domestic liberties in the United States is one with which I sympathise deeply. To me the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping programmes, revealed by Edward Snowden, are an outrage. But on foreign affairs, I part ways with my American libertarian comrades.
American libertarians generally oppose overseas military campaigns. They’re often right, but they’re also wrong when such intervention can advance, or just protect, liberty.
The English writer Christopher Hitchens hit the nail on the head in a 2001 interview with Reason. Though sympathetic to libertarianism, Hitchens said he joined the left “because on all manner of pressing topics – the Vietnam atrocity, nuclear weapons, racism, oligarchy – there didn’t seem to be any distinctive libertarian view. I must say that this still seems to me to be the case, at least where issues of internationalism are concerned. What is the libertarian take, for example, on Bosnia or Palestine?”
In fact there isn’t one. And yet, the libertarian position on military intervention is grounded in an accurate understanding of the dynamics released. When the United States enters foreign conflicts, this often alters its society. As the government mobilises for war and a security imperative takes over, state power expands. Meanwhile, domestic priorities are put on hold.
Libertarians also tend not to believe that the US should seek to spread its liberal values throughout the world by force of arms. Such modesty is no doubt laudable, but it also differentiates between what holds at home and what holds overseas, and the result can be double standards.
Take the recent American intervention in Iraq. Those who defend the right-to-protect norm passed by the United Nations, hold that the Obama administration merits praise for having come to the assistance of civilians threatened by the Islamic State. Given the horrors perpetrated by the group, they say, the international community had a duty to prevent loss of life – and even, in the case of the Yazidis, genocide.
But American libertarians had mixed feelings. While the Islamic State represents everything libertarians stand against, there was profound reluctance to see the US engaged again in the Middle East. In the end, libertarians argued, it is not up to America to settle every foreign crisis. In this, libertarians share a platform with political realists, who believe that intervention is only valid when American interests are at stake.
But where the realists defend an amoral approach in foreign policy, calculating only interests, libertarians do not. They defend human liberty as a good, as a fundamental aspect of the human condition. Man is born free, they believe, and the role of the state, a necessary evil to libertarians, is to manage human affairs while restricting liberty as little as possible.
The problem comes in defending such an argument when it applies to America and ignoring it when it does not. This shows libertarians to be far more concerned with what affects their own country – a national impulse – than with any transcendent significance of liberty – a universalist impulse.
If libertarianism only has standing in a national context, does that make it less appealing? Perhaps not if one is American. But it also leaves no flexibility in foreign policy thinking. Inevitably, a libertarian foreign policy will be lost between realism, which shows no real concern for liberty, and liberal internationalism, which makes it difficult to avoid any war deemed moral.
That is why libertarians never had anything interesting to say about the carnage in Syria, or indeed about the Arab uprisings in general that began in 2011, except that they were not America’s problem. And yet, even if these uprisings have since descended into boundless violence, at their beginnings they should have been the very embodiment of libertarian ideals.
There were American libertarians who saw the potential, but they were in a minority. The majority simply took no position whatsoever, or opposed helping the protesters. Libertarians delight in Mr Paul’s chances of being the next president, but they must think more about how a Paul administration’s foreign policy might enhance their values.
If their desire is an American withdrawal from the world, similar to the mood prevailing in the country after the First World War, then they have to measure the consequences. For the past seven decades the US has been the mainstay of international liberalism and democracy, albeit an imperfect one. How would reversing this advance the cause of liberty?
Having one benchmark of liberty for Americans and another for the rest means that liberty ultimately has no absolute meaning. Until American libertarians resolve this inconsistency in their thinking, their beliefs will have little resonance in the world.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
On Twitter @BeirutCalling