Time for a Rethink?: Libertarians and Foreign Policy

Regardless of the party in power, libertarians are notoriously unhappy about US foreign and defense policy, skeptical of any active role that America can play in the world. Senator Rand Paul, for example, tried to formally end the US war in Iraq, proposed an end to military aid to Israel, and encouraged Americans to “fight back” against the National Security Agency’s invasion of their privacy. In 2011, he lambasted the intervention in Libya as unconstitutional, and questioned whether the US presence in Afghanistan was “vital to our national security interest.”

Lately, however, perhaps in the interest of electability, the presidential hopeful has toned down his rhetoric, once indistinguishable from his father’s. In March, he decided to sign Senator Tom Cotton’s letter to Iran’s leaders, while his father, the former Republican congressman and two-time presidential candidate Ron Paul, mocked the letter’s signatories: “They’re terrified that peace might break out.” Skeptical of prospective deals with Iran, Rand Paul also supports military action against the Islamic State, albeit on a limited scale. 

Although many of these “evolutions” may be tactical, many libertarians seem disappointed, if not dismayed, by Senator Paul’s shift. He’s gone “full warmonger,” according to Antiwar.com’s Justin Raimondo. Matt Welch of the libertarian Reason magazine admits that he “[does] not fully understand, let alone agree with, the senator’s position supporting a limited bombing campaign against ISIS” but prefers to close ranks and does not want to dwell on “how the candidate falls short on foreign policy.”

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Besides a political calculus, aiming at the Republic nomination, Paul’s change of heart may also be a result of a clash with reality. Perhaps the senator is beginning to understand what many in the libertarian movement still refuse to see—namely, that a wholesale rejection of any active role for American foreign policy is unwise and reckless, and would ultimately jeopardize libertarian principles of individual freedom.


The resolute skepticism about the appropriate role of the United States in the world appears to be in the libertarian DNA—and in that of the US as well, Thomas Jefferson having established the foreign affairs philosophy of the new nation in 1801 with his famous prescription, “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none.” Yet in practice, of course, even Jefferson’s presidency involved an activist vision—doubling the nation’s size with the Louisiana Purchase, sending warships to the shores of Tripoli in pursuit of the Barbary pirates, and putting 100,000 militiamen on war footing in a maritime dispute with the British. 

The rejection of an active foreign policy is an idée fixe of American libertarians not always shared by free-market intellectuals overseas who agree with them on other matters. In the wake of the events in Ukraine, for instance, three young Eastern European free marketers, Egle Markeviciute, Alexandra Ivanov, and Irena Schneider, set up a website named “I Don’t Support Ron Paul” to distance their version of the libertarian movement from Paul’s quietist and ultimately pro-Russian claims about the conflict, which were featured prominently on Russia Today, Sputnik News, and other openly Putinist outlets. The trio rejected the connection between libertarianism and non-interventionism, insisting instead that “compelling arguments can be made for both advocates of globalist and non-interventionist foreign policy positions.”

Jefferson’s statements notwithstanding, the practical arguments for non-interventionism used by American libertarians rely less on the wisdom of the founders than on the realist theory of international relations. Realism came into prominence after World War II and gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly through the work of the late Berkeley professor Kenneth Waltz, along with statesmen such as Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, whose intellectual agendas otherwise have very little overlap with libertarianism or classical liberalism, properly understood.

Looking back to the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, realists assume that states do and should use power to narrowly, and without emotion, pursue their interests within an anarchic international system. Theirs is a bleak world of countervailing threats, domination, and spheres of influence. Similar to libertarians, prominent contemporary realists, such as John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, have been very vocal in their criticism of the War on Terror and America’s other recent military engagements.

Many foreign policy realists and libertarians argued against a more muscular Western response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. At the heart of the realist argument is the notion that because Ukraine matters more to Russia than to the West, a stronger reaction to its invasion of the Crimea and subsequent war against Ukraine is not in the US interests and would disturb the balance of power in the region—a notion that is at the heart of many realist arguments. The libertarians generally agree: “Escalating a potentially endless conflict serves no one’s interest,” wrote Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

Unlike foreign policy idealists who focus on human rights, democratization, and other such issues, realists see conflicts such as that in Ukraine as the result of previous disturbances to the existing balance of power. The West supposedly encroached upon Russia’s sphere of influence through NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999, through successive enlargements of the alliance, and finally through the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine. In such a view, Russia was acting in its basic interests when it reaffirmed its dominance within its traditional sphere of influence and needs to be accommodated, rather than fought through sanctions or military deterrence. The libertarians agree. As Bandow puts it, “A diplomatic solution might be unsatisfying, but Ukraine is in a bad neighborhood and, like Finland during the Cold War, suffers from constraints not faced by other nations. The situation isn’t fair, but Congress can’t change geopolitical reality.”

Yet it is simplistic for the libertarians to buy President Vladimir Putin’s line that the US and its European allies have gotten what they had coming from trying to “encircle” post-Soviet Russia. NATO’s military capability in Europe has been reduced dramatically since 1989. For many of those post–Cold War years, moreover, NATO treated Russia as an important partner, not as an adversary. In addition to the Partnership for Peace agreements in 1994 and 2002, the NATO-Russia Council was created to address issues of mutual interest. The Group of 7 was extended to accommodate Russia, a move out of proportion relative to Russia’s modest role in the world economy. 

But realism should make libertarians suspicious for reasons other than its shoehorning of facts to fit its “theory.” 

In Human Action, a 900-page treatise Rand Paul has listed as one of five “must-read classics in the cause of liberty,” the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises ridicules thinkers who deal with the actions of “humanity as a whole or with other holistic concepts like nation, race, or church,” instead of using individuals as the basic unit of analysis. Realism, by treating states as unitary agents pursuing their interest and ignoring how they arrive at decisions about foreign policy, falls exactly into this trap.

Realism ignores a large research program on the frontier of economics and political science developed in the 1960s to investigate the links between individual choices and collective decisionmaking, known as the theory of public choice. Many public choice scholars, such as the Nobel Prize–winning economist James Buchanan, also happened to be advocates of free markets and were actively engaged in the libertarian movement. The main insight of their work is that no clear link exists between individual choices and decisions made by political communities. Thus libertarians have reason to see the notion of a clear, well-defined national interest that always leads to cautious foreign policy as a chimera.

Realists and libertarians seem to be allies because they agree on the practical advice on how US foreign policy should be conducted. Realists and libertarians concur that foreign policy should be limited to the pursuit of national interest. Any political and security ties with other nations, for example, should be established only when doing so enhances the position and security of the United States. 

But it is precisely the advocacy of an unfettered pursuit of national interest that is the least compatible with libertarian political philosophy. It is at odds, for example, with the cosmopolitanism professed by classical liberals since the times of Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill. When discussing policy issues from immigration to agricultural subsidies to tariffs, most libertarians would insist that the welfare of foreigners should matter as much as the welfare of Americans.


Superficially, the realist pursuit of national interest appears as an extension of the libertarian defense of self-interested individual behavior within the context of the marketplace (the “invisible hand” argument). However, the latter rests on the assumption that formal or informal mechanisms exist to protect the weak against predation by the strong. The realist mind-set, in contrast, is an invitation to abandon any effort to build similar mechanisms in the realm of international relations, accepting “might is right” as the only guiding principle for interactions between states—unless maintaining such norms happens to be in somebody’s immediate interest. 

A much more natural route for libertarians would be to acknowledge the need for some international form of the rule of law. But that would mean abandoning the dogma of non-interventionism. Rule of law among states cannot exist without active efforts to create and maintain it, through the creation of collective security arrangements and investment into military capability that can deter predatory behavior.

Maintaining the rule of law in international affairs creates what economists recognize as a collective action problem—or a “prisoner’s dilemma.” If a country decides to narrowly follow only its own national interest, it will be tempted to free-ride on other countries’ contributions to peaceful international order. But if all countries behave opportunistically, then international rule of law will not be sustained at all. 

Such collective action problems are ubiquitous in the international arena. In spite of their grand ambitions, multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Union, have a lackluster record of providing global public goods. But one solution to this problem exists: international leadership. 

Experimental economists who have studied similar problems in laboratory settings find that the presence of leaders matters for outcomes of prisoner’s dilemmas existing among individuals. According to an experiment conducted by David Levy, a professor of economics at George Mason University, and his co-authors, “[the] group members’ decisions are significantly influenced by human leaders’ non-binding contribution suggestions”—even if the leaders are selected completely at random.

This result closely mirrors what we observe in the international arena. The postwar period of peace and prosperity in the West is a result of a fortunate turn of events that placed the United States—a free and democratic society—into the position of a global superpower. For all their flaws, America’s leaders have been less interested in conquest and pillaging, and more in extending the scope of liberty- and democracy-friendly institutions around the world. One may, of course, question the effectiveness of such efforts, but it is difficult to imagine that the postwar Western world would have been a freer and more prosperous place if it were dominated by some other, less benevolent, power.

It is time for libertarians to recognize that the world the US faces today is different from the one in which Thomas Jefferson called for peace, commerce, and no entangling alliances. It is interconnected, wealthy, and faces large-scale security-related, economic, and environmental problems that require concerted action by free societies around the world. The United States is the most powerful free society on the planet and its leaders cannot and should not try to escape their responsibility for the world that exists outside of America’s borders. It would be good if Rand Paul’s backtracking from radical non-interventionism led libertarians to rethink their views on foreign policy—and hopefully to discard their realist baggage in favor of a more compelling vision, reflecting the reality of today’s world.

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @DaliborRohac.



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