Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Flighty libertarians ignore the freedom and rights of others

As Kentucky Senator Rand Paul emerges as a possible contender for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential election, questions are being asked about what his libertarianism may mean for American foreign policy. Mr Paul has been a prominent opponent of military action in Syria, and is sceptical of foreign intervention.

Mr Paul embodies a growing trend in the United States towards greater isolationism, with a large majority of Americans saying the president should concentrate on domestic issues.

A prominent libertarian, David Boaz, has defined libertarianism as “the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others … Libertarians define each person’s right to life, liberty and property – rights that people possess naturally, before governments are created.”

However, as a libertarian myself, I find that my brethren in the US often seem to approach the matter of freedom in an insular way. Beyond America’s borders, Mr Boaz’s definition seems to break down.

Two things inform modern American libertarians’ approach to foreign affairs – as well as a misunderstanding.

The misunderstanding first: isolationism today is different from what it was less than a century ago, when the mood in the US scuttled President Woodrow Wilson’s plans to enter the League of Nations. Today only a fringe would seriously suggest pulling out of the United Nations. Most libertarians embrace an integrated world, one built around unfettered commerce and communications.

American isolationism tends to be focused against military involvement, as well as overseas ventures that use up limited American resources, such as foreign aid.

But in the past it was more than this. What has reinforced the non-interventionist seam in American libertarianism is that it was anchored in a mainstream American attitude not so long ago. For instance, until the 1950s even the Republican Party had a powerful non-interventionist wing. Its standard bearer, Robert Taft, was twice a presidential candidate, and lost the party nomination to Dwight Eisenhower by a narrow margin in 1952.

While Mr Paul and others may be regarded as anomalies by some, their views reproduce an impulse among many Americans to view their nation as somehow separate from the world. This outlook goes back to the founding of the republic and was reflected in Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’ famous 1821 invocation that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”.

Secondly, a basic tenet of libertarianism – mistrust of government – has shaped its followers’ views of foreign intervention. Libertarians, always lucid about government abuse, believe the conditions of war facilitate such abuse. Civil liberties have frequently been trampled upon when America is in conflict, during which the expansion of the armed forces and the powers of intelligence agencies have often been conducted with little oversight or public approval.

This libertarian argument is a powerful one, and is justified in many ways, but it also poses the obvious question: If the individual’s natural right to life, liberty and property is sacred to libertarians, then doesn’t the US have an obligation to advance these in the world whenever it can? Can a libertarian foreign policy be constructed around double standards on this question?

In his 1821 speech, Mr Adams suggested it could. “[The United States] well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition, which assume the colours and usurp the standard of freedom.”

That is certainly a feeling that many Americans share about intervention in Syria. Yet it doesn’t really answer the criticism of libertarianism, namely that it sets particularly high ambitions when advocating for natural rights, only to follow this up by indicating that the US is entitled to ignore these rights when they do not directly concern Americans.

Recently Vladimir Putin criticised America’s sense of exceptionalism in The New York Times. Mr Paul disagreed, arguing, “America’s exceptionalism is rooted in our founding documents and values.” This was interesting, because he seemed to imply that America was exceptional because it had much to offer the world through its freedoms and democracy.

But if that’s the case, then for America to ignore the freedoms and rights of others, Syrians for instance, would seem not only to undermine any possible merits of American exceptionalism, it would also appear to echo a more cynical approach to foreign policy, one usually associated with political realism, where only interests count.

This duality in American foreign policy, between the pursuit of interests and of values, has long existed, and exemplifies a certain schizophrenia among Americans in general, not just libertarians. Many want their country to do the right thing when it comes to the world, but they don’t feel it has a duty to be a global policemen.

Yet libertarians, who have growing influence in America today, have an obligation to clear up the inconsistencies when it comes to the values they cherish and their relevance for foreign affairs. For what would be the significance of freedom in America if throughout the rest of the world freedom had no meaning whatsoever? If that is what American exceptionalism means, what a selfish notion it must be.

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