Is There a Better Libertarian Foreign Policy?

In any dispute between Jon Kyl and Rand Paul, my sympathies lie with Kyl. I hope that’s not a surprise. Thus, I note with interest this story in the Washington Free Beacon :

Former Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) criticized what he described as a resurgent isolationist streak in Congress during a breakfast discussion at the Capitol Hill Club on Tuesday.

Kyl took issue in particular with the views of Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), a prospective 2016 presidential candidate and a new member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“People like Sen. Rand Paul say ‘what the United States needs now is a foreign policy that is reluctant,’” said Kyl. “No. It does not need a reluctant foreign policy. You may decide at one point or another that you’re not going to engage in a particular situation either economically, or diplomatically, or potentially militarily. But you shouldn’t be reluctant about what your goals are, what your objectives are, and your willingness to commit whatever power, soft or hard, that you have at any given time, against the problem.”

Kyl added that Paul has “been very clear about his view that the United States, with regard to terrorism, should just have a position of containment, as if somehow you could contain these things.”

“Even containment has a concept behind it of doing something,” he continued. “And what happens when you have to apply force to that concept of containment, if you don’t have the capability?”

I would actually go farther than Kyl. I would suggest that Paul and extreme libertarians like him actually have no coherent foreign policy. They simply have a desire to withdraw to the homeland. But that is an instinct, not a theory or strategy. It has no evaluation of different foreign policy goals or matching of means and ends. In a world where other nations and even terrorist groups can easily project power across the oceans — and where one third of our economy depends on international trade — Paul’s foreign policy cannot work.

Maybe some of the libertarians on Ricochet have a more intellectually developed approach to foreign policy. Any ideas?

  1. Tommy De Seno

    Unfortunately some who identify as libertarian have a restrictive view of foreign policy so the rest of us get straddled with that view.

    This happens to all political ideologies - a person or persons become the face of it so the ideology becomes them, even when they deviate from it.

    Nothing in the traditional concepts of libertarianism (the political ideology that birthed America) is in contravention to active foreign policy.  The opposite is true – active foreign policy is crucial to defending libertarianism.

    Libertarians begin our philosophy with our natural state - positive liberty endowed at creation.  Our government is instituted with a concept of negative liberties, making our positive liberty unalienable.

    That being the very essence of our human being, why would anyone make the case that our existence requires turning our attention away from belligerent outsiders who, if they rise to power, would strip us of those liberties?

    Also, it seems some boil foreign policy down to “bombing vs not bombing.”  While important, it’s a fraction of the whole of foreign policy.

    Prevention is better than war.  That requires diplomacy and deals (yes deals that cost us money).

    The State Department is as important as the Defense Department.


  2. Bryan G. Stephens

    My foreign policy is for the USA to live up to the cries of imperialism thrown at it. Let’s show the world what that would really look like. 

  3. Crow
    John Grant: Paul went out of his way to distance himself from the isolationist charge.

    Agreed. Paul certainly set out to do that, and he did so rhetorically at Heritage.

    What’s unclear to me, and not only to me, is whether Paul’s distancing himself from “isolationism” is a tactical political maneuver to show he’s his own man and to broaden his coalition of support in the run up to 2016, or whether he honestly disagrees with his father substantively over these questions. Not that we got brass tacks specificity from Romney or Obama in 2012, but nevertheless:

    What is Rand Paul’s position on foreign aid? On the United States’ role in the United Nations? On whether NATO should exist, and what its role ought to be? On how to deal, not in platitudes but in policies, with the threat of political Islam, or the rise of China, or a resurgent Russia, or Iran, or North Korea? What is Rand Paul’s position on sanctions, or  development, or on how and when to protect our interests if simply signing a free trade deal doesn’t magically render opposition or non-state actors inert? It remains unclear.

  4. Crow
    Duane Oyen: Boy, are we in trouble, and so is the world.

    Democratic regimes are notorious for the kind of swings we’ve seen in public opinion relating to US foreign policy over the course of the last two decades. The Founders were wise when they placed the overwhelming majority of federative powers with the Executive and the Senate, and not the House.

    I’m reminded of Thucydides recounting of the debates leading up to the Sicilian Expedition. The Athenians, unable to decide between the divergent courses of action advocated by the bold Alcibiades and the cautious Nicias, make a typically democratic compromise: the city elected to split the difference and put them both in charge equally. The results were predictably disastrous.

    Whether the current climate on the Right is legitimate yet delayed reaction against Bush’s policies, or whether the distrust on foreign policy issues is largely colored by the current occupant of the Oval Office, is somewhat murky.

    The 2016 primaries, I suspect, will see some fireworks on these issues–as well they should. 

  5. Gus Marvinson

    Rand Paul is an “extreme libertarian”?

  6. Mendel
    John Yoo: 

    I would suggest that Paul and extreme libertarians like him actually have no coherent foreign policy. 

    I will see Prof. Yoo this comment and raise him one: no one has a meaningfully coherent foreign policy in the period since 9/11.

    Sure, we have had great slogans like the “Bush Doctrine.”  But what did that mean in reality?  We attacked Iraq while limp-wristing Iran and burying our heads on North Korea.  While Bush’s proponents trumpet Libya’s willingly relinquishing its nuclear program, does anyone believe Bush would have opened up a new front had it not?  So the aggressive Bush strategy amounted to war in one country and waffling everywhere else.

    Personally, I think all “doctrines” are fancy ways of explaining what is by necessity an ad hoc process. The realities of both foreign policy and domestic politics are too messy for an executive to act with anything resembling consistency.

  7. Xennady

    I recall that Bush administration officials openly talked of the United States as global hegemon, which seems to be default US policy.

    Hence my suggestion: realize that the US is a Westphalian nation-state and forget about the hegemon business.

    The United States is a bankrupt sliver of humanity, governed by a regime with precious little respect or concern for the fate of most Americans. And now we find out that the regime has been spying on the American public, without discussion or debate, and lying about it when questioned.

    Not good. And I’ll further note that the government seems remarkably unconcerned about terrorists and their power-projection abilities- having left the US border wide open and openly abandoning part of it to Mexican drug gangs, as well as exempting mosques from the invasive surveillance imposed upon everyone else in the United States.

    Incredible. And despite a trillion dollar military, Americans still suffer from the violence of terrorists like the Tsaernev brothers.

    I suggest that this is not a stable situation. Instead of demanding Rand Paul defend a foreign policy perhaps we should expect the same from defenders of the status quo.

    But I won’t hold my breath.

  8. John Grant


    Kyl has been a cheerleader for the stupid and feckless policies of the last 12 years. The policies of Kyl and his cronies, luminaries such as McCain and Lieberman, have been ruinous.

    Is there any intervention Kyl has not enthusiastically endorsed? Is there any measure restricting our liberty at home that Kyl has not championed?

    I don’t think Paul’s containment strategy is adequate, but you and Kyl misrepresent what he said in his speech on the subject at Heritage. Paul went out of his way to distance himself from the isolationist charge.

    Where was Kyl when President Obama unilaterally initiated military action against Libya?

  9. Mendel
    John Yoo: 

    “You may decide at one point or another that you’re not going to engage in a particular situation either economically, or diplomatically, or potentially militarily. But you shouldn’t be reluctant about what your goals are, what your objectives are, and your willingness to commit whatever power, soft or hard, that you have at any given time, against the problem.”

    Is it really that wise to publicly announce one’s overarching goals and objectives?

    For one, most presidents who do announce a clear foreign policy almost never live up to it (see comment #2).  This type of unreliability risks other countries not taking the U.S. seriously when we try to use soft power or make threats.

    But perhaps even worse is a government which actually does stick to its stated goals, because then it telegraphs its actions to its adversaries ahead of time.  If a president promises (and keeps the promise) to bomb any country whose citizens helped plot a terrorist attack against the U.S., he has thereby ceded his decision-making power to the terrorists.

    Doctrines and grand strategies are for the ivory tower.  I would prefer a leader who is unpredictable.

  10. Salvatore Padula

    Lack of clarity of doctrine lead to the Korean War. Dean Acheson’s failure to include South Korea in the list of nations we would defend gave the North and the Soviets the false impression we wouldn’t militarily resist an invasion. Clarity can often avoid bloodshed.

  11. Dave Carter

    Does anyone have a link to a comprehensive view of Paul’s foreign policy, because I’m “reluctant,” to either condemn or endorse it based on Kyl’s rather coy description.  

    I, for one, favor an insurmountably strong defense and an ability to reach out and pulverize any who would trifle with us.  But containment, which I define as closing the damned borders please and, yes, being very careful who we let in and from where, has its appeal.  

    And while I like a proactive and pre-emptive capability, I wonder if we might learn something from recent years about the ultimate futility of trying to build functioning societies from people who are historically, religiously, and temperamentally predisposed to barbarism?  The idea that we build things for them, after which they blow them up and kill the troops, builders, and each other is one idea I’m in favor of discarding.  

  12. Todd

    I think the principle is that of self defense. 

  13. Astonishing

    As much as I love the man himself Bush’s foreign-policy has played out to be a disaster, unleashing an Arab Spring that has thrown the Middle East into dangerous turmoil, because Bush failed to follow The Astonishing Doctrine, which is: Never start a war you don’t finish before you leave office, because you can’t depend upon your successor to clean up yor messes.

  14. BrentB67
    Duane Oyen: Boy, are we in trouble, and so is the world.  A substantial portion of Ricochet, representative of the activist base, seriously believes that we can withdraw to our shores and survive no matter what else the world does- call it the Lindbergh-Paul (-Kerry) “foreign policy”.

    I don’t see many (any?) advocating pulling back to our shores, but there also isn’t a reason to go marching on everybody else’s shores that is being advocated by the classical Bush intervention policy.

    I volunteered and spent 13+ months on two aircraft carriers for the opportunity to put to work what I had been trained for. Nobody in their right mind will call me a dove.

    We don’t have to make every potential civil war, genocide, or disagreement around the world our business.

  15. jetstream

    As a libertarian war-monger, I favor going Roman in defending our National Security or Critical National Interest, otherwise, hitting the beaches and slopes … in practice this means we keep it high and dry with respect to Syria and we pitch up over the targets of Iran’s nuclear weapons programs … if taking out Iran’s nuclear weapons development programs requires all out warfare, then all out warfare it is, concerns about collateral damage should not interfere in any way with incinerating their nuclear weapons program …

  16. Mike H

    It’s been shown that military experts predictions about the outcomes of the use of force are little better than chance, with no real disincentive if they are wrong. If that’s the best our experts can do it seems to argue to only engage when there is a lot of confidence/certainty and a very good argument on why and how the outcomes will more than compensate for the innocent lives we are disrupting/destroying.

  17. Fred Cole

    For what it’s worth, people are misusing the terms isolationist and isolationism.

    It has two aspects:

    1. Non-interventionism

    2. Protectionism

    Without both, its not isolationism.

    Sen. Paul (and a lot of other libertarians) agree with that first one.  The second one however, since most libertarians are free traders, they do not have.

    People talk about “retreating to our shores” and “isolating ourselves from the world, but America didn’t get strong because of our military, our massive powerful military came second, we got strong because of commerce and free trade.  We built that military with our industrial base, and that base was created through capitalism and free trade.

     Some people seem to think “slightly fewer foreign military interventions” counts as “isolationism.”

     So be it.  

    But it shows how far we’ve come that, after two massive expensive bloody wars in the last ten years, even questioning the idea of immediate military intervention qualifies one as an “isolationist.”

  18. Franco

     I would suggest that Paul and extreme libertarians like him actually have no coherent foreign policy.

    What is an extreme libertarian? Someone who really, really wants freedom? Someone who actually wants to follow our Constutution? Please define this for us Mr. Yoo.

    And please also provide examples of presidents who had a coherant foreign policy, and if so, were they if they were able to enact it. 

    As is said here, what was George W. Bush’s foriegn policy regarding Mexico? Drain them of peasants, criminals and terrorists by leaving our southern border open?

    How exactly has the “good” war in Afghanistan worked out for us?

    In a very real sense, the Bush foreign policies set up the political climate that brought us the incomprehensible Obama policies – incomprehensible unless one is willing to believe that Obama’s policies are designed to limit and undermine America’s power , then they would be coherant. 

    Last I checked Rand Paul is elected as a Republican. Calling him an “extreme libertarian” makes me believe you have an agenda. I know you are extraordinarily smart man, but do you think we are that stupid?

  19. Roberto

    I do have a somewhat “Libertarian Foreign Policy” doctrine yet at the moment I would certainly ditch it in a second to back any doctrine that is opposed to the collective madness of Washington which appears insistent on diving into a Syrian civil war.  

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