Lazy Libertarians: Non-Interventionism Is NOT Foreign Policy

Too many libertarians have vacillated on foreign policy. Through ignorance and laziness they’ve hidden under a two word blanket and called it policy.

It’s not easy being me. I don’t mean because of the daily battle avoiding hordes of nubile female acolytes. I mean because I am a libertarian who is interested in foreign policy. Although these things might not seem uncomfortable bedfellows, they combine and conspire to bring me in repeated contact with the idea of non-interventionism as a foreign policy paradigm. And it makes me clench my heroic granite jaw…

Non-interventionism is not found solely in libertarian circles, however it certainly finds fertile ground there. And it is easy to see why;monkeys1 if libertarianism can be boiled down to ‘keep your hands off and mind your own businesses’ then a blanket policy of non-interventionism fits very well. Libertarians believe that the state has no moral right to involve itself in society and commerce, and that when it does it invariably has a negative effect. This view is extrapolated onto the world stage. It believes firstly that states have no moral right to interfere in the affairs of others, and secondly because cross border trade should be the catalyst behind international relations, businesses should be left alone to trade without let or hindrance from governments.

Non interventionism is viewing the world through an ideological prism, and basing a foreign policy on the subsequent conclusions.

Yet international relations is a sphere refreshingly free of ideology. States are motivated less by values and ideals, and more by a narrow set of objectives and interests. Even the geopolitics of the supposedly ideologically motivated Cold War was a prisoner to constants of national interests. Like the Tsars before it and Putin today, Soviet leaders a) sought a protective belt of client states around the Russian homeland, b) were locked in the perennial search for a warm water port, and c) faced the centuries old dilemma that comes with being both a European and an Asian power. Equally the United States stuck slavishly to its historic compulsions of a) prohibiting another Great Power from influence in the region, b) the free movement of trade and access in foreign markets for US businesses, and c) the ability to project force anywhere, either multilaterally or unilaterally. These are as relevant in 2013 as they were in 1963 and 1913.

International relations are freshingly free of ideology

Once you acknowledge what motivates a country’s actions, international relations become comparatively predictable. It is a zero sum game of medium to long term power and influence, quite different from domestic politics which seeks to alter societies. If you want a brief run down of what I think Britain’s national interests are, you can find them here.

Putting ideology, any ideology, at the heart of your foreign policy is to place yourself in a policy straight jacket. To use another analogy, it is the equivalent of going to a night club and nailing yourself to the middle of the dance floor; you are unable to walk away from confrontations you don’t want, yet you are prevented from pursuing opportunities that may present themselves.

The mistake many libertarians make is to assume that if you’re not a non-interventionist, then you must be a war-hungry Neo-Con, seeking to reorder the world by force. This is a deliberately simplistic false dichotomy. You can pursue and defend your national interest without bombing your way to a new empire. States pursue their national interests, and most find it advantageous to cooperate to pursue those interests. This is why there is a veritable alphabet soup of supranational organisations. The EU, ASEAN, the African Union, the Arab League, the Shanghi Cooperation Pact, Pacific Islands Forum, MERCOSUR, CARICOM, IGAD, GCC, CEMAC, G7, NATO, the Nordic Council, SADC, SAARC, British Commonwealth, Organization of American States, ANZUS…….and of course everybody’s favourite, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)

This should be music to the ears of libertarians, who claim that people are naturally inclined to cooperate with each other for mutual benefit. Just as people cooperate because they want a better life for themselves, so states cooperate because they want a world system more conducive to their needs and interests. Equally, states are free to remove themselves from cooperative groups if their interests require it. For example the US refusing to ratify Kyoto, or the UK opting out of the single currency. This does not make them good or bad, they’re just doing what states do; defend and promote their interests.

This is important because what goes on in the world affects us. Poverty in Jamaica means more drugs on the streets of Birmingham. Ethnic tensions in the Balkans mean more refugees in Newcastle. Tariffs in Japan mean car plants being closed in Essex. Britain can influence those events, or sit back and be in the receiving end of whatever others decide.

Diplomacy, meeting, global debate
Diplomacy, meeting, global debate

Influence and intervention takes many forms. The British government has excellent ties to the government of Saudi Arabia. As a result of this, the Saudi government places orders with British companies to manufacture military equipment, as well as legacy contracts for spare parts and maintenance. Does this relationship sometimes get too close? Probably. But do British jobs depend on it? Absolutely. Another example is foodstuffs. Successive British governments, via a variety of means (both fair and foul) have secured trade agreements with African states. Our farmers are free to export subsided food to Africa, but African food sold here face tariffs, making it more expensive. So British farmer benefit from a secure market at home, and a valuable market overseas. Is this practice fair? No. Do British jobs and companies depend on it? Absolutely.

Trade does not occur in a vacuum. This is doubly true of international cross border trade. Permits, tariffs, visas, licenses, are all agreed between states, not businesses. Goods and services can only cross a border if both governments let it.

Goods and services can only cross borders if both governments let it

This is the uncomfortable truth that too many non-interventionists are willing to countenance. Hundreds of thousands of British jobs and hundreds of companies are only kept afloat because the British government goes out to bat on their behalf. You can call it corporatism or corruption, but that’s the reality. And make no mistake; every other country is at it too. If the British government were to step back, others would gladly fill the void and the whole sorry practice would continue, with the only difference being British businesses being dealt a hammer blow.

Non-interventionists claim that they are not isolationists, but they are not far off. At best, non-interventionism the foreign policy of sloth. It is an easy, lazy recourse for those who know that they should have an opinion on a particular issue, but can play the non-interventionist card and avoid having to think too hard.

At worse, non-interventionism is willful ignorance of how the world works. It takes policies that might work in a utopia of minimal governments across the globe, and tries to apply them now, in a world were every other governments strains every sinew to get a better deal for its businesses.


  1. And how is this world of yours to be created?
    Tell me how you plan to convince every other govt to extract themselves from international trade and you’ll have a friend for life, because I’ve yet to hear a decent plan.

    I have explained how the world is. Your principle critique of my piece it that it is ideologically unsound.

    Ideological purity and a responsible foreign policy are, sadly, mutually exclusive.

  2. The author can drop the modifiers (“lazy”, “Too many” and “many”) before the word “libertarians”. These only serve the purpose of setting him apart from libertarians and are necessary only because the author wishes to inaptly apply the term to himself. Well on his way to being a planned economy socialist, he has argued against the free market, against the individual and for the use of force as a preferred means of dealing with other people.
    Firstly, this plan for foreign policy is built on the notion that trade is a zero-sum exchange; that the government needs to be out there opening foreign markets to and protecting the British market for British producers, so one side wins and the other side loses. This type of interaction must be built upon force, for who would willingly play the loser? This goes against the principles of libertarianism, namely one’s right to liberty (freedom from coercion). This type of interaction has more in common with imperialism than anything. Furthermore, the whole notion of zero-sum undermines the principle upon which the free market is built, namely that exchange is a mechanism by which both parties gain. This is the type of exchange that makes the WORLD (Britain included) wealthier. Zero-sum is a euphemism for what someone more openly socialist would call ‘redistribution’.
    Secondly, tariffs, subsidies and other such devices are mechanism of economic planning. The author is correct when he says thousands of jobs are being propped up by this sort of activity, but how many are being lost? Would British consumers having access to cheaper food from Africa be a bad thing? They would have more money to spend on other things, leading to increased wealth. Instead of driving over-priced British food down African throats, trade other goods for food. This might be an over-simplification (to say the least) but all these interferences misallocate resources. Just because these resources go to keep inefficient British producers in jobs, doesn’t make it a good thing. (The author is so far from libertarian here that he is not even a classical liberal, so if he wishes to make the journey towards enlightenment and libertarianism, he should perhaps start with Adam Smith, who had a few insights on this subject.)
    The number of statements that are hostile to individualism and self-ownership are many but I will highlight a few- The notion that the an African doesn’t own the fruits of his labor and is not free to sell them to whom he wish; the notion that a Brit doesn’t own the fruits of their labor and can’t freely trade them with whom they please; the idea that the threat of an increase supply of drugs is a reason to use force(this suggest the author is a prohibitionist, which goes not only against free trade, individual liberty and self-ownership, but also the claim that he is socially liberal); the idea that the state has replaced the individual and now has a human quality that only an individual can have, an interest; the notion that the state is better to look after the interests of individuals than they are themselves…
    Finally, the author did get another thing correct when he said that for goods to move across a border both governments must allow it. This means if you get one of the parties out of the way (the British government), one is half way there. Free trade is the absence of government interference. The idea that more government involvement (or in the case of the EU, another layer of government all together) is an advancement towards that goal is ludicrous. Free trade agreements, like most other government creations, tend to be far from what their name suggests. We need the British government to open up trade to other nations? A closed door can only be opened two ways, willingly and by force. The later (besides being un-libertarian) is bound to cause resentment. And if the door is opened willingly, who needs that unruly institution of force know as government?

  3. @Dylan
    There is more to interventionism than clumsy invasions. That is the last and most dramatic of all activist policies.
    Coups, sabotage, bribes, sanctions, alliances, pressure, intimidation are just a few of the many tools at ones disposal.

  4. @Richard
    There is nothing wrong with having principles. They can guide you, but its folly to become a slave to them. Why box yourself into a corner. It’s better to have as many options open to yourself as possible.

  5. I wouldn’t say that voluntary co-operation with other countries is the same as liberal interventionism. Seldom do military interventions end well for either party, and that is why I am opposed to them.


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