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essays

July 1977

Foreign Policy for Americans: Non-Interventionism

“America cannot and should not police the globe with sermon and sword, but she can be a model of a free and peaceful society.”

Unfortunately, this debate has fallen far short of examining the basic premises which have brought us to a universally deplored state. A few critics have asked whether, in the name of stopping “Communism,” we have not ourselves become an imperial power with the guilt and the burdens such a role entails. There is a genuine and far-reaching alternative approach to foreign affairs—one which rejects the very premises of present policy—but up to now it has remained largely unknown.

That alternative is non-intervention, the position of those who call themselves Libertarians.

Non-intervention, sometimes called neutrality or “isolationism,” is the application of Libertarianism to foreign affairs. Since our philosophy calls for the use of force only in self-defense against those who violate the rights of individuals to their life, liberty or justly acquired property, Libertarian principles call on the American government to restrict its use of force in international relations to repelling actual attacks on the United States itself. Unlike Liberals and Conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, who argue over how much aid of what kinds should be sent to which oppressive regimes abroad, or exactly where American military might should be applied, Libertarians reject the whole notion of a U.S. role as either world policeman or a do-gooder busybody.

Non-intervention, unique now to Libertarians, was a strong tendency in American foreign policy until this century. It was well regarded by the men of our revolutionary era as they faced the concrete tasks of charting sound policy in a world of great power rivalry and large empires: a world much like our own.

Our first President, George Washington, enunciated the non-interventionist viewpoint in his celebrated Farewell Address to the American People, in 1796. He urged his countrymen to avoid sentimental attachments to and partiality toward any foreign nation, since such unrealistic ideas would promote U.S. involvement in wars unrelated to our true interests. While maintaining liberal and impartial commercial relations with the nations of the world, America ought to “have with them as little political connection as possible,” Washington said.

This philosophy of cosmopolitan neutrality, embracing free cultural and commercial exchange, excluding only entangling “permament alliances,” reflected the peace-loving individualist liberalism of 1776. It was reiterated and implemented by John Adams, our second President; and Thomas Jefferson, in his First Inaugural Address, in 1801, called for “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” And so it went: non-intervention, despite serious lapses, was the major theme in American foreign relations up to 1898, and even to 1917. Libertarians believe it to be the essential tenet of sound policy now, as then.

Libertarians consider complete and unfettered trade and exchange with all peoples, and total absention from meddling in their affairs, as the path most productive of immediate and long-run world peace and prosperity. Such a policy may seem “middle class” and dull compared to the destructive heroics of gunboat diplomacy like the Mayaguez incident, or the flashy “shuttle diplomacy” of a Henry Kissinger; but whenever and wherever applied, non-intervention has worked, and it would not have led us to Korea, Vietnam, or Cambodia.

Libertarians see an intimate connection between complete free trade and world peace. We believe that all restrictive measures such as tariffs, quotas, and attempts to extend the traditional three-mile limit, aside from injuring American consumers, can only provoke hostility from the countries most affected. It is no accident that both world wars followed periods of galloping neo-mercantilism and virtual economic warfare. Japan, for example, was seriously injured by British, American and other nations’ policies in the 1930’s, and disastrously chose military adventurism as a way out.

In the 20th century, however, American statesmen have largely ignored the arguments for non-intervention and free trade, with consistently catastrophic results. Under a variety of slogans, American leaders have risked and waged war to “find” and retain export markets (allegedly essential to U.S. prosperity), to enforce American ideals of order, and ultimately to prevent all revolutionary change in the world. Opponents of the policy have been smeared as “traitors,” “pro-fascists,” “isolationists,” “pro-Communists,” “naive pacifists,” or whatever the current bugaboo was. Yet the case against attempting to subject change throughout the world to an Amercian veto has not lost its validity in seventy-odd years.

The practical case against intervention is simplicity itself, but not less true for being plain. The destructiveness of modern war, in which massive terror-bombing against civilians is “normal,” is—or should be—obvious to all. Modern wars undertaken to “save” a country—South Vietnam, for example—inevitably end by destroying the lives and property of those supposedly being saved. Who can doubt that without U.S. participation the Vietnamese civil war would have been far less bloody and costly for the Vietnamese people? To say nothing of the utter waste of thousands of American lives and untold treasure squandered in a futile crusade.

The damage done to our own country by meddling in such conflicts is incalcuable. To begin with, there is the loss of life and limb among those sent to fight (usually after being conscripted) half-way around the world from their homes for incomprehensible causes. There are also grave costs to our prosperity: all the talk of “war booms” notwithstanding, it is obvious that the expenditure of vast sums upon sheer destruction necessarily reduces the people’s standard of living below what it would otherwise have been and redirects economic activity away from life-enhancing channels.

Less obvious, but of critical long-run significance, are the institutional changes brought about the imperial role into which the past few Presidents have cast our country. War critics have warned again and again that our freedoms could not survive “perpetual war for perpetual peace,” from Charles Pinckney reminding the Constitutional Convention that military adventures have always undermined republican forms of government, to Robert Taft, Sr., William Fulbright, and others repeating the warning in our own time.

In the 20th century, American statesmen have largely ignored the arguments for non-intervention and free trade, with consistently catastrophic results.

The incarceration of the Japanese-Americans in World War II; executive “emergency powers” that are never recinded; innumerable special economic controls; outrageous taxation; nearly runaway inflation—all derive from the “hot and cold” war posture in effect since 1940. That policy has also brought us inflationary recessions, Watergate, CIA/FBI surveillance of everything that moves, the farcical Angolan adventure, the squandering of taxpayers’ money on nearly every despotic regime on earth (save those professing Marxism—but we may yet see military aid to Communist China), and the restoration of legalized impressment, the very system of “draft” slavery from which so many of our ancestors fled.

Thus, the people suffer, but Executive, the bureaucracy, the generals and admirals revel in the glory of it all. It is time to end their little games, played with our lives, property, and liberties.

Revolutions in the Third World, by destroying feudal institutions, are often the path to modernization. That Communists sometimes take the lead in such revolts is unfortunate, but it is no threat to America. Moscow and Peiking can no more direct and control these revolutions than Washington can suppress them. Our own Revolution began this process of anti-colonial, anti-feudal liberation, but— luckily for us—without pursuing the false goal of socialism.

America cannot and should not police the globe with sermon and sword, but she can be a model of a free and peaceful society by creating what historian Charles Beard called “the open door at home.” Non-intervention is an essential means to that end.

In the current context, non-interventionism implies:

— An immediate end to governmental foreign aid, military and “humanitarian” alike. Experience shows aid to be a tool of power politics, and most aid serves to subsidize U.S. exporters at the expense of U.S. taxpayers, as well as to cripple free enterprise in the countries assisted, whose businesspeople cannot compete with undervalued U.S. goods. Genuine free trade would help underdeveloped nations far more than “aid,” especially as the bureaucratic middlemen of the two governments would be eliminated. And, of course, the American taxpayer would be relieved of all this ill-considered burden.

— Withdrawal from NATO and other multilateral and bilateral commitments to American military action.

— An end to the American government’s role as gunrunner to the world. Total disengagement from the Middle East, where lasting peace can only come from negotiations by indigenous forces, and where our presence merely adds fuel to a fire that threatens at any moment to consume us all.

— Full free trade with all nations, including Russia and China; but the American taxpayer must not be forced to guarantee loans to these or any other countries, as in the Soviet wheat deals. All exporters and investors must take their own risks and connot ask the citizenry to subsidize—or even to die for their right to do business.

— Return of American troops to our own borders.

— Serious negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons.

— Finally, important in itself and as a symbol of a renewed commitment to non-intervention: withdrawal of the United States from the United Nations. As Roger MacBride, the Libertarian Party’s Presidential candidate in 1976, has said, “The record shows that when the Big Powers want to negotiate, they negotiate. The UN is neither a help nor a hindrance there.” It is, in fact; a costly Babel of bureaucratic parasites—parasites on the black, brown, yellow and white bodies of their own peoples, and of ours—that should be firmly invited to quit our shores.

As non-interventionists, Libertarians believe that free and productive Americans, provoking no one, can be counted on to defend their lives and property in the event of actual attack on the United States, and that this fact will deter any such attack. To militarize our society for “defense,” as our government has done, merely shows lack of real confidence in free men and women. Prepared to defend a homeland, but not to build an Empire, we need not fear the enemies of liberty, whether foreign or domestic.

Intervention stands condemned for every possible crime against humanity and liberty. War or peace is the most important question of our time. Peace and freedom depend on the true American policy of non-intervention.

Echoing the ancient slogan that means: Let people be, and let the nations be joined by peaceful trade, we Libertarians say:

Laissez faire, laissez passer.

Joseph Stromberg is a graduate student in history, and has written for a number of libertarian publications. His essay originally appeared in the LP News, and is reprinted here as a prelude to his much longer study of a proper American foreign policy which will be published in a future issue of LR.