A Libertarian Vision for Foreign Policy and National Defense
Reducing the size, scope, and expense of our military would make us safer—and lead to a more peaceful world.
Americans don’t like to think of their country as militaristic. Most believe in an America that uses military force only occasionally, and even then, righteously and as a last resort to extinguish threats to the homeland or to crush the enemies of progress. But the common perception is largely imaginary. We are, indeed, an exceptional nation—exceptionally bellicose.
Yet we don’t have to be. America’s extraordinarily interventionist approach to the world isn’t necessary to secure the national defense or a peaceful global order, which indeed it often undermines. A radically different foreign policy that eschews military intervention not directly tied to defending U.S. territory from external attack is not only possible but appropriate given our circumstances. Moreover, it would be consistent with libertarian values by cutting wasteful spending, shrinking a bloated and rights‐abusing military and national security apparatus, and limiting the exercise of force and coercion.
The outsize role of U.S. military intervention in the international system has its origins in the end of World War II. By 1945, the great powers in Europe and Asia were devastated from the battle against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. Compared with our allied victors, America was largely untouched by the ruin and therefore possessed immense relative power. The United States accounted for roughly half the world’s wealth and only 5 percent of the world’s population. Our advanced industrial base meant we had an enormous military capacity and a technological edge. For a time, we also had a monopoly on nuclear weapons.
Power held tends to be power wielded. Unlike after previous wars, the United States never fully demobilized following World War II. Memories of failed efforts in the interwar period to reform the international system, to establish international forums like the League of Nations, and to regulate relations between states to avoid destructive conflagrations like World War I spurred U.S. policymakers to build an international order with American military predominance as its anchor. The Soviet Union’s perceived postwar gains in Eurasia further pushed Washington to go on the offense.
Washington built up a colossal military‐industrial complex, extended security commitments to scores of allies and client states, deployed a permanent globe‐straddling overseas military presence, and relied on the frequent threat and use of force in pursuit of a wide range of perceived national interests, not merely to protect America’s physical security. Washington now defined U.S. national interests so broadly that virtually no region of the world was considered nonvital.
No longer would we canonize George Washington’s warning against entangling alliances or extol the counsel of John Quincy Adams that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” Now, policymakers decided, America had to go abroad, hunt monsters, and actively entangle itself in the internal affairs of other nations.
American activism in this period was truly without parallel. Throughout the bipolar Cold War rivalry, writes Kenneth Waltz, “the military forces of the United States and the Soviet Union remained in rough balance,” but “the interests we identified with our own were even more widely embracing than those of the Soviet Union,” and “in the roughly thirty years following 1946, the United States used military means in one way or another to intervene in the affairs of other countries about twice as often as did the Soviet Union.” 1
From 1946 to 2000, the United States meddled in foreign elections more than 80 times, often not on the side of the democrats. 2 That number does not include major covert regime change operations to overthrow democratically elected governments and impose dictatorships in their place, like in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, and beyond. In this new post–World War II era of America’s hyperinterventionist foreign policy, according to the RAND Corporation, “there was only one brief period—the four years immediately after U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam—during which the United States did not engage in any interventions abroad.” 3
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, thus dissolving Washington’s primary geopolitical threat, one might have expected the United States to scale back its military commitments and its penchant for fighting wars for the sake of peripheral interests. Instead, interventionism rapidly accelerated.
The United States has engaged in more military interventions in the past 30 years than it had in the preceding 190 years altogether. 4 In 2017, U.S. special operations forces were deployed to 149 countries. 5 Washington maintains a startling 800 military bases in more than 70 countries abroad. 6 We export more arms to foreign governments than any other nation in the world, often to the detriment of democracy and human rights. 7 We have spent roughly $15 trillion on the military since 1990, an enormous price tag that far exceeds what any other country has spent. 8
This is not an environment conducive to liberty and limited government, either at home or abroad.
War and government power are intimately connected. War, as writer Randolph Bourne famously put it, is the health of the state. 9 During times of war, the state centralizes power, raises taxes, proliferates bureaucracies, violates civil liberties, and usurps more control over the economy.
America’s earliest experiences with foreign conflict attest to that fact. In the Quasi‐War with France in 1798, Congress passed and President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which effectively criminalized free speech and empowered the president to deport noncitizens he deemed dangerous. Benjamin Franklin Bache, a journalist and the grandson of the famous Founding Father, was arrested for accusing the Adams administration of nepotism and monarchical ambition. Matthew Lyon, a member of Congress from Vermont, was indicted, fined, and sentenced to jail for writing an essay ridiculing the White House for its “pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.” 10
A little over a century later, in the jingoist zeal of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson formally asked Congress to enact a law targeting citizens “who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt.” 11 In 1917, Congress obliged, passing the Espionage Act, later amended by the Sedition Act, which prohibited “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government, the flag, or the armed forces—effectively making it illegal to criticize the war.
The law empowered the Post Office Department to withhold mailing privileges from publications that scrutinized the war effort. At least 75 different publications were effectively banned under this authority. 12 Eugene V. Debs, the well‐known political activist whom President Wilson called a “traitor to his country,” was imprisoned for speaking out against the military draft. One woman, Rose Pastor Stokes, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison for writing a letter to the editor of the Kansas City Star that said the government was allied with the war profiteers. She later successfully appealed, but more than 8,000 Americans faced imprisonment, deportation, and other forms of official repression during the war. 13
War not only spurs the growth of government power to the detriment of individual liberty, it also tends to generate a public fervor for state worship, in‐group superiority complexes, fear of “the other,” and a kind of nationalism that is slavishly unquestioning of authority.
In April 1918, a mob in St. Louis, Missouri, attacked a German American named Robert Prager when he tried to enlist in the navy. They wrapped him in the American flag and lynched him. The jury ultimately found the mob leaders not guilty, labeling it a case of “patriotic murder.” 14 Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, wartime exigencies also justified the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom were U.S. citizens, an affront to liberty that could only be perpetrated in a time of war.
During the most intense years of the Vietnam War, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon directed the Central Intelligence Agency to conduct illegal domestic surveillance and suppression tactics against a range of civil society groups and activists, particularly those that vocally opposed the war. Martin Luther King Jr.—who described the war as a perverse and cynical evil and pronounced his “own government” as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”—was among those domestic activists whose civil liberties were defiled by a rapacious wartime surveillance regime.
More recently, the government engaged in egregious wartime civil liberty abuses in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The Bush administration not only established a system of torture, rendition, and indefinite detention without trial for terrorist suspects but also secretly engaged in warrantless surveillance. The National Security Agency unlawfully collected the electronic communications of countless Americans, leading a DC District Court judge to exclaim in a ruling on the program, “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high‐tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen.” 15 He added that he had little doubt the agency’s program violated the Fourth Amendment, but the case was later dismissed because the plaintiff failed to establish standing.
As in past wars, executive power expanded in the post‐9/11 years. Congress passed two authorizations for the use of military force, in 2001 and again in 2002. Both were extremely broad and failed to impose serious limits on presidential war. Those authorities were intended to combat specific entities, like the terrorist group that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. The latter was obliterated in 2003 and the former has been substantially exhausted and hardly poses enough of a threat to justify a permanent war footing. Nevertheless, presidents continue to use those authorities as the legal basis for military action in at least 14 countries. 16
It’s not just active wars that tend to increase repression at home. A militarism below the threshold of actual warfare can shape society, culture, and governance in ways that diminish liberty and pervert domestic life. President Dwight Eisenhower warned in his 1961 farewell address about the pernicious “acquisition of unwarranted influence” in the “counsels of government … by the military‐industrial complex.” In the following decades, Ike’s prophecy of “the disastrous rise of misplaced power” came true. Defense corporations shrewdly dispersed their military manufacturing across many states and districts, creating constituents disproportionately dependent on high levels of military spending. They lobbied Congress to keep defense budgets unnecessarily high and have been so effective that high military spending is politically synonymous with patriotic duty.
Federal spending on the armed forces is so gratuitous that Congress passed a law in 1990 permitting the Department of Defense to transfer “excess” military equipment to local law enforcement. In other words, Congress was allocating so much money to the Pentagon that even the most activist military in the world had more stuff than it knew what to do with. The transfer program led to a rapid militarization of local police forces across the country, where cops are fitted with gear more appropriate for soldiers in the battle for Fallujah than for traffic stops on Main Street.
This program has had baleful effects on civil liberties and domestic tranquility, particularly in how it has intensified enforcement of the drug war. Law enforcement agencies conduct about 20,000 SWAT team raids into residential homes every year, about 20 times the number in 1980, when the overall crime rate was 40 percent higher than it is now. The vast majority of these raids are intended to execute a search warrant related to illicit drugs, but forced‐entry SWAT raids find drugs only about 25 percent of the time. 17
The foregoing describes the second‐order effects that a state of war can have on government power and domestic liberty. But nothing is more anti‐liberty than actual warfare. War itself is the antithesis of peace, and liberty is impossible without peace. The prevailing view in Washington is that U.S. foreign policy since 1945 has fortified global stability and freedom. But those on the receiving end of U.S. violence would probably have a very different view.
In the Korean War, for which the Truman administration refused to seek congressional authority as required by the Constitution, U.S. forces carpet‐bombed much of the North, including with 32,000 tons of napalm, often deliberately leveling civilian as well as military targets. Air Force General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, later nonchalantly admitted, “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off—what—20 percent of the population.” 18 Even acknowledging the broader aim of the war—to halt the advance of the totalitarian communist regime in the North—doesn’t excuse the slaughter. After all, the purported normative justification—protecting democracy in South Korea—was not even a war aim: the U.S.-backed South Korean regime was a dictatorship until the late 1980s.
Mass murder doesn’t enhance liberty. The Vietnam War killed more than 2.5 million people for no good reason. In classified internal documents, U.S. officials conceded as early as 1964 that most of the rationale for continued U.S. involvement was to avoid the humiliation of defeat, not to halt the spread of communism or make life better for the South Vietnamese—and certainly not to protect the United States from imminent threats. 19 And yet between 1965 and 1968, the United States dropped 32 tons of bombs per hour on North Vietnam. Throughout the war, the United States dropped more munitions in Southeast Asia than it had dropped in all theaters of combat throughout the whole of World War II, adding up to about 640 Hiroshima‐sized atomic bombs. 20
The same kind of preoccupations that kept us fighting an unwinnable war in Vietnam are keeping us fighting an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. Now the longest war in U.S. history, the nation‐building mission in Afghanistan has failed to quell the Taliban insurgency or to establish a viable regime in Kabul. Since 2009, almost 30,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, and more than 52,000 injured, in a futile effort that bears little on the physical security of the United States. 21
The Bush administration’s war in Iraq was an obscene, depraved act of naked aggression. Historian and former Kennedy administration adviser Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described it as a war crime and likened it to the attack on Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japan. 22 Every initial security‐oriented justification for the war—including that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction and was allied with al Qaeda—was conclusively falsified not long after the invasion, with plenty of evidence indicating that the administration had cherry‐picked intelligence and misrepresented the facts to generate public support for an elective war. Post hoc justifications centered on replacing a vicious dictatorship with a vibrant democracy, an excuse so transparently ludicrous it hardly merits refutation. Tyranny still reigns in Iraq and across the region, and it receives considerable support from Washington. In the end, the war destabilized the entire Middle East, generated more jihadist terrorism, cost trillions of dollars, killed hundreds of thousands of people, injured millions, and failed miserably by every conceivable metric. U.S. military action is still being deployed in the region to manage the fallout of this colossal fiasco.
Supporters of America’s activist foreign policy would criticize the above viewpoint as one‐sided. These costs and mistakes, they believe, are the price we pay for being the indispensable nation, stabilizing the international system, and policing the world’s problems so that other, less enlightened countries don’t have to.
The reality is that this activism has not made us, or the world, freer or safer.
It is true that this period of U.S. foreign policy activism has coincided with a period of fewer interstate conflicts and greater international stability, but the causes of this Long Peace, as political scientists call it, are varied and originate from trends exogenous to Washington’s designs.
Scholars point to the existence of nuclear weapons and the enhanced destructive capacity of modern conventional military power as having deterred great‐power conflict in this era. Others argue that the forces of globalization, increased economic interdependence, and expanding wealth have given states both more to lose from war and more peaceful options for pursuing the national interest. Still others suggest that a gradual normative shift has occurred in how most of civilization sees war: as an immoral barbarity rather than a glorified ideal. Relatedly, states may also be constrained by the legal regimes and norms embedded in international institutions, which reinforce the taboo on aggression and bolster respect for territorial integrity. Other forces—like the proliferation of democratic systems and improved information flows—can also have pacifying effects.
Together, these trend lines are a far more persuasive explanation for today’s lower rates of international violence than America’s wanton military interventionism and its often‐bumbling execution of its global cop role. We could eliminate a great deal of this foreign policy activism and still enjoy relative peace and stability.
National defense is almost universally considered a necessary and legitimate function of government. Some libertarian anarchists, like Michael Huemer, argue that nongovernment forms of societal defense, like guerrilla warfare and mass nonviolent resistance, could be workable alternatives for fending off foreign attack or invasion. 23 Huemer rightly points out that having a big powerful military doesn’t necessarily translate into victory in war. The United States failed against conventionally weaker networks of guerrilla resistance fighters in Vietnam and Afghanistan, for example.
However, while guerrilla warfare can raise the costs to more powerful military occupiers, the costs borne on behalf of the indigenous society in these types of conflicts are typically orders of magnitude higher. It is much better to possess enough military power to deter adversary states from contemplating attack in the first place.
Some states do have very minimal military postures and seem to be quite successful. Political scientist John Mueller provocatively posits the “Costa Rica option” for the United States. Costa Rica abolished its military in 1948, and, Mueller argues, “the United States is, not unlike Costa Rica, substantially free from security threats that require the maintenance of large numbers of military forces‐in‐being.” Mueller suggests that a minimalist, rather than nonexistent, national military force that preserved America’s nuclear arsenal could deter foreign attack while putting a leash on interventionism. 24 Cutting active‐duty forces from each branch of service by roughly one‐third, scaling down the Pentagon’s civilian workforce by 30 percent, halving the nuclear arsenal, and reducing the number of aircraft carriers, navy destroyers, fighter jets, and other expensive weapons systems would be a modest first step toward this considerably more restrained posture. 25
Switzerland might be a more appropriate model. Switzerland formally established neutrality in 1815 and has maintained that posture ever since. Like the United States, Switzerland benefits from protective geography, surrounded as it is by mountainous terrain that has served as an obstacle to foreign attack throughout history. The Swiss military focuses on strict defense of the territory. Switzerland spends less than 1 percent of its gross domestic product on defense and declines any membership in military alliances or multinational warfighting structures. However, the country has not let this noninterventionism translate into isolationism. Swiss foreign policy is centered on improving its own economic well‐being by pursuing international trade agreements and engaging in robust diplomacy when appropriate. 26
Broadly speaking, the United States should adopt a noninterventionist approach to foreign policy. That means withdrawing from the hundreds of military bases and outposts America has overseas. It means spending hundreds of billions of dollars less per year on the military. It means extricating ourselves from our multifarious security commitments and ongoing hostilities and returning to a constitutionally bounded conception of war powers that balances the commander in chief’s responsibility to repel sudden attacks and execute wars with Congress’s power to authorize military action. It means letting other countries handle local problems, from deterring hostile states to mitigating regional instability and the effects of civil conflicts. It means abandoning policies purported to export democracy and promote liberalism, whether through the proverbial barrel of a gun or shoveling money into other countries’ internal politics. It also means cutting off the support we give to authoritarian regimes all over the world. Essentially, it means forsaking the fatuous idea that America is Earth’s indispensable nation with a divine mission to police the world and save it from villainy and damnation.
The purpose of American foreign policy should be, simply, to protect our sovereign territory from external attack and to shield our domestic affairs from foreign machinations that might undermine our halting, imperfect, ongoing experiment in republican government. A robust and active diplomacy should maintain friendly relations with allies, engage constructively with adversaries where possible, and pursue U.S. economic interests. But military force should be reserved for extreme circumstances that threaten core security interests.
Any mandate beyond that risks doing the work of our foreign enemies for them. As John Quincy Adams put it: if America goes down the path of global dominion, “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 colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.… She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” 27
At the very least, dispensing with the superfluous, counterproductive, and downright immoral policies of the national security state would free up an enormous amount of money and labor. Over the past generation, American taxpayers have spent more on national security than the citizens of any other country. The Department of Defense is the largest employer in the world, keeping more than 3.2 million people busy. 28 Thousands of government organizations and private contractors work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence. 29 If all that money and human capital could stay in the productive sectors of the private economy, devoted to providing products and services to consumers instead of pursuing destructive foreign policy adventures and chasing threats that don’t exist, we would all be better off.
Many new technologies invite opportunities for a reduced U.S. military posture. Innovations have increased the destructive capacity of modern conventional militaries in ways that arguably have pacifying effects on the international system. Because tanks, bombers, advanced artillery, and intercontinental ballistic missiles are widely dispersed among states, they raise the costs of war and generally make conquest harder. In this environment, states tend to focus more on defense than on offense. Nonoffensive weapons, like sophisticated missile defense systems, further reduce the need for active overseas military efforts to defend against perceived threats.
Evolving military technologies continue to spread rapidly in ways that make power more diffuse and erect obstacles to U.S. foreign policy activism. Improvements in robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and nanotechnology are making it easier and cheaper for small, weak states and even nonstate actors to obtain military hardware and sophisticated weapons, from jet engines to autonomous armed drones. 30 That capability could make it harder for the United States to assert its military dominance in distant regions unopposed.
But such technologies also invite opportunities for more repression and state power. Drones enabled the Obama administration to conduct air wars in numerous countries largely in secret and without oversight, because Americans were not directly on the battlefield and the technology is easy and cheap enough to deploy that voters felt no cost or risk and therefore no concern. Cyberweapons and internet technology also aggrandize state power, particularly in the realm of surveillance.
Radically rethinking the U.S. role in the world, reducing long‐standing security commitments, and reversing many decades of rapid growth in the national security state may seem like an implausible list of distant fantasies in the current moment. But retrenchment is not all that rare; in fact, throughout history it is “the most common response to decline,” according to political scientists Paul K. MacDonald and Joseph M. Parent. 31
And decline—that is, decline in economic and military power relative to other states—is certainly upon us. Compared with the middle of the past century, when the United States accounted for roughly 50 percent of global economic output, today it accounts for only 15 percent, and the downward trend is likely to continue. America remains predominant in overall military power, but military capability does not reliably translate into global influence, especially in a context in which nuclear bombs, modern weaponry, the forces of nationalism, economic interdependence, and international laws and norms make war an increasingly futile method of pursuing the national interest.
The United States is remarkably insulated from external threats, and its role as the guarantor of the so‐called international order is not necessary—and, indeed, is often counterproductive—to maintain global peace and stability. A narrow set of interests—confined primarily to defense of U.S. territory—should therefore determine America’s military posture. Pulling away from existing security commitments and active conflicts, however, doesn’t mean we should retreat into an isolationist Fortress America. Free trade, immigration, and robust international diplomacy should drive Washington’s engagement with the world.
Americans have lived with excessive foreign policy activism for so long that it feels like an essential element of who we are and what we must do in the world. It is not. The logistical and practical challenges of extricating ourselves from our overseas garrisons, our entanglements in distant disputes, and our ongoing wars pale in comparison with the intellectual challenge of acknowledging that they are in fact expendable policies. Making that case is the first step in realizing a future foreign policy that is grounded in the ideas of political liberty and limited government.
5. Nick Turse, “Donald Trump’s First Year Set a Record for Use of Special Operations Forces,” Nation, December 14, 2017.
6. John Glaser, “Withdrawing from Overseas Bases: Why a Forward‐Deployed Military Posture Is Unnecessary, Outdated, and Dangerous,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 816, July 18, 2017.
7. Caroline Dorminey and Trevor Thrall, “Risky Business: The Role of Arms Sales in U.S. Foreign Policy,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 836, March 13, 2018.
8. Office of Management and Budget, “Historical Table 8.2—Outlays by Budget Enforcement Act Category in Constant (FY2009) Dollars: 1962–2022.” From FY1990 to FY2017, the U.S. government incurred $14.3673 trillion worth of outlays for the national defense. This estimate is in constant FY2009 dollars.
9. Randolph Bourne, The State, ca. 1918. Published posthumously.
10. John Chester Miller, Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts (Boston: Little, Brown, 1951).
19. Mai Elliott, RAND in Southeast Asia: A History of the Vietnam War Era (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010), p. 75; “Draft Memorandum from John McNaughton to Robert McNamara, ‘Proposed Course of Action Re: Vietnam,’” March 24, 1965, in The Pentagon Papers, Gravel edition, vol. 3, ed. Mike Gravel (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), pp. 694–702.
20. Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013), p. 79.
23. Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. 288–320.
24. John Mueller, “Embracing Threatlessness: US Military Spending, Newt Gingrich, and the Costa Rica Option,” in U.S. Grand Strategy in the 21st Century: The Case for Restraint, ed. A. Trevor Thrall and Benjamin H. Friedman (New York: Routledge, 2018), pp. 198–219.