This week we’re joined by Christopher A. Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. We ask whether there exists a single libertarian foreign policy that all libertarians would agree with; talk about the idea that war powers, resolutions, and laws passed during wartime don’t recede in times of peace; give a quick rundown of American military history; and discuss the rise of a permanent private industry supplying the military.
When should the United States go to war? When did the American military really start to get massive? How much do we spend on the military today? Relative to recent history? Is the military open to the same kinds of critiques that libertarians make about other government programs?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Christopher Preble’s 2014 book, co-editied with John Mueller, A Dangerous World?: Threat Perception and U.S. National Security features a collection of essays examining and questioning the most frequently-referenced dangers to American security.
Bruce Porter’s book War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics (1994).
Robert Higgs’s book Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (1987), in which he establishes the principle of the ratchet effect.
Ted Galen Carpenter and Malou Innocent’s new book Perilous Partners: The Benefits and Pitfalls of America’s Alliances with Authoritarian Regimes (2015).
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: And today we’re joined by our colleague Christopher A. Preble. He’s Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies here at the Cato Institute.
As we sometimes do on Free Thoughts, we will ask easy or obvious or potentially just dumb questions with the first one being like, “What is foreign policy?” I mean we have – is it just anything that has to do with other countries? We have trade policy people here and we have the global liberty and prosperity people. So what makes foreign policy different from what other people are doing?
Christopher Preble: Well, it’s not a stupid question. I’m glad you asked because I see foreign policy in my narrow sense of the term, that is my job and the people who I work with in my corner of the Cato Institute, is the US government’s interactions with other governments and people.
This is crucial because US foreign policy is actually more than that and that includes trade and international development and kind of the spread of ideas that is primarily and I think many libertarians would agree should not really be the role of the US government, right?
The US government has certain responsibilities to protect American security, to advance the interests of the country and so its interactions, its formal interactions with other governments all fall in the realm of foreign policy or diplomacy, right?
Diplomacy is another way to describe this. But I do think that ignoring the other aspects of a country’s foreign policy that are not conducted by the government is a real mistake, is a real problem, and I think that a lot of the times when people kind of misconstrue or don’t fully understand what Cato’s approach to foreign policy is, they ignore the other things that we expect people to do, government and businesses to do, individuals, et cetera, which in a broader sense really is foreign policy but it’s not the US government’s foreign policy.
Trevor Burrus: Is there a libertarian foreign policy? A lot of people think that libertarians have a pretty predictable almost pacifist – we get accused of a lot of things. So is there one libertarian foreign policy?
Christopher Preble: I don’t think there is one libertarian foreign policy. I do think that because war is the health of the state, the cliché, because the cliché happens to be true, I think that libertarians tend to be more skeptical of warfare than others.
Now you can argue that everyone is skeptical of warfare, virtually everyone. But I think that there’s a pretty clear kind of philosophical, logical train that says libertarians are less inclined to go to war because they see the growth of the state during times of war and others who are not libertarians might share the object of kind of peace.
But they see some of the consolidating effects of war in growing the power of the state as sort of a salutary sort of byproduct and of course they would rarely go forward and make a case of war on those terms but they don’t look at the side effects of war in the same way that we do as generally a bad thing.
The fact is the US government or any government grows during war time and very rarely returns those powers to the states and the people when the war ends. So that’s a pretty common thread that connects libertarian foreign policy over many, many years.
Aaron Ross Powell: When you say it grows and doesn’t return those powers, what kinds of growth, what kinds of powers are we talking about?
Christopher Preble: Well, just in a very broad sense, the people become accustomed to government playing a larger role during war time and then sort of accept what would previously have been seen as intrusions or abridgments of their freedom and liberty and sort of become acclimated to it.
Trevor Burrus: I think that you mentioned that war is the health of the state and I think that’s an interesting way of sort of expounding upon the way we look at foreign policy. What does that actually mean, the – that war is the health of the state?
Christopher Preble: Well, at its most basic level, states, nation states, governments exist to wage war, at least to prevent security threats or to reduce security threats. So if you go back to the – where governments grew up over in human history, it was a security function above all else.
So when – and when they exercise that power, when they are – whether it’s a legitimate exercise or whether it’s merely a sort of – for show as an excuse again to grow their power, they get larger. They become more capable. They acquire more resources, taxes and people and what not.
I mean there are so many serious instances of this. The few cases I like to cite are the growth of taxation during war time in the United States. Milton Friedman was responsible for federal income tax withholding when he was working for the federal government in 1942, 1943 to make it easier for the federal government to raise money through income taxes which prior to that time impacted a very small number of Americans.
There was a federal excise tax imposed on long distance telephone calls to pay for the Spanish-American war. That war lasted about six months. The excise tax lasted about a hundred years.
So I mean – and there are many, many other cases. But I do think – so those individual cases you can cite and it’s sort of funny. But the bigger picture is even more important to me. Bruce Porter who wrote I think quite a good book called War and the Rise of the State points out that the non-military spending during World War Two by the federal government, by US federal government rose faster than spending during the new deal, right?
So yes, of course most people focus on the enormous increase in military expenditures that occur during World War Two for obvious reasons and obviously the federal government as a whole grew much – grew dramatically during those years.
But again, we accepted a level of government taxation and spending that prior to that time would have just been unheard of in – except in times of great crisis and prior to World War Two would have been a civil war.
Aaron Ross Powell: We’ve got a handful of questions about how much we spend on the military and how wasteful some of that spending may be or much of it may be. But before we get to that, so the way that libertarians often talk about what the government is up to, that when we talk about this particular program is inefficient or it’s not accomplishing what it’s setting out to. It’s spending more than it should and we have a list of reasons why this sort of thing is typical.
But it feels like people on – I mean both the left and the right and just in general in America talk about the military differently than we talk about other government programs. We treat it as not just that it has a different mission than say the FDA or the Department of Agriculture but that at some fundamental level, it’s just a different thing entirely.
Is that true and does that impact the way that we critique it? Is the military open to the same kinds of critiques that libertarians make against other government agencies, other government programs?
Christopher Preble: The military is subject to the same critiques that libertarians make of other government programs with one crucial exception, which is that nearly everyone including most libertarians agree that security is an essential function of government.
There is no disputing that the powers granted to the federal government are about – security is probably the most important of them and I like to joke that in the constitution, I don’t have to search very far to find provisions for raising an army, maintaining a navy. I have to search really hard to find the justification for the Department of Agriculture. I’ve yet to find it in its strictest sense of the term.
So I think that there are – the mere fact that the military is specified, delineated in the document and again the whole purpose of government going back to the founding of governments in human history is about military protection.
All of the other things that have come since then, you can – people can justify them and we can criticize and scrutinize them but you find far fewer people who question the role of the state at some basic level and providing security. You find few. You find some. I’m not disputing that.
But because there are so few of them relative to a much larger number who may criticize the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Labor and go on and on, and therefore you open up a whole panoply of critiques of these other agencies that you don’t have with respect to the military.
Trevor Burrus: Other than what you mentioned about that, the one different thing about the military, being a core function of the government, it’s – internally it’s a bureaucracy that overspends and has public choice problems and doesn’t do things correctly like other bureaucracies [0:10:00] and it’s one of these things that it seems that republicans think that you can – the government can’t run the healthcare system but they can set up another country.
Christopher Preble: Correct.
Aaron Ross Powell: But that’s what I meant in the weird, interesting way that we talk about it differently because even if we recognize that you don’t hear people refer to people in the military as bureaucrats. You don’t get the like – well, of course this particular department has – is interested in its own growth and there’s all these incentives even at the lowest level to inflate budgets and all that. We don’t – we act as if the military is more honorable.
Trevor Burrus: And we also don’t introduce FDA employees at football games and have them march across the field and everyone applaud them as they get on airplanes. That’s another way we treat them differently.
Christopher Preble: So I think you’ve both hit on the fact that we as a society treat members of the military differently than we do members of any other federal agency or department and I think partly that’s a function of this kind of common understanding of the role of government, but I also think that it’s a function of a kind of culture in American history that has evolved and changed over time in a way that I think many of the founders would be frankly rather horrified by.
The idea of celebrating not nearly – well, the military is an institution but also the individual members of the military. Now, I have to quickly add. I used to be in the military. I served in the military and absolutely no regrets and I still support people who – and to choose to join the military and I think that looking at these individuals on a case by case basis, I think many of them do join for the “right reasons,” which is patriotism and a commitment to service in addition to the other benefits they derive from volunteering just as I did.
I volunteered buy they paid for my college. That was the deal, right? That was in maybe ROTC. But I do think it’s interesting and important to draw a distinction between how we interpret people’s decision to join the military as both a function of service and out of self-interest and motives and yet we tend not to ascribe a service component to those who join the – we’re going to pick on the Department of Ag today just for the heck of it.
It’s the A in the alphabet and I think that’s worth pondering, right? As a society. I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong. I just think it’s worth talking about. So that’s what we’re talking about today.
Trevor Burrus: It’s similar – I think the other professions you get this is – are police officers obviously which are somewhat military-ish and teachers to some extent to, the idea that they’re heroes or fire fighters, servants of some kind, but not the guy who puts his papers around the department of agriculture, that poor guy. The military has those people too.
Let’s go back to the – I wanted to get to the spending but we kind of broached on it with the war is the health of the state aspect. We live in an incredibly – well, we have a very big military and we can explain how big that is. But we haven’t always had a big military and I feel like for the 20th century the first moment is really – World War One was a pretty big watershed moment or maybe before that, there are important moments but we have a – can we do a rundown of American military history, getting to how we got to where we are now?
Christopher Preble: Right. I mean of course the largest war in American history still is the Civil War because you have to count both sides if you’re counting it accurately and it resulted in a dramatic expansion of federal power and it also I think planted the seeds for the modern welfare state because the care of veterans but also widows formed the – kind of the foundation of [0:14:01] [Inaudible] men and children and their successors and again that’s not a phenomenon unique to the United States than most – you know, many other modern industrial countries can point to providing care for veterans and widows.
So you can see again why war is the health of the state. However, during World War One, there was a fairly systematic and aggressive approach to coordinating resources in a way that was not even – that did not occur at the time of the Civil War. So you had the federal government reaching down into industries in a way that it hadn’t before and then I do think that early model from World War One period was rolled out again during World War Two a bit easier because they had the practice as it were in the late – in 1917, 1918.
Crucially, however, in the 1920s, the United States did dramatically draw down its military. The United States supervised a far-reaching plan for controlling the arms race of the day which was naval armaments and so after each major conflict even though you do have this kind of – the ratchet effect as Bob Higgs calls it of the government growing and the military acquiring more.
But you also – but it’s not a perfect ratchet. It actually did click down again after each of the major conflicts. The difference in many respects was World War Two where the military became very, very large. I guess the high point is around 12 or 13 million people in uniform roughly. That number sticks in my head, which is just unprecedented in US history and of course all the other countries fighting in World War Two was far greater than that.
We actually did draw down after World War Two but then because of the closed timing of the Cold War, we forget that there was a drawdown after World War Two but we remember that basically after Korea, it stayed high for the entire Cold War period.
By staying high, we mean that we had a permanent armament industry as Eisenhower famously talked about in his farewell address and that it was unique in American history. Prior to that point in time in the 50s and 60s, we did not have large sectors of the US economy that were primarily organized around providing implements of war and material for the military.
After the onset of the Cold War, that changed. So you did have a shift in kind of the relationships of power in terms of the economic effects and benefits for some sectors of the economy in a way that made it hard to draw down again as we had after the war.
Trevor Burrus: And what are the numbers on that now in terms of just the raw numbers?
Christopher Preble: In terms of raw numbers, there are two statistics that I think are the most important. The advocates for more military spending routinely point to defense spending as a share of GDP and as a share of GDP, defense spending has been steadily declining since Vietnam. There’s an uptick obviously around the time of the Iraq War as you would expect. But the simple fact is the economy has grown so much faster than the rate of growth in the military that as a share of GDP, it has declined and now it’s around three percent actually, just above three percent and projected to go below three in the latter half of this decade as compared to 25 percent during World War Two and averaged around 10 or 11 percent during the 1950s.
So that’s a relevant statistic and I think it’s important to point that out. The other relevant statistic I think is real expenditures and inflation-adjusted dollars and today’s military is actually more expensive than the average cost of the military during the Cold War.
This is quite striking. The military is smaller in terms of numbers of people than it was during the Cold War and is smaller in terms of numbers of platforms, ships, planes, et cetera, and yet the dollar costs have risen even when you adjust for inflation. The reasons why are I think fairly obvious. One, we moved away from the draft and so you have to pay people more and you have to give them more benefits in order to incentivize them to join and stay and crucially, we buy fewer plane, ships and what not. But those units have far greater capabilities than the old ones.
So it’s simply impossible to make a comparison between a modern warship of today and a warship of the 50s or 30s. So I think it’s worth sort of pondering the rate of growth and the growth of military spending, but also to pay attention to the effectiveness, what you’re actually getting for what you’re paying and I think we don’t spend nearly enough time talking about that.
Aaron Ross Powell: How much of these increased costs and the amount that we’re spending – I mean so these things, these warships, these planes, these are being made by a private industry and you talked about how this rise of a permanent private industry supplying the military is relatively new. How much of the massive size of our military, the massive cost of our military is driven by the existence of that sector?
So obviously that sector really wants to sell more planes and sell more expensive planes and is always out there talking generals and other folks into what you really need is this thing that’s super expensive. So how much of it is driven by that and how much of it is driven by people in government, people in the military, saying we need planes and ships that have these capabilities no matter the cost or we need to [0:20:00] be spending more?
Trevor Burrus: Aaron’s question reminds me of the fact that when I go to work every day on the metro – I live in a place called Pentagon City which is – you might guess is right next to the Pentagon and in the metro, they have ads for F-35s. You might want to take it home with you. There’s something that says a lot about that, to people walking by. Just like Lockheed Martin, like protecting America. It’s like who are they selling this to?
Christopher Preble: Right.
Christopher Preble: The answer Aaron is both, that you have an industry that has grown up around providing for the military and it has learned certain skills that allow it to continue selling to the US military and it has gotten very good at it. And there are a handful of companies that are extraordinarily dependent upon military spending above all else. They do not have an appreciable domestic or commercial segment at all.
But there is also the problem – but they cannot impose requirements on the military and procurement officers or what not. The requirements ultimately are established by civilians, by the civilian leadership and I think this is a crucial question. It’s like not – what are we asking – what is it that we ask our military to do? What do we expect it to do?
So for all the talk and there you can just imagine there’s a lot about reforming the military, reducing its cost and what not and everyone goes back to the same thing. We have a problem with requirements, create the requirements, grow. There’s not enough pressure and incentives to limit the cost growth, et cetera, and yet no one can come up with a workable solution to this problem.
Therefore partly just out of practical considerations, myself and Friedman and others of us here at Cato who work mostly on defense policy issues, we do tend to focus more on the rationales than on the implementation, right? More on the big picture questions than, “Is the F-35 worth it?” which I’ve also written about but …
Trevor Burrus: Can you give me the crib sheet on that one?
Christopher Preble: The crib sheet is …
Trevor Burrus: No.
Christopher Preble: The crib sheet is no. The really truly embarrassing part of this is that once upon a time, I thought the answer was yes. So you all can look – you can go and look to search for my paper on the Joint Strike Fighter and say, “Well, Preble got that one badly wrong.”
But anyway, there are so many different elements of this vast military machine that – and again, no shortage of people scrutinizing each one of those elements. I think the most important part for us, for me and for those of us here at Cato is really to focus on the big picture.
What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Are we, the United States of America, the US military, the only ones who can? If you explored those much bigger questions, much harder questions, then you actually could generate pretty substantial savings because you’re talking about a very, very different military than the one we have today.
Aaron Ross Powell: Well then let’s turn to those questions because if you listen to politicians talk and especially politicians on the right, you get the sense that OK, so yeah, our military is very expensive. It’s very large.
But we need that because this is a dangerous world. The good guys except for the United States are relatively weak militarily, have small militaries. The bad guys are either of the sort that you need a big military to stop them because they’re everywhere or they have big militaries themselves like China and so if we don’t have this, then the world is going to be in serious trouble.
Christopher Preble: Right. Let’s bracket China just for a minute. OK? We’re going to treat that as its own –
Christopher Preble: We’re going to put that off to the side. I think this is the crux of the debate between those of us who advocate what we call restrain or offshore balancing or something like that and non-interventionism and everyone else. OK? Everyone else believes that international order hinges on American military power ultimately.
They agree. There are other things that are important but when it really comes down to brass tacks, it’s about the ability of the US military to fight and win wars because others are weak. Our friends are weak. The good guys are weak and because they claim the bad guys are really strong.
Bracketing China for the moment, the rest of the guys are not strong. They’re actually quite weak. It has been – especially this past week. It has been truly disconcerting to realize how much time and effort we have spent talking about Iran, a country with a truly inept military in every sense of the word at a time when China, the second largest economy in the world, is sucking the entire world down potentially into yet another economic catastrophe.
But then there’s the question. The other side of the issue is, “Why are the good guys weak? Why are our friends weak?” They’re not that weak, right? Even if we talk about Japan which is the third largest economy in the world and they spend only one percent of their GDP on defense, one percent of the third largest economy in the world is a lot of money and they actually have a pretty capable military, all things considered. Our neo [Phonetic] allies don’t spend as much as I think they should or certainly as much as they could but they’re not militarily weak. They’re not militarily weak when compared even to Russia which looks big and strong but which is not big and strong.
My argument is that to the extent that this – our friends are not particularly strong or more importantly not inclined to use their power, it’s because we’ve discouraged them from doing so. And I think that if we thought more seriously about burden shifting, not merely burden sharing, we would see them play a greater role in their respective regions and ultimately be in a stronger position to help us when we need it.
Last point on this, when we embarked on this project of discouraging other countries from defending themselves after World War Two, I think it made a lot of sense. We were really strong and they were not and they were not in a position to stand up to the Soviet Union and not long afterwards the People’s Republic of China.
But now they’re rich and they are certainly capable of standing up to these countries, especially collectively, not one by one, each on their own. So I think we’re in a different time today than we were certainly 25 years ago at the end of the Cold War or 50 years ago and yet we haven’t revisited this basic bargain. The basic bargain being we agree to defend them, they agree to let us. And if I were in their position, I would do exactly the same thing.
Trevor Burrus: Should we be afraid of a more militarized world, more equitably militarized world creating a World War One type situation? Should we be afraid of a militarized Germany or is the co-dependency in trade economically just too big right now?
Christopher Preble: I certainly believe that the co-dependency in trade and other factors is greater today than it was even at the time of World War One. People pointed out the time of World War One, the two leading trading countries were Germany and the UK, Great Britain.
So trade did not prevent them from going to war with one another and so you can certainly overdo the argument that economic interdependence prevents war. But I do think that the costs of going to war have risen dramatically in large measure because of economic interdependence and other things like nuclear weapons which we shouldn’t look past.
The other factor which didn’t exist at the time of World War One or even certainly at the time of World War One is people just didn’t appreciate the – just how horrific war actually was. They had sort of forgotten. They had fought some cheap short wars in the 1870s and 1880s and they sort of forgot.
Christopher Preble: It just lasted a couple of weeks and people were like, oh, this is a piece of cake. And so just the collective experience of war especially in Europe and Asia was so devastating that I think it raised the cost. People kind of have – acquired a new appreciation for the cost of going to war, which seemed on the surface that it could not possibly outweigh whatever benefits they would derive and then you add to that nuclear weapons which is – turns it up to 11. So the bottom line is I don’t fear arms races in the same way that I would have in an earlier era.
But I also think that some measure of self-defense is more credible over time than a single country pledging to defend every country forever. Again, it was – I think it was a perfectly reasonable argument to make in the 50s and 60s. But it becomes harder and harder to sustain over time. To think that the American people will treat an attack on Poland – no disrespect to my Polish friends – as the same way they would to Portland where I grew up, right?
I mean it’s harder and harder to believe that Americans will treat that and I think it’s harder and harder to believe that polls will believe that Americans will treat it that way and I think that drives in the direction of more self-reliance, more self-help, which is one of the classic kind of realist, components of realist thinking in international relationship.
Trevor Burrus: Your point about forgetting the destruction of war is fascinating to me because I noticed a trend in studying history that at the beginning of many wars, [0:30:00] people think that A, it’s going to be easy and B possibly even fun. That was definitely World War One kind of like the British. Like, oh, let’s go off to the continent and give Jerry a drumming and we will be home by Christmas kind of thing.
Aaron Ross Powell: Or camping out on the hills to watch …
Trevor Burrus: Or even Iraq and that’s – I think probably Vietnam and maybe that’s a thing we can talk about especially with our vision of our own military might, that any war we should be able to win with one arm tied behind our back to the point that we’re literally watching the bombing of a city on the news and enjoying – I mean this is pretty depraved …
Christopher Preble: It’s a spectator sport. It has become a spectator sport because so few people, so few Americans are affected by it directly.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. So we can push buttons and military action is – we have fewer casualties here because we’re killing people with lasers or whatever.
Christopher Preble: Not yet.
Trevor Burrus: Not yet.
Christopher Preble: It’s coming.
Trevor Burrus: Soon enough and then we’re watching these things on – and we’re all thinking it’s easy and this seems like a very dangerous mindset and one that historically – has a long historic history to it.
Christopher Preble: Yes. So the wars on the surface, they get easier because of technology but then when they’re actually fought, we’re reminded that war at the end of the day is about killing people and breaking things and to achieve victory, to achieve a political end.
I do think – I think it’s worth pondering the kind of technological advances in unmanned vehicles like drones and things like that, which further reduce the likelihood of Americans being killed. Not just American citizens because they’re virtually never subject to harm during warfare but even – not risking the lives of American pilots any longer.
So if war becomes too easy, we don’t talk about it enough, then I think that it’s worth – again, it’s worth pondering. It doesn’t say that it’s never right but I do think we have a challenge in that so few people are directly affected by the wars we wage.
Trevor Burrus: I have a good trivia question for you and also for our listeners. Who was the last person to invade the United States? Pancho Villa.
Christopher Preble: Pancho Villa. That’s very good, that’s very good, that’s very good.
Trevor Burrus: People remember who that one is.
Aaron Ross Powell: How do we counter that then? Because I mean so the obvious one would be well then let’s start sending ordinary Americans off to witness wars but doesn’t seem like a terribly good idea and we probably don’t want to roll back the technology that allows us to fight wars with fewer casualties to Americans.
Christopher Preble: Right.
Aaron Ross Powell: Is there a way to this – because it does seem like there’s this American cultural trend of like – to a troubling degree a lot of Americans seem to think violence is awesome and that it’s fun and that we see this in the issues around policing too, like the busting heads is cool. And we – the way we glorify the military and the excitement we get at watching the bombing campaigns on the news does seem profoundly troubling and it allows people to – like really militaristic candidates to stir up support by basically promising to go to war. So how do we fight that in a non-destructive way?
Christopher Preble: Well, I do think we shouldn’t look past the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on American public sentiments because I think that unlike the first Gulf War, where people thought that every war is going to be like the first Gulf War which lasts a couple of weeks or a couple of hours depending upon how you count it, Iraq and Afghanistan have reminded us that wars are really hard. Winning decisively is really hard even against small, weak countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.
But that does not prevent candidates from saying, “I would have fought the war better. I will fight the next war better,” and you see a sort of ebb and flow of public sentiments towards warfare as they get farther and farther away from the last [0:33:53] [Inaudible].
But ultimately, I think the answer is much greater discipline on the part of our leaders and that’s not a very satisfying answer because it really does hinge on a fairly small number of people acting in a responsible way because the simple fact is that foreign policy is not particularly salient to most Americans. It is not a very high priority for them and therefore they’re not going to hold politicians to account at the ballot box except in very rare instances. But because we’re entrusting a small number of men and women with enormous power, I think there is a great responsibility for them to wield it in a responsible way.
What I’ve suggested and others have suggested is some set of criteria that describe the circumstances when the United States will go to war and they don’t have to be so limiting that there’s never – you don’t want to signal to the – the argument is you don’t want to signal to the enemy too clearly when you will or will not use force. So it’s really a set of criteria, a set of considerations when should you use force. And I’ve proposed some – the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine from many years ago is still kicking around and so …
Trevor Burrus: What is that?
Christopher Preble: It was a set of criteria. Caspar Weinberger who was Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense after Vietnam but especially after the Beirut bombings in 1982, 1983 said we will lay down a set of criteria that include – will have a clear national interest. There would be a clear military mission that there’s – we use overwhelming force. There’s strong support for it and a set of criteria like that. Colin Powell who was Weinberger’s aid at the time, then adapted that even further when he was national security adviser.
So it’s just – it’s a list of criteria. I think it – my own list that I use in my book The Power Problem is derived from that. It’s a short list. It’s – let’s have a debate about what national interest is being served by this military operation. Let’s understand what the military mission is. How do you define it? When do we know we’re done? How much is it going to cost? Let’s have a reasonable attempt to estimate the cost ahead of time.
Is it supported by the public? And this is a rather banal point but I will make it, is that just because we have the ability to wage war anytime at any place doesn’t mean we should. So you really should again go the extra mile to ensure that it’s the last resort, that you have exhausted all their means.
And I think my criteria are fairly stringent but I’ve heard more stringent and so let’s talk about that. But right now, candidly, there are no criteria. What that means is because we have so much power and because we know that we have very little accountability back here at home if something goes horribly wrong 7000 or 8000 miles away, we sort of kind of meander from intervention to intervention and it’s not clear after the fact. Why did we intervene there but not over here?
I think it has created just a sense of confusion around the world, not really knowing if it’s true, if the other side is correct. But international security hinges on the exercise of US power. Then that’s a real problem I say. We have a single point of failure. This is not a resilient system. This is too heavily dependent upon one country that is unpredictable and I think that’s why ultimately we’re trying to fashion an international order that was somewhat less dependent upon international – US military powers is the ultimate object of my foreign policy and that of my colleagues.
Trevor Burrus: You mentioned the word previously a few minutes ago “non-intervention” and we have a question on here, non-intervention, and then of course the word “isolationism”. You kind of described what your foreign policy is. But would any of those words apply? Especially the word “isolationism,” which is I think mostly an epithet. But what do you usually hear when you – when someone says “isolationist”?
Christopher Preble: When I hear the word “isolationist,” it is an epithet. It’s a word that you use to shut down consideration of alternatives. It’s reasonably effective because it’s associated with a period in US history when the inclination against intervention, it was – it is believed led to the rise of a truly global threat. Nazi Germany aligned with imperial Japan.
I think that in the modern context, the isolationist epithet is – implies a reluctance to engage in the world in any fashion. This goes back to the answer I gave at the – right at the top of the hour, which is we believe in trade. We believe in welcoming people here. We believe in encouraging Americans to go abroad in search of opportunities or cultural experiences, tourism, et cetera, education.
And that a true isolationist would reject that, would believe that the United States is a large enough country and a robust enough country that it did not need interaction with the rest of the world.
Trevor Burrus: Pretty much North Korea.
Christopher Preble: I mean there is a not crazy argument to be made. This is a really large country. We have a huge population. We have vast resources. We can do it on our own. That’s not the kind of country I want to live in because I believe that we are made better as a country when we are engaged internationally.
I believe I personally am and I believe that we as a society are. So the key to differentiating non-interventionist military policy, a foreign policy of non-intervention and an engaged cosmopolitan form policy that I embrace is to [0:40:00] differentiate when the military instrument is used. That’s why I spend so much time talking about the wars we fight and recognizing that there’s so much more to US foreign policy than the wars we fight.
Unfortunately because we focus so much on those wars, it’s sort of – it obscures or causes us to look past these other things. I think there is still a component of – we know that the American public is very reluctant to engage in wars because of Iraq and Afghanistan.
We also know that they’re not bought into this – the political science term is “hegemonic” or a “primacy” or the “dominant military power”. Pick your term, that the United States is the world’s policeman, whatever.
We know that the American public really hasn’t bought into that. The trouble is a fair number of Americans are also not bought into trade and immigration. So we have some work to do there and I do think again that’s why that would – one of the key points that differentiates Cato’s approach to foreign policy and that of a genuine isolationist, someone who’s trying to make the case for the United States to seal itself off from the rest of the world and is absolutely not what we’re trying to do.
Aaron Ross Powell: Listening to the debate inside the Beltway where we unfortunately – I guess we’re having this conversation. Yours is called a minority position it feels like and there’s this strong sense that when we talk about a candidate who’s serious about foreign policy issues or the serious people having these discussions. What that tends to mean is something that looks much more militaristic that what you’re articulating. It’s a willingness to use violence. It’s simply what it means to be serious about something. Given all that, I guess the question is why is your position a minority one. Like why are all these people – if most of these people disagree with you, why is that?
Christopher Preble: Most of the people here in Washington disagree with me but most of the people in Washington are not like most of the people outside of the Beltway. We’re all smiling at that and we know it’s true, right? So there’s a selection bias in the kinds of people who are drawn to come here. They want to do something and this is not unique or particular to foreign policy at all, right?
If you believe in making – in improving healthcare and you doubt that the private sector is going to do it, you’re going to come to Washington or you’re going to come – so you have an interventionist bias among all the people who come here to Washington to work.
Then on top of that, you have an alignment of interest around the military and around providing for defense that is quite different from that for other public policy issues. An example that Ben Friedman likes to use is that virtually every public policy issue has a point counterpoint.
So gun policy, right? You have the Brady people versus the NRA, right? Or regulations governing smoking in restaurants. You have public health advocates versus bar owners, right? So virtually every domestic public policy issue we debate has competing interests that fight really quite vehemently because they’re defending a principle that they believe in very much or that they’re harmed by economically.
That doesn’t exist when you’re talking about defense because the harms that come are felt by others elsewhere and the costs are very, very low relatively speaking and the costs are especially low and then when you factor in that – a number of people believe just sort of instinctively in the mission of the military and then are even less likely to criticize it. There you have a confluence of interests that make it very, very hard to argue against it.
Yeah, having said that, I am genuinely encouraged at times by the sort of common sense of the public outside of the Beltway. When they raise serious questions about a military operation or the suggestion of the United States, we should use force, and they ask reasonable questions. How long is this going to take? How likely is it to work? Who are our friends? How do we know they’re our friends? Why do we think they’re our friends? How likely is it we think that our friends are going to win? What happens if they win and they turn out to not be our friends? Those sorts of questions you hear from the American people in some fashion.
So maybe not articulated just that way but it’s underneath the surface. So I think that trying to mobilize those sensible sentiments is important. That’s a big part of what we try to do here by educating the public but also it’s about educating people who are trying to appeal to the public, politicians and say, “Gee, you are one of, I don’t know, 18, 20, 22 different people running for president at any one time and 21 of them all are hawks or various versions of hawks. Maybe if you were the one person who wasn’t, maybe you would be speaking to the sensible center outside of the –” It’s a hard sell.
Ultimately at the end of the day, it’s hard because as I said – and I will say again – foreign policy is not particularly salient. People don’t vote for candidates on the basis of their opposition or support for the war in Syria or the war in Libya and therefore you need to have a sufficient kind of grounding in those other issues that people care about to also sell them on your foreign policy vision. So far we haven’t found a person or a group of people who are able to articulate that combination of positions to win.
Trevor Burrus: You’ve articulated a complex view of how foreign policy should be done which is good. A lot of people seem to articulate fairly simplistic views or accuse us of having simplistic views like isolationism. It also seems to me that every single foreign policy instance is very unique to itself.
Well, every single issue for example Syria or Libya, they’re all very unique that it would be hard to have a one size fits all philosophy for taking them down. But you can have principles about our interests and what we’re going to try and get done and things you articulate.
So when you think about an issue like ISIS for example, and you’re not going to say, “Well, we either have to destroy them or not,” but it’s more complex than that, how do you approach a question like ISIS?
Christopher Preble: Right.
Trevor Burrus: In terms of how you analyze of what should we be doing?
Christopher Preble: Right.
Aaron Ross Powell: Trump says we burn their oil fields.
Christopher Preble: Right. Trump says burn their oil fields.
Trevor Burrus: Is that really what he said?
Christopher Preble: He said crazier things.
Trevor Burrus: That’s true.
Christopher Preble: I think that we – because we had this enormous power and we have – we perceive that we’re able to use it at low cost. Not using it in the face of just extreme brutality, depravity, even dare I say it evil seems a little petty, right? Seems a little callous. So I think that it’s entirely appropriate for the United States in conjunction with others on the ground try to contain and ultimately destroy ISIS.
The problem is that doing it is actually quite hard and the United States by ourselves certainly could not do it. More importantly, so then you ask the question. Well, if – you couldn’t do it quickly, right? It would take a long time.
So what would it take to destroy it and is it in our interest to do it by ourselves and how long are we prepared to do that? And again, I think that’s why this is complicated because it’s a political problem, right? The fact that this organization has grown up and has acquired territory and adherence and followers and what not is because they have a message that is appealing to some of the people on the ground as reprehensible as it is to all of us. And solving that problem requires fixing the politics of Iraq and Syria at least. I don’t think that’s in our power to do. I think we should have learned that lesson from the Iraq war and not everyone has.
So what that means just as a practical matter is I think attacking ISIS in particular instances when they make themselves a convenient target is entirely appropriate but that we shouldn’t confuse that with solving the problem, right? Those are two different things.
So if we kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, great, right? Better that he’s gone. Shed no tear for this guy. But don’t believe that by picking off these people, you’re going to solve this problem forever and I just don’t think that’s true. Ultimately, I do think – and this kind of gets back to my earlier argument about who is best positioned to fight these sorts of wars. It’s not the United States and the American people who are 6000 or 7000 miles away. It’s the people who are in the neighborhood who have much more to lose from these. So the simplest way of saying this is ISIS has lots of enemies and we should keep it that way, right?
We should not give any of their various enemies reason to fear them less than they fear us, which is something that has definitely happened in the United States over time and other outside powers. So kind of helping to maintain this very loose coalition of groups who are trying to contain ISIS’s rise is entirely appropriate but going farther than that I think is – doesn’t fit with the interest of US foreign policy.
Trevor Burrus: It seems like that – a lot of those lessons I’m hearing is sort of a humility about what can be done. [0:50:00] It seems like that’s a good libertarian lesson about government in general, believing what can be done effectively, what can’t be done effectively.
But we have a pretty bad track record of not being very humble about what we can do militarily whether it’s something like the Cuban – the Bay of Pigs or Iraq. So just a little bit more humility and also not over-exceeding yourself in creating enemies because that’s another concern, correct?
Christopher Preble: Right. I mean there are two points that I want to pick up on. The first is there is genuinely something endearing to American exceptionalism. That is the idea that we can do absolutely anything. As an American, I find it just sort of – it’s sort of gratifying. We can do anything and I love that about my country, right?
Christopher Preble: … even though sometimes we are really wrong about that. So kind of appreciating this can-do spirit while at the same time saying, “OK, it’s great that you have this sense, that you can do absolutely anything. Just in case you may not be right, here’s plan B and C,” right? Here’s how you hedge against being badly wrong and this is the kind of conversation you don’t have with a toddler but you do have with an adult, right? You have an adult conversation with the American people who are adults, right? We don’t do it that often enough.
The other point you mentioned which is even – which is related but – it’s that there are definitely instances in which the US – the conduct of US foreign policy has created enemies or created people who resent us, right? And – but talking about that is hard. It’s awkward because it appears that you’re criticizing your country. Why don’t you love your country? So I think that just how you talk about it is really important and for me, it’s recognizing that most of the time, people are motivated. American policy makers are motivated with good intentions. They’re trying to do the right thing.
But sometimes they get it wrong and understanding why they get it wrong and kind of accepting their intention as good or on the surface, they’re trying to advance US interests and then criticizing or scrutinizing their conduct on those terms is more productive than starting from the presumption that they had bad intentions from the very beginning.
I think it is possible to criticize the conduct of US foreign policy on those grounds. That is the intentions were good but the execution was flawed and here’s why, because you actually will learn from that and apply it to future.
So we just published a book. It’s just coming out by Ted Carpenter, Ted Galen Carpenter and Malou Innocent on our relationships with undemocratic and unsavory regimes over the years called Perilous Partners. Perfect example of this, right?
It’s that occasionally you have to make deals with the devil and most important of course fighting with Joseph Stalin to defeat Nazi Germany which was horrible and yet was the right thing to do, right? Because Joseph Stalin was a horrible guy but pick your poison, and yet not every autocratic ruler that we ally with fits that category and so therefore kind of being much more discerning in terms of when we engage with these undemocratic rulers, corrupt rulers. That’s something we need to get better at as a county.
Aaron Ross Powell: Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more about libertarianism and the ideas that influence it, visit us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.