Free Thoughts/Power Problem Crossover: Are Libertarians Isolationists? (with Trevor Thrall and Emma Ashford)

Trevor Thrall & Emma Ashford discuss the nuance differences between isolationists, non-interventionists, & pragmatic realists. 

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Trevor Thrall and Emma Ashford from Power Problems Podcast join us to discuss the nuance differences between isolationists, non-interventionists, and pragmatic realists. When it comes to foreign policy, the way U.S. officials make decisions is largely based off the fact that the United States maintains and all-volunteer military. This military is the most powerful in the world, considering the U.S. spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined. There are many reasons for this, but at the forefront is the American desire to remain #1 or the superpower in the eyes of the rest of the world. 

What is the difference between an isolationist and a pragmatic realist? When do policymakers decide when intervention is necessary? What are real threats? What is John Bolton’s philosophy on foreign affairs? What is the main role of our military? Do we have an obligation to keep America safe, but not all humans safe? Are U.S. policymakers only responsible for Americans? Or the entire Western world? What is the interplay between technology, news, public opinion, and military strategy? Is joining the military the only way to serve your country? 

Further Reading:

Power Problems, by the Cato Institute

The Future of Conservative Foreign Policy, Power Problems Podcast

The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, written by Stephen Walt

Psychology of a Superpower: Security and Dominance in U.S. Foreign Policy, written by Christopher J. Fettweis

Related Content:

Is America the Most Fearful Country in the World?, written by Natalie Dowzicky

When is it appropriate to go to War?, Free Thoughts Podcast

[music]

00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free thoughts. I am Aaron Powell.

00:08 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:09 Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today are Emma Ashburn and Trevor Thrall. Emma is a research fellow in Cato’s defense and foreign policy department, and Trevor is a senior fellow in the same department. They are also co-host of the bi-weekly Cato Institute Podcast, Power Problems which explores questions in US foreign policy. Welcome to Free thoughts.

00:27 Emma Ashford: Great to be here.

00:28 Trevor Thrall: Thanks guys.

00:29 Aaron Ross Powell: Are libertarians isolationists?

00:33 Emma Ashford: You really know how to lead with a punch, don’t you? I’m sure that somewhere out there there are some libertarians that are isolationists, they’re not here in the building at Cato. We mostly advocate a fairly practical approach to the world, which perhaps has some roots and non-interventionism but isn’t isolationist, it isn’t non-interventionist it’s mostly about a pragmatic realist relatively restrained foreign policy.

00:58 Aaron Ross Powell: Can you define some of those terms then for us? Like what’s the difference between an isolationist and a pragmatic realist and so on?

01:07 Trevor Thrall: Well, let’s start, just start and amplify the first sentence that Emma said then I’ll let her do all the hard stuff of defining things. I would say that very few libertarians are isolationist on ideological grounds and the reason for that is because Good libertarians of course love free trade and so I think one of their root sort of motivating themes for a libertarian thinking about the world and world politics is international commerce is a cornerstone of every modern economy and so you want more engagement with the world. You don’t want isolationism a part of which of course is protectionism which is really the opposite of what any reasonable libertarian thinks. Emma then goes on to make more good points which I’ll let her expound upon a little bit. But the non-intervention part is different from isolation.

01:55 Trevor Burrus: You’re also kind of just saying, foreign policy is bigger than war.

01:58 Trevor Thrall: Absolutely.

02:00 Trevor Burrus: If interaction between nations. Yeah, Emma.

02:02 Emma Ashford: Yeah, absolutely. And to some extent, the fact that the classical liberals typically frowned on war and it was because they valued trade so much. So these things are actually intention. If you want to be connected with the world on a cultural level, a social level an economic level. You can’t have too much war screwing things up. So, yeah so I did throw out a whole bunch of terms. So you led with isolationist, right? An isolationist does have these connotations that it’s not just about conflicts and military affairs, it’s about diplomacy it’s about shutting ourselves off from the world economically, shutting down immigration, all of that stuff. So I would say most libertarians, all libertarians are probably not isolationists. Non-interventionist is slightly trickier because you can see how libertarian political philosophy gets you to the roots of non-interventionism the idea that the government can’t be trusted at home to build roads, build schools, manage big social programs, why on earth would we think that they can do it abroad?

03:04 Emma Ashford: So non-interventionism has a pretty logical place in libertarian political philosophy as a result. That said that’s not always a practical approach to the world either and so something that I know that I wrestle with and many of my colleagues wrestle with is, Where is that line? How do you decide when intervention may sometimes be necessary whether it’s military intervention, diplomacy, something like economic sanctions. And so realism which is the final term that I mentioned is the way that I at least square those things. It’s a fairly rational approach the world says, “Well what are the threats out there? Which ones are real threats as opposed to say really inflated threats like Terrorism. What is the minimum that we need to do to make sure that America remains safe from those threats. Basically, how can the government performance its minimum duty to the people to keep them safe?” Which I think most libertarians would probably agree is actually one of the core functions of the state. What can we actually do to keep us safe without stepping over that line and becoming such a huge military juggernaut that we start to curtail civil and political liberties here, at home.

04:14 Trevor Burrus: Is isolationism, you kind of defined it Emma but does it, it seems like it’s epithet more than an actual description. I don’t know many people who would say, “I’m an isolationist.” Its sort of like saying, “I’m brainwashed.” People who are brainwashed don’t usually say they’re brainwashed they get described as brainwashed and isolationism seems like the epithet that gets thrown at libertarians. Is that accurate would you say?

04:34 Trevor Thrall: Yeah, absolutely, I know those of us in the defense and foreign policy group here at Cato spend a good amount of ink and time establishing that we are not isolationist before we can get into our regular monologues on a regular basis and exactly so and I think the other word that often gets thrown right after or in conjunction is retreater and as we like to use the word restraint to sort of signal prudence and caution and good judgment and instead we get tagged with retreaters and isolationists for political reasons not for actual reasons.

05:11 Emma Ashford: And you forgot appeasement, which is the other one that often gets…

05:13 Trevor Burrus: Oh yeah, that’s the Neville Chamberlain one, yes yeah.

05:15 Emma Ashford: Yeah, absolutely. But I think it’s also worth pointing out that this isolationist epithet. There have been times in American history when isolationist was an accurate term, there have been people that wanted to shut off commerce and immigration keep America completely away from Europe and until it’s an actual political term but today its become completely devoid of meaning. People calling the Obama administration isolationists as they were intervening to overthrow Gaddafi in Libya. This is just so far fetched at this point that is meaningless.

05:44 Trevor Thrall: And let’s be clear Trump is the closest thing to an isolationist of any American President since I don’t know, George Washington maybe or something.

05:51 Aaron Ross Powell: At least rhetorically.

05:53 Trevor Thrall: At least rhetorically.

05:53 Emma Ashford: Well, and also I would say on Economic Affairs, on immigration not necessarily in military stuff, in military stuff he’s much more of almost an imperialist, you could say.

06:03 Aaron Ross Powell: Well and he’s got John Bolton which should help in that regard right?

06:07 Trevor Burrus: My next question was about John Bolton and I know Aaron you had a question next, but I think this will dovetail that you said realist and I think that John Bolton would say realist too, I may be wrong about that. But I know it’s also a term of art, but John Bolton would say, “I realistically understand the world is a very dangerous place and America needs to be involved.” If that’s inaccurate, what is John Bolton’s philosophy about foreign affairs?

06:33 Emma Ashford: So, John Bolton usually gets called a neo-conservative and he isn’t, and he himself gets very annoyed about that fact because I think he would call himself something of a realist. Now, he and I differ almost entirely on how we view the world, and that’s where you get to the problem. If I view the world as not a particularly threatening place and he views it as massively threatening, we can both say we’re making rational considerations and reach wildly different conclusions.

07:00 Trevor Thrall: And I think I just wanna clear one thing up, too, for people who don’t spend tons of time worrying about the definition of the word “realist.” It doesn’t mean realistic; that is not what it means. People use it like that all the time, including realists. And they use that meaning of the word to defend their view of the world as a realist, but that’s not what it means. Take Bolton’s “Troika of Tyranny” comments that he made recently, “Oh Venezuela and Cuba and Nicaragua.” Again. “Are this grave danger to the hemisphere.” And that’s a liberal argument. It’s not a realist argument. The realists are not very concerned about weak nations having issues at all, but a liberal hates the fact that they are communist or leftist or what have you. So you can be a realistic liberal, you could be a realistic realist, or as Emma said, if you’re a threat inflater and you’d see monsters everywhere, you could be an unrealistic realist. So I think those are important distinctions to make because realists often claim, “We’re the only ones who see the world calmly and cooly.” And I just think that’s kind of silly.

07:58 Aaron Ross Powell: So I wanna go back to something Emma said when you were defining your terms. And I think when you were defining non-interventionist you said, “So the role, ideally, of the military is to keep us safe. And we should act or how much we intervene and how much we stay out of things should depend on what’s going to keep America safe.” So we have the largest military. We can overpower most any nation, although some it wouldn’t be fun to try, and there’s lots of bad stuff happening in the world. And so don’t we have not just an obligation to keep America safe, but if we’ve got the capacity to keep people safe around the world to stop wars, to stop genocide, to improve the lives of these people, don’t we have an obligation to use some of that power we’ve got to make the world a better place?

08:48 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, sure. If you’re Bruce Lee and you see someone getting beat up across the street, don’t you have an obligation to intervene because you’re Bruce Lee?

08:56 Emma Ashford: I mean, it’s a hugely tempting argument, it really is. You can look around the world and you can say, “Oh, we could make life better. We could stop the Saudi royal family from killing dissidents in a consulate.” And maybe that would be a good thing. The problem is, there’s two problems. So the first is this fatal conceit. It’s the idea that we’re saying, “Oh, because we have this much military power we actually can do this.” We can cause democracy to flourish in the Middle East, and I think the last 15 years have shown us all just how big a mistake that is. We cannot assume that our military power actually translates into the capacity to improve other people’s lives around the world. But then the second is more philosophical and it really gets to the idea of, are US policy makers responsible for Americans? Are they responsible for people in the Western world? Are they responsible for everybody in the world?

09:44 Emma Ashford: And there’s some really interesting philosophical arguments about this going all the way back to that post-World War II generation that started to, people like Morgenthau who started to talk about the responsibility of policy makers after the Second World War. And the line a lot of them basically take is the policy makers have a responsibility to the people under their protection, basically to the voters and the people inside their country, and that that responsibility outweighs their responsibility to people in other states. And it’s not a perfect solution, but I feel like that’s a much more reasonable way to approach this, a way that might actually practically work than saying, “Well I have a responsibility to help everyone in the world.”

10:22 Trevor Thrall: Yeah. The responsibility to protect doctrine that grew up after the sort of horrors of Rwanda and the Yugoslavian civil wars. It has a compelling sort of moral component to it. Who wouldn’t want to help a drowning person if all you had to do is reach in and save them? But I think, as Emma was pointing out, that the moral equation is simple, but the practical implementation of that is not simple and there are a host of morally relevant factors in each of these cases that really has to weigh very heavily, including the other moral guideline which is the safety of American lives and remember yes, you have an all volunteer military but they volunteered to protect Americans not to go save Yemenis or Syrians or other folks. And so, I think there’s an article that a lot of people found polarizing by Bob Pape called “When Duty Calls” and in it he argues that Americans should only be sent overseas to these things, if they actually volunteer to go do that on top of already being the military. And I think that strikes maybe some people as a little weird, but I think that there is a good moral case to be made that Americans are for protecting Americans mostly.

11:35 Aaron Ross Powell: I mean to complicate the philosophical picture, doesn’t that cut against the argument that say, libertarians make on immigration. So we make lots of arguments that immigration is actually good for America and all of that. But we also make this argument that the amount of good that we can do for a poor Mexican by letting them into the country is enormous. The orders of magnitude, in terms of just, how much it can improve their lives. And so, that itself is a sufficient argument or a good argument for letting them in beyond any of the other effects. But aren’t you basically arguing the opposite when it comes to foreign policy?

12:14 Emma Ashford: I could weasel out of this and I could say, “Well we’ve proven that we don’t actually improve people’s lives when we intervene abroad.” Right, so Libya is just the classic example here. There’s some studies that have shown quite effectively that more people probably died in Libya because of the US intervention, than we actually saved by preventing a genocide in Libya. So I could weasel out of it that way. But to be honest I think there are similar problems if you look at policy and immigration. We can make that argument on a large scale. You can believe those principles but when you actually try and turn it into practical policy you’re probably never gonna actually achieve that open borders approach to it. So it’s the same with foreign policy, we’re trying to find, I guess, a pragmatic medium that we can actually live with within the existing policy structure and I know there are plenty of my colleagues here at Cato that would probably tell me I should just push all the way but I just don’t see it as practical.

13:08 Trevor Burrus: Well, it seems to me that at least one difference is, that letting a Mexican work here and with a job that someone would give them in the free market, is not spending any US money or possible lives on intervention. It’s just saying, “Hey, that guy over this line wants to employ you as a cook and it will make him better off, it’ll make you better off and it won’t make anyone else worse off.” Which is very different than firing a couple hundred cruise missiles at Syria or something like that.

13:36 Trevor Thrall: Yeah, and I think another difference is that there’s a long-term nature to someone moving to the United States, getting a job, becoming part of the economy, that is utterly lacking in almost all visions of US military intervention abroad. We go in, we break it, we kill some people, we leave and the assumption is, “Well, it’s better now?” Well clearly, umpty-de-ump years later in Iraq and Afghanistan and wherever else it’s not better now. And then the argument some people, “Well, you just gotta stay forever.” That doesn’t sound like a reasonable idea. And the other thing, I think that, and this doesn’t quite get at, Aaron, the question about, “Well, are we just flipping the moral compass the other way?” But to me, noting how difficult military intervention is, we don’t do nearly enough to consider the non-military solutions to some of these issues.

14:28 Trevor Thrall: Diplomacy, certainly it’s slow, it’s terrible, but it’s better than all the other ways of doing things. And in the case of Syria, most of the people here at Cato argued against the US getting more deeply involved, despite the difficult moral questions there of, how we could help. But one of the things we could have done, in a different sort of politics, is help the Syrian refugees a lot more, right? We could be a safety valve for this. I mean, there’s a lot of things in the world going on that we could do more to help if morally we felt the need to do it, that would be much more in line with, especially libertarian, way of thinking about things but at more non-interventionist too.

15:05 Trevor Burrus: How does public opinion seem to track foreign policy as a general rule? ‘Cause it seems to be that sometimes voters are really into intervening and war. I will always remember one of the more surreal things of my upbringing was watching the bombing of Baghdad twice on my television, which is just kind of disgusting in its own way. But we aired that stuff and people were pretty for those interventions. But then you have Iraq war, which maybe has soured that and I think the lingering Vietnam question, is still hangs over American psychics about everything when we talk about foreign policy. So I know Trevor you study public opinion on foreign policy more, what tend to be the ebbs and flows of that?

15:51 Trevor Thrall: Yeah, you hit it on a lot of interesting points there. I think the Vietnam War cast a long shadow. I think mostly with older folks now, but interestingly, of course, those older folks include political leaders who carry this analogy around in their heads, some of them and whenever you see US get involved in a long-ish war or the prospect of one, the Vietnam analogy gets raised. Just the summer after the invasion in 2003, people were talking about a quagmire, ala Iraq, I mean ala Vietnam. And that’s certainly reminding people of things that they thought were a bad idea. But I think your other point is really right on.

16:27 Trevor Thrall: People are back and forth on this. We love to try to read the tea leaves and are hoping that the future is more restrained, but the reality is the public is a little bit mushy on this stuff. And it’s very dependent on how elites talk about these things, I think. So, when elites manage to convince people, it’s for the defense of the realm, people tend to say, “Yeah, let’s go do it. We have to do this ‘cause terrorists.” Or, “We have to do this ‘cause WMD.” And people at least temporarily, are able to say, “Okay, let’s do it.” But every war that goes on more than a month eventually a majority opposes. So you can only fool some of the people some of the time.

17:04 Aaron Ross Powell: Does the lack of a draft impact that? Do people if they knew that their kids could get drafted are they less willing to, even for that one month that they’re happy with the war?

17:14 Trevor Thrall: Yeah, I think there’s no question that with a draft you’d have a very different political dynamic. And it’s really hard to take the ’60s and port them to today’s internet field world and imagine what it would be like. But given that the people who run social media these days are young upper middle class kids who love Twitter and Instagram, it’s hard for me to even imagine the freak out that would happen if you tried to send these kids somewhere they didn’t know where it was on a map and tell them to go die for… I mean, that seems like not very doable.

17:44 Emma Ashford: Yeah, I mean, because [17:45] ____ apart from anything else the narrative, today is somewhat shaped by the whole “They volunteered” part of the equation. So there was a death just a week or so ago, in I think Iraq, maybe Afghanistan, and it was a man who is actually the mayor of a small town in Utah, devout Mormon, leaves behind seven kids, was serving with the Utah National Guard in that conflict and was killed, and a lot of the reports basically said, “But he did it because he volunteered, he wanted to serve his country, he wanted to protect freedom.” And all these things. And so that narrative wouldn’t be the same if he had just been sent there as part of a draft, it would be “Oh my God, the government is just sending our kids to die.” And so the volunteer force kind of works against you, if you’re gonna talk about quagmires in this way.

18:30 Trevor Burrus: How much is the… There’s a story we’ve often told that going back to the Civil War, at least in my experience, to that, as soon as the public starts seeing the dead body… So the classic story for the Civil War is Antietam and the pictures from Antietam made people rethink the war, and then we also tell that story about the ’60s when the death toll started going up with Vietnam and suddenly if you knew someone next door who had died, that changes public opinion against the war. And then the interesting thing is for those who fight wars they spend a huge amount of time pursuing technologies that put the fewest amount Americans in harm’s way. And then we had the situation where we might be lobbing a bunch of missiles and drone attacks in other countries, but no one is seeing American dead bodies, or at least not enough to have anyone be aware of what we’re actually doing out there. Does that play a factor?

19:19 Emma Ashford: Yeah, here’s a really interesting difference between Vietnam in the ’60s, and today. Medical technology has got a lot better and battlefield medicine has improved. There’s really interesting work, [19:30] ____ is one person who’s been working on this, just the creation of technologies that allow soldiers on the battlefield to stabilize fallen comrades, then they can be airlifted out and actually treated, the death tolls are just way lower today. So fewer American soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan than died sort of proportionally in Vietnam as a result.

19:50 Trevor Thrall: Yeah, the usual historical ratio there just on this aside for a second, is usually like three to one. So if you have 7,000 deaths, like we’ve had in the War on Terror since 2001, you’d expect about three times that number wounded. There have been over a million Americans wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq: 7,000 dead, a million… And those are everything from [20:09] ____ hand nails to your leg got blown off type stuff. But as Emma said, it’s incredible. And that’s an interesting sort of news bit there too. But Trevor you just summarized sort of the fascinating I think interplay between technology, news, public opinion and military strategy. Because in the ’80s…

20:28 Trevor Thrall: Michael Deaver, one of Reagan’s staffers, sort of made the comment. He was involved in all their sort of media strategy and all that, he said “Thanks to TV, we will never fight another ground war ever again. Oops.” But he was absolutely right in spirit, because what the US has done over the last several decades, is to substitute technology for people and that’s on the sort of the instrumental level, but at the political level, the government’s done a great job keeping the press to the side whenever possible. And then, just even more generically, just having the President avoid talking about it. And that tends to work like a charm. So, Obama just stopped talking about Afghanistan. Before him, Bush stopped. And you could just see a drop out of the news. Trump never says the word Afghanistan and so no one pulls him to the fire on this stuff. And so, we can keep going basically forever. Drone bombing, attacking people… As long as the President doesn’t talk about it and Americans aren’t dying, our foreign policy is untethered from public opinion.

21:19 Aaron Ross Powell: Why is the press, by and large, so bad on issues of war? I mean, so, they’re willing to just kind of, if the President stops talking about it, they stop paying attention. But then they… Was it shortly into Trump’s presidency when he launched a bunch of cruise missiles and suddenly everyone in the press was like, “He’s presidential.” Like, dropping bombs on people is what good Presidents do. That the press just seems terrible on this issue.

21:45 Emma Ashford: There’s a real bias to action in US foreign policy and the media is a big part of this, right? So, if there is a problem out there in the world, something must be done about it, and therefore we are the people to do something about it. And so, that’s exactly what we saw with those Syrian air-strikes. There was this chemical attack against civilians inside Syria. There was a big media hop-up about it, a lot of people demanding, “Something must be done”, even though when you’re actually there and get into the details, it’s not clear what we could have done that would actually would have helped things. There weren’t very many good policy options, it was really a little shaky, which is why if you go back like five years, the Obama administration didn’t do anything in response to a similar attack. In the case of the Trump administration, a very media-driven presidency, he just launched a bunch of cruise missiles and the media sort of lapped it up and said, “Oh, a decisive acting President. He is presidential.” I think it was Tom Brokaw, that said, “I’m gadded by the beauty of our weapons watching footage of these strikes”. And so, all of this just feeds into an atmosphere where doing something is always easier than not doing something.

22:49 Trevor Thrall: This… To me, absolutely everything Emma said, but to me it’s really the hidden poison of being number one for so long, is that you create all these mythical narratives about your President, about your military, about your role in the world, this notion of indispensability. I mean, it’s enough to make you wanna vomit when you look at it in cold daylight and yet every time it’s like the media re-discovers how awesome we are every time we kill somebody. I mean, it’s just gross.

23:15 Aaron Ross Powell: So right now, I was watching NFL games yesterday and we’re in apparently Salute to Service month, when they all address…

23:22 Trevor Burrus: Isn’t it always that way? I feel like every month is Salute to Service Month, but as… Maybe that’s the question.

23:26 Aaron Ross Powell: That was actually, one of the announcers, said… It said, “This is Salute to Service Month.” But really every month at the NFL is Salute to Service Month.

23:31 Trevor Burrus: Oh, okay. I didn’t mean… I mean, literally, not metaphorically but yes.

23:34 Aaron Ross Powell: I think it’s just when they dress up.

23:36 Trevor Burrus: Okay.

23:37 Aaron Ross Powell: They wear camo. But, there is this kind of cultural notion that no one is… Should be venerated more than the troops that they… That serving your country, the only way you can serve your country is by joining the military, that these are the people who keep us safe. And how much does that play in? Like, is that an unhealthy attitude for a nation to have? That we see the troops as kind of the highest orders of American values and does that play into them, this kind of constant war footing or willingness to get excited about the beauty of the weapons?

24:13 Emma Ashford: I mean, there’s a really fascinating cultural difference for me. So I grew up in the United Kingdom, I came to America when I started college, and so, I’ve seen sort of both countries and how they treat the military and there’s a really fascinating cultural difference, which is that in America, it’s the veneration of the military itself, of veterans, of people that are serving, have served. In the UK, the veneration is all basically of the war dead. So it’s… Right now, we’re at a period of about three weeks in the lead up to November 11th, Armistice Day when every person in the UK will be wearing a poppy on their jacket, and that’s in remembrance of the war dead. And there are church services and marches, but it’s about the people that died and how we can avoid paying that cost again. In America, it’s very much more sort of, “Thank you for your service. You are protecting our freedoms.”

25:05 Emma Ashford: And I really do wonder sometimes if, as you suggest, that plays into sort of glorification of the military and of military options rather than attention that’s paid to the costs of military action?

25:16 Trevor Thrall: Yeah, that’s a really good point. And to me it’s kind of like the same kind of rehearsal of American and I’m gonna use air quotes on your very visual podcast, “values”. To me it reminds me a little bit of a country song, the way if you say the words “pickup”, “apple pie”, “grandma”, “motherhood”, whatever, enough times, you make everyone believe that we’re that place. And I sort of keep waiting for the airlines to let maybe teachers go on first ‘cause they’re kind of awesome, or economists, or I don’t know, other groups of people in America who are equally awesome to our overall prosperity but who don’t get the time of day. Clearly we are out of whack in terms of our focus on this one part of our world.

25:56 Emma Ashford: I just want to also do my duty as a cynic here and point out that actually the Pentagon pays for a lot of these displays; they pay the NFL to wear these uniforms, they pay for the displays before football games. So this is to some extent the military itself trying to manage its image and bolster its own image.

26:11 Aaron Ross Powell: So we’re in an environment, and I say we as members of the Cato Institute sitting in Washington DC, where unfortunately most of the foreign policy establishment does not agree with either one of you. And so this is a question I often ask guests who advance what sound like very reasonable positions that are well-argued is, if these are such reasonable positions that are so well-argued, why does everybody think you’re wrong?

26:37 Emma Ashford: Well there was a really good recent book and book event that we had here at Cato just a couple of weeks ago with Steve Walt who is a professor at Harvard. He’s not a libertarian, he’s a Democrat, but he is a realist and he does believe in a more restrained US foreign policy. And his book is basically all about sort of diagnosing what’s wrong with US foreign policy and then talking about how we got here. He pins a lot of the blame on the career incentives of the foreign policy elites. And I think both Trevor and I could actually claim to be part of that elite because we sit in Washington talking about foreign policy, but for a lot of people there aren’t actually a lot of career options outside of the mainstream of foreign policy. So if you want to advocate against interventionism, there are a lot fewer places for you to sit, and it’s harder for you to get jobs in government, in think tanks, than it is if you’re advocating that restrained point of view. And so Walt’s point basically is that until those career opportunities exist, the foreign policy elites are always gonna be really tilted towards interventionism.

27:35 Trevor Thrall: Yeah, and I think that, Emma as you mentioned before, the action-bias of our politics, Presidents need to look like they’re doing something. Well then, the organizations that are the doers have an incentive to keep on convincing people that those things are good. And then there’s a group of think tanks that are attached to those, ‘cause there are jobs then for people who are… So it’s a lobby, basically is the point.

27:57 Trevor Burrus: What have we seen with… We’ve touched on it a few minutes ago, but with Trump in the, particularly military action standpoint? And how does that compare to Obama and George W. Bush? Because since 9/11 in particular it seems that a lot of the things that we’re doing militarily no one knows about, as you mentioned Trevor. And they’re increasing technologies to do even more things where you’re attacking your enemies with drones and maybe Special Forces and other things, and no one really knows about it. Do we have any idea how much Trump’s military advisors are out there telling them to bomb different countries? And how many countries we might actually be engaged in right now?

28:38 Emma Ashford: Well we did have a moment over on the Power Problems podcast a couple of weeks back where we realized that John Bolton had been National Security Advisor for six months and we haven’t actually started a war, which was…

28:47 Trevor Burrus: That’s pretty good. Yeah.

28:48 Emma Ashford: Surprising frankly. That said, we have dialed up our engagement almost everywhere. And by engagement I mean our military intervention. Just in the Middle East, one of the areas that I focus on, there’s now a quarter more troops there, so 125% of the troops that were there when Obama left office. And contrary to the public narrative, Obama hadn’t really dialed down those numbers all that much from Bush. Yes, we’re down from sort of the peak of the surge in Iraq and Afghanistan, but if you go back even 20 years and you look at how many troops we had in the region under Clinton, under the elder Bush, we still just have a huge number of troops in the Middle East engaged in all these different conflicts. And so Trump is just sort of increasing those numbers everywhere.

29:30 Trevor Thrall: Yeah. I’d say for the most part when it comes to the war on terror, it’s business as usual. From Bush to Obama to Trump there’s way more continuity than change, I think, over those three. Maybe rhetorical style is the biggest difference between the three, but the policies themselves are pretty consistent. I think trade is the big outlier for Trump on foreign policy, he’s going a different direction. But I still feel like we have yet to see the full John Bolton-ing of Trump foreign policy. I think post mid-terms, Lord only knows what the constellation of forces looks like in DC, but I could see Trump going full… We have the “Troika of Tyranny”, we have the Iran sanctions now ramping up, we have… We may be on the precipice of other stuff. I hope not, but maybe.

30:16 Trevor Burrus: Do we generally, when we send in drone strikes for example to the nations that we do that, do we do it with impunity in the sense that we ask them? Are we… I guess it depends on the nation, but I imagine that if they found out that some terrorist group was in, I don’t know, Malawi… Do you know if we tend to just send the drones over to Malawi or do we actually try and talk to the government in Malawi? I guess it depends on this government.

30:44 Trevor Thrall: Yeah I think it’s been both. We have a lot of new drone bases throughout Africa in the Sahel and so on, so in some cases it’s invited, but early on after 2001 it was not, so the initial strikes I think in Yemen and stuff like that were not or in Somalia were not. [chuckle] We did not ask permission for those sort of things but over time when people realize it’s gonna happen, you talk to them they go, “Well okay, but please not over here” that sort of thing.

31:10 Emma Ashford: Yeah. And we did coordinate I think a lot of these things with the countries involved. So you’ve alluded to, there is a lot of growing US military involvement in basically on the African continent in areas like the Sahel. And so, that’s mostly in conjunction with the states that are there but that also carries its own problems. So, we’re working with those countries to help them fight extremism and I say that and it sounds wonderful, but the question of what the groups that we’re fighting actually do, whether they pose a threat to the US or just to those countries that we are actually fighting in, whether it’s local political grievances or international terrorism; those are all questions that largely go unanswered when you are working with the governments in these states.

31:49 Trevor Thrall: Right, yeah. Absolutely. That just raises all the issues of intervention that we started with because the last time… I mean, Bolton talks about the “Troika of Tyranny” and raises the word Nicaragua for the first time since 1980s but the last time we spent any time thinking about Nicaragua we helped fuel tens of thousands of deaths, assassinations, civil war, and that’s what you get when you do this sort of stuff and it’s usually we don’t even know which side is which a lot of times. I mean we… It’s a mess.

32:20 Aaron Ross Powell: Given the, I guess, outright horror with which many, if not most people in this town, view Donald Trump, do you think that there is a chance that over the remainder of his term we will see maybe Congress or others kind of re-assert their authority in the foreign policy area? That they might try to scale back his ability to launch wars, especially if John Bolton kind of goes the full John Bolton?

32:51 Emma Ashford: So we have seen some efforts and I will say that we have seen the Democratic Party rediscover its non-interventionism and dovish nature.

33:00 Trevor Burrus: Seems to just got to go back and forth. It’s a teeter-totter.

33:03 Emma Ashford: Exactly yeah. It pretty much goes away when you have a Democratic President and then when it’s George W. Bush everybody’s out protesting. So, some of that has come back, so that is a good thing. We’ve seen Congress start to talk about acting on things like Yemen or arms sales, none of which has really come to fruition yet but there is some pushback and I think the fact that it’s just Donald Trump in the White House is helping people justify that push back in a way that would be a little more difficult under other administrations. But again, there is a flip side to that because we’ve also seen Congress try and reassert itself in a more hawkish direction on some other issues particularly the Russia question, right? So whatever Donald Trump’s connection to Russia or not is, Congress clearly believes there is one, they have tried to push back on that. So, they passed an act known as CAATSA. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act about a year ago that basically forced the Trump administration to put really heavy sanctions on Russia, also on Iran and a couple of other countries. And so congressional re-assertion of power has also been pretty Hawkish under this administration just because it didn’t like the fact the Trump administration was less hawkish on Russia.

34:12 Trevor Thrall: Yeah, it’s odd, but I think assuming as most of the forecasts have now, the Senate stays Republican, the House goes Democratic.

34:19 Aaron Ross Powell: I should say that this will be out… So we release it after the election.

34:23 Trevor Burrus: It’s the day before the election right now.

[overlapping conversation]

34:25 Trevor Thrall: So a divided Congress is going to be troublesome for Trump on every level, including foreign policy because he is gonna need to get funding for various and sundry things or whatnot and my guess is that the Democrats are just gonna try to oppose him at every step, regardless of the strategy or the intelligence of the policies just because they’re so pissed off.

34:46 Emma Ashford: There is some areas I think where that could end up being pretty fruitful. So defense budget politics where the House and Senate have to agree, arms sales where they’ve got to approve of them. Things like pushing back on Trump withdrawing from the INF by talking about The Nuclear Modernization budget, those are all areas where Congress really could have an impact if they wanted to but then there’s some other areas like sending troops to the Middle east or to Africa where Congress just really doesn’t have a role and has basically abdicated its responsibility.

35:18 Trevor Burrus: It doesn’t seem like congress individual members of Congress would have very much incentive to really get involved in those issues. The Presidents, as we mentioned, the great ones… I’m putting that in scare quotes, are usually the war ones and if you wanna be a great President it’d be hard to imagine the incentives of a President who would actually start instigating non-interventionist or more libertarian policies pulling troops out of different countries, lowering the military budget. Do you agree that under the current incentive structure and the kind of Presidents people liked that that’s hard to imagine happening?

35:51 Trevor Thrall: It’s very hard for me to imagine I think the only pipe dream that I can see where a President would be seen as great in part for drawing down the Military and so on would be the next depression where you need to stop you know spending so much money and then making the tough decisions. Maybe you could laud a President in the rear view mirror for having made those tough decisions but I can’t see under our current politics… We haven’t been able to cut the budget since the Cold War ended. So [chuckle] well, there’s no peace dividend yet, still waiting.

36:21 Emma Ashford: And not to sort of air our dirty laundry disagreements in public, but Trevor and I disagree on this question. I think Obama was not a restrainer but I think he was a realist, and I think he did try and dial down US commitments overseas, particularly military commitments. He just wasn’t successful, he was pushing against too much inertia and he wasn’t successful in doing it. Trevor, I know doesn’t quite agree with me on this. But I think Obama’s a really great example of a President who tried, at least in some areas and look at what he got for it, basically he came out of it looking terrible.

36:52 Trevor Thrall: Democrats can’t be the restrainer, that’s… Only Nixon can go to China, only a Republican could get away, politically, with making a restrained foreign policy argument because he or she won’t get attacked as weak on national security. And that was Obama’s thing he had… That’s why he made the red line in the first place, is he knew, politically, he needed to sound a little tougher. Then he didn’t wanna do it ‘cause he was, I think, much more prudent than… So, you know. But yeah, it’s a tough, tough game.

37:19 Trevor Burrus: Seems like one thing you have to do is to, if you were to become President, to get some advisors who are, maybe, not all career Pentagon, Department of Defense people. Who I think, as we mentioned before, their errors might run in the same direction as opposed to them saying… And that’s the other thing too, with the military budgets, it seems like they are always complaining about their budgets and that they aren’t high enough. And I think our military budget is 50% of the world, is that about right, is what I had heard at one point.

37:46 Emma Ashford: More than the next seven countries.

37:48 Trevor Burrus: Countries combined.

37:48 Emma Ashford: I think it’s seven at the moment.

37:50 Trevor Thrall: It’s a lot.

37:51 Trevor Burrus: But we’re still spending more on all this stuff, and everyone says it’s not a… Is that just a standard pathology of administrative agencies no matter where they come from? ‘Cause you ask anyone and they always say that they don’t have enough money, or is it mixed with that pathology we discussed before?

38:06 Trevor Thrall: It’s yes and no. I mean, it’s absolutely would happen anyway, regardless of the number. But it’s also true that we actually ask our military to do so much, that when the military complains we don’t have enough money, to both keep everything fully ready and fixed and maintained, and to train all the troops on this, and to fund the next generation of things you think we should buy, they’re being truthful. We simply do so much that even $718 billion a year is not enough.

38:36 Aaron Ross Powell: Just like we mentioned, we’re recording this the day before the election and our President has been doing… Making all sorts of strange proclamations, in order to fire up his base and whatnot. And so one of these is he wanted to send, what 15,000 troops to the border to stop this highly threatening caravan of tired, sick and poor people. And he’s been dinged because this is politicizing the military and so we talked about political incentives for Presidents using the military, and people are like, “This is this abhorrent, unjustified use”. But is this… Is that a new thing that he’s doing? Or is politicizing the military, or using the military explicitly for political purposes, something his predecessors have gotten in on too?

39:22 Emma Ashford: I mean, it’s pretty damn blatant, right? So everybody, all these Presidents, they all get a little into politicizing the military because it does look good if you do events with military leaders present. But under Trump and even slightly before Trump, so before he was elected, we have started to see a real fraying in civil military relations. And this is a topic of real interest for political scientists. Is, how do the military relate to the civilian oversight of the government? And what we’ve seen over the last couple of years in America, is the military is increasingly political. Former generals, former admirals, coming out and making political statements. People like Mike Flynn, that was a general at the Defense Intelligence Agency, coming out in open support of candidates. That’s something that we really haven’t seen as much in US history, until recently. And when you add into that the fact that Trump is now turning around and basically just using the military to try and bolster himself right before an election. Things are getting a lot more blatant than they used to.

40:22 Trevor Thrall: Yeah, though he is not nearly the first President. I mean, you don’t have to look for the “wag-the-dog” scenarios, but just to give a couple of examples, the President really does enjoy this kind of unique, first-mover, set the chessboard advantage over other people because he can move military forces from place to place and immediately, by definition, make news. And then sort of frame the whole discussion. So one of the ones I like to talk about is when the United States kicked Iraq out of Kuwait, back in 1991, in the Fall of 1990, Congress had a long debate about the war and I think, it acquitted itself pretty well, all things considered.

41:03 Trevor Thrall: But you have to remember, the shadow under which they were having this, “debate” was there were 500,000 US troops already in the gulf and everyone in America knew they were gonna fight. So let’s have a debate, even though we know what the answer is gonna be. It’s still… It’s a fake debate. And the President was able to make it so, because he already moved the troops in. Fast-forward and Bush’s son W did the same thing. They had a even, much crappier, debate right before the mid-term elections and when he had already made it pretty darn clear what was gonna happen because he had moved the chess pieces on the board. Trump has moved these chess pieces in a very different direction than any President I can remember, but nonetheless he’s moved the chess pieces. And this I think, is turning out to be a very polarizing move, but I think his calculation is this is at least a little better for me than what else we might be talking about.

41:49 Trevor Burrus: So I’d like to ask about power problems, the [41:52] ____ interior about what the podcast is and what you guys… What you were thinking when you started it? What you were kinda trying to get out of it? What kind of guests you’ve had on and what people can expect in the future?

42:06 Emma Ashford: Some of it is, actually, that we really have enjoyed our past conversations on Free thoughts. I know I’ve been on here a couple of times, I think Trevor has too and we really like the fact that we could just sit and discuss an issue for a while. So we are, to a large extent, trying to replicate that in the foreign policy space. We have a guest on, every episode, to talk about their research, their background, the topic that’s of current interest and they’re not always restrainers or realists, in fact, they’re usually not. But what we wanna do is talk with them about an important issue in international politics and not always just be talking about Iraq and Afghanistan. So we’ve covered everything from sanctions to international wildlife poaching, all of which are interesting international relations topics, some of which are a little more important than others if I’m honest, but it gives us the scope to actually have like a 25-minute debate where we talk through the issue, rather than just sort of hitting the high points.

43:02 Trevor Thrall: Yeah, and I think one of our real goals is to reach younger people who are both podcast listeners, I think in general, but also new to libertarianism, new to foreign policy. Maybe they’re young staffers or they’re in school and we’re hoping to catch them where they are right now and provide a gentle on-ramp to thinking about foreign policy in a smart way.

43:23 Trevor Burrus: Would you say that you’ve been focusing more on academics in the foreign policy realm than people maybe who work at DOD? I don’t know if that will answer your calls or not, but that’s something else Emma and I at least have talked about, that the academics seem to have different view points than the foreign policy establishment in DC. And so, is that mostly what you’re looking for your guests?

43:45 Emma Ashford: We’ve had a fair number of academics on, but I would say we’ve also had quite a lot of people from the think-tank space here in DC. So it’s a little harder to get government people on the podcast. They have, particularly for DOD, they have a lot of waivers. They’ve got to sign, they can’t speak freely. But we have had people that have former government experience. So just a couple of weeks ago, we had Liz Rosenberg, used to be a high official at OFAC, that’s the sanctions agency under Obama. So she was on to talk about her own sanctions, and we were able to have a really interesting discussion with her based on her experiences in government and how we might sort of understand sanctions moving forward under Trump.

44:19 Trevor Thrall: Yeah. Yeah we had Colin Kahl who is Joe Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan coming up. So a lot of people who have experience but I would say it’s a little blob heavy, maybe even for my taste, but I think we’ve had a really great run of guests so far, and looking forward to more.

44:39 Emma Ashford: But if nothing else, we can at least ask them questions that hopefully makes them defend their positions, and then we can get on a few words that [44:46] ____ drives about our own.

[music]

44:54 Aaron Ross Powell: Thanks for listening. Free thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoyed today’s show, please rate and review us on iTunes, and if you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.