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Libertarian Lessons: Foreign Policy

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In a libertarian society the role of government is restricted to the protection of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Its only legitimate actions are those guaranteeing the rights of individuals against any who would violate them. What, then, is the proper role of the U.S. government in foreign affairs? To protect the rights of Americans here at home, not act as policeman of the world.

The U.S. Constitution grants specific powers to the federal government. Article 1, Section 8, grants to Congress the power to raise an army and navy, to call out the militia, and to declare war. The Framers understood that individuals have a right to protect themselves and that self-defense in a national context requires the existence of a military force sufficient to repel or discourage acts of aggression by foreign governments.

This enormous power resides in Congress for a reason. James Wilson, a delegate from Pennsylvania to the Constitutional Convention, praised the Constitution because “the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature,” preventing “one man” (or faction) from recklessly plunging the nation into military adventures. The president serves as “commander in chief” of the military – but the Constitution requires that he first secure a declaration of war by the people’s elected representatives in Congress before he may wage a war.

Early statesmen of our republic understood the danger that war posed. James Madison called it “the most dreaded” of the many threats to liberty, because it is the “parent of armies, and debts, and taxes” – and it increases Executive power. “No nation,” he concluded, “could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” The alarming growth over the last half-century of the national security state – with its ever expanding powers – is a testament to his insight.

Others of like stature concurred. George Washington advised in his Farewell Address, “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is to have with them as little political connection as possible,” while Thomas Jefferson, in his First Inaugural Address, called for “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” As secretary of state, future President John Quincy Adams told the U.S. House of Representatives in 1821 that the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” That sage advice was meant to keep the United States out of foreign wars.

It would be difficult to find a sphere of government action less imbued with the principles of the Declaration of Independence, or less in keeping with the intent of the Constitution, than America’s modern-day interventionist foreign policy, with its endless train of wars, occupations, regime-changes, drone strikes, and other consequences of military intervention. Not since 1941 has Congress voted on a declaration of war, yet successive presidents have sent military forces overseas dozens of times, and the nation is currently committed to military adventures in not less than seven countries.

War is hell. It marshals the resources of an entire nation toward the destruction of a foreign foe, often with tragic, unforeseen consequences. Many treat its usage far too casually and, in the process, turn a blind eye on how it destroys our own freedom and prosperity. A libertarian foreign policy – limiting the use of the military to genuinely defensive wars – is necessary to lay the moral foundation for a true system of national defense, recapture our nation’s standing on the world stage, and ensure the liberty and prosperity of the American people.

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