- War is Inherently Unjust
- Foreign Governments are Sovereign
- The illegitimacy of the United Nations
- The existence of fundamental human rights
[M]any radical libertarians who hold position (1) at the same time adopt a hyper-legalistic view of what constitutes a ‘war of aggression’ in which states are treated as though they were individual persons. In other words, they adopt the Westphalian view of nation states and sovereignty, which was devised to recognize and protect the autonomy of the government rulers ‘their’ territory. When making this argument, these radical libertarians treat foreign governments as ‘sovereigns’ to be respected (by theNow I’ve read a good bit of libertarian foreign-policy theory, and I don’t recall many references to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which marked the end of the Thirty Years’ War and the Eighty Years’ War. According to Wikipedia, the two treaties comprising this event enshrined the doctrine of national sovereignty and nonintervention in the internal affairs of states. But the entry also notes that a revisionist view holds that “Neither of the treaties mention sovereignty.”
government) unless they commit or imminently threaten an act of aggression against the territory of another sovereign. Systematically violating the rights of their own subjects or citizens is a wholly internal domestic matter. In essence, these foreign governments are treated in principle as the just owners of the territories they govern. And their conduct is to be judged by the same rules of self-defense as are individuals…. One might say that, when dealing with issues of (American) foreign policy, these libertarians reify (foreign) states and treat them like individuals, with all the natural rights of individuals. U.S.
This historical controversy aside, what does it have to do with libertarianism and foreign policy? Not much. While it is true that the most substantial libertarian thinking about foreign policy embraces the principle of nonintervention in other countries’ internal affairs, libertarian noninterventionism is not founded on the principle of national sovereignty. How could it be?
Only the individual is sovereign. That being the case, no radical libertarian is guilty of reifying the state. Thus, there is no incoherence in the radical-libertarian position. Nice try, Professor Barnett, but no cigar.
If the reason for the prohibition on intervention is not national sovereignty, why have libertarian foreign-policy thinkers insisted that governments follow a strict noninterventionist principle? It shouldn’t be too difficult to discern the answer. Barnett of all people should know, given his long association with most of the heavyweight libertarian intellectuals.
Murray Rothbard, who did some of the most important work on libertarian foreign policy, summed up the answer in The Ethics of Liberty:
[T]he libertarian is interested in reducing as much as possible the area of State aggression against all private individuals, "foreign" and "domestic." The only way to do this, in international affairs, is for the people of each country to pressure their own State to confine its activities to the area which it monopolizes, and not to aggress against other State-monopolists—particularly the people ruled by other States. In short, the objective of the libertarian is to confine any existing State to as small a degree of invasion of person and property as possible. And this means the total avoidance of war. The people under each State should pressure ‘their’ respective States not to attack one another, and, if a conflict should break out, to negotiate a peace or declare a cease-fire as quickly as physically possible.As one can readily see, no principle of national sovereignty is needed to establish the noninterventionist principle. Governments don’t have rights over “their” territories or populations. Rather, they are ubiquitous threats to life, liberty, and property. But that is precisely why they must be kept from clashing with each other—when they do, innocents get slaughtered and wealth gets confiscated. This doesn’t mean that governments may properly aggress against “their” populations unmolested. They most certainly may not. It simply means that the method of opposing a given state’s aggression must be something other than interstate warfare. A libertarian cannot coherently advocate aggression in order to fight aggression.