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Does Classical Liberalism Have a Foreign Policy?

Does classical liberalism suggest the kind of a foreign policy the United States should pursue? If classical liberalism rests on premises about human nature and the world, namely, that individuals in politics tend toward passion and self-interest and that governments have access to very incomplete information about most worldly matters, I think it does. The foreign policy of a state built on these principles should resemble its domestic policy, market-oriented with limited public goals, most importantly of course defending the nation from foreign threats.

Thus, while the details of foreign policy of any time depend on the constellation of threats and circumstances in the world, a constant should be its modesty. First, we know relatively little about the traditions and internal politics of most other nations, almost never enough to be confident of changing them dramatically to our advantage. Second, our own nation is riven by political factions in which each faction will criticize the other for partisan advantage. Thus, it is difficult to sustain over time a complicated foreign policy, particularly any that costs a lot of money, unless the threats are clear enough that they inspire unity. And our government is unlikely to carry out the details of even laudable but complex foreign policy objectives well for the same public choice reasons that have doomed so many domestic policies that seem admirable on first hearing.

That does not mean the a classically liberal foreign policy is an isolationist policy. As John Lewis Gaddis’ superb biography of George Kennan makes clear, the greatest foreign policy success of the latter half of the twentieth century was containment. It was an outward-looking policy by which the United States sought to prevent the Soviet Union from further domination by exploiting the regime’s patent vulnerabilities until the self contradictions of communism doomed it. The threat from the Soviet Union was clear enough and the policy modest enough that it commanded widespread support among both Democrats and Republicans with exception of a rather small band of anti anti-communist intellectuals.

The policy should also be market-oriented, encouraging trade among nations except when that trade is a danger to national security. International markets no less than national ones serve liberty and prosperity and international markets no less than domestic ones are not subject to the information problems of government decision-making. And there is empirical support of one of the oldest ideas of classical liberalism—the softening effect of commerce. As Montesquieu noted, “Peace is the natural effect of trade. Two nations who differ with each other become reciprocally dependent; for if one has an interest in buying, the other has an interest in selling; and thus their union is founded on their mutual necessities.” The policies of our founders was similar. The Model Treaty proposed with many nations after the Revolution sought free and reciprocal trade with other nations.

Of course, that market-orientation does not mean that nations that trade together cannot go to war. People have other passions than a desire for a prosperity. But it makes it less likely. Nor should this market orientation necessarily eliminate the use of trade sanctions against regimes, like Iran, that are substantial threat. But it should make us very doubtful about trade wars against our allies.

On this view, the last two Republican Presidents each captured at best only one of the two pillars of a classically liberal foreign policy. George W. Bush aggressively pursued freer trade, but often had overweening ambitions of transforming other nations. Trump is much more modest in such ambitions, but he has created substantial tensions in commerce among nations. Classical liberals still await a contemporary foreign policy champion no less than a domestic one.

Reader Discussion

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on July 27, 2018 at 10:20:31 am

It seems to me that the question is not whether there *is* "empirical support" for the propositions of classical liberal doctrine but whether a stable international order (or even a domestic one) in equilibrium based on those propositions is possible. It strikes me that Karl Polanyi's thesis, based on his examination of the 19th and early 20th centuries, is that it is not. Nations have simultaneously warred and traded with one another throughout all of history, including long before the advent of classical liberal doctrine. It is not "trade" per se but the thoroughgoing organization of all nations along market system lines that is necessary to sustain such an order, and Polanyi felt that such a kind of universal social organization was not possible (specifically, the "limited public goals" part). History thus far has borne out his pessimism empirically.

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QET
on July 27, 2018 at 10:31:07 am

Quite right, re: difference between trade and market system.
Prime example: As Operation Barbarossa was unfolding, lengthy Sovier trains loaded with materials vital to German national defense / industry were steaming toward the German border (indeed, some had crossed it).

There are other factors / motivations that may spur hostilities - not the least of which is ideology or in the case of the USA, a certain form of messianic liberalism (classic or otherwise)

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gabe
on July 27, 2018 at 11:09:30 am

A 'modest' foreign policy did not bring the Cold War to a successful end. Nor did it create a peaceful and prosperous continent of Europe for the first time in centuries. Nor did it lead to an explosion of liberal democracies around the world. Nor did it establish an international economic order that has produced unprecedented wealth and health. Of course, a forward-leaning foreign and national security policy will make mistakes and prudence must be a part of any application of principles but you don't stop playing in the field or taking your next turn at bat just because you struck out in your last turn at bat.

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GARY SCHMITT
on July 27, 2018 at 15:56:51 pm

Classical liberals still await a contemporary foreign policy champion....

Did Clinton or Obama act contrary to libertarian foreign policy norms? Obama lobs some missiles at Libya, and authorized a No Fly Zone, as I recall. I don't even remember Clinton's foreign policy.

And that's kind of the point, right? A "classical liberal" foreign policy, as with so many other policies, would look a lot like inaction and thus would not attract much attention.

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nobody.really
on July 27, 2018 at 16:28:48 pm

In a prior context, I asked people to articulate the principles to guide the US's decision whether to intervene militarily to free slaves. No one took up the challenge on that occasion, so I'll offer it again.

In case anyone misses the point, I'm asking people to weigh 1) a self-interested respect for the autonomy of other groups, even when they engage in behavior you find reprehensible, when their behavior does not threaten your personal interests, vs. 2) a more idealistic respect for the autonomy of individuals. Arguably, the policy considerations that would favor refraining from seeking to modify the behavior of foreign regimes would also favor refraining from seeking to modify the behavior of Southern States. And vice versa.

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nobody.really
on July 27, 2018 at 17:01:41 pm

"Arguably, the policy considerations that would favor refraining from seeking to modify the behavior of foreign regimes would also favor refraining from seeking to modify the behavior of Southern States. And vice versa."

Actually, it is NOT arguable! Are you unable (or just being your clever self again for rhetorical reasons) to appreciate the difference between making an assessment and ultimately taking corrective action to fix an integral part of your OWN nation / polity as opposed to interfering in the internal domestic practices, as obviously reprehensible as they may be, of another nation or polity. We may skip all the "nuances" that you attempt to inject in the argument.
It is for us to police our own as it is for others to police their own.

What I termed "messianic" liberalism is the end result of the belief that a) we ought to create a world of rational, liberal democracy in our mold and b) that we CAN, in fact, bring this to fruition.
It is simultaneously delusional and presumptuous.

"W" was right to bomb Iraq and destroy his armed forces; clearly he was delusional to think that he could convert that medieval polity into a functioning American style democracy.

Goodness, nobody, at times you appear to "out-clever" yourself; surely, your need for bemusement may be better satisfied with some of the nice videos you supply for us here.
BTW: Make sure those little old ladies in the basement are receiving sufficient fluids. I mean if you are going to enslave them at least let them survive. Ha!

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gabe
on July 27, 2018 at 17:09:20 pm

I would say McGinnis' argument is historically undemonstrated in practice primarily because it is flawed in theory and that Gabe and QET have hit on the principle reason: his confusion of trade (international commerce,) which we have, with the extensive organization across the globe of national market systems on which a politically and economically stable international order depends, in which trade is but one component (which we don't have.)

Another reason is that classical liberalism (which is dead) and its metastasized modern heir (which lives on in the Republican Party and the EU) does contain that nasty element of capitalist evangelism by which, seen historically, it has sought both to gain markets and bring enlightenment to the world's wogs (as the Brits once called their third world client states.) Our Middle East entanglements under the Bushes from 1991 to the present, no less than Wilson's entry into WWI in 1917, were made to make the world safe for democracy on the false notion that democracies make for both good neighbors and profitable markets.

Finally, McGinnis' alleged "empirical evidence" to the contrary, the notion of ''the softening effect of commerce" is repudiated by history and can be seen as mere propaganda of the Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce used to promote the short-term profit interests of multinational corporations. The US traded with Nazi Germany until they declared war on us and with Japan until Pearl Harbor. Such corporate propaganda is what got the US ( Clinton and Bush) to give the ChiComs a free pass into the WTO (well, actually, they did have to pay the Clinton Campaign some money) where they're (not so peacefully) eating our lunch, and it's part of what got the US into the mess it's in where Red China is now both a military threat, an economic predator and the greatest perpetrator of international piracy in world history. If there was ever proof that the "softening effect of commerce" is a bloody lie, Xi Jinping is it.

Classical liberals need to come out of their academic cloud!

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Pukka Luftmensch
on July 27, 2018 at 17:14:05 pm

And BTW:

Here is an example of "messianism" interfering with diplomatic relations with an ally.

https://www.breitbart.com/london/2018/07/27/britain-halts-co-operation-us-isis-beatles-mother-appeals-judges/

Wherein Britain (like Canada) decides that it will no longer cooperate with US authorities in the investigation of the "ISIS Beatles" aka, the miscreants who filmed the beheadings of numerous Christians and enemies.

The proper course, I think, would be to maintain your own policy on capital punishment BUT not attempt to impose it on other nations. Of course, Ruth Bader Ginsburg does not agree with me as she seems to believe that US Courts should seek guidance from both foreign courts and foreign legislatures. How about you, nobody?

Want to let the European Court and / or Commission legislate for you?
Heck, both of us would be facing charges of hate speech (or at least poor speech).

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gabe
on July 27, 2018 at 17:16:04 pm

Well a lot of them have come out of the closet BUT appear to still be lost in the clouds.

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on July 27, 2018 at 17:24:51 pm

Make sure those little old ladies in the basement are receiving sufficient fluids.

Are your KIDDING ME? They've already burned through my entire supply of Chateau Ste. Michelle Bordeaux blend, and they're half way through the Tall Tales Syrah. If I can't evict them soon, by Saturday we're going to be down to brie and Triskets.

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nobody.really
on July 29, 2018 at 10:17:27 am

As to classical liberalism's foreign policy one might ask if there is a country today that is "classically liberal" and if so is its foreign policy, as McGinnis suggests it ought be, "… market-oriented with limited public goals, most importantly of course defending the nation from foreign threats." As to the former, I think no such country exists, but as to the latter, all first-world countries and numerous countries of lower economic rank , today, would claim they qualify, so that McGinnis' two criteria seem practically meaningless if not theoretically utopian.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran an article by a Senior Editor, Bob Davis, entitled "When the World Opened the Gates to China" which asked (but failed to answer even remotely) the question, "Was it a mistake for the U.S. to allow China to join the World Trade Organization?" I raise the article because it offers a test case for viewing the McGinnis proposition in two regards: 1) while there is no country today that is "classically liberal," the WSJ would call itself an advocate of "classical liberalism" and 2) it notoriously advocates (what it insists constitutes) "free trade" while consistently omitting discussion of the complex elements both of "fair governance" and of "fair trade," fairness, itself, being an intrinsic element of classic liberalism.

Needless to say, the article leans toward a conclusion that China in the WTO is a positive thing ( a very good thing for China; for the U.S. arguably good but arguably not so good, per the WSJ,) but in any event China in the WTO was an inevitable thing for the U.S, opines the Journal.

Hence, it would seem, dallying irresolutely on both sides of an economic issue of enormous moral import for the U.S and China, constitutes the epitome of "classical liberalism."

I point out the Journal's discussion of President Clinton (whom I would call Red China's paid advocate for its otherwise free ticket to WTO admission) who argued that by admitting the Peoples Republic (sic) of China the West would impede the PRC (really, the Chinese Communist party) in both its capacity and its proclivity to exert control over its people.

Further, the Journal quotes Slick Willie in his paid advocacy for Red China. (Is that "collusion?" Did Bill use the CCP in the PRC as a case study to teach Barack and Hill how it's done, how to get money by advocating the wrong thing dressed up as a good thing?) President Clinton said then: "By joining the WTO, China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products, it is agreeing to import one of democracy's most cherished values, economic freedom. When individuals have the power not just to dream but to realize their dreams, they will demand a greater say."

Ask the Uyghurs and the Tibetans and the Chinese Christians and the hundreds of millions of dirt-poor Chinese living in rural China and the 3 million Americans who through "the artlessness of the deal" for a ruling class of Communist thieves lost their jobs and the hundreds of thousands of opioid addicted whose dignity went with their work to the ChiComs and their corporate cronies and the businesses, consumers and tax payers of America who shoulder a $375 billion trade deficit with Red China: how's that working out? How have you all fared with the classic illusion of U.S. classic liberalism amidst the reality of Red China's kleptocracy? As they say in Jersey, "How you doin'' with the pretense of more open and more liberal governance for all and the actuality of totally free, totally unfair and utterly dishonest trade?

That was in the year 2000. As they say, "The rest is history."

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Pukka Luftmensch
on July 29, 2018 at 11:19:31 am

"how to get money by advocating the wrong thing dressed up as a good thing?) "

Hey, slickshit Willie was pretty open about it. He provided the ChiComms with previously highly classified missile guidance technology from a California tech company that had been highly restricted (available only to certain allies) in exchange for both campaign contributions and future "partnerships" with the ChiComms.

Then again, this proved so successful that Joe Biden, John Kerry and others have seen fit to follow the model. In exchange for siplomatic concessions, the *princelings*, sons / daughters of big time politicos are made venture partners with ChiComm enterprises. AND IT IS ALL LEGAL. Such a deal!

BTW: comes news today that the EU Commission is going to implement new rules on GMO's. Minor, right? Well, it will have the effect of severely limiting the export of US agricultural products to the EU.

But we must, like the sycophants at WSJ, NRO, Weekly Standard, make all praise to Free Trade.

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gabe

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