Opening Room to Negotiate?

Everyone would like a world of perpetual peace. Well, not everyone, and that is precisely why it will require more than attention to just our economic but also our political natures. Ironically, one of the least political of all our presidents may have just hit on the formula to achieve what has eluded practically every one of our recent administrations. We have exhibited a pattern of military restraint and a retreat from the Washington Consensus on free trade: and this may have opened up a surprising space for negotiating a new way forward.

Few people can accuse me of optimism and not a few have noticed how discouraging my sense of our current national political scene has been over the last few years. So please excuse me if suddenly I seem to evince the opposite inclination. For the sake of those who might think I have lost my mind, my principles or my senses, let me assure you, I am as much in favor of free trade and free enterprise as ever. Now, taking a deep breath, let me try out the following thought experiment.

Friedrich List was fond of saying that political economy must have as much politics in it as economy. With that he launched upon a critique of Adam Smith and free trade ideas that would inspire a significant portion of that line of thinking that would become the German Historical School of Political Economy. List’s assertion has garnered no end of opposition from classical liberals and libertarians ever since. But as Gustav Schmoller, a later member of that school, was always eager to insist, everything is always so very complicated.

What is now transpiring with the appointment of John Bolton and the concurrent opportunity to negotiate with North Korea is a staggering illustration of just such complexity. Either President Trump is a wildly brilliant strategist or he has stumbled into a mode of action that has inadvertently opened up enough space to bring the world back from what appears to have been the brink of ever expanding militarization, with all of its attendant threat of endless regional conflicts.

For the sake of argument, let me make the case for the first scenario, and risk the scorn of friends and associates.

In a world of zero-sum thinking, the economist typically contends that steady instruction in first principles and the experience of the long-run benefits of free trade, afford the best means to inculcate the fundamentals of sound policy. A major weakness in this approach though is that it assumes that people ultimately care so deeply about their personal well being that they will be open to learning from such instruction and such experience.

But the reality is quite otherwise. And it is not even that people who are inclined to think in zero-sum terms don’t understand the argument. It is just that they understand “well being” in a very different way from the rest of us. Indeed, I would be quite willing to bet that most of them in fact do understand quite well the proposition that rests at the heart of the notion of mutual gains from exchange. It is simply that they do not care, and are, in fact, quite willing to forego those benefits in pursuit of something else, something political.

Now lest you think by this that I mean simply nationalism, not so fast! It certainly plays a part in such a person’s indifference curves, to use the economist’s jargon, but it isn’t just that.

Every “great leader” whoever he might be, not only discounts the benefits of those outside of his particular country, but a good many within it!

Indeed, such a person very often positively wants to harm and directly handicap large numbers of people within his own country, people he regards as subversive or “enemies of the state.” Such a person might well understand the economist’s arguments about the long run, but he is not at all interested, as the economist is, in the benefits that accrue to persons in general, but only to the relative position of himself and his group. In such a world as this, prior to Trump, we were rapidly losing space within which to act or negotiate politically, other than through the military option. And we were doing so because of our unwavering attachment to global humanitarianism and free trade.

The same sort of ethical universalism that informs the calculations of our economists, was also fueling the reformist agendas of our past globalist policies. On that basis, we entered into other countries to protect their human rights, to ensure truth, justice and the American way. As much as we might like to liberate all people everywhere from evil, notice what that does: it inadvertently provides a handy rationale for resistance by all those who resent our intrusions.

Liberalization of any sort, whether it be human rights, free trade, limited government, environmental regulation etc., etc. becomes simply our imposition, the American way, and not their own way. Such association draws every malcontent everywhere like moths to a flame to take up arms and fight, which aids and abets the zero-sum group-think of would be strongmen everywhere. They need only point to the presence of our troops to say, “this is not natural, this is not ours, but is rather an imposed order.”

And all those whom we have helped? They become the perpetual enemy within to anti-liberal authoritarians everywhere. They are the handy-dandy universal reason for every possible obstacle to the great leader’s plans for greatness, a convenient pretense to back up every excuse to poor performance. It is, moreover, very difficult to speak of your movement if it is obviously backed by the armed forces of others.

In this world, the logic of our past policies, however much we insisted they were the result of higher universal law, invariably directed us to more and not less military adventurism and all the overreach that that entailed. We need only recall just how disappointed the non-interventionists were in Obama. But most of the fault probably lay with the implicit logic to which he was heir. Now comes Trump.

Whatever you may think about the benefits of protectionism (and please note, I am in no way a protectionist), what Trump’s language on trade has done, however inadvertently, is open up space for policies other than military intervention. How is that possible?

Because it strikes directly at groups, including the in-group of every political strong man. “Great leaders” do not care about total utility. They care about relative status, and usually that has much more to do with matters of symbolism than any kind of generalized philanthropy. Now comes the appointment of John Bolton. My first reaction was…train wreck!

But my second thought is a more hopeful scenario.

Bolton might well be the proverbial Rottweiler on a leash. As long as Trump has him there, he has the chained beast of past militarism firmly in hand for all to see. But in the other, he has now the carrots of trade. If played right, Trump need never let go of Bolton, because now he can step back from the brink to which past military intervention has led us. If this is correct, whether intentional or unintentional, it could well herald an important step in the direction of peace, and if that is correct, then the foundations of true reform and progress will have been well served.

But this scenario will require two things more from us and the president if the opportunity is not to be squandered, and these will require real skills of political negotiation: Patience and a steady resolve to abjure the use of force. I am not at all convinced that we can achieve these points, but I am willing to hope.

Reader Discussion

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on March 29, 2018 at 10:52:04 am

The constitution's limits on starting war should be respected. As long as they are, I am not that fearful of Bolton. The problem is that people like John Yoo keep pushing the idea that the President can start a war at any time without congressional authorization.

George Washington said: "The Constitution vests the power of declaring War with Congress, therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject, and authorised such a measure." (https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-13-02-0381).

James Madison said: "The constitution supposes, what the History of all Gove[rmen]ts demonstrates, that the Ex[ecutive] is the branch of power most interested in war, & most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legisl[ature]."http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a1_8_11s8.html

Even Alexander Hamilton (very much in favor of a strong executive) said: "the Legislature have a right to make war" and that "it is . . . the duty of the Executive to preserve Peace till war is declared."

But, sadly, all of this history is ignored. If President Trump must go to Congress (as the Constitution requires), Bolton isn't a big threat as it will be Congress that determines if war is necessary. The fear is that President Trump (supported by people like McCain, Graham, Yoo, and Bolton) will ignore these constitutional requirements.

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Devin Watkins
on March 29, 2018 at 13:36:33 pm

Well, there is this:


Heck, Bolton has not had time to arrange his office furniture and the Iranian currency has begun to decline.

Gee, kiddies, he must be a real monster, a *warmongerer* as some would have it.

question: Why are those on the right so willing to accept the Left's definition of Bolton?
A nice piece by Eliana Johnson at Politico on Mr Bolton's effectiveness may be the actual reason so many are afraid of him.


Then again, the lefties are always worried about someone who puts US interests ahead of that of other nations and places greater value upon it than some utopian fantasy of a "One-World" kumbaya chorus.

I rather like the fellow.

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on March 29, 2018 at 14:00:19 pm

Here is a good piece that points in a promising direction:


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Hans Eicholz
on March 29, 2018 at 14:43:01 pm


Yep, a good piece.

If The Trumpster is to be believed, he will not pursue as "adventurous" a foreign policy, especially militarily, than had his predecessors. The Times essay also notes that one possible cause for past adventurism was a self-perceived (and presumably shared by others) weakness on the part of the US.
I suspect that Mr Bolton will not succumb to the infantile notion that the rest of the world is "just like us", is peaceful and motivated by altruism; consequently Bolton will not advance policies that would tend to, once again, place us in a *weak* position or ones that would, by default force us into using military power in order to overcome the self-imposed strategic disadvantages we would then confront. Consider Iran and the power and influence that has devolved upon it since the Obama - Kerry (non) treaty.
What comes of this, I do not know. However, it is clear that the failed policies of past Administrations have placed the US in a significantly weaker, more complex and dangerous position. Let us hope that new policy / approach may lessen concerns over peace and Iranian attempts at hegemony in that region.

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on March 29, 2018 at 20:30:15 pm

I think it important to keep in balance, on the one hand, the perspective of Watkins (which I share) that the constitution empowers ONLY the Congress NOT the president with the power to join in an existing war (as with WW I,) to start a war (as in the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War,) or to respond with a declaration of war when attacked (as in WW II) and, on the other hand, Gabe's perspective (which I share) of the need for addressing international military and diplomatic crises from a position of unchallenged military strength, diplomatic assertiveness and undiluted realpolitik in forceful pursuit of (only) US national interests.

That approach leaves no room for a Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (LBJ's fake excuse to start the Vietnam War,) for a UN Security Council Police Power Resolution (Truman's excuse for the US to intervene in and assume control of the Korean War,) or for the fake Congressional authorizations of the two Iraqi wars ( on which the Bushes relied.)

All of those Presidential misadventures ended badly because both Democrats and Republicans joined together foolishly and made unified mockery of indispensable constitutional, military and diplomatic principles.

Hans Morganthau advocated the correct approach, FDR and Ronald Reagan embraced it, and John Bolton appears to support it.

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on March 29, 2018 at 21:21:22 pm

I would rewrite my last sentence of my previous comment as follows:

Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan advocated the correct approach, John Quincy Adams, FDR, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan embraced it, and John Bolton appears to support it.

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on March 30, 2018 at 08:35:58 am


I share Devin's (and your) perspective on the PROPER method of deploying military force. The Legislative Branch is empowered to do so - not the Executive.

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on March 30, 2018 at 08:41:24 am

Here then for the entertainment of the readers is this:


from V. D. Hanson which provides some perspective on the differing effects of "leading from behind" (one cannot escape the feeling that the phrase referred to the source of one's "reasoning') and leading from strength.

For what it is worth!!!!

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on March 30, 2018 at 10:33:09 am

Ah come on, the war powers act of 1973 has provisions to allow the president to "commit the US to an armed conflict"...in case of an "emergency". Who defines the emergency? The president does, and congress gets the option to Monday quarterback it. What happened in Kosovo in 1999 when Clinton bombed without congressional approval? Nada.

And the resolution itself gives the president up to 60 days of making war before having to withdraw? That's not so much a prohibition as a free ticket to start shooting first!

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F Allen Morgan
on March 30, 2018 at 10:45:31 am

Actually the congressional authorizations for use of force under both Bush for Iraq were perfectly valid declarations of war, they just didn't declare a general war and instead declared a limited war. Here are the statutes:
George H.W. Bush's:https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/STATUTE-105/pdf/STATUTE-105-Pg3.pdf
George W. Bush's:https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-107publ243/pdf/PLAW-107publ243.pdf

According to the Founders, there were two types of war recognized at the time. The first is a general war, or a perfect war, in which all of the people of one nation are at war with all of the people of another nation. The second type of war is called an limited war, or an imperfect war, in which all the people of one nation (the one declaring war), are at war with some of the people of the other nation. Many times innocent merchants from the other nation are not considered at war and as such will not be seized. A normal declaration of war is a general war, while an authorization for use of military force is a limited war. For proof of this, I point first to the authorization for use of military force by the First Congress to Thomas Jefferson (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:United_States_Statutes_at_Large_Volume_2.djvu/165, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:United_States_Statutes_at_Large_Volume_2.djvu/166), which authorized the U.S. Navy “to subdue, seize and make prize of all vessels, goods and effects belonging to the Bey of Tripoli, or
his subjects ... and to cause to be done all such other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of
war will justify, and may, in his opinion, require.” I would also point at Supreme Court Justice Washington's 1800 opinion in Bas v. Tinghy, 4 U.S. 37, 40 (1800):

"It may, I believe, be safely laid down, that every contention by force between two nations, in external matters, under the authority of their respective governments, is not only war, but public war. If it be declared in form, it is called solemn, and is of the perfect kind; because one whole nation is at war with another whole nation; and all the members of the nation declaring war are authorised to commit hostilities against all the members of the other, in every place, and under every circumstance. In such a war all the members act under a general authority, and all the rights and consequences of war attach to their condition.

... [H]ostilities may subsist between two nations more confined in its nature and extent; being limited as to places, persons, and things; and this is more properly termed imperfect war; because not solemn, and because those who are authorised to commit hostilities, act under special authority, and can go no farther than to the extent of their commission. Still, however, it is public war, because it is an external contention, by force, between some of the members of the two nations, authorised by the legitimate powers."

Justice Chase noted that “Congress is empowered to declare a general war, or congress may wage a limited war; limited in place, in objects, and in time.” Id. at 43

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Devin Watkins
on March 30, 2018 at 10:49:06 am

Sorry that was the Seventh Congress, not the first.

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Devin Watkins
on March 30, 2018 at 14:38:20 pm

Two things. First is minor, it is the "War Powers Resolution" (not act).

Second. You don't quote the whole relevant section which is: "a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces." Can you tell me what where in the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces, have been attacked and by whom? Yes, if the President can determine that we are attacked (or about to be attacked), he can respond with force without waiting for Congress.

Yes, President Clinton violated the Constitution (and the War Powers Resolution), during the 78-day NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War in 1999. It was never challenged in court as far as I am aware. But there was no deceleration of war or authorization for use of military force for this. It is the only time other than the Libyan air campaign that the War Powers Resolution was explicitly not followed. The Korean war also did not have congressional authorization meaning it violated the Constitution.

The 60 days only applies AFTER (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces. After 60 days the President must submit a report to Congress. At that time, unless there is explicit congressional authorization for the action, he must withdraw all troops. So it gives the President 60 days IF we have been attacked to repel the attack and inform Congress and gives Congress those 60 days to decide to authorize further actions.

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Devin Watkins
on March 30, 2018 at 14:58:45 pm


Right you are!!!!

Correct me if I am wrong here, but in a sense are not sections of the War Powers resolution superfluous in that the President ALWAYS had the authority to commit military forces were the nation to be attacked.

Here is something that has always interested me>

The Korean War DID NOT have Congressional authorization. It bore, however, the imprimatur of the UN Nations Security Council and general Assembly?

What in heavens name does this portend? How is it that this nation would so willingly offer its' prerogative, as a sovereign nation, to solely decide with whom and where it will engage in war (treaty obligations excepted - well, maybe, as the Congress ought still to declare war) to a collection of inferior, and in many cases, failed states. (Yep, I know, WE wanted to engage the Communist forces, BUT....)

Until that time, the Barbary Pirate escapade included, this nation adhered fairly closely to its constitutional restrictions / prescriptions. What now? I could imagine that the Great One who Lead from [his] Behind engaging our military forces at the request of the UN, after all he had to be behind something BUT, while I do not see The Trumpster engaging in such folly, successors may be more accommodating. What is to prevent a re-occurrence of Korea? Or are we to expect a never ending series of Presidentially defined *limited* wars?

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on March 30, 2018 at 16:22:44 pm

Thanks, I needed that.

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on March 30, 2018 at 22:49:35 pm

Thanks,you are correct,however the Senate version was called the War Powers Act.

However, the resolution states the president can project military force for at least 48hrs without even telling congress. Therefore he can “start a war” not only without congressional approval,but not even telling them about it (in the 1st 2 days). And as you pointed out the resolution has subsequently been violated without any apparent prosecution...so much for Congress being diligent in asserting their constitutional rights.

I guess the real dilemma is what is meant by attack, or rather what actions/words of a dictator-madman could be construed-manipulated as an attack. Remember the initiating event of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution? A war could be well underway in 48hrs, where all the WPR prerequisites had been met for Congress to give it’s belated (but troop supporting ) approval.

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Frank Morgan
on March 31, 2018 at 01:25:36 am

Hans, in your next article would you please stop signaling your anti-Trump virtue? It is getting tiresome that even after a year plus of great success in so many quarters you people still cannot appreciate that President Trump is truly a brilliant guy in strategy and tactics.

Give the man his due, and stop protesting your past expiration date bona fides.

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D. Robert Ellisen
on March 31, 2018 at 09:40:34 am

Hope comes in mysterious ways.

Happy Easter to everyone.

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Hans Eicholz

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