Commentary Magazine

Libertarians Abroad

This past summer, a curious collection of foreign-policy types gathered at a conference in Washington, D.C., to declare their opposition to the expansion of NATO. In the mix were a number of distinguished figures of the establishment, including Fred Iklè, a top defense official during the Reagan administration, and William G. Hyland, the former editor of Foreign Affairs. Present, too, was Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R.-Texas). But much more prominently featured on the conference program were lesser-known voices: Ted Galen Carpenter, who declared that the contemplated expansion of NATO was “unnecessary, expensive, and provocative”; Stanley Kober, who likened NATO to the European alliance system that contributed to the outbreak of World War I; and Christopher Layne, who doubted whether any vital American security interests could justify sending our troops “to die for Gdansk—or Warsaw, Prague, or Budapest.”

What the second group of speakers had in common, it turns out, was their connection to the conference’s sponsor, the Cato Institute. Carpenter is Cato’s vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies, Kober is a specialist on the institute staff, and Layne, a free-lance policy intellectual who currently teaches at the Naval Postgraduate Center, is a frequent participant in Cato events. But this only deepens the mystery: what were the likes of Iklé, Hyland, and Hutchison doing at a Cato event?



The Cato Institute is a libertarian think tank. Founded in San Francisco in 1977, with a sizable endowment from the industrialist Charles Koch, it moved its headquarters to Washington in 1980 in hopes of becoming a more significant presence in the national policy debate. And, at least on the domestic side of that debate, Cato can indeed claim a following in Washington. Inspired by the work of F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman—the free-market economists who serve as the intellectual godfathers of contemporary libertarianism—Cato has been a vocal and on the whole effective advocate of tax cuts, deregulation, and limited government. Its reports and opinion pieces are widely read, especially in conservative policy circles but elsewhere as well, and the institute is looked to for laissez-faire advice on everything from Social Security and immigration to welfare reform and drug policy.

Cato’s conference on NATO expansion, then, marked something of a milestone. Though the institute has always devoted some of its energies and resources to foreign policy, its views in this area have never before won so respectful a hearing or mobilized such distinguished allies. In fact, one could put it more strongly: until fairly recently, Cato’s stands on America’s role in the world have placed it just this side of the radical fringe.



Whether or not there is such a thing as a coherent libertarian approach to foreign affairs, Cato’s own view has been remarkably consistent over the years. The essence of that view is that American foreign policy in the decades since World War II has done enormous harm to American society. In particular, intervention abroad has been a driving force behind statism at home, justifying ever greater taxation, regulation, and surveillance of private citizens. Only by withdrawing from its vast international commitments can the U.S., in the view of Cato’s analysts, hope to become a truly free society.

What follows from this general attitude is, on the face of it, a rather conventional sort of isolationism. Thus, for instance, Cato has expressed its hostility to American efforts to secure and extend the democratic revolution that has swept the world in recent years. The institute loudly opposed the American interventions in Haiti and Bosnia, predicting that each would turn into a Vietnam-style “quagmire,” and it has also worked assiduously to shut down more modest efforts to promote political liberalization abroad, like Radio Martí (the American-sponsored broadcast service to Cuba) and the National Endowment for Democracy (which funds human-rights organizations and other independent groups in countries where democracy has yet to take root).

To get the true flavor of Cato’s position, however, one needs to go back some years and sample its analyses of American foreign policy and the challenges faced by it. Thus, at a conference sponsored by the institute in December 1987—less than two years before the collapse of East European Communism—Christopher Layne spoke derisively of the notion that the U.S. could do anything at all to push the Kremlin toward reform. Maintaining that both liberals and conservatives “badly overestimate Soviet weakness,” he baldly asserted that the Communists could “count on the support of the vast majority of the Soviet people,” an extraordinary claim to be voiced at an event whose sponsor holds the human desire for liberty to be both primary and innate.

At the same event, Alan Tonelson, a former editor at the liberal journal Foreign Policy and another regular speaker at Cato forums, issued a sweeping condemnation of containment, the organizing principle of U.S. policy toward the USSR throughout the cold war. Though at the time America itself was in the midst of an unprecedented economic revival, Tonelson insisted that containment had not only failed to enhance the country’s security but had served to undermine “its economic vitality, its economic sovereignty, [and] its technological prowess.”

Fallacious and even hysterical as these assessments were at the time, they look positively foolish in the light of the Soviet Union’s collapse. But this has not led Cato to change its tune. To the contrary, just as it urged a hands-off policy toward Communism and the Soviet Union in the pre-1989 era, so it has maintained that the ideal scenario for Eastern Europe today would be something like the status quo ante. At a 1994 forum, Ted Galen Carpenter spoke hopefully of Russia’s being restored to great-power status, the more effectively to police its “volatile” former allies. For Carpenter, stability in Eastern Europe depended on the West’s willingness to cede Russia a “sphere of influence” in the region; he seemed either unaware of or unfazed by the vivid political history associated with that term in the minds and on the skins of East Europeans.



Acuity and a sense of perspective have not been trademarks of Cato’s offerings on other regions of the world, either. At a conference just before hostilities began in the Persian Gulf, William Niskanen, the chairman of the institute, confidently predicted that resistance to Iraq’s designs on Kuwait would bring about inflation, increased taxes, and pervasive wartime controls at home. Rosemary Fiscarelli, an analyst for Cato, accused President Bush of being in the grip of an “obsession,” and Christopher Layne charged that those supporting the American-led effort to dislodge Saddam Hussein were adopting a “statist position that regards America’s citizens, resources, and institutions” as mere fodder for the “world order’s pretensions.”

Since the conclusion of the Gulf war, Cato has opposed any ongoing U.S. involvement in the Middle East, a region almost universally considered a vital American interest. In its most recent foreign-policy recommendations to Congress, the institute urged that we abandon our security commitments to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and jettison our policy of containing Iran and Iraq. Opining that Islamic terrorism directed at American targets represents “primarily a backlash against Washington’s meddlesome globalist, interventionist foreign policy,” Cato suggested that we solve the problem by avoiding such “entanglements.” In a recent study for the institute, Leon Hadar, a former correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, likewise called for America’s “constructive disengagement” from the Middle East, and particularly from the effort to achieve peace between Israel—a “repressive mini-empire”—and its Arab neighbors.



The ideological temper that informs Cato’s analyses sometimes leads to quite astonishing intellectual contortions. Consider a recent essay by Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the institute, which asserts:

For nearly five decades, the United States has acted more like an empire than a republic, creating an international network of client states, establishing hundreds of military installations around the world, at times conscripting young men to staff those advanced outposts and fight in distant wars, and spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the military. Indeed, [this] globalist foreign policy [has] badly distorted the domestic political system, encouraging the growth of a large, expensive, repressive, and often uncontrolled state.

Apart from the overheated rhetoric of this passage, Bandow’s remarks are impossible to square with the extraordinary prosperity and personal freedom that Americans have enjoyed in the postwar era. One might think a libertarian would be compelled to acknowledge this state of affairs, even if declining to give any credit for it to the stable international order that was fostered, precisely, by American foreign policy.

Or consider Ted Galen Carpenter’s The Captive Press, a 1995 book that purports to expose the government’s success in controlling media coverage of international affairs during and after the cold war. As Carpenter sees it, the past half-century has been marked by a relentless drive to intimidate, mislead, smear, and coopt those Americans who have dissented from their country’s conduct abroad. Even now, he contends, a foreign-policy elite continues to stifle honest debate. How this statement is to be reconciled with the intense and even intemperate public discussion of every conceivable foreign-policy issue in the past decades, from Vietnam and the nuclear freeze to the Persian Gulf war and American involvement in Bosnia, is a puzzle Carpenter does nothing to elucidate.



In the end, what is most striking about these and other foreign-policy pronouncements of the libertarian Right as represented by Cato is not how wrong they are, or even how wrongheaded, but how redolent they are of the positions embraced in the course of the cold war by the most radical elements of the American Left. This, in fact, is no coincidence. Both in principle and as a matter of historical record, libertarians have long shared a great deal with those at the other end of the political spectrum.

Indeed, in Cato’s formative years, before its move to Washington, its alliance with the Left was a matter of open fact. Leftist writers were given a forum in the pages of Inquiry, the institute’s magazine—so long, that is, as they stayed away from attacking the free market and confined themselves to the misdeeds of the U.S. on the world scene—and Cato actively collaborated with the radical Institute for Policy Studies, a proponent of revolution in the third world and socialism at home, in urging a unilateral American disengagement from the East-West conflict.

Cato also imbibed deeply of the Left’s unrelievedly negative view of America’s influence on the rest of the world. Writing in National Review in 1979, Edward H. Crane, then as now the president of the institute, blamed the United States for the successes enjoyed by its ideological rivals, insisting that American “attempts to control the international affairs of other countries have only created enemies and facilitated the spread of Communism.” Murray Rothbard, a leading figure in the libertarian movement and a strong early influence on Cato’s programs, went still further, castigating the U.S. as “more aggressive and imperialistic” than the Soviet Union.

For its part, Inquiry called for “total and unconditional” U.S. withdrawal from Korea, defended the presence of Soviet troops in Africa, and routinely launched broadsides against American “militarism.” The magazine even adopted the pet causes of its foreign-policy sympathizers on the Left, calling for the abolition of the CIA and, of all things, revisiting the case of Alger Hiss in order to maintain his innocence.

Today’s Cato is a much more polished and sophisticated institution. But it has remained true to this basic outlook—truer, even, than its erstwhile comrades. Long after much of the Left has abandoned or modified its anti-Americanism, Cato goes on stubbornly casting the United States as a meddlesome, imperialist bully, feared and despised the world over. An ideological relic Cato may be, but it deserves high marks for steadfastness.



Cato’s embarrassing track record does not, of course, mean that its views on NATO expansion or on any other foreign-policy issue are necessarily to be dismissed out of hand. But one might think that the fact the institute has always rejected an active role for the U.S. should, at the very least, give pause to those who now seem to be looking to it as a possible source of guidance, or to be lending it the prestige of their names. In this regard, Cato’s prescriptions pose a special danger for the Republican party, where libertarians have already established a position of authority on issues of purely domestic concern. Much as the New Left did with the Democratic party a generation ago, libertarians today stand ready to infuse the GOP with their ideas on the proper conduct of American foreign policy. Especially in light of the ignominious role played by Cato in the long and arduous struggle of the cold war, this would be a sad development indeed for a party that did so much to help bring that conflict to a close.


About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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