Commentary Magazine


To the Editor:

One does not know whether to react to Arch Puddington’s screed against the Cato Institute’s foreign-policy program [“Libertarians Abroad,” December 1997] with amusement or disgust His “analysis” ranges from shopworn allegations (Cato embraces “isolationism”) to the bizarre notion that Cato scholars are closet leftists who exhibit reflexive anti-Americanism.

Advocates of the status quo have a nasty habit of using the “isolationist” epithet to intimidate anyone who has the temerity to suggest that the United States can and should have a more cautious, selective security strategy. It is impossible, however, to reconcile the isolationist stereotype with the positions adopted by Cato foreign-policy experts over the years. Scholars who promote global free trade, a liberal immigration policy, and a strong, high-tech military are hardly advocating a hermit republic.

The root problem is that the Puddingtons of the world apparently cannot visualize a security strategy that lies between the extremes of having American troops intervene in such strategically and economically irrelevant snake pits as Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia and retreating behind the walls of Fortress America. But Cato writers have proposed a sensible alternative: strategic independence. That policy would have America fully engaged in the world economically, culturally, and diplomatically while reserving the use of military force for the defense of vital American security interests.

Such an approach undoubtedly offends Mr. Puddington and others who believe that the United States has an obligation to attempt to solve every problem in the world. But trying to play the global hegemon is the most thankless and counterproductive job imaginable. Not only is it a blueprint for strategic overextension and, ultimately, economic exhaustion, but it subjects the United States to manipulation by an assortment of clients and so-called allies.

The financial costs of global interventionism are staggering. It is no coincidence that America spends more than $260 billion a year on the military while other countries spend small fractions of that amount. For example, this year Japan will spend $43 billion and Germany a paltry $27 billion, even though both countries are located near zones of serious political instability. By appealing to America’s vanity (with dire predictions of catastrophe in the absence of U.S. “global leadership”), those nations, as well as Washington’s other security dependents, off-load their defense responsibilities onto the United States.

Tolerating such cynical free-riding is not only expensive but dangerous for America. The United States has essentially volunteered to be point man in an assortment of quarrels around the world, while other major powers in an affected region—who have more important interests at stake—stand on the sidelines or, at most, provide token support. It is a pattern that we have seen in Europe (the Bosnian conflict), East Asia (the 1996 crisis in the Taiwan Strait), and numerous times in the Persian Gulf. Incurring such burdens on behalf of free-riding clients is not being a leader; it is being a chump.

Instead of volunteering to be the intervenor of first resort in the international system, the United States should position itself to be the balancer of last resort. That means encouraging, not smothering, the development of multiple centers of power in the world. The capable and prosperous nations of Western Europe and East Asia—yes, even with their temporary financial woes—need to take primary responsibility for the security and stability of their regions. But incentives matter. Just as domestic welfare programs encourage an unhealthy dependent mentality on the part of recipients, Washington’s military policies foster dependence abroad. Cato’s foreign-policy program is based on the belief that the time is long overdue to dethrone Washington’s international military welfare queens.

Such a criticism of U.S. policy bears little resemblance to left-wing critiques. The absurdity of Mr. Puddington’s attempt to attach the leftist label to Cato scholars is even more apparent when one examines some of the specific policy prescriptions published by the Institute. Cato analysts have, for example, advocated the development and rapid deployment of defenses against ballistic missiles, proposed treating state-sponsored terrorist attacks against American citizens as acts of war, and criticized attempts to subordinate U.S. foreign-policy decisions to the authority of the United Nations. Perhaps Mr. Puddington would care to identify a left-wing organization that endorsed even one (much less all) of those positions.

His “evidence” of Cato’s alleged anti-Americanism consists of two quotes from the 1970’s. Both were wrenched out of context, and one came from an individual whose connection with the Institute ended more than seventeen years ago. Beyond that feeble attempt to support his scurrilous charge, Mr. Puddington seems aggrieved that Cato scholars have dared to argue that global interventionism has undermined America’s domestic freedoms. But Robert Higgs provided definitive evidence of that effect more than a decade ago in his seminal book, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. Higgs showed conclusively that America’s mobilizations to wage the two world wars and the cold war caused a massive shift of power from the private sector, as well as state and local governments, to the federal government. The infamous left-wing extremist Steve Forbes echoed Higgs’s theme in his address to the Cato Institute’s 20th anniversary dinner last May.

Mr. Puddington’s critique is badly off the mark. The objective of the Cato Institute is to encourage the adoption of a foreign policy consistent with the values of a constitutional republic based on the principle of limited government. The lives, freedoms, and financial resources of the American people are not rightfully available for whatever missions suit the whims of political leaders. The U.S. government has a constitutional and moral responsibility to protect the security and liberty of the American republic. It has neither a constitutional nor a moral writ to risk American lives and resources to police the planet, promote democracy, or advance other aims on the foreign-policy bureaucracy’s agenda. A policy of strategic independence is not isolationism and it is certainly not anti-Americanism; it is a practical expression of enlightened patriotism.

Ted Galen Carpenter
Vice President, Defense and
Foreign Policy Studies
Cato Institute
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

Arch Puddington scored excellent points against the Cato Institute’s foreign policy but overlooked the deeper roots of its ideology, which infect far more than Cato. This ideology is not isolationist in the traditional sense. While Cato preaches a doctrine of geopolitical withdrawal, it is combined with a passion for global commerce and economic interdependence. This is the doctrine of classical liberalism, which has for two centuries preached the superiority of private actions and interests in world affairs as well as domestic. Indeed, in this view, there is no difference between home and abroad.

After every major conflict since the Seven Years’ War, idealists have claimed that the long dark night of great-power rivalry and incessant warfare was finally passing away before the dawn of a new enlightened era based on mutual economic gain. Richard Cobden, leader of the British free-trade movement in the mid-1800’s, summarized this view nicely, claiming that commerce was “the grand panacea” and that under its influence “the motive for large and mighty empires, for gigantic armies and great fleets would die away.”

The same sorts of claims are made today by both major political parties in this country. William Brock, for example, former Republican Senator and U.S. trade representative during the Reagan era, has commented that “the conduct of the United States in leading the cause of liberalized trade is going to have more to do with the process of peace than all the diplomats put together.” Not surprisingly, transnational corporations, who want no geopolitical interference with their global investment, production, and distribution systems, have also embraced this view and those who espouse it.

Because of its economic arguments against socialism, many have turned to classical liberal doctrine without understanding its full ideological context. Articles like Mr. Puddington’s are important in pointing out the need to change ideological concepts to restore the traditional role of commercial policy as a support for national strength in diplomacy and security. The libertarian perspective, which gives precedence to petty, shallow, and transient private interests over the broader, deeper, and more enduring concerns of national communities striving in a dangerous world, cannot possibly serve as our guide.

William Hawkins
Burke, Virginia



Arch Puddington writes:

Ted Galen Carpenter vehemently denies that the Cato Institute is “isolationist,” but the many books, essays, and conference papers that I reviewed for my article demonstrate otherwise.

Throughout its history, Cato has shown a remarkably consistent point of view toward U.S. foreign policy, finding failure in each and every instance of American intervention abroad, from Korea to the Persian Gulf and Bosnia. Cato staff and their like-thinking allies invariably describe U.S. global leadership as a recipe for present or future foreign-policy “catastrophes,” “disasters,” or “quagmires.” To take but one ludicrous—even laughable—example, Cato has recently published policy papers, co-authored by Mr. Carpenter, which warn that extending NATO to the East is likely to involve the United States in wars between Poland and Belarus, and between Hungary and Serbia.

At the heart of Cato’s analysis of American foreign policy is the notion, elaborated yet again in Mr. Carpenter’s letter, that American intervention in foreign conflicts, including the cold war, has given rise to an all-powerful state and has drastically narrowed our civil liberties. But how is this to be reconciled with the actual experience of the postwar period? Far from being dominated by official secrecy and coercion, as libertarians charge, this era saw an astonishing expansion of individual liberties, including a transformation in race relations and in the opportunities available to women. And for all of Mr. Carpenter’s talk about a suffocating national-security state, America today has an all-volunteer military, shrinking defense expenditures, and an aggressively critical press.

Moreover, American leadership has contributed to an unprecedented growth of freedom around the world, including the widespread adoption of free-market principles. Even now, the United States is adapting far better to the changes generated by a globalized economy than are countries like Germany and Japan, with their comparatively small military forces and far lower diplomatic profiles.

Only blind ideology can explain why those who profess to be devotees of liberty find so much to condemn in postwar American foreign policy, which has brought peace and prosperity both to ourselves and to our allies in Europe and Asia.

I appreciate William Hawkins’s pertinent reminder of the tendency among some libertarians to assume that free trade by itself will produce a world of harmony and peace, though I am somewhat more persuaded than he seems to be of the relationship between free markets and freedom generally. Still, as he rightly argues, free trade is no substitute for vigorous diplomacy and a strong defense.


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