Get Realist: How liberty activists can change foreign policy

By Roy Antoun

The neoconservative theory of international relations rests upon pure ideology and a complete disregard for domestic fiscal discipline. Yet even though the failures of this school of thought are readily apparent—from the dumping of troops in Afghanistan to the whirlpool of political failures in Iraq—neoconservatives remain highly influential in the Republican Party (and the Democratic Party, too) and in much of the press and academia.

Neoconservatism has had some noteworthy defectors in recent years, however. Francis Fukuyama, once closely identified with the ideology, has become critical of the neocon belief that “history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will,” leading him to state that “neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.”

There is now an opening on the Right for a different kind of foreign policy—one more in keeping with the ideals of the Founding Fathers. Ron Paul has given voice to this alternative tradition. But as yet, many activists have failed to recognize what must be done to reverse the course of empire.

The Founders understood that heavily investing in military “hard power” abroad would lead to the republic’s destruction. They prescribed instead free trade, pure diplomacy, and honest friendship with other nations. Yet today hard power is Washington’s solution to practically any problem—real or perceived— while our diplomatic and commercial “soft power” withers away. European and Chinese businesses trade with Iran, for example, while the U.S. places sanctions upon the Islamic Republic. The same is true the world over, from Cuba to Africa. America has become the planet’s policeman, much to the detriment of our participation in the international economy—to say nothing of the harm to our international reputation.

To change this situation, friends of liberty must learn how the foreign-policy game is played. The first lesson is that the divisions between Republicans and Democrats matter little on the international stage. The foreign-policy community is split not between partisan positions but between theories—realists vs. liberals. Realist theories emphasize national boundaries and national interests; liberals adhere to international institutions and believe in collective action for aid and decision-making. Both the GOP and the Democrats have, at various times, acted as both realists and liberals—foreign policy ultimately has less to do with party affiliation than with questions of national survival and hegemony.

Libertarians can benefit from a better understanding of international-relations theory. Immediately switching from incipient empire to a more freedom-loving foreign policy is highly improbable, but for any gradual reorientation of America’s international role to succeed, freedom lovers must know who their friends are and which institutions can be won over to our side. Realists make better allies than liberals—indeed, neoconservatism itself, for all its patriotic pretenses, is a species of foreign-policy liberalism, what neocon Max Boot has called “Hard Wilsonianism.” (President Woodrow Wilson was the archetypal foreign-policy liberal.)

Understanding that countries such as Iran, Venezuela, Afghanistan, and Iraq will not become friendly to the U.S. overnight, libertarians need to begin by pushing for a less reactionary and more strategic foreign policy that angers no state but does business with all whilst ensuring the safety and security of the American nation; to achieve this, we need an articulate strategy, not an emotional reaction. More is required of us than merely protesting wars.

A crucial political step is to restore Congress’s constitutional role in foreign policy. The legislature was never intended to be a rubber stamp for “authorizing” military adventures already embarked upon by the president. Congress is supposed to declare war. Getting real about foreign-policy requires reasserting legislative powers, limiting the executive branch and restoring the constitutional act of declaring war through Congress before sending troops abroad. Short of that, empty promises of “bringing the troops home” mean little. Liberty voters must hold candidates to strictest constitutional standards.

And it’s not only voters who have the power to impress change upon representatives—noninterventionists should work to join campaigns and congressional staff, too, where they can have a direct influence. Getting a Capitol Hill job is much easier if one has the proper policy background, which is another reason why familiarity with international relations theory is important.

Congress is not the only institutional vehicle through which freedom activists can reshape foreign policy. Joining the Foreign Service is another possible route. Although Foreign Service Officers rarely have a direct affect upon the Secretary of State’s perspective, they do have the valuable power of policy dissent. Dissents that explain why certain orders and policies are flawed can eventually find their way to the secretary’s desk, especially if there are enough of them. And considering that the Foreign Service has a substantial number of vacancies at presents, there are significant opportunities here for well-grounded liberty activists. The beauty of this form of national service is that the one learns about other cultures at first hand. This is precisely what the United States needs today: sound-minded individuals with carefully considered perspectives on foreign policy and foreign cultures, people able to change foreign policy from within and for the better.

Outside of government, working for a think-tank can also be an effective way to bring about change in America’s stance toward the world. From policy papers to book writing to news media appearances, think-tank researchers influence foreign policy in myriad ways. They can sway public opinion (thus indirectly influencing congressional votes) and the thinking of policymakers directly. The liberty movement needs more scholars to move foreign-policy debates in a more nonaggressive, noninterventionist direction. Countering neoconservatism requires academics who are keen on freedom and peace and who have an informed and reasonable assessment of global cultures. Reminding people, on paper and in writing, that liberty is a good thing tends to go a long way.

With American foreign policy on the verge of imploding under the weight of unsustainable debt and military commitments around the globe, it is up to the youth, college students, graduates, and young entrepreneurs to begin changing our country’s international relations.

Roy Antoun is a student at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and is editor of the YAL Foreign Policy Handbook.