Foreign Policy, Isolationism and Libertarianism  (and global warming)


            I have often heard libertarians denounce American involvement in most or all wars of this century.  America, in some libertarian views, was not justified in getting involved even in World Wars I and II, which is interesting when one remembers the political history that led to this shellshock.  To someone who grew up and participated in the Vietnam era (“domino theory”) draft, the view is particularly interesting. In fact, the idea that our own freedoms could be jeopardized if we are not very vigilant about events around the world (and, today, particularly terrorism) is particularly poignant to me since I saw (during my 1968 Army service) in the Pentagon many documents that supported the “dominoes” and the idea that the Soviets could have been capable of using tactical nuclear weapons quite early. I note that Harry Browne has often supported a missile defense (for defensive purposes only), although it is not clear how this would deal with many other threats. 

            Of course, elsewhere on this site and in my books I have argued against compulsory conscription as against at least the spirit of fundamental rights (and I’ve tied these arguments to the gays-in-the-military issue).

            We have also, in more recent decades, involved ourselves in the affairs of other countries partly to protect our access to natural energy resources, especially oil, as with the Persian Gulf War in 1991 to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait (a war which I believe would facilitate the gays in the military debate two years later). Indeed, Middle fEastern countries have sometimes accused us of “exploiting” their resources to support our consumptive habits at the expense of religious peoples (and of course this may be easily rebutted).  As the global warming debate grows, we could be forced to employ mandatory fuel conservation measures (and deal with the political problems of who makes the share sacrifices) to honor international treaties. 

            We have also engaged in some areas (Kosovo) out of complete disgust for the violence against human rights going on there and out of a sort of nouveau-domino theory.

            In the year 2000, the most urgent problem may be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as we seem to be back to where we were before the famous Begin-Sadat summit at Camp David with President Jimmy Carter in 1978 (and event much debated in Understanding, an organization discussed in my DADT book). One thing strikes me about all of this.  Although conditions in that area are much better than, say,  Iraq and Iran and many other countries, people in Israel and Palestine do not enjoy individual freedoms to the degree that we do in the United States.  As much respect as I have for people who live by faith and as much as I may sympathize with the historical justification for the reestablishment of Israel and so on (and as much as these events continue a tradition from the Old Testament, depicted in the synoptic NBC film In the Beginning [in which Frederick Weller from Stonewall plays the precious, if self-centered Joseph with his Technicolor Dreamcoat)—I am struck by how subservience to religious law and experience of a lifeline through the Law drives all else, to the point that legitimate private property of others (some Palestinians on the West Bank) may have been taken.  (I’ve even heard glowing first-hand reports of the communal lifestyles on the kibuttzum, although I have never visited that area.)   Peace will come when the legitimate individual rights (including property rights) of all people living in a region are protected.


A note about global warming


Even as late as the second gasoline shortage, in 1979 in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis, “experts” were predicting that the world would soon run out of oil, at least in areas politically controllable by the West.  This has turned out to be wrong; the prospective longevity of our raw materials for energy is much more than had been predicted.  Oil shale projects, for example, were cancelled as oil prices plummeted during the Reagan administration.


So letting the “experts” predict a trend like global warming sounds to me like a dubious proposition. But as so often the case, the opposing arguments sail past one another. It is true that over millennia there is great natural variation on earth’s climate.  We’ve had “little ice ages” and warm spells before. The last great ice age was receding only 10,000 years ago.  Over any long time period, natural processes may well overshadow human effects.


Indeed, the “unpredictability” of climate was dramatized in the May 2000 ABC Circle movie Ice. Yup, the movie wasn’t really too good. It starts with May Day temperatures in the mid 30’s in L.A and snow in Washington, and in a week the Hollywood Hills are buried in snow and civilization has collapses as if in a nuclear winter, all because of unexpected sunspots.  Perhaps we do not know definitively that this is impossible.  If our own star or orbit around it were suddenly unreliable (because of aliens???—I will accept nothing less) there wouldn’t be anything we could do about it. Well, I’m facetious, of course. Only technology, propelled by freedom, can save us if one day we find ourselves on a course for a direct hit by a comet or asteroid—and that will cause nuclear winter (the 1998 films Armageddon—where Ben Affleck drives a rental care on an asteroid—and Direct Impact). 


But of course it is possible that increased carbon dioxide emissions from human activity could increase earth’s temperature up to something like 10 degrees F. over what it would have been, in a century.  For many people, especially those in low-lying areas, this would be catastrophic. We won’t turn into a Venus (its catastrophe took only about 500 million years and there really may have been water oceans there a couple billion years ago), but there are legitimate reasons, according to the scientists, to become concerned. I can remember growing up in the 50’s in the Washington, DC suburbs and looking forward to winters punctuated by several sizable snows with snow days from school.  Now, these seem less frequent, perhaps replaced by the super-storms in 1993 and 1996. Fall lasts longer and spring comes earlier.  The last two winters in Minnesota have not been much worse than 50’s winters in Virginia. Yet, only as recently as Veterans Day, 2000, it dropped below zero in western Nebraska after a deep fall blizzard. 


And indeed, in some cases the effects of human activity are proved. Chlorofluorocarbons have created ozone layer holes, increasing melanoma, and resulting in international cooperation to stop using them. So far, technology has found decent replacements, although inhalants for asthma, for example, may be less reliable. With freedom, technology has indeed produced much cleaner cars and factories (remember the smog from steel mills in the 50’s and in the Communist world for decades). But it is not surprising that on the international level politicians will call for “shared sacrifices” to forestall what at least now appears to be an unacceptable risk of gradual global calamity.  And, guess who the bad guys are made out to be: the western world, especially the United States with its relatively low population and high energy use.


The United States will sign more international agreements on global warming (starting with Kyoto). No question, there will be wrangling over the question of “sacrifice.”  There may indeed be productive solutions—including growing a lot more trees and other greens—that actually eventually raise living standards and quality of life even here. On the other hand, there is at least the possibility of forced conservation measures, including some day gasoline rationing or restrictions on driving. Other interesting side possibilities would include reduced workweeks or forced 4-day weeks, and requirements that workers prove that they can actually work productively from home or telecommute.


Make no mistake about it, the treaties we sign could upend our best libertarian intentions at reducing government intervention into personal lives. We must ultimately honor these treaties. Think about it—throughout history, countries and factions have gone to war over perceived limits on natural resources, and we could interpret the Persian Gulf War over Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that way. This is your basic tribalism. 


But what follows, of course, is then the self-righteous attempt to preach guilt and sacrifice.  It would start at the group level—the rich are consuming resources and exploiting the poor, because of the “profit” motive, and I’ve seen plenty of socialist writings like this already. Minorities will be disproportionately affected.  But it can become much more personal.  Sacrifice, after all, can be based on lifestyle—whether one has children, is married, or has other dependents.  And it isn’t hard to see that this will give gays and lesbians all the more reason to demand “equality” in marriage laws.


But let’s say that freedom works and, short of an alien attack like in V or Childhood’s End, we don’t go down that path.        


Readings:  Gwynne Dyer, “Global-warming effort has American problem,” Minneapolis Star Triibune, Dec. 4, 2000, p. A13.   


David Riggs, “Global Warming: Divided Science and Unfounded Policy,” American Experiment Quarterly, Summer 1998.     


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