25. ON RELATIONS BETWEEN STATES
EACH STATE HAS AN assumed monopoly of force over a given territorial area, the areas varying in size in accordance with different historical conditions. Foreign policy, or foreign relations, may be defined as the relationship between any particular State, A, and other States, B, C, D, and the inhabitants living under those States. In the ideal moral world, no States would exist, and hence, of course, no foreign policy could exist. Given the existence of States, however, are there, any moral principles that libertarianism can direct as criteria for foreign policy? The answer is broadly the same as in the libertarian moral criteria directed toward the “domestic policy” of States, namely to reduce the degree of coercion exercised by States over individual persons as much as possible.
Before considering inter-State actions, let us return for a moment to the pure libertarian stateless world where individuals and their hired private protection agencies strictly confine their use of violence to the defense of person and property against violence. Suppose that, in this world, Jones finds that he or his property is being aggressed against by Smith. It is legitimate, as we have seen, for Jones to repel this invasion by the use of defensive violence. But, now we must ask: is it within the right of Jones to commit aggressive violence against innocent third parties in the course of his legitimate defense against Smith? Clearly the answer must be “No.” For the rule prohibiting violence against the persons or property of innocent men is absolute; it holds regardless of the subjective motives for the aggression. It is wrong, and criminal, to violate the property or person of another, even if one is a Robin Hood, or is starving, or is defending oneself against a third man’s attack. We may understand and sympathize with the motives in many of these cases and extreme situations. We (or, rather, the victim or his heirs) may later mitigate the guilt if the criminal comes to trial for punishment, but we cannot evade the judgment that this aggression is still a criminal act, and one which the victim has every right to repel, by violence if necessary. In short, A aggresses against B because C is threatening, or aggressing against, A. We may understand C’s “higher” culpability in this whole procedure, but we still label this aggression by A as a criminal act which B has every right to repel by violence.
To be more concrete, if Jones finds that his property is being stolen by Smith, Jones has the right to repel him and try to catch him, but Jones has no right to repel him by bombing a building and murdering innocent people or to catch him by spraying machine gun fire into an innocent crowd. If he does this, he is as much (or more) a criminal aggressor as Smith is.
The same criteria hold if Smith and Jones each have men on his side, i.e., if “war” breaks out between Smith and his henchmen and Jones and his bodyguards. If Smith and a group of henchmen aggress against Jones, and Jones and his bodyguards pursue the Smith gang to their lair, we may cheer Jones on in his endeavor; and we, and others in society interested in repelling aggression, may contribute financially or personally to Jones’s cause. But Jones and his men have no right, any more than does Smith, to aggress against anyone else in the course of their “just war”: to steal others’ property in order to finance their pursuit, to conscript others into their posse by use of violence, or to kill others in the course of their struggle to capture the Smith forces. If Jones and his men should do any of these things, they become criminals as fully as Smith, and they too become subject to whatever sanctions are meted out against criminality. In fact if Smith’s crime was theft, and Jones should use conscription to catch him, or should kill innocent people in the pursuit, then Jones becomes more of a criminal than Smith, for such crimes against another person as enslavement and murder are surely far worse than theft.
Suppose that Jones, in the course of his "just war" against the ravages of Smith, should kill some innocent people; and suppose that he should declaim, in defense of this murder, that he was simply acting on the slogan, “give me liberty or give me death.” The absurdity of this “defense” should be evident at once, for the issue is not whether Jones was willing to risk death personally in his defensive struggle against Smith; the issue is whether he was willing to kill other innocent people in pursuit of his legitimate end. For Jones was in truth acting on the completely indefensible slogan: “Give me liberty or give them death”—surely a far less noble battle cry.
War, then, even a just defensive war, is only proper when the exercise of violence is rigorously limited to the individual criminals themselves. We may judge for ourselves how many wars or conflicts in history have met this criterion.
It has often been maintained, and especially by conservatives, that the development of the horrendous modern weapons of mass murder (nuclear weapons, rockets, germ warfare, etc.) is only a difference of degree rather than kind from the simpler weapons of an earlier era. Of course, one answer to this is that when the degree is the number of human lives, the difference is a very big one. But a particularly libertarian reply is that while the bow and arrow, and even the rifle, can be pinpointed, if the will be there, against actual criminals, modern nuclear weapons cannot. Here is a crucial difference in kind. Of course, the bow and arrow could be used for aggressive purposes, but it could also be pinpointed to use only against aggressors. Nuclear weapons, even “conventional” aerial bombs, cannot be. These weapons are ipso facto engines of indiscriminate mass destruction. (The only exception would be the extremely rare case where a mass of people who were all criminals inhabited a vast geographical area.) We must, therefore, conclude that the use of nuclear or similar weapons, or the threat thereof, is a crime against humanity for which there can be no justification.1
This is why the old cliche no longer holds that it is not the arms but the will to use them that is significant in judging matters of war and peace. For it is precisely the characteristic of modern weapons that they cannot be used selectively, cannot be used in a libertarian manner. Therefore, their very existence must be condemned, and nuclear disarmament becomes a good to be pursued for its own sake. Indeed, of all the aspects of liberty, such disarmament becomes the highest political good that can be pursued in the modern world. For just as murder is a more heinous crime against another man than larceny so mass murder—indeed murder so widespread as to threaten human civilization and human survival itself—is the worst crime that any man could possibly commit. And that crime is now all too possible. Or are libertarians going to wax properly indignant about price controls or the income tax, and yet shrug their shoulders at or even positively advocate the ultimate crime of mass murder?
If nuclear warfare is totally illegitimate even for individuals defending themselves against criminal assault, how much more so is nuclear or even “conventional” warfare between States!
Let us now bring the State into our discussion. Since each State arrogates to itself a monopoly of violence over a territorial area, so long as its depredations and extortions go unresisted, there is said to be “peace” within the area, since the only violence is continuing and one-way, directed by the State downward against its people. Open conflict within the area only breaks out in the case of “revolutions,” in which people resist the use of State power against them. Both the quiet case of the State unresisted and the case of open revolution may be termed “vertical violence”: violence of the State against its public or vice versa.
In the existing world, each land area is ruled over by a State organization, with a number of States scattered over the earth, each with a monopoly of violence over its own territory. No super-state exists with a monopoly of violence over the entire world; and so a state of “anarchy” exists between the several States.2 And so, except for revolutions, which occur only sporadically, the open violence and two-sided conflict in the world takes place between two or more States, i.e., what is called “international war” or “horizontal violence.”
Now there are crucial and vital differences between inter-State warfare on the one hand and revolutions against the State or conflicts between private individuals on the other. In a revolution the conflict takes place within the same geographical area: both the minions of the State and the revolutionaries inhabit the same
(1)In inter-State war, the scope for the use of modern weapons of mass destruction is far greater. For if the escalation of weaponry in an intra-territorial conflict becomes too great, each side will blow itself up with the weapons directed against the other. Neither a revolutionary group nor a State combatting revolution, for example, can use nuclear weapons against the other. But, on the other hand, when the warring parties inhabit different territorial areas, the scope for modern weaponry becomes enormous, and the entire arsenal of mass devastation can come into play.
A second corollary consequence (2) is that while it is possible for revolutionaries to pinpoint their targets and confine them to their State enemies, and thus avoid aggressing against innocent people, pinpointing is far less possible in an inter-State war. This is true even with older weapons; and, of course, with modern weapons there can be no pinpointing whatever.
Furthermore, (3) since each State can mobilize all the people and resources in its territory, the other State comes to regard all the citizens of the opposing country as at least temporarily its enemies and to treat them accordingly by extending the war to them. Thus, all of the consequences of inter-territorial war make it almost inevitable that inter-State war will involve aggression by each side against the innocent civilians—the private individuals—of the other. This inevitability becomes absolute with modern weapons of mass destruction.
If one distinct attribute of inter-State war is inter-territoriality, another unique attribute stems from the fact that each State lives by taxation over its subjects. Any war against another State, therefore, involves the increase and extension of taxation-aggression against its own people. Conflicts between private individuals can be, and usually are, voluntarily waged and financed by the parties concerned. Revolutions can be, and often are, financed and fought by voluntary contributions of the public. But State wars can only be waged through aggression against the taxpayer.
All State wars, therefore, involve increased aggression against the State’s own taxpayers, and almost all State wars (all, in modern warfare) involve the maximum aggression (murder) against the innocent civilians ruled by the enemy State. On the other hand, revolutions are often financed voluntarily and may pinpoint their violence to the State rulers; and private conflicts may confine their violence to the actual criminals. We must therefore conclude that, while some revolutions and some private conflicts may be legitimate, State wars are always to be condemned.
Some libertarians might object as follows: “While we too deplore the use of taxation for warfare, and the State’s monopoly of defense service, we have to recognize that these conditions exist, and while they do, we must support the State in just wars of defense.” In the light of our discussion above, the reply would go as follows: “Yes, States exist, and as long as they do, the libertarian attitude toward the State should be to say to it, in effect: ‘All right, you exist, but so long as you do, at least confine your activities to the area which you monopolize.’” In short, the libertarian is interested in reducing as much as possible the area of State aggression against all private individuals, “foreign” and “domestic.” The only way to do this, in international affairs, is for the people of each country to pressure their own State to confine its activities to the area which it monopolizes, and not to aggress against other State-monopolists—particularly the people ruled by other States. In short, the objective of the libertarian is to confine any existing State to as small a degree of invasion of person and property as possible. And this means the total avoidance of war. The people under each State should pressure “their” respective States not to attack one another, and, if a conflict should break out, to negotiate a peace or declare a cease-fire as quickly as physically possible.
Suppose further that we have that rarity—an unusually clear-cut case in which the State is actually trying to defend the property of one of its citizens. A citizen of country A travels or invests in country B, and then State B aggresses against his person or confiscates his property. Surely, our libertarian critic might argue, here is a clear-cut case where State A should threaten or commit war against State B in order to defend the property of “its” citizen. Since, the argument runs, the State has taken upon itself the monopoly of defense of its citizens, it then has the obligation to go to war on behalf of any citizen, and libertarians must support such a war as a just one.
But the point again is that each State has a monopoly of violence, and therefore of defense, only over its territorial area. It has no such monopoly—in fact it has no power at all-over any other geographical area. Therefore, if an inhabitant of country A should move to or invest in country B, the libertarian must argue that he thereby takes his chances with the State monopolist of country B, and that it would be immoral and criminal for State A to tax people in country A and to kill numerous innocents in country B in order to defend the property of the traveller or investor.3
It should also be pointed out that there is no defense against nuclear weapons (the only current “defense” being the threat of “mutually assured destruction”) and, therefore, that the State cannot fulfill any sort of international defense function so long as these weapons exist.
The libertarian objective, then, should be, regardless of the specific causes of any conflict, to pressure States not to launch wars against other States and, should a war break out, to pressure them to sue for peace and negotiate a cease-fire and a peace treaty as quickly as physically possible. This objective, incidentally, was enshrined in the old-fashioned international law of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, i.e., the ideal that no State aggress against the territory of another—which is now called the “peaceful coexistence” of States.
Suppose, however, that despite libertarian opposition, war has begun and the warring States are not negotiating a peace. What, then, should be the libertarian position? Clearly, to reduce the scope of assault against innocent civilians as much as possible. Old-fashioned international law had two excellent devices for this purpose: the “laws of war,” and the “laws of neutrality” or “neutrals’ rights.” The laws of neutrality were designed to keep any war that breaks out strictly confined to the warring States themselves, without aggression against the States, or particularly the peoples, of the other nations. Hence, the importance of such ancient and now forgotten American principles as “freedom of the seas” or severe limitations upon the rights of warring States to repress neutral trade with the enemy country. In short, the libertarian position is to induce the warring States to observe fully the rights of neutral citizens.
For their part, the “laws of war” were designed to limit as much as possible the invasion by warring States of the rights of the civilians of the respective warring countries. As the British jurist F.J.P. Veale put it:
The fundamental principle of this code was that hostilities between civilized peoples must be limited to the armed forces actually engaged. . . . It drew a distinction between combatants and noncombatants by laying down that the sole business of the combatants is to fight each other and, consequently that noncombatants must be excluded from the scope of military operations.4
In condemning all wars, regardless of motive, the libertarian knows that there may well be varying degrees of guilt among States for any specific war. But his overriding consideration is the condemnation of any State participation in war. Hence, his policy is that of exerting pressure on all States not to start or engage in a war, to stop one that has begun, and to reduce the scope of any persisting war in injuring civilians of either side or no side.
One corollary of the libertarian policy of peaceful coexistence and nonintervention between States is the rigorous abstention from any foreign aid, aid from one State to another. For any aid given by State A to State B (1) increases the tax aggression against the people of country A, and (2) aggravates the suppression by State B of its own people.
Let us see how libertarian theory applies to the problem of imperialism, which may be defined as the aggression of State A over the people of country B, and the subsequent maintenance of this foreign rule. This rule could either be directly over country B, or indirectly through a subsidiary client State B. Revolution by the people of B against the imperial rule of A (either directly or against client State B) is certainly legitimate, provided again that the revolutionary fire be directed only against the rulers. It has often been maintained by conservatives—and even by some libertarians—that Western imperialism over undeveloped countries should be supported as more watchful of property rights than any successor native government might be. But first, judging what might follow the status quo is purely speculative, whereas the oppression of existing imperial rule over the people of country B is all too real and culpable. And secondly, this analysis neglects the injuries of imperialism suffered by the Western taxpayer, who is mulcted and burdened to pay for the wars of conquest and then for the maintenance of the imperial bureaucracy. On this latter ground alone, the libertarian must condemn imperialism.5
Does opposition to all inter-State war mean that the Libertarian can never countenance change of geographical boundaries—that he is consigning the world to a freezing of unjust territorial regimes? Certainly not. Suppose, for example, that the hypothetical State of “Walldavia” has attacked “Ruritania” and annexed the western part of the country. The
Finally, we must allude to the domestic tyranny that is the inevitable accompaniment of inter-State war, a tyranny that usually lingers long after the war is over. Randolph Bourne realized that “war is the health of the State.”6 It is in war that the State really comes into its own: swelling in power, in number, in pride, in absolute dominion over the economy and the society. The root myth that enables the State to wax fat off war is the canard that war is a defense by the State of its subjects. The facts are precisely the reverse. For if war is the health of the State, it is also its greatest danger. A State can only “die” by defeat in war or by revolution. In war, therefore, the State frantically mobilizes the people to fight for it against another State, under the pretext that it is fighting for them. Society becomes militarized and statized, it becomes a herd, seeking to kill its alleged enemies, rooting out and suppressing all dissent from the official war effort, happily betraying truth for the supposed public interest. Society becomes an armed camp, with the values and the morale—as Albert Jay Nock once phrased it—of an “army on the march.”7
1For a clear statement of the moral validity of the distinction between combatants and noncombatants, see G.E.M. Anscombe, Mr. Truman’s Degree (Oxford: privately printed, 1956).The pamphlet was issued as a protest against the granting of an honorary doctorate to President Truman by
2It is curious and inconsistent that conservative advocates of “limited government” denounce as absurd any proposal for eliminating a monopoly of violence over a given territory, thus leaving private individuals without an overlord, and yet are equally insistent on leaving nation-States without an overlord to settle disputes between them.
3There is another consideration which applies rather to “domestic” defense within a State’s territory: the less the State can successfully defend the inhabitants of its area against attack by (non-State) criminals, the more these inhabitants may come to learn the inefficiency of State operations, and the more they will turn to non-State methods of defense. Failure by the State to defend, therefore, may have educative value for the public.
4F.J.P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism (Appleton, Wisc.: C.C. Nelson, 1953), p. 58.
5Two further empirical points may be made about Western imperialism. First, the property rights respected were largely those of the Europeans; the native population often found their best lands stolen from them by the imperialists, and their labor coerced by violence into working mines or landed estates acquired by this theft.
Second, another myth holds that the “gunboat diplomacy” of the turn of the twentieth century was, after all, a defense of the property rights of Western investors in backward countries. But, apart from our above strictures against going beyond any given State’s monopolized land area, it is generally overlooked that the bulk of gunboat actions were in defense not of private investments, but of Western holders of native government bonds. The Western powers coerced the native governments into increasing tax aggression upon their own people in order to pay off foreign bondholders. This was no action on behalf of private property—quite the contrary.
7An earlier version of this view can be found in Murray N. Rothbard, “War, Peace, and the State,” in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, and Other Essays (Washington, D.C.: Libertarian Review Press, 1974), pp. 70–80.