A controversy has arisen in the libertarian movement over the proper approach to the events concerning Russia, Ukraine, and Crimea. Like many such controversies, it has quickly polarized almost everyone, and has served as a proxy for long-standing factionalism within the movement. People quickly accuse each other of supporting Putin’s aggression or backing violent U.S. intervention. I myself have been accused of both kissing up to the Russian regime and dishing out State Department propaganda. This doesn’t itself show I have the right balance in my position, only that this feud has galvanized libertarians and hardened their rhetorical loyalties.
We might learn something from looking back at the 20th century. During the Cold War, most western critics of state power erred too far in one direction or the other. There were some whose opposition to U.S. wars led them to soften their assessment of communist aggression. Free-market and leftist lovers of peace both made this mistake. At the same time, many who favored economic and political liberty often let their anti-communism translate into support for American militarism and the security state. This confusion pervaded Americans across the spectrum.
We can all see this now: Yes, some antiwar Americans were obscenely soft on the communists. Well-meaning but foolish westerners said nice things about Lenin, Stalin, and Mao—and many of a more moderate tinge had no perspective of just how much worse international communism was than the U.S. system, at least as it concerned domestic affairs. Meanwhile, many libertarians and almost all conservatives ditched their supposed attachment to skepticism of government power and signed onto the U.S. Cold War effort. This American project included dozens of coups and interventions, the instruction of foreign secret police in unspeakable torture techniques, murderous carpet bombings that killed hundreds of thousands of peasants, and wars that indirectly brought about the Khmer Rouge and the rise of Islamist fundamentalism, both of which also became directly funded in the name of anti-communism.
It is easy to look back and see how westerners were wrong on both the Cold War and communist states—each of which killed millions of people and nearly brought the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust.
The stakes were so much higher then than in anything going on with Russia now. Imprecision in one’s moral assessment—either in defense of Nixon or Tito—was far more condemnable than criticizing Putin or Obama too harshly. The errors of almost all the great 20th century libertarians, free marketers, and peaceniks far exceeded any errors some might have today in their appraisal of NATO or Russia and Ukraine. And yet we forgive many people on both sides of that Cold War division. No one today actually thinks Hayek was a neocon or Rothbard a pinko.
Today’s polarization is all the more frustrating given that the bulk of American libertarians seem to agree on two major points: (1) the U.S. should not intervene in Eastern Europe and (2) Putin’s various power grabs are indefensible. Thus, most libertarians are not truly as divided as well-meaning Americans were in the Cold War.
Now, one’s emphasis is important. Not all acts of aggression are equal. But before addressing that, it’s useful to try to actually understand the splits in the movement right now.
I easily identify four factions, not two: (A) There are people who outright defend Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and Crimea, and who otherwise downplay his autocratic tendencies; (B) There are those who agree that Putin is worth condemning, but who think it’s more important to emphasize the evils of U.S. interventionism; (C) There are those who agree that U.S. intervention is unwise and maybe even unethical, but who think it’s most important right now to emphasize Putin’s despotism; (D) There are those who outright favor U.S. and western intervention to stop Putin.
The polarization of discussion has led to A and B teaming up against C and D. It has also led to people in the B camp pretending like “no one” on their side is actually defending Putin, while people in the C camp are pretending “no one” on their side is actually calling for war or major U.S. interventions.
A principled opponent of state power is tempted to say that in fact B and C are on one side, despite differences in emphasis, and A and D are two extremes flirting with nationalist statism. This is my position, although I will say that I have friends—good friends—who flirt with being in camp A as well as in camp D. It happens. And to make the point again, during the Cold War, any libertarian activist would have probably had some friends who advocated nuclear strikes against the USSR, and others who supported Soviet control of the Eastern Bloc. Both of these positions would have been completely immoral and disgusting—far worse than anything said by anyone in Camp A or Camp D today. Yet today’s Cold War replay is leading people to defriend each other in the name of Manichean struggle. The tendency of people to break ties with others over this will only increase the polarization and erode mutual understanding.
On the other hand, camps A and D are at least being outright in their positions, while B and C are letting themselves get dragged into a flame war against each other when they both agree on both Putin’s and America’s actions. Both B and C are being disingenuous about some of their allies in the attempt to seem reasonable and principled and to say the other side is the only one that’s unbalanced.
In both cases, the problem appears to be nationalism—a desire to defend Putin’s actions as consistent with Russian, rather than individualist, concerns; or a desire to see American intervention as being more defensible than Russian aggression because, well, at least it’s American, and we have better, more liberal values at home. Both tendencies are in fact very illiberal, as are the attempts to collectively attack people on the “other side” of this debate when for all you know some of them agree with you on all the fundamentals more than some of the people “on your side” do.
The arguments over Russia have brought the Cold War back to the movement. They have fractured those primarily committed to anti-interventionism and those primarily concerned with liberty for all worldwide, when in fact these values are two sides of the same coin. The primary libertarian reason to oppose U.S. wars, of course, is that they kill foreigners, that they divide people into tribes based on nationality, that they are acts of nationalist aggression.
Discursively, refighting the Cold War within libertarianism will only harden people’s hearts, polarize their loyalties, and ultimately compromise their principles and clarity of thought. I plead young libertarians to refuse to be a proxy belligerent in this Cold War when for the most part it’s probably not really about Russia or Crimea at all; it’s about major factions within the movement with more fundamental disagreements using this as an opportunity to fight. If you actually seek to understand everyone’s positions, you’ll be surprised how heterogeneous attitudes are, despite the attempt to turn this current affairs disagreement into a grander sectarian dispute.
So what should we think? We should probably take a middle ground between B and C. Putin isn’t just an aggressor; he’s one of the worst on the planet. He killed tens of thousands of Chechens. He oversees one of the most vast prison populations on earth. He is essentially a late-communist holdover of the party variety in everything but name, and his violations of civil liberties, free speech, and the dignity of homosexuals and others are not minor matters for any libertarian who cares about the rights of all people on earth. His invasion of Ukraine was unjustified. His annexation of Crimea cannot be defended and although some critics have exaggerated the evils of this territorial power grabs by comparing them to Stalin’s or Hitler’s expansionism, it is true that Putin’s defenders’ arguments based on ethnic nationalism could indeed be used to justify the most infamous European land grabs that occurred that same decade.
As for the United States, its foreign policy is a lot worse than Putin’s biggest detractors wish to acknowledge. While Putin has killed more people than Obama, he does not appear to have killed more people as Bush—and yes, it is a moral failure and deviation from libertarianism to downplay the Iraq war as anything less than one of the very worst international atrocities of our new century, and one that dramatically taints the moral character of U.S. diplomacy. What the last few U.S. administrations have done will haunt much of the world for decades. And the aggression has hardly ceased. Obama’s drone killings are one of the most infamous human rights violations on the planet, the drug war imposed on Mexico has taken tens of thousands of lives, and America’s own civil liberties record is far worse than some on Team America wish to confront. There are tens of millions of people much worse off throughout the world because of recent U.S. diplomacy and wars, and only a cold utilitarian would even attempt to justify this record.
I understand why some libertarians are inclined to emphasize one point or the other. Those Americans focusing on U.S. criminality are right that we have more influence, albeit marginally so, on the government that lords over us, that if we don’t stand up to the U.S. war machine and its covert ops, no one will, and that criticism of foreign aggression often fuels war propaganda at home. But others are frustrated that just because the U.S. government condemns Russian aggression, they’re supposed to keep quiet. “My country is the world,” as Tom Paine said, and libertarians around the world should condemn aggression anywhere it happens. Pretending the U.S. government is the world’s only major problem is naïve at best. The first group is often right that liberal states are more belligerent in foreign affairs, and the second group is often right that it’s easy for people here to forget about victims of foreign oppression. Such dynamics played themselves out in the Cold War, too, and both sides had a point. It would have been demoralizing to be berated for attacking either U.S. or Soviet aggression in those times.
It is hard to maintain the right level of nuance and principle. I think John Glaser and the Jesse Walker blog entry he links to are good models of principled libertarian commentary. And I agree with plenty of points being made on multiple sides of the various controversies. Those who wish to purge either Ron Paul’s followers or the Student for Liberty internationalists over this are ignoring the points of agreement as well as the odious errors on their own side, and maybe even their own errors, and are blowing things out of proportion.
Did I myself get the balance perfectly right? Perhaps not. The right balance would have been even harder during the Cold War, and yet it would have mattered much more then. So please, everyone, take a step back. It’s fun as hell to get in faction fights. Sectarian squabbles are the force that gives us meaning. But you’ll find yourself drained and with fewer friends in the end. Don’t pretend your fellow libertarians are themselves worse than Russian nationalists or the Pentagon. It’s not true in either case. Our unifying enemy should be the same: aggression, whether it is ordered from Moscow or Washington DC.
Whenever anyone strays from this balance, it’s good to bring up what they’re missing. Then you’ll see who your true allies are, who the trolls are, and who is simply using this as a battle to refight old clashes in the movement. You’ll also find out what people’s actual position is, and that might help inform your own.