This essay has two objectives. First, it will illustrate the differences between “minarchist” and “anarchist” understandings of international warfare. Second, it will demonstrate that international warfare generally violates minarchist principles. If it succeeds in this latter respect, devoted minarchists will finish this essay confident that they can and should protest militarism.
Let us begin with some definitions. Ayn Rand labeled government “an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area.” Minarchists welcome this institution, but only in small doses. They advocate a limited government, constituted of courts and “night watchmen,” whose sole objectives are to safeguard bodies, to protect private property, and to enforce legitimate contracts.
Anarchists argue that minarchists’ minimal government is not quite “minimal” enough. Rejecting all government, anarchists argue that no human institution should monopolize enforceable dispute resolution in a particular geographical area.
Non-anarchists may wonder: in the absence of a single court system, how would disputes get resolved? Different anarchists have different ideas, but the gist is that conflicting parties (or their representative defense agencies) would agree to submit their cases to independent judges. This cooperative system, anarchists note positively, would keep disputes out of the hands of largely unaccountable, prejudiced judges.
Let us now turn to the matter at hand: war. Anarchists consider war the progeny of statism. Without states, anarchists figure, tyrants wouldn’t be able to conscript civilians into paying for and perpetrating large-scale attacks on foreigners. Remembering the tremendous damage that adversarial governments caused during the Gulf War, for instance, anarchists declare defiantly, “This is the problem with government!”
Consistent minarchists have a different view. They remember the Gulf War and tell anarchists, “No, this is the problem with anarchy!”
Under domestic anarchy, minarchists find, a strong person can assault a weak person without any legal repercussions. Under international anarchy, minarchists again find, a strong country can assault a weak country without any legal repercussions. Viewing these types of anarchy as analogous (if not identical), minarchists consider the Gulf War an unfortunate consequence of international anarchy.
Among other disagreements, a resource dispute precipitated Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Iraq’s government furiously alleged that Kuwait was slant drilling into the Rumaila oil field. Had Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Kuwait’s Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah been neighbors in a small American town, Saddam would have needed to sue the Kuwaiti government in order to secure recompense. That is, Saddam would have needed (1) to prove Kuwait’s guilt and (2) to allow the court to determine a fitting punishment. As we know, though, Iraq and Kuwait were two distinct countries, not two households living under a common government. No global army had the wherewithal to force Iraqi leaders and Kuwaiti leaders to resolve their disputes in a global court. Thus, Iraq had free reign to achieve its own vision of justice by attacking Kuwait.
True, the invasion did not go unpunished. In 1991, the United States government expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and retaliated against Iraq. But America’s was not the response of a genuine minarchist superpower. A real minarchist superpower would have (1) used the least amount of force necessary to quell the violence in Kuwait and (2) forced the alleged Iraqi criminals to stand trial for their crimes. A global minarchist government would not have destroyed Iraqi infrastructure, killed hundreds (perhaps thousands) of civilians, or bombed swarms of retreating Iraqi troops on the “Highway of Death” (all of which the Americans did).
The reality, then, is that the United States government—by attacking masses of foreigners without giving them fair trials—acted as a vigilante during the First Gulf War. Similarly, NATO members acted as vigilantes when they facilitated Libyan rebels’ ouster and assassination of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Russia acts as a vigilante when it buttresses the murderous Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Saudi Arabia acts as a vigilante when it kills Yemeni civilians in the process of fighting Houthis.
Clearly, the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and all other perpetrators of foreign intervention are not “objective” guarantors of world order. In our anarchic international system, they are self-appointed watchdogs that take matters into their own hands and literally get away with murder.
How should minarchists respond to this state of affairs? They ought to tell themselves: “In the absence of a limited global government, the countries of the world exist in a state of anarchy with each other, meaning that well-armed governments can assassinate foreigners with impunity. Therefore, minarchists and other peaceful people should try to keep the world’s 196 national governments away from each other’s throats. For if international wars continue, civilians will continue to get caught in the crossfire, and alleged ‘criminals’ will continue to get killed without trial.”
Some libertarians disagree. For his part, Richard Epstein argues that “we need Pax Americana in international affairs” in order to “snuff out a large number of troublemakers.” A libertarian American government, these interventionists argue, can and should confront criminals abroad in the same way it confronts criminals at home.
But if the United States really were to treat foreign criminals the way it treats domestic criminals, the United States would send actual police officers into foreign countries in order to arrest the alleged perpetrators. It would not maintain its current modus operandi of dropping bombs on foreign antagonists, accepting tremendous collateral damage, and demanding little accountability for the American agents who kill civilians.
With that being said, some minarchists might still believe that the United States’ interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, Syria, and Libya have helped more than harmed the cause of liberty. Fully evaluating the intricacies and failures of all these interventions will require separate essays. For now, though, we can observe that minarchist theory is hard to square with militaristic ideologies in today’s world. At the core of minarchism lies a respect for individual rights, including the right to life and the right to a fair trial. At the core of militarism lies an inadequate concern for civilians’ right to life and alleged criminals’ right to fair trials.
Thus, pending the (unlikely) creation of a global minarchist government, minarchists should join their anarchist friends in trying to limit the carnage that warring national governments produce in the international arena. Minarchists, anarchists, and other believers in individual rights do not always see eye to eye, but they should all recognize the dangers of war.
This piece originally appeared at libertarianinstitute.org.