Joseph R.


Ed. note: Joseph Stromberg has been working on a full-scale study of the thought of the late Murray Rothbard, along with other scholarly projects.

December 23, 2003

Kantians With Cruise Missiles: The Highest Stage of 'Liberal' Imperialism
by Joseph Stromberg


I have alluded at times in this space to John A. Hall's division of power into three types – ideological, political-military, and economic.(1) I have also suggested, over the past several years, that in our time, the first of the trinity, ideological power, has risen in importance. It is not that persons concerned with the other forms of power have abdicated or gone on long vacations.

No indeed. Our neo-mercantilist elites are busy as ever turning political power into privileged market opportunities for themselves and their friends. Political-military and economic power, as we have known them, are alive and well, but having won most of their gambles, stand in more need than ever for comforting ideological cover. With the sudden collapse of the Soviet enemy, the westward American thrust across the Pacific meets – and passes in mid-air – the eastward American thrust into former Soviet assets.

In other words, the arrival of ideological power at center-stage is part of the quickened pace of US imperialism.

In a long and active lifetime of reflecting and writing on politics, the late Murray N. Rothbard paid much attention to the role of ideology and, therefore, to the role of intellectuals in state-level political systems. He writes that the rulers' handing out of economic benefits, "only secures a minority of eager supporters" and "still does not gain the consent of the majority." Thus, "the majority must be persuaded by ideology that their government is good, wise and, at least, inevitable…. Promoting this ideology among the people is the vital social task of the 'intellectuals.' For the masses of men do not create their own ideas, or indeed think through these ideas independently; they follow passively the ideas adopted and disseminated by the body of intellectuals. The intellectuals are, therefore, the 'opinion-molders' in society. And since it is precisely a molding of opinion that the State most desperately needs, the basis for age-old alliance between the State and the intellectuals becomes clear."(2)


For at least twenty years, political scientists and international lawyers effectively in the employ of power have been donning philosophical garments to justify great-power interventionism, and a few philosophers have repaid the compliment and taken up the same project. Here we may name Fernando Teson, Michael Reisman, Thomas Franck, the late John Rawls, and Anne-Marie Slaughter.(3) According to Gerry Simpson, these developments are, in the case of Rawls, linked to "liberal anti-pluralism or the liberal intolerance of intolerant governments."(4)

Just in passing, I will remark one problem with Simpson's formulation, namely the idea that tolerant governments exist at all, and that, existing, such governments could usefully be contrasted with intolerant ones. The proof of the pudding comes when people get in the way of one of the "liberal, tolerant" governments, as did the Branch Davidians or Randy Weaver – but let us leave that to one side. We may stipulate – for purposes of argument – that, some governments preside, so to speak, over more tolerant societies than do other governments.

We may also leave the complex historical question, why this might be, to one side.

It is probably fair to say that if you obey your liberal, tolerant government in every way, as fast as humanly possibly, you will probably not be shot down at high noon – outnumbered a hundred to one by heavily armed technicians of compliance. For the record, I admit that this is doubtless somewhat better than living in the Soviet Union was.

Anyway, if ideology is coming into its own – creating well-crafted confusion as far as other issues – such as dominance for its own sake, oil, neo-mercantilism, and the lot – go, it still might be asked, whether or not philosophers and international lawyers, whatever their motives, have any real impact on policy? The answer, I think, is that whether or not these persons are important individually, they play an important role in helping the overall imperial project along, by giving high-toned reasons why we must support, acquiesce in, or put up with the project and its costs in money, blood, moral decay, and institutional change. Anyone who has watched any of the endless array of panels on C-SPAN of late on just these questions, sponsored by the usual suspect institutes which grew up like algae in the favorable hot-house climate of the late, much-missed Cold War, cannot doubt it. (Lions, foxes, and Strauss, oh my.)

On the matter of empire, of course, the discussions are not all that clear. First there is an empire, then there is no empire, then there is. But on military intervention anywhere and everywhere in the name of doing good, there is little division. And it cannot hurt a President, a Secretary of State, a Major General in charge of really-really "small" nuclear weapons, or an Undersecretary for Obfuscation, to be able to wave his hand in the general direction of a body of doctrine stuffed with philosophical pretensions which sanction just the policies under review.


The peculiar thing about some of the new liberal imperialists is their attempt to ground their system on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant [1724-1804]. Kant reasoned that in the fullness of liberal time, more and more republics would come into being. Republics would be unlikely to wage war – the sport of kings – and therefore the proliferation of republican forms of government would spark a trend toward world peace. As he wrote: "If the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared… nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game, decreeing for themselves all the calamities of war."(5)

Letting republicanism stand in for liberalism here – there is no need to quibble about that – problems arise, nonetheless. First, the assumption that under republicanism/liberalism, the "people" somehow control the state seems naïve at best. It ignores the incentives presented to politicians(6) and the ability of small cliques effectively to control policy from the top. Britain's entry into World War I, where three ministers committed the cabinet, the cabinet committed Parliament, and Parliament committed the people to "the meaningless catastrophe of 1914-18" (in Joseph Schumpeter's phrase), is Exhibit A.

Many of the people died; in general, the cabinet and Parliament did not. Let us hear no more about how much more "democratic" than Germany the UK was in 1914.

Next – and unforeseen by Kant, wars, if properly "sold" by intellectuals, politicians, and the press, can be quite popular. But popularity cannot be the final judge of the justness of a war. Further, liberal states, by allowing greater economic freedom, rule over more productive economies out of which more revenue may be extracted, making possible greater effective military power. On this basis, one might expect republican/liberal/democratic states to be in better stead economically for undertaking imperialist projects and, given the incentives to which I have already alluded and the functionally oligarchical character of "democratic" systems, one might well expect them to do so.(7)

The imperialist successes of "democratic" states are of course the centerpiece of 20th-century history and folklore.


If it were true, that republics – or alternatively, "liberal states" or "democracies" – are inherently peaceful, and never attack one another, then a world made up of such states, and such states alone, would be a world of perpetual peace. Hooray!

This calls to mind Woodrow Wilson's vision, but some proponents of similar notions distance themselves from Wilson's "utopianism." For one thing, these theorists are not entirely wedded to bringing about the Better World via collective security. For Teson and Reisman, in particular, any sufficiently high-toned Super-Power is morally entitled to act as history's great agent and, entirely by accident, the United States is available for the job. In addition, these writers are less patient than Wilson. Rather than wait for "democracies," or whatever they are, to come into being and behave peacefully ever after, they lean toward imposing proper forms of state by military intervention.

Hence: all "the busy little seminars" currently running on C-SPAN about how to "build" civil society in Iraq and elsewhere.

Moderate Neo-Kantian imperialists would like to sail under the flag of the United Nations; less moderate ones are happy to rely on US firepower. The paradox of endorsing, in effect, a long series of "elective" (= aggressive) wars to install democracies as the precondition for later eternal peace, has not been lost on everyone. The doctrine of pre-emptive wars fought in the name of future peaceful conditions, conditions obtaining, once the Good have sufficiently bombed the Bad, manages to substitute the question of who is Good and who is Bad for the old-fashioned question of war and peace.

It is a simple maneuver, brilliant in conception and fairly successful so far in execution. Well-meaning Super-Powers, after all, will have no problem in spotting that they are the Good, and any destruction done by them in a political-military crusade for a better world, is already "justified" in the premises. The argument is so tightly wound, that several Catholic Neo-Conservatives justly famous for enlisting traditional Just War Theory in the same project, will soon be thrown out of work.

This is one of the first things that will happen, and who says there isn't a silver thread, at least, inside the darkest storm cloud or crisis?


It appears that classical liberals like Kant were simply wrong to assume that states with popular input into decision-making would choose peaceful policies. Wars can be popular and the process is easily manipulated. This problem can now be sidelined.

The sheer genius of the new liberal imperialism lies in its decoupling of the allegedly inherent peacefulness of "democratic" states from any real pursuit of actual peace. The key is now said to be that such nice states never attack each other. That they have attacked and do attack non-democratic states may stand as further proof of their moral bona fides.

That such a tendentious doctrine should arise at just this historical moment owes less to the real Immanuel Kant than to the practical need of US policymakers to have justifying doctrines to peddle. Into the valley of rationalization ride the Kantian imperialists.

Just as the 20th-century collective security theorists undid the older international law, which focused on neutral rights and consensus about the rights of noncombatants, so, too, do the democracy gangsters outbid the security collectivists. One critic refers to the new position as "liberal millenarianism," nicely capturing the sheer scope of its claims.(8)

Another critic notes how the new liberal imperialism rides on the corrosive heritage of American exceptionalism: "The sense that the United States has a special moral status and mission has resulted in an intensive engagement by the United States in foreign affairs, predicated on a belief that America has a unique mission to lead the world. But even as it is a basis for the attribution to the United States of a special right to propose rules of international conduct, American exceptional status is also invoked to 'plead the authority of its internal law to mitigate its international legal obligations.' The United States thus simultaneously asserts the right to lead, but also to be exempted from the rules it promotes."(9)

This looks like nothing more or less than an imperial claim to world-rule, whatever the trimmings. An imperial power always has a great mission entrusted to it by God, History, or Philosophy. Just ask that power's apologists.


Another advantage, to those in power, of the newest doctrinal wrinkle is that we never need look into the content of democracy; we never need undertake a critique of the internal realities of any conformist welfare-warfare state. Liberal corporatism and suffocating bureaucratization of the life-world get a free pass. Simpson almost sees this, when he refers, in passing, to systems having "free periodic elections in which the government is elected by the citizens of [the] state."(10)

Exactly! In the sainted democracies, the government is always re-elected. There can be no question of reducing the scope and activities of any democratic state in the brave new world. As José E. Alvarez writes of one of the new liberals, "Slaughter's liberal theory is millenist, triumphalist, upbeat. The examples being set by liberal nations' treaties and their transgovernmental networks in the wake of the victory over communism mark the beginnings of a global 'new deal' or a 'new liberal democratic order.' Liberal international law promises to replicate the liberal welfare state."(11)

I guess we won't be getting big government off our backs any time soon.

What looms on the horizon is the international Gleichschaltung ("co-ordination") by the Great World Hegemon of those "tolerant, liberal" forms of bureaucratic rule and interest-group plunder, which came to characterize certain advanced states in the 20th century. The radiant future comes down to periodic but pointless elections, under cover of which the boot of well-connected, state-sponsored corporations will stamp on the face of humanity for quite a long while, helped when necessary by the "precision" weaponry made possible by Big Science.

On this view, the repackaging of longstanding US aspirations toward empire as neo-Kantian, "liberal-democratic" world peace has already slipped a few gears, and the clutch of history is about to burn itself out in conceptual futility.

Blaming the aggressive potential of powerful states on forms of rule, e.g., democracy vs. lack of democracy, bypasses the need to think about states as such. As always, I suggest building on Murray Rothbard's analysis of states,(12) if we wish to think our way out of these corners.


1. John A. Hall, Powers and Liberties: The Causes and Consequences of the Rise of the West (Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1986), esp. pp. 3-17.

2. Murray N. Rothbard, "The Anatomy of the State," in Egalitarianism As a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises, Institute, 2000), pp. 62-63.

3. Gerry Simpson, "Two Liberalisms," European Journal of International Law, 12, 3 (2001), p. 537. I have commented on Professor Reisman elsewhere; see my "The United Nations Charter and the Delusion of Collective Security," pp. 11-13, available at

4. Simpson, ibid., p. 540.

5. Quoted in Michael W. Doyle, "Kant, Liberal Legacies and Foreign Affairs," Part I, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 12, 3 (Summer, 1993), p. 229.

6. See generally Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy, the God That Failed (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001).

7. See Hans-Hermann Hoppe, "Banking, Nation-States and International Politics," Review of Austrian Economics, 4 (1990), pp. 55-87.

8. Susan Marks, "The End of History? Reflections on Some International Legal Theses," European Journal of International Law, 8,3 (1997), pp. 449-468.

9. James C. Hathaway, "America, Defender of Democratic Legitimacy?", European Journal of International Law, 11, 1 (2000), p. 132.

10. Simpson, "Two Liberalisms," p. 560.

11. José E. Alvarez, ""Do Liberal States Behave Better? A Critique of Slaughter's Liberal Theory," European Journal of International Law, 12, 2 (2001), pp. 189-190.

12. See note #2, above.

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Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on


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