Joseph R.


November 10, 2001

Chimes of Wilson Flashing


Twenty years ago, someone might have opened up a journal of "peace studies" with some hope of finding useful analysis or information. At worst, he might confront some well-meaning Norwegian or Swede going on about imperialism, oppression, inequalities in the international state system, and the like. Even so, there was some chance of learning something worthwhile, even if theoretical flaws marred the treatment.

Now, however, one is as likely to run into calls for humanitarian intervention by Good States to unseat and sideline the Bad; that is, one is likely to find the ghost of Woodrow Wilson stalking the pages of the putative peace journal. A case in point is the July 1993 issue of Peace & Change. There we find Thomas R. Gillespie sketching out a program of general armed intervention in the name of peace.

He seeks to prove that "the more influential states" have claimed a right to intervene to rescue oppressed minorities for several hundred years. True enough. They have doubtless said that. He goes on to argue that a concert of today's nicer states should develop a body of doctrine and rules under which they may intervene at will, whenever they espy an emergency. This comes down to a concert of Good States empowering themselves to run the world – the Wilsonian project all over again.

He does not flinch from what this means: "This view of humanitarian intervention includes traditional U.N. peacekeeping endeavors but further encompasses the possibility of combat operations to suppress internal warfare."1 What this might mean – aside from the John Birchers having had a point – is rather interesting. The bad old South Africa is mentioned, along with Chile under Pinochet, as possible candidates for intervention. One might think that is it regimes seen as right-wing which are to be targeted.

When the Kurds, Palestinians (in 1982), and Kuwaitis turn up as further examples, one begins to suspect that all outstanding cases of human rights violation requiring international intervention are an exact mathematical function of US foreign policy interests based on rather different considerations. It would be cynical to think that. Eppur si muove ("and yet it moves").


Mr. Gillespie has mentioned the Gulf War. That calls to mind a peculiar ideological deformation of the early 1990s, which I call "liberventionism," or libertarian interventionism. The occasion was the debate in Liberty about the merits of the Gulf War. This featured several liberventionists lined up against a rather outnumbered Sheldon Richman, with the magazine's editor straddling the fence.

Liberventionists sought a rationale for intervention (only once in a while of course) compatible with libertarianism. This amounted to Goldwaterism with a human face, or a right-wing Wilsonianism. I shall only discuss one of these writers, James Robbins, who made perhaps the best showing.

In one essay, published after the fracas in Liberty,2 Robbins managed to endorse the whole Cold War, blame "isolationists" for the outbreak of World War II, and downplay the standard – as yet unrefuted – claim of anti-interventionists that all wars strengthen our state vis--vis us and that this outcome might be undesirable. I don't agree Robbins's analysis, but those things are beside the present point. What is striking is Robbins's underlying premise that "if the United States can promote political and economic freedom" – that is, through overseas intervention – "doing so may well serve the cause of peace, which is indisputably a state purpose."3 Intervene militarily to achieve peace! Something strange happens to the meaning of "peace" in meditations of this kind. One might as well say, kill now and avoid the rush.

One would like some evidence that US intervention actually promotes "political and economic freedom" – evidence better than State Department White Papers. I realize, of course, that self-named classical liberals have had decades of practice at resolving the wage-war-for-peace paradox, and I leave that to one side. I suppose they mean we should fight small wars now, which presumably prevent the bigger one down the road. I do not see how this can be said to be even an inexact science.

More insidious, is the phrase about peace – once it is preserved, institutionalized, restored, or whatever – being "indisputably a state purpose." Surely this is not so ironclad. Textbook states may have purposes; real ones – permanent bureaucratic apparatuses claiming a monopoly of security provision within given territories – mostly have interests. One would think that sometimes states find peace to be in their interest and that, at other times, they find war to be in their interest. A libertarian would like to know how often the state's interest will coincide, even by the happiest of accidents, with people's interests. I wouldn't think that would be very often.

I suppose when Quinn the Eskimo gets here, it will be different.

Robbins can now be found at National Review Online, reassuring us as to how precise the precision bombing is. He is now in league with the plain brown wrapper imperialists – Hanson, Derbyshire, Lowry, and the gang – and why not? New defectors and born-again warriors have lately broadened the ranks of liberventionism.


Almost unseen, the "peace and freedom" cards begin to dovetail with the "humanitarian" card. Across the spectrum of respectable opinion, all God's children can espouse permanent, endless US intervention. The "Right" can do it for managed, neo-mercantilist "free trade"; the Center-Left – there being not much of a real Left, anymore – can throw in a few social programs. They can all agree on Global Democracy.

Global Democracy, when exported early, often, and with overwhelming firepower, will guarantee eternal peace in some foggily distant post-millennialist Radiant Future. We can't just sit there, when there's so much imperfection in the world. And when we do experience "blowback" from these exercises, why that is nothing but a good reason to do even more of the same. For these reasons, we can and must make present war for future peace, pending the secular Second Coming.

Whether we shall be free, prosperous, or happy, as we go further down this road, seems a bit doubtful. It seems that in the present situation, the ideological realm has risen up in might to overwhelm mere political power and mere economics. Or it might be – as seems likely – that the wielders of state power and their state-connected business friends have simply retreaded the reigning ideology of the Empire to make it more palatable. For many people – Randians, fair-weather libertarians, and others – the new ideological brew is 90 proof.

The brew is appealing on some levels, but in the end it is quite deceptive. Some of its makers stress how seldom we would actually intervene under their doctrine. Others allow that we shall necessarily do it all the time until the world is remade in the fullness of time. I think we should take the latter at their word – and reject their program. On the record, liberventionism – the understated, modest form of interventionism – is a mere fig-leaf for the more robust strain of the disease.

Meanwhile, George is in the basement mixing up our medicine, and I'm on the pavement, thinkin' 'bout the government.


  1. Thomas R. Gillespie, "Unwanted Responsibility: Humanitarian Military Intervention to Advance Human Rights," Peace & Change, 18 (July 1993), pp. 223, 221 (my italics, as if they were needed).
  2. James Robbins, "Towards a Muscular Libertarianism," Orbis, Fall 1991, pp. 533-547.
  3. Ibid., p. 534.

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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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