Why is the US involved in endless war around the world? Why, for that matter, do nations or, rather, their governments act the way they do? The number of answers is no doubt nearly equal to the number of questioners. It's all about economics, say the Marxists (and the Hamiltonians): imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism. No, say the "realists," it's all about the objective "interests" of various nations, and the interplay of those "interests" in the international arena. The neocons have a different explanation: it's all a matter of "will" and "national purpose," or a lack of same: imbued with a sense of our "national greatness," America will spread democracy all over the world or else go into a shameful decline in which spiritual loss precedes the loss of the war-making spirit.
Yet none of these supposedly overarching theories provides an adequate explanation for how and why we find ourselves in our present predicament. America has bankrupted itself building a global empire with bases, protectorates, and colonies on every continent and yet still we persist in pursuing a policy that is taking us to the brink of the financial abyss. Our social safety net is in serious disrepair, and shows every sign of failing: our banking system is a rickety house of cards, and the national housing crisis the latest manifestation of the financial bubble is dragging the middle class down into penury. Yet still we send billions nay, trillions overseas to prop up a precarious overseas empire. How is this possible and why is it happening?
In positing a libertarian theory of international relations we depart from the prescriptive and focus on the descriptive: that is, we ignore for the moment the question of what the ideal foreign policy ought to be, and concentrate on the problem of describing how our present policies are formulated and implemented. We start, therefore, with the question of who is doing the formulating.
In "democratic" societies, we are told, "the people" are the ultimate policymakers, because they in theory hold their rulers accountable, not only at the polls but in the forum of public opinion and whatever parliamentary apparatus shares power with the executive. In practice, however, foreign policy is a completely separate realm, the domain of "experts" and specialists ensconced in think tanks and, of course, the higher reaches of the councils of state.
Furthermore, unless a major war is in progress, one that has an obvious effect on the economic and political life of the nation, foreign policy is the least of the public's concerns. This is especially true in the US, but also in a broader sense: it's only natural that people are usually concerned with events closer to home, where their knowledge of the context is more extensive.
This distancing of the citizenry from the policymaking process is accentuated, in the US, by the erosion of congressional power in the foreign policy realm. In the latter days of the American empire, policy is made almost entirely within the White House and the national security bureaucracy: Congress ceded its war-making powers long ago.
The conduct of America's or any country's foreign policy, therefore, is the province of a very small group at the very top of the political pyramid: what might be called, for lack of a better group description, the ruling class, otherwise known as the "Establishment." These are the chief actors, aside from freelancers like terrorist groups, various "liberation" movements, and George Soros on the world stage.
To answer the question posed at the beginning of this article, it is necessary to ask what motivates the Establishment: what causes them to come to a consensus and act? For libertarians, and for those of a realistic mindset not always the same thing the answer is simple: it's all about power.
The retention and expansion of political power is the central task of every ruling class throughout history, no matter what their ostensible ideological orientation. Dictatorships, democracies, and everything in between all share this common trait: it is the organizing principle at the core of the policymaking machine, the brain behind the brawn. The various ideological explanations offered by these elites for their actions are invariably self-serving and ultimately irrelevant rationalizations: for example, the old Communist elites pretended to be working toward the establishment of the communist system worldwide, but in fact were devoted to the creation of "socialism in one country," i.e. feathering their own nest. In the West, political leaders insist their goal is the spread of liberal democracy and its alleged economic benefits, but the reality is that they're more concerned with their campaign treasuries and their poll numbers: the old mottoes of the Anglo-Saxon ruling class, which upheld the principle of "noblesse oblige," are so timeworn and tattered that no one even bothers to invoke them any longer.
The politicians, in short, are in it to stay in it: they are in the business of acquiring and keeping power, and that is what motivates them in all matters foreign and domestic. The "national interest," the "world revolution," the peculiar destiny afforded us as sainted beneficiaries of "American exceptionalism" all these disparate brands of ideological snake-oil, boiled down to their essence, are just naked self-interest colored with various shades of rhetorical mumbo-jumbo.
A wise ruler say, Marcus Aurelius may realize the prolongation of his rule (not to mention the judgment of history) depends on pursuing peaceful, relatively beneficent policies, whereas a foolish and/or evil one say, Hitler may pursue policies that seem to expand his power in the short term but doom him in the long run, Yet both are similarly motivated by an overriding ambition to wear the Ring of Power, and thus shape the course of events.
In seeking to understand why governments as international actors take or refrain from taking a certain course, the first task of the intelligent observer is to look toward the home front. The "official" explanations for such actions are invariably tied to some "crisis" that exists thousands of miles away, usually attributed to dastardly deeds of the villain-of-the-month. In reality, the true cause is usually much closer to home and staring us in the face.
October 29, 2011
Justin Raimondo [send him mail] is editorial director of Antiwar.com and is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard and Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement.
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