Foreign Policy and Self-Interest

By Peter Schwartz

[This was published in the Contra Costa Times, July 19, 2003; the Canberra Times, July 24, 2003; and the Charlotte Observer, July 25, 2003]

Those who claim that the United States has a moral obligation to send troops on a “humanitarian” mission to Liberia have it exactly backward: our government has a moral obligation not to send its forces into areas that pose no threats to America’s well-being. It is America’s self-interest that should be the standard for all foreign-policy decisions—and not just because such a standard is practical, but because it is moral.

America was founded on the recognition of each individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This means that the government may not treat the citizen as a serf—as someone who exists to serve the needs of others. Rather, each citizen is a free, sovereign entity, entitled to live his own life for his own sake. No matter how loudly some people may wail about their need for your services, you are your own master. That is the meaning of your inalienable rights.

Those rights are contradicted by a foreign policy that makes Americans sacrifice themselves for the sake of others, such as the Liberians.

When the government of a free country performs its proper functions, it uses force only to protect its citizens’ freedom. When the lives or property of Americans are at risk from some aggressor-state, our government uses force in retaliation, to keep its citizens free—free to pursue the goals and values that advance their lives.

This is what we did in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although administration officials are afraid to say so openly, we overthrew those countries’ governments strictly for our own benefit. America went to war to protect the interests of Americans. No dictatorship has a right to remain in power, and any dictatorship that has the capacity to use force beyond its borders and has shown a willingness to do so against U.S. interests is an objective threat to us and is a legitimate target for our military. Osama bin Laden, as well as Saddam Hussein, posed dangers—to Americans. The soldiers we sent to those two countries were fighting to defend their own interests. (Obviously, others also benefited from America’s actions, but that was a secondary consequence; it was not our primary purpose and should not have been the standard that guided our decisions.)

Sadly, our policymakers are unwilling to defend the justness of a foreign policy of self-interest. Instead, they keep invoking selfless justifications. Our motive, they say, was not to keep Americans safe, but to help the oppressed Iraqis (the invasion was called “Operation: Iraqi Freedom”) or to shield other countries from the dangers of bin Laden and Hussein. This altruistic premise is what makes the administration try to accommodate anti-Western “sensitivities” in Afghanistan and Iraq. This premise is what keeps the administration from using sufficient force to rid those lands of all remaining threats to Americans. And this premise is what leaves the administration philosophically helpless to resist the calls for becoming enmeshed in the problems of Liberia.

We desperately need some courageous official who is willing to state categorically that a moral foreign policy must uphold America’s self-interest—and that by shipping troops to Liberia, we are sacrificing our interests. We are telling our soldiers to risk their lives in a senseless attempt to prevent, temporarily, rival warlords from butchering one another.

Contrary to the assertions of all who have suddenly become eager for a new American military presence abroad, offering ourselves as sacrificial fodder on “humanitarian” missions is not a virtue, but a moral crime. Where is the “humanitarian” concern for Americans? Why should Americans be urged to give away their money, their energies and their lives on a campaign that does not serve their interests? There are no rational grounds for asking Americans to suffer more, so that the Liberians may (perhaps) suffer less. When we are not being threatened, the government has no right to put American soldiers in harm’s way. Our armed forces are supposed to be our means of self-defense—not self-renunciation.

If the administration wants to help the Liberians achieve peace and prosperity, it can start by mailing them copies of the Declaration of Independence. But if we genuinely value our freedom, we cannot make America into the self-abnegating slave of the entire world. To send our troops into a battle in which they have no personal interest—to send them to fight for the sake of warring tribes in Liberia (or Rwanda or Somalia or Kosovo)—is to negate the principle of individual liberty, upon which America is based.♦♦

(See also ” ‘America First’: Rethinking the Meaning of Self-Interest.”)

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