A Foreign Policy for America

by Harry Browne

(Adapted from "Freedom from War," in The Great Libertarian Offer)    

In 1914 Austria was Europe's "superpower." The Austrian Empire included the territories of present-day Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, as well as parts of Italy and Romania.

Serbia, an independent country, wasn't part of the Empire. Many Serbs (both in Serbia and Bosnia) wanted Serbia to annex Bosnia, but the Austrian Emperor refused to let Bosnia go.

When the Emperor's heir apparent, Archduke Ferdinand, visited Bosnia, he was shot and killed by a Bosnian Serb.

The assassination was a crime, of course, but it was committed by just a handful of men. Since Bosnia was part of Austria, it would have been a simple matter for Austria to prosecute the assassin and his collaborators. But instead the Austrian Emperor accused Serbia's government of arranging the murder, and Austria mobilized for war against Serbia.

At the time, governments inside and outside of Europe were joined together in a web of mutual defense treaties, and so a local quarrel became a world war. Britain, France, Belgium, Romania, Greece, Portugal, Montenegro, Russia, and even Japan supported Serbia. On the other side, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, and Turkey supported Austria. The awful war quickly consumed most of Europe.

Eventually, 15 million soldiers and civilians would be killed and at least 20 million wounded all because one person had been assassinated. What a testament to the irrationality of war.


After three years of fighting, the two sides were bogged down in a bloody stalemate with neither able to gain a decisive advantage.

The armies on both sides were exhausted, and Europeans were ready for an armistice that would stop the terrible bloodshed. Germany put out feelers to end the conflict.

If that armistice had materialized in 1917, the history of the past 80 years would have been quite different and much happier. There might still be monarchs in Germany, Austria, Belgium, and even Russia. That may be distasteful to some, but it might have saved the lives of tens of millions of people.

With Russia and Germany again at peace, the Germans would have had no reason to help Lenin take over Russia, and the Soviet Union never would have been born. And with the German Emperor still on the throne, Adolf Hitler would never have had the opportunity to seize power.

Although no one can say for sure, it seems very unlikely that there would have been a second World War. And without that war and without a Soviet Union, there would have been no Cold War, no Korean War, no Vietnam War. The 20th century wouldn't have been an era of perfect peace, but it would have avoided being history's bloodiest 100 years.

American Intervention Changes History

But such was not to be.

Instead, in 1917, after winning reelection for keeping America out of the war, Woodrow Wilson pulled America into it and that intervention changed history irrevocably for the worse.

Millions of fresh American soldiers streamed into Europe tipping the balance of power and overwhelming an enemy exhausted from three years of war. Germany and Austria surrendered, the German emperor fled to the Netherlands, and the Allies imposed devastating conditions upon a defeated Germany.

So, instead of a functioning Germany with Kaiser Wilhelm on the throne, America produced a prostrate Germany eager for revenge.

The humanitarian spirit that propelled America into a war to "end all wars" laid the groundwork for two of history's worst murderers Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

Could Woodrow Wilson or anyone else have foreseen all this in advance?

No, and that's the point. Once you embark on the use of force for any purpose you have no idea what will fly up out of Pandora's box.

Lessons to Be Learned

At least, one could learn a lesson from the deaths of 15 million people. In fact, World War I offered two unmistakable lessons:

  • George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were right to say America would achieve nothing but ruin by meddling in the ancient quarrels of Europe.

  • When mutual defense treaties fail to deter wars, as they usually do, they enlarge war and make it bloodier. A mutual defense treaty easily becomes a mutual suicide pact.

Unfortunately, memories are short, and history seems to be such a dull subject.

So when the politicians tell us we have a chance to bring about world peace if we just send more of our children to die, or just bomb more innocent civilians overseas, or just bully a few more smaller countries, many people don't realize they are listening to a story that has been told many times before and seldom produced a happy ending.


America returned to peace and independent policies after World War I. But after World War II our government enmeshed itself in mutual defense treaties all over the world, put us on a permanent war footing, undertook numerous military adventures, and took sides in almost everyone's conflicts much of which activity had little to do with the Soviet threat.

Here are a few examples:

  • In the 1980s our government sent military equipment to Iraq's Saddam Hussein to help him fight the Ayatollah in Iran. Much of the American equipment was used in 1990 to help Iraq invade Kuwait. So our children were sent to Iraq to depose our one-time ally Saddam Hussein now described by our politicians as a modern Hitler. However, even after the U.S. killed thousands of civilians and soldiers, Hussein remained in power.

  • Our government enlisted Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in the fight against communism. But in 1989 the U.S. military invaded Panama, killed a number of people, kidnapped Noriega, took him to Florida, and imprisoned him supposedly to stop the use of Panama as a relay station for the drug trade. Noriega still sits in a U.S. prison, but there's no indication that the drug flow through Panama has abated. In fact, the drug cartels of South America move freely into Panama because America destroyed Panama's army in 1989.

  • American politicians went to the Philippines to monitor elections, pressure the Philippine people to get rid of Ferdinand Marcos, and end corruption. Marcos lost the election, but corruption is as rampant in the Philippines today as it was then and the subject no longer seems to interest American politicians.

  • Our government bombed Libya in 1986, killing a number of civilians, to force Muammar Khadaffi to end his support for terrorists. But two years after our government supposedly taught Khadaffi a lesson, a bomb destroyed a Pan American Airlines flight over Scotland, killing 259 people and our government says Khadaffi was responsible.

  • During the 1980s our government helped the "freedom fighters" take power in Afghanistan. In 1998 our government bombed those same Afghans, claiming they were now harboring terrorists.

  • In Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia wherever our government has meddled the only consistent outcomes have been American deaths, American tax dollars wasted, the sacrifice of thousands of innocent foreigners, and no lasting solution.

In country after country, American intervention either failed to achieve its objective or succeeded in making matters worse.


Because America has taken sides in so many conflicts, because America has armed so many countries' enemies, because America has imposed so many "solutions" on so many people, because American troops occupy so many countries, the world has become dangerous for America.

Foreigners generally love McDonald's but hate our government. Foreign politicians exploit that hatred. And now and then foreign terrorists try or pretend to try to change our government's polices by bombing American targets here or abroad.

But our policies don't change, because politicians never respond to problems by letting go of their power. So, instead of doing something to eliminate the motive for actual or threatened terrorism, our politicians "fight" it with even more foreign adventures.

And they issue a steady stream of alarms about frightening problems around the world all of which supposedly require our immediate attention and intervention.

But why should we have anything to fear? Our country is bounded by two friendly nations and two oceans that protect us from invasion. We are open only to the sky. Our first military concern should be to defend ourselves against missiles launched from overseas.

Weak Defense

And therein lies the rub.

Today we have a very strong national offense, but a very weak national defense.

American taxpayers have coughed up trillions of dollars for the military since World War II giving the politicians the power to destroy any country in the world. But we are still almost completely helpless before any dictator who decides to lob a low-budget missile at your city.

The basic technology to defend against incoming missiles has been available for close to 30 years, and perfecting and implementing it becomes easier every year. But by leaving us vulnerable, the politicians can justify more power for themselves.

They tell us we must arm ourselves to the teeth with weapons that can threaten any would-be attacker with annihilation. We must station American troops in nearly a hundred countries around the world, as though your children were a Roman army of occupation. We must intervene in every foreign dispute to prevent it from escalating into a wider war. We must react with fright when India or Pakistan tests a nuclear weapon. We must intimidate other countries and impose our "solutions" upon them. And although the Cold War is over, we must continue to support a huge, bureaucratic Defense Department and military.

In reality, we need only two things to make you, me, and every American safe from the world's turmoil: (1) a missile defense that will repel a nuclear attack, and (2) a border patrol that will protect us from those rampaging Canadians when they charge across the border from Ontario.

With a proper defense against incoming missiles, we'd have no need to intimidate the world with offensive missiles threatening to kill millions of civilians in an aggressor country. We'd have no reason to bomb Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sudan, or any other country and then give it billions of dollars to repair the damage. Instead, we could let others nurse their age-old grievances they seem to love so much knowing that their problems can't hurt us.

Mutual Suicide

And even without a missile defense, we have no need to participate in NATO, the United Nations, or any other foreign agency that wants to bind you and me to its decisions. And there is no reason to risk disaster with mutual defense treaties. (Or do you really believe Turkey and Italy will rush to help us if we're attacked?)

Our federal government was formed to protect Americans, not foreigners.

If we're responsible for the defense of Europe, what are the Europeans responsible for the defense of Asia?


War is justified by blurring the distinction between foreign rulers and their subjects. Our politicians cite the sins of foreign rulers, and then ask us to join in killing their downtrodden subjects.

The politicians want us to forget that wars and "police actions" kill innocent people. They talk about teaching a foreign dictator a lesson, but the dictator never gets hurt. Instead, American bombs kill thousands of innocent civilians who may hate the dictator even more than our politicians claim to.

For example, since the Gulf War in 1991, our government has brow-beaten other governments to ban trade with Iraq in order to force Saddam Hussein from power. In the eight years of trade sanctions through 1999, it is estimated that at least 1,700,000 Iraqi civilians have died for lack of imported foreign food and medicine.

And, although it doesn't seem to make the newspapers very often, from time to time American planes continue to drop bombs on innocent Iraqi civilians.

Politicians call the deaths of the innocent "collateral damage." And President Clinton and the Republican Congress have steadfastly supported the policy of starving and bombing, even though it has achieved nothing but death and disease.

And after ten years of delivering death by air freight, the U.S. has left Saddam Hussein still firmly entrenched in power. But American politicians never admit the failure or cruelty of their policies or even discuss the matter.

The war against Serbia in 1999 was little different. When it ended, the hated Slobodan Milosevic was still ruling the country. And it became apparent that American bombing had done little to cripple Serbia's military. But hundreds, and maybe thousands, of civilians died including many of the Albanian civilians who supposedly were the objects of our government's "humanitarian" mission.

Isn't there a better way?


Yes, there is.

Like the Founding Fathers, Libertarians know that war is the first resort of political scoundrels, but the last resort of a free people. Libertarians know that government's role isn't to police the world or even to win wars. Government's role is to keep us out of wars and to protect us from foreign enemies, not create them.

How would a Libertarian government assure our safety?

Our foreign policy would be simple:

We are always ready to defend ourselves, but we threaten no one.

America's foreign policy should rest on four principles.

1. Non-Interference

Our government should express good will and a desire for peace toward all threatening no foreign country, interfering in no other countries' disputes, arming or aiding no foreign governments, and giving terrorists no motivation to influence our government.

Any American who wants to volunteer to a foreign government to fight in its war, to negotiate its peace, or to send money to help defend it should be free to do so with no interference from the U.S. government.

But no American should be forced to participate in or pay for such activities. And our politicians should quit committing Americans to these futile attempts to settle other people's problems.

When the politicians drag us off to someone else's war, they always offer plenty of reasons too many, in fact, to be taken seriously. The typical menu of justifications for a single intervention might be: We must interfere to keep the conflict from spreading, to head off the emergence of a new Hitler, to protect our allies, to do the moral thing, and to end violations of human rights.

But how can our politicians protect human rights in other countries? They don't even respect our rights. They try to disarm you, they allow the police to invade your life and property, they use the insane War on Drugs to impose police-state surveillance on all of us, and they try to censor the Internet. So how can they claim to care about human rights in other nations?

2. No Foreign Aid or Military Assistance

The Constitution grants our government no authority to take your money to support foreign governments.

Not only is it unconstitutional, it is unfair by almost any standard. Little of the money reaches the average citizen in the target country. Most of it enriches the rulers and it helps them stay in power and continue the policies that keep their countries poor.

As Fred L. Smith pointed out, foreign aid taxes poor people in rich countries for the benefit of rich people in poor countries.

Foreign aid originally was justified as a way of arming countries against Communist encroachment. But Cuba, China, and Vietnam all fell to the Communists after receiving massive amounts of American money and weapons. In fact, much of the military equipment given to fight the Communists eventually fell into their hands.

So the politicians no longer bother trying to justify giving your money to foreign governments. They just do it. And, not surprisingly, most of the money has strings attached requiring that it be spent with politically connected industries in the U.S.

Much foreign aid is spent to fix problems that might not exist but for our government. For example, many Americans understandably worry about Israel's security, fearing that without American aid Israel will be overrun by its neighbors. But the most effective thing our government could do to help Israel would be to stop arming Israel's enemies.

Our government's eagerness to take sides in Middle East disputes has put billions of dollars of weapons in the hands of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Small wonder that it seems necessary to rush to Israel's defense when hostile governments can use American weapons to intimidate Israel.

Every American should be free to send money or weapons to Israel or any other government in the world. But our government has no business taxing you for the benefit of any foreign government.

3. Security against Attack

Are there bad people in the world who would conquer America if they could?

Most likely, there are. But how would they do it?

They would have to pulverize American cities to the point that we submit to an invasion and occupation. Or they would have to threaten to pulverize us and be believed.

In other words, all we have to fear are incoming missiles.

In 1983 Ronald Reagan made the most sensible military suggestion of the past 50 years that America should have protection against missile attacks. Unfortunately, he assigned the job to the Department of Defense, and now 17 years later we are no closer to being protected than we were then.

The Constitution asks the federal government to defend the nation. But we should rely as little as possible on the political and bureaucratic worlds if we want to achieve anything useful. Instead, we should look to those who know how to solve problems and can be motivated to do so by the lure of big profits.

The government should simply post a reward say, $25 billion to be given to the first private company that can produce a working, functioning, fool-proof missile defense. Not a prototype, not a plan, not a cost-plus contract but a demonstration of the actual system successfully bringing down missiles. If such an offer were made, we probably would have a missile defense within five years.

Remember all the reasons given in 1997 that the Y2K computer problem couldn't possibly be solved by 2000? Even many computer experts said there wasn't enough time, there weren't enough programmers, and there were too many lines of computer code to be examined, altered, and tested. But somehow, people in search of profits found ways to overcome all the barriers and reduce the problem to a minor inconvenience.

In the same way, private firms competing to win a huge reward will achieve missile-defense goals that bureaucrats (and even scientists) working for the government might consider impossible.

Even the companies that don't win the race can profit if they find the answers eventually by selling them to other governments that want protection from terrorist missiles.

What if the missile-defense technology fell into the hands of a savage dictator? That would pose no threat to us. We shouldn't be afraid of any country's ability to defend itself only afraid of our inability to defend America.

When India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons, there was nothing the U.S. could realistically do about it, short of bombing or invading them. None of our government's admonitions could change anything, so our politicians should have kept their mouths shut.

If we had a missile defense, such nuclear tests wouldn't frighten us. We can't prevent other nations from fighting each other or developing weapons of mass destruction, but we can make sure their disputes and their deadly arms don't reach us.

Will a missile defense make us perfectly secure? Of course not. But neither will any other policy.

What a missile defense will do is make us far safer than we are today, eliminate the excuses for meddling in other countries' affairs, and remove one big reason for taxing us so heavily.

4. Target the Aggressors, Not the Innocent

Suppose that, even with a missile defense, America truly were threatened by a foreign ruler.

A Libertarian President would target the ruler himself. He wouldn't order bombers to kill the ruler's innocent subjects.

A Libertarian President would warn the ruler that any actual attack would be met by the offer of a mega-reward to anyone who could kill the ruler. Everyone would be eligible to collect the reward, including the ruler's guards and wives. And the reward would be very big perhaps $100 million or more.

Would this prompt the foreign ruler to respond by putting a price on the head of the Libertarian President? Possibly.

But anything the U.S. President does to interfere with the ruler's plans could provoke an assassination attempt. Posting a reward for the dictator's death wouldn't add to the risk.

In addition to sparing innocent people in foreign countries, the assassination response would spare innocent Americans. Only those who want to try for the reward would be at risk. Americans wouldn't be drafted to fight and die invading a foreign country. And Americans wouldn't be taxed to pay for volunteers.

Please understand the limits of this proposal. It isn't a way to force dictators to change their spots or accommodate the U.S. It is only a means to prevent a direct attack on America. If the dictator withdraws his threat, the U.S. would withdraw the reward.

If our government followed a libertarian foreign policy, it's unlikely that any foreign ruler would want to threaten us. So it's unlikely that any such reward would ever be posted. But if a foreign ruler were tempted to threaten us, the fear of assassination would be more likely to deter him than the fear of losing some of his civilian subjects to U.S. bombs.

If you don't believe that's true, if you think assassination isn't nice, what is the alternative? Is it to kill thousands of innocent foreigners and to assure the deaths of innocent Americans?

That to me is the cruelest, most reckless approach.


Those who tell us America can bring peace and democracy to the world don't seem to recognize that they're talking about the same American government that can't keep the streets safe in Washington, D.C. It's the same government that bleeds us with taxes, pits group against group in battles over quotas and privileges, and has devastated our cities with a futile War on Drugs.

If it fails to achieve any of its domestic goals, if it imposes alien values on its own people, why should you expect it to attain lofty goals overseas?

Politics Is Usual

And don't forget: we're talking about the government, after all.

Military decisions are made politically just as new pork-barrel projects are chosen politically. The government's foreign policy is determined with reference to polls, voting blocs, rewards, and punishment. For example, Bill Clinton sent troops to Haiti in 1994, killing people along the way, just to gain the support of the Congressional Black Caucus for his domestic political agenda.

It's easy to imagine how our government could intervene to bring peace to some foreign region or to support "American interests" overseas. But the actual policy will never be the one you imagine, implemented in the way you envision. Instead, the politicians will define those interests by relying for "counsel" on those who have the most political influence.

To expect foreign policy decisions somehow to be separated from politics is as unrealistic as to expect politicians to refrain from buying votes with your tax money.

In short, foreign policy is as much a political boondoggle as any other government project. So be careful what you urge the politicians to do.


When America can defend itself against missile attack, the politicians will lose their best excuse for butting into the affairs of other countries and making demands upon you. That's probably why so little has been done to construct such a defense.

But it should be the first priority of anyone who pledges to support and defend the Constitution and the American people.

And when our government no longer interferes in other countries with military adventures and foreign aid, foreign terrorists will have little reason to threaten your city.

If in spite of these policies, some foreign leader still tries to make trouble for America, we should target the foreign leader for assassination, not target innocent civilians for bombing. But I doubt that an American government that minds its own business and provides a secure defense will ever have to resort to assassination.

These policies don't appeal to Democratic and Republican politicians, who see foreign crises as opportunities for greater power and more government spending, who demonstrate their courage by sacrificing the lives of others, and who see clearly what we too easily forget that "war" is just another word for "big government," a way to make politicians more important.

The policies I've outlined should make it possible to defend this country successfully for no more than $50 billion a year contrasted with our current vulnerability, which costs nearly $300 billion a year. In 1952, at the height of the Cold War and the Korean War, the federal government spent less than $50 billion a year on the military.

But, more important than the savings in taxes, you will know that your children will never fight and die in a foreign war and terrorists will never target your city.

Finally, we will have a strong national defense, instead of a strong national offense.


The U.S. Constitution was the best attempt ever made to limit the power of government. But because it wasn't self-enforcing, the politicians eventually found that they could ignore it with impunity. 

I believe we need a new Constitutional amendment to restrain the politicians' ability to draw us into war. Here is my proposal:

Section 1. The United States shall be at war only after a declaration of war, naming the specific enemy nations, is approved by the President and by a two-thirds vote of the eligible members in both houses of Congress.

Section 2. The members of the House of Representatives and the Senate eligible to vote on a declaration of war are those who are between the ages of 18 and 35, or who have children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren between those ages.

Section 3. In the absence of a Congressional declaration of war, the President may deploy the military to repel an armed invasion of the United States, but may not deploy troops or engage in hostilities outside the United States.

Section 4. The United States shall enter into no treaty with any nation or organization if such treaty could oblige the United States to be at war without a declaration of war by Congress, and the United States shall not be bound to engage in war by any action taken by any organization of which they are a member.

Section 5. Except in time of war, as specified in Section 1, the United States will provide no weapons or other resources to foreign governments, will engage in no military action outside the borders of the United States, and shall deploy no military personnel or weapons outside the boundaries of the United States except that at any one time up to one thousand members of the military may be outside the United States for no longer than thirty days.

Section 6. Upon any violation of this article by the President, Congress shall institute impeachment proceedings within 14 days.

Section 4 doesn't preclude a missile defense or any other kind of defense of this nation. It only requires the President to wait before attacking a foreign nation until a declaration of war has been issued. Even if some incapacity prevents Congress from making a declaration quickly, America could still defend itself. It just couldn't attack anyone else.

This amendment is, I believe, an important first step in finding a way to keep politicians away from loaded weapons forever. That's the one kind of gun control that really will save lives.

(Adapted from "Freedom from War," in The Great Libertarian Offer by Harry Browne. Copies available for purchase online at Amazon.com.)