A Foreign Policy Of Self-Interested Non-Interventionism

With Mitt Romney and Barack Obama basically saying the same things about foreign policy, it's time to take a look at an alternative.

Former New Mexico Governor, and current Libertarian Party candidate for President, Gary Johnson argues that both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are getting it wrong when it comes to foreign policy:

Foreign policy is supposed to make us safer, not get Americans killed and bankrupt us. Yet, even as we mourn the loss of four Americans in Libya and watch the Middle East ignite with anti-American fervor, our leaders don’t get it.

In one corner, we have the U.S. apologists warning that — after the murders in Libya and the attack on our embassy in Cairo — we must be careful not to say or do anything that might hurt someone’s feelings. In the other corner, we have the chest-thumpers demanding that we find somebody to shoot — and shoot them.

I have a better idea: Stop trying to manipulate and manage history on the other side of the globe and then being shocked when things don’t turn out the way we wanted. As far as what we do right now in response to the tragic events of this week, it’s actually pretty simple. Get our folks out of places they don’t need to be — and out of harm’s way — and cut off every dime of U.S. tax dollars we are sending to clearly ungrateful regimes.


It’s time to tell and face the truth: The Bush-Obama-and-now-Romney interventionist approach to foreign policy is getting Americans killed and contributing to the bankruptcy of our nation without clear sight of our national interests. By what measure is that good policy?

Libertarians are often accused of having a naive view when it comes to foreign policy, at times they are even called, falsely I would say in most cases, isolationists in an effort to paint them with a label that is intended to do nothing more than discredit them without actually addressing their argument.  Is it really isolationism, though, to say that we need to think twice about interfering in the internal affairs of a region of the world that, notwithstanding our involvement there for the past 50 years or so, we still clearly don’t completely understanding? Is it isolationism to point out that our own actions in that part of the world often end up getting used against us in order to fan the flames of anti-American sentiment (as if they needed much fanning in a place like Egypt where nearly 80% of the population has a negative opinion of the United States)? Is there something wrong with suggesting that we are only harming ourselves by engaging with a religion of a billion people in a manner that seems clearly designed to make them hate us? I don’t think it’s isolationism, I think it’s common sense.

I find much that is appealing in what Johnson says in this article, as well as the remarks made recently by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, largely because I really don’t find anything to recommend the bipartisan foreign policy consensus we currently seem to be operating under. Starting with President Bush and continuing with President Obama, we seem to be pursuing policies that don’t really have any long term goals in mind. Indeed, that’s been the case since the end of the Cold War, as Reason’s Nick Gillespie points out:

At least since the end of the Cold War, the United States has drifted along without anything resembling a coherent or sustained conversation about foreign policy, much less working to hash out a consensus position that reflects our body politic. In the 1990s, we witnessed Bill Clinton lurching from action to action. He ordered 25 major troop deployments over eight years, twice as many as Ronald Reagan. George W. Bush entered office promising a “humble” foreign policy that repudiated “nation building” and then embraced a disastrous “region building” approach from which we have yet to extricate ourselves. Barack Obama tripled troops in Afghanistan without bothering to clarify our mission there and unilaterally decided to drop bombs in Libya. Congress has acted the role of helpless bystander in foreign policy for going on the last 20 years at least (for god’s sake, far more members supported the second invasion of Iraq than the first!).

The predictable result is a foreign policy that is completely unpredictable and unprincipled. There are simply no clear rules governing when and how America will act militarily, what we stand for, and what we stand against. Or, as Obama’s bizarre phrasing of our relationship with non-enemy Egypt (which receives billions of dollars in aid from us), even who are allies are.

This is a fairly accurate representation of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. We’ve wandered, somewhat aimlessly, from one military encounter to another with little indication of what our overall goals actually are. Is territorial integrity of sovereign nations our goal, as the Persian Gulf War? Well, that’s kind of hard to believe when you consider that it’s unlikely that we would’ve sent a massive military force to protect the borders of a nation that didn’t have massive oil reserves. Did the interventions in the Balkans indicate that humanitarian interests would be the focus of our 21st Century foreign policy? Well, that’s kind of hard to believe considering that we barely paid attention to the massacres in Rwanda that were occurring at the same time, and it’s even further debunked by the fact that the public didn’t seem to have been a fan of even the 90s era Clinton idea of nation building. After 9/11, it seemed like fighting terrorism was the way we would go, then we ended up getting bogged down in a completely unrelated adventure in Iraq that cost far more lives , and lasted far too long, than it should have. Rather than wandering aimlessly, or just going to war for war’s sake as the Republicans seem to want to do, perhaps it’s time to look at things from a different direction.

Now, of course, the changes that Johnson and Paul talk about have to be viewed realistically if they are ever going to be implemented as policy, even in part. No matter how much the idealists might desire it, we cannot completely withdraw from the world in the manner some of my fellow libertarians would like to. We don’t live in an ideal world at the moment and there are places on the planet where a lack of U.S. interest or influence would cause a devolution in to chaos. Additionally, our own economic interest require that we remain concerned about freedom of the seas and the protection of vital shipping lanes and choke points such as the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, and the Straits of Hormuz. There is, in all honesty, nobody else in the world who can do that job, and I’m not sure that we would want to trust someone else with it if there was.

Recognizing the need to remain a presence in world affairs, though, doesn’t mean that we are required to intervene in every conflict in the world. As a general rule, I would say that anything that doesn’t directly harm America’s vital national interests should not be sufficient justification for military action. That would mean no intervention in Syria, no intervention in Libya, and no Iraq War. It would also mean, however, that the War In Afghanistan, at least as originally conceived as an effort to eradicate al Qaeda and it’s ability to strike American and western targets, was both proper and necessary as was, in retrospect, the Persian Gulf War. It would also mean, though, that we shouldn’t try to impose a settlement on the Israelis and the Palestinians other than one that they agree to on their own, and that we need to abandon the idea of “nation building” along with the absurd idea that we can turn any nation into a functioning democracy even when it has no history of the same.

We also need to abandon the idea that we can change the world.

As we watch another round of protests in, at his point, 21 separate Muslim countries directed against the United States and ponder the first death of an American Ambassador since 1979, the question one must ask is what, exactly, we are doing in the world.  The  Obama Administration entered office thinking that it could remake our relati0nship with the world, and that approach was embodied in everything from the President’s speech in Cairo to the famous, some would say infamous, “reset button”  to symbolize a new relationship with Russia.

Reality, of course, has been harshly different. Notwithstanding the Arab Spring, our relationship with the Muslim world has not improved at all, and there’s a fairly good case to support the argument that it has deteriorated significantly. Indeed, the events of the past week would seem to support that position. As for Russia, whatever idea that anyone had that we would be working together as partners was long ago dismissed as an illusion, and the Syrian situation stands as Exhibit A for the argument that a new President in Washington doesn’t necessarily change the fundamental realities of international relations. And yet, for some reason, American politicians continue to run for office on the idea that they can change the world.

We need, in other words, a humbler foreign policy stripped of both the jingoism of the right and the pie-in-the-sky idealism of the left. Our primary goal should be the protection of our interest, and the advancement of friendly diplomatic and trade relationships with the rest of the world. We’ve spent far too much time trying to accomplish more than that, and have nothing at all to show for it.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Democracy, Middle East, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. American History says:

    Senator Gruening objected to “sending our American boys into combat in a war in which we have no business, which is not our war, into which we have been misguidedly drawn, which is steadily being escalated”.

    No one listened to this guy or his Chamber mate Wayne Morse in 1964.
    Why is anyone going to listen to Johnson or R. Paul today?

  2. Console says:

    Little too cynical here for my tastes. For one, the Russian reset did actually happen.

    -the START treaty (I seem to recall Romney talking reckless about that one),
    -renewed cooperation in Afghanistan
    – Russia’s in the WTO now

    There has definitely been foreign policy success with regard to Russia.

    Both parties are the same on foreign policy in the sense that they tend to have the same goals. But that’s a really shallow way of looking at things. Execution matters, and things could certainly be worse in a lot of areas. We could have “intervened” poorly in a lot more places than Libya by now. Don’t take that shit for granted.

    With that said, I agree that there needs to be another voice on foreign policy in the political conversation. When presidents can’t even make politically popular choices with regard to foreign policy, something is broken.

  3. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Are we talking capital “L” or lower case “l?” That makes a big difference.

    It’s not that Libertarians “often” are accused of having naive viewpoints regarding foreign policy. Libertarians — capital L — always are accused by other political junkies of having naive viewpoints concerning foreign policy. For obvious reasons. And, yeah, the truth hurts.

    Separately Libertarians completely are ignored by the general populace. And for good reasons. Political parties which average less than one-half of one single percent of the national popular vote fall into the “irrelevant noise” category of politics, in which various other lunatic fringe elements, including the Socialist Party, the Constitution Party, etc., reside.

    Lower case “l” is a different story and that’s a legitimate subject of debate. Spending fewer taxpayer dollars where necessary and appropriate makes sense, whether the topic is domestic policy or foreign policy. Fewer governmental restrictions on private enterprise in connection with foreign policy, e.g., promoting free trade, is a hallmark element of a good government.

    Even nouveau upper case Libertarians such as Gary Johnson can and sometimes do have good ideas when it comes to the core issues of foreign policy. Johnson says he wants to “cut off every dime of U.S. tax dollars we are sending to clearly ungrateful regimes.” Well, yeah, definitely.

    Ultimately, though, here’s where the rubber hits the road. Political ideology can’t be an excuse for being cognitively dissonant and one’s principles can’t be de facto national suicide pills. The question always to ask in matters of war and peace is as follows: “Would Neville Chamberlain have advanced this policy, or would Teddy Roosevelt and Harry S Truman have advanced this policy?” If it’s the former then the answer is do the exact opposite. If it’s the latter then you’re on the correct track.

  4. KariQ says:

    I would love to be able to vote for a candidate who believes in civil liberties and a non-interventionist foreign policy and a chance of winning the election. I don’t really expect it to happen in my lifetime.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    @American History: In November of 1968 I woke up the day after the election saw that Wayne Morris had lost then went down to report for the draft.

  6. American History says:

    @Ron Beasley: Fuk theDraft!

  7. David M says:


    I would love to be able to vote for a candidate who believes in civil liberties and a non-interventionist foreign policy and a chance of winning the election. I don’t really expect it to happen in my lifetime.

    Seeing as how Johnson isn’t going to win the election, I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off the Green Party candidates were invited to the Democratic primary debates and the Libertarian Party candidates were invited to the GOP debates.

    I’m not sure how to get this to work, but I think having more viewpoints would be a good thing for all parties.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    The question always to ask in matters of war and peace is as follows: “Would Neville Chamberlain have advanced this policy, or would Teddy Roosevelt and Harry S Truman have advanced this policy?” If it’s the former then the answer is do the exact opposite. If it’s the latter then you’re on the correct track.

    No. The question to ask is “Will this policy further the interests of America?”

    Here is the problem with so many conservatives: They think Teddy Roosevelt was the apogee of politics. Tsar, here is a hint, Teddy was last relevant to American politics at the turn of the century. And no, I do not mean 2000.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    And Doug? Good for you. People have been complaining about how you don’t push the Libertarian line enough. Guys? There is a choice.

    The only wasted vote is the one that is not exercised.

  10. I hope that a less adventurous foreign policy develops. Arguably we are on a slow creep to that now, with a weird “we’re leaving Afghanistan but let’s not talk about it too much.” Public support for Libya pretty much dependent on it being a brief air war as well.

    Certainly having Johnson and Paul pushing for less war is a good thing.

  11. @Tsar Nicholas:

    The question always to ask in matters of war and peace is as follows: “Would Neville Chamberlain have advanced this policy, or would Teddy Roosevelt and Harry S Truman have advanced this policy?” If it’s the former then the answer is do the exact opposite. If it’s the latter then you’re on the correct track.

    As I’ve noted several times, if the Munich agreement had been rejected, causing WWII to begin a year earlier, it’s like that Germany would have ended up winning. Remember that the whole beginning of the wars was the Allies retreating on all fronts trying to buy enough time to let the USA and Russia ramp up their industry enough to overpower Germany. Had the was started in 1939, the allies would have faced Russia as a German ally and a US that still didn’t enter the war until 1941.

  12. Ron Beasley says:

    The problem is the defense industry (Military Industrial Complex) is incredibly powerful. War is very profitable.

  13. Clanton says:

    I always thought it was a mistake to end our control of the Panama Canal.

  14. ernieyeball says:

    Bring back the Draft!

  15. bk says:

    With Mitt Romney and Barack Obama basically saying the same things about foreign policy

    Are you on drugs?

  16. bk says:

    With Mitt Romney and Barack Obama basically saying the same things about foreign policy

    Did you somehow not hear what Romney had to say about the Israel/Palestinian situation in the tape released yesterday?

  17. Ron Beasley says:

    @bk: Indeed – Romney has all but said he will turn our mid east policy over to Netanyahu.

  18. legion says:

    @Ron Beasley: Oh, it gets better than that. Now people are starting to notice another little gem from Mitt’s tape – that he’d be perfectly happy if Americans were put in harm’s way overseas, as long as he could take political advantage of it:

    And yet, in that election, in the Jimmy Carter election, the fact that we had hostages in Iran, I mean, that was all we talked about. And we had the two helicopters crash in the desert, I mean, that was the focus, and so him solving that made all the difference in the world. I’m afraid today that if you simply got Iran to agree to stand down on nuclear weapons, they’d go, “Now hold on. It’s really a-” I mean, if something of that nature presents itself I will work to find a way to take advantage of the opportunity.

    This man is truly beneath the scum that the scum of the earth looks down on.

  19. An Interested Party says:

    A Foreign Policy Of Self-Interested Non-Interventionism

    From a self-interested non-electable candidate…

  20. Bob says:

    Shorter Mataconis: since I want to pimp Johnson, I will create out of whole cloth a narrative wherein Obama and Romney are exactly the same, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

  21. Moosebreath says:

    “Libertarians are often accused of having a naive view when it comes to foreign policy”

    If they are unable to distinguish between Obama’s and Romney’s foreign policies, but instead consider them to be one and the same, then they fully deserve to be called naive. It’s roughly the equivalent of liberals who are unable to distinguish between Libertarians and Social Conservatives.

  22. Jc says:

    I am sure our foreign policy over there will get better once the oil runs out. Until then it will be lousy. Maybe we should dedicate ourselves to helping more countries that are starving but offer little resources?

  23. Ron Beasley says:

    @legion: Of course, Romney is a sociopathic plutocrat (yes that’s redundant). Romney is worse than Cheney – he has no ideology, only a lust for power and treasure. The thing that may save us is that he’s not really very smart.

  24. The thing is that Johnson is right. It’s funny how many refuse to acknowledge the simple fact that if you get in someone’s business that isn’t yours eventually your going to get punched in the mouth. It’s amusing on how conservatives and liberals justify the blood lust that is our foreign policy. For the con it’s because “they hate our freedoms” for the lib it’s because “they’re poor and live in squalor.”

    I’m sure those here who have either a Facebook or Twitter account have seen their conservative friends trout out their demi-god Reagan in respond to the Libyan episode. Freedoms Phoenix has a nice article on what the conservative idol what have done in response


  25. Jeremy R. says:


    There was also this other riff on Iran on the tape:


    Governor Mitt Romney’s description, caught on video, of what he considered the real nuclear threat from Iran has further undermined his national security credentials, showing a fundamental misunderstanding of nuclear threats. Iran’s nuclear program has nothing to do with dirty bombs. Terrorists would not use uranium — from Iran or anywhere else — in a dirty bomb. It is unclear if Gov. Romney was just riffing, or if his advisors had fed him this line of attack. But it is dead wrong.

  26. superdestroyer says:

    A non-interventionist foreign policy is not only easier but it is much cheaper for the tax payer.

    However, in the age of 24 hour news channels and 100’s of channels of media, a non-interventionist foreign policy means that Americans have to accept it when some despot decides to slaughter his own citizens, invade his neighbors, or sponsor terrorism. The problems with paleoconish isolationism, is that it takes a strong will to ignore all of the international reporting in the media.

  27. george says:


    Actually, I think most people are pretty quick to put up their “Someone else’s problem” field. Look at the indifference to the slaughter’ in Africa a decade ago, or in East Timour before that. People’s interest tends to become strong enough to insist the government interfer when oil in involved, or political ideology. And I think the latter (the drive for ideological inteference) is weakening.

    But ultimately, what will drive this is the same thing that’s led to other world powers over the millennia to stop interferring – the cost will be too high to maintain. It’d be nice to withdraw in go form before we’re broke, rather than collapsin.

  28. Rob in CT says:

    Thanks for the (policy related) post on Johnson, Doug.

    Now, I think it’s obvious that one cannot shift US foreign policy from its current world policeman status over to what you and I would prefer by snapping one’s fingers (or even somehow electing Gary Johnson). But starting to move in that direction is something I want. I was hopeful that it would begin under Obama, but the Libyan adventure proved me wrong on that score (also, too: the recent Michael Lewis article about Obama indicates O made the decision against the advice of Gates, et al. On the one hand, I’m happy he was getting good advice. On the other… he ignored it).

    Now, if forced to pick, Dems > GOP on this stuff. But it’s not nearly as much of a choice as I’d like. The GOP is still listening to Neocons (oh, for the day when anyone of consequence in the GOP listens to, say, Daniel Larison). The Dems have a pack of liberal interventionist R2Pers. I think they’re smart enough to avoid an Iraq-level debacle, but that’s faint praise.

    Hence my intended little protest vote for Johnson this Nov.

  29. Rob in CT says:

    Wow, I get to agree with a supe post. Yes, it would take discipline to avoid entanglement, especially since the world has grown accustomed to us intervening everywhere. Libya is one example: the Brits and French wanted something done… and they looked at us, because we’re the ones who have the capability.

    Shifting back to a paleocon style FP will be a long, difficult trek. I fear it will not happen until we literally have no choice in the matter.

  30. Me Me Me says:

    The idea that Obama and Romney are saying essentially the same things regarding foreign policy is not just a fiction, but also a slander on Obama. Romney’s FP consists of more spending on Big Defense, outsourcing decision-making to Bibi Netenyahu, a cold war with China, and probably a horror such as John Bolton as SecState. Voting for Johnson makes all these things possible.

  31. Rob in CT says:

    @Me Me Me:

    Only if you do so in a swing state and would otherwise have voted Obama. If you’re a potential Romney voter who votes Johnson, you’re actually helping.

    I’m not in a swing state, so I have the luxury of my little protest.

    And yes, I think there is some false equivalence at work here, but Johnson pretty much has to phrase it that way. Fed up with the donkey and the oliphaunt? A pox on both their houses, vote for me! I think it’s understandable.

  32. C. Clavin says:

    In all fairness to Doug Romney is at once the same as Obama and opposite Obama. As with almost every issue Romney is whatever you want him to be. Doug wants Romney to be like Obama so he is.

    Johnson and Paul are naive…and, as is always the case with Libertarianism…their position does not survive exposure to reality.

  33. swearyanthony says:

    “we still clearly don’t completely understanding?” is up there with “is our children learning” for unintentionally funny phrases of all time.

    English. How does it work?

  34. CB says:

    I mean, if something of that nature presents itself I will work to find a way to take advantage of the opportunity.

    well, come on, he obviously meant that if an opportunity to advance US interests came along, hed do what he can to exploit it in our favor. I dont see that as referring to political strategy at all.

  35. JohnMcC says:

    Overlooked is the way that foreign policy becomes so much a reed blown by domestic voting blocs. During the 19th century the Irish voters of the big northeastern cities were the constituency that kept the US and Great Britain considering each other as possible enemies (at least on this side of the pond). The anti-Castro Cuban-Americans of Florida have kept the embargo on that Island. Our Mexican and Central-American policies will be shaped by the emerging Hispanic voters.

    And the picture of a Johnson Presidency going full-tilt-boogy against the AIPAC lobby, priceless.

    It is typical of the adolescent thinking of “libertarians” that they think “foreign policy” is only about “foreign policy”.

  36. legion says:

    @Jeremy R.: It’s extremely clear from the transcript of this little oration that Mitt has heard a lot of big words and numbers from his various advisors, but he’s understood exactly _none_ of them. He is just regurgitating “stuff” without any comprehension at all. That should make for some really train-wreck-y debates…

  37. steve says:

    The problem lies not with our political parties. It is the American people and our fondness for war. Just questioning participation in war is deemed unpatriotic.


  38. grumpy realist says:

    @steve: Well, that’s even more now because it’s only the poor and “those people” who are signing up for military service. Where they can go abroad to get shot at, come back to the US, and then have the war-forever pom-pom cheerers vote against funds for our veterans.

    Sometimes I think we should bring back the draft. Except this time, EVERYBODY is eligible. No college deferments, no deferments because you’re married or Senator War-Thumper’s daughter. Everyone has to play.

  39. ernieyeball says:

    @grumpy realist: EVERYBODY is eligible…no deferments

    Good luck with that!

    “It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son, son.
    It ain’t me, it ain’t me; I ain’t no fortunate one, no,”