Liberty and International Relations

Liberty and International Relations

By Duncan Whitmore

Recently, I posted on Free Life an analysis of the threats that can be posed to liberty by interstate relations and conflicts. Today, I wish to reiterate one particular part of that analysis: that we cannot analyse relationships between states by reference to libertarian principles in exactly the same way in which we discuss relationships between individual people.

Only individuals have rights to the physical integrity of their own bodies and to that of goods they have acquired, either through original appropriation or through voluntary transaction. Consequently, concepts such as “ownership”, “property”, “sovereignty”, “aggression”, “criminality,” etc. only have a concrete meaning when applied to individuals. If, for instance, P initiates physical force against Q – say, by shooting a gun at him – we can say clearly that P, by violating the property rights of Q, has committed an act of aggression against the latter. Further, should Q act so as to protect himself then, subject to certain limits, we would easily classify this response as self-defence. If P happens to be a state goon – say a policeman or tax collector – initiating force against Q on the state’s behalf, then we may summarise P’s action as being that of the state. However, the basic clarity of the analysis remains: he who initiates force is the aggressor; the recipient of that force is the victim; the former is the clear affront to the liberty of the latter.1

States, however, exist only by violating the rights of others. Each and every single one of them is an occupying force of the particular territory over which it claims to have jurisdiction. None of them has any basic right to anything at all, and all of their actions are prima facie illegitimate. Even the most ostensibly peaceful state action will have been funded not from the personal assets of the particular politicians in question, but by taxation mulcted from the citizenry. Thus, given this fundamentally unjust nature of states, the use of binary distinctions such as those between “peaceful” and “aggressive” behaviour, or between “aggressor” and “victim”, makes little sense when discussing interstate relations. At best, we can ask only whether a particular act of a particular state, relative to that of another state, is likely to be better or worse for the liberty of those who have to suffer under state rule, both immediately and in the long run. In this regard, concepts such as “sovereignty” and “borders” – whether our concern is with invasion, secession, immigration, trade or any other interstate act – are useful only insofar as they can serve as a shorthand or proxy for the rights of individual people.

For example, say that the state of Ruritania invades the state of Muldania. To say here that Ruritania’s invasion is an act of aggression simply repeats a truism. We know already that Ruritania is occupying territory to which it has no right (just like it has no right to occupy its own territory), and that innocent civilians are likely to end up as casualties, either intentionally or as so-called “collateral damage”. But neither does Muldania have any inherent right to that territory either – indeed, to assert that Ruritania is “the” aggressor is to implicitly legitimise Muldanian rule. According to libertarian principles, the reason this invasion should never have happened is not just because it is an aggressive act but because neither Ruritania nor Muldania should even exist in the form of states in the first place. But given that both states do, in fact, exist, and given that the invasion has, in fact, happened, it can be classified only as a fight between different aggressors, not between aggressor and victim. Rather than being like a straightforward bank robbery, the situation is more akin to a shoot out between two different gangs of thieves, each of which is trying to rob the bank for itself. In assessing the impact on the individual people affected, we have only a choice of which acts by either state end up being better or worse for their liberty, and this will depend upon the particular circumstances.2

In this regard, even the most apparently simple of situations can present complications. If, following the Ruritanian invasion, there is no reason to suspect that Muldanian citizens have any desire to be ruled by Ruritania rather than an independent, Muldanian state, then, yes, the liberty of those Muldanians has probably been infringed to a greater extent than it was before. But what if Ruritania had occupied only one, particular territory of Muldania? What if this region is ethnically, linguistically and/or religiously aligned with Ruritania, while its political union with Muldania was an historical anomaly? A majority of citizens of this region may never have expressed any formal intention to depart from Muldanian rule, but neither do they seem particularly keen to repel the Ruritanian annexation. Now, the assessment of Ruritania’s action is not quite so clear cut, but it could easily be interpreted as a liberation rather than as an invasion.

However, we would want to look also to the wider context. For one thing, the opinions of Ruritania’s native citizens are important too; they may not be particularly welcoming of a political union with the annexed territory, especially if the latter ends up being a welfare drain. We would also need to consider the resulting size and power of Ruritania vis-à-vis other states in the region. Has Ruritania now been emboldened to seek other, less “legitimate” territorial prizes? Has it gained additional sources of pillage and plunder that enable it to better fund its military? Has such a shift in the balance of power caused other states to begin taxing its citizens more heavily to arm themselves? Have they initiated campaigns of censorship and built up spying and security states to weed out pro-Ruritanian sentiment and “misinformation”? Ruritania might, in fact, have no further ambitions beyond its initial invasion of Muldania, and obviously it has no direct control over what other states do. However, such a path may have been a predictable outcome of its invasion. Indeed, given that war is always the health of the state, one could make the case that any act that initiates a military conflict (or otherwise raises the likelihood of one) should be avoided, even for the most ostensibly limited and “justified” of reasons. Certainly that is a good enough reason for libertarians to argue against state involvement in “humanitarian” concerns or in the purely internal affairs of other states, however horrific those circumstances may be. Apart from the fact that we can never trust a state’s purported motives when it comes to foreign interventionism, the long term price to be paid for the consequences of military aggrandisement, both at home and abroad, is just too great.

The kinds of concern outlined in the preceding paragraph provide a segue into an additional factor that makes analysis of international affairs far more complex than the simple “aggressor vs. victim” outcome of altercations between individuals. This is how the dynamics that exist between states differs from those amongst individuals.

Between individuals, peaceful relations are the default. In theory, it is possible for there to be a complete absence of any societal structure promoting social co-operation, resulting either in the total atomisation of each individual, or in the kind of “war of all against all” that is wrongly ascribed to a state of “anarchy”. However, such a state of affairs would relegate its practitioners to the most impoverished hand-to-mouth existence, and would soon die out. Thus, even the most primitive of communities must engage in at least some kind of voluntary social co-operation. In advanced societies such as ours, only the extension of that co-operation under the division of labour, with goods and services traded for market prices, can produce anything approaching standard of living to which we have become accustomed.3 Competition in the marketplace serves to produce plenteousness for everyone, not to eliminate the weak in favour of the strong. Embracing this path produces, in turn, institutions dedicated not only to the preservation of law and order, but to the cementation of shared values, culture and ethos, providing a kind of feedback loop that serves to further nourish social co-operation. In such a milieu, private criminality – by which we mean acts of murder, rape and theft as opposed to faux crimes proscribing behaviour that the state happens not to like – is confined to a relative handful of aberrations.

A consequence of this is that other people should be presumed harmless unless there is a good reason to suspect otherwise. Even in our current environment of increasing social and cultural fragmentation, only the most neurotic and paranoid of persons would walk down the street fearing an imminent, random attack from literally anyone he happens to encounter, at least in most places. Thus, the bar for that which constitutes threatening or aggressive behaviour is set very high, with only an overt act sufficient to qualify. (In fact, as I have discussed previously, “threats” which, objectively considered, convey a clear statement of intent to commit an act of aggression should properly be considered as the commencement of that act rather than as a separate category.) “Offensiveness”, insults or some other form of boorish verbal provocation are never sufficient to trigger a physically defensive response, however unpleasant they may be. Indeed, it is the blurring of this line by an increasing number of laws designed to stamp out “hate” or “harmful” speech – at least, that is, if it is directed towards the state’s favoured groups and identities – that is helping to sow distrust, resentment and the breakdown of social co-operation.

Further, in a free society, we can reason that this assumption would not be altered if another individual was in the mere possession of a firearm or some other form of defence. Needless to say, decades of state propaganda have eroded permissive attitudes towards individuals possessing the means to defend themselves. However, without this influence, it is unlikely that another person’s possession of a weapon would, alone, constitute an immediate cause for alarm. Indeed, we seldom bat an eyelid when celebrities and other high-profile individuals are accompanied by a coterie of armed bodyguards; it’s obvious that there is no reason to believe they are on their way to commit a massacre. Thus, the distinction we mentioned earlier remains clear: he who fires the first shot (or threatens to do so) is the aggressor.

The dynamic between states, however, is entirely different. States are parasitical; their raison d’être is to consume goods confiscated from individuals, not to produce. Of course, they often feign to produce, even nationalising complex industries in order to do so; such outfits, however, will simply waste resources that could have been used more efficiently in avenues of private production. Ultimately, the exercise of state power is a zero-sum game, both domestically and internationally. A bigger slice of pie – or “sphere of influence” – for one state necessarily means a smaller slice for another. Further, the existence of other states presents each government with a kind of prisoner’s dilemma. Should it lower its rates of tax and regulation, any one state will avoid the flight of its wealthiest, most productive citizens to less predatory states; however, if every state follows this same path then they all end up limiting their accumulation of wealth and power.

In order to escape this quandary a state has only two options. The first, simple enough, is for states to fight each other, with the loser subdued by the power of the victor; the latter now gets to benefit from the plunder previously enjoyed by the former. The second is for states to co-operate in the exercise of their power, agreeing to harmonise their tax rates and to concoct universal levels of regulation.4 However, if this path is to flower into anything other than a temporary truce, then ultimately it will result in the consolidation and centralisation of state structures at the supranational level. As we have seen in outfits such as the European Union, this often ends up institutionalising interstate conflict rather than resolving it. But whether there is open conflict or not, each of these two options is ultimately eliminative, tending towards a unipolar source of decision making authority, with policies, laws and rules being formulated by a dwindling yet ever more powerful elite. Indeed, the policies of most of our “elected” leaders today seem to be doing little more than implementing decisions that are made either at global institutions and/or at the behest of the most powerful states. The logical end to the continuation of this process is one, single ruler of the entire world.

Thus, whereas the default status between individuals is peaceful co-operation, the eliminative tendency inherent in the logic of statism results in a default status between states of constant hostility and suspicion, in whichever forum it occurs. They may well feign to institute a “rules based order” or some other body of legal norms that apply between themselves. Ultimately, however, you cannot apply principles of justice to parties whose very existence rests on injustice. In the long run, therefore, states will always be governed by the law of the jungle, with their deliberations only ever resulting in one ending up as either the predator or the prey – or, at least, as either dominant or dominated.

This is exacerbated by the fact that states can offload the costs of both their aggression and their nominally “defensive” preparations onto their taxpayers, together with a ready supply of other people’s sons (and daughters, for that matter) to serve as cannon fodder should there be any actual shooting war. Thus, states, relative to private citizens, face a lower cost barrier to belligerent and threatening behaviour. Moreover, once such a war does break out, the prospect for a state is far more grave than it is for a private aggressor. The latter knows that his deeds are likely to be met by an established system of due process, producing verdicts and sentences that are proportionate and fair. As such, he is likely to restrict his acts of aggression to the corresponding level of punishment which, if apprehended, he is willing to bear. A state, however, has no such guarantee; if defeated, its political and military leaders, together with its top bureaucrats, may well find themselves at the mercy of “victor’s justice”. There is, therefore, far less of an incentive pressing upon states to temper the extent of their hostilities if the outcome is likely to be all or nothing.

The important corollary of this is that, whereas the preservation of liberty requires us to assume that each individual is peaceful until he issues an overt threat of aggression, the threshold for considering a state to be an (increasing) threat to peace is likely to be far lower. From a fundamental perspective, everything a state does is, at some level, aggressive, and can never be truly defensive. But the simple Realpolitik of this interstate dynamic means that any act prior to an actual attack that is only potentially threatening – whether it is ostensibly “defensive”, preparatory or provocative – can produce a destabilising effect that can easily tip everyone into a real conflict. Thus, focussing only on who fired the first shot is to consider only one, possibly quite minor part of a complex situation.

To go back to our fictional states of Ruritania and Muldania, assume that no invasion has yet occurred. One day, the Ruritanian government decides to increase its arms spending, ramping up the production of weapons while tripling the size of its army, navy and air force. Alarmed by this increase in the power of the Ruritanian state, the government of Muldania decides to increase its own defence budget in tandem. The first blow to liberty has now been struck as the citizens of each state are taxed more heavily in order to afford this additional military largesse, whether it’s through direct confiscation, inflation or borrowing.

Ruritania, now worrying about the build up of forces in the neighbouring state, begins to undertake extensive military exercises involving thousands of troops and military equipment close to the Muldanian border. Other states in the region also become agitated as a result of the increased activity, with half deciding to enter a “collective security alliance” with Ruritania, with the rest forming a similar pact with Muldania. In short, each set of allies has now agreed to defend any one of their number from an attack.

Convinced that a Ruritanian invasion is imminent, Muldania initiates air strikes upon Ruritanian military resources before sending in its army to neutralise the Ruritanian forces gathered close to the border. Up in arms about what it claims is a flagrant act of “unprovoked” aggression, Ruritania declares war on Muldania, demanding nothing short of the latter’s unconditional surrender. Both sets of security alliances are triggered, with all of the regional states now at war. Each government then proceeds to pass far reaching emergency legislation, granting itself the authority to redirect private production towards the war effort, to institute rationing of food and other essential goods, to conscript citizens into the army, and to ban the private dissemination of news and information. Given Ruritania’s demand of unconditional surrender, the war continues until one of the two alliances is decimated. We can surmise also that, once the conflict subsides and the death toll counted, many of the wartime powers will remain in place permanently in each of the former belligerent states.

What is the cause of this state of affairs that has so catastrophically destroyed the liberty of the people who reside in these states? Initially, it looks as though Ruritania’s arms spending kicked off the whole thing. But perhaps Ruritania believed this to be a genuinely defensive response to prior, imperialistic overtures made by Muldanian statesmen? Perhaps Muldania should have made a greater effort to seek a diplomatic solution before jacking up its own military budget, or at least before it panicked at the sight of Ruritania’s military exercises? May be also, however, Ruritania shouldn’t have been so brash in conducting those exercises so close to the border? Certainly, the military alliances have been a disaster, with as much as a whole continent at war instead of just two states. Further, Ruritania has guaranteed the prolonging of the conflict given that it has closed off all avenues short of Muldanian surrender.

Regardless of how each of these factors is weighed, it is clear from this analysis that “who shoots first” is hardly sufficient in determining who has been the more culpable in producing this disaster – if any of them can be said to be more culpable. Indeed, in some situations, it may not be possible to categorise any action by any party as “justified” relative to the actions of another.

States themselves, of course, are adept at changing the rules depending upon what suits them. If “we” fire the first shot at someone else, it is in response to an “aggressive threat” (real or – as in the case of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – imagined). If someone else fires the first shot at “us”, however, it is an “unprovoked attack”. In this regard, there are at least three tricks which states use so as to dupe their citizens into supporting official narratives.

The first is to obtain a favourable interpretation of “international law” or a resolution by a supranational body such as the UN. Such an achievement can be used by a state in order to ascribe its own actions to an order of rules-based rationality on the one hand, while serving to condemn the actions of their enemies as impulsive self-interest on the other. However, as we mentioned earlier, while such deliberations may exploit the trappings of legal rights and justice5, such principles can never truly apply to parties that are fundamentally aggressive in nature, locked onto an ultimately eliminative path. Whichever way you try to square it, such supranational institutions will always end up as veneers for the law of the jungle, shaped, moulded and interpreted by the most powerful parties at the table.6 This doesn’t mean to say that such biases will be written in plain English within a body of rules itself; rather, they can be manifest in the way in which the evidence and other relevant factors are either selected or omitted for consideration, and how they end up being appraised so as to arrive at a conclusion. It should be remembered that the unequal application of a good rule can be more of an affront to justice than the universal application of a bad one.

The second is to assume that states which, internally, have a history of respecting freedom and individual rights are necessarily more trustworthy on the world stage, or otherwise present lesser threats to world peace. A counterpart of this is the assumption that military conflict in the hands of a despot or dictator is necessarily going to be more irrational, unhinged and destructive than if it is in the hands of a “good” democracy. Actually, the correlation may be entirely the inverse, given that countries which are internally freer and more prosperous are able to leech off a greater number of resources to deploy in foreign adventurism. This allows them to not only engage in more protracted military conflicts but to also behave with a greater degree of carefree abandon. Dictators running relatively more impoverished societies, on the other hand, may end up having to be a lot more careful if they have precious little wherewithal to sustain a conflict. Indeed, it is no coincidence that both Britain and the US – two of the freest countries in human history – were able to maintain imperialistic hegemony across the globe in their respective heydays.

The third trick nesting up the state’s sleeve is to exploit ethnic and cultural bias, instilling the notion that the foreign and unfamiliar must be sinister and threatening by default. Of course, states tend to exaggerate cultural differences with pre-selected enemies in order to craft their “goodies vs baddies” narratives.7 Most of the time, the important differences are probably not as great as they are made out to be. But assuming that there are such differences, one must, of course, consider the specific values and attitudes of foreigners that are likely to be important to them when they weigh up the costs and benefits of interstate conflict. Neither the motivation for nor manner of a conflict initiated by a distant country will necessarily reflect the kinds of deliberations that go on in the US Pentagon or the UK Ministry of Defence. Particularly when a matter which seems trivial or otherwise unimportant in our culture happens to be a major source of pride in another, it may not always be possible to understand or empathise with the rationales that underpin some conflicts.

However, this difficulty is no reason for one to adopt a stance of exceptionalism – that the same acts, or the same levels of global influence, are somehow less bad when undertaken by people more like ourselves, but are far worse when undertaken by those many thousands of miles away who speak strange languages and practise unfamiliar religions. In fact, the adoption of an exceptionalist attitude is probably an indicator that one’s own values and sense of fairness are wanting. One cannot, for instance, maintain that a first shot fired by “our” side is just the pre-emption of a wider conflict later, whereas a first shot fired at “us” by the “other” side must be an “unprovoked attack” regardless of whatever level of provocation “we” have initiated. Such a lack of equity in one’s deliberations erodes the very values that supposedly makes one’s own country and culture superior. Indeed, the West today is on the edge of obliterating the very rights and freedoms that once made it a bastion of freedom and prosperity. Censorship, state controlled media and a complex spying and security state may all be present in regimes abroad, but they are also here in the West. One certainly cannot maintain the moral high ground when our own house is not in order.


Libertarians are less likely to be duped by state or mainstream narratives when it comes to interstate relations and conflicts. Nevertheless, if we wish to analyse the impact of international relations upon individual liberty, we must make sure that we break free entirely from any tendency to acquiesce in mainstream assumptions – assumptions which are all too keen to discuss only whole states and countries at the expense of the freedom and welfare of individual people.

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1In some instances, it may not be possible for an observer to determine precisely which, out of two people, is the aggressor and which is the victim. This, however, is an evidential problem, not a conceptual one – the categories of aggressor and victim themselves are distinct.

2A minarchist position could also adopt this stance for the most part; however, as we shall see later, even the fulfilment of the limited role of national defence can present difficulties when analysing interstate relations.

3The indispensability of the freedom of labour in the complex economy also renders “co-operation” in the form of joint effort under slavery strictly limited in its productive capacity.

4International corporations can also serve as extensions to or proxies for state power, as well as seats of influence over the exercise of that power.

5Given its dependence upon custom and treaty, international law even bears much resemblance to the kinds of decentralised law making that libertarians envisage for a free society.

6For a good, detailed illustration of the farcical nature of the so-called “rules-based international order”, see the central portion of David Webb’s recent article on this site.

7And yet states do the complete opposite when they are in collaboration, for instance with the attempt to instil a distinctly “European” identity so as to foster a cultural basis for the European Union.


  1. This analysis, though not without a certain appeal, strikes me as being more what I think of as anarchist than what I think of as libertarian. Is that a silly comment on my part?

    • The two terms are not mutually exclusive. Many, if not most, libertarians believe their principles to be utterly incompatible with any support for state rule, and are, therefore, “anarchist” to that extent.

  2. I like the view of the state as an occupying force; thank you, Duncan. It’s not an angle I had considered before, but as soon as I read the sentence, I thought “that’s spot-on.” And people don’t like occupying forces. I am minded, for example, of the visceral hatred of Germans, which I saw among the population when I lived in Holland in the late 1970s. I hope you won’t mind me re-using the metaphor!

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