Friday, December 14, 2007

The Significance of "Blowback"

From Instapundit comes this piece by Lee Harris, entitled "Reflections on 'Blowback.'" As Harris points out, "blowback" used to refer to negative, unintended consequences following a covert intelligence operation. Now, as used by people like Ron Paul, it seems to refer to the negative, unintended consequences of any aspect of foreign policy.

The point of Harris's piece is simple and broadly correct: when it comes to foreign policy, doing nothing is basically the same as doing something. Suppose the United States decided to never intervene in the goings-on of the rest of the world ever again. As a result of this policy, other nations would probably intervene even more than they do now. For example, China might exert its influence to fill in the void the removal of American power would produce. This, too, could have severe negative consequences for the United States. As Harris argues:

If a policy of disarmament and appeasement turns out to increase the power and prestige of nations ruled by warmongers, this is every bit as much a case of blowback as the defeat that an aggressive nation unexpectedly brings on itself when it precipitately goes to war.
I find Harris's analysis of (one of) the libertarian position(s) spot on as well. In the sphere of domestic affairs, libertarians tend to think that things will handle themselves, and that attempts to interfere with the market will likely produce unintended negative consequences that far outweigh any positive benefits. They're probably right about this.

But the international sphere is unlike the domestic sphere in one crucial, all-important sense: in the domestic sphere, the national government has a monopoly on deciding who will be allowed to make policy within that territory. This will be true even in perfectly libertarian countries. China cannot make policy for the citizens of, say, Arkansas. But this is mainly because the U.S. federal government will stop China from doing so.

In other words, the federal government will stop China from imposing policy F on American citizens, even if (in a perfectly libertarian nation) the federal government itself would not have the power to establish policy F. Having the power to prevent a policy from being established is not necessarily identical with having the power to impose such a policy oneself.

The problem is, in the international sphere, there is no international government to prevent one nation from imposing policies on another. The closest thing the world has is the United States, and people like Ron Paul are all too eager to see that nation abandon its role. Maybe he's right. But abdicating the post of world police will not necessarily prevent blowback. It would simply empower other nations to impose their policies on the citizens of the world, just as other nations would impose their will on the citizens of Arkansas if the federal government withdrew its protection from that state. As Harris observes,
It is simply a myth to believe that only interventionism yields unintended consequence, since doing nothing at all may produce the same unexpected results. If American foreign policy had followed a course of strict non-interventionism, the world would certainly be different from what it is today; but there is no obvious reason to think that it would have been better.
This is another reason to think that a foreign policy of strict non-interventionism is morally dubious. If its moral justification revolves around the cost of blowback to American citizens and interests, then such justification basically places infinite weight on any possible cost (blowback) to Americans, and, consequently, zero weight on any certain cost (blowback) to anyone else in the world.

A moral justification that relies on giving infinite weight to the interests of one group, to the exclusion of all others, is hardly a moral justification at all. Even more so if the justification is invariant to the probabilities involved, so that any risk becomes too much risk. Such justification is not just amoral: it's also highly irrational.

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