Libertarian theories of international relations (IR) are limited in their codification and explanation, tending to be afterthoughts in wider social and economic treatises that premise the development of a libertarian society. The central figure of the state or sovereign in most IR theories goes against the grain of libertarianism’s insight that economic action moves beyond the boundaries of states through markets and non-state institutions. However, this view leads to myopia as the importance of IR and particularly of warfare in the construction and delineation of societies, as well as the character of state and non-state institutions, means a whole field of action that libertarianism must engage with if it is to posit a praxis.
Existing developments toward a libertarian IR theory can be seen in developments around republican security theory (with its classical liberal lineage) and an associated commercial sovereignty which emerges from states while also constraining them. A similar line of thought is present in Christensen’s theory of interstate federalism, whereby nested hierarchies of governance integrate sovereign entities into commercial relations. However both fail to take note of the underlying factors of their theories, that the nature of international relations and by extension warfare are both endogenous and exogenous to sovereignty. Endogenous as warfare is constructed by the relations of states and limited through legal protocols and agreements, but exogenous as warfare extends beyond these limits, stretching outwards into wider war machines with associated actors, what Grove calls violence entrepreneurs, those who structure warfare outside the regulative strictures of sovereignty. Warfare, much like systems of markets and non-state institutions, has spontaneous elements to it, becoming an autonomous flow that overdetermines the sovereign ordering of international relations and presents opportunities for extra-state action. Here sits the ground for a new libertarian theory of international relations centred around the contingency of sovereignty and the ever-evolving battlespace of war, where the value of exit (from institutions and sovereign ordering) is primary. As markets are both ordered by sovereign/legal structures and move beyond these, developing non-state structures and codes that escape their initial ordering, warfare too is an autonomous function of and beyond states.
Deudney’s republican security theory premises itself as the first liberal position. Security and freedom from violence are the originary tasks of any polity, creating an ur-freedom from which others flow. “What distinguishes the first Liberalism of republican security theory from simple libertarianism or simple anarchism is its concern for political structures of restraint, of authoritative political arrangements that restrain violence among large numbers of people. The centrality of this concern for political structure emerges from the sober and at times pessimistic recognition that achieving protection from political violence is a daunting and difficult—and often impossible—task”. Here is the development of a complex liberalism that recognises the contingent nature of the liberal or libertarian polity (i.e. one centred around a small state constrained by the rule of law). Such contingency makes this commercial sovereignty relative to the context it develops in, recognising market power and the rule of law as variable forces that butt against other constraints depending upon the conditions of governance, geography and climate. Security threats such as a despotic state or “the threats of conquest and Balkanization” were ever-present issues that relativised commercial sovereignty.
These threats were noted by proto-libertarian figures Hayek and Mises, who saw in the developments of nationalism in pre-World War I Europe a fertile ground for despotism and Balkanisation, limiting the gains of trade and exchange. The maintenance of constrained states and an international division of labour were the best means of guarding against such threats, producing both strong states in the sense of those that had the military capabilities to defend against aggression and maintain international peace while also being contained within the rule of law, limiting the authoritarian instincts of political power.
Christensen places the concept of interstate federalism within such a tradition. “If states wish to break away, but are prohibited from doing so by enormous costs (such as violent aggression from the state it wishes to break away from, or hostility from illiberal states that can use IGOs as mediums to act on those hostilities), then a federation which welcomes states into its union, and which is strong enough to deter aggression, would be a welcome, liberal development”. Following the American model or Philadelphian order, the integration of nested polities within a wider security framework allows for the benefits of decentralisation, as rules-based orders are strained through multiple levels, limiting the extent of centralised vested interests through the localisation and diminution of power while containing the military strength to counter military threats through an integrated political structure. This is the best of both political decentralisation and military strength as resources can be pooled when required.
What these theories share is the premise of a contingent liberal order that must protect itself against constant and varied threats. “The internationalist project of ‘making the world safe for democracy’ seeks to transform other units in the international system from hierarchies into republics and to transform the anarchic system through cobinding mutual restraints. The animating impulse of this project is neither humanitarian idealism nor enlightened imperialism. Rather it is a realism about the preconditions for the survival of constitutionally limited government. The essential assumption of the American internationalist project is that rising levels of interdependence, especially of violence, produced by the industrial and nuclear revolutions have made isolationism impossible and internationalism necessary for the survival of limited government”. From this perspective, we see a teleology of progressive action that ramps up toward greater levels of international governance. Deudney’s problematique of first and second anarchies is indicative of this.
These anarchies can better be described as unconstrained and constrained anarchies respectively. Following the realist model of IR, unconstrained anarchies are the base level reality of international relations, with sovereign entities competing for resources through continual games of cooperation and conflict (depending on the context and resource availability). Constrained anarchies are the subsumption of realist assumptions into a liberal framework of institutionalism i.e. that the problems of anarchies are solved by constraining institutions. The evolution of European economic governance toward a combined system of imperial states with strongly defined legal parameters or the development of American constitutionalism as the compromising ground between decentralisation and military centrality are examples of this function, constituting legal imperialism or constitutional internationalism.
As states integrate within institutional orders, these anarchies scale upward toward higher levels of governance. They originally defined the direction of sovereignty in delineating the state-of-nature and the state-of-war, as states developed a contiguous territory of control by eliminating internal threats and controlling external ones. Medieval states did this through the development of bureaucratic relations between “Secretaries and influential local men” in controlling and understanding political information, effectively setting up internal embassies within the territory that connects the periphery to the centre, slowly bureaucratising these relations as legalistic connections via courts and councils. Thus the elimination of bandits, gangs and localised centres of power that overly complicated governance and prevented the expansion of the state to tax and legislate over a given territory. As states accomplished this domestically, their external conflicts grew, requiring the development of institutions to similarly transform the first anarchy of international conflict into a second anarchy of legalistic affairs.
The structural-material context changed as the scales of governance increased and the security threats scaled with them. From internal centres of power to other states and empires, and from internal colonisation to external colonisation. A teleology of increasing institutional thickness is premised from Deudney’s structural-materialist framework, as the context of governance evolves from localised to internationalised conflicts. The idea of the global village becomes the current endpoint of such theorising, with world government as the apotheosis of liberal governance, as the security threats of terrorism and rogue states necessitate an internationally-coordinated effort that prevents leakage (of biological and nuclear threats outside the axis of liberal republics).
However, such a prescription ignores the importance Deudney accords to security as the ur-freedom. While this is the field in which institutionalised security arrangements are organised and codified, being endogenous of sovereignty, it is also an exogenous variable that expands beyond these orderings. If the move from first to second anarchies (from unconstrained to constrained threats) is the instantiation of loyalty as the mechanism of governance (loyalty to the sovereign), this move also produces a proliferation of new threats at new scales, instantiating exit as the obverse variable of this problematique.
“Strategy is always ‘done’ tactically by what Carl von Clausewitz called war’s ‘grammar’”. Such grammatology shows warfare as an autonomous flow that exists contextually, expanding and contracting depending upon other competing variables. Strategy as governance can encompass the mechanism of loyalty while also producing the mechanism of exit, with war’s grammar being the locus for discord at multiple levels of institutionalisation. The figure of the violence entrepreneur demonstrates such expansive grammatology. “Unlike mercenaries, these violence entrepreneurs sought out and defined their own aims and conflicts in hopes that the pursuit would be recognized worthy of a service after the fact. Also, unlike privateers or freebooters who moonlighted as soldiers when not fully engaged in piracy, those like Vargas saw themselves as virtuous and in the spirit of the sovereign even when not directly in the service of the sovereign. It is hard not to see resonances between Vargas and the other bands of militias as incipient organizations to the Ku Klux Klan or Minutemen of the contemporary U.S. in which the innovation of new forms of violence is enlivened by reverence for a cause or order neither incidental nor coincidental with the state”. Much as the bandit gang can become a state militia, the violence entrepreneur is an extra-state actor for the proliferation of coercive violence beyond the regulative strictures of legalistic sovereignty.
But there also an obverse to Grove’s definition, with the violence or war entrepreneur being an actor beyond direct state control entailing an autonomous force of conflict that can work against states as well as for them. Rather than just actors for the preservation or extension of sovereign ordering, autonomous militias and armed groups are also entrepreneurs for expansive ideologies of environmentalism, primitivism and/or abstract concepts of nationalism. The expansion of Islamist terrorist groups and tribal outfits shows the double-edged sword of war entrepreneurialism, acting as state agents in the context of the Cold War while becoming enemies of liberalism during the War on Terror. They represented both the mechanism of loyalty when fighting the Soviet Union and the mechanism of exit in prescribing an alternative ideology to expansive American-led liberalism. The farce in Syria acutely demonstrates this, as the Free Syrian Army represented liberal elements of Syrian politics while also housing deeply Islamist groups within its ranks, with the multi-point conflict that ensued blurring the boundaries between allies and enemies. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the extent of war entrepreneurialism as a response to US occupation encompassed military innovations like the IED from the detritus of these conflicts. Islamist groups, tribal militias and other actors procured American military trash to exploit the vulnerabilities of this very military. Similar dynamics have played out in the War on Drugs, with cartels at various points being allies and partners with established governments (CIA drug trafficking, Noriega’s and the Contras’ alliances with the US, and Escobar’s influence in Colombian politics) as well as established enemies of the US and other governments. What emerges from this war entrepreneurialism is a fractal field of conflict with varied levels of institutionalisation and patchwork alliances.
And this is precisely the problem with Deudney’s and Christensen’s prescriptive framework for republicanism or interstate federalism: they define the securitisation of the state as a unitary mechanism of expanding and cultivating loyalty, transforming unconstrained anarchies to constrained ones. However, the state is a multiplicitous collation of transactions and institutionalised alliances, itself contextual and contingent. The security situation which can secure a liberal order is also one that contains its obverse, a mass of “ontic violence” pushed to the periphery. This is both contained within the state and beyond it. The problems of interstate federalism that Christensen fails to note are the bureaucratic/administrative expansion of power encapsulated by the US federal system. A tangled web of overlapping agencies with varying degrees of legal autonomy, producing a fourth branch of government that enforces the codifications of the original three while also become a de facto legislative and executive body of its own. In terms of security, the conflicting priorities of intelligence agencies and the autonomy they have in conducting their own affairs means multiple foreign policies within one polity. How interstate federalism, which proposes to expand these nested hierarchies of governance, can actually deal with this is left unsaid. Instead the potential for ever expanding governmental power under the auspice of a global village is presented as the best means of preserving commercial sovereignty, surely going against the grain of libertarian political theory in constraining and decentralising the functions of states and their agents.
It’s in the obverse to the mechanism of loyalty, the mechanism of exit, where a libertarian theory of IR can be properly developed. The expansiveness of war entrepreneurialism can be as much a variable against states as it is for them, as the travails of the War on Terror or the War on Drugs have shown. A libertarian expansion into red markets as in the illegal marketplaces of the dark web or through defensive violence against the state in the sovereign citizen and modern homesteading movements are strands of this entrepreneurialism. Utilising the ontic violence of repressed identities and widespread alienation to forge permanent exits from the wider administrative and coercive apparatuses of state control means moving libertarianism beyond the strictures of the non-aggression principle, and instead seeing war as an autonomous force for the development of creative destruction that can forge new institutional structures while destroying ossified ones. The grammar of war is as much the production of anti-state strategies as it is of state preservation. A libertarian IR theory that continues to view the state as a unitary actor or sees within federalism a workable structure for libertarian goals is naïve, failing to see the possibilities of direct violent action that can be aimed at the state and its subsidiaries, deconstructing the narratives of citizenship and the systems of legal quantification. The expansion of states during the COVID-10 crisis shows how unconstrained this power is and how unlimited exceptional circumstances can be. A federal or republican administration is still fundamentally an administration, with vested interests and centralisation of competencies and power. Mechanisms of loyalty or voice are inadequate in dealing with the opaqueness and unaccountability of such structures. It is only through exit that they can be opened up and fought.
 Daniel Deudney, Bounding Power
 Brandon Christensen, Reviving the Libertarian Interstate Federalist Tradition: The American Proposal
 Edwin Van de Haar, Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory
 Brandon Christensen, Reviving the Libertarian Interstate Federalist Tradition: The American Proposal
 Daniel Deudney, Bounding Power
 Joseph R. Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State
 Colin S. Gray, Inescapable Geography
 Jairus Victor Grove, Savage Ecology
 Slavoj Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes
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