Blogs > Liberty and Power > Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rand’s Radical Legacy, Part IV

Dec 10, 2004

Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rand’s Radical Legacy, Part IV

In part one, part two, and part three of this series, I examined a few topics covered by Objectivist Peter Schwartz in his new book, The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest: A Moral Ideal for America. Having discussed various problems in Schwartz’s analysis of the U.N., foreign aid, and Saudi Arabia, I now turn to his examination of the history of U.S. foreign policy.

The History of U.S. Foreign Policy

Just as Schwartz ignores the history of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, so too does he ignore the history of U.S. intervention in the Middle East, especially in his assessment of the current “War on Terror.” Schwartz dismisses completely the view “that America invited attack by its ‘overbearing’ foreign policy,” a view he attributes solely to “Libertarians and hard-core leftists” (33). (Schwartz has always considered “libertarianism” to be the “perversion of liberty.” I deal with his critique—not all of it misguided—in my book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism.) This is rather surprising, considering that even George W. Bush has recognized the role that U.S. foreign policy has played in propping up authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, which have inspired reaction among the oppressed populations of that region. Even Schwartz’s Objectivist colleague, Leonard Peikoff, has recognized this regrettable U.S. history, which forms part of the historical context by which to understand the current war. The U.S. policy of propping up the Shah of Iran, for example, was, indeed, partially responsible for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as an anti-American political force. It is not enough to say, as Schwartz does, that the Iranians simply revolted against a “Western-style state” (30). That tyrannical, despotic “Western-style state” was viewed as a client of “The Great Satan,” which is why taking American hostages was among the first criminal acts of the Iranian theocracy. Moreover, U.S. support for Iraq in its war against Iran gave implicit sanction to the Hussein regime’s pursuit of chemical and biological weapons. And U.S. support for Afghan mujahideen, so-called “freedom fighters,” in their war against the Soviets, emboldened the very forces that became Al Qaeda and Taliban warriors. As Peikoff observes, this political obscenity “put the U.S. wholesale into the business of creating terrorists. ... Most of them,” says Peikoff, “regarded fighting the Soviets as only the beginning; our turn soon came” (“End States Who Sponsor Terrorism”).

There are no such admissions in Schwartz’s monograph.

It’s not as if Schwartz is ignorant of this history. For example, back in the days leading up to the Gulf War, Schwartz was very clear in his condemnation of U.S. foreign policy insofar as it “helped [Saddam] Hussein [to] launch his aggression in the first place” (“Missing Principles in Iraq,” The Intellectual Activist, October 17, 1990). At that time, Schwartz observed that “[t]he man now likened to Hitler by [Bush Sr.’s] Administration is the same man our government eagerly courted and accommodated for years.” This is the kind of critique that is utterly missing from his current monograph, however.

What is so remarkable is that there is a glorious tradition in the Rand literature of tracing current problems back to a history of previous political intervention. That tradition is hardly recognized by Schwartz. And yet, let us not forget that in her most important foreign policy essay, Rand viewed free trade as “[t]he essence of capitalism’s foreign policy,” and its undermining as one of the “roots of war” (the title of the essay). Though capitalism never existed in its purest form, Rand argued that its historic power was revolutionary: anywhere it flourished, it overturned feudalism, mercantilism, and absolute monarchy. With the rise of collectivist, paternalist, nationalist, and imperialist ideologies, advocated by such “progressive reformers” as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, free trade was undercut ultimately by government regulation and privilege. This had vast implications both at home and abroad. As I have written in my essay, “Understanding the Global Crisis”:

The twentieth-century history of U.S. foreign policy, according to Rand, was a history of “suicidal” failure and hypocrisy (“‘Extremism,’ Or the Art of Smearing”). Failure—because the U.S. had abdicated the moral high ground, destroying economic and civil liberties from within, and losing any rational sense of the country’s moral significance. Hypocrisy—because the U.S. often fought evil with evil. Rand maintained that Wilson had led the charge “to make the world safe for democracy,” but World War I gave birth to fascism, Nazism, and communism. FDR had led the charge for the “Four Freedoms,” but he only empowered the Soviets in the process (“The Roots of War”).

Like some of her individualist allies (loosely categorized as the “Old Right”), Rand thoroughly condemned the U.S. role on the global stage. One of those allies, a close friend of Rand’s in the 1940s, was Isabel Paterson, who was similarly opposed to U.S. interventionism abroad. Paterson’s perspective on all this is valuable and relevant because she was a mentor to Rand on the subject of politics. As Stephen Cox tells us in his superb biography, The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America (Transaction, 2004), “Paterson’s largest influence [on Rand] ... was unquestionably political” (288). Cox writes about Paterson’s attitudes toward “war and the intellectuals”—attitudes, no doubt, shared by her compatriot (see here):

One of her strongest points of agreement with other intellectuals of her generation was a concern that America would be drawn into a war by its weakness for minding other people’s business. The precedent was the Great War. Like most of the others, [Paterson] took that war as a benchmark of criminal stupidity; like many of them, she became an isolationist, of a certain kind, because she did not want to repeat the experience. (237)

Neither Paterson nor Rand were pacifists; but both were of the belief that the greatest horrors were perpetuated by the war-time attempts to collectivize human beings. “People are very seldom murderous as individuals; they become murderous when they become gullible followers of that monster, the state,” writes Cox of Paterson’s view. Paterson therefore opposed both the fascists and the communists and “advocated intervention against neither Germany nor Russia” (238). Cox quotes Paterson: “Whichever destroys the other, leaves a destroyer the less for the world” (239). Paterson was hardly amazed when Stalin and Hitler signed their “Communazi” 1939 pact, demonstrating their totalitarian commonality. And even as U.S. entry into the war became a foregone conclusion, Paterson was still fighting that “spirit of collectivism” (243), which war inspired. On these grounds, she rejected military conscription, wartime censorship and propaganda, and attacked FDR relentlessly.

Like Paterson, Rand had supported FDR in 1932. Rand actually called Roosevelt the more “libertarian” candidate, for his stance on prohibition (Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Doubleday, 1986, 158). But by 1940, both Paterson and Rand, so violently opposed to the New Deal, and to FDR’s unprecedented third term desires, supported the Republican candidate Wendell Willkie. Both women became increasingly disillusioned with the Republican Party and with Willkie’s weak campaign, however. In later years, Rand’s disillusionment with the GOP extended even to Ronald Reagan; she repudiated him not only for his stance on abortion and his ties to the religious right, but also because he had “exaggerate[d] the power of the most incompetent nation in the world,” manipulating Americans with “fear” of a Soviet military build-up, something that was “not a patriotic service to the United States” (“The Moral Factor”).

One wonders how Rand would have reacted to those who, today, manipulate the Crayola palette of “Alert Levels” to keep Americans in perpetual fear of terrorist attacks.

Rand and those associated with her Objectivist Newsletter had long argued that the Soviets were parasites on the military technology of the West, and that U.S. foreign policy had stabilized the Communist regime. Again, from my essay, “Understanding the Global Crisis”:

Drawing from John T. Flynn’s book, The Roosevelt Myth, [Rand’s early associate] Barbara Branden stressed that FDR was inspired by Bismarck, Mussolini, and Hitler in establishing a liberal corporatist “New Deal” that further devastated a depressed economy (The Objectivist Newsletter, December 1962). Provoking war in the Pacific, Roosevelt used “national defense” as a pretext for resolving the unemployment problem by drafting American boys to fight and die in foreign wars, while sending $11 billion in Lend-Lease assistance to the Soviets, and developing secret post-war agreements with Stalin to surrender nearly three-quarters of a billion people into communist slavery. (Rand herself believed that this strategy made Russia “the only winner” of World War II [“The Shanghai Gesture, Part I”]. She also questioned the wisdom of entering that war’s European theater on the side of the Soviets—suggesting that a Nazi-Soviet conflict might have severely weakened the victor [e.g., see “Communism and HUAC” in Journals of Ayn Rand].)

As I have maintained, there is a quasi-Hayekian principle at work here that Rand fully acknowledged:

Government intervention in the economy and U.S. intervention abroad mirrored each other in one significant respect: each problem caused by statist intervention led to new interventionist attempts to resolve it. Just as World War I begat World War II, and World War II begat the Cold War, so too did the Cold War beget “hot” wars in Korea and Vietnam, in which more than 100,000 drafted Americans lost their lives. Vietnam especially had laid bare the inner contradictions of U.S. foreign policy. “There is no proper solution for the war in Vietnam,” Rand counseled at the time; “it is a war we should never have entered. We are caught in a trap: it is senseless to continue, and it is now impossible to withdraw” (“From My ‘Future File’”). Rand had opposed U.S. involvement in both Korea and Vietnam, and wondered why the U.S. had “sacrificed thousands of American lives, and billions of dollars, to protect a primitive people who never had freedom, do not seek it, and, apparently, do not want it” (“The Shanghai Gesture, Part III”).

Again, one should hardly wonder what Rand would have thought about the neoconservative crusade to bring “democracy” to the Middle East—this, of course, quite separate from any need to respond in kind to attacks upon the United States, like the devastating tragedy of 9/11. One thing is clear: Whatever Rand’s own inconsistencies (some of which I discuss here), her opposition to virtually all of the major U.S. wars in the twentieth century has been obscured by many of her modern-day exponents. As she wrote in her essay, “Moral Inflation”:

There still are people in this country who lost loved ones in World War I. There are more people who carry the unhealed wounds of World War II, of Korea, of Vietnam. There are the disabled, the crippled, the mangled of those wars’ battlefields. No one has ever told them why they had to fight nor what their sacrifices accomplished; it was certainly not “to make the world safe for democracy”—look at that world now. The American people have borne it all, trusting their leaders, hoping that someone knew the purpose of that ghastly devastation.

The “ghastly devastation” continues in Iraq, where, as of this date, the American people have sacrificed over $150 billion and over 1,200 lives, not to mention 30,000+ casualties requiring “medical evacuation”—all for the privilege of giving “democracy” to a country steeped in tribal, ethnic, and religious warfare.

Rand denounced regularly the pragmatist politicians who had no understanding of the long-term consequences of their amoral “range-of-the-moment” global “manipulations” (“A Last Survey, Part I”). She frequently

invoked the spirit of the Old Right critics of U.S. involvement in World War II, who had been smeared as “America First’ers” (“Britain’s ‘National Socialism’”). She despised those who had coined the “anti-concept” of “isolationism” as a means of denouncing “any patriotic opponent of America’s self-immolation” (“The Lessons of Vietnam”). ... Rand stood firmly against the “altruistic” evil of foreign “interventionism” or “internationalism” that had undermined long-term U.S. interests. She repudiated the claim “that isolationism is selfish, immoral, and impractical in a ‘shrinking’ modern world” (“The Chickens’ Homecoming”).

Rand’s insights ring true as much for our generation as for hers.

Tomorrow, the conclusion: The current war and the quest for a foreign policy ideal.

See also Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part V.

Check out Not a Blog.

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Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 12/10/2004

Nice to have you contributing here, Eric!

Yes, of course, there was a context to this policy. It was the Cold War. I've not opened that can of worms because we might get into a discussion similar to the one I recently had about World War II (suggested at in part 4 of this series). Namely: What could the U.S. have done differently? I'm not sure how valuable that discussion would be because at this point, it's all moot.

What I can say is this: The U.S. often adopted a policy of propping up dictators and various authoritarians so as to check potential Soviet growth in various regions. The problem, unfortunately, was that it invariably opened up other cans of worms in the long-run. Indeed, as Paterson and Rand themselves suggested, it may have been judged strategically necessary to bed down with Stalin to oppose Hitler, but emboldening the Soviets had its cost. A huge cost in human life and human liberty. Would it have been better to allow Hitler to knock off the Soviets? Well, Paterson and Rand seemed to think so.

As I've said before, foreign policy needs a moral underpinning, but decisions are almost always one of cost-benefit. It's easy to be a "Monday morning quarterback" and to point out the long-term cost of having pursued a policy of propping up dictators throughout the world; but I do think those costs were among the foreseeable consequences, and the U.S. could have adopted other means of facing down the Communist bloc in the post-World War II era.

Eric Kuttner - 12/10/2004

Schwartz may be ignoring the historical context of the U.S. propping up dictators in the past, but the act of propping them up also happened in an historical context. *Why* were these dictators propped up? It didn't happen in a vacuum. By treating the history of propping them up as an axiomatic "context" seems to be ignoring or dismissing some context itself.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 12/10/2004


Thank you very much for your kind words about the series (which concludes today), and thank you also for your interest in reading Total Freedom. I look forward to your critical comments! Also, thanks for the CEPR info.

I can't speak for all libertarians with regard to the U.N. I can tell you that I certainly do appreciate the principle of having a world body where political entities can discuss their differences and attempt to resolve them. There are international courts and organizations that attempt to facilitate this, and there is a need for such organizations, given that the global situation is a kind of "anarchy" in action.

That said, however, there are a number of problems with the U.N., and not simply the "moral" objection of having dictatorships and freer societies sitting side-by-side as if they were equivalent. One of the real problems I have with this organization is that it often provides the institutional mechanisms for the kind of global politico-economic intervention that I've been deriding in this series and in my various writings on foreign policy. There are valuable things the U.N. has done, and can do, but I'm not sure that the institution can be reformed in such a way that strips it of this interventionist dimension; as long as the global political system is predatory, it seems to me that the organization will be used in this manner.

Perhaps there might be a way for another, parallel, institution to emerge that might address the very issues you---and I---find so compelling.

chris l pettit - 12/10/2004

Speaking of economists that I really like...Mark Weisbrodt of the CEPR had a fantastic article the other day that dealt with Turkey and its many similarities to Argentina of the 1990s before its crash. The statements he makes in terms of foreign investment and capital are fascinating in terms of your statements regarding Saudi Arabia below. I know it is on the CEPR website somewhere...


chris l pettit - 12/10/2004

being so heavily involved in human rights law and international law, I am actually finding this reading to be an enlightening and interesting experience. By the way...I did get my copy of Total to see how long it takes to get to Cape Town...

I must admit that I was only vaguely aware of Rand's international leanings and opinions. I was and remain highly critical of what I find to be very misguided and fundamentally flawed economic ideals, but always found her stand on individual rights to be rather refreshing. This new information on her stances on US foreign policy has softened a bit more my dislike of her overall stance. It gets so much easier when we break peoples ideals down into different sections, doesn't it? question...not that it is universal...but why is there so much Libertarian opposition to the UN? If there is so much concern for having the proper insititutions...why is there not more support for the reshaping of what could be an institution that truly represents peace and human rights? The instruments are there in the form of the UN Charter and the precedents set by the ICJ, ICC, ICTY, ICTR, and other judicial bodies...there just needs to be a change in the UN to get away from the utter failure of the self interested nation-state sovereign philosophy and turn it towards universal individual rights and freedoms that were long ago declared to be inalienable and have been trampled ever since. Dating back to Wstphalia and Grotius overcoming the tyranny of religion and the church, can we not see a logical progression in this era of globalization away from the absurdity of the nation-state to the next progression...inalienable rights of the individual as a member of the global community? Even I admit that the nation-state is necessary in terms of local policies, but in terms of the international community, it is more a cause of problems than a solution. So eliminate the veto...eliminate the Security Council if you least eliminate any semblence of permanent seats...allow more NGOs and non-state actors access...strengthen the authority of the ICJ and well as the various Commissions. It could be a very viable working solution...


Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 12/9/2004

Thanks, Matthew. Stay tuned for the conclusion. :)

Matthew Humphreys - 12/9/2004


This entire series is just terrific!! It amazes me that so many of Rand's followers seem happy to totally dismiss her views on foreign policy.

I'm just sorry I haven't had much time to engage in debate on the various installments of this.