Donald Trump’s airstrikes in Syria are tragic proof that he is just as eager to wage actual warfare as he is to wage economic warfare.
Yet there should be nothing surprising about his recent attacks. Military intervention does not represent a reversal of Trump’s deeply-held values (if he has any), nor is it a subversion of good intentions by malevolent forces in US politics. He is simply staying true to his word, for once.
Trump was never a peace candidate. Even during his campaign, he never criticized foreign intervention on principle, or took a strong stand against regime change and imperialism—a few vague Tweets about Obama’s foreign policy do not a non-interventionist make. On the contrary, Trump repeatedly endorsed vicious tactics and emphasized US military dominance through the aggressive expansion of its budget and capabilities. Over the last three months, his continuation of Obama’s interventions—and the resulting death toll—have provided ample evidence of his hawkishness, but the attacks on Syria represent the true dawn of the Trump era in foreign policy.
However, the most important conclusion to be drawn from this story is not that all politicians lie or that the political system is hopelessly and inherently corrupt. Reasonable people knew these things already, and saw the truth of them in each candidate, even the one who offered the thin gruel of “anti-establishment” rhetoric. No, the real point is that even if Trump had offered principled anti-intervention arguments, his economic worldview could only ever have led to militarism and conflict.
It was clear from the start that Trump only cared about implementing two policies: trade restrictions and immigration restrictions. Given this platform, military conflict was only a matter of time.
Here, as in so many other places, Mises offers a penetrating analysis of the perils of economic interventionism. He shows repeatedly that if the division of labor and trade are disrupted by government, peaceful social cooperation is doomed. Interventionism selects “winners” and “losers,” and exchanges mutually-beneficial trade for zero-sum redistribution. Naturally, the winners are desperate to keep their privileges, by force if necessary, while the losers eventually take up arms to defend themselves from expropriation. The 19th-century French liberals, among others, realized that the conflict between expropriators and victims lies at the heart of class warfare, properly conceived.
It also provides a foundation for militarism and imperialism. As Joseph Salerno explains in his brilliant article, “Imperialism and the Logic of War Making,” foreign military intervention is the logical outcome of domestic economic interventionism. Intervention at home creates strife between the rulers and the ruled. It also consumes scarce resources, which are destroyed when entrepreneurs and markets are not allowed to satisfy consumers’ needs. Rulers are therefore anxious to find new resources to exploit as well as new ways to keep their subjects distracted. The solution, which is practically as old as politics, is to find new, external enemies, or to invent them.
In practice, this leads to imperialism, colonialism, and war. Public opinion must be focused on an outside threat, and the more intangible and permanent, the better. The logic of protectionism thus becomes the logic of aggressive nationalism and militarism. These ideologies share the common notion that there is a natural disharmony of interests among the peoples of the world, and that this conflict can only be suppressed through violence.
The fruits of decades of US military intervention in the Middle East have now provided Trump with just the opportunity he needs to take the next step in the logic of war making. He has already shed much blood, and will likely continue to do so. War is simply too convenient an option for him to ignore. It provides a distraction from his political failures, galvanizes public opinion in support of his administration, and opens the door to further violations of civil liberties and consolidation of power in the executive branch. Last, and maybe most important, war encourages the worst of Trump’s personal instincts and ambitions. In short, they’re perfect for each other, and perfectly terrifying for the rest of the world.