Last week’s bloody events in Paris demonstrate yet again that a noninterventionist foreign policy, far from being a luxury, is an urgent necessity — literally a matter of life and death. A government that repeatedly wages wars of aggression — the most extreme form of extremism — endangers the society it ostensibly protects by gratuitously making enemies, some of whom will seek revenge against those who tolerate, finance, and symbolize that government and its policies. (On the specific connection between the Paris attacks and wars of aggression, see my “Understanding the Paris Violence.”)
Obviously, the police in more or less open societies — “but rather less than more” — cannot fully prevent the kind of violence that occurred at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher grocery Hyper Cacher. Some or all of the killers, who were known to authorities, reportedly spent time in Syria, Iraq, or Yemen with al-Qaeda or the Islamic State — organizations, let us recall, that were not in those places or did not exist before George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 and started bombing other Muslim societies in his “war on terror.” But travel abroad is not necessary to carry out horrendous attacks. The Internet provides all the information a would-be killer could want to pull off a mass atrocity. “Lone wolf” operations executed by “self-radicalized” individuals are by nature virtually undetectable, even with a battalion of spies and suborned informants or sophisticated eavesdropping regimes. As journalist Patrick Cockburn writes,
Plots and conspiracies, orchestrated from abroad or home grown, conducted by well-trained jihadis or by angry young men with kitchen knives, pose threats too numerous and diverse for them all to be prevented.
If even a full-blown police state could not prevent all such plots, what chance does a society with a vestige of regard for civil liberties have? But that doesn’t stop governments from trying, usually with full public support. The price is diminished liberty as the authorities adopt increasingly aggressive methods. Further, authorities’ will always be tempted to manufacture incidents to justify their heightened alerts, intrusions, and extravagant budgets.
That is why it is imperative for societies wishing to remain more or less open to not let their rulers make enemies by conducting a militarist foreign policy. It really is either-or. As Richard Cobden taught a century and a half ago, security is served by nonintervention and free trade.
This gives the lie to the claim of the war party, the neoconservatives, and the so-called liberal interventionists that making war on the Muslim world is necessary to protect “our way of life.” On the contrary, such a policy threatens our way of life, not to mention our lives. Americans should have learned that lesson on Sept. 11, 2001. The French should have learned it on Jan. 7, 2015, if not long before. Contrary to what many people want to believe, history did not begin on those dates. Those who contend that Islamist violence in Europe or America amounts to an ex post justification for Western militarism are playing a dangerous game.