How useful is the concept of the national interest in explaining international politics?
The term “national interest” has found wide application in debates and discussions by scholars and statesmen since the establishment of nation-states. The term is mainly used to describe the goals and aspirations of sovereign entities when acting in the international arena (Buchan 2012). The national interest functions as a key concept in explaining how states undertaking and assessment/evaluation of state action (Cassels 2002), especially on the issue of foreign policy. The reason why this concept is significant is because it identifies what motivates states to act in a certain way or make certain decisions. Accordingly, governments, and in particular their policy decision makers, are instrumental in determining “the substantive content of the national interest” (Badie, Berg-Schlosser & Morlino 2011, p. 1650). While this content has been shown to vary across space and time, the term largely describes the fundamental foreign aims of the state (Ghosh 2013). The concept of national interest has been identified as being contentious and vague, thereby making its usefulness questionable. The premise of this essay is to establish if the ideation of the national interest is useful in explaining international politics, or not.
Ever since the Second World War, states have frequently identified national security as the most crucial national interest (Lieven & Hulsman 2006). What this appears to suggest is that, in the end, the fundamental interest of the states is to ensure” the protection of its existence through the defence of its sovereignty and its territory” (Badie et al. 2011, p. 1650). Accordingly, all the successful statesmen throughout history seem to “have made the national interest the ultimate standard of their policies, an” (Morgenthau 1982, p. 34; cited by Schmidt 2013).
D'Anieri (2016) has identified the national interest as a key topic that informs numerous discussions of foreign policy. Specifically, realist theory presupposes that every state is characterised by a single set of interests. Accordingly, it is the responsibility of policy makers to identify and pursue those interests. The idea of what constitutes the national interest of a given state and how these should be pursued seems to inform much of the debate regarding foreign policy. By and large, power, wealth, and prestige are regarded as some of the key components of the national interest.
Nonetheless, we have two key objections to the idea of “national interest” and its use. The first objection holds that while it is easy to prepossess that every state has one national interest, all indications are that people never seem to agree on what this national interest should be (Shaohua 2016). It is not just citizens who seem to agree on this single national interest, as experts who are keenly focused on advancing a state's interests have also been shown to disagree on what exactly constitutes national interests (Turner 2008). Frequently, such disagreements have been used to fuel political conflict. In addition, and, perhaps more crucially, many of us are inclined to infer that the concept of “national interest” is nothing more than a myth, “or a concept that a variety of special interests invoke to promote their goals” (D'Anieri 2016, p. 135).
Based on this second view, it would appear then that the establishment of a “national interest” symbolises structural power. Complex interdependence theory supports this view given that it highlights the issue of economic structuralism which view various classes and corporations pursuing their varied interests while also seeking to influence states into backing these interests; and the complex interdependence theory which focuses on varied actors with their varied interests (Weldes 1996). The view is also evident in theories of interest group politics.
According to Schmidt, the national interest acts as the fundamental idea behind Morgenthau's theory of realism. More importantly, it serves as a universal and timeless principle of international politics. Morgenthau is of the view that when states are acting on the international arena, they all endeavour to pursue their varied but definite interests (Hacke 2005). Based on Morgenthau's explanation of the concept of the national interest, every political action is deemed as being aimed at increasing, demonstrating, or keeping power. What this appears to suggest is that the desire of a state to dominate acts as a social force that informs its political power (Pham 2008). These specific interests are best described in terms of the power possessed by such states.
Schmidt (2013) opines that states cannot just ignore the struggle for power in their international politics. International politics act " as a continuing effort to maintain and to increase the power of one's own nation and to keep in check or maintain or reduce the power of other nations." (Morgenthau 1955, p. 2011; cited by Schmidt 2013, p. 112). Owing to the violent and competitive nature of international politics, it became crucial that all states should endeavour to identify and defend their individual national interests, which in this case, is described based on the states' relative power at their disposal.
Morgenthau was of the view that the national interest encompasses two crucial components: (i) a basic and logically needed component; and (ii) a variable component that depends on situations (Schmidt 2011). The first component above hinges on the realist theory of international politics. According to this realist theory, states are perpetually entangled in a power struggle. Consequently, all states have an interest in ensuring that they survive politically. On the other hand, the variable component entails various likely factors such as partisan politics, sectional interests, public opinion, moral and political folkways (Buchan 2012). Morgenthau urged on the need to ensure that the basic national interests are not usurped by the different supranational and national interests. For this reason, realists have been especially critical of American foreign policy as the state is seen to place more emphasis on supranational interests in favour of the national interest (Schmidt 2013). In this case, Schmidt appears to base his argument on the position held by Beard in 'The Idea of National Interest', in which he in which he underscores the level to which the United States society has presented the economic interests of definite groups have been presented as though they were the country's national interest.
There has been a raging debate regarding the objective nature of the national interest. Those who view the national interest from an objective context often view national interests as unchanging, permanent, and affiliated with power. Conversely, those who view the national interest as subjective often maintain that it encompasses values as opposed to power. They further identify conflict between groups of individuals and individuals regarding the issue of national interest as a sign of its subjectivity. On the other hand, objectivists have endeavoured to draw a line between passions and interests, or between opinions and interests. According to Kaplan (2005) it is in the interest of a state to achieve the valuable. In contrast, it is in the interest of a state to ensure that national needs are met. Accordingly, this is an indication of the objective nature of national interests. However, on numerous occasions, policies have met resistance on grounds that they are based on sentiment or passion as opposed to interest. While the difference between 'interest' and 'passion' is seldom correctly explained, it seems to hinge upon the notion that” national actors are concrete physical entities” (Kaplan 2005, p. 140). This physical substratum has seems to have assumed significance in national life. Accordingly, national power acts as the overriding objective of national action. In this way, national power functions as the means and goal of statecraft. Accordingly, by acquiring more power, a nation is also assumed to have become more secure.
Frankel (1970) is wary of the elusive nature of the “national interest” as a concept. Frankel endeavours to draw a distinction between those who use the term as a means of rationalising or justifying how states behave in the international arena on the one hand, and those who utilise the term to analyse and explain the nation-states' foreign policy. This distinction is manifested by pits subjectivists who “believe there are permanent objective criteria against which foreign policies can be evaluate” (Burchill 2005, p. 12) against subjectivists who stress on the changing preferences and priorities of decision makers, along with explanation and public defences of the actions taken by these decision-makers (Burchill 2005).
Badie et al (2011) have described the national interest as an ubiquitous and divisive concept. Its ubiquitous nature hinges on the fact that the concept has found wide application in three crucial but overlapping settings, which fulfil serve unique roles. To being with, scholars of foreign policy and international relations view the concept as being explanatory. Consequently, scholars frequently invoke concept of the national interest to explain why a country goes to war. For instance, scholars contend that the reason why the United States joined World War II was because the United States deemed it as its national interest to ensure that German did not assert its power by expanding its influence across Europe. Additionally, scholars have depended on the concept of national interest to explain the reasons behind the United States entering the Vietnam War. In this case, permitting South Vietnam to subscribe to communism would be against the United States national interests. Additionally, the United States deemed it necessary to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 because the United States viewed it was in the national interest of the United States to fight terrorism and promote democracy. In these examples, involving the national interest permits scholars to explain policy decisions, along with the state actions associated with them.
Badie et al. (2011) further opined that the national interest concept might also be interpreted as “the language of foreign policy decision making” (2011, p. 1650). In other words, the concept of the national interest informs the state's action in establishing the objectives of their foreign policies. In this way, the national interest determines the actions taken by a state in international politics.
The geopolitical context acts as a basic foundation for the appraisal of the national interest. von den Steinen (2006) notes that states have the responsibility of ensuring that they not only anticipate but also foil likely threats to their territorial integrity and in the process ensure national security. This is a clear indication that power remains a crucial component of a state. It is also a clear sign that a state should treat national security as the most crucial and fundamental issue of national interest by assuming that the remainder of the world is not essentially friendly.
In sum, the concept of national interest is widely applied by policymakers in making foreign policy decisions in addition to determining the actions taken by a state in international politics. National security is frequently cited by states as a fundamental aspect of the concept of national interest and as such, it is in the national interest of a state to identify and defend its national interest given the violent and competitive nature of international politics. However, given that the national interest is unclear and vague, it is hence of limited use.
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