Of all competing concepts in the political vocabulary, the term “national interest” remains both the most vital and simultaneously the most elusive. Barring outright treason, there can be no honest citizen in any sovereign nation that will deliberately advocate violation of a country’s national interest.
Then the fun begins. Being vital is not enough. The phrase itself is so vague and compromising that it literally can coincide with any particular “interest” that any particular individual, section, religion, race, nationality, political party, etc. can muster with assertion. Moreover, it likewise is assumed that what is vital for one, by definition, must be vital for the whole as well.
Survival is the supreme national interest, shared by all. Security, essential for survival, is also universal. Others comprise a host of factors, economic, political, cultural, etc., that vary from country to country. Many are unique to each individual arena. Central America, for example, has been considered “essential” to the U.S., especially the Panama Canal, as this 1927 State Department memo will attest:
“…call it a sphere of interest, or what you will, we do control the destinies of Central America, and we do it for the simple reason that the national interest absolutely dictates such a course.”
A further problem is time. What may seem mandatory in one time period can be dismissed later. Between World War I and the Cold War, for example, U.S. national security policies underwent six separate and fundamental changes of direction:
- 1914, neutrality.
- 1917, declaration of war.
- 1920, neutrality.
- 1941, declaration of war.
- 1947, containment of the Soviet Union.
- 1983, elimination of the Soviet Union.
(There has been nothing fundamental since.)
Distinctions: Principle vs. Reality
The issue is compounded by the distinctions between morality and interest, i.e. between principle and reality. This first arose at the beginning, when Alexander Hamilton addressed how the new American state should view revolutionary France, with admiration as a friend or neutrality as a hostile revolution:
“An individual may, on numerous occasions, meritoriously indulge the emotions of generosity and benevolence, but only without an eye to, but even at the expense of, his own interest. But a government can rarely, if at all, be justifiable in pursuing a similar course” (1791).
The issue was soon settled by George Washington himself when he advocated American distance and neutrality in Europe’s raging revolutionary wars (Farewell Address, 1796).
But America was famously founded on principle, from the Declaration to the Bill of Rights. As the country developed and settled most internal scores, including the Civil War, the issue of an objective national interest eventually collided with “exceptionalism.”
“Wilsonianism” has become the personification of “American exceptionalism.” Woodrow Wilson gave this identification a lasting cause in his historic reaction to the transgressions that Germany was inflicting on the world. “It is a very perilous thing,” he once declared,
“to determine the foreign policy of a nation in the terms of material interest. … We dare not turn from the principle that morality and not expediency is the thing that must guide us… We have no selfish ends to serve… We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind.”
In his declaration of war, Wilson gave idealism a permanent “interest” in how Americans would subsequently define foreign policy:
“…right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts – for democracy, …for the rights and liberties of small nations, [to] make the world itself at last free.”
The interpretations of national interest failed to bother a people in diplomatic isolation or in Great Depression. The aftermath of World War II, however, confronted Americans with choices between principle and capability that would enter in a new “great debate” as to what the country was all about, once and for all.
The original “purpose,” or “war aims,” came with Franklin Roosevelt and the “Four Freedoms (from “hunger,” “want,” etc.) but soon gave way to geopolitical “containment” and political “realism” with the Truman Doctrine and a global alliance system.
While Truman promised to assist “free peoples everywhere” (1947), the realities and resources available proved too little to tackle the entire world. As the U.S. looked on, the world’s most populous country (China) went Communist in 1949, while the Eisenhower Administration tried to install another NATO into southeast Asia with SEATO in 1954.
Confounding reality and resource, President Eisenhower provided still another illusion in the same year, proclaiming that if Vietnam and southeast Asia went over to the enemy, the rest of Asia, and beyond, would follow “like a row of dominos.” The world rarely behaves automatically; chess is a better analogy.
In his famous Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy carried this “torch” to even newer heights:”
“We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” (1961)
The subsequent war in Vietnam, carried on through five administrations, ended with an American retreat and a divided country, while Congress supported each and every request for funding each administration had requested. The tragedy, however, left any definition of “national interest” in shambles, a condition that no post-Cold War administration has even acknowledged, much less resolved.
Clearly, America had come to assume that there was no or little distinction between our own values and those of all others. This was summarized famously by President W. Bush in 2003 when he announced that our invasion of Iraq required universal support, with the world “either with us or against us.”
Clearly, the distinction between political principles (“ideals”) versus resources (“realities”) remains at the core of any understanding of “national” interest. The late German-born philosopher, Hans J. Morgenthau, first addressed this in 1949 with a distinctively European perspective. Definitely on the “realist” side, Morgenthau saw how “the intoxication with world-embracing ideals which, because of their vagueness and generality, can provide no rational guidance to concrete political action.”
Two decades after the first Iraq War, the U.S. remains “intoxicated” with ideals that have yet to challenge the realities of a tragic and troubled globe. Inside that vacuum, the body politic is equally intoxicated with a completely domestic agenda driven by a set of sociological ideologies (“-isms”) that promise an equally volatile and divided future.
Is there an AA for countries?