‘National Interest’ is a key concept in International Relations. All the nations are always engaged in the process of fulfilling or securing the goals of their national interests. The foreign policy of each nation is formulated on the basis of its national interest and it is always at work for securing its goals. It is a universally accepted right of each state to secure its national interests. A state always tries to justify its actions on the basis of its national interest. The behaviour of a state is always conditioned and governed by its national interests. Hence it is essential for us to know the meaning and content of National Interest.
“The meaning of national interest is survival—the protection of physical, political and cultural identity against encroachments by other nation-states”—Morgenthau.
Meaning of National Interest
National Interest is a vague and ambiguous term that carries a meaning according to the context in which it is used. Statesmen and policy-makers have always used it in ways suitable to them and to their objective of justifying the actions of their states. Hitler justified expansionist policies in the name of “German national interests.”
The US presidents have always justified their decisions to go in for the development of more and more destructive weapons in the interest of “US national interest.” To build up a strong nuclear base at Diego Garcia was justified by the USA in the name of meeting the challenge posed by erstwhile USSR as well as for protecting the US interests in the Indian Ocean. During 1979-89, (erstwhile) USSR justified its intervention in Afghanistan in the name of “Soviet national interests”.
China justified its border disputes with India and the Soviet Union in the name of attempts to secure the national interests of China. Now the P-5 countries talk of Non- proliferation and arms control in terms of the national interests of all the nations.
All these and many more examples can be quoted to stress the ambiguity that surrounds the concept of National Interest. This ambiguity hinders the process of formulating a universally accepted definition of National Interest. However, several scholars have tried to define National Interest.
Definition of National Interest:
(1) National Interest means: “The general, long term and continuing purpose which the state, the nation, and the government all see themselves as serving.” —Charles Lerche and Abdul
(2) National Interest is: “What a nation feels to be necessary to its security and well being … National interest reflects the general and continuing ends for which a nation acts.” —Brookings Institution
(3) “National Interest is, that which states seek to protect or achieve in relation to each other. It means desires on the part of sovereign states.” —Vernon Von Dyke
(4)“The meaning of national interest is survival—the protection of physical, political and cultural identity against encroachments by other nation-states”. —Morgenthau
(5) National Interest means: “The values, desires and interests which states seek to protect or achieve in relation to each other” “desires on the part of sovereign states”. —V.V. Dyke
National Interests can as defined as the claims, objectives, goals, demands and interests which a nation always tries to preserve, protect, defend and secure in relations with other nations.
Components of National Interest:
In describing the national interests that nations seek to secure a two-fold classification is generallymade:
(A) Necessary or Vital Components of National Interest and
(B) Variable or Non-vital Components of National Interests.
(A) Necessary or Vital Components:
According to Morgenthau, the vital components of the national interests that a foreign policy seeks to secure are survival or identity. He sub-divides identity into three parts: Physical identity. Political identity and Cultural identity.
Physical identity includes territorial identity. Political identity means politico- economic system and Cultural identity stands for historical values that are upheld by a nation as part of its cultural heritage. These are called vital components because these are essential for the survival of the nation and can be easily identified and examined. A nation even decides to go to war for securing or protecting her vital interests.
A nation always formulates its foreign policy decisions with a view to secure and strengthens its security. The attempts to secure international peace and security, that nations are currently making, are being made because today the security of each state stands inseparably linked up with international peace and security. Security is, thus, a vital component of national interest. Each nation always tries to secure its vital interests even by means of war.
(B) Non-vital or Variable Components of National Interest:
The non-vital components are those parts of national interest which are determined either by circumstances or by the necessity of securing the vital components. These are determined by a host of factors—the decision-makers, public opinion, party politics, sectional or group interests and political and moral folkways.
“These variable interests are those desires of individual states which they would, no doubt, like to see fulfilled but for which they will not go to war. Whereas the vital interests may be taken as goals, the secondary interests may be termed as objectives of foreign policy.”
These objectives have been listed by V.V. Dyke and his list includes: Prosperity, Peace, Ideology, Justice, Prestige, Aggrandisement and Power. Though each state defines these objectives in a manner which suits its interests in changing circumstances, yet these objectives can be described as common to almost all states. Thus, national interest which a nation seeks to secure can be generally categorized into these two parts.
Classification of National Interests:
In order to be more precise in examining the interest which a nation seeks to secure, Thomas W. Robinson presents a six fold classification of interests which nations try to secure.
1. The Primary Interests:
These are those interests in respect of which no nation can compromise. It includes the preservation of physical, political and cultural identity against possible encroachments by other states. A state has to defend these at all costs.
2. Secondary Interests:
These are less important than the primary interests. Secondary Interests are quite vital for the existence of the state. This includes the protection of the citizens abroad and ensuring of diplomatic immunities for the diplomatic staff.
3. Permanent Interests:
These refer to the relatively constant long-term interests of the state. These are subject to very slow changes. The US interest to preserve its spheres of influence and to maintain freedom of navigation in all the oceans is the examples of such interests.
4. Variable Interests:
Such interests are those interests of a nation which are considered vital for national good in a given set of circumstances. In this sense these can diverge from both primary and permanent interests. The variable interests are largely determined by “the cross currents of personalities, public opinion, sectional interests, partisan politics and political and moral folkways.”
5. The General Interests:
General interests of a nation refer to those positive conditions which apply to a large number of nations or in several specified fields such as economic, trade, diplomatic relations etc. To maintain international peace is a general interest of all the nations. Similar is the case of disarmament and arms control.
6. Specific Interests:
These are the logical outgrowths of the general interests and these are defined in terms of time and space. To secure the economic rights of the Third World countries through the securing of a New International Economic Order is a specific interest of India and other developing countries.
Besides these six categories of national interest, T.W. Robinson also refers to three international interests—identical interests, complementary interests and conflicting interests.
The first category includes those interests which are common to a large number of states; the second category refers to those interests, which though not identical, can form the basis of agreement on some specific issues; and the third category includes those interests which are neither complementary nor identical.
However, this classification is neither absolute nor complete. The complementary interests can, with the passage of time, become identical interests and conflicting interests can become complementary interests. The study of national interest of a nation involves an examination of all these vital and non-vital components of national interest. The six fold classificatory scheme offered by T. W. Robinson can be of great help to us for analyzing the national interests of all nations. Such a study can help us to examine the behaviour of nations in international relations.
Methods for the Securing of National Interest:
To secure the goals and objectives of her national interest is the paramount right and duty of every nation. Nations are always at work to secure their national interests and in doing so they adopt a number of methods.
The following are the five popular methods or instruments which are usually employed by a nation for securing her national interests in international relations:
1. Diplomacy as a Means of National Interests:
Diplomacy is a universally accepted means for securing national interests. It is through diplomacy that the foreign policy of a nation travels to other nations. It seeks to secure the goals of national interests. Diplomats establish contacts with the decision-makers and diplomats of other nations and conduct negotiations for achieving the desired goals and objectives of national interests of their nation.
The art of diplomacy involves the presentation of the goals and objectives of national interest in such a way as can persuade others to accept these as just and rightful demands of the nation. Diplomats use persuasion and threats, rewards and threats of denial of rewards as the means for exercising power and securing goals of national interest as defined by foreign policy of their nation.
Diplomatic negotiations constitute the most effective means of conflict-resolution and for reconciling the divergent interests of the state. Through mutual give and take, accommodation and reconciliation, diplomacy tries to secure the desired goals and objectives of national interest.
As an instrument of securing national interest, diplomacy is a universally recognized and most frequently used means. Morgenthau regards diplomacy as the most primary means. However, all the objectives and goals of national interest cannot be secured through diplomacy.
The second important method for securing national interest is propaganda. Propaganda is the art of salesmanship. It is the art of convincing others about the justness of the goals and objectives or ends which are desired to be secured. It consists of the attempt to impress upon nations the necessity of securing the goals which a nation wishes to achieve.
“Propaganda is a systematic attempt to affect the minds, emotions and actions of a given group for a specific public purpose.” —Frankel
It is directly addressed to the people of other states and its aim is always to secure the self-interests—interests which are governed exclusively by the national interests of the propagandist.
The revolutionary development of the means of communications (Internet) in the recent times has increased the scope of propaganda as a means for securing support for goals of national interest.
3. Economic Means:
The rich and developed nations use economic aid and loans as the means for securing their interests in international relations. The existence of a very wide gap between the rich and poor countries provides a big opportunity to the rich nations for promoting their interests vis-a-vis the poor nations.
The dependence of the poor and lowly- developed nations upon the rich and developed nations for the import of industrial goods, technological know-how, foreign aid, armaments and for selling raw materials, has been responsible for strengthening the role of economic instruments of foreign policy. In this era of Globalisation conduct of international economic relation has emerged as a key means of national interests.
4. Alliances and Treaties:
Alliances and Treaties are concluded by two or more states for securing their common interests. This device is mostly used for securing identical and complementary interests. However, even conflictual interests may lead to alliances and treaties with like-minded states against the common rivals or opponents.
Alliances and treaties make it a legal obligation for the members of the alliances or signatories of the treaties to work for the promotion of agreed common interests. The alliances may be concluded for serving a particular specific interest or for securing a number of common interests. The nature of an alliance depends upon the nature of interest which is sought to be secured.
Accordingly, the alliances are either military or economic in nature. The need for securing the security of capitalist democratic states against the expanding ‘communist menace’ led to the creation of military alliances like NATO, SEATO, CENTO, ANZUS etc. Likewise, the need to meet the threat to socialism led to the conclusion of Warsaw Pact among the communist countries.
The need for the economic reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War led to the establishment of European Common Market (Now European Union) and several other economic agencies. The needs of Indian national interests in 1971 led to the conclusion of the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with the (erstwhile) Soviet Union. Alliances and Treaties are thus popular means for securing national interests.
5. Coercive Means:
The role of power in international relations is a recognized fact. It is an unwritten law of international intercourse that nations can use force for securing their national interests. International Law also recognizes coercive means short of war as the methods that can be used by states for fulfilling their desired goals and objectives. Intervention, Non-intercourse, embargoes, boycotts, reprisals, retortion, retaliation, severance of relations and pacific biocides are the popular coercive means which can be used by a nation to force others to accept a particular course of behaviour or to refrain from a course which is considered harmful by the nation using coercive means.
War and Aggression have been declared illegal means, yet these continue to be used by the states in actual course of international relations. Today, nations fully realize the importance of peaceful means of conflict-resolution like negotiations, and diplomacy as the ideal methods for promoting their national interests. Yet at the same time these continue to use coercive means, whenever they find it expedient and necessary. Military power is still regarded as a major part of national power and is often used by a nation for securing its desired goals and objectives.
The use of military power against international terrorism now stands universally accepted as a natural and just means for fighting the menace. Today world public opinion accepts the use of war and other forcible means for the elimination of international terrorism.
All these means are used by all the nations for securing their national interests. Nations have the right and duty to secure their national interests and they have the freedom to choose the requisite means for this purpose. They can use peaceful or coercive means as and when they may desire or deem essential.
However, in the interest of international peace, security and prosperity, nations are expected to refrain from using coercive means particular war and aggression. These are expected to depend upon peaceful means for the settlement of disputes and for securing their interests.
While formulating the goals and objectives of national interest, all the nations must make honest attempts to make these compatible with the international interests of Peace, Security environmental protection, protection of human rights and Sustainable Development.
Peaceful coexistence, peaceful conflict-resolution and purposeful mutual cooperation for development are the common and shared interests of all the nations. As such, along with the promotion of their national interests, the nations must try to protect and promote common interests in the larger interest of the whole international community.
All this makes it essential for every nation to formulate its foreign policy and to conduct its relations with other nations on the basis of its national interests, as interpreted and defined in harmony with the common interests of the humankind. The aim of foreign policy is to secure the defined goals of national interest by the use of the national power.
In the summer of 2017, we partnered with one of Washington’s top foreign-policy outlets to bring college students’ voices into our nation’s foreign policy conversation and to take a small step toward restoring a healthy, balanced civic debate on the proper scale of our nation’s ambitions and actions abroad.
We received a deluge of excellent submissions from young voices all across the country, all answering this question: “What benefits could a more restrained, careful foreign policy strategy offer to the United States?”
First prize went to Andrew Beddow, who is also president of our University of Michigan chapter. In his essay, Beddow calls for America to set a clear grand strategy that recognizes the world’s complexity and thus does not treat international problems as separate and readily fixable. Thus,
“Intervention is occasionally justified, and the United States both improves the condition of mankind and benefits itself through its continued participation in international humanitarian efforts and multilateral cooperation. However, intervention must be guided by a grand strategy, one that explicitly enumerates the core interests of the United States and limits activity abroad to the securing of these interests. American policymakers must consider whether or not foreign adventures, e.g. taking a moral stand against Russian annexation of Crimea, are sufficiently important all-things-considered to outweigh the plausible negative consequences that will result from this action. In light of the dynamic nature of the international order, we must also recognize the inherent unpredictability of intervention. Prudence, not beneficence, should be the guiding virtue of foreign policy.”
One of our runners up was Enea Gjoza of the Harvard Kennedy School. Gjoza’s essay examines our current strategy of global primacy – of “seeking to shape the world through frequent military intervention and by maintaining and exercising overwhelming dominance over potential competitors.” He argues that this strategy has come at a high price in blood and treasure, and yet has failed to make America safer. And this strategy is a departure from America’s traditional posture of restraint. Under that approach, Gjoza writes,
“As the other great powers of the day exhausted themselves in conflict against each other throughout the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, the United States developed its economy and society in relative peace, intervening substantially only to tip the balance in the World Wars. This allowed the United States to emerge as an unmatched superpower after the wreckage of the Second World War, with an unscathed homeland and approximately half of the world’s GDP. Today, however, the United States is on the other end of the spectrum, taking upon itself the burden of maintaining the global order while other nations enjoy the benefits of peace and commerce.”
Our other runner up was Matthew Petti of Columbia University. Petti challenges the conventional view in Washington that America needs to double down on support for one of our most problematic allies, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – to treat their enemies as our own and to accept their account of the problems in their region. Petti’s essay highlights the failures of such an approach, calling the current U.S.-Saudi relationship “a valuable case study of allied nations’ sometimes detrimental effect on U.S. foreign policy.” Thus, he writes,
“U.S. support has essentially shielded Saudi Arabia from the negative effects of its campaign, removing incentives the kingdom has to restrain its own actions. From the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, the Obama administration supported the Saudi-led coalition with mid-air refueling and advanced munitions. This aid hasn’t quite made up for poor military leadership, but it has passed the mounting economic costs onto a foreign guarantor, allowing Saudi forces to maintain their technological edge despite a budget crisis in the kingdom. Consequently, American calls for a political solution have fallen on deaf ears; as the Trump administration considers removing some restrictions on support to the Saudi-led coalition, Riyadh will only be encouraged to pursue the disastrous status quo.”
He adds that the war has enabled Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the most dangerous branches of the terrorist group, to take advantage of the chaos, meaning that “while attempting to please a U.S. ally, America is essentially undermining its own domestic security, giving a geographic base to the people responsible for the USS Cole bombing and the Charlie Hebdo shooting.”
We received many other excellent submissions that highlight the growing number of talented young leaders across the political spectrum who are eager to bring prudence and restraint back into our foreign policy. We at the Society are here to help them.
Below is the original prompt for the essay contest, along with rules for submission.
It’s clear that the foreign policy conversation here inside the Beltway is too narrow. No matter what the question is, the answer always seems to be that the United States needs to do more – even after fifteen years of war, even with massive national-security expenditures, and even with our already-huge network of alliance commitments and overseas bases.
We need your voice to help change the conversation. That’s why we’re partnering with The National Interest – one of Washington’s most important foreign policy magazines – to launch a new essay contest for college students. The winners will run in TNI, meaning they’ll be read by many of those who make the decisions and shape the discussions that set our country’s course in the world. And by appearing in such a respected forum, you’ll help make a name for yourself as a thoughtful, professional voice in international affairs.
It’s a tremendous opportunity to restore balance to the discourse in DC – and to build your own personal brand. Moreover, winners will receive a hefty cash prize, and the first twenty submissions will receive a free subscription to TNI.
Undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students who will be attending institutions in the United States in the Fall 2017 semester are welcome to participate.
The winning essays will run on TNI’s website and be promoted on social media by both TNI and JQA.
Prizes are as follows:
• First prize: $1000, essay featured on TNI, two year subscription to TNI
• Runner up (two): $250, essay featured on TNI, one year subscription to TNI
Additionally, the first twenty submissions will receive a free one-year subscription to the National Interest.
Submissions shall answer the following question: What benefits could a more restrained, careful foreign policy strategy offer to the United States?
If you’re stuck, consider reading some of the articles in the Intellectual Development section of our Resources page.
Submissions shall be between 1000 and 1500 words, and are due by 11:59pm Eastern Time on Sunday, June 18, 2017, by following the instructions at this link. Sources should be hyperlinked, rather than footnoted, when possible. Complete rules follow:
Click here to submit an essay.
Student Foreign Policy Essay CONTEST RULES
1. SPONSOR: The sponsor of the Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest (the “Contest”) is the John Quincy Adams Society. (the “Sponsor”).
2. ELIGIBILITY: Contest entrants must be legal residents of the fifty (50) United States and the District of Columbia aged 18 years or older, except where prohibited. Employees, officers, and directors of the Sponsor, and its subsidiaries, affiliates, and divisions (“Related Entities”) and their immediate families (parents, children, siblings and their spouses) and household members (whether or not related) of each are not eligible to enter. Anyone serving as a contest judge is ineligible for the Contest. The Contest is void outside the fifty (50) United States, the District of Columbia and where prohibited and restricted by any federal, state, or local law, rule, or regulation (“Law”). The Contest is subject to all Law.
3. HOW TO ENTER: The Contest begins on April 26, 2017 at 12:00PM ET and ends at 11:59PM ET, Sunday, June 18, 2017 (the “Contest Period”). To be eligible for the Contest, you must:
• Before the end of the Contest Period, go to the Contest entry page at this link, and submit an essay between 1000 and 1500 words in length on the topic of “the benefits of a more restrained, careful foreign policy for the United States.”
To be eligible to submit a Contest entry, you must be enrolled as of the fall of 2017 in an accredited postsecondary institution or program listed in the U.S. Department of Education’s most recent database (http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/GetDownLoadFile.aspx). No person may submit more than one Contest entry. Attempting to submit multiple Contest entries will result in your disqualification from the Contest. Your participation in the Contest is optional and at your sole and absolute discretion.
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5. JUDGING AND SELECTION OF PRIZE WINNERS: All contest entries will be judged based on the following criteria:
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6. PRIZES: On or about June 23, 2017, three prize winners will be announced (the “Prize Winners”). The Prize Winners shall receive the following (the “Prize(s)”):
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Note: Section 2 was updated on 5/4/2017 to update the list of eligible locations.