National Interest



The national interest, often referred to by the French term raison d'État, is a country's goals and ambitions whether economic, military, or cultural. The notion is an important one in international relations where pursuit of the national interest is the foundation of the realist school.


The national interest of a state is multi faceted. Primary is the state's survival and security. Also important is the pursuit of wealth and economic growth and power. Many states, especially in modern times, regard the preservation of the nation's culture as of great importance.


In early human history the national interest was usually viewed as secondary to that of religion or morality. To engage in a war rulers needed to justify the action in these contexts. The first thinker to advocate for the primacy of the national interest is usually considered to be Niccolò Machiavelli. The practice is first seen as being employed by France in the Thirty Years' War when it intervened on the Protestant side, despite its own Catholicism, to block the increasing power of the Holy Roman Empire. The notion of the national interest soon came to dominate European politics that became fiercely competitive over the next centuries. States could now openly embark on wars purely out of self-interest. Mercantilism can be seen as the economic justification of the aggressive pursuit of the national interest.


There are many who would disagree with this, however, finding the argument anachronistic. Historian Benedict Anderson demonstrates in "Imagined Communities", his seminal treatise on the origins and history of the phenomenon of nationalism, that prior to the late 18th century, the concept of nationhood was unconceivable and that the political sentiments held by Machiavelli and Cardinal Richelieu, to take from the examples of the preceding paragraph, were substantively different from nationalist sentiments. Machiavelli's Florence was an independent polity with an identity and ambitions independent of any concept of Italian-ness; the invention of Italy, as anything other than a vague geo-political and historical concept, was yet to come. The geography now known as Italy was, at Machiavelli's time, a politically and culturally diverse collection of polities and dependencies with no shared sense of common history, destiny or culture. The Italian peninsula was just as culturally and historically Greek, Germanic and Frankish as it was Florentine and Machiavelli's strategic thought was not rooted in nationalist ambitions for glory or protection. What Machiavelli advanced was a ruthless political paternalism, something world leaders in Machiavelli's future, a nationalized future he could not have conceived of, borrowed liberally from and put to the service of nationalist ambitions. Cardinal Richelieu, likewise, did not have a nationalistic sense of Frenchness at heart when he strategized to increase the power of the King for whom he worked. In both of these cases, the conflation of the term "nation" with the concept of the "nation-state", and then the conflation of the "nation-state" with the concept of the polity (that is to say, the use of the term "nation" to mean any sovereign political organization at all) is the stumbling block here.


A foreign policy geared towards pursuing the national interest is the foundation of the realist school of international relations. The realist school reached its greatest heights at the Congress of Vienna with the practice of the balance of power, which amounted to balancing the national interest of several great and lesser powers. Metternich was celebrated as the principal artist and theoretician of this balancing but he was simply doing a more or less clean copy of what his predecessor Kaunitz had already done by reversing so many of the traditional Habsburg alliances and building international relations anew on the basis of national interest instead of religion or tradition.


These notions became much criticized after the bloody debacle of the First World War, and the concept of the balance of power was replaced with the idea of collective security, whereby all members of the League of Nations would "consider an attack upon one as an attack upon all," thus deterring the use of violence forevermore. The League of Nations did not work, partially because the United States refused to join and partially because, in practice, nations did not always find it "in the national interest" to deter each other from the use of force.


The events of World War II led to a rebirth of Realist and then Neo-realist thought, as international relations theorists re-emphasized the role of power in global governance. Many IR theorists blamed the weakness of the League of Nations for its idealism (contrasted with Realism) and ineffectiveness at preventing war, even as they blamed mercantilist beggar-thy-neighbor policies for the creation of fascist states in Germany and Italy. With hegemonic stability theory, the concept of the U.S. national interest was expanded to include the maintenance of open sea lanes and the maintenance and expansion of free trade.


Today, the concept of "the national interest" is often associated with political Realists who wish to differentiate their policies from "idealistic" policies that seek either to inject morality into foreign policy or promote solutions that rely on multilateral institutions which might weaken the independence of the state. As considerable disagreement exists in every country over what is or is not in "the national interest," the term is as often invoked to justify isolationist and pacifistic policies as to justify interventionist or warlike policies. One of the most notable recent realists is the former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was a great fan of Metternich.


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "National interest".




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