Whose National Interest? Which Foreign Policy?

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“So those who had hoped to discover good reasons for making this rather than that judgment on some particular type of issue…will find that once again they have entered upon a scene of radical conflict. What this may disclose to them is not only that our society is not one of consensus, but of division and conflict, at least so far as the nature of justice is concerned, but also that to some degree that division and conflict is within themselves.”
Alisdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?

Disagreement and conflict plague our foreign policy discussions in the same way confusion about the nature of justice makes it difficult to make ethically informed personal decisions. Foreign policy consensus is rare in America, just as moral consensus is the stuff of fairy tales. However, difficulty in reaching agreement  is no excuse to succumb to relativism or blind fatalism. Government officials, military leaders, and diplomats must still make decisions and pursue foreign policy goals despite the lack of clear, unambiguous guidance. Indeed, many disagreements in the foreign policy community arise not from a lack of clear goals, but rather from their overabundance. Prioritizing them, deciding where to dedicate significant resources and which to abandon—these are the subjects of never-ending debate in public discourse.

Today there exist two basic camps within the American foreign policy community.[1] The first, realist foreign policy theorists, often take for granted sovereign states’ pursuit of national interest as the primary basis for all foreign policy decisions. Prescriptions within this camp typically diverge when it comes to the means whereby nations should pursue this interest or the rationale justifying it.[2] However, few within this group have ventured so far as to examine the notion of the national interest itself, relying instead on imprecise allusions to the balance of power and domestic security.

U.S. Presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter at the funeral of George H. W. Bush. (AFP)

The second camp, the Wilsonian tradition, has manifested itself more recently in the Bush and Obama Doctrines.[3] In simplified terms, this tradition holds that the U.S. national interest coincides with the interests of all nations and that the United States has a moral obligation to not only monitor and punish bad behavior around the world but to actively spread democracy to other sovereign states. Both groups  have their fair share of detractors and supporters in contemporary public discourse. What rarely emerges through this discourse—and which is precisely the root cause of these disagreements—is a subtle assessment of the term national interest, which has remained largely undefined and serves primarily as a catch-all phrase to justify the pursuit of often discordant goals.[4]

Which National Interest to Pursue?

Recognizing the reality and legitimacy of the discrete aims pursued by these foreign policy traditions is not at issue here. Military or diplomatic intervention for humanitarian reasons, resource security, ideological influence, or any other goal can all serve the U.S. national interest in some way. The trouble lies in the obvious but often overlooked reality that these foreign policy goals are discrete and frequently work against one another. A nation has national interests as opposed to a uniform national interest.

Last Soviet troop column crosses Soviet border after leaving Afghanistan, 15 Feb 1989 (A. Solomonov/RIA Novosti Archive/Wikimedia)

The difficulty is threefold. First, a nation’s short-term and long-term interests frequently, if not necessarily, clash. What serves the national interest today may create the groundwork for tomorrow’s geopolitical disaster. The Central Intelligence Agency’s support for the Mujahedeen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is a telling example. The same insurgents funded and armed with U.S resources became, in just over a decade, America’s primary enemy in the Global War on Terror. Also, one might view the Trump Administration’s mission to secure better trade terms with close U.S. allies—European Union members being a prime example—as another example of conflicting interests. What would certainly benefit the U.S. domestic industry in the short-term could have disastrous consequences long-term, as these close partners may begin to seek economic and political ties elsewhere, most notably with Russia or China.

Second, weighing, prioritizing, and assigning significance to the various national interests often become mired by political in-fighting, given that interest groups within civil society prioritize specific interests over others. Accordingly, trying to organize these conflicting interests in light of some higher overarching national interest, which benefits the nation as a whole and recognizes the common good as a standard, would require one to be almost inhumanly detached from such thought-distorting things as bias and personal attachments. American citizens often become devoted to specific causes and will support a foreign policy that prioritizes these causes over others. Politicians likewise have the narrow interests of their constituencies in mind when making foreign policy decisions. Lobbyists try to ensure their interests are protected, which, for the politicians they support, might mean pursuing a foreign policy aimed at controlling essential natural resources, a relationship with a particular market for goods, or developing different trade terms with a particular trade partner. The varied interests of these groups will rarely coincide in a singular national interest.

The third issue emerges because of the limited resources that states are able to dedicate to achieving these foreign policy goals. Priorities must be assigned, and some very worthwhile objectives must be abandoned. The supply of trained soldiers, diplomats, money, and public resolve is limited. Using these resources to secure one foreign policy objective could very well mean making it impossible to pursue another.

The tensions outlined here are equally present in academic circles. Among the most prominent realists today, John Mearsheimer consistently argues that America should abandon its ideological and counterproductive foreign policy of liberal hegemony. His target, a portion of the Wilsonian tradition, aims to spread democratic institutions and purportedly act as the world’s police force. The United States, Mearsheimer argues, should embrace its traditional and realistic role of being an offshore balancer. The national interest, for him, consists almost entirely of maintaining America’s status as the hegemon in the Western Hemisphere and preventing regional hegemons in other parts of the globe, especially Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf.[5] His view of the national interest, typical of the realist camp, focuses almost exclusively on security strategy and seems to downplay material, market-based interests, as well as those interests related to diplomatic or ideological influence. In this regard, he represents the quintessential anti-Wilsonian.

U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war provides a telling case study for these foreign policy disputes. The United States has no strategic interest in this country, Mearsheimer claims, as the moribund Islamic State caliphate neither posed any realistic existential threat to America nor was it ever a viable candidate as regional hegemon in the Middle East. Its territorial acquisition never amounted to lasting economic gains or great-power status. U.S. involvement there, he concludes, has been based on a strictly ideological rationale—in a word, to attack anti-democratic forms of government viewed as unacceptably totalitarian and cruel. But, for him, this intervention achieved no legitimate national interest.

Mearsheimer’s analysis, as proponents of a more Wilsonian bent have pointed out, appears to overlook some of the secondary and tertiary strategic consequences of U.S. involvement in Syria. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Brett McGurk argued vociferously for more U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. He believes it involves several core national interests, which include checking Iranian ambitions to extend its influence and gain key fortified military positions close to the Israeli border. The other interests involved include protecting the Kurds—a key regional ally—acting as a viable alternative to Russian influence in the region, and helping deter Bashir Al-Assad’s regime from engaging in illegal acts of warfare.[6] In this view, the national interest extends beyond the immediate security needs of a nation to other long-term derivative concerns. As McGurk would acknowledge, the Syrian civil war never posed an immediate existential threat to U.S. security. Nevertheless, its outcomes can spill over into issues about which Washington cares deeply.

Brett McGurk in northern Syria. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty)

America takes an interest in the security of allies and the welfare of oppressed populations not merely out of naïve optimism but because not doing so can undermine both U.S. moral credibility and reliability as an ally. The people of the world want to know they can trust the United States, and this trust forms the basis for America’s undeniable influence abroad. In short, Wilsonians, like McGurk, believe this trust and concern for humanitarian principles serves the U.S. national interest.

Towards a Reevaluation of the National Interest

The preceding analysis serves to illustrate the complex and controversial nature of the national interest, but is not meant to completely undermine its terminological credibility. If anything, the disputes highlighted above should emphasize how real and pressing the various national interests are, and how tragic it is the United States is unable to pursue all of them with equal enthusiasm and resources. But this partial impotence leaves a problem. How should the United States prioritize its foreign policy objectives? How can it best allocate its limited national resources? How can it make sense of these objectives and justify them not only to the world but to its own citizens?

To be viable, the national interest must be situated within some comprehensive societal narrative which lays out the nation’s historical role in the world. In this, the Wilsonians are probably correct. Without a keen sense of who it is as a nation, no amount of acquired global power for the United States could overcome the lack of direction for how to use it. This sort of a societal narrative would provide context, justification, and direction for the nation’s concrete aims. It would answer fundamental philosophical questionsL “What is worth pursuing?” and “What is the good life we are trying to make possible in our society?” Without answering these questions, the national interest will forever remain genuinely undetermined, subject to the squabbling of various interest groups unable to see beyond their selfish benefits.

One of the major problems with America’s societal narrative—which is correctly diagnosed by some realists—is that it often works against some of its more pragmatic aims. Because many Americans tend to view their country as unique in history, having some exceptional mission not subject to the same geopolitical laws that have governed other nations in the Old World, they often forget that America exists in a world of limited resources and its enthusiasm for spreading western values more often than not violently clashes with the deeply held values and priorities of other cultures. In other words, America must beware that the moralistic idealism inherent to its societal narrative will overshadow its pragmatic and calculating pursuit of concrete, realistic objectives. It must be wary of pursuing abstract principles at the cost of real strategic gains, or in the worst case, strategic losses.

On the other hand, as even the arch-realist Kissinger has pointed out, it is America’s moral idealism that provides the impetus to undertake great strategic endeavors and to follow through with them to their conclusion.[7] It was in no small part responsible for its victory in both World Wars and in the Cold War that followed. This idealism enabled the United States, for better or for worse, to maintain an ongoing military campaign in the Middle East for the past nineteen years. The key is to use this reservoir of resolve sparingly, only for realistically achievable foreign policy objectives. To apply it indiscriminately to every humanitarian disaster, ideological disagreement, or geopolitical setback would be folly. It will only undermine America’s future ability to engage effectively when an issue of critical importance arises.

It, therefore, must prioritize and clearly define these national interests in light of this societal narrative, but must never let this narrative undermine the working conditions that make carrying it out possible. Historically, these conditions are the following: first is the physical security of the nation which protects its sovereignty from foreign military intervention. Realists correctly view this national interest as the first priority. Without secure borders and freedom from fear of foreign invasion, civil society cannot operate to its full potential. Individuals would be unable to pursue worthwhile goals, and a debilitating uncertainty would plague the economy. Achieving and maintaining this secure regional hegemony may involve offensive, not just defensive, military actions. Mearsheimer considers himself an offensive realist because, as he sees it, the only potential threat to American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere would be a rival hegemon in another region of the world. America’s most important foreign policy objective should thus be to maintain its premier geopolitical position and to act as an offshore balancer against potential hegemons in other parts of the globe.

Nevertheless, how should America behave if it has firmly achieved this first foreign policy objective? The factual achievement of this first layer is where the second level of national interest surfaces. Integral to maintaining a high level of domestic security for the future is having the material wealth necessary to initiate and sustain the military campaigns essential to the first level of national interest. America thus has an interest in securing the free-flow of natural resources and commerce that will ensure current and future prosperity. Thus military interventions that aim to secure the conditions for the possibility of this prosperity, such as the global oil supply, can be justified at this level. While not directly bearing on America’s physical security, this free-flow of goods can have the derivative consequences of ensuring the domestic prosperity essential to maintaining domestic sovereignty.

Next in order of importance is the security of allies, as they allow the United States a certain amount of maneuverability as it pursues the first two levels of national interest. They allow it to set up airfields or forward operating positions, share intelligence assets, and boost troop levels in military engagements. The U.S. can borrow their cultural or linguistic expertise, gain insight into the modus operandi of potential rivals, and rely on them for diplomatic support. Granted that it should never allow supporting an ally get in the way of achieving the first two levels of national interest, it is nevertheless the case that they can sometimes be essential to achieving these priority objectives.

The next level of national interest is spreading ideological influence. Realists tend to minimize the importance of this foreign policy objective. However, one should not wholly dismiss the role of ideological dissemination. It is at the heart of the societal narrative that gives the United States its raison d’etre. If U.S. citizens did not honestly believe in the universality of the values they are trying to protect domestically, it would be very easy to fall into a vicious cycle of passive cynicism about world affairs. It would be impossible to find the energy reserves necessary to conduct any level of military or diplomatic intervention. It is also necessary to mention that alliances are more naturally formed, and much more likely to last, if there are ideological ties binding nations in addition to their geopolitical interests.

Afghan refugees who fled their homeland due to war and famine collect clean water in the slums of Lahore, Pakistan, June 19, 2019 (K.M. Chaudary/AP)

The final layer of national interest, which is not unimportant but relies on a secure grasp of all the other layers, is America’s humanitarian societal mission. Caring for the plight of refugees, victims of genocide, and oppressed populations is not a sign of naïve weakness or stupidity. Indeed, it is a sign of strength. America is one of the only nations to have secured the first layers of national interest to such an extent that it can afford to engage in seemingly profitless adventures to help non-Americans who will never be able to return the favor. Once again, the American societal narrative is vital in this equation. Without a clear sense of who it is and how, ideally, it should wield the raw power it accrues, America would cease to have the identity it does and could very easily undercut its ability to pursue all of the interests outlined above. There is a need for the ultimate “why and wherefore?” of power to justify its acquisition.

The reality is that sometimes these myriad interests overlap and sometimes they conflict. The role of political leaders is to assess the international situation and to capitalize on those interventions where discrete interests are intertwined and avoid actions which would undermine strategic priorities. In certain instances, spreading ideological influence may have a long-term effect on protecting allies or protecting domestic sovereignty from foreign intervention just as protecting an oppressed population or saving one from genocide can go a long way in creating future allies and partners. But stopping a genocide does more than create allies; it reinforces the City on a Hill sense of America as the New World power which will use that power for the world, not just for its own petty needs. It reinforces the societal narrative that is the lifeblood of our resolve for any foreign intervention. However, political leaders must always be sure to keep the distinctions between these layers in mind when weighing the nation’s priorities and how, when, and why it uses military force.

Michael Colebrook is a U.S. Army officer. He has a Ph.D. in Political Philosophy from the University of Dallas. The views in this essay are his own, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared orignally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] While certainly recognizing that this statement is an oversimplification, one could argue that variations on the Wilsonian and Realist positions dominate foreign policy discussions throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. For the argument that Wilsonianism has been the de facto position of American foreign policy theorists since the end of World War II, see Ninkovich, Frank. The Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1900. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999). On the other hand, Walter Mead has argued that four traditions have dominated American foreign policy: the Jefforsonian/Isolationists, the Hamiltonian/commercialist, the Jacksonian/territorial expansionist, and the Wilsonian internationalist. Although the first three were notable contenders in American foreign policy discussions prior to World War II, they have largely been drowned out by the two camps described above. For a description of these four traditions see H.W Brands. “The Four School Masters.” The National Interest, December1, 2001. https://nationalinterest.org/bookreview/the-four-schoolmasters-1181

[2] For a summary of these divisions, see Mearsheimer, John. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2014) pgs. 17-22.

[3] For a subtle and incisive account of the Wilsonian Foreign Policy Tradition from a realist perspective, see Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994).

[4] Post-Cold War Presidents have typically framed the National Interest in terms of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. As I will show in the last section of this article, each of these terms corresponds to security, values, and prosperity respectively. The problem lies in the task of prioritizing these broad national interests and making sense of them in light of an enduring American identity. 

[5] Mearsheimer, John. “Donald Trump Should Embrace a Realist Foreign Policy.” The National Interest, November 27, 2017. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/donald-trump-should-embrace-realist-foreign-policy-18502. For another more recent realist interpretation of the Syrian civil war, see Davis, Daniel. “Trump’s Big Mistake: He Hasn’t Withdrawn from Syria but Doubled Down.” The National Interest, November 29, 2019. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/skeptics/trumps-big-mistake-he-hasn%E2%80%99t-withdrawn-syria-doubled-down-100622

[6] McGurk, Brett. “Hard Truths in Syria.” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2019. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2019-04-16/hard-truths-syria. For a similar argument, see Fontaine, Richard. “The Non-intervention Delusion.” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2019. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2019-10-15/nonintervention-delusion

[7] Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994) pg. 44.

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