JUANITA DZIFA SENANU-AMEVIN
MSC POLITICAL SCIENCE- Geopolitics,
Democracy Promotion, or Cultural Identity?
AUTUMN SEMSTER, 2017
Table of content
Interest and Realism
DOES THE NATIONAL INTEREST CHANGE OVER
Foreign policy is a crucial aspect of the domestic and external spheres
of a state (Walter 2008). States cannot be ‘islands’; one way or the other,
they will need to interact with another state to survive. In their quest to
interact with and form other relations with fellow states, they need to
formulate policies to guide them. This, in International Relation is referred
to as a state’s Foreign Policy. This policy is formulated strategically with
the current condition and aims of the home country in mind. Thus, these
policies seek to win over the countries they interact with. Presidents of the
United States decide to engage in military intervention abroad for domestic
factors (Dueck 2014). For every Foreign Policy a country makes, it considers
its own interest; the national interest. Foreign Policy is summarised by Valerie
‘The strategy or approach chosen by
the national government to achieve its goals in its relations with external entities.
This includes decisions to do nothing’ (Hudson 2008).
“National interests are permanent conditions
which provide policy makers with a rational guide to their tasks: they are
fixed, politically bipartisan and always transcend changes in government” (Burchill, 2005, p. 36). This quote
clearly sets the tone of the thesis of this paper which is that the national
interest does not change over time. For an effective elaboration and a clearer
view of the stated thesis, the paper has been segmented into five sections.
Having already defined national interest, the first and obviously the
introductory section begins with an overview of the concept and briefly explains
national interest in the eyes of Political Realism, here-in-after referred to
as Realism. The second section discusses in detail the arguments making up the
thesis of my paper. The third section of this paper will identify a few of the
dissenting views on this thesis put forward by liberals and constructivists. In
the last paragraphs, the penultimate section of the paper re-echoes its stance
by responding to the few dissenting views of liberals and constructivists. By
way of conclusion, the fifth and last section of this paper summarizes the
stance of this paper in one paragraph.
Insight into ‘National Interest’
National interest is generally viewed as the behaviour of states rooted
in the pursuit, protection and promotion of certain interests based on the
assessment of the current situation. In international politics, every country’s
foreign policy is driven by what it perceives to be its national interest. According
to Hans Morgenthau,
‘The meaning of
national interest is survival-the protection of physical, political and
cultural identity against encroachments by other nation-states’
The national interest is an often debated and slippery concept that is
used to both describe and prescribe and justify foreign policy. It has been
used by statesmen and scholars since the 17th century to describe
the aspirations and goals of sovereign entities in the international arena. The
national interest is a controversial and an ambiguous term that has no
universal definition but primarily serves as the “language of state action” (Weldes, 1999,
The national interest is a concept used by political actors to whip support for
their policies and to shape political behaviour. Thus, the national interest is
used to explain, justify, oppose or propose policies and actions against other
states. Analytically it is used to measure the adequacy of past, present and
future foreign policies of states (Burchill, 2005).
As already noted above, the national interest is a nebulous term in
international politics. Hence, for an in-depth examination of the question
under discussion, there is the need to employ the assumptions of an
international political theory that can help explain the elements of national
interest. An international political theory primarily explains
international-political outcomes, analyses concepts such as national interest, and
clarifies the economic and foreign policies of states (Waltz, 1979). There are several
International theories, they include, liberalism, social constructivism,
Marxism, post-colonial theory etc. All these theories account for world
politics and explain various ideas in international relations but in different
ways. However, the most important international theory that provides almost a
perfect discussion on national interest is Realism. In International Relations, Realism is defined
as “A tradition of analysis that stresses the imperatives states face to pursue
a power politics of the national interest” (Burchill, et al., 2005, p. 30). Realism portrays
National interest as a key concept which when defined in terms of power sets politics apart as an independent
realm of action and makes a theory of politics thinkable. Realists define the
national interest in terms of strategic and economic potentials because
international politics is understood to be a struggle for power among states. Realism
argues that national interest contains two elements, one that is logically
required and in that sense necessary, and one that is variable and determined
by circumstances (Burchill, 2005, p. 36).
National Interest in the light of Realism
succeeding paragraphs, the paper contextualises the concept of National
Interest and makes a better sense of the question by drawing on the assumption
of all the varieties of realism to substantiate the stance that the national
interest does not change over time.
and foremost, the desire to possess and utilize power is an unchanging interest
of states. It is the view of realists and this paper that states are led
by human beings who have an innate desire for power and seek to enjoy an
advantage over others and to avoid domination by others. As states are units in the international
system, they always compete for power and dominance over each other; they
desire to stay at the ‘top’. Thus, while some states seek power to prey on one
another, others also strive to gain power at all times to ensure that other
states do not exploit them. This makes the struggle for power an all-time
interest to be pursued because ‘States are almost always better off with more
rather than less power. In short, states do not become status quo powers until
they completely dominate the system’ (Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 31).
This paper again
argues that, in an anarchic international system of independent states with no
central authority to guarantee their safety, security remains an unchanging
national interest: to all intents and purposes, security is a never-changing
national interest of countries because the international arena is a self-help
system with continual fear among states. In international politics states view
themselves as vulnerable and their peers as potential threats, and for this
reason, security remains an all-time priority on the agenda of states. And whenever
necessary, states adopt diplomacy, balance power, form alliances and even go to
war against other countries to defend and maintain their security.
agrees with realists that the international system is uncertain and as a result
‘The character of international politics changes as national
interdependence tightens or loosens. Yet even as relations vary, states have to
take care of themselves as best they can in an anarchic environment’ (Waltz, 2000, p. 18). Thus, the
security of the state may be endangered by aggressive behaviour of others as a
result, states strive as much as they can to look out for means to “deter and,
if need be, fend off an attack by others” (Frankel, 1970, p. 48).
the national interest of states, I am convinced, is permanent because every
state strives at all times to maintain its sovereignty once it is attained.
Maintaining one’s territorial integrity and the autonomy of the domestic
political order remains a permanent national interest of states in the sense
that, recognition by their peers and intergovernmental organizations
like the United Nations is only extended to entities with territory and formal
juridical autonomy. This paper together with realists maintain that in the current international system, sovereign
autonomy and self-determination are core values. The paper is not in dispute of
the fact that states pursue some basic social values, including, freedom,
order, justice, and welfare. But in the pursuit of these values they always
make the protection of their existence their number one priority. Josef Stalin,
a former head of state of the Soviet Union put the point well during a war
scare in 1927 when he posited that: “We can and must build socialism in the
Soviet Union but in order to do so we first of all have to exist” (Mearsheimer,
2001, p. 38).
In the words of Mearsheimer, “Survival dominates other motives because, once a
state is conquered, it is unlikely to be in a position to pursue other aims”
(2001, p. 30).
Further to the above, the interests of states to protect specific
national assets, such as strategic maritime routes, port access, and natural
resources is permanent and do not change with transient governments. This paper
strongly contends that every country has some assets that others desire and
will want to have control over. In order to prevent the scrambling of such
strategic assets and resources, states make it their permanent national
interests to secure them for their citizens. It must be stated that such
national interests are not open to political reinterpretation (Burchill,
2005, p. 27).
It is very much justified therefore, to argue that “The idea of interest is
indeed of the essence of politics and is unaffected by the circumstances of
time and place” (Morgenthau, 1985, p. 10).
the pursuit of economic prosperity remains an unchanging national interest of
states. It is the contention of this paper that countries perpetually pursue
economic prosperity to enhance the welfare of their citizenry. States secure
the allegiance of their citizens by catering for their economic interest. The
pursuit of such economic fortunes is again an all-time interest of states
because they use the acquired wealth to equip and empower their military forces
which in turn enhances their defence capabilities Mearsheimer, further
elaborate this position by arguing that, “greater economic prosperity
invariably means greater wealth, which has significant implications for
security, because wealth is the foundation of military power” (Mearsheimer,
2001, p. 38).
By way of discussing some dissenting views, the paper first considers the
contention by Liberals that the national interest of states changes over time
because states co-operate to create a market society as a means to promote
development and economic growth. Liberals assert that free trade and market
forces overwhelm social relations and change political actions culminating in
the change of the national interest of states (Burchill,
2005, p. 131).
For instance, they argue that previously, many states protected their
industries. However, in today’s world, all of such countries have gotten rid of
their protectionist policies to allow for free trade.
Another criticism of the position of this paper is one advanced by Constructivist
that national interests are determined through social interaction and as a
result they change as the experiences of social interactions vary over time. In
contrary to the thesis of this paper, Constructivists assert that the national
interest of states change over time due to the fact that such interests are
influenced by the social ideas of the day and as such, are regularly shaped and
reshaped through socialisation. According to Constructivist, shared ideas,
beliefs and values greatly impact on social and political action. Thus, to
them, social values and ideas shape both the social identities of political
actors and, in turn, the interests they express (Burchill,
2005, p. 193).
Last on this score is the view by Constructivist that state interests are
shaped by internationally shared norms and values that structure and give
meaning to international political life. Constructivists like Martha Finmore
contend that the national interests of states are defined in the context of
international norms and understandings about what is good and appropriate.
According to these Constructivists, normative context influences the behaviour
of decision-makers and of the mass publics who may choose and constrain those
decision makers. The normative context also changes over time, and as these
norms and values change, they create co-ordinated shifts in state interests and
behaviour across the system. Thus, countries adjust themselves to accept new
norms and values that may be set by international organisations and through interactions
with other states (Burchill, 2005).
In a response to the above criticisms, this paper asserts that, the national
interest of states does not change over time, rather the approaches chosen by
states to maintain these interests are varied constantly depending on the
structure and the prevailing-situations of the international system. Critics
point to the creation of institutions and established norms as some of the
things that influence states to change their national interests. However, it is
the position of this paper that these institutions only serve as the media
through which powerful states project their national interests. Realists
agree that states sometimes operate through institutions and benefit from doing
Nonetheless, it must be understood that powerful states create and shape
institutions so that they can maintain or increase their share of world power.
A clear instance is the veto power wielded by the permanent members of the
United Nations Security Council who were the victors of the Second World War
and founding fathers of the United Nations. The point must be stressed that
powerful states like the U.S usually get their way around issues they consider
important through international institutions. In times that they are not able
to secure their interests, they ignore the institution and do what they deem to
be in their own national interest (Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 216).
Again, by way of answering critics, it is important to state that, so
long as states possess unequal power, national interest remains a permanent
goal in the sense that states that have attained certain heights on the world
stage will always make it a point to maintain their status in the international
system while the have-nots will also continue to struggle to attain their
desired status. Carr and other Realists argue that some states are better off
than others and these countries will always defend and sustain their privileged
position whiles the have-nots, will struggle to change that situation. (Jackson & Sørensen, 2012, p. 39).
In short, this paper admits that economic co-operation, social values
and international norms and other circumstances in the international system could affect the
direction of the national interest of states. However, these factors do not
change the national interest of countries. These assertions and many
others made by Constructivist and Liberals are problematic and inadequate to
reverse the position of this paper because both theories acknowledge the state
as an important actor in international politics. By far this paper has
succeeded in arguing that as long as the state remains the pre-eminent actor in
an anarchical international system where there is the need to exert influence,
maintain survival in order to pursue other goals, seek security to ward off
imminent attacks, pursue economic growth in order to secure the wellbeing of
the citizenry, and to secure strategic national assets, national interest
remains a permanent thing that political actors will continue to adopt
different means to achieve.
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