the national interest change over time?
“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). The opening
quote clearly sets the tone of the thesis of this essay which is that the
national interest does not change over time. For an effective elaboration 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. The
third section of this essay will identify a few of the dissenting views on this
thesis put forward by liberals and constructivists. In last paragraphs, the
penultimate section of the essay re-echoes its stance by responding to the few
dissenting views. By way of conclusion, the fifth and last section of this
essay summarizes the stance of this paper in one paragraph.
interest is generally viewed as the behaviour of states rooted in the pursuit,
protection and promotion of certain interests. In international politics, every
country’s foreign policy is driven by what it perceives to be its national
interest. The national interest is an often debated and slippery concept that
is used to both describe and prescribe 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).
In the succeeding paragraphs, the
paper contextualises the concept 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.
foremost, the desire to possess and utilize power is an unchanging interest of
states. It is the view of realists and this essay 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 units in the international system, states
always compete for power and dominance over each other. Thus, while some states
seek power to pray 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 essay 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 due to this, 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. This essay
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).
importantly, the national interest of states is permanent because every state
strives at all times to maintain its sovereignty once 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
essay together with realists maintain that
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
a major 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 essay 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).
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.
criticism of the position of this essay 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 essay, 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 decisionmakers. 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 essay 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 so. 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 on 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, as 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
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
essay 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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