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National Interest in International Relations | CSS IR Notes

National Interests in International Relations
Written by Shahzad F. Malik

Origins of National Interest

The word interest is derived from Latin and means “it concerns, or it makes a difference to”. In the 1930s, Charles Bear wrote the first book concerning national interest. In following years the notion of national interest in IR has been used to describe the underlying rationale for the behavior of states in a threatening global environment, which preserves and protects one‟s values against another.
Statesmen who are responsible for and to their separate publics, and who operate in an uncertain milieu, often have little choice but to put the interest of their own entity above those of others.
National interest is understood to mean a state of affairs valued solely for its benefit to the nation. National interest often becomes synonymous with national egoism, with its disposition of transferring self love onto the national group.
One cannot speak about national interest without reference to values, even if they are a culmination of those held by some or all members of a given society

What does Nation Interest include?

Scholars define national interest variously. Some put self-preservation (territorial integrity, political independence and fundamental government institutions) at the head of the list.
Other categories of national interest focus on self-sufficiency, prestige, aggrandizement. Charles Bear focused on the notion of territory and commerce as being the defining features of national interest.
Morgenthau says that a country‟s national interests should be proportionate to its capacities Britain and France after WWII had superpower ambitions, not commiserate to their capacities).

Criteria for Defining National Interest

Ideological criteria: if one country’s ideology is liberal-democratic, it will make policies supporting democratic governments and movements and oppose totalitarian ones.
Moral and legal criteria: the imperative to act honestly and make decisions in accordance with international laws.
Pragmatic criteria: unemotional, calculated decisions to deal with on ground realities.
Bureaucratic criteria: each organization tends to exaggerate its specific funding request and to argue in the name of the national interest rather than its own interest.
Partisan criteria: to equate the success of one‟s own political party with an entire nation‟s success. Racial criteria: national interest defined in terms of interest of an ethnic or racial minority or majority Class-status criteria: a particular class will defend its interests while defining national interest.
Foreign-dependency criteria: protector states define policy obligations of their dependencies.

Variations in National Interest

There are different types of national interest. Some of the salient ones are described below:
Primary Interests: preservation of physical, political and cultural identity of the nation-state.
Secondary Interests: protection of citizens abroad and ensuring diplomatic immunity of foreign missions.
Permanent Interests: long-term interests of strategic, ideological or economic nature which do not change easily, with changes in domestic politics, for example
Variable Interests: these are short-term interests varying with cross-currents of personalities, public opinion, partisan politics, sectional interests etc.
General Interests: involve a large number of nations, such as economic interests or diplomatic norms.
Specific Interests: location and issue specific interests emerging from more general interests (bilateral terms of trade for example).
Identical Interests: interests held in common by different states (climate protection concerns)
Complementary Interests: though not identical, these interests can serve as basis for agreement on specific issues (US-Pakistan security cooperation).
Conflicting Interests: bring countries at odds with each other. Yet these interests can also undergo change due to varying internal circumstances and a changing external scenario.

Means to Promote National Interests

Coercive Means: these can be internal so that they don‟t infringe directly on other sovereign nations (embargos, boycotts, severing diplomatic relations) or they can be external and are a prima facie act of war (seizure of property of offending state, suspension of treaties), if the other state responds with escalating moves, it leads to an outbreak of war.
Alliances: based on complementary or identical interests and strengthened by ideology, alliances can promote national interest.
Diplomatic Negotiations: common interests are most effectively perpetuated by means of diplomacy. Diplomacy is also useful in negotiating conflicting national interests without resorting to coercive means.

National vs. Global Interests

Given the complexities of international politics, Morgenthau for e.g. opposes state action based on universal principles, instead he advocates a pragmatic approach of acting based on national interests.
Yet, issues of global concern like growing inequalities and environmental problems require world leaders to think beyond the narrow ambit of national interests. The world is also becoming increasing interconnected due to which national interests often exert an influence on global interests and global interests to some degree also compel national interests.

Relevant Vocabulary

  • Imperative: vital or of utmost importance
  • Synonymous: identical, a different term with the same meaning
  • Notion: idea
  • Self-sufficiency: self reliance or independence Aggrandizement: enhancement or exaggeration Obligations: duties or responsibilities Dependency: being dependent or reliant Ground realities: actual circumstances
  • Coercive elements: potentially destructive elements which can lead to escalating tensions or cause outbreak of violence
  • Scenario: existing situation
  • Partisan: division into factions or different parties
  • Perpetuated: affected or enabled
  • Ideological: based on an ideology or belief system
  • Ambit: realm, domain or field
  • Inequalities: the gap between the haves and the have nots

About the author

Shahzad F. Malik

Shahzad Faisal Malik is the administrator of and is responsible for managing the content, design, and overall direction of the blog. He has a strong background in Competitive Exams and is passionate and sharing information with others.
Shahzad Faisal Malik has worked as a Graphic Designer/Content Creator at CSSTimes in the past. In his free time, Shahzad Faisal Malik enjoys watching Cricket, writing blogs for different websites and is always on the lookout for new and interesting content to share with the readers of this website.
As the website administrator, Shahzad Faisal Malik is dedicated to providing high-quality content and fostering a welcoming and engaging community for readers. He looks forward to connecting with readers and hearing their thoughts and feedback on the website.

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