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national interest


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The interest of a state, usually as defined by its government. Two broad usages may be identified.1 Use by politicians in seeking support for a particular course of action, especially in foreign policy. Given the widespread attachment to the nation as a social and political organization, national interest is a powerful device for invoking support. The term is used by politicians to seek support for domestic policy objectives, but here it is less persuasive given the normal extent of differences on domestic policy and hence employed less. In foreign policy in contrast, the term invokes an image of the nation, or the nation‐state, defending its interests within the anarchic international system where dangers abound and the interests of the nation are always at risk.2 Use as a tool for analysing foreign policy, particularly by political realists, such as Hans Morgenthau. Here national interest is used as a sort of foreign policy version of the term ‘public interest’—indicating what is best for the nation in its relations with other states. This use of the term emphasizes not merely the threat to the nation from the international anarchy, but also the external constraints on the freedom of manoeuvre of the state from treaties, the interests and power of other states, and other factors beyond the control of the nation such as geographical location and dependence on foreign trade. This analytical usage of the term places much emphasis on the role of the state as the embodiment of the nation's interest. The realists' use of the term national interest in evaluating foreign policy has focused on national security as the core of national interest. ‘Interest of state’ and ‘national security interest’ are closely allied terms.The difficulty with the analytical usage of the term is the absence of any agreed methodology by which the best interests of the nation can be tested. Some writers have argued that the best interests are, nevertheless, objectively determined by the situation of the state within the international system and can be deduced from a study of history and the success/failure of policies. Other writers concede that national interest is subjectively interpreted by the government of the day. In this version, national interest is similar to the politician's rhetorical usage of the term—the national interest is merely what the politician says the national interest is.

1 Use by politicians in seeking support for a particular course of action, especially in foreign policy. Given the widespread attachment to the nation as a social and political organization, national interest is a powerful device for invoking support. The term is used by politicians to seek support for domestic policy objectives, but here it is less persuasive given the normal extent of differences on domestic policy and hence employed less. In foreign policy in contrast, the term invokes an image of the nation, or the nation‐state, defending its interests within the anarchic international system where dangers abound and the interests of the nation are always at risk.

2 Use as a tool for analysing foreign policy, particularly by political realists, such as Hans Morgenthau. Here national interest is used as a sort of foreign policy version of the term ‘public interest’—indicating what is best for the nation in its relations with other states. This use of the term emphasizes not merely the threat to the nation from the international anarchy, but also the external constraints on the freedom of manoeuvre of the state from treaties, the interests and power of other states, and other factors beyond the control of the nation such as geographical location and dependence on foreign trade. This analytical usage of the term places much emphasis on the role of the state as the embodiment of the nation's interest. The realists' use of the term national interest in evaluating foreign policy has focused on national security as the core of national interest. ‘Interest of state’ and ‘national security interest’ are closely allied terms.

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Subjects: Politics.


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