Does national interest change over time?


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The phrase ‘national interest’ has entered the lexicon meaning a realist tactic to international relations. It is based on the assumption that the term national can be defined to encompass all interests including religious, regional, sectoral, and business within a country. National interest includes all ambitions and goals whether cultural, military, political, or economic. The primary goal of these objectives is a country or state’s security, welfare, and survival. Furthermore, the concept is applied in pursuit of power, economic growth, and wealth. National interest is intertwined with foreign policy, which consists of self-interest approaches selected by a country to protect its interests and attain specific goals via relations with others.

Recently, there has been a consensus that foreign policy adopted by many Western powers cannot be comprehended via considering the countries as egoistic actors chasing myopic self-interest. A study of the world nations indicates that national interests change over time. For instance, since the end of the Cold War era, leading states actively embraced the importance of values and ethics in shaping international goals. After the Cold War, countries began pursuing ethical internal and foreign policies. The efforts gave birth to a new era of democracy, equality, equity, and concern for human rights. Many issues emerged and were soon integrated into national interests of many nations.

According to Kenneth Watlz, some theorists of international politics believe that realism is obsolete. They argue that concepts of realism such as power balancing, self-help, and anarchy were only useful during the bygone era. The thoughts were replaced by changed conditions and better ideas. As the underlying circumstances change, new thinking is required. Modifications taking place in various regions of the world have altered political systems from time to time. For instance, the advancement of education and technology led to the creation of democratic political systems in which everyone has a right to share views, opinions, concerns, and ideas. Significant changes in the means of communication, transportation, and the art of war strongly influenced how states and other agents interact. The introduction of nuclear weaponry is perhaps one of the most significant changes because it significantly altered national interest and international relations. In fact, they also changed the manner in which nations handle security matters. Nonetheless, the existence of nuclear weapons did not change the old anarchic structure associated with the international political system.

The closure of the Cold War created the way for the emergence of a new democratic wave. After the Cold War, the interests of many countries turned to industrialisation. The physical war was replaced with competition for natural resources, raw materials, and the market for finished products. Liberal democratic states adopted the peaceful behaviour, which pushed war into a state of obsolescence. Francis Fukuyama stated that no democracy has ever fought another. His statement echoed the fact that world democracies continually seek better ways of solving the conflict and enhancing peaceful co-existence for the common good.

In his discussion of realism, Carr assumed that in the international system, the political agency is concentrated in the state. He considered it as a constraint or instrument of state policy when he discussed social power. State power encompasses various military, economic, and ideological components that are measured and articulated in generic forms as the capability of a nation to influence international outcomes. His discussions evidently point out the undeniable linkage between national interest and international relations. Ideally, matters affecting national interest play an instrumental role in shaping global ties. Generic power, which is wielded by states emanate from the ideological, economic, and military factors that cast the pattern of international relations. The elements can only attain global outreach by being used as instruments of state policy. Thus, the nature of relationships between states is not merely a moment of international order. It is a careful procedure of balancing power and safeguarding interests and needs of different countries.

From Carr’s explanation, political and economic power is inseparably interdependent. When the idea is projected into the international relations limelight, it is clear that economic factors are responsible for political competition. Every state orders, directs, and taxes its citizens in a bid to extend its power beyond borders. A study of the world system reveals a continuous shift in the global economic relationships because of uneven development and changes in the scope and forms of political action. Carr noted that the science of economics is pegged on political order. Therefore, behind every economic system, there must be ruling political elites to mobilise and channel financial resources in line with national interests. Throughout history, whenever leadership is changed, a country’s interests tend to vary based on the influence of their leaders.

Notably, no political society, either international or national, can exist unless a group of people submits to specific rules of conduct. When national interests are balanced, a state of global harmony is realised. A peaceful co-existence requires achieving common interest. However, sometimes a nation feels that an international arrangement or agreement is not serving its national interest. Under such circumstances, the country may be forced to disrupt peace. For instance, by considering the Anglo-Saxon history, it was easier to convince the English speaking nations that war does not profit anyone. However, the same argument could not persuade Germans because they had greatly benefitted from the 1866 wars. Different countries interpreted the outcome of the World War I variedly because of national interests, gains, and losses. France benefitted from the war because Alsace-Lorraine was restored to them. The Italians did not attribute their losses to the war, but rather, to the treachery of their allies who supposedly defrauded them in the peace settlement. Countries that gained from the war were more likely to use weapons as a tool for achieving their national interest. Conversely, those who lost could easily explore other options.

Immediately after the Cold Wars, leading Western powers began to stress the importance of values and ethics in shaping international goals and foreign policies. The powerful nations began to show a significant concern for global justice and human rights. The move was a departure from the old system in which every country was individualistic. In the past, the action of countries in the international arena was guided by national interests. The new ethical and value-guided foreign policy was a response to global pressure for globalisation and development of new national identities and international constituencies. Many developed countries perceived that they had moral obligation to serve the interests of the international society. Instead of the national and states interest shaping the foreign policies, new agenda was created by no-state actors.

Despite the changes in the international politics, it is important to note that countries often act by striking a careful balance between the national and international interests. In most cases, when conflicts emerged, national interests were considered. A good example was the Vietnam War in which the United States experienced a dilemma. The United States participated in the Vietnam War because of the need to serve the interests of the Vietnamese. From the onset, the war was purely humanitarian. However, it reached a point in which the United States reconsidered its national interests. The claim can be proven by the speech of President Johnson, which was delivered at the John Hopkins University on April 7, 1965. The speech pointed out that the United States had greatly deluded itself in Vietnam. From the speech, it was clear that the president was seeking ways to negotiate with the different players without preconditions. By proposing economic development projects in Southeast Asia, the president not only recognised the national interest in the communist world, but he also indicated the need to safeguard the American interest.

The United States joined the Vietnam War without imagining that it would be long and costly. The planners of the involvement had little information concerning the nature of the civil war. The Vietnamese people that the United States hoped to “liberate” turned hostile and indifferent, creating a new chapter of the war. After the turn of events, the United States could not simply walk out. It had to formulate a workable strategy for handling the situation. In the end, the United States had to consider its national interests because a war that was expected to be won cheaply and quickly had become costly.

In the recent past, the United States appeared to have championed for humanitarian engagements in the international scene instead of national interests. During the war on terrorism, the United States has continually stated that it was not acting based on the traditional domestic concerns. For instance, the United States government promoted the invasion of Afghanistan as a humanitarian concern for her people. While announcing the beginning of a bombing campaign on 7th October 2001, President George W. Bush stated that the mission was aimed at assisting the oppressed people of Afghanistan. The national interest of self-defence seemed to have been concealed behind the humanitarian veil. Logic dictates that America was launching a bombing campaign in Afghanistan as an act of self-defence following an attack on its national symbols of military and economic power. Surprisingly, instead of stressing on national interest, the president expressed humanitarian claims. In fact, he indicated that as the bombing campaign continued, the United States was expected to drop supplies, medicine, and food to the suffering and starving women, men, and children of Afghanistan. The president also stated that the United States was a friend to billions of individuals who practised the Islamic faith in many parts of the world. The Afghanistan case represented a situation in which a nation seemed to have rejected national interests in a bid to implement ethical foreign policies.

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War and crisis are the two leading conditions that pre-empt deployment of national interest in foreign policy. The application of the term national interest can be noted in every situation of war. It is the foremost responsibility of every government to safeguard its cultural, political, and geographical integrity. One of the easiest political ideas is defending national interests from external attacks. A study of the British history in relation to the European Community (EC) and the European Union (EU) shows a situation of changing national interest. From a historical perspective, the United Kingdom (UK) was always reluctant to accept supranational principles for managing the international cooperative institutions. Since 1948, the UK embraced the use of intergovernmental institutions. The UK was responsible for the introduction of the state-affiliated Council of Ministers in the 1949 Council of Europe. During the development phase of the European Community (EC) in the early 1950s, the UK refused to participate. During the event, Britain argued that the institutions would undermine its national interest and sovereignty. It could be understood that it was in the country’s national interest to support the European supranational integration without the need to participate.

The UK’s participation in the supranational institutions continued until 1961. During that time, the Conservatives applied for membership but found themselves excluded until 1968 when General de Gaulle of France retired. Conservative Prime Minister Heath reintroduced the issue in 1970 by saying that sovereignty was supposed to be inculcated into the national interest. There was a need to redefine sovereignty, which he did not tell the voters. The 1975 referendum mandated the country to continue its membership of the Economic Community. However, because of the inbuilt bias, it led to the split of the Labour Party in the next decade. When the PM Margaret Thatcher came to power, she distinguished between protection of borders, free market, commercial interests, and national sovereignty issues.

The current challenges associated with Brexit squarely revolve around national interest. At the epicentre of the problem is the blurred distinction between nationalism and national interest. June 23, 2016, was a moment that defined Britain’s politics and ideas of national interest since the end of World War II. The British electorate voted to leave the EU because they believed that border control, sovereignty, and independence are essential. However, the country desires to continue as a member of the European Customs so that business could continue normally. Ideally, the British do not want to continue supporting the EU budget, receiving its citizens, and operating within its laws, and yet it wants to keep enjoying the comprehensive trade agreements. The case of Britain shows a situation in which national interest has been shaped over time, majorly because of the existence of the EC/EU.


In conclusion, it is evident that national interest changes over time and they emanate from the desires, preferences, and wishes of the people. Over time, people have changed their mindsets, thoughts, and wishes because of shifting regulatory, educational, communication, technological, political, and geographic landscapes.  A historical study of many countries reveals that national interests have been transformed over time. For instance, when the war on terrorism began, the United States appeared to have rejected national interests in a bid to implement humanitarian foreign policies.

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