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National interests, national and international security

Two things are needed in national security policy:

First, enemies; second, allies.

The problem of national interests has been debated for almost 100 years now, but no consensus has been reached to this day. Many Russian scholars fail to understand, though, what all the fuss is about. It is quite obvious to them that national interests include the preservation of territorial integrity, independence, survival and, better yet, prosperity of the people. How can this be difficult to understand? But no, Americans have to start “digging”: preservation of territorial integrity - what does it mean? Does this concept include protection of allied states’ territorial integrity? Does it include protection of national air space? Does it include so-called disputed territories whose status is not clearly defined or is at least questioned by one or several parties (such as the Senkaku Islands)? And what does preservation of independence mean? Is independence even possible in today’s world? Can Russia be called an independent state if it forms its budget on the basis of IMF recommendations, and its economy depends on whether world oil prices go up or down? If Russia’s population declines by about 750,000 annually, does that fit the content of the term “survival”? If “only just” 50% of Russia’s population subsist on just US$1 per day, is that any kind of prosperity or survival? And so on, and so forth.

It turns out that everything is not as simple as may seem on first sight. It is no accident that the best theorists and thinkers continue debating this topic. These debates tend to produce new problems rather than truth, but nonetheless the understanding of the category of national interests has evolved somewhat, becoming deeper.

A brief history of national interests’ definitions in foreign policy

The category of national interests can be examined from different positions, for example, the philosophical perspective. We are interested in its foreign policy aspect, and this aspect of the topic first came under discussion in the early 20th century. The famous Admiral Mahan gave a definition that is militarily precise. It is well known that he championed the idea of building, expanding and strengthening a superior Navy - not only for defence of U.S. territory, but also for "defence of our just national interests, whatever they be and wherever they are."[1] Mahan included among those interests the defence of national territory, the extension of maritime commerce, acquisition of territorial positions that would contribute to command of the seas, maintenance of the Monroe Doctrine, hegemony in the Caribbean, and active promotion of the China trade (ibid.).  This is the classic imperial approach of “defending” national interests. In those times national interests were expressed frankly and bluntly, in keeping with the type of thinking common in that period.

Apparently it was Charles Beard who first introduced “philosophy” into the definition of this category; he dedicated a special book to this topic, titled The Idea of National Interest (New York: Macmillan, 1934). Beard was the first one to note the evolution of the term “national interests” ("dynastic" interests — interests of raison d'ėtat and the variance of his interpretations depending on the type of society).

In the late 1930-s this topic was tackled in the widely known book by E. H. Carr: The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919 – 1939, which gave an impetus to the research work of such scholars as George Kennan, Walter Lippmann and Hans J. Morgenthau. After World War II a lively discussion started about this category; apart from the persons already mentioned, it involved such theorists as Reinhold Niebur, Harold Guetzkow, Arnold Wolfers, Kenneth N. Waltz, Karl W. Deutsch, Johan Galtung, Morton A. Kaplan, James N. Rosenau, and others. [2]

Different scholars build the hierarchy of interests differently. Robert Osgood put in first place "national survival and self-preservation" which he defined in the terms of territorial integrity, political independence and support for fundamental government institutions. John Chase formulated this sequence of interests: (1) to deprive potential aggressors of bases from which they might launch attacks against the United States; (2) to support self-government and democracy abroad; (3) to protect and advance commerce; and (4) to help establish and maintain a favourable world balance of power.[3] As you can see, ideology became important again in the early period of the Cold War, and this aspect of the topic caused a heated discussion: should “values” be included in national interests? And if so, how should they be defined?

Alexander L. George and Robert Keohane gave a very contradictory interpretation of the “national interests” concept. They grouped “interests” in three general blocs: physical survival - by which they meant the survival of people, not necessarily the preservation of territory or sovereignty; liberty - by which they meant the ability of inhabitants of a country to choose their form of government and to exercise a set of individual rights defined by low and protected by state; and economic subsistence - the maximization of economic welfare. It is the first bloc that causes some confusion, for it is not clear how survival of people can be achieved with no territory and without sovereignty. Perhaps the authors had some peculiar organization of society in mind, but either forgot to tell about its structure or decided to keep mum about this subject for some other reason.  As for H. Morgenthau – his innovation was to tie national interests to the category of power and proceed from there to the wider category of “balance of powers.”

Let us now proceed to the criticism of the “national interests” concept offered by Fred A. Sondermann; I will quote his article extensively in this historical overview. Sondermann grouped his criticisms into five blocs. It is worthwhile to list them here, if only for educational purposes:

1. His greatest criticism of the “national interests” concept was this: the formulations of interests offered so far were too general, too vague, too all-inclusive and ultimately non-functional, i.e. not suited for use by politicians. Besides, some attempts undertaken so far to specify terms more precisely led only to greater confusion and complications. For example, as soon as Morgenthau introduced the category “power” into the context of national interests, every theorist “rushed” to try and define what it is (60).

2. The second problem emerged, naturally, in connection with attempts to separate goals from means of achieving them. As Vernon Van Dyke noted: "When we use the language of means and ends, we say that means can themselves be ends and the ends can be means" (ibid.). For example, the already mentioned H. Morgenthau suggested the category of power as a measure that should be applied to national interests, i.e. power was thus turned into a goal of foreign policy. George and Keohane wrote in response that "power is … only one subgoal of national interest, and an instrumental goal at that, rather than a fundamental value in and of itself" (60-61).  In other words, the question was now debated of whether power was a goal or an instrument of foreign policy. 

3. Another problem discussed in connection with the topic was this: whose interests are we talking about? Who is to determine them and how? It is perfectly obvious that answers to these questions require examination of phenomena that have to do with the structure of society, the state, classes and strata. Sondermann believes that the second question at least should be answered in this manner: "accept the definition of the national interest provided by a nation's high officials and policymakers" (62).

I would offer a specification of his recommendation: it doesn’t matter how any concrete person (a scholar or an ordinary citizen) understands the category of national interests. In any event only that concept of national interests will be adopted which suits the interests of the people in power. The degree to which these interests reflect the objective needs of the nation or state depends on the character of the society and the state and on the balance of political powers inside the country. Marx and Engels covered these topics and supplied the answers more than a hundred years ago.

4. The fourth problem has to do with the process of realization of national interests by the top bureaucrats. This topic is debated within the framework of interaction (based on the feedback principle) between the bureaucracy and the general public – a topic that is totally ignored in Russia.

5. The last bloc contains questions about which subjects realize national interests in the international arena: is it the state, or international corporations, or social organizations (i.e. nongovernmental organizations)? This topic became particularly important in the 1990-s.

Telling of all these debates, Sondermann himself raised the issue that is often discussed in theoretic literature: the national interests of one country must correspond to the national interests of other states. He writes: "Given the international context, given the continuing need to conduct foreign policy, to frame goals and to seek to achieve them, three qualities - modesty, restraint, and openness to change - should be cultivated by decision-makers, observers, and citizens alike" (64). In his understanding modesty means that one can know what is best for others - indeed, sometimes what is best for oneself.  His second suggested requirement means restraint in the assertion of one's own interests (personal, organizational, group or national) as against those of others.

Morgenthau earlier wrote this on the subject: "... the national interest of a nation… must be defined in terms compatible with [the interest of other nations]" (64).  George and Keohane, though, hold other views on the concept of national interests. They give a preference to  "self-regarding" while excluding "other-regarding" and "collective" interests. The latter are not excluded in principle, especially "in periods of great danger," but such periods are rare, therefore "to argue a priori that self-regarding interests must always be given priority over other interests is not morally tenable" (ibid.).  Openness can mean two things: (1) a willingness to accept national self-interest as a fact without accepting it is as a norm; (2) a willingness to entertain alternative forms of the national interest and national policy (64-65).  

One cannot but support Sondermann’s position from the perspective of morals and well-meaning wishes, but all the categories he listed are so vague and so open to interpretation that they can hardly serve as the basis for formulating national interests.

In connection with the topic under discussion I wish to draw your attention to the Canadian theorist Kalevi J. Holsti, whose book International Politics is already in its sixth or seventh edition (I have the first and fifth editions on my shelf). [4] While in the first edition (1967) he still paid attention to the concept of national interests, in the fifth edition he moved on directly to foreign policy proper, or, rather, he proceeded to build a hierarchy of goals, clearly defining the fundamental goals, the middle-term and long-term goals. These goals were in turn divided into concrete and abstract ones. This is what his scheme looks like:

The fundamental goals reflect the values that he calls the "core" interests or objectives; they must be protected by any means and at all times. They include security, autonomy and independence of the political unit and its political, social, religious and cultural institutions, as well as the well-being of its citizens (123). On the concrete level this means territorial integrity, national security, territorial unity, economic well-being. On the abstract level it means protection, autonomy and security.

The second level is called middle-range objectives. On the concrete level they include: weakening of opponents; support for allies and friends; development of economic opportunities abroad; regional dominance and expansion; creation and support of international institutions. In the abstract form they amount to acquisition of prestige and spreading of values abroad (human rights, socialism, etc.). In his graph Holsti uses a different word for this level: goals.

The long-range goals can be characterized as “aspirations”; their achievement doesn’t require all of the state’s resources. Unlike the “core” goals, these are selective; that is, choice is the issue here, not necessity. But a state that decides to work toward long-range goals usually makes radical demands on all the other subjects of the system, thus provoking instability. One example of such a goal on the concrete level is the building of “a new world order”; on the abstract level this would translate into world order, international peace and security (124).

I have no intention of examining in detail the interpretations of each level of goals, especially since I seem to remember that in the latest editions Holsti himself has reinterpreted them in the spirit of post-Cold-War paradigms. The important thing here is that Holsti drafted a structure of goals. The reader may remember that goals also appear in a structured form in the official doctrines of the USA.

I also want you to note that when American theorists analyse national interests, they tie them in clearly with foreign policy. Otherwise the doctrine or concept of national interests would turn into a treatise on all of the society’s problems, i.e. discourse and recommendations about absolutely everything - in the spirit of the Soviet documents titled “The Immediate Objectives of the Party and the Government.”

To complete this brief overview of the “national interests” concept, I want to give the floor to E. Pozdnyakov, one of the few Russian theorists who know Western literature well but stick to their own views on every aspect of the theory of foreign policy and international relations (and on other things as well).

Pozdnyakov’s understanding of the “national interests” concept coincides on many points with my views on this subject. The strange thing is that he clearly hadn’t read my works on this topic published in 1986 and 1989 (it follows from the absence of any references to them in his works), while I haven’t read his works of 1991 and 1994 prior to writing this chapter. The only explanation I can find is that we both used the same methodology to define the categories of needs and interests. Anyhow, Pozdnyakov sees interests “as the expression and realization of objective needs and thus as the general motivation of a human being’s activities.”[5] Only afterwards do interests acquire the form of concrete goals. Pozdnyakov also maintains that interests are subjective in essence, since they are formulated by people (59).           

Many years ago I described these mutual ties in this fashion: “What we call the forming of foreign policy is one of the phases of the foreign policy process that takes place within the framework of the national system under the influence of such internal and external factors that produce in the system (state) an objective need to enter into mutual relations with the outside world. … However, in order that these objective needs caused by the country’s economic development may be realized in their interaction, they must pass the stage of subjectivization, i.e. be realized by the social powers in the state – in other words, to acquire the form of interests. That is why interest is a subjective form of expressing the society’s objective needs. But interest as such is not embodied in politics. Politics begins when interest is transformed into a goal. What interest and goal have in common is that both reflect the society’s objective need; the difference is that the former is realized and the latter implies subjective activity through the state’s institutional mechanisms. Therefore goal means interest in action. It follows that foreign policy has the quality of being the law determining the state’s character of activity and way of action in the world arena. But at this stage an external goal is just an idea about the necessity to act. Such ideas are usually embodied in foreign policy programs as concepts and doctrines. In the process of their formulation particular importance is accorded to the role and place of own state in the world, and to assessment of the ways this state and its policies are perceived by the international milieu.” [6]  

Our differences start with the answer to the question: can “subjective interests” be true? Here is Pozdnyakov’s answer: “Some sociologists and political scientists believe that an interest is objective only when it is true, and if it is false and belies the subject’s true needs, it ceases to be objective. One could agree with this statement if there existed some absolute criterion for determining an interest’s truth or falseness that this or that subject follows in its activities. But there is no such criterion, it cannot exist in principle, and a subject proceeds in his activities from interests as he understands them at any given moment in time. It is these interests that are true in his mind” (59).

This answer rejects in principle the cognoscibility of phenomena - seemingly on account of the cognising person’s subjectivity. In this case Pozdnyakov betrays Hegel in favour of Kant, and together with Hegel he betrays all objective laws ever learned by man – laws that prove their truth in practice. In actual fact there is a criterion of truth – it is practice, however banal that may sound.

If the realization of interest-reflecting goals (no matter when they formulated by the state) results in failure or in damage to the state’s interests, it means that not interests as such (as a category of philosophy or political science) are false, but their formulations are false, made as they are by people incapable of understanding the country’s true interests. True interests are called to strengthen the state when realized through foreign policy; false interests weaken or destroy the state. This thesis is confirmed by the example of Afghanistan that is supplied by Pozdnyakov. The invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops in 1979 did not serve the objective interests of the USSR; it actually helped destroy the USSR, or, rather, it proved to be the initial shock in the process of the superpower’s collapse. Many interests of the Soviet Union proved to be false as they were formulated by the Brezhnev regime leaders who were incompetent in all respects. As a result, the Soviet Union made its exit from the world arena. Russia’s current interests are formulated equally false (see Part Two). The results will not be long in coming.

Meanwhile those interests that stem from the state’s real needs and are connected to real possibilities for their implementation are as a rule realizable, and therefore true. Such variants are encountered all the time in the politics of many countries. So the criterion of truth exists; the problem lies in the people who formulate the interests, or, rather, in the competence level of those who formulate and implement interests and goals. This is precisely why American theorists discuss so energetically the third and fourth blocs of problems as formulated by Sondermann.

As for foreign policy interests, Pozdnyakov defines them in the same spirit as Americans, and this is quite natural, since the different-levels interests they define are objective for all states.

Turning his attention toward Russia, Pozdnyakov pronounces himself justifiably against setting Russia in opposition to Asia and to the West, and also against forcing Europe (European civilization) on Russia (95-96). He writes: “Russia has its own destiny, determined by the whole course of its formation as a historical individuality” (99). A little later he says: “if Russia wants to preserve its great future, it must remain Russia. It has no need to set for itself the goal of becoming Europe or joining it. This goal is just as absurd and unreal as if it decided to join China, India or Japan. Russia is not Europe, not Asia and not even Eurasia; it is simply Russia” (102).

I like these words a lot, because I once wrote pretty much the same words before I read Pozdnyakov: “So where is Russia located? Not in Europe or in Asia – I’m convinced of that. Russia is located… in Russia.” [7]

With this I want to end comparisons. But to any student of foreign policy and international relations, I recommend insistently that he read the quoted book by E. Pozdnyakov, as well as his other works. [8] 

And now I will touch on the problem of interrelations between national interests and national security.

National interests and national security

When formulating the category of national interests, all theorists included in it the category of national security, according a decisive importance to the latter; and so it happened that subsequently these two categories kind of merged. As Arnold Wolfers points out, "The trouble with the contention of fact, however, is that the term 'security' covers a range of goals so wide that highly divergent politics can be interpreted as policies of security."[9] In order to “divorce” these categories, an additional category had to be introduced – “values” or “core values,” words that were used rather actively by Walter Lippmann. As he was introducing this category, Wolfers suggested this variant of interconnections: "Security is a value, then, of which a nation can have more or less and which it can aspire to have in greater or less measure. It has much in common, in this respect, with power or wealth, two other values of great importance in international affairs. But while wealth measures the amount of a nation's material possessions, and power its ability to control the actions of others, security, in an objective sense, measures the absence of threats to acquired values, in a subjective sense, the absence of fear that such values will be attacked. In both respects a nation's security can run a wide gamut from almost complete insecurity or sense insecurity at one pole, to almost complete security or absence of fear at the other..." (ibid.). The problem, in Wolfers’ opinion, is that the same phenomena are perceived differently not only within one state, but also by other states; this “discovery” was actually made by ancient Greeks and illustrated brilliantly in Plato’s Dialogues. In this concrete case Wolfers became fixated on the category of security and failed to show how it is different from national interests. His reasoning creates the impression that these two are the same thing. The confusion continues to this day.

In order to escape this vicious circle, I offer my interpretation of interconnections between the analysed categories.

Methodologically the scheme of designing a National Security Concept must be built, firstly, on the formulation of a national interests concept; secondly, on the designation of actual and potential threats to national interests; only after that a policy is formulated for preventing or neutralizing the threats, i.e. the national security policy.

In order to understand the functional roles of national interests and national security, one must know the whole chain of the foreign policy process; briefly, it looks like this:

There are two conditions that comprise a state’s objective need. Firstly, like any system, it is objectively attuned to self-preservation, i.e. preservation of its integrity; secondly, it needs to preserve this integrity as long as possible. For a number of reasons these needs are realized – among other things – through interaction with the external environment, or, to put it simply, in interaction with other states or international subjects. But this interaction itself requires realization of its necessity, and therefore the process is subjective. Its result is expressed in the form of interest. In the language of philosophy this would be called the process of subjectivization of the society’s objective needs. To put it a bit simpler, a state’s interest is the subjective form of expressing the society’s objective needs; these are expressed in cumulative form through the interests of the state, i.e. they are essentially state interests.

Obviously, these interests are divided into internal and external ones. Among the former, the most important ones are stability and development – two contradictory phenomena; the balance thereof makes the state-system stable, i.e. integral. I will subsequently discuss only external interests, leaving the internal ones alone, particularly since in principle they manifest themselves practically identically, only in different political-economic spaces.

The external environment is extremely non-homogenous, therefore the state’s interests with regard to each subject will differ in content. Still, in interaction with any actor the fundamental interests stay the same; these include for all states in all times: 1) territorial integrity, 2) independence, or political sovereignty; 3) preservation of the dominating system, i.e. the political-economic regime; 4) economic development and prosperity, which depends to a large degree on interaction with the external environment.

Also included in the fundamental interests must be the country’s national-cultural originality – a phenomenon designated in the West by the term “identity.” Some Russian scholars have embraced this term in the form of the word “identichnost” – say, that of a nation – though the word identichnost’ actually has a different meaning in the Russian language (more like “similarity”). One should keep in mind that Americans group the two interests mentioned last under the term “values,” i.e. they understand capitalist values to mean markets and democracy, and identity to mean the American way of life.

Apart from the fundamental interests and values, there also exist strategic and tactical interests. These interests are dynamic, changing, constantly corrected depending on the current international situation. Ultimately their realization is intended to expand, enlarge, enhance the scope of fundamental interests. This can mean, for example, expanding own territory at the expense of other subjects’ territories, acquiring control over the sovereignty of other subjects of world politics, imposing on others own system of governance and own values – all of this ultimately for the sake of own fundamental interests.

But this is all in theory, since interest as such is not embodied in politics. Let me repeat what was said above: politics starts when interest is transformed into a goal. What interest and goal have in common is that both reflect the society’s objective needs; the difference is that the former is realized, while the latter presupposes subjective activity through the society’s or state’s institutional mechanisms. Thus a goal is interest in action. Therefore an external goal functions as a law that determines the subject’s character of activity and ways of action in the world arena. In other words, a goal is embodied in the category “activity” which in turn is described by the string of terms “action,” “influence,” “interaction,” “volume of relations” and the somewhat stand-apart category “intensity.” The totality of phenomena manifested through the category “activity” is called foreign policy. In essence foreign policy is the state’s conscious activity directed toward achieving external goals in accordance with the country’s national interests.

It is necessary to stress that transnational and international companies and banks, as well as any important actors in the society, such as political parties, also have foreign policies of their own with effects on the international environment sometimes greater than those of the country’s official policy, but their activities have nothing to do with national interests. They have their own interests that are rather international, and often at odds with the interests of their own countries.

 Realization of foreign policy requires a corresponding foreign policy apparatus (FPA) that usually consists of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Trade, etc. Though functionally each of these institutions is responsible for just one direction of foreign policy, in practice they often complement each other (and sometimes interfere with each other). Their main function, though, is to implement policy, including security policy. The ultimate goal of the latter is, at the minimum, the protection of fundamental interests and values; at the maximum, the unlimited expansion of their scope. Security policy in turn is divided into many different security policies corresponding to different functional directions and different perceived “threats”: military security, economic, technological, ecological, informational, cultural and other security.

One should keep in mind that all these categories are interconnected with another string of categories which includes foreign policy. It includes the might of a state, its weight, which is tied to the category of prestige, and foreign policy itself is connected to the categories of the state’s role and power. Through this string of categories the relationship is determined in practice between the state’s economic potential and its ability to realize external goals. The analysis of all these relations invokes in turn the category of perception that spawned its own direction in theory called perception theory. It is at this level that doctrines or concepts of foreign policy are formulated, including national interests and security concepts.

One should keep in mind the difference between doctrine and concept: the former is theory-and-propaganda support for state policy, the latter is the aggregate of views and recommendations as to which policy is most expedient for the state at this or that moment in history. History knows the Monroe, Truman, Ford doctrines, but there were no such things as a Morgenthau or a Deutsch doctrine. The latter two had offered concepts and theories of national interests and security.

This excursion into theory was needed primarily to “divorce” the category of national interests from security policy. These categories reflect different functions of the foreign policy process which is divided into two phases: the phase of forming and formulating foreign policy, and the phase of implementing it in the system of international relations. The category of interest belongs to the first phase, the category of security – to the second one.

Thus interest is a category of politics that reflects the realization (subjectivization) of the state’s objective needs. The foreign policy interests, i.e. national interests directed outward, are the expression of the state’s general and particular needs that stem from its social-political nature and also from its place and role in the system of international relations.

Security (national) is a category of politics that means the ways, means and forms of ensuring the state’s national interests both inside the country and in the system of international relations.

Security (international) is a category reflecting that state of international relations which ensures the fundamental national interests of all subjects of world politics.     

It is necessary to note the difference between national and international security. National security is a policy, while international security is a state of affairs.

The answer to the question of which state of international security is preferable to this or that country depends on its understanding of own national interests. Since these interests usually differ substantially between different powers, they are the internal sources of “danger,” i.e. tensions, conflicts and wars in the world arena. This is why the formulation of the concept of national interests and the identification of threats to these interests must precede the formulation of national security policy.

 Also published in POLIS, 2002, No.4, p. 146-158.

[1] See William C. Olson, David S. McLellan, Fred A. Sondermann, The Theory and Practice of International Relations, sixth ed. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1983),  59.

[2] For more about them and about theorists’ debates in other countries, see E. A. Pozdnyakov, ed., Nazional’nyie interesyi: teoriya i praktika (M.: IMEMO. 1991);  Classics of International Relations. Ed. By John A. Vasquez. (New Jersey: Prentice hall, 1996).

[3] The Theory and Practice of International Relations,  58.

[4] Holsti K.J. International Politics. A Framework for Analysis, 5th edition (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1988).

[5] E.A. Pozdnyakov, Filosofiya politiki v 2-kh chastyakh (M.: Paleya, 1994),  2: 56-57.

[6] R.SH-A. Aliev, Vneshnyaa politika Yaponii v 70-kh – nachale 80-kh godov, 15 – 16;   see also: R. Sh-A Aliev, Ot vneshnei politiki k vsemirnyim otnosheniyam (M.: ION ZK KPSS, 1989), 3-4.

[7] Oleg Arin, Rossiya v strategicheskom kapkane,  69.

[8] Though I disagree with E. Pozdnyakov’s conclusions on a wide range of issues, he deserves to be read since he is probably the only scholar in Russia who works on the conceptual level.

[9] See  Classics of International Relations, 151.