National Interest

National interest is the most crucial concept in international relations. It is the key concept in foreign policy as it provides the material based on which foreign policy is made. While formulating foreign policy, all statesmen are guided by their respective national interests. It is the purpose of foreign policy to conduct foreign relations to achieve national interest to the maximum extent. But it is not easy to determine exactly what a nation’s national interest is. This concept is highly vague and difficult to define.

According to Frankel, the ambiguity is caused by the different usage of the concept in different contexts. National interest may explain the aspirations of the state. It can also be utilized operationally in the execution of the actual policies and programs followed. It can be used polemically in political arguments to explain, rationalize, or criticize. Contemporary controversies on foreign policy usually come out of these ambiguities and not only from the different ideas about the substance of the national interest.1

Notwithstanding its vagueness, the notion of national interest is central to any attempt at describing, explaining, predicting, prescribing, and understanding international behavior. From time immemorial, leaders of states justify their actions in the name of the national interest. For example, Coulombs and Wolfe narrate: Alcibiades said he was acting in ancient Athens’ interest when he recommended so fervently that the Athenians launched what turned out to be the disastrous Sicilian expedition during the Peloponnesian War.

Napoleon said he was acting in France’s interest when he initiated the Russian campaign. Later, he mounted a last desperate battle at Waterloo. Adolf Hitler justified his expansionist policies, including a mindless multi-front war, in the name of Germany’s national interest.

Joseph Stalin destroyed or displaced Russian farmers and other anti-Soviet elements by the millions in the name of the Soviet Union interest. 2

Lyndon B. Johnson and George Bush were convinced that America’s interests were at stake in the historical Vietnam War and Gulf War, respectively. Thus national interest is the first step in making a foreign policy and in understanding international politics. Herein lies the significance of defining it.

Meaning And Nature Of National Interest:

Frankel divides the various attempts to define national interest into two broad categories objective and subjective approaches. The first category embraces those approaches that view national interest as a concept that can be defined or examined with some objectively definable criteria. The second category contains those definitions which seek to interpret national interest as a constantly changing pluralistic set of subjective references.3

The definition of national interest relies on the stand taken by a particular person about various pairs of extremes such as ideals versus self-interest, idealists versus realists, short term and long term concerns, and traditional and individual concerns.

The task of defining national interest becomes more cumbersome as the domestic and international activities overlap. It is appropriate if national interest is seen as a synthesis of the objective and subjective approaches. In most nation-states, the iron law of oligarchy is prevalent, implying that governmental decisions are made only by a few men and women.

These decisions are often taken in such a way as to promote the national interest as this notion is perceived and defined by the decision-makers; at best, they are justified by being related to the national interest. A renowned British scholar of international relations, Hugh Section Watson, has recommended that the expression of national interest is a misnomer as governments, not nation-states, make foreign policy.4

The terms “state interest” and “government interest” are, therefore, more appropriate. But the latter terms are not in much usage.

Values and Ends as National Interest:

According to Frankel’s definition, national interest amounts to the total of all the national values.5

He further clarifies, One common Sense definition describes it as the general and continuing ends for which the nation acts. It is thus characterized by its nonspecific nature, by a degree of continuity, and by its connection with political action. 6

Lerche and Said define it as the general, long term, and continuing purpose that the state, the nation, and the government all see themselves serving.7

Dyke defines it as that which states seek to protect or achieve about each other.8

It includes desires on the part of the sovereign state, and these desires differ greatly from state to state and from time to time. Lerche and Said’s definition sounds more logical than Dyke’s. The former’s definition describes national interest in terms of a permanent guide to a state’s action; the latter’s definition regards national interest as the action itself. What a state seeks to protect or achieve and what it desires to have about other states is, Generally Speaking, foreign policy aims.

These aims have two components goals and objectives. A goal is a set in terms of the maximum time span that can be anticipated analytically, whereas an objective is only immediate or short-range

in terms of time. Thus, national interest determines the nature of the long-term and short-term efforts in foreign policy. It is nothing else but applying a generalized value synthesis to the overall international situation in which a state has to make and pursue its foreign policy.

Survival as National Interest:

According to Morgenthau, the concept of national interest is similar in two respects to the great generalities of the (American) Constitution, such as the general welfare and due process. It contains a residual meaning which is inherent in the concept itself. Still, beyond these minimum requirements, content can run the whole gamut of meanings logically compatible with it. That content is determined by the political traditions and the total cultural context within which a nation formulates its foreign policy.9

The residual meaning replied in the concept of national interest is survival. In Morganthau’s Opinion, nation-states’ minimum requirement is to protect their physical, political, and cultural identity against encroachments by other nation-states.

Formulated into more specific objectives, the preservation of physical identity is equated with maintaining the territorial integrity of a nation-state. Preservation of political identity is equated with preserving existing politico-economic regimes, such as democratic competitive, communist, socialist, authoritarian, and totalitarian; preservation of cultural identity is concerned with ethnic, religious, linguistic, and historical norms and traditions in a nation-state.

From these general objectives, argued Morgenthau, a state’s leaders can take specific cooperative and conflict policy decisions, such as competitive armaments, the balance of power, foreign aid, alliances, subversion, and economic and propaganda warfare.

Like Morgenthau, Mahendra Kumar observes: Perhaps the only level at which it can be defined is the level of survival. It is difficult to define national interest either as more or less than survival. Not being a clearly defined quantity, national interest is rather a psychological phenomenon which is subject to drastic changes that may result from internal shifts in power or a change in a nation’s values.10

Function and Purpose of National Interest:

One cannot be more specific in explaining the meaning and content of national interest as both its value roots and the process of its synthesis are peculiar to the history, traditions, and institutional make-up of a country. One can, however, be quite clear about its function. Lerche and Said explain:

As the overriding purpose governing the state’s relationship with the outside world, it serves two purposes. It gives policy a general orientation towards the external environment. More importantly, it serves as the controlling criterion of choice in immediate situations. The dominant view of national interest, in other words, dictates the nature of a state’s long-term effort in foreign policy and governs what it does in a short-term context.11

National interest also adds an element of consistency in a nation’s foreign policy. A country carefully sticking to its national interest in a swiftly changing situation is more likely to maintain its balance and continue to advance towards its goals than it would be if it altered its interest in adapting to each new situation.

Determinants of National Interest:

Several factors of variables, both internal and external, play their role in the formulation of national interest. These determinants are the qualities, personality, and ideals of decision-makers, the interests of the most influential groups within the nations, the types of philosophies of governmental structures and processes, the customs and cultural styles of different societies ideologies of the states, the geopolitical location and the capabilities of various countries, the types of challenges and pressures that each country faces from neighboring countries, great powers and international organizations and finally the general nature of international society prevailing at a given time.

Criteria Of Determining National Interest :

Coulombs and Wolfe have given the following criteria for determining national interest.12

Operational-Philosophy Criteria:

Keeping in view the time, location, and actions of predecessors, one may adopt any of two major operation styles. First, one may function in a bold and sweeping style. On assuming office, introduce major new practices, policies, and institutions and stop previous ones.

This style is known as symptomatic in the decision making literature. Instances of decisions made from a synoptic fashion would be declaring war, capitulating to a foreign ultimatum, instituting a social security system, joining or leaving a regional defense organization like NATO or WTO, nationalizing private property and resources, and redistributing landholdings. The second way of operation is to act in a cautious, probing, and experimental fashion, following the trial and error method.

This style is called incremental. It prefers to make a series of marginal decisions, constantly watching for each decision’s effect upon the environment and constantly taking corrective action to maintain some social equilibrium. Thus, the incrementalist often endeavors to improve existing legislation, policies, institutions, and practices. Examples of incremental decision makings are gradual escalating or de-escalating an ongoing conflict, marginally increasing or decreasing social security benefits, increasing or decreasing the rate of collectivization of agriculture in a socialist country, and, finally, increasing or decreasing programs of economic and military aid to foreign countries.


Most governments follow different kinds of formal or informal ideologies. The day-to-day decisions of policymakers are to be somewhat consistent with these doctrines. For instance, if one country’s ideology is Marxist Leninist, its foreign policies should be so designed that it appears to be friendly to communist governments and leftist revolutionary movements in capitalist countries.

If ideology is liberal democratic, the country should encourage free enterprise, support democratic governments and movements, and oppose totalitarian and authoritarian ones. Finally, if ideology is traditional authoritarian, the country should side with those other countries that support its regime or at least do not oppose it and oppose those unfriendly countries.

Moral and Legal:

Acting morally is regarded as acting honestly and making one’s public decisions accordingly. Thus, moral behavior, particularly in international relations, involves keeping your promises and treaties, being true to one’s friends, living and letting others live, avoiding exploiting others, and generally standing up for the principles to which one is morally committed and that are widely accepted in one’s culture.

Acting legally implies abiding by international law rules to the extent that such rules are identified and accepted. However, it must be pointed out here that although theoretically, it seems easy to urge decision-makers to do good and avoid evil, it is quite complicated in reality to decide what the moral or legal action in a specific situation is.

Pragmatic Pragmatist’s orientation is low-key:

as a matter of fact, unemotional and professional. He dispassionately looks at life and is not bothered about good and evil, ideological compatibility, operational philosophy, or other general principles of action. The pragmatic approach emphasizes solving each problem, much as an engineer solves problems such as building bridges, hospitals, and weapon factories. Its motto is, If it works, it’s good. Pragmatist defends himself when he is attacked, takes advantage of an Opportunity if he has the resources to do so, and makes short-term and even long-term friendships if they are useful.

Utility rather than sentimentality is the watchword of pragmatic criteria. As a pragmatist, one values human life because it is useful to do so, and one obeys laws and moral precepts if doing so helps him improve his external image and sell his politics. On occasion, one may have to lie and even cheat to protect the country’s interest and solve the problems confronting the governmental organization to which one belongs.


One’s actions must frequently be manipulated and adjusted in considerations of one’s professional survival and growth in sum; this is a success. Usually, the trick to success in large bureaucracies is to play the game and not rock the boat. This attitude has been referred to as they go along to get along effect cynically. Bureaucratic behavior is frequently equated with conformist behavior. Even presidents and prime ministers have to conform to public opinion or too powerful elites whose support they consider indispensable for their political survival.

Partisan Here, one equates the survival and success of his political party or faction with his country’s survival and success. The issue is will you support certain policies that you consider beneficial for your country if doing so might cause you and your party to lose an election or be removed from a power position.


Here one equates the interest of one’s organization (the army, the navy, foreign office, an intelligence service, a cabinet, and so forth with the national interest. Owing to limited budgetary resources, battles among security, welfare, education, and economic interests for scarce funds are fiercely waged within all governments. The normal outcome of this bureaucratic infighting is that each agency exaggerates its specific funding requests and argues in the name of the national interest rather than the bureaucratic interest.

Ethnic and Racial:

If one is recruited from an ethnic or racial minority group, he may exaggerate the significance of projects that might benefit that group. Similarly, if one has come from the majority ethnic or racial group, he may try to overestimate that group’s needs and be indifferent to the needs of the minorities.

The Class States If one is recruited from the upper or middle class of his country, he would like to support policies that benefit the class with which he identifies himself. If one has come from the lower (worker and farmer) classes into a Western bureaucracy, he may find himself steadily becoming torn between his loyalty to the class of his origin and his opportunity to become an important upper-middle-class bureaucrat.

Foreign Dependency Criteria:

These criteria often apply to small or medium-sized countries whose governments are highly dependent on foreign protectors to remain in office.  The three countries that span the world’s ideological spectrum and come under this category are Afghanistan, El Salvador, and Chad.

There are so many others also; if one is a decision-maker in one of these governments, he may find that the needs, guidelines, and dictates of the foreign protectors interfere with his assessments of what is in his country’s national interest. By doing so, he may invite the wrath of his protectors and suddenly may be ousted from office.

After the above discussion, one may not support the objectivity of national interest in too. It is evident now that decisions about the national interest are not purely scientific or mathematical formulations that result in clear gains for a nation-state. On the contrary, national interest decisions seem to be the outcome of opposing wills, ambitions, motivations, needs, demands, and factors.

Types Of National Interest:

Robinson has pointed out six types of national interest, which are as follows:13

l. Primary-Interests:

These are also known as core or vital interests. These include preserving the physical, political, and cultural identity of the state against possible encroachments from outside powers.

These interests are primary and vital that the state must constantly defend them at all costs. These interests cannot be compromised.

2. Secondary Interests:

Though less important than the first one, these are quite crucial to the existence of the state. These include the protection of the citizens abroad and ensuring diplomatic immunizes for the diplomatic staff.

3. Permanent Interests:

These pertain to the relatively constant and long term interests of the state. The change in the permanent interest, if any, is rather steady. An example of this kind is provided by Britain’s determination to maintain freedom of navigation during the past few centuries for the protection of her overseas colonies and growing trade.

4. Variable Interests:

These interests are considered vital for national good in a given set of circumstances. In this sense, the variable interest can diverge from both primary and permanent interest. These changeable interests can diverge from both primary and permanent interests. These changeable interests are mainly determined by factors like personalities, public Opinion, sectional interests, partisan polities, political and moral folkways.

5. General Interests:

These refer to those positive conditions that apply to many nations or in several specified fields such as economics, trade, diplomatic intercourse, etc. For instance, Britain’s general national interest was to maintain a balance of power on the European continent.

6. Specific Interests:

Through the logical outgrowth of the general interests, specific interests are defined in time and space. For example, Britain regarded it as a specific national interest to maintain the new countries’ independence for preserving the balance of power in Europe.

Besides the above six types of national interest, Robinson has mentioned three other interests he describes as international interests. These are as follows:

1. Identical Interests:

These refer to interests that are held in common by several states. These are also known as common interests. For example, both the USA and Britain have been interested that any single power should not dominate Europe. Third World countries have a common interest in asking for the New International Economic Order. It must be mentioned here that the area of commonness is always subject to change.

2. Complementary Interests:

Those interests, which though not identical, can form the basis of agreement on some specific issues are called complementary interests. For example, Britain was interested in Portugal’s independence against Spain because it wanted to control the region of the Atlantic Ocean. Likewise, Portugal was interested in the British maritime hegemony because it was a safe defense mechanism against Spain.

3. Conflicting Interests:

Other than the identical and complementary interests fall in the category of conflicting or opposed interests. The conflicting interests are not fixed and undergo a change owing to the force of events and diplomacy. Thus the present time, conflicting interests may become complementary interests. Similarly, complementary and identical interests can also be converted into conflicting interests. With time, each nation’s number of common
and conflicting interests may develop or decline, depending on international relations’ current exigencies.

Instruments And Methods For The Promotion Of National Interest :

Palmer and Perkins well explain instruments and methods for the promotion of national interest. It will be pertinent to rely on their views while dealing with these instruments and methods. These can be briefly explained as follows:

i. Diplomacy:

It consists of the techniques and procedures for conducting relations among states. Diplomacy functions through a network of foreign offices, embassies, legations, consulates, and special missions worldwide. It can be bilateral as well as multilateral in nature. It includes many interests, from the simplest matter of detail in the relations between two states to vital issues of war and peace. When it fails, the war, or at least a major crisis, is inevitable.

Diplomacy is practiced through diplomacy. He is the eyes and ears of his government in other countries. His major functions are to implement the policies of his government in other countries. His major functions are to implement his own country’s policies, protect its interests and nationals, and keep his government informed of major developments in the rest of the world. He is also required to further the best interests of his own country. This may appear to be very selfish, but it is the ultimate guiding principle of diplomacy. This is his responsibility to look after his country’s interests as interpreted by the policymakers back home and following treaties, other international agreements, and principles of international law.

Diplomatic negotiations are employed to reconcile the states’ different interests through the process of mutual give and take. But it must be pointed out here that diplomatic negotiations prove fruitful only if concerned states’ interest is complementary or compatible. On the other hand, negotiations may not be of much success in case of conflicting or opposing interests.

2. Alliances:

Two or more states usually conclude these for the promotion and protection of their common interests. After the alliance’s conclusion, the protection of these common interests becomes a legal obligation that the member states are duty-bound to discharge. These alliances may be concluded for achieving different kinds of national interests, and their nature depends on the type of interest sought to be fulfilled. Thus the character and the tenure of the alliance

will depend on the relative strength of those interests, Robinson  observes: the advantage of  pursuing the national interests through alliances, of course, lies in the translation of inchoate, common or complementary interests into common policy and in bringing the nation’s power directly to bear on questions of national interests.15

3. Propaganda:

In the twentieth century, propaganda has become a major instrument for the promotion of national interest. States have set up permanent agencies for the systematic exploitation of the possibilities of propaganda as an instrument of national policy. At present, no state can easily overlook these possibilities. In the most general terms, any attempt to persuade persons to accept a certain point of view or take a certain action is propaganda. Its meaning becomes clear when one sees its relationship to education.

Lasswell says Propaganda is manipulating symbols to control controversial attitudes education is the manipulation of symbols (and of other means) to transmit accepted attitudes (and skills).16

From the point of view of international relations, propaganda is condensed to mean merely organized governments’ efforts to induce either domestic groups or foreign states to accept policies favorable or at least not unfavorable to their own.17

In the post-Second World War period, it became a major component of the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States, both in direct relations and in competitive policies toward the Third World’s emerging nations. It has been a chief characteristic of Sim Soviet rivalry. This instrument has been utilized in hot and cold wars such as in Korea, in Vietnam, in Arab Israel, in the Gulf, in Indo Pak, etc.

4.Psychological and Political Warfare:

Eisenhower associated psychological warfare with the struggle for the minds of men. Linebarger defined psychological warfare in the broad sense as the application of parts of the science of psychology to further the efforts of political, economic, or military action and in the narrow sense as the use of propaganda against an enemy, together with such other operational measures of military, economic, or political nature as may be required to supplement propaganda.18

Political warfare includes the means short of war that a state takes to weaken a particular enemy or enemies. The persuasion of friendly diplomacy is not political warfare; neither is propaganda that does not seek to impair or limit another state’s freedom of action. On the other hand, diplomacy or propaganda, which intends to coerce, must be regarded as political warfare. Economic measures must be so characterized when they are aimed at a particular state. Thus a given act may or may not be political warfare.

The distinction lies in its purpose. An embargo conceived solely to conserve domestic resources of a commodity is quite different from an embargo imposed to deprive an unfriendly state of essential imports, even though both may apply to exports to all states.19

5. Economic Methods:

States deliberately follow certain policies in pursuit of their national interests. A state may pursue economic policies to enhance its domestic welfare without harming another state. But a state may also pursue economic policies clearly aiming at harming another state. Since every state is dependent on other states, it is, to some extent, amenable to pressures from other states. Likewise, it may also be able to pressurize other states. Whenever economic policies are designed to achieve national interests, whether or not they intended to harm other states they are economic instruments of national policy.

Economic methods are regularly employed to fulfill national interests both in peace and war. In peaceful times all countries have objectives that must be accomplished whenever possible, such as raising the standard of living, encouraging foreign sales, expanding employment, conserving natural resources, advancing technology, and improving health and hygiene.

A state may also utilize economic means during the war. It may want to conserve certain goods and stockpile others, or it may try to set at naught the war preparations of the threatening state. Finally, the war itself may convert a situation short of war into a fight that requires all state resources to mobilize to build more economical and military power. The state may be adept at the most drastic economic controls to harness its own resources and upset the war-making efforts of the enemy.

6. Imperialism and Colonialism:

These have long been used as instruments for the promotion of national policy. From the sixteenth century till the middle of the twentieth-century European nations used imperialism and colonialism to further their national interests. After the Second World War, most of the Western world and part of the Eastern were threatened by Communist imperialism, the Communists were also inveighing against Western imperialism, and vast areas of Asia, Africa, and Latin America are charging most of their difficulties and problems to the colonialism of the congregate colonial powers.

It will be wrong to presume that imperialism and colonialism are dead. As a matter of fact, their entry through the back door in Noe colonialism has made an appearance in many parts of the world.

7. Coercive Methods and War:

The state can take certain coercive measures on its own territory to advance its national interests, which ultimately work against the enemy state. These include actions like seizure and confiscation of the property of the rival state or its subjects by way of compensation in value for the wrong, suspension of operation of treaties, the embargo of a ship belonging to the offending states lying within its parts, seizure of ships at sea, etc. All these methods are prima facie acts of war, and the state against whom they are directed has to determine whether it wants to give the developments the shape of war or not. In the extreme form, these methods can take the shape of bombardment, military operations, and military occupation.

No matter how severely men may criticize the war, it will survive as long as the rulers of humanity cannot agree on an acceptable alternative to it. The reality is that, as Eagleton observed, war is a method of achieving purposes.20

Many people hate war and strongly suggest that war never pays. On the contrary, many believe that war often pays and that it has paid not only for bad men with the wrong intention but often for good men with good purposes. For that matter, it persists as an instrument for the promotion of national interest. However, this instrument is mostly used as a last resort when all other methods prove ineffective.


1. Joseph Frankel, International Relations in a Changing World (Oxford. 1979), p. 85.

2. Theodore A. Coulombs and James H. Wolfe. Introduction to International Relations: Power and justice (New Delhi, 1986, 3rdedn.) p. 106.

3. Joseph Frankel, National Interest (London, 1970), pp. 16-17.

4. Hugh Seton Watson, The Impact of Ideology, in The Aberystwyth Papers: International Politics, 1919-1969, ed. Brian Ernest Porter (London, 1972), p. 209.

5. Supra n.1, p. 85.

6. Ibid.

7. Charles o. Lerche, Jr, and Abdul A. Said, Concepts of International Politics (New Delhi, 1972, 2nd ed.), p. 25.

8. See Vernon Van Dyke, International Politics (New York, 1957).

9. Hans J.Morgenthau, Dilemmas of Politics (University Of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 65.

10. Mahendra Kumar, Theoretical Aspects of International Politics (Agra, 1972, 2nd ed.), p. 242.

11. Supra n. 7, p. 26.

12. Supra n. 2., pp. 118-122.

13. Thomas W. Robinson, National Interest,  in James N. Rosenau, ed. International Politics and Foreign Policy (New York, 1961), pp. 184-85.

14. Norman D. Palmer and Howard C. Perkins, International Relations he World Community in Transition (Calcutta, 1970,  Indian reprint of 3rd in.), pp. 83-208.
15. Supra n. 13, p. 187.

16.Harold D. Lasswell and Dorothy Blumenstock, World Revolutionary Propaganda (New York, 1939), p. 10.

17.Palmer & Perkins, n. 14, p. 110.

18.Paul Linebarger, Psychological Warfare (Washington, DC, 19:34, 2nd edn) p. 40.

19.Palmer & Perkins, n. 14, p. 125.

20.Clyde Eagleton, Analysis of the Problem of War (New York 1937) p.5.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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