What sort of foreign policies would be good for the 320 million people who comprise the United States? If we aren’t going to break up the country, we at least ought to figure out what benefits this group, on net.
Few phrases have been used to obscure so many bad ideas as “the national interest.” Despite that fact, the term is indispensable and ought to make clear what objectives are worth threatening or fighting wars over. “I would kill a man in defense of X, and you should be willing to, too” is another category of policy argument. Or at least it should be.
The origins of the concept of a national interest owe a lot to the creation of the nation-state. Religious and local identities predated the concept, of course, but it was the creation of the state–the ultimate “imagined community”–that brought about the concept of a national interest. The French concept of “raison d’État,” or “reason of State,” attempted to distinguish the State as supreme over other forms of authority, particularly religion. Cardinal Richelieu gave the idea currency during the Thirty Years’ War especially, when Catholic France allied with the Protestant side during the conflict in pursuit of a balance of power.
Thus the purpose of the concept was to rise above other forms of allegiance, and to create a national loyalty which rose above other interests. Use of the term “national interest” has been fraught since its creation.
The worst thing that happens with respect to the term “the national interest” in the contemporary United States is when its invocation by an authority is taken to prove its presence. The national interest is a grubby concept that should be fought over viciously. A lot is at stake.
But if consensus is the most dangerous condition, a large number of hands pulling at the concept has its downsides, too. This concept pervades the Federalist papers, most prominently in the Federalist 10 discussion of faction:
By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
Even here, however, there is an undue romance about the concept of “permanent and aggregate” interests of “the community.” A nation is constantly changing, with the impulses of passion or of interest shifting along with the people who comprise the nation and in our case, even the territory that makes up the nation itself. But Federalist 10 went on to argue–in response to arguments like that of the anti-Federalists–that in fact the larger the nation got, the better things would be when it came to checking special interests. Make the United States bigger, Madison wrote:
and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other
This hyper-pluralist view overlooks the fact that large nations contain a number of narrow interests which have no counterpoise. The nation is so large that special interests can be indulged without great cost relative to its size, and having the use of even a small portion of the great nation’s funds and its administrative apparatus is a prospect that is impossible to resist for such a group.
Given the United States’ size and the number of unchecked special interests, then, it is inevitable that Washington will pursue a number of policies that do little more than serve the desires of a narrow few. When these policies incur great costs that win the attention of a larger number of citizens, the public must be reminded that these costs result from the indulgence of a narrow interest, and that if better attention had been paid earlier, the costs could have been avoided.
The national interest, as the term is used today, is mostly nonsense. Still, the concept is indispensable. We should learn to bound it and debate it better.