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Why Are National Interests Necessary?
Why Are National Interests Necessary?
As a manifestation of
International relations are concerned with national interests and how they evolve. Some researchers insist that there are obligatory and unchangeable interests expressed in terms of power or prosperity. Others suggest reconstructing national interests depending on how a country acts in a particular situation. Still others hold that national interests are relatively stable, but can vary considerably due to external factors, such as emerging or disappearing norms, institutions, or circumstances.
Assuming that evolution actually takes place, one could legitimately wonder
how national interests are stated and for what purpose. We are interested
A country’s current interests are stated explicitly in both
official doctrines and unofficial publications. The opinion of leading
experts is normally taken into account when such decisions are made.
In the majority of leading countries, the government adopts official
documents such as foreign policy or national security doctrines,
concepts, or strategies. Unofficial, yet integral and influential,
doctrinal texts are more difficult to find, but they exist in many
countries. Experts who watch Russian foreign policy pay special attention
to Academician Yevgeny Primakov’s annual speeches at the Mercury
Club. Another example is a report by the
The authors of the report sorted through U.S. national interests to exclude everything that would not result in immediate economic gains to the country or directly affect its security. The restrictive interpretation of «national» interests was offered in contrast to «global» or simply «alien» interests. For example, Rice, Blackwill, and their colleagues criticized the outgoing Clinton administration for what they called indiscriminate interference in crises and conflicts outside the U.S.
Does Russia have to state its national interests in the same way? And who should define those interests and how?
The functions of interests
National interests are a public declaration of a country’s needs and intentions based on an assessment of the current situation. Such a declaration performs several key functions.
Firstly, it establishes a hierarchy of foreign policy
priorities to avoid the ineffective use of resources and
overextension. This was the main purpose of the report prepared
by the Commission on America’s National Interests, which did not
invent anything new, but simply put
Secondly, an official or
Thirdly, national interests ensure both continuity and timely adjustment of key aspects of the policy. It is particularly important that proper definitions contained in official documents prevent the state from turning foreign policy into a continuation of domestic policy. Regardless of how well democratic institutions are developed, in the majority of countries numerous actors with private interests seek to push them to the national level and garner government support. In this respect, national interests are a system of interconnected and logically coherent statements on what can be beneficial for a particular state in a given period of time.
In a harmonious system of national interests, one cannot easily manipulate its parts. In fact, in most cases one or several interests cannot be restated without affecting the others, as those «retouched» for the sake of some immediate goals or influential groups will undoubtedly collide with other national interests. Kommersant international affairs observer Yelena Chernenko has rightfully noted that Russia cannot give up on its commitment to the inviolability of borders and state sovereignty without correcting the underlying doctrinal principles of its foreign policy.
Finally, a country pronounces national interests publicly in order
to be more predictable to the outside world. The state largely
restricts itself by declaring its interests and readiness to pursue
them by all means, while pledging to refrain from actions that would
clearly be at odds with such declarations. Such firmness
in pursing these interests is usually accompanied by attempts
to explain why they do not threaten other countries and can
on the whole be acceptable to them. The declaration
of national interests as a foreign policy instrument can
be effective if there is a balance between
a state’s ambitions and its guarantees to refrain from
Any violation of declared national interests can result in serious external consequences. In fact, how can anyone trust existing or future declarations if the authors themselves ignore them so easily? What would be the price of mistrust? An exorbitantly costly arms race is just one of the most common consequences a major power that has lost the trust of the rest of the world (or its part) in its declared interests or intentions can face.
Some may object: does not the uncertainty created by a «flexible interpretation» of our own doctrines give us additional advantages and does it not give us more room for diplomatic maneuver? True, there must be uncertainty in a publicly presented military doctrine or security strategy. A potential adversary must not know how we are planning to respond to its aggression or threats, and our reaction is meant to come as a surprise. But foreign policy is not defense; it is, above all, a sequence of actions to create favorable conditions for a country so that it can reap benefits through cooperation. But no cooperation can develop if the main intentions of its participants are unclear. Countries whose wellbeing and security depend on cooperation with other countries prefer not to scare their potential partners by the uncertainty of their intentions and openly state their interests. Moreover, similarity of values underlying national interests (commitment to liberal democracy or unlimited state sovereignty) sends an additional signal to countries that share these values. This provides a strong foundation for mutual trust without the need to commit large amounts of money to building a safety net against a surge of animosity from a partner.
National interests and society
The role played by national interests in building a civic nation deserves special mention. A popularly supported declaration of national interests consolidates people, helping them overcome divisions between different ethnic groups, social and economic status, and level of education. A «common cause» usually brings people together. The legitimacy of a government that pursues a national interest policy increases along with popular support for foreign policy expenditures. If necessary, people can even agree to pay a certain price for the sake of important common goals.
The uniting power of declaring national interests should not be overestimated, though, because different socially active groups and political forces can assess them very differently. Clear public gains (preferably financial) from the consistent implementation of the declared foreign policy principles are a sufficient condition for such consolidation.
At the same time, officials who convey national interests should not rely entirely on public opinion. Professional skills are required that go beyond a layman’s concept of «common sense» and a deeper understanding of the international situation than one can get from the press or television news to determine threats to a country and its future possibilities. As Larissa Pautova has noted in this journal before, «geopolitics lies beyond the average Russian’s everyday life." Those who chart the country’s foreign policy course are forced to take into account public sentiment. But populist opinion surveys are not enough to define national interests.
Nor can this task be entrusted to a narrow circle of top
state functionaries whose contacts with small influential groups are hard
to trace. Any «elite» that ventures «to take upon itself» the task
of working out a concept of national interests will most likely
be unable to consolidate plentiful private interests into several
common ones. At best, this «elite» will become hostage to several
groups of interests such as the
In foreign policy private interests rarely come together into one resultant vector that society will support. On the contrary, by competing for a say in foreign policy, private interests get in each other’s way. Therefore, doctrinal foreign policy documents listing «priority» partner countries and areas of international cooperation cannot reflect national interests in principle and are a result of a chaotic lobbying and bureaucratic process. It is important to say that we do not question a priori the legitimacy of any of these private interests (development of relations with country A, resolution of the conflict with country B, creation of favorable conditions for arms exports to region C, etc.). We only say that none of them can claim the role of national interests for failure to perform their basic functions described above.
It is not so easy to determine sufficient criteria for
classifying certain interests as «national." These can probably include
interests generated by the institutional system that provides for
communication between people and the
A high degree of trust in institutions that have proved their
efficiency is a sign of a mature civic nation,
a community of people with
Such interests can hardly ensure the continuity of foreign policy even
if the international environment remains stable. As Andrei Skriba has
observed, each regime change in countries lacking efficient institutions
that would establish broad dialogue between all actors involved in the
political process, «only redistributed private interests within national
interests, and irresponsibility among the elites sooner or later
manifested itself again." Authorities in any country try to reduce
their accountability to society and avoid responsibility for achieving
declared aims. Only a system of independent civic watchdogs can
ensure such accountability and therefore put some sense into national
interests, such as a declaration
of a country’s
Does this mean a country that fails to meet mature civic nation requirements cannot come up with a productive definition of its national interests? It probably can, but such a definition should contain some restraints in order to avoid a situation where private interests are elevated to the status of national ones. Only society as a whole can be the subject of the national interest and that interest should have the form of the public good.
For example, support for domestic carmakers or weapons manufacturers
can be part of a program proposed by a politician
or party, but such private interests must not claim the status
of national ones. By stating national interests publicly,
we take precautions against attempts by small interest groups
to «privatize» government institutions. Interestingly, the
At the same time, such interests as supporting education reforms
using the best foreign practices, attracting foreign investments into
The development of a national interests concept (at least
in foreign policy) seems to have unquestionable benefits: unjustified
budget expenditures are reduced, people acquire a sense of common
cause, national bureaucracy becomes more disciplined, and foreign policy
ambitions and limitations are communicated to other countries. However,
states often fail to offer a convincing concept of national
interests to its citizens, bureaucracy, and the rest of the world.
The Soviet Union and
Soviet and Russian foreign policy experts have said that attempts to clearly define national interests in the Soviet Union and Russia always proved abortive. This can be seen if one attempts to find an unambiguous declaration of interests (other than overused security and economic development) that could pass for national ones and perform their functions. Why did the Soviet Union, and then Russia, refuse to define national interests? A detailed answer to this question is beyond the scope of this essay. But we can propose several hypotheses for further investigation and discussion.
Firstly, as subjects of international relations, the Soviet Union
and modern Russia never completely determined their borders, not formally
or legally on the world map, but ideologically and
Secondly, the Soviet Union’s foreign policy was a hostage to ideology, but national interests by definition cannot be stated in terms of ideas if the impact of those ideas on the material world cannot be measured precisely. The Soviet experience proved that attempts to realize ideological interests with material means quickly (by historical standards) overburden the system and undermine the legitimacy of the polity, eventually leading to the collapse of the state itself. The need to commit considerable resources to promoting liberal democracy worldwide (as opposed to leadership by example) has been questioned by many U.S. foreign policy specialists, including members of the Commission on America’s National Interests.
Finally, individuals who make foreign policy decisions never want to commit themselves to clearly defined interests in an unstable political situation that often requires foreign policy to be adjusted for internal political imperatives. This phenomenon exists in different forms practically in all countries, including the United States, where members of Congress have been trying lately (and on many previous occasions) to influence the country’s foreign policy in the most radical way, acting beyond their mandates and hoping to shift responsibility for a possible failure to the executive branch.
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