National Interest: Meaning & Components

National Interest is a vague and ambiguous term that carries a meaning per the context in which it is used by the statesmen and policy-makers for justifying the actions of their states. While Morgenthau equated it with “survival—the protection of physical, political and cultural identity against encroachments by other nation-states”, Charles Lerche defined it as the “general, long term and continuing purpose which the state, the nation, and the government all see themselves as serving.” For this article, we can agree with the Brookings Institute which defines it in the following way

“What a nation feels to be necessary to its security and wellbeing … National interest reflects the general and continuing ends for which a nation acts.”

Throughout the history every nation state has been facing multifarious challenges, big or small. Ranging from survival and security to economic growth and global image, these challenges can stem from any source- internal dynamics or external situation or a combination of both. Some of these may be due to its own historical and structural contradictions or just due to global fault lines, threatening its very existence. Timely, appropriate and adequate response to these challenges is the essence of the national interest.

How National Interest is Formulated?

Although its precise definition may differ from country to country and from time to time, the framework for the determination of the national interest of a country essentially consists of four interrelated and interdependent propositions. Each proposition has four objectives and each objective, in turn, may have several goals (SMART goals-specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound). To achieve these objectives and the goals, elected representatives make a comprehensive national policy consisting of various socioeconomic and political policies. Foreign policy is one such component of this national policy.

Once approved, these policies are handed over to the concerned civil servants by the cabinet/ministers in charge of the respective ministries for implementation. Here enter the civil servants who make strategies how best to implement these policies and achieve the goals and objectives laid down in these policies in the most efficient and effective way. Here are the four propositions and the objectives therein of a national interest;

  1. Territorial Integrity and National Sovereignty

The first component of a country’s national interest is to maintain its territorial integrity of country in the sense that in case of any aggression from outside or internal subversion, the country can defend itself. Related to the above is the preservation of its sovereignty in the sense that the state can take all the decisions without being under duress or command of outside forces.

There cannot be two opinions about the overriding importance of maintaining territorial integrity and preserving the national sovereignty in the formulation of national interest of a country. To exist as an independent, sovereign nation state, the country tries to achieve the following four objectives

  1. Amicable settlement of any territorial dispute it has with the neighbouring country particularly if it is so vital that you must fight a war if necessary
  2. Maintaining a well-trained and well equipped defence forces by providing them state of the art training and equipping them with modern weaponry.
  3. Building credible indigenous defence armaments capability to attain self-sufficiency in the production of conventional arms and ammunition and acquiring an effective nuclear, strategic and tactical, capability to compensate it for the lack of adequate strategic depth and comparatively inadequate resources against its adversary.
  4. Cultivating friendly relations with global powers to help it with the requisite diplomatic support in case of external aggression

That is why a country like Pakistan has been cultivating friendly relations with those countries, capable of meeting its defence needs. Joining American-sponsored defence pacts like SEATO and CENTO and concluding Mutual Defence Pact with the USA in the 1950s by Pakistan was precisely for this reason. When USA imposed an embargo on supply of military equipment during 1965 War with India, Pakistan had no option but to court China. At the same time, Pakistan has been maintaining friendly relations with its neighbours and the Muslim countries for diplomatic support in case of external aggression.

  • Well being of its Citizens

The second component of the national interest of a country is the well being of its citizens by ensuring that the country has the necessary wherewithal to improve the quality of life of the common citizens by meeting their basic needs at affordable cost. This, in turn, is dependent upon a country growing at a rate commensurate with its survival and growth needs.  A state which cannot meet the basic needs of the people loses its legitimacy, resulting in existential threat for the country itself. History is replete with instances of states breaking due to economic shortfalls. After all, one of the main reasons for the breakup of former USSR was its inability to provide its citizens with the basic goods of daily use. For this purpose, a state tries to achieve the following four objectives

  1. Achieving a sustainable and inclusive growth whose gains are distributed equitably among all the regions of the country and all the sections of the society.
  2. Access to foreign markets not only to ensure un-interrupted supply of essential resources including technology but also to sell its exportable surplus at competitive rates
  3. Attracting Foreign Direct Investment to develop its human and natural resources, modernization of its economy and upscaling its technology base.
  4. Obtaining foreign economic assistance from bilateral or multilateral sources to bridge the resource gap
  • Maintaining Internal Cohesion and Harmony

Third component of the national interest of a country is to maintain its internal cohesion and harmony. With few exceptions, all modern nation states are multi ethnic entities in which the different communities compete for the scarce resources. This is a healthy competition if it remains confined within the constitutional limits. However, if some groups cross those boundaries, it may weaken the very foundations of the state and create existential threat for the country. Thus the national interest of the country lies in containing that unrest and instead improve their cohesion.

All the post-colonial states which got their independence after the WW2, were not new societies; in fact they were proud inheritors of thousands of years of glorious traditions. However, with few exceptions, all these were newly carved out carved out nation-states, containing major and minor nationalities. No doubt, all these nationalities had successfully launched a movement for the creation of an independent nation-state of their own but were a far cry from calling itself a one nation. Thus, the biggest challenge for these states has been to build a nation with a vision of common destiny out of multitude of culturally distinct nationalities having years of rich heritage, languages and culture into a nation which is at peace within and peace without. For this purpose, it has four objectives;

  1. Formulating a shared vision of a just and prosperous country enshrined in a duly formulated with consensus and formally approved constitution
  2. Ensuring that this shared vision is implemented by well-functioning vibrant institutions to create stakes for everyone to feel satisfied in a united nation-state.
  3. Mainstreaming the marginalized sections and disgruntled elements of society by ensuring good governance at different levels of interaction and taking affirmative action on selective basis where needed
  4. Strengthening the democratic process by promoting true political culture (of tolerance and accommodation), strengthening its democratic structures (of parliaments, election commissions,) and letting the various democratic processes (of holding elections at federal, provincial and local levels) continue uninterruptedly
  • Regional Peace and Stability

Lastly, the fourth essential component of the national interest of a country is the preservation of regional peace and stability in the region where it is located or have vital interests. No country howsoever powerful may be, can live in peace and enjoy prosperity if there is turmoil just outside its borders. Civil war in a neighbouring country not only results in the influx of refugees with attendant consequences, it may also result in internal turmoil if a section of the population starts taking part in that external conflict, crises or war based on ethnic affinity or religious feelings. While reserving its right to defend its territorial integrity and national sovereignty, every peace-loving nation-state, acting responsibly in global and regional affairs, believes in peaceful coexistence. Consequently, regional peace is the cornerstone of the national interest of every state for which it has four objectives;

  1. Maintaining friendly relations with all the bordering countries in the true spirit of non-interference and mutual respect and amicable settlement of outstanding disputes.
  2. Establishing the writ of the state in the nook and corner of the country so that there are no safe havens of terrorists within the country which could create trouble inside or outside
  3. Striving for the establishment of a regional broad-based framework of counter-terrorism to obviate the possibility of its spill over into your country
  4. Promotion of regional cooperation, development and trade to reap the benefits of economies of scale and comparative advantage of natural endowments

From the above discussion, you would realise how important it is to have a comprehensive set of national policies for safeguarding the national interest. These policies to be effective should not only be individually internally consistent but should also be externally consistent in the sense that no two policies should conflict with each other. Every policy must be a part of a comprehensive whole creating what is called a synergetic effect.

While formulating these policies is the prerogative of the elected representatives of the country, you as an obedient civil servant of the state can contribute in this national cause in two distinct ways.

Firstly, you will help the minister/prime minister in formulating the policies because of your knowledge and skills and being a repository of the country’s institutional memory. Governments change, ministers come and go and are replaced by new set of ministers but bureaucracy as an institution provides that continuity so essential for making policies of a country.

Secondly, once these policies have been approved by the competent authority, you are responsible for their faithful execution. Here you can show your excellence and competence by preparing practical set of strategies which are technically feasible and practically implementable in the most cost-effective ways within the time limits imposed.

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