The National Interest

The National Interest

Raison d’état of a country’s goals and ambitions

“If citizens are to support the government which prosecutes it, soldiers are to die for it, and foreign policies are to conform to it, what could be more appropriate than to ask: What is national interest?” (Charles A. Beard, The Idea of National Interest)

The concept of “National Interest” is one of the most important concepts in international relations. The concept encompasses a country’s goals and ambitions whether economic, military or cultural. It is the interest of a nation as a whole held to be an independent entity, separate from the interests of subordinate areas or groups and also of other nations or supranational groups. In the instant write-up, the writer has elaborated on the concept of National Interest while touching on almost all of its important aspects.


In the discourse of politics, the concept of interest is a contested and problematic idea. Though it has a range of meanings, ‘interest’ is a significant example of a word with specialized legal and economic senses which, within a particular social and economic history, has been extended to a very general meaning.

Although its etymology is complex and difficult to trace, it is possible to use the word ‘interest’ in both its objective sense (a general or natural concern, having an objective right, claim or stake in something) and its subjective sense (a general curiosity or having the power to attract curiosity or attention). This is a distinction now preserved in the negatives disinterested (not affected by objective involvement in a matter – impartial) and uninterested (not being attracted to something or having no power to attract – a subjective judgement).

National Interest

According to Hans J. Morgenthau, the idea of the national interest in general resembles the constitution of the United States of America in two points: general welfare and due process clauses. Thus the idea of the national interest has two factors: One is rationally demanded and, therefore, of necessity; the other is changeable and decided by situations. In a world consisting of many competing and opposing nations for power, their survivals are their necessary and minimum requisites. Thus all nations do what they cannot help but do: protect their physical, political and cultural identity against encroachments by other nations.

Evolution of the Concept

It took a long time before a national interest was recognized and became the basic starting point in foreign policy making. During the Renaissance, Niccolò Machiavelli in Italy, Jean Bodin in France, Hugo Grotius in Holland and Thomas Hobbes in England gave prominence to the concept of national interest. They all believed that a state’s political behaviour should be subject to concerns of national interest. Moreover, they elaborated on the rationale for taking the national interest into account in the development of foreign policy. But none of them denied God, or “divine right,” as a factor. They could not completely break away from the idea that a monarch’s power was derived from God. They still believed that individual monarchs represented the nation’s interest and that the monarch was the locus of the most fundamental interest of a country — sovereignty. During the French Enlightenment, Rousseau raised the theory of ‘people’s sovereignty’ in his book “The Social Contract”. This was great progress from the notion that national interests belonged to the individual monarch. Rousseau believed a country was a political body that consisted of all the people and was based upon a social contract. The people were the custodians of sovereignty which was the most fundamental national interest and was based upon the will of the total populace.

Kinds of National Interest

According to Morgenthau, there are six types of National Interest:

1. Primary interest
2. Secondary interest
3. Common interest
4. Conflicting interest
5. Inchoate interest
6. Identical and complementary interest

Methods for Its Promotion

A. Coercive Methods

According to Beard, the coercive measures adopted by the states for the enforcement of national interest broadly fall into two categories:

1. The measure taken within the state which do not infringe directly upon the state against whom they are taken such as acts of non-intercourse; embargoes; boycotts and retaliation, etc.

2. Measures directly operating against the state which are the object of enforcement procedure such as seizure and confiscation of the property of the offending state, suspicion of operation of treaties etc.

B. Alliances

Alliances are generally concluded by two or more nations for the protection and promotion of common interests. The protection of these common interests becomes a legal obligation.

C. Diplomatic Negotiations

Diplomatic negotiations are used to reconcile the divergent interests of the state through process of ‘give and take’.

D. Economic Aid

This method can be used only by an affluent state. Such states provide financial support to the less developed states.

E. Propaganda

According to Frankel, “Propaganda is a systematic attempt to affect the minds; emotions and actions of a given group for a specific public purpose.”

F. Collective Security

The system of collective security which operates on the principle that international peace and security is the common objective to be secured by all the states through collective action against any violation of internal peace and security. It also restricts the national power.

National Interest & Foreign Policy

In the late 19th century, Alfred T. Mahan pointed out that national interest is the first consideration of foreign policy. While making clear the relationship between national interest and foreign policy, he said, “A nation’s self interest is both the legal and the fundamental basis of national policy. It does not need to be dressed up, but when it is exercised, it needs to be properly explained. But as a principle, it does not need any serious explanation to prove its rationality.”

According to Morgenthau:

“Objectives of a foreign policy must be defined in terms of the national interest.”

According to Reynolds:

“Since self-extending heterogeneous values of unlimited range must almost certainly lead to major armed conflict, national interest must require their limitations. National interest cannot, therefore, always in all circumstances be identified with the values of the community; and when to this is added disagreement above the basic general purposes for which human exist. The difficulty of giving any generally applicable empirical content to the notions of national interest becomes apparent.”

A country’s foreign policy consists of self-interest strategies chosen by the state to safeguard its national interests and to achieve its own goals through relations with other countries. The approaches are employed strategically to interact with other countries. For example, the US foreign policy has an aggressive posture towards oil-rich states because her national interest. Contrarily, the Chinese foreign policy is based on soft diplomacy; mutual cooperation and accommodationist behaviour.

Moreover, in recent times, due to the growing level of globalization and transnational activities, states also have to interact with non-state actors. The aforementioned interaction is evaluated and monitored in an attempt to maximize benefits of multilateral international cooperation. Since the national interests are paramount, foreign policies are designed by the government through high-level decision-making processes. National interest accomplishments can occur as a result of peaceful cooperation with other nations or through exploitation.


The concept of raison d’état (reason of State), is an important one in international relations where pursuit of national interest is the foundation of the realist school. National interest is used in both political analyses and political actions. As an analytic tool, it is employed to describe, explain or evaluate the sources or the adequacy of a nation’s foreign policy. As an instrument of political actions, it serves as a means of justifying, denouncing or proposing policies. Both usages, in other words, refer to what is best for a national society.

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