This post considers how the meaning and function of  the term ‘interest’ has come to be used in the context of ‘security’, and how it relates to the other issues involved in the construction of security (fear and honour).

First let’s look at how the idea of a national security ‘interest’ relates to the concept of raison d’état, and how that relation has changed from the sixteenth century through Morgenthau’s classical realism to the contemporary question of whose interests are implied by the term ‘national security’. Next we can clarify how ‘interest’ is at once constitutionally related to, and analytically distinct from ‘identity’ looking at how ‘interest’ functions in the process of securitisation.

Waltz says that since the era of Machiavelli, raison d’état can be understood as the product of a combination of interest and necessity (1979, 117), prompting the question – ‘whose interests?’ Foucault points out that Machiavelli is concerned more with the interest of the ‘prince’ in maintaining his relation of power to his territory or population, than with the preservation of the state itself (2007, 243). He notes that the concept of raison d’état that came into use at the end of the sixteenth century was originally defined as ‘a firm domination over peoples’, and the knowledge of the appropriate means for (in ascending order of importance), the founding expanding and preserving such a dominion (2007, pp. 238).25 This and later definitions of raison d’état had the following characteristics in common: first, exclusive reference to the state itself (as opposed to a natural or divine order); second, an art with practical and knowledge aspects; third, it is essentially conservative or protective, and offers nothing for a process of transformation or even development. Most important, ‘there is no prior, external purpose, or even a purpose subsequent to the state itself’ (ibid, 2007, 257-8).

When we consider how the concept of national interest came to be used in IR and security studies it is worth remembering that raison d’état is concerned exclusively with the destiny of the state, as distinct from any other referent object such as territory, population or even ‘nation’. This has the following implications: first, if the concept of ‘national interest’ assumes not only the existence of a nation, but one sufficiently integrated to envision a stable ‘interest’, the invocation of ‘national interest’ as the basis on which the state constructs ‘national security’ implies the questionable assumption that the state is acting as an agent of the nation. As Kratochwil (1982, 4) points out, ‘national interest’ was required by the emerging European states system to present an outward-looking face of ‘public interest’ (salus publica), which was concerned with domestic challenges. However, the public / state distinction was blurred: ‘by the second half of the nineteenth century there had occurred a remarkable shift in the meaning of the national interest. The term was increasingly interpreted merely as an indication of the preferences of decision makers’ (italics added, Kratochwil, 1982, 5). The effects of globalisation on the sustainability of these assumptions will be a recurring theme in this thesis.

What is this ‘necessity’ to which Waltz refers above? Foucault locates the origin of the ‘praise and glorification’ of ‘this notion of necessity…that is over and above the law’ at the beginning of the seventeenth century (2007, 262-3) and connects necessity and raison d’état with the principle that ‘the state’s salvation must prevail over any other law’. In an observation that illuminates our understanding of whose interests we are talking about, Foucault notes how this principle of necessity is at variance with the pastoral theme of government (the salvation of each is the salvation of all), and led to a concept of government which accepts or even obliges the sacrifice of the few for the salvation of the state. In other words as the state collectivises the security of all members of a community, the necessity of raison d’état signifies the acceptance that the salvation of the state is not only prior in importance to, but can be secured at the expense of the security of its individual constituents. Foucault develops this kind of opposition between state interest and individual interests through Bacon’s essays on the themes of discontent, sedition and revolt (Foucault, 2007, 267-72).

Although the concept of ‘national interest’ we deal with in IR and security studies has come down to us through the post-war ‘realist’ thinking, it has also been influenced by the more recent constructivist school. Regarding the former, Morgenthau’s conception of national interest, as ‘power among other powers’ (Morgenthau, 1985, 165), dominated a generation of IR theory during the Cold War years from the 1950s to the 1970s. This conception of ‘interest’ continued through modified forms of realism that took account of structural and institutional influences (e.g. Waltz, Keohane). However, the constructivist critique of realism argued that states act within a social context, where factors such as norms and identity play an influential role in constituting ‘interest’ (Checkel, 1998, 325-6). This leads us to the second question: is identity the root of interest (Wendt, 1994, 385), or do ‘interests play a mutually constitutive role with identity’ (McSweeney, 1999, 130)?

McSweeney points out that while the distinction between interests and identity is analytically useful, ‘it is not clear how we can make a coherent case for separating the two concepts empirically’ (ibid, 168). While a constructivist like Wendt may argue that ‘identities are the basis of interests’ (Wendt, 1992, 398), this downplays materially constitutive factors. For example, Japan has a national interest in the global supply of oil because that is the fuel on which much of its economy runs. It would require either a very broad, or very elastic definition of ‘identity’ to sustain the argument that Japan’s advanced industrial economy is principally a matter of its identity or that a switch to nuclear or solar power represents a change of identity.

Following the constructivist school’s ‘broadening’ of security beyond the state level, use of the term ‘interest’ is often derivative, i.e. contingent on the objects it relates to, or what recent literature terms ‘referent objects’. To one way of thinking, national interests can be defined as that which is necessary to achieve national objectives, but this just shifts the problem of definition to objectives. This is not incompatible with Wæver’s (1995) theory of ‘securitisation’, which posits that there is potentially no limit to the things that can be termed a security interest. The identification of these referent objects can be seen as an extreme form of politicisation in which the potential range of ‘interests’ is limited only by what the inter-subjective dialogue between security actor and audience will bear (Buzan, et. al., 1998, 34). The ‘referent object’ is rendered a security interest (securitised) through an identifiable process that is uniform across cultures and political systems. The referent object is securitised by the security actor, a member of the elite who has the appropriate level of standing in a social or political system. This security actor asserts that the ‘survival’ of the object is under threat. This language of threat and survival is the basis for legitimising extraordinary measures to protect it. Where securitisation is successful, measures that break or transcend rules and norms are accepted on the Hobbsian basis that the enjoyment of all goods depends first on the good of survival.

However, the way this term ‘interest’ is used in the security discourse reveals that ‘security’ is about more than bare ‘survival’, but can also be stretched to include what could be called ‘preferences’:

For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life. They will be for adding sofas and tables and other furniture; also dainties and perfumes and incense and courtesans and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety. We must go beyond the necessaries of which I was at first speaking…Plato, The Republic (Book II)

Even before Plato imagined his Republic, leaders have promised – in the name of security – to satisfy peoples’ appetites for – if not quite ‘cakes and courtesans’ – then other values lower than the necessaries of survival. Use of the term ‘interest’ in the context of security has become a way of asserting that claims to material or other entitlements – even those not required to defend against an existential threat – should be acknowledged as legitimate (Kratochwil, 1982, 5-6). Commitments to preserving ‘our economic wellbeing’ or cultural referents with material implications (e.g. ‘our way of life’), are common examples of this in the every-day rhetorical envisioning of security objectives. The exact meaning of these ‘interests’ are usually kept vague, or else omitted entirely. While ‘survival’ faces ‘threats’, ‘interests’ are menaced by the less definite ‘risks’ and ‘challenges’ beloved of modern security-speak (Williams (2008) traces this ‘conceptual shift’ back to 1991 when NATO began to focus on the management of ‘security challenges and risks’ as a key organisational task. The 1998 UK Strategic Defence Review noted that ‘stability based on the active management of these risks’ was the challenge at hand (UK Strategic Defence Review, 1998: paras 40 and 54). The 75 references to ‘risk’ and over 60 references to ‘challenge’ in the 60 page 2008 UK National Security Strategy offers a recent example of this. These terms are not always helpful because, as Beck points out, ‘[r]isks only suggest what should not be done, not what should be done. To the extent that risks become the all-embracing background for perceiving the world, the alarm they provoke creates an atmosphere of powerlessness and paralysis’ (Beck, 1999, 141). Assuming paralysis is not the desired effect, why use these terms?

Apart from giving free play to the instrumentalisation of security for other agendas, this vagueness of ‘interests’, ‘risks’ and ‘challenges’ serves to obscure the uncomfortable fact that one community’s security ‘interests’ are usually defined in such a way that they can only be satisfied at the expense of others’ ‘interests’, or in extreme cases their ‘survival’ in the true existential sense. Such contradictions between ‘interest’ and a cultural self- image or desire for a reputation gives a clue to the way these two sets of concerns contend for influence over ‘security’. For instance, the role national identity plays in neoconservative thought supports Campbell’s (1998) idea that the project of security can sometimes be understood as a performance aimed at fixing social coherence:

For neoconservatism, the national interest is not just an analytic concept, nor can it be reduced to a material strategic imperative. Rather it is a symbol and barometer of the health of a political order, and particularly a mark of decadence or vibrancy and virtue in a society. From this vantage point, the inability to formulate a socially compelling vision of the national interest is a mark of degeneration, and liberal modernity yields degradation inside and weakness outside’ (Williams, 2005, 309-10).

The threat of decadence and nihilism need to be countered by virtue (sic). Williams quotes Irving Kristol:

Neoconservatism is not merely patriotic – that goes without saying – but also nationalist. Patriotism springs from a love of the nation’s past; nationalism arises out of hope for the nation’s future, distinctive greatness’ ‘A ‘patriotic’ affection for the political community is not enough. What is required is a commitment to ideals, to the meaning of the nation in a heroic sense capable of mobilizing individuals to virtuous action in the public sphere domestically, and in foreign policy internationally, (Williams 2005, 317).

The ideal of national greatness and its necessity is a key dimension of the neoconservative vision of the American national interest. The national interest of the US is fundamentally related to the history, values and identity of the Republic itself, and ‘every profound foreign policy debate in America’s history’, Robert Kagan (2004) recently declared, ‘has ultimately been a debate about the nation’s identity and has posed for Americans the primal question “Who are we?”’ (Williams, 2005, 318). ‘With order precarious at home and abroad, the neoconservative strategy was the pursuit of a stable, unified society at home through an emphasis on foreign threats as a means “to generate the requisite national allegiance and discipline”’ (Campbell, 1998, 164). This aligns the beliefs that ‘domestic policy was foreign policy, and vice-versa’ (quoted in Ehrman, 1995: 57); or, in Robert Kagan’s more recent formulation, that ‘[t]here can be no clear dividing line between the domestic and the foreign’ (2004) (Williams, 2005, 320). ‘Strong, socially vibrant conceptions of both the public interest and the national interest are essential if a political community is to combat the corrosive acids of modernity. Attitudes toward the national interest are thus as much a concern of domestic political virtue as a dimension of foreign policy. Indeed the two are seen as inseparable’ (p.321).

If the scope of ‘interest’ is often blurred into ‘preference’, its meaning is restricted by the need (though not always called for or answered) to provide a reasoned justification (Kratochwil, 1982, 6). This helps to distinguish ‘interest’ from preferences, but also from the ‘passions’ described in the preceding section ( This too is a legacy of the term’s origins in the early seventeenth century, even if ‘[b]y postulating solely secular interests as the proper domain of the domestic as well as the international arena, the notion of interest gave rise to certain maxims and conventions that clearly lacked the moral persuasiveness of more transcendental visions’. Kratochwil identifies ‘interest’ with the ‘pragmatic’ and ‘secular’ as a guard against the dangers of a ‘transcendental’ visions and projects, exemplified by the ‘savageries’ of the religious wars, but also to the ‘revolutionary adventures’ of Napoleon (1982, 15).

This distinction is also reflected in the view that states, like princes, should not be held to the same moral standards as people (Dougherty and Pfaltzgraff, 2001, 69). Regardless of the extent to which it contradicts the position of statesmen who seek to augment support for their policies with appeals to moral principle (e.g. preaching equality of nations and respect for universal human rights), ‘the national interest’ ultimately transcends such principled considerations, as summed up in the maxim pronounced by the mid-nineteenth century British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston: ‘[w]e have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.’

<full references available on request>

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