The national interest

Published: October 10, 2011

The writer is distinguished professor of economics at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore

The Resolution of the All Parties Conference (APC) on September 29, gave a pre-eminent position in governance to ‘national interest’. The APC resolution stipulates that “national interests are supreme and shall guide Pakistan’s policy and response to all challenges at all times”. It may be useful to examine the concept of national interest to enable greater clarity in the premise of government decision-making.

In Pakistan’s history, strategic decisions have occasionally been taken by invoking the ‘national interest’. These decisions have often had disastrous consequences — in the form of military takeovers — but sometimes positive ones too. In 1970-71 the military used force against the people of East Pakistan, the majority of Pakistan’s citizens who were demanding their democratic rights: a selective genocide was conducted by the state against its own people, presumably for ‘national interest’. This undermined the moral and political basis of a united Pakistan and led to the emergence of an independent Bangladesh.

Similarly, the decision to nurture armed militant groups in Pakistan to conduct ‘jihad’ against Soviet forces in Afghanistan was taken in the ‘national interest’, which has laid the basis for violent extremism that has lacerated the fabric of society, polity and economy. Finally, the strategy of linking with some Taliban groups while opposing others (during the last decade) was to undermine not only Pakistan’s credibility in the comity of nations but was to erode state sovereignty within its geographic domain. By contrast, one of the few examples of a government decision taken in the ‘national interest’ with a positive effect on the welfare of the people, was the restoration of the judiciary in March 2009, but significantly this was done under popular pressure.

The APC resolution which seeks to establish the basis of reshaping Pakistan’s relationship with western countries and stipulates dialogue with “our own people in the tribal areas”, once again draws upon the concept of the ‘national interest’. However, the proposal of talking to the Taliban may have become problematic after Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, the vice ameer of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s statement on October 3, which set two preconditions for the dialogue: (i) The government should reconsider its relationship with the US, and (ii) Enforce Islamic Sharia in the country. In view of this statement, whether the proposed talks can indeed be held, and if they are, whether they will be in the ‘national interest’ as the APC resolution assumes, remains to be seen.

Two questions arise: (i) Is there an institutionalised process through which the national interest can be defined at a particular historical conjuncture? (ii) Is there a mechanism within the governance structure through which the policy paradigm emanating from an earlier definition of national interest can be reformulated in the light of actual experience?

In mature democracies, national interest at key moments is determined through an institutionalised process of discussion and debate by professionals and politicians. In Pakistan’s case, however, due to the pre-eminent position of the military within Pakistan’s power structure, national security considerations as determined by the military, play a predominant role in defining national interest even during formally democratic regimes.

The weakness of the institutional structure for making policy choices in a complex strategic environment, could produce outcomes which are in fact counter-productive to the welfare of the people and the security of the state. This risk is immensely increased if there is no institutionalised mechanism for changing the policy course in response to obviously adverse consequences of earlier bad decisions. Maintaining links with selected militant groups considered as strategic assets, and the earlier peace deal with the Taliban in Swat, are cases in point. A governance structure that lacks adaptive efficiency, and is unable to change a demonstrably flawed policy paradigm, has a propensity to produce fresh calamities for the people. Thus, the very national interest it seeks to pursue is systematically undermined.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 11th, 2011.

Reader Comments (10)

  • Max
    Oct 11, 2011 - 1:58AM

    Dr. Sahib, You are a very simple person and I admire your simplicity and innocence of your thought. You and I know that the institutions are build from scratch but through concerted efforts of members of society particularly by those who steer the ship. We never did and we never will. It is just not our way of doing things. With all due respect and with great Regrets I have to say that Mr. Jinnah was the first to do so when he ruled the country in the tradition of vice-regality and not in the great tradition of empowerment of people. We cut corners on every turn.
    Keep up the good work, Sir.

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  • Arindom
    Oct 11, 2011 - 3:57AM

    Try telling that to GHQ! Pakistan’s “National Interest” translate to “Army’s Interest”

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  • Cynical
    Oct 11, 2011 - 5:52AM

    @Arindom

    Perhaps you don’t know this, every nation has it’s army, but in Pakistan army has a nation.

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  • vasan
    Oct 11, 2011 - 6:13AM

    Arindom: You stole my worlds. This is the first thought which came to my mind when I read this article.

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  • foruchandan
    Oct 11, 2011 - 6:55AM

    National Interest is in the welfare of people or waging wars against other countries or collaborating with criminals and religious bigots….
    National Interest is in being good to the world not waging terrrorist attacks on all countries with the help of your strategic assets called terrorists…

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  • ayesha
    Oct 11, 2011 - 7:12AM

    It would be against Pakistani people’s interest if war breaks out. It would be against Pakistani army’s interest if peace breaks out. Therein lies the irony.

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  • baldev
    Oct 11, 2011 - 11:14AM

    Congratulations Dr Akmal for the thought provoking article. I tend to agree with you & your readers that till the time the army calls the shots, the notion of national interests will remain in the realm of hazziness.

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  • Naveed Alam Khattak
    Oct 11, 2011 - 1:06PM

    This is not the fault of Army this is bcz our politicians are corrupt from top to the bottom. Turkey’s example is in front of us. How their politicians brought their Army under the civilian control. If our politicians change their ways and instead of looting the national wealth, start serving their people. People will be on their back and when people are on ur back then no one can stop you.

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  • anoir
    Oct 11, 2011 - 6:34PM

    If you are vying for the spot of J S Mills of Pakistan this is the wrong forum to publish — and if there is any doubt about what i said above, you can add “dude” to the sentence.Recommend

  • Irshad Khan
    Oct 11, 2011 - 8:06PM

    A very good article. Kindly continue to write on this topic as the list of national interest is very long including brutal murders, mass killings, creating hatred against each other, luxurious livings of rulers and their foreign tours, their shopping, their fabulous dinners and lunches etc. etc. are all in national interest. Separation of Bangladesh was also justified as national interest , by some people. Please go year by year w.e.f beginning and you will find heaps of works done in national interest which brought this country to this pathetic condition. Country is being brought to the stage of a failed state and this will also be called in the national interest. Please continue to write as this is real history of my beloved country. May be, such eye opening and truthful writings can create awareness amongst masses who are being be-fooled since last 63 years and they might come to know the difference between National interest and personal interest.

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