What is ‘national interest’?

Published: November 5, 2011
The writer is Director at the South Asian Media School in Lahore 

The writer is Director at the South Asian Media School in Lahore khaled.ahmed@tribune.com.pk

We are in trouble because we think our national interest in Afghanistan demands that we have some kind of leverage over it. We tend to protest fear but, on past conduct, we may be spreading it.

National interest, presumably derived from consensus, can be pursued domestically; but in foreign policy it becomes greatly conditioned by the relative power enjoyed by the state vis-à-vis other states.

A most difficult juncture is reached when people start disagreeing with foreign policy and expect power projection out of proportion with the power of the state.

Because the army was always dominant, a kind of ‘consensual national interest’ has become frozen over the national security state, which means challenge to India and things needed for it, like the nuclear programme.

Is Kashmir an object of national interest? On ground, it has faded away but in abstraction it is there as a device to derail discussion over more practical issues. Is it like Argentina’s Falkland Islands and India’s Aksai Chin? Argentina acted like Pakistan and suffered; India front-loaded trade with China.

Political scientists call national interest a ‘pseudo-theory’. French political scientist Raymond Aron says, “It is a formula vague to the point of being meaningless or a pseudo-theory”.

Power rather than any morality motivates foreign policy. If a state is strong it will be sovereign. It will also have two qualities that will make it a de facto ‘big power’: ability to resist coercion and ability to coerce other states. National interest lies in achieving either of the two conditions.

What should be the national interest of weak states? Contrary to what the nation thinks, it should be: 1) Not be harmed by the power projection of states it cannot oppose or resist; 2) To seek alliances that may break the isolation enabling the enemy-state to successfully harm it; 3) To attain the ability to achieve internal reform in order to avoid foreign pressure of all sorts; 4) To avoid international isolation to prevent other states from getting together within the United Nations to use international law to harm it.

It is pragmatism in the conduct of the state that comes close to providing a theoretical basis for the understanding of the conduct of a weak state.

Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore is the philosopher of the new ‘national interest’ theory which is related to the national economy. The states in most of South East Asia and the Far East seem to conduct themselves ‘pragmatically’ in the realm of foreign policy.

The world demands introversion from Pakistan because its guts are contaminated with terrorism. Pakistan tends to externalise its troubles. What it achieves is isolation.

Should the common man be the one to decide ‘national interest’? What he thinks comes from the indoctrination of the state. Indoctrination is not geared to the relative power enjoyed by the state vis-à-vis other states but to its own textbook greatness in the abstract.

National interest should not be mixed up with nationalism, which is in the domain of emotions (ghairat) and recalls the hubris of Greek Tragedy. It should relate to the economic vision of the country and should be achieved with pragmatism.

Can national interest be permanent? In geopolitics, as it is understood by the armies of the world, it is permanent. In civilian hands, it is transient or changing.

Can it be based on populism? Leaders who fail to treat populism as power charade will make the mistake of projecting state power outward in disproportion to the state’s relative advantage in foreign policy.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2011. 

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Reader Comments (29)

  • Ali Tanoli,
    Nov 5, 2011 - 10:35PM

    @ Khalid Ahmed ji,
    Ever heard of word Phuktoonistan that is national intrest in afghanistan and kashmir is life
    line of south asia and Muslim mejority area which supposed to be with pakistan according
    to charter of British Raj india partition and argintina was right but what to say ..Recommend

  • Ali Tanoli,
    Nov 5, 2011 - 10:40PM

    Why U.S.A has to do in mideast more ten thousand milles and protecting tiny miny israel
    in the name of national intrest and indian interfaring in sri lanka also was national intrest.
    so on chinna in central asia and evry war in the world was national intrest for some one
    some where …..


  • Arindom
    Nov 5, 2011 - 11:00PM

    Answer: Pakistan’s national interest : “crush India”.

    was it that difficult to find this out – even taxi drivers in Pakistan have stickers that say this!!!


  • Max
    Nov 6, 2011 - 12:46AM

    Khaled Sahib,
    Your point well taken, I was not going to write anything about this illusive topic, and then in the middle I saw that you mentioning political scientists. Since I happen to be one, so why not to say a few words. Let me take a very broad perspective of social sciences and then I will take the reductionist approach applying the concept to political science. A theory has to be plausible, or fallible in social sciences. In political science we handle the issue of individual as well as social behavior as phenomenon but do not overly rely upon it given the unpredictability of human behavior. There are so many variables that interact simultaneously on human mind and the outcome can neither be predicted not quantified.
    Given this, the concept of “national interest” has remained an elusive term with very week connections to the state or society. It has been tied to the nation-state, the nationalism (of all formats), it equally has been applied in International Relations (realist perspectives), but do we own it or consider it an important behavior patterns. Unfortunately NOT.


  • SalSal
    Nov 6, 2011 - 1:02AM

    I really don’t understand why people make such a big deal about our military ccontrolling the elections. Even in America the military industrial complex controls the american govt and the elections. So why only point out Pakistan ? Does anybody realize that before 1970 everything in Pakistan was smooth and normal but after Pakistan started it’s nuclear program everything messed up after that? Does anybody realize that RIGHT after the military takes over the government (1979 and 2000) Pakistan gets involved in a big war being allied to the USA ? Does anybody realize that the moment Ayub Khan came to power Pakistan allied itself to the USA and provided it bases (completely contradicting what Liaquat Ali Khan wanted i.e being neutral)? People it’s not just our military. America brings them to power. The army doesn’t decide it


  • Kamran Mufti
    Nov 6, 2011 - 1:26AM

    great article…as usual


  • antony
    Nov 6, 2011 - 1:29AM

    @Ali , You are throwing out the indoctrination by the state as predicted by the author..case in point “Kashmir is the lifeline of south asia” ..Do you know how many countries are there in south asia ? .Go ask each of these countries like srilanka,nepal,bangladesh ,bhutan whether kashmir is their lifeline? ..You will be surprised to hear the answer !! . Even for India ,Kashmir is just part of India and it cannot be termed as lifeline of India !!! . YOu are stuck with this indoctrination that without kashmir pakistan will not survive or all its citizen will perish ..If pakistan can just focus on development and education and focusing on internal problems like corruption and governance in the next decade ,Pakistan will be on the rise to get hold of some of the national interests !!! .Hate India will only nurture terrorists!!! and destruction to you!!!


  • Rana Athar Javed
    Nov 6, 2011 - 1:45AM

    The author certainly points out two important points in his essay, a) that in specific cases such as relations between India and Pakistan, Kashmir and nuclear programme, the application of “vague” theory of national interest (a French formula), is the suitable commodity within among weak countries. However, his argument gives the impression that Pakistan as a “weak state” may have been carrying this baggage of vague national interest. And, b) the author mentions the Singaporean formula of National economy, which is embedded in economic interests of a nation. This implicitly appears to be applied to economically powerful countries and are not “contaminated” by terrorism, a very powerful theoretical claim that could be refuted by a thoroughly research argument. Well, sir, shall we say now that there is no such a formula or theory that would craft a single theory to be followed by every country, simply beacuse each nation has to be framed its own national interests, and the state-institutions have the responsibility to carry out this duty – not by the individuals Or common man. An important question is about to which extent and at what scale the terms and conditions of national interests are debated. The author rightly points out that nationalism should not be mixed with national interest, but, the contextual character of this statement is hardly rules out the fact that National Interest can be based on characteristic of nationalism. After all, this is not a sinful ideological trait, and has never been discounted in weak & powerful nations (states). Therefore, it would be fair to say that every country including Pakistan must have the right to defend its national interests. Example – If the current political government/military does this magic in a pragmatic manner, especially after granting India the status of MFN, and mending fences with the US, then I would not classify it as “Vague” policy of serving national interest.


  • MarkH
    Nov 6, 2011 - 2:51AM

    I know people in Pakistan like to only expose convenient things or complete falsehoods about countries outside your border. But, it’s just getting ridiculous. I still have yet to see one of those silly comparison-justifications that contained accurate information about any western country or their past. What’s worse is you guys do it so confidently that you just breed even more ignorance like a domino effect amongst your population.

    Normally I’d add details right now. But, I know it’ll end where it started anyways. Go do some research and prove yourself wrong so someone else doesn’t have to be bothered with the chore.

    It seems like the logic behind most Pakistani allegations towards “the west” is only based on the idea of “if you say it enough times it’ll somehow become true”


  • zalim singh
    Nov 6, 2011 - 6:39AM

    great article Khaled sir. But is anybody listening?


  • Usman Ahmad
    Nov 6, 2011 - 10:01AM

    First Line ‘We are in trouble…’. I’m a common Pakistani and I do not support state intervention Afhganistan on one pretext or another. I believe there are many Pakistanis who do not believe in Army’s pursuit of strategi depth despite being indoctrinated by state. For me this ‘we’ is a borad-brushed generalization that is fragile and incorrect. It should be replaced with ‘Pak Army’.


  • Homa
    Nov 6, 2011 - 10:17AM

    @author:Its tragic that you are in a country where your superior mind and ideas are not understood by your compatriots.


  • Pan Mat
    Nov 6, 2011 - 11:49AM


    The big difference is that in US, President Obama dismissed General McChrystal Stanley on disciplinary grounds – supremacy of civilian authorities over military establishment.

    In Pakistan, the politicians go to GHQ over briefings and the civilian authorities do not have guts to even ask basic questions about defense budget in parliament.


  • faraz
    Nov 6, 2011 - 12:58PM

    Our national interest is that the army should formulate foreign and defence policy, and manipulate them in such a way that it can get quarter of the budget without any accountability


  • N
    Nov 6, 2011 - 2:32PM

    Is it in our ‘national interest” to:
    — Dominate Afghanistan while not wanting the same for ourselves?
    — harbour and export terror as state policy?
    — allow GHQ to control all aspects of our polity – Domestic and foreign?
    — be isolated world-wide ?
    — keep building nukes when one would be enough to deter anyone?
    — store our nukes in Afghanistan so that they can be used on our own occupied by invading Indians? . ( assuming they can defeat us so completely and then occupy us).


  • Menon
    Nov 6, 2011 - 5:20PM

    Very simple, “Steal as much as you can when in power and don’t get caught or live in another country if suspected of getting caught”. Isn’t it Mush is doing?

    Is it so hard to understand?Recommend

  • Menon
    Nov 6, 2011 - 5:39PM

    @Ali Tanoli,:

    Let us see how the “Muslim mejority area which supposed to be with pakistan according British Raj Charter”:

    Event 1 – Newly born country pushed every non-muslim out of its territory and captured their land and property.

    Event 2 – Attacked sovereign Kashmir King by sending Jihadists or whatever they were called then.

    Event 3 – King asks for protection form India and then Governor General Lord Mount Batten

    Event 4 – Lord Mount Batten informs the King, India cannot interfere without formal ascension

    Event 5 – King signs formal ascension as is allowed under the so called British Raj treaty

    Event 6 – Outcome not expected by Pakistan makes it an international issue for the last 67 years.

    Event 7 – Looses East Pakistan

    If India had followed suit and pushed all Muslims towards Pakistan, the problem would not exist

    Fact 2 – If #1 was done, India would have less of poverty problem and Pakistan already bankrupt today

    Fact −3 India has more muslims than Pakistan which makes Muslim majority a moot point. It only becomes an argument if and that is the biggest if all Indian Muslims are willing to move to Pakistan and Pakistan is willing to take them as is written in the British Raj Treaty. The chances of a single Indian Muslim wanting to go to Pakistan will happen when the “Hell Freezes into a solid ice sheet”.Recommend

  • sajid khan
    Nov 6, 2011 - 6:23PM

    @Ali Tanoli,: kashmir is muslim majority area but we indians dont believe in your 2 nation theory.infact going by your logic bangladesh has equal claim on kashmir.we believe hindus and muslims can co-exist together.India has 150 million muslims and even though we have our problems we will sort them out amongst ourselves.i think even if hypothetically we give u kashmir your thirst wont be satisfied.


  • antanu g
    Nov 6, 2011 - 8:13PM

    another so called moral story. mr.author havnt you heard US presidents oft repeated stand on war on many fronts to safeguard its NATIONAL INTEREST? every nation is looking for this so why single out pak if it seeks the same?


  • harkol
    Nov 6, 2011 - 8:20PM

    National Interest in simple terms is the interest of the citizens in getting a better life. And better life can only be had when the citizens see growth, prosperity and security.

    And security can’t be had by playing proxy games in the region as it is bound to elicit a response.

    The best way forward is to reconcile and forget intractable issues, and focus on better livelihood. Who knows in 100 years Kashmir may be independent, because all sides mature and accept that as a solution. But, there is no point in holding our present hostage in the name of future of 1% of sub-continent (kashmir)…Recommend

  • Nadeem
    Nov 6, 2011 - 8:20PM

    Let us not forget the oft-used adjective ‘supreme’, as in ‘supreme national interest’.Recommend

  • Cynical
    Nov 7, 2011 - 3:23AM

    @Ali Tanoli and
    @and people of his ilk

    You say, ‘…..Kashmir is the lifeline of South Asia’
    Now the question is ‘what is south asia?’ if it is just Pakistan, then you are a reductionist.
    And if it is a group of several sovereign countries, then you are an expansionist.
    Take your pick.Either way you lose the argument.


  • Human
    Nov 7, 2011 - 12:11PM

    @Ali Tanoli,

    a perfect example of what Khaeld meant by “indoctrination of the state”.

    Do you really think why yourr text books never talk about any history before Mohammad bin Qasim because that will make you question & curiosity will let you explore more about character of British Raj’s Divide & Rule, not hindu/muslim peace but their own “national interest”.Recommend

  • Ali Tanoli
    Nov 7, 2011 - 7:00PM

    @ Menon,
    Batten was more intrested in his Navy promotion than indian partition thats why all the bloodshed happend in punjab and british was leaving in so hurry that they never thought of
    and germans were pounding really hard back home and if u.s.a didnot sent a aid which
    change the course other wise churchil speeches could not do it any thing. and who pushed
    Minority muslims out of east punjab? this is the first fact and speeches by Tara Singh
    and they had advantages of carying weapons from serving in Raj millitery.
    Fact #2 if u say kashmir raja ask a formal ascension the Nizam Hyderabad asked to remain with pakistan what about that?
    Fact#3 if u pished all the muslim from india then theres gonna be another pakistan in india.
    and i dont think indian Hindus want split there Bharat Matha again…


  • observer
    Nov 8, 2011 - 11:32AM

    @Ali Tanoli

    Muslim mejority area which supposed to be with pakistan according to charter of British Raj india partition and argintina was right but what to say ..

    Some facts for your considerations please,

    A. According to the British plan for partition princely states were free to go either with India or Pakistan. Kashmir was not ‘supposed’ to be with Pakistan as claimed.

    B. If somehow you have assumed the role of spokesman for all muslims of the sub-continent, let me remind you that the majority of Indian muslims decided to stay back in India instead of migrating to Pakistan.

    C. So far as ‘Argintinia’ being a muslim majority state of Pakistan is concerned, you have me stumped.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Nov 8, 2011 - 5:54PM

    u win sir hahahahahhahah


  • Vicram Singh
    Nov 9, 2011 - 1:28AM

    @Ali Tanoli: and i dont think indian Hindus want split there Bharat Matha again…

    Damn’d right you are. Not only that we are waiting patiently to take back what was given away – but not just yet.


  • bibyawari
    Nov 10, 2011 - 2:28PM

    @Pan Mat:
    Its because in Pakistan, you can’t rely on democratic govt, they are so corrupt and vulnerable to foreign propaganda that they at any time can go to sell out the country. Army is the only institution in Pakistan that is diciplined and be relied on.


  • bibyawari
    Nov 10, 2011 - 2:37PM

    @Vicram Singh:
    “what was given away”, haha, do you really think so, common man, you tried the same in 1971 but what happened, where there were lots of hindus, indoctrinating poor Bangladeshies but you could not do that despite all their loyalty to you. so how would you do that in existing Pakistan.


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