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.