What is ‘national interest’?

Published: November 10, 2012
The writer is Director South Asian Media School, Lahore

The writer is Director South Asian Media School, Lahore [email protected]

Our Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani says no one and no institution should singly decide what Pakistan’s national interest is to be. In other words, a national consensus has to be developed on the subject before it becomes a policy plank. He has implied two conclusions to be drawn from his comment: first, that the current strategy will stay intact; and second, that those suggesting changes in it are speaking without the benefit of national consensus.

Pakistan’s Canada-based ex-ambassador Muhammad Yunus in his book Foreign Policy: A Theoretical Introduction (OUP, 2003) has told us how different scholars have avoided theorising about national interest. He quotes Raymond Aron as saying that “it is a formula vague to the point of being meaningless or a pseudo-theory”.

In Pakistan, it is the army that decides strategy. The other institutions, like the government, simply adjust to it. Should we change this pattern? The following points are worth pondering:

1) Because the army was always dominant, a kind of  ‘consensual national interest’ became frozen over the national security state, which meant a challenge to India and all those elements — like the nuclear programme — that underpinned it.

2) Is Kashmir an object of national interest? On the ground, it has faded away but in abstraction, it is there as a device to derail discussion over more practical issues.

3) In today’s world, power rather than any morality drives 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’: the ability to resist coercion and the ability to coerce other states. National interest lies in achieving either or both conditions.

4) It is not an unforgivable sin to be a weak state. What should be the national interest of weak states? Contrary to what the nation thinks, it should not be harmed by the power projection of states it cannot oppose or resist.

5) National interest lies in seeking alliances that may break the isolation that enables the enemy-state to successfully harm it.

6) National interest lies in attaining the ability to achieve internal reform in order to avoid foreign pressure of all sorts.

7) National interest lies in avoiding international isolation to prevent other states from getting together within the United Nations to use international law to harm it.

8) Embracing pragmatism in the conduct of the state to come close to a theoretical basis for the understanding of the conduct of a weak state.

9) Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore is the philosopher of the new ‘national interest’ theory that is related solely to the national economy. He symbolises the transition of the nation state to a market state.

10) The ‘market’ states in most of Southeast Asia and the Far East seem to conduct themselves ‘pragmatically’ in the realm of foreign policy, reflected in their abstention from pronouncing an aggressive strategy.

11) Should the common man be the one to decide national interest? What the common man thinks is shaped by the indoctrination of the state. Political theory, developed since the rejection of democracy by philosophers in Athens, recommends ‘indirect representative democracy’ that keeps the common man away from the formulation of strategy.

12) State indoctrination is not geared to the reality of relative power enjoyed by the state vis-à-vis other states but to the myth of its own greatness in the abstract.

13) National interest should not be conflated with nationalism, which is in the domain of emotions that incline the state to the risk of war. National interest should relate to the economic vision of the country and should be achieved with pragmatism.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 11th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (27)

  • BlackJack
    Nov 10, 2012 - 11:27PM

    Should the common man be the one to decide national interest? Not necessarily, but national interest should be decided with the common man in mind. Regrettably, Pakistan’s national interest has always been in relationships with other nations that would support it in its sustained pursuit of the elusive ‘upper hand’ over India – consequently, neither pragmatism nor non-alignment were acceptable strategies; the mercenary approach seemed to yield better and quicker dividends, and the common man never figured in any equation. Thus, Pakistan has never believed its national interest lay in developing competitive advantage in any particular industries by investing in resources (human and otherwise) that could help develop the nation – South Korea is the best example of a country that started off well-behind Pakistan in the 1950s and is today a highly developed nation. If such were the case, there would be no major argument among different power centers. Even now, the points listed in this op-ed indicate that the thinking has not changed much.


  • sabi
    Nov 10, 2012 - 11:42PM

    National intrest is to save the constitution,which has divided the nation and benefits only the right wing mindset and their protecter,the military.Pakistan is a poor country but it has an army which stands in the list of first ten big armies of the world.Instead of nation building and removing illitiracy and poverty we have adopted a policy of building army for !national intrest’,definetion of which is still unknowen.Healthy mindset go for healthy competions such as education, greater human rights,freedom of expressions.infrastructure,industry jobs.etc.
    But we are bussy counting how many tanks we have and how can we increase our military arsnel in future.Arms race is our hoby and our- national intrest.


  • Shahzad
    Nov 11, 2012 - 12:59AM

    Let Arundhati Roy, Asma Jehangir and Naom Chomsky decide have a say in their country’s national interest. I think the people may like it


  • Pir Bulleh Shah
    Nov 11, 2012 - 2:33AM

    National state is for those who divide themselves up into ‘nations’. Our interests are decided by Allah and are limited to serving Him in all we do.


  • pmbm
    Nov 11, 2012 - 6:32AM

    National interest should be welfare of every citizen individually and collectively.


  • NAkhtar
    Nov 11, 2012 - 7:29AM

    Definition of national interets is still ambigous and vague, like terrorism, no body can defin that what exactly the national interets is.
    However, a country should frame her policy according to the enviornment to secure and protect its nation and sovereignity,againg the sovereignity has become phenomenen after some actions taken by America.
    Currently Education is our national interets,awarness, elemination of poverty is Pakistan’s national interests because this curse has demaged Pakstan’s security ,terrorism and extremism both coming from this nursery ( POVERTY), Siachni, Kashmir or Kargil,if these factors are not threating Pakistni directly then policy should be flexible,these areas rather posing threats for survival, huge budget is being spent,that is money which comes from people taxes.
    If people are suffering, and joing foreign hands,bombing public places then what should be the NATIONAL INTERESTS……..to Protect Pakistan first…let us keep house in order first.
    Exploration and exploitaion of natural resourses and the right use for the people shpuld be our first interest, human development in ignored areas must be givien prorities before it is too late. Now media and international factors have clossola impacts on folks,Pakistan needs to use nation positively, it has potetial but unfortunately no body cares, the governmnet and the army both have upper hands on the Constitution…..again I will ruge protect Pakistan rather Cnstitution, the constitution is just a document, it can be framed and mould time to time,but Nationan or country is not a draft or document….


  • Prakash
    Nov 11, 2012 - 8:20AM

    It is the economy. Building the economy should be number one national interest. Not indulging in some pseudo-global role playing.
    The size of the armed forces is a drain on Pakistan’s economy. There are far richer states in the world without any worthwhile army, or even a ‘bum’.
    That question that naturally comes to mind is that the sixth largest army in the world is protecting …….what?


  • Feroz
    Nov 11, 2012 - 9:05AM

    What I do know is that nurturing, financing and training terror groups and using them as non state actors was never in Pakistan’s national interest —- an enquiry can ascertain in whose interest it really was. Who decided on the strategic depth and Afghan policies must also be investigated, today’s violence being its bye product.
    It is these policies that put the country into a hole so continuing with it does not need long debates. First analyse the wrongs committed before deciding on a course of action.


  • Shahzad
    Nov 11, 2012 - 9:30AM

    ” He has implied two conclusions to be drawn from his comment: first, that the current strategy will stay intact; and second, that those suggesting changes in it are speaking without the benefit of national consensus.”

    He is implying (1) the armed forces has the best information of the situation within the country and the region. (2) they can be over ruled by the political leadership if there is consensus,

    How do the people get all the information for consensus (1) through an independent media with ability to cover the ground situation in every part of the country and the region (2) the media and parliament getting access to the intelligence services appraisal of the situation on the ground .

    And finally to articulate an independent thought the Naom Chomski’s, the Arundhati Roy’s and the Asma Jehangir’s. view and assessment. I wonder why these three are followed and their views read but are not liked by the security apparatus of all three countries. Weren’t Ghandhi , Nelson Mandela giving a different view to that of the security apparatus of that time. I would add Muhammad Iqbal the poet philosopher of our country here.


  • Nov 11, 2012 - 9:52AM

    In my view national interests can be achieved through positive rather than negative approach which we are pursuing for the last so many years. Our example is of that poor man who has the gun but not the stomach strong enough to fire. Our policy is India, America and now Afghan centric and we as a nation has attached and sacrificed everything for achieving the goals set in this policy. Since we have proved our inabilities in most of the fields and never achieved our goals but rather got ourselves in further deep waters. So we need to review our national and foreign policy through a national debate for bringing drastic changes to accommodate ourselves in the changing world.


  • gp65
    Nov 11, 2012 - 10:05AM

    @Shahzad: “Let Arundhati Roy, Asma Jehangir and Naom Chomsky decide have a say in their country’s national interest. I think the people may like it”

    Arundhati ROy is an excellent writer. But I imagine less than 1% of Indians would consider her as an effective spokesperson of national interest. In fact India is such a diverse country that no individual – however sagacious they are can be expected to even represent national interest effectively. So we HAVE to depend on the elected executive at federal, state and local level. The village panchayat in Bihar, Tamil Nadu, amd Gujarat may come up with very different definitions of what is in the best interest of the people they serve – and each one of those panchayats maybe correct in their assessment. In US too, the strong local participation in local self government keeps government servants on their toes and I doubt they would wish to give up their control to an individual such as Noam Chomsky.

    Pakistan too needs to give the sieving process of democracy a chance and also allow local self government too at city and village level rather than depend on one hero who will save everything.


  • AJ
    Nov 11, 2012 - 11:03AM

    Great read…. I believe if the underpinning of a national interest is based on people interest than the rest fades away, the nations strength is determine by the welfare it’s people… Pakistani state must shift its policies to first cater to its people’s welfare based on a fair and equtible policies. Although sounds difficult, however, this will be the easiest course to determine our future, be it our relations with our neighbors, foreign policies, defence policies, justice system, or socio economic system. May sound to good to be true, but this is the reality and has been the bases for progress for a lot of nations.


  • Raza Khan
    Nov 11, 2012 - 1:33PM

    Army has definately no right to decide about the destiny of this nation! They have extremely terrible record.


  • gp65
    Nov 11, 2012 - 1:46PM

    @Shahzad: “Let Arundhati Roy, Asma Jehangir and Naom Chomsky decide have a say in their country’s national interest. I think the people may like it”

    I was born and raised in India and live in US, so I can speak with some confidence about these 2 countries. I don’t think any individual however capable can effectively represent the interests of all Indians given the diversity within the country. The national interests therefore have to be defined by the elected representatives at national, state and local level. I think the same is true for US also. Pakistanis are ofcourse best placed to decide how their national interests should be determined, if they are dissatisfied with how this has been done in the past.


  • Malik Rashid
    Nov 11, 2012 - 5:53PM

    “Should the common man be the one to decide national interest?” ‘Occupy movement’ highlighted the reality of democracy where majority is dissatisfied with representation and it is wealth not votes that dictate policy/national interest. Status-quo is losing consent. For democracy to remain effective and relevant, the governing core must extend beyond executive, legislature and judiciary. In his recent victory speech, President Obama expressed dismay over long voting lines and alluded to people’s veto in matters of deadlock. Citizens are seeking to influence national interest and there are tools available to facilitate participation.Recommend

  • Jat
    Nov 11, 2012 - 6:39PM

    Khaled Ahmed: What is a nation, let us first define that. Can an accident of history which causes different groups of people to come together at some geographical space, be called a nation ? I think national interests can be identified before first identifying the attributes and contours of a nation.

    One man’s nation may be another man’s badlands providing sanctuary to looters, plunderers and killers from all over the world.


  • Jat
    Nov 11, 2012 - 6:43PM

    Or, Mr Ahmed, let me ask a more direct question – what is the national trait or character of a Pakistani ? If you are visiting abroad and someone inquires of you, how will you define a Pakistani ?


  • Jat
    Nov 11, 2012 - 6:48PM

    @Prakash: “That question that naturally comes to mind is that the sixth largest army in the world is protecting …….what?”

    I am confident of my answer – this army is protecting itself and still suffers from acute insecurity.


  • Shahzad
    Nov 12, 2012 - 9:02AM

    In every society there exist a marginalised minority and the three I have named are merely examples of the type of activists to whom such marginalised minorities look for support and articulation of their views. I certainly do not infer that such activists would represent the views of the majority of the people. This should be kept in this perspective. I would not like to speculate as to which marginalised minority these activists take cause for because I think that would be counter productive.


  • gp65
    Nov 12, 2012 - 11:03AM

    @Shahzad: IF you say that the advocates for marginal minorities need to have a voice – I agree 100% with you. A free media and free judiciary are designed to provide such protection in India. IF you say that they can be the sole representatives of national interest – as it appeared you were suggesting initially, I disagree. There were some people that tried to charge Arundhati Rao with sedition due to her rather provocative statements which had wide media coverage. But the courts threw out those petitions. So definitely in terms of protecting the advocates of the marginalized, the law and media play its part. Nor has any one threatened Arundhati Roy. As much as I disagree with her views, I agree that she has the right to say anything as long as it is not in violation of the Indian constitution.

    But can you say that that advocates of Shias and Ahmadis can speak freely in your country today? DId Asma Jahangir who at one point was the PRecident of SCBA utter a word when the Lahore highcourt passed the rule banning Shezaan juice because it was owned by an Ahmadi? No. What about those who seek to amend a man made law that did not even exist in your statutes until Zia brought it in and which is used to torment the minorities. DOes anyone dare advocate to change the law let alone scrap it? Does anyone dare to reverse a law passed by Bhutto in 1974 that actually comes between man and GOD and tries to pass judgment on people’s faith? Do your judges have the courage to actually allow a minor Hindu girl who was begging to be released to her parents to order thus? No they succumb to the violent political goons and hand her over to her abductees and then the nation celebrates a conversion. Who speaks for hundreds of such teenage Hindu girls who are kidnapped and forced converted? There is no advocate. Plus you must be aware that Asma Jehangir received death threats from ‘high ups’, Marvi Sirmed was shot at as was young Malala. DO we also not know what happened to Taseer and Bhatti and Qadri?

    So yes I agree those people no advocating unpopular positions also need to be protected. But I submit that India does a far better job at doing so than Pakistan.


  • Enlightened
    Nov 12, 2012 - 2:56PM

    ‘You’ have the right to your own opinion provided the same agrees with ‘Mine’. ‘You’ means govt and judiciary and ‘mine’ is not difficult to interpret ie army.


  • Shahzad
    Nov 12, 2012 - 6:14PM

    I think Asma’s record on advocating the rights of minorities and the marginalised speaks for it self . May I add when she speaks the media listens. The respect she commands is reflected in her being elected to the Supreme Court Bar Association as President, Mian Nawaz Sharif and Zardari had her in mind as interim prime minister . Some in the India centric right wing are uncomfortable with her views. I thought Arundhati Roy was similar especially in view of her stance on Kashmir and other areas, however my knowledge is based on interface with friends in Delhi, and not based on a detailed review of comments to her articles in Indian newspapers. The promised link may help http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asma_Jahangir

    I will not comment on whether India or Pakistan is doing a better job because I think it will not be productive and not relevant with the article we are dealing with. My point is there are marginalised groups in Pakistan, and activists like Asma, in a democracy, where majority over rules minority, reflect and voice the concerns and conditions of such marginalised people. Clearly I cannot speak for India so definitely . Regarding Noam Chomsky he has been advocating the case of the Palestinians for some time and I see some change in USA stance thereto.


  • gp65
    Nov 12, 2012 - 9:35PM

    @Shahzad: I have a high opinion of Asma but isn’t it a fact that she herself said that she received death threats from the high and mighty ery recently? No one has threatened Roy. Also /asma is an eminent jurist and has a body of work in that area. Roy’s claim to fame is that she is a Booker prize winning author – no record of service to the country. Regardless of her track record, freedom of speech is guaranteed in India and should be available to Roy also but it is a huge stretch to compare her wit someone of Asma’s calibre.

    Anyway, to go back to your very first post you identified these 3 people as the people that should be chosen to define national interest in their respective counties and I would like to repeat that no individual has taht right or ability. The most they can do is articulate the aspirations of any group who trusts them to do so. There are millions of such voices and any one cannot have a monopoly of how nationa intrest is defined.


  • seng.kally
    Nov 12, 2012 - 9:42PM

    Unfortunately, National Interest in Pakistan has been to host all the crooks, murderers, smugglers, terrorists, etc., as state guest.
    The day Pakistan kicks out these elements, Pakistan will be able to see the light of a new day….!!!!! And a new life will begin to emerge.
    Until then, alas, National Interest will be the only cause of downfall.


  • Manoj Joshi India
    Nov 12, 2012 - 10:14PM

    Pakistan has since 1947 the creation of this Islamic Republic been perceived by Indians as a negative reflection of India and has been referred to as a ‘political abberation’ and a constant threat to India and Indian culture. This apprehension which is poignant in the Indian mind is also present in the Pakistani psyche and they perceive India as their major enemy and a perennial threat to their existence. The setback in 1965 Indo-Pak War and 1971 ‘Sapper’s War’ that had led to the dismemberment of that Islamic Republic of Pakistan with the creation of Bangladesh out of East Pakistan further deepened the apprehension in the minds of their citizens and anti-India approach has become their yardstick of patriotism. The support to terrorism in Punjab and thereafter in Kashmir by the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan has deepened the Indian antipathy and distrust for Pakistan and on similar lines an anti-Pakistan mindset alone is considered as patriotism by an Indian majority. The current political situation on the Indo-Pak front is however quite different from it had existed during the sixties and seventies upto the nineties and the initial years of the twenty first century. Terrorism and religious fundamentalism has become as much a problem for Pakistan as it has been for India and both sides seem to be realising the futility of a bellicose approach hence, efforts are now apparently being carried out to ensure cordial bilateral relations as neighbours. On 29th September 2011 The Times of India had in their editorial ‘Window to Opportunity’ discussed about the future of economic relations between India and Pakistan which is needed for progress and development of both the nations. Pakistan and India have an immense human resource potential to harness and if the efforts are done with sincerity can result in an economically strong Pakistan as well as India. This concept that has a few buyers only at the moment will develop in the near future and the citizens of India and Pakistan must remain optimistic on this account and put in their best to make trade and commerce between the two neighbours a success and this alone can further improve bilateral relations. The threat of the growing influence of Taliban remains within Pakistan which is also a threat to Pakistan’s national interest. The assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer within Pakistan and the attack on Malala shows the frustration of the fundamentalists and their reaction has simply been a dastardly act born out of this frustration. Terrorism and religious fundamentalism in Pakistan is now on a decline although on a rather slow pace and the present civilian government in Pakistan stands on a rather shaky foundation. Democracy is trying to revive itself from a rather nascent stage and shall require atleast fifteen to twenty five years to take roots in the Pak-establishment and society. Being an Islamic Republic the official religion being Islam the growth of democracy shall always be different from what one finds in the West including India. However a Pakistan can become a liberal Islamic state in the future. The onus of making democracy a success with the Islamic Republic lies on the leadership of that country and their citizens who individual and collective endeavor alone can make it a reality. The army as an institution in Pakistan has played a rather influential role and unfortunately long spells of marshal law have undermined democracy in Pakistan. India has been the major reason or made the major reason by the army to retain control over the Pakistani administration. This has been a factor responsible for Indo-Pak relations not having been very cordial. The national interest of Pakistan or any nation for that matter lies in maintaining their strength as a military and economic power both. The xenophobia from the neighbours should be set aside as political nationalism is now getting superfluous and obsolete and economic relations are taking on the driving seat. Hence the national interest of Pakistan lies in being a liberal and progressive Islamic state. India as a neighbour can be more supportive towards Pakistan and adopt a more accommodating and cooperative approach and make sincere efforts towards normalising ties with this neighbour with off course a similar reciprocal response from Pakistan. Developing close commercial ties with India that offers a big market to Pakistan will help in solving many internal problems of the Islamic State viz unemployment, economic debt, law and order etc. Then alone can the Taliban be defeated as they shall be losing their support of the masses within Pakistan. Unemployment is a major reason why the unemployed youth takes to terrorism a source of easy money generated out of narcotics and illegal arms trade. The Inter Services Intelligence and the Army in Pakistan must learn to differentiate between national security and national interests which are no doubt complimentary to one another but cannot be superimposed on one another. Kashmir has now become more or less a non-issue and should not be harped on as had been the case in the past. Pakistan has to come out of their economic crisis and Indo-Pak friendship will help.


  • Shahzad
    Nov 13, 2012 - 1:06AM

    @Manoj Joshi India:
    A mature approach and there are benefits for both, political and economic. If Europe can get together so can we , on certain issues we can choose to disagree, but the military approach to every problem is not sustainable on both sides and should be slowly put to rest. India will gain more. Lets not forget pre 1850 India had between 27 to 32 percent of world GDP . Then we somehow missed the Industrial revolution. Source Economist.


  • Poovhen
    Nov 13, 2012 - 1:50AM

    You people don’t understand what ‘National interest’ as meant by Gen. Kayani. You do not have rigor and training of a military mind. One prime example of ‘National Interest’ was in forcing PM Gilani to sign an extension order for the incumbent Army Chief to continue service for 3 more years.


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