Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Quote of the day

...it is almost certainly true...that the U.S. government, and all other governments,...base their foreign policies on the notion that these policies advance their national interests. This information does not help us analytically, however, for the concept of national interest is anything but a sure guide to policy. In fact, except within very broad limits, the national interest is no guide to policy at all. Within these limits -- which are not trivial but are not very discriminating either -- national interest means whatever different people want it to mean. As a symbol for justifying actions and for rallying or mobilizing support, the notion of national interest has considerable power.... As an analytic concept from which one can deduce or predict behavior, however, the concept has very little utility.

-- Robert A. Packenham, Liberal America and the Third World (pb, 1976), pp. 323-24 (footnotes omitted)

Added later:
from R. Aron, Peace and War, trans. R. Howard & A.B. Fox (1966), pp.91, 93:
Not only are the historical objectives of political units not deducible from the relation of forces, but the ultimate objectives of such units are legitimately equivocal.... The plurality of concrete objectives and of ultimate objectives forbids a rational definition of "national interest".... The theory we are sketching here tends to analyze the meaning of diplomatic behavior, to trace its fundamental notions, to specify the variables that must be reviewed in order to understand any one constellation. But it does not suggest an "eternal diplomacy," it does not claim to be the reconstruction of a closed system.


Anonymous said...

Yep. It's about as useful as Plato telling us that we should seek the Good.

LFC said...

Though, iirc, he did get more specific on occasion (haven't read Plato in quite a while).

hank_F_M said...


National Intersts are

an analytic concept from which one can deduce or predict behavior, however, the concept has very little utility


Nations do not have permnannt friends or enimies, only permanent Interests.

I think I missed something -- or whats the point of IR.

LFC said...


You are quoting the famous line from Palmerston.

To keep things short, I'm not sure nations/states do have "permanent" or "eternal" interests, beyond the minimal baseline interest of ensuring national survival (and even that is not always clear-cut). I think interests change with circumstances.

In Morgenthau's well-known formulation in the opening pp of Politics Among Nations, statesmen (statespersons) think and act "in terms of interest defined as power." But "the concept of interest defined in terms of power" is too vague to be of much use, which I think is partly what Packenham is getting at in the quote that I put up.

Morgenthau thought there was a rational, objective core to 'the nat'l interest,' but I don't think there is an objectively identifiable national interest in most cases. Cf. M.J. Smith, Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger, pp.160ff. (I will put this passage up tomorrow or the next day.)