Politics for Everyone?

19 june 2015

Looking for the “Right” National Interests

Andrei Skriba is research fellow at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

Resume: Society is ready for new national interests to appear that will pave the way for effective and long-term policies “for all.” Now the situation hinges on those who will formulate them correctly.

The author thanks Andrej Krickovic, Associate Professor in the faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, for his valuable comments.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union an overwhelming majority of countries seemingly came to a consensus that the democratic path was inevitable, so many scholars and experts began to discuss the new era of peace and good neighborliness. The tacit consensus envisioned the unavoidable gradual integration of developing countries into the Western system, and some people began to entertain dreams about the end of history and triumph of Western liberal democracy.

Although acknowledging the high efficiency of Western institutions, by the early 2000s it had become clear that developing and transition countries were not going to blindly copy those organizations. The cultural identity, religious specificity, and aspirations of those countries’ elites ran counter to the changes that had recently seemed inevitable. As a result, the world slowly began to return to a habitual competition between states, each with their own and, naturally, conflicting interests.

Severe global turbulence – competition, globalization, democratization, conflict over economic benefits, political expediency, and new threats to security – caused many countries to rethink their national interests. For some it was simply a matter of rearranging priorities, while others had to return to the old agenda or look for a new one to survive in a rapidly changing world.

Russia was not immune to the problem of national interest. For more than two decades Russia had been squeezed between historical memory and dissatisfaction with its current status, between Western pressure and lagging behind a prosperous Asia, and between great ambitions and an inability to translate them into action. Finally, as was graphically demonstrated in 2014, Russia found itself trapped between rejecting the Western path and not having its own effective development model.


Although the term “national interest” entered into scientific use in the middle of the 20th century, discussions about its sources and motivational nature still continue.

In the first case, the question is the source of power and who should use it – society (the nation) or its institutional superstructure (the state). These discussions stem from the philosophical teachings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes argued that the state should be above society (even though it is created by society) and should protect it from human problems that, considering human nature, are ineradicable. Locke’s ideas in this sense were directly opposed to those of Hobbes since they placed society above the state. In Locke’s view, as people enter into a social contract to form a government, they have the right to demand from the state a policy that they deem right and rational.

It turns out that there are two main sources of national interest: the country’s leadership (elites, decision-makers), which is interested in retaining its status; and society, with its own views on domestic and foreign developments. Below we will see that these sources are not an integral whole.

Several theories have been offered to explain the motivational nature of national interest; realistic theories assign primary importance to protecting the state from external threats. The founder of political realism, Hans Morgenthau, was one of the first to link national interest to foreign policy. He believed that national security, territorial integrity, and non-interference in internal affairs were integral parts of the national interest. Other realists share his views, including James Rosenau, Walter Lippmann, George Kennan, Kenneth Waltz, and Edgar Furniss.

Objectivist approaches were just as popular, since they viewed a country’s population as a community of people united by mutual respect and common political values. Their objective national interests stemmed from the fact that the personal interests of individuals were placed below a more common overall goal. That goal was formulated with due account of the objective features of a nation – culture, religion, place of residence, etc. Geopolitics is the best known of these approaches. For instance, Friedrich Ratzel pointed to interrelation between the interests of the people and the state’s space (Raum). Karl Haushofer developed these ideas, which ultimately influenced the foreign policy of Nazi Germany.

Although these approaches were very popular, some scholars were skeptical about the objective basis of national interest. For example, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle argued that any reflection on an objective national interest is subjective. Arnold Wolfers wrote in the spirit of contemporary constructivism that national interest can mean different things to different people. And Raymond Aron believed that the pluralism of goals, means, and resources available to individuals and groups within states do not produce a certain resultant power and do not mean it is possible to estimate the “national interest” unequivocally.

Other approaches determined national interests as an integral part of diplomacy. The interests themselves turned into narrower goals and tasks aimed at strengthening the state. These could include access to seaports, the deployment of military bases on foreign territories, friendly relations with neighboring countries, etc. In this case, national interests were separated from broader ideals of society and were interpreted as “state interests.”

Sometimes scholars link national interests with an idealistic perception of international relations. In some cases, when it comes to the interests of the state, this implies a system of relations that is the most comfortable for the country. As a rule, a balance of power serves as such a system. In other cases, the source of idealism is a society that views principles of morality as the basis of national interest and the solution of global problems as the main goal of foreign policy (the liberal approach).

Such different ways of defining national interests ultimately gave rise to a great variety of interpretations. The most popular are:

  • traditions and social values on which the state leader relies when choosing a foreign policy;
  • interests formed in the process of dialogue between the authorities and the people; the state turns to society to formulate such a dialogue, then takes it to the international level for negotiations;
  • the goals of the most influential group of individuals; when foreign policy is used to legitimize their own interests to the detriment of the rest of society;
  • interests based on objective qualities of society, including the need to ensure security and strengthening the state (these are placed above international order);
  • the most favorable external environment which guarantees sovereignty for every international actor;
  • an international community built on the principles of morality and mutual respect, which is placed above the national (state) interest.

At first glance, the above interpretations seem contradictory, although all of them are correct in a way. In practice, national interests are a vague notion that includes all of the above in one way or another: the interests of the ruling elite, its desire to ensure state security, and the interests of other, non-state players, both inside the country and abroad.

Of ultimate importance is balancing all of these interests. On the one hand, the context in which interests are formed is important. For example, in a tense international situation it is quite natural to give priority to state security over people’s well-being. And vice versa: in peacetime, society and politicians think more about how to achieve economic prosperity. American studies call this problem a “threshold question:” upon achieving what level of significance does a particular interest acquire nationwide and paramount importance?

On the other hand, this threshold is unique for each state, since it largely depends on the situation inside a given country. For example, openness to the outside world poses a major threat to dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, while it is a natural necessity for liberal democracies. Therefore, in the first case, the imperative of personal safety and retention of power will always prevail over economic prosperity. Thus, the hierarchy of people, groups, and their goals as determined by the institutional environment – political interrelations and interdependencies inside the country – acquires key importance.


For centuries the political systems of countries ensured that the elites had an absolute monopoly on national interests. Various scholars justified this practice, including Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavelli. Monarchies or other forms of absolutism made it possible for rulers to make decisions single-handedly and impose them on the rest of society. Such decisions often were opportunistic and concerned conspiracies, intrigues, dynastic alliances, and personal ambitions.

Resulting in tectonic shifts to political systems, the development of capitalism and bourgeois revolutions dealt a severe blow to absolutism. Monarchical power was either restricted by a constitution or abolished altogether in favor of other forms of government. The old aristocracy gave way to the possessors of big capital (the bourgeoisie), who lobbied for their own interests and actively influenced domestic and foreign policies. As a result, politics was no longer as unpredictably volatile as it had been and rested on a broad and long-term foundation – an alliance of power and money. National interests also became long-term and acquired a more objective content. In the middle of the 19th century, Britain’s Lord Palmerston said: “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual.

By the beginning of the 20th century, capitalization was followed by the democratization of social and political life. New political systems provided more extensive rights to civil society, which could finally influence national interests. In some cases this influence was indirect, such as through election campaigns; in others it was direct, such as when citizens united in groups (trade unions, public associations, and other NGOs) to become a real political force.

At first glance, the changes only exacerbated the inherent conflict between society and the state, thus complicating the search for a common denominator. Indeed, in young emerging polities, conflicts between the interests of various groups often fueled crises, revolutions, and even civil wars, in which centuries-old states collapsed.

However, as the situation in a country stabilized, it became clear that the involvement of more domestic actors in the political process did bring the country closer to finding a national agenda “for all” or, at least, caused a country to look for it. And although natural competition between elites and civil society did not disappear, the established rules made both parties more responsible.

Both political and economic elites realized they should not only deal with external threats and pursue their own affairs, but also meet society’s needs. National interest gradually began to shed its “elitist selfishness.” Society, in turn, also made its own, albeit small, contribution to the political agenda, becoming less radical in political judgments and actions (19th-century England is a vivid example of this, where timely democratization created a broad national dialogue and, in fact, saved the country from a revolution). Most importantly, citizens received the constitutional right to revoke the mandate of the elite, even before it expired, if they discovered that the elites’ actions ran counter to national interests.

The general trend of capitalization and political democratization had geographical irregularities and distinctive features. Countries in Western Europe, as well as their former and most progressive colonies – the United States, Canada, and Australia – covered this path the fastest. Their national interest was to preserve domestic achievements and realize their fullest potential as leading powers.

In other cases, political evolution had its own specifics. Above all this concerns European countries whose interests were largely impaired by the outcome of World War I. All of them experienced authoritarianism and concentration of power in the hands of new forces that offered more attractive agendas to the people. For post-imperial Russia this was the Communist idea, which made it possible to unite the disintegrating country around the idea of building a superclass society. For Germany, the way out of humiliating defeats was in fascism and revanchism, which mobilized the nation around the interests of revival and expansion of “living space” (Lebensraum).

In other European countries, as well as countries in Asia and Latin America, reforms fell under the strong influence of religious, ethnic, and cultural specifics. Some countries, such as China and Turkey, went through various stages to finally develop their own special, socially acceptable models. For other countries the entire 20th century turned into a continuous and fruitless search for such a model, as the interests of frequently changing elites and dissatisfied societies constantly clashed. Muslim countries deserve special mention because religion was the core of their national interests. In addition to windfall oil revenue, religion was the foundation of authoritarian and monarchical regimes. The religious element was lacking in other countries that were just as rich in resources, but less stable politically (such as Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, and secular Iran).

In the second half of the 20th century, the national interests of many countries mixed with ideological rivalry between the capitalist West and the communist non-West. At that time the term ‘national interests’ entered into scientific use and the state-centric understanding of these interests experienced a new renaissance. The confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States once again highlighted the interests of security, protection of sovereignty, and territorial or political gains. In foreign policy the focus was on preserving the balance of power between the rival blocs. This background strengthened the political elite; yet far from setting it in opposition to other participants in the political process, circumstances sometimes even brought political leaders closer together.

Generally speaking, as countries and societies evolved, the objective basis of national interests expanded. Firstly, the elites, which still were the main sources of national interests, became more capacious and inclusive. Secondly, in most cases they could no longer ignore the views of the people they represented. As a result, national interests became more rational. They were enriched by economic interests, cultural identity, and religious affiliation (and, temporarily, ideological struggle) and began to take into account the level of a country’s development and the extent to which citizens were happy.

The decisive factor was whether or not effective institutions could consolidate this evolution, thereby establishing a broad dialogue among all participants in the political process. If such efforts succeeded, mechanisms for implementing national interests could conform to the new realities. Otherwise, a change in the ruling regime only redistributed private interests within national interests, and irresponsibility among the elites sooner or later manifested itself again.


The era of ideologized interests ended quite unexpectedly for many of its key players. It is no exaggeration to assert that the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the entire socialist bloc threw the international community off balance.

For the United States and its closest allies, the formal defeat of their main geopolitical enemy revealed opportunities unknown until that time. According to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, the collapse of communism was followed by the breakdown of boundaries and obstacles, and globalization revolutionized the world. “And at the center of this revolution America stands,” he said. However, euphoria quickly encountered a conceptual contradiction. The former America was a symbol of protection for liberal-democratic values, while the third wave of democratization had already swept the new world. Strobe Talbott asserted this deprived Western democracy of its exclusiveness and destroyed the myth that some people and cultures were inherently non-democratic. This conclusion naturally evoked the question: How can the U.S. explain its former interests in other countries and regions when it no longer needed to provide protection from the communist threat?

Former Soviet countries, as well as many other post-socialist states, were going through painful political and economic reforms at that time that hindered national consensus. Previously united by an ideology, the societies and elites in those countries now found themselves on different sides of the barricades. In a democratic environment, society began to rebel against government inefficiency and waited for a new policy, while elites experienced an obvious lack of national ideas. Many Third World countries faced similar problems, as conflicts of interests in these countries prevented their governments from formulating national political agendas.

Processes that consistently eroded state sovereignty and undermined the very possibility of forming a separate and distinct national agenda also impeded the search for new national interests.

Firstly, there is globalization, which erased economic and information boundaries. Transnational capital created not only opportunities for development, but also threats because it often was beyond government control and sometimes even interfered in state affairs. In addition, information flows, which governments could not control either, made the world too blurred for creating distinct national identities. At the same time, neoliberals viewed these processes as a long-awaited blessing, since they believed that national interests should give way to global human interests in the era of globalization.

Secondly, after decolonization and a new wave of democratization, transition countries experienced a sharp escalation of the ethnic problem. The issue is not conflicts between countries (India vs Pakistan, Arab nations vs Israel), which, on the contrary, helped strengthen social consolidation, but the lack of national homogeneity in many countries. At best, societies could not unite around a common idea. At worst, the absence of homogeneity served as the reason for the disintegration of countries such as Yugoslavia or Sudan, and to a large extent is responsible for what is happening today in Ukraine. The ethnic issue also played an important role in the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Thirdly, we cannot ignore the example of the European Union, where economic and political integration affected national interests, causing EU member countries to look for compromise. On the one hand, there was a definite plus, as integration thus guaranteed peaceful negotiations and mutually advantageous cooperation. It seemed to be particularly favorable for former socialist countries in Central and Eastern Europe; countries that had relatively quickly and successfully overcome the “shock therapy.” On the other hand, however, integration generated supranational bureaucracy, which developed its own interests over time. These interests frequently ran counter to the national agenda. This was vividly manifested by the European policy towards Russia in 2014, when the EU strengthened politically by exploiting the image of an external enemy, even though sanctions were economically disadvantageous to many member countries.

Samuel Huntington believed that in the absence of a clear-cut national agenda transnational and non-national groups would prevail in foreign policy. It is too early to draw a conclusion about global domination, yet there is no doubt that the interests and policies of many countries over the past quarter century have been consistently losing their “nationality” to increasingly conform to the surrounding disorder.

On the one hand, some states and elites were not interested in changing their priorities from defense to internal development and tried to remain strong. They were supported by the military lobby, an influential force during the Cold War. Together they began to look for new justifications for old policies. For Western countries and the U.S. in particular, the justification was protection from “underdemocratized” regimes (Iraq, Yugoslavia) and, later, the threat of terrorism, which was a pretext for intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the end of the 2000s, a new rhetoric emerged about external security threats, above all Russia, Iran, North Korea and, in the longer term, China. Many countries adopted the same tactic – the search for an external enemy for the sake of strengthening the state. Russia is no exception.

Big business, which despite its independence has maintained close ties with political elites, tried to derive benefits from the Cold War legacy. For example, U.S. oil companies won lucrative contracts in a politically renewed Iraq. Yet economic interests not only served as stimulation, but also defused international tensions. Relations between the U.S. and China, and between Europe and Russia remained peaceful for a long time largely due to economic interests.

International instability made national interests hostage of the political process to an even greater extent than before. Elites in both democracies and authoritarian regimes often did not even try to fight back; rather they sought to adapt to the constantly changing context and derive the maximum benefit from it. This is not surprising considering it was the lack of initiative regarding external chaos and compliance with someone else’s imperatives that often helped these elites retain their influence and power.

Civil society stood opposite the elites. Naturally, it protested against the elites’ inaction and the strengthening of the state, often carried out under false pretexts. But its protests were not consistent and did not always produce the desired result. For example, in economically successful Western democracies a well-off and contented populace is largely passive; it is a group partly frightened by the uncertainty of the future, but which is not yet ready to take decisive action. In transition countries, society is either not yet mature enough to defend its own interests or is under pressure from an alliance of the authorities, big business, and the military. When in some cases protests do achieve a critical mass, the authorities often imitate reforms and a change in elites. This happened in post-Soviet and Arab countries after the “color revolutions:” foreign aid helped them change political regimes, but there are still no signs of emerging national interests there.

All this has affected modern scientific studies, which do not raise the issue of the motivational nature of national interests or dialogue between society and the authorities. Scholars have focused on foreign-policy practices; namely, in what way an action meets or jeopardizes national interests. At the same time, it remains unclear what is meant by those interests and whether they can be considered truly national. Apparently, scholars have come to a tacit understanding that national interests today are a set of vague priorities and guidelines for how to behave with the rest of the world (Joseph Nye, John Mearsheimer), and therefore they prefer to study not their sources, but narrower and more specific manifestations. But is this right?


One can say that vague national interests deepen the gap between an idea-driven society and practice-oriented elites, depersonalize the state, and cause international instability. Others may argue that vagueness smoothes things over and protects the world from the former irreconcilable confrontation. However, the most important thing is that without clear national interests the state cannot effectively develop and simultaneously compete with other countries and defend itself from external threats. As Joseph Nye wrote, society must defend and promote its main values abroad, or it will lose its identity and dissolve in world chaos.

One solution to this problem may be harmonization of interests inside a country. After ideological competition, which formerly united various interest groups against a foreign enemy, disappears, the lack of harmonization instruments is felt ever stronger. Meanwhile, these instruments should bring the country closer to settling accumulated differences between the elites and society, and between the objective basis and subjective desires.

We can single out three levels of national interests: the public level, which is the objective basis of national interests. It is here where the cultural, religious and civilizational foundation is laid. One should not exaggerate the influence of this level because societies cannot and should not engage in policy-making. Otherwise, policies will become even more erratic and inconsistent. However, the stability of the political system largely depends on society; therefore the government should not ignore its opinions. This is why Western democracies seem to be an optimal example of interaction and mutual control between the state and the people. Without grassroots control, authoritarian regimes may be effective, but they may also lead the country into a crisis if they pursue their own narrower interests.

Next is the country level, where separate public interests are brought to a common denominator and combined with the interests of the state (security, political stability, protection of sovereignty) and elites (retention of power, economic benefits). Two circumstances are very important here. Firstly, it is the consciousness and maturity of the elite, which should not only be focused on self-interest, but should also have state and social responsibility. It is highly important that its vision of national interests should not descend to the first level (for imposing information, or giving formal approval), but regularly prove how it conforms to public opinion. Secondly, it is the role of the intellectual elite (the scientific community) to conceptualize national interests; that is, to sum up the country’s objective features, the subjective desires of influential groups, and commitment to long-term development.

An overwhelming majority of countries, including advanced Western countries, have lacked this second level in recent decades. Economic elites often lost their “nationality” and only considered their personal benefits. Political elites did not think of long-term goals and tasks, but of how to retain power and win elections. Intellectual elites were sidelined and did not play conceptually unifying roles. As a result, the impression has formed in the last two decades that the world has been moving by inertia and countries survive only thanks to their previous achievements.

The third level is foreign policy. It is here that national interests intersect with the external environment and the interests of other countries. At this level, it is important that the state (officials, elites, decision makers) balance national interests in accordance with global processes. In particular, it should make them active to preserve and multiply the country’s influence; make them attractive so as not to provoke conflicts; and constantly think of their competitiveness in order to protect the country from destructive outside influences.

The discussion of these three levels does not at all mean that the author has an idealistic view about which national interests cover the aspirations of all citizens of a given country. It is obvious that the interests of elites will always differ from the interests of the rest of society, and that national interests and their practical implementation will be largely an elitist, rather than democratic, product. In addition, international relations are developing too quickly to allow long-term discussions of problems, threats, and ways to counter them. And lest one forget the old rule: in the face of a growing external threat, priority is often given to matters of state security, rather than social welfare.

Crisis phenomena manifest themselves in the termination of essential dialogue in many countries where it was started by the development of capitalism and democratization. The interests of political elites are rooted in past reality; those of economic elites are increasingly losing their “nationality,” and society, unable to offer a political agenda of its own, is silent, cautious, and often passive waiting. These factors harm countries, their people, and the entire international system. That is why societies and elites need a new rapprochement to make national interests more homogeneous and targeted.


National interests are a vague category, including the interests of ruling elites and big business. National interests are close to the elites, business leaders, and public sentiment. A country’s interests ensure state security and protect sovereignty, and reflect policies to maintain (or change) the international status quo. Over the last few centuries national interests have come a long way from a subjective motivation by the ruling aristocracy to reliance on private capital and the objective peculiarities of the people.

The disappearance of ideological competition meant that national interests lost part of their content. The gap between the national component (society) and representatives of practical interests (elites) continued to grow. Globalization, transnational capital, and groups and institutions, which are devoid of nationality, gradually eroded the interests of many countries. Nation-states also faced the problem of unity and integrity.

Russia has not escaped these challenges. In the 1990s Russia lost much of the territory it had gained and addressed the difficult problems of separatism in the territory it retained. In the 2000s Russia tried to formulate new national interests, but did not succeed due to a lack of understanding. The problem was put aside indefinitely, sidelined by other social problems. But in the mid-2010s, a new conflict with the West forced Russia to ask the old questions again: What are its diverse interests? What does it want? What should it seek in addition to guarantees of security and sovereignty, which are vital to any country?

In order to formulate its political agenda and development strategy, Russia today, like many other countries, needs a link between the state/elites and civil society. Indeed, both the Russian state and society are still in transition from the Soviet system to capitalism and democracy. Under these conditions, strengthening the state is not just natural, but necessary, since it gives citizens and elites time to come to a self-awareness of their new status. However, long-term transformations have dictated new trends for the country’s development. To miss them is to exacerbate the gap between the views of the elites and a changing society.

Society is ready for new national interests to appear that will pave the way for effective and long-term policies “for all.” Now the situation hinges on those who will formulate them correctly.

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