System-Wide Interests versus National Interest
No. 4 2015 October/December
Nikolay A. Kosolapov

Head of the Department of International Political Problems at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO). He holds a Doctorate History.

Classical Notions and Russian Reality

The category of national interest is intuitively self-evident and clear, but attempts to interpret it as applied to the goals and objectives of foreign policy often generate more questions than answers. Here is an example that will be a thorn in Russia’s relations with the West for decades.

The return of Crimea to the Russian Federation and the ensuing “war of sanctions” unleashed by NATO countries against Russia produced two conflicting views in the Russian media. The majority of analysts support Crimea’s incorporation into Russia, considering it fair and justified. The minority believe that the move was not worth the direct and indirect financial losses and harm to Russia’s image. Obviously, when some people think in terms of history and geopolitics and others in terms of economy and prestige, they cannot come to agreement on specific national interest.

Can the category of ‘national interest’ be objectively assessed and rationally forecasted and formed?


‘National interest’ is a category with cultural, historical, and political/ideological connotations. Culturally, it goes back to the British political tradition. Historically, it appeared at a time when bourgeois republics began to replace medieval monarchies. Politically and ideologically, it is inseparable from the notions and concepts of nation and nation state, but not in the ethnic sense, which is not even of secondary importance. Let us discuss these notions in more detail.

The European path towards the notion of national interest was long and thorny. In medieval times, numerous princes and princelings, regardless of what they were called in different languages ??and countries, as a rule considered themselves masters of their territories and populations, which they regarded solely as resources and expendable material required to meet their needs and ambitions. The smarter rulers thought of ways to preserve the power, might, and wealth of their clans. The smartest ones understood or felt that they should not only conquer lands and peoples, but also retain them in the long term. On the whole, however, the cognitive skills a prince used in his policies were determined by his interests, ambitions, and outlook.

For centuries, the Roman Empire and the adoption and spread of Christianity shaped a political and psychological environment on the European continent, producing a category that reflected the interests of a given territory, people, and the “vertical of power” as a whole. The relatively small geographical size of Europe largely contributed to the gradual realization that Europe was a single whole, despite countless wars and conflicts. Moreover, those wars reflected continued and large-scale cycles of the continent’s political integration/disintegration.

Undoubtedly, the Roman Empire was the first to integrate Europe. Rome’s decline and collapse returned Europe to a state of political disunity, although not absolute. Christianity served as a new integrator. Combined with the Roman idea of law, Christianity, in particular its Catholic branch, subjugated secular authorities spiritually for centuries and made them politically dependent on the Pope’s will. In spite of their mutual feuds and conflicts, European rulers (before the advent of Protestantism) professed a common religion and remained rulers in their territories only as long as they did not anger the Holy See. For a long time the Vatican effectively fostered distrust and enmity between Europe’s leaders, thus creating a kind of political governance system in Europe. Thus a centuries-old continental symbiosis of ecclesiastical and secular authorities emerged, known as res publica Christiana or Western Christendom. The cultural/historical and political/psychological peculiarity of this system was that the secular authorities were not and did not consider themselves God’s agents on earth. In fact, a powerful mediator stood between them and God – the Pope.

The great geographical discoveries showed Europeans the uniqueness of their common home, while the beginning of the colonial era and capitalism showed its effectiveness. Europe came to other continents, not vice versa. For centuries supreme secular rulers in Europe faced a choice: to submit unconditionally to the will of the Center (the Vatican), running the risk of provoking unrest in their territory and even losing the throne; to defend their own interests and the interests of their territory before the Center, risking relations with the Center and, again, the throne and, possibly, their lives; or to persistently and purposefully seek a balance between the interests and requirements of the Center and those of their territory.

Politically, this dichotomy pushed secular authorities to try to free themselves from the Vatican’s patronage and leave it with only the spiritual function. In the 14th-15th centuries, the political power and influence of the Vatican weakened, and feudal principalities increased their sovereignty. However, the political fragmentation of feudal and, later, capitalist Europe did not prevent European countries from realizing that they were, and still remain, parts of one space in terms of religion and law (the legitimacy of clans, families, and possessions). In this sense, the complete loss of political power by the Vatican and the transformation of res publica Christiana into the Westphalian system (1648) marked not the collapse of medieval Europe, but the beginning of a new cycle of relative integration/disintegration as a special way for the continent’s political development.

It was at this stage that the notion of ‘reason of the State’ (Niccolo Machiavelli’s ragion di Stato; raison d’État in French; and Staatsräson in German) appeared as implicitly opposed to the Vatican and individual interest groups within the state. This notion is broader than “interests of the state.” When a French monarch declared “L’état c’est moi” (“I am the State”), he adequately and precisely expressed the essence of feudal statehood: the monarch did not personify the state, he WAS the state. The new category separated the state and its specific interests from the interests of the outside world and domestic egoisms, including the personal interests of the ruler.

Feudal monarchies had a clear logic of inheritance and legitimacy of power. When a monarch was forcibly replaced by his own or a rival clan, this logic was generally preserved. But with the development of capitalism, the institution of monarchy and the feudal system of society were faced with political negation and were practically transformed. Precedent-setting problems emerged concerning the sources of legitimacy of republican governments and the holder of post-monarchic sovereignty.

Yet there was a technical alternative  in any strong-willed man or a dictator (especially in case of the king’s execution). But, in fact, this was a return to the deep historical past, when power was the key to everything and when the notions of legitimacy and sovereignty did not exist yet. Among other things, there was a risk of a long series of dictatorships. Another alternative was the representative system in the common interest of new elites, stemming from the middle class and making up a small percentage of the population, yet larger than the previous ones. All these factors provided grounds for declaring them the people. This facilitated the solution of problems pertaining to sovereignty, held by the people, and the legitimacy of the government, formed through the system of representation.

These elites in Europe served as the germ of nation – a community of citizens who understand that political compromises, achieved by certain stable rules, are better than eternal civil war or armed conflicts with an unpredictable outcome; and who are ready to abide by these rules and maintain the political system that establishes them. Therefore, the term nation and all its derivatives are primarily of political and legal importance in Europe. The ethnic element was introduced into it later, when nations by inertia continued to be called by the names of their countries. National interest is the interest of nation, a territorial and historical community of citizens, rather than people of a certain ethnicity.

Since the end of the 18th century, this system has undergone two changes that are important to our subject. Firstly, leading scholars in Europe and later the United States have explored this topic in comprehensive philosophical, political, ideological, scientific, and theoretical studies.

Secondly, national interest proved to be optimally compatible with the late-Westphalian system of international relations. Colonialism, that is, the enslavement and exploitation – or even genocide – of peoples in the absolute majority of countries, was difficult to justify by the “national interest” of the colonizing countries. Politically and morally, it was more convenient to speak of “a civilizing mission” and “the Christianization of backward peoples,” while the category of ‘national interest’ for a long time remained out of use for political reasons.

Its triumphant entry into world politics took place in the early 1950s and is associated with the name of Hans Morgenthau, the founder of political realism. He believed that the acquisition and use of power is a major national interest of the state and the main motive of its political behavior in the world. Therefore, Morgenthau for the first time unequivocally linked “national interest” and “the state,” thus actually equating national interest with state interest. Additionally, he and other adepts of the theory of political realism viewed the notions of power and national interest in the economic and military sense.

It is easy to see that this interpretation of national interest and the theory of political realism perfectly described and justified the policy of the U.S. when it was asserting itself as the leader of the Western world. The U.S. replaced the ideological and political arsenal of traditional colonialism, which collapsed under parallel but not coordinated efforts by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, with political theorization about the role of power in the world and the interests of states in this context. The Cold War and the emergence of nuclear weapons in the 1950s-1960s closely linked the notion of national interest with considerations and interests of national security and the “survival” of the state in the nuclear world.

When the last vestiges of the pre-war system of international relations and classical colonialism were finally broken in the early 1960s, the categories of nation state and national interest became instrumental in integrating new post-colonial countries into the system of international relations, primarily their pro-Western part. This helped the U.S. become a political leader in the West and later the world, and saved the face of loser nations – Germany and Japan, which were defeated in World War II, and Britain and France, which lost their colonies and pre-war positions and were no longer leaders of the international system. Under the auspices of the U.S., the way was opened for these countries to become instrumental players in new global politics.

At that stage, U.S. policy increasingly created situations where U.S. military involvement could not be justified by a threat to U.S. national security or interests (for example, the Vietnam War). As a consequence, along with national interest, there appeared the notion of vital interest in politics. The theory of international relations saw the growing criticism of political realism. So-called revisionist theories took shape and eventually neorealism broadened the notion of national interest beyond its original interpretation. Today, anything required by the interests of current politics can be described as national interest in the context of “hard,” “soft,” and “smart” power.

So, it would be justified to say that today, the category of national interest has no scientific content and will not likely exist in the foreseeable future due to its vagueness and a plurality of criteria for defining specific interest. National interest is a historical/philosophical, political-ideological, and political category. The first aspect is related to a certain understanding of history and levels of development of society and the state. The second aspect is associated with the ideology of liberalism and a political-realistic approach to international relations. The third aspect concerns current foreign policy interests of the state as they are understood by people, groups, and governments currently in power. These categories defy objective operationalization, and their interpretation is always subjective. Indeed, Western political theory and practices clearly distinguish national interest, state interest, and the interests of the ruling regime.

the russian way

In the early 1990s post-Soviet Russia turned to capitalism (as it was understood and taught in the Soviet Union) and imported all notions and categories from the West, primarily the U.S., that are now in political use in the country (except Eurasianism and notions borrowed from various periods of Soviet and pre-Soviet history). Of course, Russians had known about the notion of national interest, but it had never been applied to Russia.

Before October 1917, Russia had not passed through the cognitive, political, and practical evolution that Europe experienced over the past two millennia. The Russian way was different, especially in terms of size. Initially undeveloped with a very low population density, Russia’s vast territory was later nominally incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Moscow and the Russian Empire. Life in this territory and its development always required more resources than in Europe. Difficult climatic and other conditions in Russia and a low population density made political processes “unconcentrated.” Local polities were formed only at the level of small “elite” groups (the population and territory were unable yet to feed a larger elite), and the combination of conditions (including difficulties, risks, and costs of communications in that natural and social environment) was more conducive to the formation of political/administrative hierarchies (“verticals of power”) than networks or horizontal structures of any kind.

Relations between secular and religious authorities in Russia also developed differently. The Orthodox Church played a significant role in overcoming the feuding between principalities and building a unified Russian state. But it had to exist amid a low-concentrated political process with many vertical and few horizontal ties. This is why the Church fully submitted to the secular authorities for the larger part of its history. In large, sparsely populated areas in Eastern Europe the Church could neither be the mainstream of Christianity, nor a regulator of inter-ethnic and international relations, instead of mono-ethnic relations between local principalities (after the establishment of the Grand Duchy of Moscow and its victory over the Golden Horde, the latter kind of relations lost their former importance and were reduced to a struggle between several families for the Muscovite throne). Therefore, the processes that drove the integration/disintegration cycles in Europe could not take place in Russia.

In the contemporary era, the formation of capitalism in Russia for various reasons did not result in the political establishment of bourgeois-democratic republicanism: it lasted only from February to October 1917. As a result, a nation was never formed. Not only the royal family and nobility, but also the large class of servicemen viewed the merchant class as a potential threat to the autocracy.

In the early 20th century, Tsar Nicholas II, in response to a surveyor’s question about his occupation, described himself as “the master of the Russian lands.” The Russian emperor was right in his own way. At that time he really was the master of the Russian lands, and this fact showed that Russian society and its institutions resembled European models, but were not similar or close to them. If the autocrat is the master, there is no room for thinking of national interest. The interests of a country are determined by its master, which is absolutely logical in this case.

In the Soviet period, the category of national interest did not take root for other reasons. At the level of ideology, there were two major obstacles – the concepts of classless society and internationalism. Socialist, and later communist, society was expected to emerge in the course of and as a result of class struggle. This is why class interests were proclaimed as supreme and absolute. Therefore, the ideal – a classless society – was international by nature, whereas everything national was regarded as a harmful and dangerous obstacle on the way to universal internationalism.

Predictably, reality turned out to be more complicated than theory. Nominally, the Communist Party led the construction of socialism and communism. Logic suggests that the Party’s interests were to be considered the highest importance, and they mostly were – but not always. Hopes for a world revolution were shaken already by 1920, fatally cracked after the end of the Great Depression, and collapsed in the course of World War II. The Party’s leadership, which viewed the state solely as an instrument of its policy, realized back in the 1920s that it could preserve itself and retain power only if it preserved the state. Joseph Stalin, who was a statist to the core, dramatically shifted the balance of real power from the Party to the state. Nominally, the Party’s ideology and rhetoric remained unchanged, and the Party continued to perform “the leading and guiding role” in building a new society. In practice, however, everything in the country was run by the state until the policy of perestroika was proclaimed in 1986. One of the state’s key pillars was called the State (not Party, public or national) Security Committee.

The Soviet Union had its own way of identifying and implementing system-wide interests, including identifying general trends and development goals, working out long-term programs in the economy, defense, scientific research, and social services, five-year economic plans, and approving the aforesaid at party congresses, at state agencies and in joint resolutions of the Central Committee, the Council of Ministers and, in some cases, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. At various stages, this work involved the apparatuses of the Central Committee and the Council of Ministers, departmental and academic institutions, inter-departmental commissions, and the State Planning Committee. On some issues, informal public discussions were held, and their results were considered by relevant state agencies before making decisions.

I am certainly not idealizing that system, but it had its strengths. It was aimed at forecasting prospects (for terms of five to twenty years) and combining those forecasts with concrete programs, and annual and five-year plans. Those forecasts made it possible to maneuver all kinds of resources not only in real time, but also on a scale of decades. The aim was to combine the efforts of the Party, the government, and the more active part of the population. The outcome was a compromise–not only between the desirable and the possible, but also between the interests of the party/state nomenklatura, its top echelon, the state, and the active “system” part of society.

One consequence of Russia’s development was the blending of interests of the country, the state, and the ruling regime. In tsarist Russia, there was a certain logic in such blending: the monarch was the real master of his country, whether we liked it or not, and his interests were determinant for the state and the country. The declarative priority of certain class interests over all others in the socialist era became an effective weapon in intra-nomenklatura struggles, since anyone could be accused of anti-party activities, deviating from the principles of Marxism-Leninism, or other ideological sins. This weapon was eagerly used by party fundamentalists, statist technocrats, and unprincipled careerists. If one interest group within the nomenklatura found something undesirable, it could easily declare it anti-socialist, which left no room for discussion. Obviously, in such an atmosphere it was not just difficult, but often politically disadvantageous to distinguish between the interests of the Party, the state, and society.

The concrete interests of the ruling regime have always been – and still are – a non-public issue in Russia. Under Stalin, such interests were very dangerous, even deadly; during the Brezhnev era they were simply not public, and now it is not forbidden to discuss them, but few people want to raise the issue. Of course, political journalism, theory, and practice admit that any regime may have its own interests that might differ from (and theoretically even conflict with) the interests of the state and society. However, an analysis of problems and processes in contemporary Russia seldom reveals such differences and their potential and real consequences. In practice, the ruling regime, both in the past and now, determines the practical content of what later receives the status of “Russian interests.” On the one hand, things must be this way, as it is one of the main functions of the ruling regime in any country and any era. On the other hand, an insufficiently clear political and theoretical differentiation between different kinds of interests increases the risk that under some circumstances the interests of the ruling regime may blend with and even sideline other interests. Against this background, the category of national interest adds even more vagueness to the understanding of Russia’s country-wide interests.

Some government documents from the mid-1990s used the formula “geopolitical and national interest of Russia.” The logical conclusion is that Russia’s geopolitical interests are not the same as its national interests. And since these two groups of interests differ, one cannot rule out the possibility of a conflict between them. There is no indication as to what criteria must be used to solve the conflict should it occur. Nor is there any scientific definition of either group of interests. The notion of ‘geopolitical interests’ continues to be widely used in domestic political science and mass media along with the term ‘national interest.’

The geopolitical idea and terms came into political use in Russia on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The renunciation of Marxism-Leninism, coupled with the understandable lack of any other ideology in the country at the time, made geopolitics attractive in the eyes of the authorities and security agencies. Above all, geopolitics is an ideology of statism. Like the idea of ??class struggle, it is based on the notion of ‘balance of power.’ (However, whereas political realism refers to pragmatic and objectively measurable kinds of power, such as military and economic, the concepts of the balance of class forces and geopolitics refer to immeasurable, speculative, and hypothetical power). Geopolitics created the illusion that post-Soviet Russia would retain the Soviet Union’s international position. But it would be an oversimplification to see only the irrational in geopolitics.

As an ideology and a practical course, geopolitics is based on the very important postulate of “the balance of power” in international life, which makes the international situation implicitly conflict prone. However, the “demand for conflictogenity” in this sphere can be produced by individual actors in international relations, which for some reason give preference to conflict behavior in the world in certain areas of their policies, and by the state of the system of international relations as a whole. This attitude does not recognize other types of behavior or leave certain categories of international actors any other alternative except conflict as a way to assert themselves and protect their interests (including legal ones).

The latter case reveals the peculiar nature of geopolitical interests. They demand costs and expenses today in the hope of returns in the future. In this sense, ensuring geopolitical interests is a resource-intensive political investment in the future, with unpredictable risks and outcome. It is justified if it is a matter of the country’s survival or if it is necessary for ensuring a wide range of other interests – strategic, military, status, etc. Would such an investment meet the “national interest” or be a payment for meeting it? I think it is the latter.

Russia’s futile search for a “national idea” throughout the post-Soviet period is convincing proof that there is no “nation” in the country yet and that its national interest does not rest on a solid socio-cultural foundation. The term, imported from other cultures and conditions, is more ideological in today’s Russia than in the countries of its origin. Throughout Russian history, the interests of the state have been identified with the interests of the ruling regime, and it was only occasionally, in retrospect, that actions of a regime that had already left the political scene were declared erroneous and, therefore, contrary to the state interest. But if the interests of the regime or even the state are presented – whether intentionally or not – as “national,” it becomes more difficult and somewhat unpatriotic to oppose them.

Finally, Russian society (rather than individuals or groups) has never tried to formulate its own constructive ideas concerning the interests of the country (rather than the state or the ruling regime). Dissatisfaction with official policy has always been rampant and there have always been groups unhappy with some of the government’s moves or its policy in general. But it is only in the last half century that the first rudiments of continuous efforts to develop the interests of the country and society (and not necessarily opposition to the government) have appeared.

Currently, there is no reason to believe that the situation described above may change dramatically in the foreseeable future. Interests introduced into politics are still determined in a narrow sphere of intra-elite relations and inter-departmental confrontations. However, the price of such interests in the 21st century is becoming unprecedentedly high and can set the country back several decades. This means that Russia needs interests that, for lack of a more precise term, can be described as national.


If Russian society is not a nation yet but a combination of many ethnic groups, the formation of national, state, and regime interests is acquiring special significance, as are the criteria for balancing them. At the same time, it would be justified to say that, although the term ‘national interest’ has long been used in official documents and speeches, there has been no clear definition of national interest yet, nor understanding of how to develop and approve it.

To clarify, some elements of concrete national interest are impossible to define. They emerge and change when sudden events and phenomena occur in foreign or domestic affairs. As a rule, a quick response is required. Due to time pressure and other factors, these elements are defined and federal agencies take respective measures promptly. Public discussions may take place later, but at a critical time national interest is determined by officials and agencies in charge. Such situations have occurred many times in the past, and they will undoubtedly continue in the future. The discussion below does not analyze those situations; rather the more numerous cases where national interest and responsive measures can be determined in advance within the framework of a special mechanism.

At the ideological level, national interest can be expressed in just a few words – security, durability of international positions, individual and civil rights, and development. The difference is in their specifics and country. As an ideological and partly moral notion, national interest can be easily filled with a pointedly ideological content and become a motivation and a basis for an irrational policy, which usually results in a waste of time, as well as human and material resources. At the worst, national interest may trigger destructive processes for the country. But ideological and moral imperatives can be translated into feasible positive and practical goals, programs, plans, and actions.

The ideological content of national interest helps to legitimize hardline central authorities, both religious and secular, since there is a supposedly greater goal, which only ideologists can see in its entirety and splendor. Indeed, there should be someone who can lead the country to this ideal. But specifying national interest inevitably raises questions of timeframes and the cost of meeting them, thereby questioning the efficiency of the government and governance systems. Religions are unverifiable, and this is their unbeatable advantage over secular political ideologies. Here is an illustrative example: while the Soviet Union was building socialism and promised the advent of communism after socialism, a large part of the population believed in this dream, and the system remained stable, even despite terrible hardships and repression. However, when (in conditions of relative material prosperity and personal freedom) the government began to adopt concrete plans and programs, most of which were never fulfilled, the authority and power of the Communist Party began to wane, which in the long run led to the dismantling of Soviet socialism in Europe. Apparently, the path to political stability lies through efficient government or a slowdown in development by means of a (quasi-) religious regime and state.

The official definition of Russia’s national interest is given in only one document. The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation (2013) mentions national interest more than once, but does not specify it. Naturally, this document views national interest only in its external aspect: the interest “of the Russian Federation as an influential and competitive center of the contemporary world.”

The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation until 2020 defines the country’s national interest as “a combination of internal and external needs of the state in ensuring the security and stable development of the individual, society, and the state.” The merit of this definition is that it has been given at all and that internal and external aspects of national interest are linked to each other here. This linkage, which is profoundly elaborated in the Strategy, holds center stage and permeates all its sections. Yet this definition has a serious drawback in that it identifies national interest with state interest and reduces the former to the latter. It would be strange to deny the interest of the state as one of the leading actors in the country’s politics and life, but to identify it with national interest would be incorrect methodologically and very risky practically.

The Strategy states in Article 21 that “the national interest of the Russian Federation in the long term consists of the following: developing democracy and civil society and increasing the competitiveness of the national economy; ensuring the stability of the constitutional system, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of the Russian Federation; transforming the Russian Federation into a world power, whose activity would be directed at supporting strategic stability and mutually advantageous partner relations in a multipolar world.” Each of these aspects can be operationalized in a specific context, as follows from the goals and tasks of the national security policy set out in the document.

One of the Strategy’s provisions, important for this discussion, says that “to defend its national interest, Russia will pursue, within the frameworks of international law, a rational and pragmatic foreign policy that will rule out costly confrontation, including a new arms race” [italics are mine – N.K.]. In my opinion this means that the content of national interest, as well as forms and methods to protect it, rule out any kind of missionary idea, whether ideological, religious, or imperial. If this trend continues for a long time (although there are internal and external forces that for various reasons will strongly oppose it), it may mark a fundamental, historic turn in Russia’s development and in its relations with the world – from some variants of painful ideologization to restrained and rational pragmatism.

The identification of national interest with state interest logically results in the state determining the latter. The expert and scientific communities and civil society may have a say as well, but the final word naturally rests with the agent of interest. This can be done explicitly, when the state clearly says what it intends or does not intend to do, or, which is much worse, implicitly, when the state says one thing but does something else.

On this path, two dangers lie in wait for Russia’s national interest, since it has no historical traditions, mechanisms, and practical skills to correct policies and actions of the ruling regime and the state as a whole to make them compatible with the goals and tasks of social and political stability. The first danger is the exceptionally large role of the ruling regime in formulating goals and shaping policies (both domestic and foreign). The risk is a lack of motivation on the part of the legislature and federal agencies, along with their inability to exert a restraining influence when necessary. Yes, today the policy of the ruling regime is rational and pragmatic. But can we be sure that tomorrow it will not change and even become its opposite? What are the guarantees for that, except for personal qualities and views of the head of state?

Another danger is a simmering global crisis of bureaucracy as an institution. The bureaucracy is increasingly expanding beyond all forms of control everywhere (including even such rigid forms of control as in China). It seeks to and can maximize its powers and privileges. Made on the basis of formal criteria and procedures, bureaucratic decisions are increasingly turning out to be destructive, and the bureaucracy’s responsibility for these decisions is purely nominal, as a rule. The global bureaucracy is plagued with corruption, and the scale of this phenomenon is not yet showing a downward trend. The bureaucracy is invulnerable to elections, especially if the latter is not backed up with effective law enforcement measures and day-to-day democracy at all levels. Without going into an analysis of this looming crisis, I will only say that one should not rule out honest mistakes, sheer incompetence, or the possibility that individual groups in the bureaucracy have “privatized” individual aspects of the process of shaping state (national) interest or even the entirety of interests. A country with a high level of corruption has no guarantees against this phenomenon penetrating into the spheres of foreign policy, national security, and national interest.

If we use the principle of an “ideal model,” there are two possible ways of forming national interest or its equivalent. One is the way Western political theory considers the only possibility; that is, an established nation determines its interest through the system of democratic institutions, by which a democratically formed government is guided. “Nation” is a philosophical and political notion no matter how one defines characteristics of a nation. According to Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Taylor, and Vladimir Lenin, any attempt to analyze this notion with reference to a specific time and social space will inevitably raise the question of whether all members of this society should be included in the given “nation.” Optimal conditions for the creation of a nation are a combination of society’s isolation from and opposition to the external world. However, globalization is breaking both of these conditions, with consequences that are seen in France and other countries with high levels of immigration.

In addition to the aforesaid, two more ways are possible. In both of them, “national interest” is related to society. Historically, the most common variant is when hardline secular or religious authorities dictate to the country their own understanding of what the people and the state need (not forgetting themselves, of course). Of all the possibilities, this one especially easily dwindles to a level where the interests of the ruling regime and/or person not only replace all other interests, but also make the latter serve themselves.

Theoretically, there can be another way: a country that is not a nation yet is viewed as a socio-territorial system (STS) – a historically indivisible entity formed by a stable territory (albeit changing throughout history), a population permanently living on that territory and developing it, and the organization of this territory and population for a certain type of economic management and lifestyle. With the current economy and educational level of the elites and the population, the STS can (and presumably should) have its own interest, generally reduced to self-preservation in a highly competitive environment. To this end, it should seek to continuously broaden its internal and external capabilities (including ensuring its security), and ensure its evolutionary development, understood as the creation, acquisition, and effective use of qualitatively new capabilities to enhance its competitiveness.

The aforementioned interest is long-term by nature. Both the interest and the need to meet it exceed in duration the time in office of any regime. It includes state interest and protects it, but only as a functional subsystem of interest of the STS as a whole. It does not rule out the possibility of far-reaching reforms and even revolutions, but in the macro-interest of the STS, rather than at its expense. It admits of broad participation in international cooperation, including globalization; but it also allows and demands, without opposing globalization as a phenomenon, defending its place in it, its values and independence, while opposing the policy of globalism, if necessary. But most importantly, it is organic to the neo-feudal system of modern Russia, whose main political characteristic is the absence of an inherent conflict between the branches of power as a condition and a way to stabilize the STS and its political system as a whole.

In the absence of such a mechanism, social, primarily intra-elite, relations constantly risk sliding into a kind of feudal wars. In fact, such wars have been fought in Russia for the past two decades, but fortunately they take place at the middle and local levels of elites and are fought by means of illegal takeovers, corrupt practices, and legal proceedings. As the experience of some post-Soviet countries shows, the risks of such a system can easily become a reality and make the country and its state vulnerable to objective and subjective factors. Manual control over such a system not only does not guarantee its long-term stability, but also diverts time and resources of the ruling people and agencies for the continuous solution of tactical problems, thus narrowing the potential for strategic thinking and action.

It seems that a mechanism for forming a neo-feudal type national (or, to be more exact, system-wide) interest of the STS could help solve many practical problems and become an important means of stabilizing intra-elite relations and consolidating society. This new type of interest could be very distinctive from classical feudalism, which constantly produced internal conflicts.

The specific forms of such a mechanism is an issue requiring special study. But the main principles of its construction and functioning should be as follows: (1) focus on the development of a strategic perspective of the STS and the system of interest stemming from this perspective; (2) give top priority to prospective challenges and opportunities, and only then to threats in various fields and geographical regions; (3) integrate state interest into national interest, with an absolute priority for the system-wide interest of the STS; (4) ensure a multi-stage institutionalized process for developing national interest with the participation of representatives of the state, the scientific and business communities, and NGOs that have a proven high level of competence and efficiency; (5) adopt decisions and recommendations within the framework of this process by a simple majority; (6) provide legislative support for national interest developed in this way; and (7) secure the obligatory nature and a clear-cut system of implementing the adopted interest in state programs and budgets.

By creating a mechanism for shaping its own system-wide interest, Russia would make the first major step towards renouncing the uncritical copying of Western forms. In this way, Russia could focus on substantive aspects of Western forms and, at the same time, create its own, in both foreign and domestic policies.