On Calculations of National Interest

It is standard rhetoric for those who oppose their country’s “getting involved in a foreign conflict” to say that a government’s role in foreign affairs must be determined by considerations of “legitimate national interest.” On its face, this is a sound position, and one with which any person possessing a modicum of rational restraint, forethought, or political moderation ought to agree. However, that attractively conservative phrase, “legitimate national interest,” may in practice be a far more complicated notion than those employing it today would like to believe. For the national interest is not an easily identified item like “the national champion,” or a matter of straightforward and indisputable arithmetic like “the national debt.” Rather, a nation’s legitimate interest, though perhaps simply definable in the abstract, can be quite nebulous or changeable in accordance with the concrete context and reasonable implications of any given “foreign conflict.”

Two specific factors introduced into global political reality over the past century have substantially altered the calculus that might have been applied to determine the proper national interest in all centuries before the twentieth: technology and totalitarianism. The former makes “troubles in far-off lands” seem disquietingly (or entertainingly) near and immediate in ways that can make old-fashioned detachment appear both naïve and brutal. The latter undermines some of the “not-our-problem” reasoning that justified earlier notions of national interest, due to the late modern shift from ordinary tyrannical ambition to ideological universalism, which means from a mere desire for conquest to a will to impose a new vision of reality by annihilating all rival visions.

National interest, like personal interest, is a moral or quasi-moral matter. As in most such matters, context is essential to good deliberation. To ignore differences in context is not merely to miss the details, but often to completely evade the crux of the issue, which, after all, is to choose well by applying right principles to the specific but variable conditions at hand.

In a time when another continent might as well have been another galaxy, from the point of view of daily life, and in which news of distant events traveled in a manner psychologically consistent with the geographical divide, calculations of national interest naturally yielded different results from those made in a world of instantaneous global information and communication, same-day ocean-hopping travel, and weaponry capable of hitting any country on the planet within two hours. And it is not merely the speed of movement, and the accessibility of everyone to everyone, that is different between these two conditions. The long-term reality of the “smaller world” engendered by technology also has obvious implications for, and even more obvious effects on, the way distant nations view one another, or are forced to view one another.

To calculate national interest as George Washington or James Madison did, and then to cite their example as evidence in favor of one’s classical liberal bona fides on foreign policy, is to make one’s calculations in an imaginary universe in which it is still 1797. Washington and Madison may have been perfectly right about these matters in their time; but this is not their time. Today’s conditions of communication, interaction, and geopolitical confrontation have produced a radically different context from that of the era before electricity, digital communication, long-range missiles, and the kind of totalitarian social influencing strategies that have raised propaganda to the status of a ubiquitous intellectual and emotional assault from a hundred directions, most of them subliminal or deeply hidden beneath layers of the seemingly quotidian in information, education, and “public discussion.”

In 1797, one might have regarded a conflict or despot on the other side of the world as odious or objectionable, while simultaneously determining that nothing happening “over there” represented any immediate challenge to one’s own nation’s concerns, at least as pertaining to direct government policy or expenditure. But when certain distant conflicts may reasonably be interpreted as precursors to a nearer conflict, perhaps even as opening salvos in such a more immediate challenge, or when a faraway despotism is known to have already insinuated itself and its subversive intentions into one’s own national life, psyche, and institutions, as its leading strategists and dissidents have long warned it would do, then one’s calculations of legitimate interest must naturally adapt to the altered significance of those “foreign hostilities,” to the extent that they no longer seem quite so foreign.

More concretely stated, when you, living in a country with liberal principles and inclinations, see an explicitly global authoritarian state on the march against other liberally-inclined countries, and have good reason to believe that this global authoritarian aggressor has both the will and the means to continue expanding its reach indefinitely, with the aim of squeezing your country and its liberalism out of the international equation, and ultimately out of existence, by gradually and forcibly draining you of like-minded neighbors, trade partners, and mutually defensive allies, then adopting the “not our problem” intransigence suitable to the practical conditions of 1797 begins to seem less like the sober judgment of rational men, and more like the shortsighted hedonist’s refusal to admit the existence of approaching dangers which, if admitted, might necessitate inconvenience or discomfort in the short term. Non-interventionism is a sound policy for a freedom-loving nation, as long as intervention is understood as the act of insinuating oneself into other people’s conflicts without an abiding national interest in doing so, such as for “humanitarian” reasons or for the sake of propping up  “friendly regimes,” which actions typically entail a flight from the classical liberal principle of limited government.

Not all international involvement, however, is simple intervention in this excessive sense, because some foreign conflicts entail genuine national entanglements or dangers, whereby one’s legitimate national interests become a factor. Vladimir Putin has every intention of reviving the old Soviet empire on his own terms, with all that this implies for the fate of liberty and peaceful coexistence, not only globally but within Russia. This latter is a key point, one always carefully avoided by those Putin apologists who pretend to be classical non-interventionists: Putin does not represent Russia’s interests, but only his own, as is the nature of modern tyranny. The current situation is not in the least about Russia’s “security interests” or “territorial integrity” — Russia’s true interests lie on the side of liberalization and normalizing relations with the advanced world that traditionally, and still nominally, values the principles and premises of freedom. This was a fact not only lamented by Putin’s Russian opponents, but understood by many within Russia’s post 1991-government, before Putin systematically subverted all their nascent efforts toward democratization and individual liberty in order to reestablish Soviet authoritarian rule, in its new “populist” guise.

Avoiding unnecessary international entanglements is a good idea. But when the entanglements come to you against your will, through the totalitarian swallowing of one’s allies, and insidious global propaganda and indoctrination achieved through manipulating mass movements and exploiting the openness of liberal institutions themselves, then the attempt to “avoid” entanglements becomes precisely the foolish self-destruction Jean-François Revel detailed forty years ago in How Democracies Perish, an important book about which I wrote on its thirtieth anniversary. The enemy today is largely the same as the enemy of that time, and Revel’s revelations and warnings every bit as pertinent now as then — perhaps more so, as the liberal West has drifted much further in the direction of succumbing to totalitarian premises and propaganda, and of falling for the tyranny-serving moral equivalency arguments against which Revel argued effectively, but which hardly have a clear opposition voice today at all.

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