Companion to East Timor - National Interest

National Interest

The idea of 'national interest' has influenced Australian strategic policy for decades. In The Idea of National Interest (1934), Charles Beard traced the history of the concept of 'national interest' to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when modern nation-states began to crystallise. Unsurprisingly, the rise of the nation-state and the use of the term occurred at the same time. Beard found that after the development of the nation-state and the appearance of nationalist sentiments, older terms – the 'will of the prince' and 'raison d'état' – lost their ability to mobilise the public will. They were therefore replaced by references to 'national interests' and 'vital interests'. Other terms used for their mobilising capacity include 'national honour', 'public interest' and 'general will'. This followed the development of the idea of 'nation' (Anderson (1991:36-46), Armstrong (1982) and Smith (1989)).

The early history of 'national interest', according to Joseph Frankel (1970), cannot be traced back much further than the sixteenth century. Earlier societies that were in contact with one another often developed notions of self-interest based upon language, a common political identity, survival, power and wealth, but conceived these notions 'within specific bargaining terms or conflict situations rather than in general terms' (Frankel 1970:20). Frankel writes that the concept could not be articulated in ancient Greece because of the blurring of distinctions between political and cultural communities, and the absence of clear-cut political boundaries. Conceptions of common interests were restricted to the boundaries of individual city-states, in a manner analogous to that of the Renaissance Italians. During the Persian Wars these conceptions gave way to pan-Hellenic ideas and the more inclusive sentiment of a Hellenic cultural community. The Roman Empire accentuated the shift from national to catholic (i.e. universal) consciousness. Frankel observes that in the Middle Ages, the nature of relations between individual political units and the Roman Empire and the 'confusion between politics and metaphysics offered no scope for the evolution of the idea of the "national interest"' (Frankel 1970:21). In other words, 'empire' superseded 'nation' as a form of political organisation.

Before the French Revolution the term 'nation' referred to a racial or linguistic group. Political authority was largely centralised, exclusively so in the domain of external relations; according to E.H. Carr, international relations were primarily relations between royal families. The narrowness of this domestic conception was matched by a mercantilist policy in external affairs. Such a policy was intended to expand the power and wealth of the state, personified by the ruler and controlled by a small circle of governing elites. For these elites, wealth accumulation occurred as a result of the exploitation of peasants and serfs. In the post-Renaissance period, wealth accumulation also occurred as a result of trade and colonial wars. In this period, mercantilism 'identified the interest of the nation with the interest of its rulers' (Carr 1945:2-6).

The doctrine of raison d'état is a predecessor to 'national interest'. Raison d'état derives from Machiavelli's writings on statecraft and has its roots, according to Meinecke, in 'the personal power-drive of the rulers' and 'the need of the subject people, which allows itself to be governed because it receives compensations' in exchange (Meinecke 1998:10). Machiavelli argued that the overriding imperative for the ruler was the survival of the state, threats to which had to be overcome by any means necessary. The prince 'must be prepared not to be virtuous, and … must not flinch from being blamed for vices which are necessary for safeguarding the state. … He should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary' (Machiavelli 1961; 1999:50, 57).

Beginning in the 15th century, and with increasing momentum in the 17th and 18th centuries, secularism and political economy began to gain in prominence at the expense of theology. This displacement from a spiritual to a material concern was matched by a corresponding change in the meaning of the word 'interest', which 'shrank to an economic conception in writings and negotiations involving policy, statecraft and social affairs generally' (Beard 1935:155). Interest referred to 'outward realities such as material, plant and equipment, or aggregations of plants and equipments'. It also referred to 'the owners of such tangibles, as for example, when we speak of utility interests, railroad interests, and aviation interests'. The national interest, accordingly, is often regarded as 'a mere aggregation of particular interests, or … the most active and dominant interests, even though they may be in the minority – considered either as the proportion of persons or corporations involved or as the proportion of capital measured by pecuniary standards' (Beard 1935:156). Thus, for Beard, when the national interest is being considered, it is really the interests of the owners of property that are being considered. Furthermore, there is no objective 'thing' called the national interest because interests cannot be divorced from (subjective) human motives and concerns:

As far as policy is concerned, interest inheres in human beings as motive or force of attention, affection and action… Those who merely discuss policy likewise bring their interests to bear, consciously or unconsciously, and their interests, both intellectual and economic (salary, wages or income), are affiliated with some form of ownership or opposition to the present relations or operations of ownership (Beard 1935:156).

The subjectivism of the term leads to the 'intellectual impossibility of isolating and defining interests in absolute terms' (Beard 1935:157). However, underpinning the whole edifice of the national interest is the assumption that a given political community has common interests in distinction to the common interests of other political communities. Rousseau described the political expression of these common interests as the 'general will'. He suggested that there were times when the multiplicity of individual interests would be subordinated to a collective interest that was applied to all members. It is only this general will that 'can direct the powers of the State in such a way that the purpose for which it has been instituted, which is the good of all, will be achieved. For if the establishment of societies had been made necessary by the antagonism that exists between particular interests, it has been made possible by the conformity that exists between these same interests' (Rousseau 1960:190).

For Rousseau, the common interests of societies constitute the basis of decision-making and policy. These interests are a cohesive glue that binds a society together and prevents it from fragmenting:

The bond of society is what there is in common between these different interests, and if there were not some point in which all interests were identical, no society could exist. The bond of society is that identity of interests which all feel who compose it. In the absence of such an identity no society would be possible. Now, it is solely on the basis of this common interest that society must be governed (Rousseau 1960:190).

Once the French Revolution had swept aside the doctrine of the 'divine right of kings', the state came to be seen as the instrument of the nation. The sovereign no longer personified the state and its interests. Beard found that claims made in the name of 'the will of the prince' lost their validity. As popular forces gained greater access to civil and political rights, the aim of national policy began to be understood as the pursuit of the interests of all members of the nation. However, the underlying assumption – that these interests existed in distinction to the interests of other political communities – continued. Governments had come under serious pressure for better wages and working conditions in the late 19th century. The Russian Revolution meant that these demands had to be taken seriously early in the 20th century. These economic interests, and the government policies that were designed to pursue them, would be asserted against the interests and policies of other governments. While this gave workers 'an intimate practical interest in the policy and power of the nation', it also necessitated 'the loyalty of the masses to a nation which had become the instrument of their collective interests and ambitions' (Carr 1945:19-21).

Rosenau (1968) argued that the public's stake in international relations increased after World War II and the danger of total war. He suggested that 'national interest' could be used in two distinct senses – one for political analysis and another for political action:

As an analytic tool, it is employed to describe, explain or evaluate the sources or the adequacy of a nation's foreign policy. As an instrument of political action, it serves as a means of justifying, denouncing or proposing policies. Both usages … confine the intended meaning to what is best for a national society. Beyond these general considerations, however, the two uses of the concept have little in common (Rosenau 1968).

In practical terms, these distinctions are not particularly useful because there is no way to tell which of these two senses is being employed. Given the blurred distinction between the two uses, the concept is cloaked in so much ambiguity as to be unworkable. Frankel suggested another set of classifications – aspirational, operational and explanatory-polemical. At the aspirational level, national interest refers to 'the vision of the good life, to some ideal set of goals which the state would like to realise if this were possible'. At the operational level, 'national interest refers to the sum total of interests and objectives actually pursued' (Frankel 1970:31-32). Frankel suggests that aspirational interests are long-term interests that are embedded in history and ideology, and invoked by a political opposition that is unrestrained by the burdens of day-to-day governance. By contrast, operational interests are short-term interests that are the primary concerns of the government and/or party in power. They arise from considerations of expediency or necessity and are used in a descriptive rather than normative form. They are 'generally translated into policies which are based upon the assessment of their prospects of success' (Frankel 1970:33). At the explanatory-polemical level, the concept of national interest 'is used to explain, evaluate, rationalise or criticise foreign policy. Its main role is to "prove" oneself right and one's opponents wrong and the arguments are used for this purpose rather than for describing or prescribing' (Frankel 1970:35).

There are several problems with these classifications. For one, there is considerable overlap between the first two categories and the third. For another, the aspirational level can be utopian, often deliberately so, and unmeasurable as well. Furthermore, while the operational level describes the interests and policies actually pursued, it is thrown into confusion at the explanatory-polemical level, where a plethora of assertions and counter-assertions are to be found.

So imprecise is the term that Aron (1966) abandoned the attempt to define it, regarding it as a meaningless, vague formula or a pseudo-theory. He concluded that the national interests pursued by individual states are diverse and not at all permanent. They vary according to context and there is no general agreement even within the state about their nature.

The national interest and recent Australian experience

The term's elusiveness and contestability is illustrated by recent Australian experience. In 1997, the Liberal-National Coalition government released Australia's first White Paper on foreign and trade policy. Entitled In The National Interest, the White Paper was a re-working of the policy taken by the Coalition to the 1996 election when it was in opposition . Both documents – as well as the speeches and writings of the government's foreign and trade ministers – show that a few key themes run consistently through the Coalition's view of the national interest. The first theme is that the pursuit of the 'national interest' is the central purpose of Australian foreign policy. As the Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said,

When our government was first elected in 1996, we set about placing the national interest at the heart of the Coalition's foreign policy. We made this quite explicit when we released our White Paper on Foreign and Trade Policy in 1997 (Downer 1 December 1999).

The second theme is that the national interest is defined as military security and economic development:

Preparing for the future is not a matter of grand constructs. It is about the hard-headed pursuit of the interests which lie at the core of foreign and trade policy: the security of the Australian nation and the jobs and standard of living of the Australian people. In all that it does in the field of foreign and trade policy, the Government will apply this basic test of the national interest …

It is about ensuring the continued security of the Australian nation, about protecting the standard of living of all Australians, and about ensuring that our economy continues to flourish and provide more jobs for this and future generations (DFAT 1997).

The third theme is that the national interest is permanent, or at least very durable. In the words of the official policy formulation:

The national interest does not change with a change in government (DFAT 1999, p iii).

There are several problems associated with the government's definition of the national interest as 'the security of the Australian nation and the jobs and standard of living of the Australian people'. For one, as Smith (1992) has noted, 'the concept of security has been hijacked'. The normal meaning of the security ('untroubled by danger or apprehension') has been replaced with a narrow, hollow and militarised substitute, 'where military threat is insecurity and security is found in military defence' (Smith and Kettle 1992:25). The citizens, scholars and strategic analysts who cooperate in the Secure Australia Project argue that the question of 'the security of the Australian nation' needs to be reformulated in order that Australians might consider not only traditional state-conflict but other contemporary issues – global ecology, gender, ethnicity and poverty, for example – which escape the conventional tools of foreign policy analysis. The Secure Australia Project has made a cogent argument about the potentially destabilising and divisive effects that a neo-liberal economic agenda is likely to have on the North-South divide. It sought to broaden the parameters of the 'national security' debate by demonstrating how 'globalisation from below' is intrinsic to Australian security and to Australia's broader national and global interests.

There is another problem with the definition: to cite the 'national interest' as the central imperative that guides state action is to point to a chimera. Australian legislation is, quite simply, bereft of any clear definition. The Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act (1975) allows the Treasurer to stop a foreign takeover of an Australian business if that takeover is 'contrary to the national interest'. The legislation is clear on what the Treasurer is allowed to consider:

Where the Treasurer is satisfied that:

  • a person proposes to enter into an arrangement with an Australian business…
  • that would have the result that the business would be controlled by foreign persons… and
  • that result would be contrary to the national interest.

The Treasurer may make an order prohibiting the entering into of the proposed arrangement.

There is no attempt to specify just what the national interest might be, because the Treasurer has 'arbitrary power to block foreign takeovers, as long as he doesn't admit it' (McFarlane 24 April 2001:4). DFAT made a similar point in its submission to a Senate inquiry (DFAT 1999). The submission related to the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill 1999, which established a scheme for the regulation of international broadcasting services transmitted from Australia. The Bill proposed that in certain circumstances, such broadcasts could be contrary to the national interest. Under such circumstances, the Minister for Foreign Affairs would have the power to direct the Australian Broadcasting Authority not to allocate the licence, or to warn a licensee, or to suspend or cancel a licence. All this, of course, meant that the Minister for Foreign Affairs would have to determine whether a broadcast service was likely to be contrary to the national interest. Once again, there was no attempt to specify just what the national interest might be. In contrast to the (objective) authority with which the concept is wielded, the DFAT submission acknowledged its inherent value-laden subjectivity. It could not specify what would be contrary to the national interest:

This will be a matter for the Minister to form a view on in light of the nature of the proposed service and all the relevant circumstances prevailing at the time (DFAT 1999).

The submission went on to note that it was not possible to define precisely what sorts of broadcasts would be, or would be likely to be, contrary to the national interest. But it provided the examples of 'hostile broadcasts promoting communal violence or terrorism in a foreign State, or inciting or encouraging armed hostilities or the violent overthrow of an established government, … broadcasts which demean persons or groups on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, race, gender, sexual preference, religion, or mental or physical disability'. The DFAT submission then stated that the Bill did not require the Minister to give reasons for his decision. Indeed, the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill noted that

The nature of these decisions is such that exposure of the reasons for the decisions could itself be contrary to Australia's national interest (DFAT 1999).

The arbitrariness of this state of affairs is clear. As the Seven Network's submission to the same inquiry put it, 'depending on the political environment in the region, what may be considered to be in the national interest may change from day to day, depending on the issues of the moment and the presiding powers in other countries' (Seven Network 1999).

The Howard government's 1996 reforms to the treaty-making process required that all treaties tabled in Parliament be accompanied by a National Interest Analysis (NIA). But it too skirted around the issue of what the national interest might be. Annex II to Negotiation, Conclusion and Implementation of International Treaties and Arrangements is entitled Guidelines for National Interest Analyses. It provides the following, rather inadequate guidance:

Address the advantages and disadvantages to Australia of taking the proposed treaty action. Include significant, quantifiable and foreseeable economic and/or environmental effects.

In contrast to the government's assertions, then, the national interest is subjective and contingent, not objective and absolute. Its most ardent advocates prefer to apply a negative test ('such and such is not in the national interest') when required to make a decision based on it. Furthermore, according to the DFAT Submission, decisions based on the national interest should be left unexamined, as any examination is itself detrimental to the national interest.

The situation in this regard was unchanged when, on 12 February 2003, the government issued a new White Paper. Known as Advancing the National Interest, it too reiterated the primacy of the concept. A Senate Committee that looked into this White Paper expressed its concern that 'despite the prominent rhetorical and conceptual role assigned to "national interest", the White Paper's authors cleary felt under no obligation to acknowledge, let alone try and wrestle with, the complexities and problems that are intrinsic to the definition and application of the term. This is a significant shortcoming' (Senate FADT 3 December 2003:9)

When parliamentary committees hear arguments for and against the proposition that foreign corporations should be allowed to buy Australian assets, they frequently encounter references to the 'national interest'. While few would dispute the proposition that a given policy should be in the national interest, there is less agreement about how to conceptualise the national interest. The 'national interest' (in economic terms) relates to the way the Australian state and economy actually function. One of the most important functions of the state is to regulate domestic and external affairs in the overall interests of the economy, with special consideration for its dominant sectors. The most powerful groups in the economy may have different opinions on several issues, but they all agree on the importance of a stable investment climate for business operations (both overseas and domestically), and on the need for good access to human and material resources. The state is required to ensure this outcome. Governments come and go but the state persists. The senior public servants who direct the long-term interests of the Australian state must, given the reality of the system, present governments with the systemic facts of the state's situation and interests within a much longer time frame than the electoral cycle.

These long-term systemic imperatives do not change radically, regardless of which government is in power. This is hardly surprising in a capitalist democracy because the highest priority is the maintenance of investment stability. Unless this priority is attended to, no other priorities can be addressed. While Labor or Liberal-National governments may act in somewhat different ways, with varying nuances, they remain committed to the same systemic interest – that of Australian capitalism. Corporate managers do not usually focus on this systemic interest. They typically focus on specific details such as profits and market share in their corporations. However, the upper echelons of the state executive, which is largely composed of people with similar lifestyles, aspirations, and associations, does focus on investment stability and on an environment conducive to the enduring interests of Australian capitalism. The state executive shapes, and is shaped by, the enduring framework of the private economy, where more immediate and focused corporate planning occurs.

Thus, the 'national interest' as conceptualised in economic terms is, given the reality of a capitalist democracy, best understood as the maintenance of the system and its associated need for investment stability. A foreign state that attempted to acquire an Australian asset through sovereign wealth funds or state-owned companies would be acting contrary to Australia's 'national interest' if it interfered with these considerations.

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