The Politics of National Interest

Photo: Atlantic Council

By Kashif Islam

When the 19th century Victorian Lord Palmerston spoke about there being no permanent enemies or friends, rather only permanent interests, he certainly had in his mind not the interest of the greatest good of the people of his country, the vast majority of people who worked the land or toiled in the factories. Rather, what Lord Palmerston had in mind, and what was also widely shared by most of his contemporaries, was the interests of the ruling class and the economic elite of his time.

The interests of these included ongoing support for British colonialism, the protection of British merchants, industrialists, and landlords. All policy whether at home or abroad was designed along these lines. Any gains arising for the less influential and less-privileged group of citizens were purely coincidental. For instance, far more thought and resources were employed by Great Britain in preserving her colonial interests and maintaining the balance of power with other colonial powers than in solving the pressing problems of urban poverty and rural distress caused by the industrial revolution at home.

However, Victorian Britain was no despotic monarchy; it was the very embodiment of democracy in an age when kings and nobles were still the norm. However imperfect, Britain had a functioning parliamentary democracy with a healthy system of political parties. But the conduct of Great Britain at home and abroad was scarcely better or different from other countries, many of which had no pretensions of being democratic.

 As long as there were kingdoms ruled by kings and nobles, it was clear that the national interest was the interest of the king and the ruling classes; the rulers made no claims to speak for the people. Thus, unnecessary wars were fought, foolish projects undertaken, and taxes increased at whim, just because it suited the ruling class. Ordinary people and soldiers were just expected to comply; the price of dissent was too high.

As much as democratic governance expanded the ruling class and opened up opportunities of public office to a much wider section of the population, what used to be earlier unambiguously recognised as the interest of the ruler, the noble or the warlord, transformed into the ‘national interest’ without necessarily changing in substance.

What has happened in democratic countries is that the king or the noble have been replaced by elected representatives answerable in principle to the people, but in reality beholden to the interest of the economic and social elites. As described by Chomsky in his book Language and Politics, “The term National interest is commonly used as if it’s something good for us, and the people of the country are supposed to understand that…(and) If you look closely, it turns out that the national interest is not defined as the interest of the entire population; it’s what’s in the interest of small dominant elites who happen to be able to control the resources.”

The country Chomsky had in mind, the United States of America, has been a functioning democracy for over two centuries; yet, the US spends billions of dollars every year in military expenditure at home and around the world, much of it with questionable benefits for the security and welfare of the average American citizen. At the same time, the country has seen no political will to address matters of real concern such as affordable healthcare and racial disparities.

In fact, the agenda of the national interest is set by various actors. In Victorian times Landlords and Industrialists got themselves or their representatives elected to the parliament. In our day, corporations and those with vested interests have their work done largely through lobbies, kickbacks and elaborate client-patron relationships. This is evident in the responses of nations to such varied questions such as the threat of climate change, the way wealth is taxed or labour laws weakened to suit various interests. What they aim to achieve is to get the government to advance their own interests, while passing it off as the national interest.

Operating far more overtly are unscrupulous politicians and populist parties appealing to the insecurities and fears of the people. This has the effect of making people accept, in the name of the national interest, things, which they would otherwise not approve of. Increased military spending in the Indian subcontinent is a case in point. It is difficult to see why ordinary people would support it when priority areas such as affordable health care and education remain starved of funding.

However even without being influenced by outside actors and acting in good faith, those entrusted with decision making are prone to misjudging the real national interest. Their biases are evident in situations as varied as deciding to build a large dam inundating thousands of hectares of forest or in settling a territorial dispute with a neighbouring country. Almost always the dam would get built, and a very hard line taken with the neighbouring country. There is little concern for the destruction of the forest or the rights of forest dwellers or the long-term consequences of imposing an unfavourable settlement on the neighbouring country.

Modern nations are admittedly too big and complex to be governed by direct democracy; by necessity, citizens must entrust decision making to others – their elected leaders, state and local authorities and institutions. For a long time, the grievance of the people was that power remained confined to a tiny section. Over time, democracratic reforms have certainly removed this grievance. The challenge today is to make representative bodies, especially national governments, more responsive to the genuine needs of the citizens as opposed to the interests of the economic and political elites. What is in fact needed is a new paradigm of the ‘national interest’.

Kashif Islam
studied French at JNU, New Delhi. He is a freelance writer and translator based out of Bangalore.


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