Whether you were sitting in an international relations class or listening to a mainstream politician expound on some foreign policy issue, you’ve probably heard that countries have “national interests.” They pursue them, they defend them, and sometimes they apparently do things that undermine them. The United States, it seems, has vital interests in the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific, and pretty much everywhere else on earth.
In discussions about US foreign policy — especially debates about how to make it less terrible — references to these mysterious interests are rarely far behind. Just this week, Defense News reporter David B. Larter claimed in a Twitter thread that the United States is still in Iraq simply because “we have core interests there.” He continued with a dire zero-sum calculation: “It’s that or we leave it to Iran and Russia to run it.”
Not to pick on Larter, but his use of “we” is emblematic of the way “national interests” are typically invoked in these discussions. Interests are presented as shared faits accomplis — objectives that are self-evident, inevitable, even natural. And as the descriptor “national” implies, they’re also supposedly beneficial to the country as a whole.
It’s an easy way to short-circuit debate: “Oh, you think we should leave the Middle East? Well what about our interests there?” The pressure is then on the critic to rebut the establishment pundit or politician on their own terms, by developing detailed policy proposals that address every possible objection to a clearly sensible idea. Meanwhile, the question of whether such interests are legitimate in the first place is conveniently sidestepped.
This type of framing is a powerful ideological move, but it’s also a revealing one. Because clearly these interests came from somewhere. They didn’t appear fully grown from the head of Zeus. One only has to ask very basic questions — Who is this “we”? When did we agree to these? Who benefits? — to start cracking the whole edifice.
The United States’ national interests aren’t the result of mass consensus. We haven’t held a referendum on foreign policy. No one asked if I wanted to spend a portion of my yearly taxes supporting eight hundred military bases abroad and a $1.25 trillion annual national security budget. Sure, I can write my congressperson and tell them I oppose such things, but it’s safe to say that contractor dollars are likely to have more of an impact on my rep.
No, “our” interests are largely the product of entrenched power structures, many of them highly insulated from democratic oversight. The lumbering momentum of the Pentagon, the rapacious profiteering of the war industry, the quiet tyranny of Washington lobbyists, the cynical votes of captured politicians — all of these crystallize into something called a “national interest.” Are there internal debates between these forces? Do they shift or come into conflict occasionally? Of course. But ultimately, ordinary people have very little say in the matter. The “national interest” is in fact a ruling-class interest.
This state of affairs isn’t exclusive to the United States. Other countries have their own “national interests” that are the product of powerful political-economic forces. In China, the techno-authoritarian Communist Party bureaucracy (with the dictatorial Xi Jinping at its head) plays an outsize role.
Russia, Iran, North Korea — pick any bogeyman you like — have their own variants, too. Sometimes these states even seem to acknowledge internal struggles about their national interests. After the Hanoi summit, DPRK vice foreign minister Choe Son-hui claimed Kim Jong Un took a big risk negotiating because “our military and munitions industry” opposed giving the Americans any concessions.
Seeing through the mystification of “national interests” is particularly important right now because we are told again and again that the world is entering a new age of great power conflict. Even liberals who abhor the anti-Asian xenophobia of the Trump administration appear to endorse increased confrontation with China. The consensus in Washington holds that the United States and China are headed for a new cold war, in part because their national interests are necessarily opposed.
But when we see those interests as products of each country’s ruling class, rather than the people themselves, the situation looks less like a conflict between great powers and more like petty but dangerous squabbling between two national ruling elites. The “interests” of the United States and China aren’t collective pursuits. They’re prescriptions imposed on us from above — and highly risky ones, at that.
During the fraught debates about offshoring in the 1990s and 2000s, leftists and pro-labor liberals often pointed out that the American and Chinese working classes had more in common with each other than with their respective ruling classes. This remains an economic truism — but today we should remember that it also applies to the geopolitical sphere. Chinese and American workers should be working together to check their ruling classes’ drive toward virulent nationalism and military conflict. They want a new cold war — not us.
This internationalist perspective also serves as a subtle rebuke to the anti-imperialism of fools, which carries water for repressive governments simply because they buck the United States on the international stage. We can and should critique US imperialism without falling prey to the ideology of a competitor state’s ruling class.
A wise man once noted, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” I’d say the notion of a national interest qualifies, wherever it’s asserted.