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HomeIn-Depth AnalysisThe Janus of “National Interest”: On the Realist’s Gambit in Foreign Policy

The Janus of “National Interest”: On the Realist’s Gambit in Foreign Policy

Image credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet

By David Polansky

A curious story recently appeared in the pages of the Wall Street Journal: “U.S. Companies Aid China’s Bid for Chip Dominance Despite Security Concerns.”

Curious, because this news came after many months of growing concern in America, voiced in both public and private channels, about the rise and intentions of the People’s Republic of China. And yet, stepping back, this story is perhaps not so curious after all, joined as it is by so many like it that speak to the tensions in America’s official and unofficial diplomatic and economic policies.

Whether it is Apple making remarkable concessions to PRC demands in order to push through a massive deal with China, or Amazon scrubbing its website of negative reviews for a collection of President Xi Jinping’s speeches, or Intel issuing a formal apology to Chinese authorities for having previously agreed to avoid using Xinjiang labor for its products—the engagement of major American businesses in China’s political economy (and vice versa) has been a regular source of stories if not controversies.

Nor is this dynamic limited to the tech industry. In recent months, BlackRock, Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan Chase have all deepened their exposure to Chinese markets. Indeed, as the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted in its latest annual report to Congress, U.S.-headquartered multinationals and U.S.-based investors continue to treat China as a priority market, despite increasing public concern that their engagement contributes to Beijing’s geopolitical rise.

Yet stepping back further, such stories are especially noteworthy for arriving at a time of increased securitization and politicization of Sino-American relations, having brought enhanced scrutiny on the economic ties between U.S. businesses and mainland China. Such ties have been one of the major features of the international political economy over the past quarter-century.

What is more, these same ties are now being reconsidered by much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment as having, in fact, contributed to the rise of a strategic peer competitor, growing its vast manufacturing base, transferring valuable intellectual property across key industries, and creating an unprecedented trade imbalance.

To explain this curious dynamic—that the United States would adopt or encourage policies contrary to its long-term interests—critics have attributed blame to flawed theories of international politics. In this telling, U.S. policymakers (among many others) in thrall to liberal beliefs in the value of positive-sum cooperation aided and abetted China’s economic growth.

The strongest statement of this view was put forward by Professor John Mearsheimer in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs:

Beguiled by misguided theories about liberalism’s inevitable triumph and the obsolescence of great-power conflict, both Democratic and Republican administrations pursued a policy of engagement, which sought to help China grow richer. Washington promoted investment in China and welcomed the country into the global trading system, thinking it would become a peace-loving democracy and a responsible stakeholder in a U.S.-led international order.

Of course, if true, this account represents a remarkable falsification of many baseline (neo-)realist theories (including Prof. Mearsheimer’s)—that states are rational power-maximizers pursuing policies carefully attuned to their material interests.[1] But is this proposition true? That is to say, is one of the most significant developments in international politics over the past three decades at least partly attributable to the world’s largest power prioritizing foolish idealism over its own vital interests?

One need not retreat to causal explanations of liberal illusions to understand today’s geopolitical landscape. It suffices to refer to the recurring motto of Jean Renoir’s masterpiece The Rules of the Game: “c’est que tout le monde a ses raisons.” Perhaps, it was not only idealism but also a rational recognition of particular interests of different American stakeholders that led to the Western world’s deep economic engagement with China, which is only now proving controversial given the current political climate.

The point is not, however, that corporate interests necessarily generate pro-China preferences; even now, the very same tech giants mentioned at the outset are attempting to stave off anti-trust legislation by arguing that their market size and power are necessary if the U.S. is to remain competitive against China. The point is rather that we cannot meaningfully comprehend the full landscape of international relations and (state) actors’ strategic choices without also recognizing that the dynamics of interest-seeking and power-maximization are not limited to states themselves.

One can see this reality even more clearly by examining American policy in quite a different theatre: Afghanistan. As of early 2022, it is largely indisputable that America’s (along with her international partners) venture in Afghanistan was a bust. We now know that Osama bin Laden himself fled the country in December 2001, barely two months into the start of the invasion. Yet, the United States spent over $2.3 trillion (equivalent to approximately $300 million per day) sustaining the occupation. And of course, the Taliban, routed at the outset of the U.S. attacks, is now again ensconced in power.

Despite these remarkable failures, it is just as indisputable that what proved a catastrophe at the national level was in fact highly profitable—both materially and professionally—for many, many players. While local corruption on the ground in Afghanistan was recognized near the outset (at least by some), only very lately has it become widely apparent how prevalent rent-seeking behaviors were on the part of Americans and European institutions.

As the New York Times noted only last year, “Only about 12 percent of U.S. reconstruction assistance given to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2021 actually went to the Afghan government.” Defence contractors, consultants, and private security firms received a veritable windfall from the War on Terror.[2] This particular dynamic is proving relevant yet again as of this writing with the delivery of “lethal aid” to Ukraine. Nor is profiteering necessarily limited to the period of active engagement in foreign conflicts. Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, Lloyd Austin, and Jim Mattis, among many others, all used the military-industrial complex’s proverbial revolving door to find highly lucrative positions in the finance and defence contracting sectors following their re-entry into civilian life.[3]

Meanwhile, throughout the duration of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, military and civilian leaders consistently misrepresented both the possibility of success for the missions and the severity of the threats faced by the United States to ensure the continued flow of public funds. Though they may themselves have been believers in the ultimate value of the missions in question, the bureaucratic incentives at work essentially hindered either democratic transparency or open deliberation concerning the larger national interests at stake. 

None of this is to say that those advocating policies of occupation, democratization, and nation-building were necessarily cynical or venal in their motivations. Indeed, going back to September 2001 (and beyond that to the various Clinton-era interventions of the 1990s), it is clear that there existed a widely-appealing conviction among the power elites in Washington that enshrined democracy promotion and human rights as the missionary purposes of U.S. foreign policy. The point is rather that such ideals were insufficient on their own to both give rise to and sustain those policies over two decades, and the realists who lament them are (ironically enough) over-emphasizing ideational factors at the expense of bureaucratic and private incentives, let alone good-old path dependency.

Moreover, while one can certainly point to various streams of pious rhetoric concerning U.S. goals in Afghanistan across the nearly two decades of our presence there, the cold reality is that those issuing such statements were rarely in positions of sacrifice. However sincere the rhetoric, the costs were borne by those closer to the ground. And even there a narrative of idealistic ambitions ending in tragic failure cannot fully account for the reality of actual behaviours on the part of both occupiers and occupied.

To more fully capture that reality, one would also have to consult stories such as these, in which a complex overlay of public and private interests across the United States and Afghanistan found common advantage in securing mutually beneficial contracts, at the expense of the ordinary Afghans who were the notional beneficiaries of our policies in the first place.

Of course, one can not help but notice that these stories only began to accumulate toward the end of our very long presence in the Middle East and Central Asia. But the lack of interest from legacy media organizations in real, investigative journalism about the failures of the U.S. ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan fits into the larger story. As one of the lead reporters for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project declared in a follow-up statement, no major American periodical would take up the story of America’s role in Afghan political corruption—all rejected it before it was finally picked up by an independent corruption watchdog group.

But it was not just adherence to utopian idealism in American foreign policy nor a disinterested support for the rules-based international order only that prevented major media outlets from running such stories. There was also the desire to avoid a backlash from government and military contingents, as well as the ordinary and dreary horse-trading that grants journalists continued access to their sources who walk the halls of governmental power. And, at the risk of being cynical, there was perhaps some degree of calculation that the public interest in these stories was insufficient to justify the blowback that would likely ensue.

Political scientists may refer to concepts like “multi-level games” to try to make sense of this morass. But ordinary language suffices to explain it: at every level, from government bureaucracy to elected officials to defence contractors to journalists and so on, relevant actors looked after their own interests, and disaster ensued—for Afghans and Americans alike. Yet, like so many stories from the past two decades of U.S. foreign policy—the Afghanistan debacle is not, exclusively, an account of starry-eyed dreamers misled by false theories of how the world operates. Alas, the problem is much subtler.

It is easy enough for both supporters and critics of establishment policies to focus their attention on morally charged rhetoric apropos of progress issued from official channels. Like some progressive-minded celebrities who advocate for economic justice while squirrelling their own assets in tax havens, government talk of universal rights and humanitarian causes differs significantly from realizing them in practice. In actuality, theoretical grandstanding and rhetorical sanctimony pale in comparison to practical and private considerations, with the latter being far more predictive of results and behaviours. 

Regardless of the sincerity behind the many evocations of an interconnected world, the global village, international community, and so on, their advocates remain heavily conditioned by state-based conceptions of security. Whether it be peacekeeping or women’s rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs), multinational corporations (MNCs) looking to open up new capital markets, or those most ardently waving the cosmopolitan flag—the most consequential non-state actors in the modern era have almost universally hailed from Western liberal democracies with powerful central governments ready to exercise authority on their behalf, irrespective of where these entities nominally operated or which liberal banality they had taken up as cause.  

Rhetoric aside, few if any of these die-hard cosmopolitans would be prepared to surrender the passports issued by nation-states—almost universally understood to be the legitimate provider of real security for both persons and bank accounts. Conversely, foreign governments routinely welcome American and European investors, multinationals, and retailers and manufacturers looking to source goods or labour from cheaper (often non-Western) jurisdictions precisely because the global capitalist class operates out of countries with stable currencies and the rule of law.

Since America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, observers have either hoped or lamented—depending on their policy preferences—that it might presage a new era of realism and restraint in U.S. foreign policy. But one doubts whether the present optimism could long endure. After all, realism signals an inherently skeptical—if not tragic—disposition, and no perspective that draws on it as fount could easily harmonize with the sunny optimism that has been the American birthright ever since Thomas Jefferson included the pursuit of happiness among the rights of man.

This would suggest that self-proclaimed realists merely have a PR problem, when in fact their biggest shortcoming is not rhetorical but logical. The central premise that unites a variety of realists—who may otherwise disagree on various matters of policy and politics—is that there is a verifiable, if not always pleasant, reality to human affairs and we ignore it at our peril. And like Kipling’s “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, it returns one way or another.

Of course, not all realists may endorse the tragic state that underlies the human condition, but there is little use lamenting it or pretending things are otherwise. As Friedrich Nietzsche[4] put it:

Do you suppose perchance that these little Greek free cities, which from rage and envy would have liked to devour each other, were guided by philanthropic and righteous principles? Does one reproach Thucydides for the words he put into the mouths of the Athenian ambassadors when they negotiated with the Melians on the question of destruction or submission?

And yet, the world so often fails to operate on or even acknowledge this Nietzschean wisdom: states bury their resources in ideologically-motivated interventionism and regime change wars, or emphasize humanitarian and environmental causes at the expense of core security interests, or empower and enrich strategic rivals on the belief that cooperation and mutual gain can prevail over geopolitical competition. And so on.

Seva Gunitsky, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, complained of this tendency of realists to make recourse to liberal motivations in an effort to explain phenomena they dislike. The tension here is clear: if states obeyed the iron laws of history, we should in fact see more favourable outcomes. That they do not, however, strongly suggests those laws are made of something less sturdy than iron. Consequently, realists, who are supposed to be the maestros of is, end up spending most of their time arguing from the vantage point of ought.

Here then lies the problem: the Thucydidean trifecta of fear, honour, and interest may be the lodestars of political life, but they do not straightforwardly account for the behaviour of states themselves. Not because states necessarily have different motivations, but because their size, power, and complexity mean that their desiderata too rarely translate into outcomes. This is true for all modern states but even more so a global superpower like the United States—insulated as it is from the consequences of its choices owing to its massive wealth, geography, and security (surely, no individual or corporation could spend the equivalent of $2 trillion over two decades with so little to show for it without going bankrupt).

This is why any articulation of the national interest is ultimately a normative claim and not simply a descriptive one. It is an attempt to state clearly what goals should guide the actions of the country; it is not simply a matter of disclosing an existing (or objective) reality. And furthermore, it is an attempt to set national concerns over and above parochial, local, and personal ones.

Every nation, in reality, is a composite of diverse individual and institutional actors—both public and private—and their several, often disparate, interests all interfere with the neat business of ascribing clear-cut interests and motivations to nation-states as a whole. This does not mean that “national interest” itself is a chimera—it rather means that identifying, prioritizing, and promoting vital national interests are all the more important, given the plethora of alternatives; and that doing so is also the work of politics done in real-time and not just analysis done in the Ivory Tower.

All of which is to say that achieving a posture of genuine realism and restraint is as much about domestic policy (and sorting out friend-enemy distinctions at home) as it is about foreign policy (deciding on allied and rogue nations abroad). And just as it took more than a few years for our post-9/11 crusades toward nation-building and democracy promotion as a nationalist project to unravel as they have, thereby denigrating “national interest” itself—it will likely take still more years to restore the concept back to its pride of place.

Dr. David Polansky (@polanskydj) is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy and a political theorist who writes on U.S. foreign policy, geopolitics, and the history of political thought


[1] Obligatory qualification: many self-proclaimed realists do not necessarily hold this position, including perhaps the most famous one of all, Kenneth Waltz.

[2] This particular dynamic is proving relevant yet again as of this writing with the delivery of “lethal aid” to Ukraine.

[3] Though as this hardly unique example suggests, profiting through association with domestic businesses barely scratches the surface of what former public servants can get up to when the financial incentives are right.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, tr. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale, §429.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor