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Deconstructing the national interest

Wednesday, 14 October 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

When reading the first couple of pages of a newly published book on the political thought of Henry Kissinger, I instantly felt taken back to my days as a student of international relations: the text beamed with references to ominous concepts such as “the national interest”, “national security”, and, in one instance, even “national well-being.”

Though I have never subscribed to political realism, I might on previous occasions have enjoyed theoretical deliberations on a contrary viewpoint, caught up in the bubble of politics and power that is Washington, DC. This time, sitting on my terrace in southern Germany, far removed from the circular discourse of US policymakers, I put the book down, confused and a little angry.

What on earth, I wondered, was to be found behind the term “national well-being?” Surely, the word “well-being” presupposes the existence of organic life, which can hardly be ascribed to conceptual abstractions like “the nation” or “the state.” Even if that were possible, surely so loose a term, by nature eschewing all attempts at precise definition, could never serve as a hard and fast guideline for foreign policy decisions. What might seem like harmless, ridiculous linguistic anthropomorphization nonetheless has far more sinister consequences than meets the eye.

“The United States of America has the sovereign authority to use force in assuring its own national security,” declared George W. Bush in March 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war; and in 1968 Lyndon B. Johnson pleaded with Congress and the American people “to act promptly to serve the national interest” by supporting continued military action against North Vietnam.

Both might have publicly and privately lamented the “human cost” of their policies – this term is, in itself, revolting – but, perversely, still believed that they were contributing to some greater good.

The allegedly “necessary evil” they so freely undertook to accept? Tens of thousands of civilians dead, countless others displaced, injured and maimed; infrastructure destroyed, swathes of land mined, cities burnt, cultural heritage irretrievably lost – in short, two countries reduced to rubble.

But Iraq and Vietnam are not outliers, exceptions, extremes – far from it. This is the sad truth of foreign policy, from Kandahar to Benghazi, from Fallujah to Crimea. What is all the more remarkable, astonishing even, is that so little has changed.

The more cynical reader may well accuse me of sentimentality, and I am probably guilty of it, since (to cite but two examples) I masochistically complemented the Kissinger book with Ariel Dorfman’s Feeding on Dreams, a formidably written meditation on exile and displacement courtesy of US Cold War strategy in Chile and, some argue, Mr. Kissinger; and I cannot think about Iraq without recalling I’jamThe Forever War, and Frankenstein in Baghdad. 

The defenders of realpolitik will denounce me as a moralist, dangerously armed with the universal truth, when it is only their pragmatism that can prevent a descent into barbarity. Yet I lay no such claims to the truth but one: that human suffering cannot be sidelined, reduced, quantified, and exhaustively analyzed.

Naturally, international relations theory (and political science more generally) is not the only field where scholars and practitioners are guilty of a certain reductionism in respect of the human experience, and susceptible to elevating socially constructed concepts to the level of the absolute.

In many a conversation with members of the legal profession, whose ranks I recently joined, I was left wondering if I had inadvertently stepped into a meeting of a particularly dogmatic faith, where discharging burdens of proof constitutes the only means of establishing “the truth.” But it is in the realm of international affairs that the consequences of one-dimensional thought are felt most acutely: it may well be, for instance, that court judgments, with their sterile formulae and limited evidence, do not fully capture the suffering of victims; yet the decision to torture, bomb, expel and kill in the first place is tacitly accepted by democratic governments, for purposes of upholding or restoring “the national interest,” whatever that may be.

Of course, political realities are far more complex than the advocates of simplistic anti-Americanism will have it; the infliction of human suffering is not the prerogative of the world’s superpower, to say the least. But it is precisely the self-proclaimed moral superiority of Western democracies over the al-Assads of the world that brings with it a special responsibility: that is, not to hide behind one’s mahogany desks in airconditioned offices, with the truth dressed up in empty slogans. Foreign affairs is often an immoral business; one man’s national interest may, quite literally, be another man’s war crime.

What, then, can be done to move beyond such deceptive language, and to repopulate this intellectual wasteland? Interdisciplinary education that acknowledges the human dimension of foreign policy would be a start (and reading Payam Akhavan’s magnificent In Search of A Better World). And, put simply: listen to the victims.

Anna-Christina Schmidl