Defining National Interest

The basic test for judging any foreign policy decision is easy to state but hard to apply: Does it serve the American national interest?

During the cold war, the guiding principle of US foreign policy was clear: the containment of communism. There was broad agreement that the Soviet Union represented a dire threat to American security. Every foreign policy decision was viewed through this prism, and defining the national interest wasn't difficult.

Today, defining the national interest is much harder. The administration has described expanding and strengthening the world's community of market-based democracies as the goal of American foreign policy. But this is abstract, giving only broad guidance to policy makers who have to make the tough decisions.

Every government in the world wants to involve the US in solving its problems. Yet even the world's only superpower can't solve every problem or address every tragedy - the American people will never support such a role. The president and his advisers must decide which issues matter for the US, and which do not. A decision to invest time and resources - or to risk the lives of Americans - must be based on a hard analysis of the US national interest.

The national interest has several components:

* To preserve the territorial integrity of the US and the safety and security of its people. Peace requires a strong US deterrent and a balance of power.

* To sustain US economic prosperity. To continue to improve the standard of living and the quality of life for all Americans, the US must open markets and advance the principles of the free market. We also need to be able to react to financial crises abroad to minimize their domestic impact.

* To promote democratic values. US support for freedom, individual rights, the rule of law, and democratic institutions around the world helps secure peace and stability among states, and advance human rights within states.

* To promote basic human rights - freedom from starvation and genocide, religious freedom, and freedom of political expression. Rights abuses violate core US values and undermine stability in nations where other US interests are at stake.

* To protect of the health and welfare of Americans. The global free flow of people and products means that Americans are no longer isolated from dangers elsewhere, including international crime, drugs, terrorism, and communicable diseases.

No other country in the world has such broadly defined national interests. Our interests are at stake in every corner of the world. On every continent the US has multiple political, economic, strategic, and humanitarian interests. When confronted with the many threats to the national interest we must prioritize those interests or be overwhelmed by them.

Not all interests fall into the same categories. Some US interests are vital - meaning we're prepared to go to war to defend them. They include protecting the US from nuclear, biological, chemical (NBC), or conventional military attack and preventing any hostile power from dominating Europe, the Middle East, Asia or the high seas. Some interests are vital, even if force can't protect them, such as preventing a collapse of the world economy.

The US also has several very important interests: to prevent the proliferation of NBC weapons and missiles anywhere; to maintain strong ties with our neighbors in the hemisphere and allies in Europe and Asia; to help resolve regional conflicts; to advance stability in Africa; to promote democracy and the rule of law; to foster US prosperity through free markets and an open trading system; and to promote respect for human rights.

The US has other important interests, which we can't disregard without jeopardizing our long-term security. These include fighting international drugs, crime and terrorism; reducing disease and global poverty; protecting the environment; and addressing population growth.

Setting priorities among these interests guides resource allocation.

Meeting all of the challenges to US foreign policy requires difficult decisions in allocating scarce resources. We simply can't do it all.

Focusing on the question of the US national interest won't resolve all differences over foreign policy. Reasonable people will disagree about priorities and resources. But asking the right questions will help us arrive at better answers.

* Rep. Lee H, Hamilton, Indiana., is the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.

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