John Robb: In the National Interest? Probably Not.

Cultural Intelligence, Ethics, Government, Peace Intelligence
John Robb
John Robb

Is making a policy decision in the “National Interest” smart anymore? Probably not.

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about.

I’ve been grappling with a simple question.  Is the use of national interest, as the basis of security and foreign policy, a dumb idea in the present context?

National interest is a construct from the realism school of policy.  Realism is simply a case by case analysis of the costs and benefits of actions relative to the interests of the state, without reference to ideology or ideals (capitalism, communism, religion, etc.).

Realism assumes that the world is an anarchic, in a Hobbsian dog eat dog way, and that nation-states need to be selfish in order to survive.

Of course, things have changed since that formulation was developed.  In particular, we’re now living in a world that is:

  • Complex — everything impacts everything else.  That makes policy decision making highly uncertain, from the determination of what is actually going on to the projections of what will happen once a policy is chosen.  For example; the expected response of Iraqis to invasion or the impact of the invasion on Iraqi oil production (it went down rather than up the 6 m barrels a day expected).  Worse, the globalization of economics and the fragmentation of politics, makes it hard to determine costs or benefits.  For example, is the help a policy decision provides interest xyz company, group, etc.) more important than the harm it inflicts on interest zyx?
  • Peaceful — frankly, nuclear weapons have eliminated great power war and that means we’re in the most peaceful period in human history.  Survival of the fittest contests between nation-states isn’t a good description of what the world is like right now.
  • Transparent — it’s hard to keep secrets in an interconnected world.  That means that immoral policy decisions (or their natural consequences) can explode like information bombs, doing egregious damage.  For example, the expedient decision to approve torture in the interrogation of terrorist suspects (by senior legal advisors) inevitably led to the disaster of Abu Ghraib.

Given these developments, is realism still a good way to make policy?  Probably not.

So, what is the alternative?   The simple answer is to base decision making on morality.  Simply, make decisions based on moral reasoning relative to natural rights.

That’s actually a bit more complex and nuanced an answer than it looks like.  Here are a couple of reasons why this approach is superior:

  • Morality, at least the core set that most of the world can agree on, is actually based on a set of rules that have been proven useful for promoting human survival over millenia.  Since these rules have withstood the test of time, they are much better suited for decision making in an uncertain environment than trendy (and almost certainly wrong) theories of national interest derived from the realism school.
  • In a world where existential threats (don’t confuse 9/11 with unfettered great power war) don’t exist for the vast majority of states, survivalism isn’t the paramount issue anymore.  Instead, it’s success, and in a networked world, success requires lots and lots of friends.
  • In a transparent world, your actions matter.  The antidote is easy.  Don’t do anything you wouldn’t tell the world you are doing.  It also matters how you make your decisions.  Granted, making decisions is like making sausage, it’s messy, but if its done with integrity, even a messy process demands respect.  If that’s too difficult to do, it’s likely time to upgrade personnel to those creatively and intellectually equal to the task.

Phi Beta Iota:  Brother Robb offers excellent thinking here, as always.  See also the latest posts by Anthony Judge, and the Reflections series by Robert Steele.