"Vital interest"

I admit that I've always had problems with the term "vital interest". It doesn't seem to be well-defined because apparently everyone American is free to use it in support of his opinion on security policy no matter how trivial the issue is.

I found this source which offers a quick overview:

National interest roots trace back to the Machiavelli era. Machiavelli’s concern was Italian unification and liberation from foreign occupiers. By the nineteenth century Clausewitz contended that all states are motivated by their need to survive and prosper. In the 20th century the seminal works of Hans Morgenthau considered only two interests exist: vital and secondary. Throughout the 20th Century, and most notably during the Cold War, a number of commissions established categories for compartmentalizing our national interests. The first real post-Cold War scrutiny of the compartmentalized interests occurred in July 1996 when the Commission on America’s National Interests established that there exists four levels of US national interests: vital; extremely important; just important; and less important interests.These interests look no different from those established prior to and during the Cold War (...)

I've still got difficulties to grasp the idea because it looks essentially arbitrary and illegitimate to me.

There are in my opinion only three categories of national interest:

(1) National interests that justify violence in their defence

(2) National interests that don't justify violence

(3) National interests that aren't understood

Category (1) was officially defined by signing and ratifying the Charter of the United Nations. Article 2 says it all.
A state that decides that the agreed to rules don't apply any more should make its outlaw status official by leaving the UN.

Category (2) may have several degrees. Some interests may justify great expenses while other barely justify that the ambassador talks to someone. These different degrees aren't of great interest to me.

Category (3) may of course fit into the other categories, but it's sufficiently different to consider it separately. It's mostly of interest to historians, though.

- - - - -

Now have a look at this Gallup poll:

W T F ???

None of these issues ranks highly in category (2), much less (1) in my opinion. These issues are unpleasant, some of them hyped-up, but - honestly - there's almost open warfare between criminals and the state in a neighbouring country and this doesn't even make the list?

There's furthermore one very obvious threat to the national interest in every country, one which is usually being underestimated; the fallibility (or worse) of the own government (including parliament). I'd rate this higher than everything on the list.

(Gallup asked about the rating of "possible threats to the vital interest of the United States in the next 10 years".)"

The terminology for national interest "threats" seems to be FUBAR in English language.




  1. "There's furthermore one very obvious threat to the national interest in every country, one which is usually being underestimated; the fallibility (or worse) of the own government (including parliament). I'd rate this higher than everything on the list."

    I'm surprised that preventing abortion, gay marriage and a black man from becoming president aren't at the top of the list of threats to America's vital interests.

    According to Clausewitz's trinity, the government is supposed to provide rational decision making to the trinity and the people are supposed to supply the emotive force of hate to fuel the will to win to the trinity.

    In a democracy how are irrational people supposed to elect a government capable of providing rational decision making?

  2. Both the electorate and the government consist of humans with both rational and irrational thoughts.
    The government's advantage is mostly its ability to work full-time to grasp the issues while its chief disadvantage is the principal-agent problem.

  3. Couldn't agree more with this post. Americans are used to such limitless options for their foreign and defense policies that we've 'defined' our interests ever further out from what they actually are. It also clearly seems that most people polled don't understand the difference between interest and threat.

    Ich liebe den Blog. Du sollst haeufiger auf Deutsch schreiben!

  4. Here's the perfect reading illustrating the US point view:


  5. Sven: Good topic. I'd like to post the address of this one over at MilPub to invite the crew over to play on this one.

    I need to think a bit about this, but ISTM that there are "gradations" of national interest that also vary between the international entanglements of the nation-state. Great Powers tend to define their "national interest" more broadly - both because they can and because their national interests are cast so widely they nearly always impinge on what are really the local concerns of others. Your mention of the narcotraficante insurrection in Mexico is a good example. If this is in Morocco it's really NOT a Tier 1 national interest concern of th U.S. But in Mexico? It should be, at least.

    Let me get back to you with more thoughts.

  6. I haven't had time to think about this in depth but I have to say that I think this is one of the most perceptive and important questions I've ever read.

    A nation that does not know where its national interests lie will fall apart quickly.

  7. WOW - where to begin on this one?

    Way back when at the Naval War College, we discussed foreign policy national interests in terms for four main categories:

    1. Defense of Homeland
    2. Economic Well Being
    3. Favorable World Order
    4. Promotion of Values.

    Note that the further you go up that ladder of four, the murkier the waters become.

    I have posted elsewhere that the US has this problem of confusing the domestic policies of other countries with the vital interests of the US. If a nation's domestic policies have no impact on the domestic well being of the US, then they should be of little or no concern to us. The murky waters of interests 3 and 4 above.

    Funny thing is that there is a significant contingent of the US population who espouse a form of isolationism in domestic affairs, yet want to ram their values down the throats of others. It is commonplace amongst Texans, for example, to say they do not want the environmental standards of California imposed upon Texas, yet think the US should be free to impose it's will on other countries.

    But then, you will never find me saying that the mindset of the US population is rational.

  8. We were, at one time, coherent in our foreign policy, but now...who knows...it seems more an more that our foreign policy is a foil to be used to further the political agenda of the political party in control.
    In short...we don't have a coherent foreign policy or a national policy, we are adrift in the mechanizations of political maneuvering in a game of houses between two competing political parties who are so unfreakingbelievably similar that the only ones their fooling are themselves.
    And American Business...if you really want to know what our national directive is...check with them...and the way you do that is follow the money.
    What you will find is that America is little more than a floating yacht for Big Business...and that is what our national interests has become...a big party boat for big business.

  9. OK.

    So I'd say that Al's Maslovian heirarchy of national needs is a good place to start with this.

    Obviously, the most critical "national interest" is survival. So there needs to be an understanding of what kinds of things are truly existentially dangerous, and which are not.

    Nuclear-armed Great Power rivals? Clearly in the national interest of the U.S. to a) defuse tensions and lower the immediacy of possible nuclear wars. For the moment this really only applies to the PRC and Russia. So in this sense doing things such as, say, fiddling around in the former Soviet republic of Georgia? NOT in the best interests of the U.S., regardless of how attactive it may be to partisans of untrammeled liberty and democracy like Dick Cheney and John McCain.

    Likewise, reducing the insecurity of China by reducing our quarrels over nonessentials like the status of Taiwan...and doing what we can to prop up the nuclear security of the Russian weapons stockpile.

    It would help if we were to be honest about Israel's illegal nukes, and not wink at other proliferators like the Indians and Pakistanis. Makes us look hypocritical when we fulminate about the Iranians and Norks...

    Otherwise? We need to STOP conflating others' ambitions with their capabilities. To spend billions on "defenses" against a terrorist nuke, or Chem/Bio? Foolishness.

    And, as Al points out, we need to remind ourselves that other nations don't need to "like" us and we don't need to try and make them so. The internal politics of Morocco and Indonesia are not our business, or at least not in the sense of giving us a license to invade them. That way madness lies.

    The only nations whose internal politics are critical are those lying on our borders. We have alternatively ignored and injured Mexico for a long time. If the current problems that nation is experiencing devolve towards failed statehood we may find ourselves wishing we'd payed more attention.

    Other than that? Our air and seapower prevents pretty much anyone else in the world from a truly existential threat.

    So...what about the second tier "national interests"..?

  10. The American fixation on nukes is truly strange. A heavy rotation of "24" seems to be unhealthy.
    It's trivial that there are interests of different weight.

    A theoretical framework about national interests is only useful if it provides guidance for national foreign policy.
    Six or ten or hundred categories provide still insufficient guidance about the advisable amount of effort because there are ten thousands of different issues, all with different importance. Artificial degrees make little sense unless they tell you about what category of action is appropriate.

    I used the Charter of the United Nations (about which, btw, someone claimed in a comment here that it has the power of a law due to its ratification) to divide national interests into those that justify violence for their defence and others.

    Btw, the Israeli nukes aren't illegal since they are no member of the NNPT. That, of course, proves that they're hypocrites when they insist that Iran sticks to NNPT rules (which, so far, it did better than the U.S.).
    Their nukes are unofficial, though - a decades-old U.S. law would otherwise immediately cut all U.S. subsidies to Israel. It's quite a farce and not really the rule of law.

  11. Well, you asked for a discussion of "national interests".

    ISTM that the most fundamental national interest is survival.

    The only thing I can think of that could produce virtually immediate national non-survival would be a full-on nuclear war; alpha strike with the full capacity of a nuclear superpower - for practical purposes only the Soviet Union (and, to a lesser degree its successor Russia and the PRC) qualifies.

    So if you're going to talk about "what national interest justifies the use of force or a massive expenditure on the means to use force or the fundamental orientation of national goals, actions and concentration" I don't see how you can leave nuclear-armed peer foes off the table.

    The "viewings of 24" lead people to fuss about "terrorists" armed with nukes. As I think I pointed out, that's nonsense, and a classic example of your poll, where silly hypotheticals are elevated to genuine national interest status.

    I'm talking nuclear-armed peer foes, or as close as we have them.

    So everything from developing software to ensure that the existing and future warheads will be thought of as functional, to nuclear-arms reduction, to diplomacy based on the principal that avoiding a Cuban Missile Crisis type situation is good are all worth devoting national means and methods to.

    Re: the Israelis, if we're going to talk about the "rule of law" then you must know that the most dangerous law is one that is officially in place but functionally ignored. Our very public blind eye to Israel's stockpile, as you point out, makes out efforts to control nuclear dissemination look like hypocrisy at best and outright brigandage at worst.

  12. So in terms of your "Vital interests that justify violence in their defense", there's essentially one: a peer foe armed with significant conventional military force - particularly including nuclear weapons - in the process of threatening or actually attacking the U.S."

    If the people in your poll were thinking of true "national interests" - as opposed to the ooga-booga scare news they hear on Fox - that'd be about the extent of #1.

    #2? There's pantsloads, as you described, everything from the breakdown of a neighboring state like Mexico to trade practices, friendly vs. unfriendly governments...the list is endless. All of these should motivate a polity to expend treasure and political influence. But you say the "different degrees aren't of great interest" to you you kinda of miss the point - it's these interests that cause the most chaos and confusion. For example - how high should having a friendly government in Ukraine rate? Should we make economic concessions that may hurt Americans financially to help a friendly government there? What about assistance? A political or military alliance?

    What if this government was in El Salvador? What if there was a civil war there? Is it worth sending mediators? Military aid? Armed "volunteers"?

    I think that if we had an intelligent public and honest politicians that figuring out the #1-tier national interests and what to do about them would be pretty simple. It would be the #2's that would still be a real problem.

    And #3? You can plan or prepare for what you don't know and can't anticipate.

    And as for the "fallibility of the government", well...of course its in the national interest to have intelligent governance. The problem is that there is a hell of a lot of ways to disagree on what's intelligent. And there are those who would be willing to sacrifice intelligent decision-making if it carried with it short-term partisan benefits. IMO the problem we're seeing today is too many of the latter. And how you solve that problem in a democracy is the real unsolved problem in a democracy. If the national consensus is to be a fool, the only way the smart guy can change things is by seizing power as a dictator.

    I don't enjoy that conclusion, but I can't escape it. I can teach my kids to think critically and participate in my country's government...but I'm arguing against the full power of Murdoch and FOX. Not sure how you beat that - your poll points out the problem we have better than anything else I can think of. Sheer nonsense paraded about as "national interests".


  13. Nukes can be used for genocide, but they are mostly being used for deterrence. Their two-time use in war was a substitute for equally if not more devastating conventional attacks.

    The emphasis on nukes is exaggerated because I don't think specifically about national interests of one particular ally behind the big pond.
    I think about the universal theory behind national interests - and the by far dominating threat to sovereign powers aren't nukes, but old-school conventional warfare defeats. Thank to the UN and the widespread acceptance of its charter as a guideline we've seen few annexations during the past decades, but this can change.

    I live in a country that was in part not fully sovereign, dependent in its foreign policy on others and in part not sovereign at all, depending on almost every major political decision on a big brother. That was the situationf or two generations, until two decades ago.
    The loss of sovereignty due to defeat in war is a scenario that deserves more attention than "nukes" in most countries of the world.

    The defence of sovereignty justifies the use of violence (if there's a chance of success).

    To fear of others does not justify violence.

  14. Sven: This is the huge difference between your country and mine. A conventional land war attack CAN threaten Germany with existential destruction. The U.S.? Not really possible. It's the nukes or nothin', for us. Conventional war really falls under the #2 tier - things we worry about but may or may not be worth using military force for.

    Think about it - every single U.S. use of conventional war since 1945 has baan a war of some kind of choice. Our position in the Western Hemisphere makes us fairly invulnerable to anyone without a blue-water navy and a nuclear-armed airforce/ballistic missile force.

    I would argue that the "fear of others" includes the desire for friendly regimes in foreign nations. This has been a Great Power priority since Rome, and while I agree that it does not justify or actuate military force it does rank high up on the #2 tier national interests. So all sorts of diplomacy, soft power, chicanery, etc is likely to be employed by a Great Power trying to influence foreign polities.