Tag Archives: national interest

What is the “National Interest”?

British PM David Cameron makes his case before Parliament.

British PM David Cameron makes his case before Parliament.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to shelve a proposed strike against Syrian government forces after opposition from his own party in parliament. In his statement to parliament, Prime Minister Cameron asserted that Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own civilians was “morally indefensible” and “cannot stand.” Cameron asked, “is it in Britain’s national interest in maintaining an international taboo against the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield?” to which he answered, “I would say yes it is.” But the House of Commons, which had been recalled from its summer recess to address the issue, seemed hesitant to embrace his claims and authorize the use of force against Syria. Instead, lawmakers seemed to prefer a more cautious response, delaying action until United Nations weapons inspectors in Syria issue their report to the UN Security Council.

US President Barack Obama faces a similar challenge. Having previously described the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that would prompt a US response, President Obama appears to have painted himself into a corner.  While Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says the US military is “ready to go” with a strike on Syrian forces, US lawmakers appear to be exercising greater caution, warning the President that any military action would require Congressional approval.

Certainly part of the debate centers on war fatigue and the desire to avoid another protracted conflict like the one in Iraq, where the United States, Britain, and other Western powers were drawn in to a decade-long war based on faulty intelligence around Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction—weapons that proved not to have existed in the first place. But pat of the current debate also stems from differing conceptions of what constitutes “the national interest.” A narrower version argues that no matter how reprehensible the act, American national interest was not threatened by Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own population. A broader conceptualization argues that there is a national interest in maintaining, as Cameron suggested, a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world.

What do you think? Is a strike against the Syrian government in the US national interest? Should the United States and the United Kingdom take more concrete action against the Syrian regime? Or should they wait for the international community to take action instead? And what if Russia and China veto proposed UN action, as has been suggested they might? Would that necessitate further action by the United States? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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The Politics of Multilateral Peacekeeping

French Soldiers Deployed in Mali

French Soldiers Deployed in Mali

The French government last week called on West African leaders to “pick up the baton” and support military operations against Islamic insurgents in Mali. France has already deployed more than 2,000 soldiers and is currently conducting air and ground operations authorized by a United Nations Security Council resolution. Other governments, including Chad, Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo, Benin, Ghana, and Guinea have committed to sending soldiers, and Britain, Denmark, and Belgium are providing material support. The United States has offered to provide communications support, but has declined so far to commit soldiers or air support.

It is clear that France has already moved beyond the original UN-backed strategy, which called for Western governments to provide training and material in support of an African-led military intervention. Rather, French forces appear to be taking the lead in operations, with other governments in the region responding more slowly.

The politics of military coalitions are always interesting. Basic behavioral economics suggest that there is little incentive for a government to pay for something it can get for free. In game theory, this is referred to as the free-rider dilemma. In global politics, more powerful countries (often the hegemon) pay a disproportionate cost. The United States, for example, has borne the lion’s share of the costs associated with interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But recent developments in Libya and Mali suggest a slightly different strategy at play. In both cases, the United States appeared willing to let others—France in the case of Mali, and the European Union in the case of Libya—take the leading role.

Does this represent a shift in American military thinking? Likely, the answer is no. While the Obama administration expresses a stronger commitment to multilateralism than the Bush administration did, it has already shown a willingness to undertake unilateral action when it perceives the national interest is at stake. The ongoing drone strikes in Pakistan are case in point.

However, where it sees the US national interest is less at play, the Obama administration appears far more willing to let other states pursue policies that align with US interests abroad.

Liberal Nationalists and Liberal Internationalists on the Use of Force

US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice

US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice

The US United Nations Ambassador, Susan Rice, has come under increasing fire from Senate Republicans over her remarks surrounding the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last month. In several television appearances, Ambassador Rice (following the information she had been provided by the administration based on “preliminary intelligence”) said that the attack was the result of protests over an anti-Muslim film. More detailed analysis later proved that the attacks used the cover of the protests but were in fact premeditated attacks by Islamic militants.

Blogging at Duck of Minerva last week, Josh Busby asks “Why Does John McCain Hate Susan Rice?” In doing so, Busby notes that Susan Rice has more in common with McCain than other potential nominees. Rice has been a strong proponent of American intervention in Libya, Syria, and Darfur. And she has advocated using military force in support of American interests and to prevent atrocities abroad.

Busby argues that liberal internationalists have more in common with neoconservatives like McCain, George W. Bush, and others, than they do with other realists like John Kerry. As Busby writes,

Where realists are quite conservative about the prospects for using force in defense of the country’s values, both liberal internationalists and neocons are optimistic about the ability to remake the world in the image of the United States. That is what makes them both liberal. Indeed, neoconservative is a misnomer. They really should have been called liberal nationalists. Where they differ from liberal internationalists is on means. Liberal internationalists prefer multilateral instruments to address foreign policy problems whereas neocons prefer national ones.

That distinction is an important one, and one that students often miss. Often assuming that realists are more likely to support the use of force and liberals less likely, we sometimes conflate the tendency to use force with the motivation for it. From this perspective, realists would likely oppose the use of American military force in Afghanistan and Iraq, because no clear national interest is at stake. By contrast, such wars could be supported by liberals because, from their perspective, the use of force to establish a more democratic international order is morally justified.

Perspectives become more complicated when we move from the abstract to the real world. Does the United States have a national interest in Libya? In Syria? In Rwanda? Should the lack of a national interest preclude us from intervening to prevent crimes against humanity, such as was the case in the 1994 Rwandan genocide?

What do you think? Should the US military be used in support of humanitarian intervention or to establish democracy abroad? Or should the United States limit its involvement to areas where it has a clearly defined national interest? Take the poll or leave a comment and let us know what you think.