The National Interest

As Lao Tzu said: “The best fighter is never angry.” As a result, there is no room for emotions in the life of what Aristotle called the “Polis,” which is now international scope. The “Polis” – which is now international in scope – is where a human being inevitably becomes entangled to a certain extent in the economic, political, and social affairs of others, given that human beings can never be completely and truly isolated from the people and the world around them.

In addition to being dictated by the need to overcome one’s emotions and sensitivities, the life of the “Polis” is dictated by “interests.” All individuals and all nations have a set of “interests” which they pursue through the life of the “Polis.” But in this day and age, the United States is perhaps the only nation in the world which lacks a clear definition of what is supposed to be its “national interests.” Because the United States became accustomed to its position as the unipolar power of the international system, the United States was able to do whatever it wanted to do for years, without understanding that eventually, aspirations would exceed capabilities. All other countries have well-defined national interests, because other countries balance their aspirations with their capabilities.

For example, the “national interest” of Russia is very clear, and it consists of two components. For one, Ukraine and Georgia are seen by Russia as buffer zones between NATO and Russia. Second, Russia wants NATO to pull back from Russia’s borders to a certain extent. Thus, Russia’s “national interest” is very clear, whereas the United States does not have clear and identifiable national interests at the moment.

But given the new reality which is setting into the minds of American bureaucrats and leaders – namely, that aspirations eventually exceed capabilities – there will eventually be a need to clearly define America’s “national interest” on the part of American leaders. Narrow interest groups and special interests cannot continue to define America’s “national interest.” For one, the “national interest” of the United States needs to be seen through the prism of maintaining its competitive and qualitative edge vis-à-vis China. All other aspects of American affairs need to interconnect and intersect with this particular aspect of American affairs, namely, the need to maintain America’s competitive and qualitative edge over China.

But maintaining one’s competitive and qualitative edge over China does not necessitate an adversarial approach towards China. Cooperation and partnership with China can coincide with the drive and motivation to maintain one’s competitive and qualitative edge vis-à-vis China, and it is imperative that the United States explore where American and Chinese national interests align. Arguably, the national interests of the two nations align more than they diverge, and this will become more and more evident through diplomacy and engagement.

Also, maintaining one’s competitive and qualitative edge over China will entail doing what China has done to a certain extent, which is to assume a certain level of “social responsibility” towards one’s people. Arguably, a sense of “social responsibility” on the part of the rich and powerful is deeply entrenched in Chinese culture, whereas America has been shaped by a culture of “pulling yourself by the bootstraps” to a certain extent. But strategy changes with context, and the global context has evolved, given the evolution of the basic structure of the international system, whereby China is rising as a parallel pole to the United States. Thus, with an evolution of the global context comes an evolution in strategy towards state-society relations.

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