What is National Interest? How is it Determined?

Shahid H. Raja
10 min readNov 15, 2021



“There are neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies in international relations, only permanent interests.”-Lord Palmerston

The foreign policy of a country is not made or implemented in a vacuum; it owes its formulation to several variables and constants-historical, geographical, external, internal etc. Using the general framework, we can categorise the determinants of the foreign policy of a country under the following three headings namely

I. National Interest

II. Strategic Culture

III. Security Apparatus

It may be noted that while the national interest of a country is a comparatively long term constant, its strategic culture is a medium-term phenomenon, subject to change with changing perceptions of the incumbents or the entry of a new lot of policymakers. However, the regional apparatus is subject to change in a short period, or even immediately if there are substantial changes in the regional or global geopolitics or occurrence of any treads or event.

What is National Interest?

National Interest is a vague and ambiguous term that carries a meaning per the context in which it is used by the statesmen and policy-makers for justifying the actions of their states. While Morgenthau equated it with “survival — the protection of physical, political and cultural identity against encroachments by other nation-states”, Charles Lerche defined it as the “general, long term and continuing purpose which the state, the nation, and the government all see themselves as serving.” For this article, we can agree with the Brookings Institute which defines it in the following way

“What a nation feels to be necessary to its security and well-being… National interest reflects the general and continuing ends for which a nation acts.”

However, it must be pointed out that any objective of foreign policy cannot qualify as a national interest unless it has committed support of a vast majority of its people expressed through elected representatives. Thus only widely shared aspirations capable of guiding long term policy formulation cutting across all political divisions in a country can be termed as its national interest.

Importance of National Interest

The importance of clearly defining the national interest of a country in terms of long-term goals and objectives based on an objective assessment of the current situation can not be over-emphasized. Such a declaration performs several key functions.

Firstly, it is a consensus document, stated explicitly in both official doctrines and unofficial publications such as foreign policy or national security doctrines, concepts, or strategies. It, therefore, provides clear cut guidelines to those responsible for policy formulation and its implementation, establishing a hierarchy of national priorities to avoid the ineffective or inefficient use of scarce resources

Secondly, as a manifestation of long-term higher-order collective wisdom, it overrides the manifestos of political parties if they are not in sync with the dictates of the national interest. Consequently, national interest disciplines politicians and significantly restrict the freedom of their action.

Thirdly, besides restraining opposition, a clearly-defined national interest puts reasonable constraints on the government to obviate the possibility of misusing this consensus document by misinterpreting its any part to gain political advantage over the opposition.

Fourthly, clearly stated national interests provide the citizens, civil society organisations, and the media with strict criteria for evaluating the policy conducted by those who make national policy decisions.

Fifthly, it also helps in avoiding the “policy capture” whereby the powerful elements in the state or society can hijack the policy formulation for their vested interest instead of pursuing the achievement of objectives of national interest. Even in highly developed democratic countries, big corporations particularly those dealing with arms manufacturing, and oil are known to push their interests to the national level and garner government support

Finally, by publicly pronouncing its national interest it not only creates confidence in the public about the survival and growth of the country but also gives clear signals to the outside world about its intentions, and its capabilities to defend those interests.

From the above discussion, one can realise how important it is to have a comprehensive set of national policies for safeguarding the national interest. These policies to be effective should not only be individually internally consistent but should also be externally consistent in the sense that no two policies should conflict with each other. Every policy must be a part of a comprehensive whole creating what is called a synergistic effect.

How National Interest is Formulated?

Although its precise definition may differ from country to country and from time to time, the framework for the determination of the national interest of a country essentially consists of four interrelated and interdependent propositions. Each proposition has four objectives and each objective, in turn, may have several goals (SMART goals-specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound). To achieve these objectives and the goals, elected representatives make a comprehensive national policy consisting of various socioeconomic and political policies. Foreign policy is one such component of this national policy.

Once approved, these policies are handed over to the concerned civil servants by the cabinet/ministers in charge of the respective ministries for implementation. Here enter the civil servants who make strategies on how best to implement these policies and achieve the goals and objectives laid down in these policies most efficiently and effectively. Here are the four propositions and the objectives therein of national interest;

A. Territorial Integrity and sovereignty

B. Economic Well being of the People

C. Internal Cohesion and Harmony

D. Regional Peace and stability

A. Territorial Integrity and National Sovereignty

The first component of a country’s national interest is to maintain the territorial integrity of the country in the sense that in case of any aggression from outside or internal subversion, the country can defend itself. Related to the above is the preservation of its sovereignty in the sense that the state can take all the decisions without being under duress or command of outside forces.

There cannot be two opinions about the overriding importance of maintaining territorial integrity and preserving national sovereignty in the formulation of the national interest of a country. To exist as an independent, sovereign nation-state, the country tries to achieve the following four objectives

1. Amicable settlement of any territorial dispute it has with the neighbouring country particularly if it is so vital that you must fight a war if necessary

2. Maintaining well-trained and well-equipped defence forces by providing them with state-of-the-art training and equipping them with modern weaponry.

3. Building credible indigenous defence armaments capability to attain self-sufficiency in the production of conventional arms and ammunition and acquiring an effective nuclear, strategic and tactical, capability to compensate it for the lack of adequate strategic depth and comparatively inadequate resources against its adversary.

4. Cultivating friendly relations with global powers to help it with the requisite diplomatic support in case of external aggression

That is why a medium-sized country like Pakistan has been cultivating friendly relations with those countries, capable of meeting its defence needs. Joining American-sponsored defence pacts like SEATO and CENTO and concluding Mutual Defence Pact with the USA in the 1950s by Pakistan was precisely for this reason. When the USA imposed an embargo on the supply of military equipment during the 1965 War with India, Pakistan had no option but to court China. At the same time, Pakistan has been maintaining friendly relations with its neighbours and the Muslim countries for diplomatic support in case of external aggression.

B. Wellbeing of its Citizens

The second component of the national interest of a country is the well-being of its citizens by ensuring that the country has the necessary wherewithal to improve the quality of life of the common citizens by meeting their basic needs at an affordable cost. This, in turn, is dependent upon a country growing at a rate commensurate with its survival and growth needs. For this purpose, a state tries to achieve the following four objectives

1. Achieving sustainable and inclusive growth whose gains are distributed equitably among all the regions of the country and all the sections of the society.

2. Access to foreign markets not only to ensure uninterrupted supply of essential resources including technology but also to sell its exportable surplus at competitive rates

3. Attracting Foreign Direct Investment to develop its human and natural resources, modernization of its economy, and upscaling its technology base.

4. Obtaining foreign economic assistance from bilateral or multilateral sources to bridge the resource gap

A state which cannot meet the basic needs of the people loses its legitimacy, resulting in an existential threat to the country itself. History is replete with instances of states breaking due to economic shortfalls. After all, one of the main reasons for the breakup of the former USSR was its inability to provide its citizens with the basic goods of daily use.

C. Maintaining Internal Cohesion and Harmony

The third component of the national interest of a country is to maintain its internal cohesion and harmony. With few exceptions, all modern nation-states are multi-ethnic entities in which the different communities compete for scarce resources. This is a healthy competition if it remains confined within the constitutional limits. However, if some groups cross those boundaries, it may weaken the very foundations of the state and create an existential threat to the country. Thus the national interest of the country lies in containing that unrest instead of improving their cohesion. For this purpose, it has four objectives;

1. Formulating a shared vision of a just and prosperous country enshrined in a duly formulated with consensus and formally approved constitution

2. Ensuring that this shared vision is implemented by well-functioning vibrant institutions to create stakes for everyone to feel satisfied in a united nation-state.

3. Main-streaming the marginalized sections and disgruntled elements of society by ensuring good governance at different levels of interaction and taking affirmative action on a selective basis where needed

4. Strengthening the democratic process by promoting true political culture (of tolerance and accommodation), strengthening its democratic structures (of parliaments, election commissions,) and letting the various democratic processes (of holding elections at federal, provincial, and local levels) continue uninterruptedly

Nation-building has been one of the biggest challenges almost every post-colonial state has been facing since its independence. Its national interest demands building a nation with a vision of common destiny out of a multitude of culturally distinct nationalities having years of rich heritage, languages, and culture into a nation that is at peace within and peace without. It strives to mainstream the marginalized sections and disgruntled elements of society by ensuring good governance at different levels of interaction and taking affirmative action on a selective basis where needed. It strengthens the democratic dividends by promoting true political culture (of tolerance and accommodation), strengthening its democratic structures (of parliaments, election commissions,) and letting the various democratic processes (of holding elections at federal, provincial, and local levels) continue uninterruptedly

D. Regional Peace and Stability

Lastly, the fourth essential component of the national interest of a country is the preservation of regional peace and stability in the region where it is located or has vital interests. While reserving its right to defend its territorial integrity and national sovereignty, every peace-loving nation-state, acting responsibly in global and regional affairs, believes in peaceful coexistence. Consequently, regional peace is the cornerstone of the national interest of every state for which it has four objectives;

1. Maintaining friendly relations with all the bordering countries in the true spirit of non-interference and mutual respect and amicable settlement of outstanding disputes.

2. Establishing the writ of the state in the nook and corner of the country so that there are no safe havens for terrorists within the country which could create trouble inside or outside

3. Striving for the establishment of a regional broad-based framework of counter-terrorism to obviate the possibility of its spill over into your country

4. Promotion of regional cooperation, development, and trade to reap the benefits of economies of scale and comparative advantage of natural endowments

No country howsoever powerful may be, can live in peace and enjoy prosperity if there is turmoil just outside its borders. A civil war in a neighbouring country not only results in the influx of refugees with attendant consequences, but it may also result in internal turmoil if a section of the population starts taking part in that external conflict, crisis, or war based on ethnic affinity or religious feelings.


Throughout history, every nation-state has been facing multifarious challenges, big or small. Ranging from survival and security to economic growth and global image, these challenges can stem from any source- internal dynamics or external situations, or a combination of both. Some of these may be due to their own historical and structural contradictions or just due to global fault lines, threatening their very existence. A timely, appropriate and adequate response to these challenges is the essence of the national interest.


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