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National Interest is more Significant than Ideology in Shaping Foreign Policy

Ideologies shape the foreign policy of a state when the state is in need of a justification of its actions in international relations. When those reasons are already present, then the main concern becomes how the nation will involve itself in the relations with other nations to ensure that it stays true to the reasons of engagement. The reasons of engaging in international relations are the national interests of a country. Foreign policy is the exact guideline that a nation uses to engage other nations or group of nations. The foreign policy is shaped by the national interest of the state to guarantee state prosperity and survival. Where ideologies form the national policy, then the state is left at the mercy of its enemies who are free to attack or deprive it of its livelihood as long as they play within the ideology limits of the foreign policy.
Transition states are countries shifting from a planned economy to a free market economy. These states are characterized by different stages of the liberalization of their key economic sectors. Transition states include countries that formed the former soviet Union, States in Europe that are embracing capitalism after years of having command economies, third world countries that are moving from dictatorships to democracies in Africa and Latin America and lastly Asian countries embracing free trade and also moving from dictatorial regimes to become vibrant democracies.
The policies governing growth of these transition states are significant in shaping up the growth and attracting foreign direct investments in these countries. Transition states lack an adequate investment in their private sectors because of previous years of lack of private ownership of capital. They lack strong capital markets to provide funds for development and economic reconstruction. There they rely more on foreign support in terms of aid and foreign direct investments. To hasten their transformation into market economies, these states are keen to provide a proper atmosphere for attracting the FDI inflows. FDI tends to thrive in countries that implement policy conditions from world trade governing bodies and donor institutions because of their recognition as universal indications of a strong market structures in the country to guarantee returns on investments (Selowsky & Martin 2009).
This essay demonstrates that only national interest can shape foreign policy because they guarantee prosperity and survival. The paper looks at the definitions of ideology and national interests, and then explores the concept of national interests as applied by transitional countries. U.S. national interests’ analysis is provided to provide to depict a worldwide context of the importance of national interests.
An ideology encompasses an effort to cause improvement in the society or to claim that certain efforts lead to societal improvement. It is very similar to religion and differs only in the outcome. In fact people advocating for a certain ideology mimic religious fanatics, forcing or persuading non-believers to view their ideology as the truthful one compared to other ideologies. Opponents of ideologies view it as a justification of dictatorship. In most cases where ideologies shape the affairs of a nation, the leader takes the ideology sarcastically and pursues a policy of national interests. Ideology is accepted when it fits the reasons for a particular action and it can be dropped like a hat when it is no longer suitable. Revolutionaries who go as far as ignoring their own national interests usually propagate ideologies. Such revolutionaries are untrustworthy when it comes to the maintenance of a formidable foreign policy. In most cases an ideologist will change into a pragmatist once they assume power. Therefore, foreign policy cannot be shaped according to an ideology because ideologies do not explicitly enforce and protect national interests (Schwab (ed.) 1981).
National interest
The formation of foreign policy of any nation is a matter of choosing ends and means to achieve those ends to fulfill the interest of a nation in any particular time. There needs to be a basic formulation of the ideal that a country wishes to have in its business of interacting with other nations (Frankel 1970). Such ideals form the interest of the country in question. There are factors that shape the goal of a country in its relations with other countries or group of countries. The factors are in most cases dynamic, changing with the change of the environment of their formulation. In this view, the formulation of a foreign policy tends to consider the long-term effect of the policy and instead of being specific, provides a general guideline to be followed given the involvement of a country in the relations of the world and also influences the stand which a country takes on these matters (Brands 1999).
Formulation of foreign policy is a learning process, affected by past event that concern a country directly and indirectly (Goldstein & Keohane (eds.) 1993). States engage in international relations using the guidelines contained in their national interests. Therefore, foreign policy is a reflection of the national interest of any country. National interest forms the backbone of foreign policy of a country since it acts as the foreign policy. However, the national interest of a specific country is unique to that country and changes with the public interests that shape the country (Bandyopadhyaya 2006). The concept of national interest may be thought to be clear and objective representing what is good for the whole nation in international relations (Rice 2000). A deeper look reveals that the concept of national interest is difficult to transform into a working strategy. There are a few persons that can see national interest specifically for what it is, however a majority of observers cannot accept a given notion of national interest and argue over the details of the its description (Roskin 1994).
From philosophy, national interest originated from the fifteenth century world of Machiavelli. He opined that possessing moral goals is not enough and instead there has to be sufficient power and willingness to exercise the power in order to realize the goals. He was aiming at unifying Italy setting Italy free of foreign occupants. Clausewitz, another philosopher, contributes to the issue of national interest understanding by saying that all states are motivated by their need to survive and be prosperous. To protect their interests, states must rationally agree to war; no other reason should warrant war. Moreover, unending war is not wise because it does not serve any national interest (Roskin 1994).
National interests that govern foreign policy in a democratic state are theoretically influenced and shaped by public opinion. In transitional states, public opinion is less concerned with international relations and therefore national interest and foreign policy is left to the discussion of a political and economic elite. This is usually necessitated by the public preoccupation with socio-economic problems within the country. These preoccupations include economic development, literacy levels and a low political consciousness (Morgenthau 1950).
According to (Roskin 1994), national interest is a composite declaration obtained from values that are paramount to a nation’s survival such as liberty, freedom and security. It is common to view national interest as being composed of three things: survival of the nation geographically, sovereignty of the state politically and national prosperity. These are not conclusive attributes, the list continues based on the subjective preferences and political debates in the nation. To come up with a national interest, political debates ensue as a way of making proposals and justifications of policies as well as denouncement of others. Since the foreign policy of countries is dynamic as outlined above, countries have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies; instead they have core interests that decide whether other countries are their friends or foes.
International relations show a spectrum of views on the characteristics of national interest. The extreme idealists on one end whose view is that national interest is the same as national power and the measure of power is the material strength of the country. Such material strength is composed of the military and economic strengths. Extreme idealists on the other end identify national interest as the universal moral aspiration of humankind. This includes notions of eternal peace and the willingness to sacrifice material power of a nation for the overall uplifting of humanity. Within the limits of the two extremes are moderate views. The moderates form a synthetic conception of national interest that combines aspects of idealists and realists (Bandyopadhyaya 2006).
From a realist perspective, foreign policies are pursued to safeguard national interest, which is identified as the power of the state. Therefore, in this view, diplomats engage in international relations with the hindsight question of whether their involvement will increase or weaken their power. So the foreign state of a nation can be judged rationally and empirically irrespective of the values it purports to stand for. Foreign policy interpretation in the realist view has no room for the specific national ideologies such as communism, Islam or vegetarianism (Karam (ed.) 2004). Only one question looms above all, does the diplomat in question uphold the interest of the state to survive and be powerful? The policy becomes rational when the question is answered in the positive (Kirkby 1973).
When it comes to policies, a state does not have the luxury to declare that certain interest are vital yet the state cannot substantially demonstrate the importance with a strategic military power. This mistake does not go without pay. The adversary of the state will see the mistake and continue with their conquest against the state, or the state will find itself in a compromising situation of having to convince its adversaries that it had serious intentions of its statement. When coming up with foreign policies, states ensure that they convey only that which they can back up (Kirkby 1973).
National interests fall into two categories, vital and secondary interests. The vital interests concern the very life of a state. Therefore, they cannot be compromised; a threat to vital interest is a call for war. Secondary interests on the other hand can be compromised and are general and hard to pin point. They present no real threat to a state’s sovereignty (Roskin 1994). Secondary interests have a capacity to form debate to such a scale that they become vital interests. When the foreign policy describes a national interest as secondary, then the country can negotiate a compromise of the interest with other countries in order to obtain a mutually advantageous deal. This is only possible when neither party to the negotiation is pursuing an expansionist aim. If that is the case then a compromise of the secondary national interests will not yield a viable resolution of the matter.
Moreover, in the realist view of national interests, there are temporary and permanent interests. In addition, they distinguish between specific interests and general interests, complimentary and conflicting interests. Defending human rights in another nation on another continent is mostly a permanent, general and secondary interest because each nation upholds humanity in its values and therefore has a long-term commitment to human rights. Such commitments come without conflicts with any other country that is likely to destroy relations and weaken the state’s power.
Two states never have identical national interest; however, their national interest may be similar in some aspects. For example it might be both India’s and the United States interest to oppose domination of terrorist groups in Pakistan but the intensity of the interest for India as a neighbor are different than those of the US, which views the situation in terms of world peace necessary for its prosperity (Bandyopadhyaya 2006).
Diplomats seek to find and grow complimentary interests to allow two or more countries to work together. When there is no ground for complimentary interests, nations cannot cooperate and therefore the work of their diplomats is to minimize any damage that may arise out of their conflicts. Knowing that national interests change, it is very normal for enemy state to suddenly become friends and have complimentary interests (Reynolds 1994). Since natural interests are defined first by the international matters that affect the survival of a state, geographical components cannot miss. The geographical components include the country, natural resources and strategic positioning in harnessing resources or in warfare (Hill 2003).
The realist perspective was responsible for the continued assault on Vietnam by the US. During the period, the perspective had become main-stream and the attack was justified because the expansionist communist movement was swallowing one country after another and was threatening to disrupt US defense, politics and economic interests in Southeast Asia (Roskin 1994).
An idealist perspective of national interest usually encompasses ideologies that are globally recognized, to advocate for the cause for involvement of a nation (Neack 2008). For example, the slaughter of civilians in another country appeals to idealists because it signifies a loss of stability that if left alone might grow to become a vital threat to the survival of the particular nation. Idealists incorporate a world interest in their formulation of foreign policies and are more willing to compromise the standings of their states for the sake of world ideals. In extreme cases, an idealist campaign in foreign relations would make a nation interests be overly altruistic such that the nation is left defenseless. Foreign policy heavy on altruism will compel a nation to be involved in more than a dozen causes around the world that would necessitate numerous alliances that fritter away the power of the state with no clear tangible outcome.
National interests only concern the nation’s position in international relations. The expansion of the thinking to include interests of other nations or the interests of a group of nations in the world becomes another concept distinctly different from national interest. Otherwise, a nation will find itself fighting for peace in the world all over. While analyzing the foreign policy of any country, it is paramount that diplomats evaluate whether the policy leads to the benefit of the country or the policy propagates idealistic views.
State’s national interest and foreign policy
In East Asia, a region consisting of political transition countries like Vietnam, the state has been replaced by the private sector in the support of key economic sectors necessary for the survival of the countries. East Asian countries had a sole national purpose of attaining economic recovery after the devastation of the region in the financial crisis of the 1960s. These countries had a weakened infrastructure and a poor population without an adequate purchasing power to sustain their economies. Therefore, for their early recovery, the states had to be completely reliant on external aid. The aid necessary to transform their economies comes with conditions of having open markets and as a result, the states move further into market economies from command economies. The states formed a patron-client relationship with the US and other developed countries in Europe. Therefore, most of their policy formulations had to be approved by their aid partners for the transition states to qualify for aid (Huang (ed.) 2007).
The high dependence of the East Asian transition states on the hard foreign currency and as a result paid little or no regard to other political interests in the international economies. Their national interest lay in economic survival and were more important that ideologies that were previously strong in their command economies. The dilution of state power in the economy also meant that the ideologies could no longer be the driving factor of their international relations. Thus, their foreign policies assumed a democratic orientation of choosing the unanimous intention of the countries, national interest, of achieving economic growth rather than the ideals of the few elites, ideologies, which did not resonate readily with the public interest (Huang (ed.) 2007).
The triumph of national interest over ideologies in the East Asian transition states is illustrated by the failure of the United States to build an anticommunist alliance through multilateral treaties. However, bilateral arrangements centered on the US succeeded because of their economic orientation and promise of increase in trade during the Cold War (Huang (ed.) 2007).
Other examples of transition countries demonstrating the triumph of national interest over ideologies in the formulation of foreign policy are Latvia and Nepal. The transition of Latvia to a market economy meant that the country had to develop ties with other western oriented countries to guarantee a market for its products. The country identified niche markets in Europe and aligned its foreign policy to be similar so that it could participate in military missions beyond its sub region of Balkans and Afghanistan. The country identified Russia as its major source of insecurity and therefore formed a vital national interest of moving away of dependence on its sub region for survival (Galbreath 2006).
Transitional states like Nepal lack the strength to form exclusives ties with one country and ignore other countries. Therefore, the county has no luxury of playing ideologies and instead looks at ways that enhance its economy as the surest way of guaranteeing the prosperity of its citizens. Politically Nepal though complaining of inappropriate foreign interference seeks to concentrate on strengthening local institutions and has no immediate desire to take positions in international politics (Bhatta n.d.).
Weldes (1996) uses the Cuban missile crisis to evaluate the main issues that pertain to international relations. The author recognizes the importance of the event and its role in the standoff between two countries with opposing ideological systems. The United States and the Soviet Union in 1962 because of the missiles present in Cuba. The standoff achieved an epic importance in the records of the United States foreign policy. The author engages the reader to what aspects of the event makes it so important that it is considered a crisis; and given its classification as a crisis, what then was its influence on the national interest of the United States. The analysis of the Cuban missile crisis by Weldes (1996) gives the reader an opportunity to see the role of national interest and how it shapes the practice of international relations.
The reason why the Soviet missiles in Cuba caused a crisis, according to the United States, was that the missiles presented a dire threat. The United States feared that the proximity of the missiles, of its enemy, to its territory made it so easy for the Soviet Union to attack the United States without providing the United States an opportunity for retaliation since the Soviet Union is significantly far from the United States. The main issue coming out of the crisis was not the facts of the potential attack, but conceptions of the Americans on the symbolism of the missiles in Cuba (Weldes 1996).
Rice (2008) notes that in the post-Cold War era, the knowledge of where the foreign interests of the United States become clear after the veil of uncertainty of an imminent war had been lifted. There were numerous changes that were shaping the United States foreign policy that were not very clear, nevertheless they continued to occur. The terror attack of September 11, 2001 made the U.S. to change its foreign policy, making the effects of the terror attack be equated with the effects of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. As a result, there has been a continuous change of the American foreign policy shaped by new ideologies and interests brought up by the attacks. The relation of the US and other world emerging powers has however maintained the same significance. In its foreign policy, America ensures that its interactions with countries such as China and Russia- big world powers- and Brazil and India-emerging powers- are right. In addition, to maintain international order, the United States maintains an alliance with its traditional allies in Europe, Asia and the Americas.
The only change in the US policy is how the country views its relations with other states. It is notable that with globalization, some states strengthen while those weak in democratic structures are exposed as well as their likelihood of collapsing and their problems spilling over to influence other similar states and destabilize the global order (Smith, Hadfield & Dunne (eds.) 2008). The US highlights the importance of democratic state creation as the most important element of its national interest. It advocates for the adoption of democracy in the Middle East to enforce a stability and peace in the region, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan- countries it considers the most unstable (Ball 2006).
To increase the influence of its policies abroad, the US has relied on its strength and core values of realism and idealism. Its relationship with Russia and China has been on the grounds of common interests rather than common values. In Russia, the US has a common ground of a strategic framework for Russia to use its power responsibly. In the case of China, the US insists that it bears the full responsibility of being in the international community (Hastedt 2009). The US feels that China has to do more in its actions and support for issues in Darfur, Burma and Tibet. Therefore, the US relation with China mainly aims to influence the outcome of China’s actions on the above matters and other emerging issues of international relations (Hunt 1987).
The US cannot engage in a hostile relationship with China or any other warlike country threatening its allies on the pretext of human rights. Human rights, although forming moral values of the United States national interest, come in as secondary, permanent and general. The destruction of human rights in a distant land away from the US may signify a threat to global peace; however, such a threat does not threaten the existence of the US.
India is seeking to be able to support its growing appetite for energy as its economy is growing; therefore, it has announced plans to develop nuclear power. The US recognizes the growing influence of India as a world power and is at the forefront of forming an alliance of ensuring world peace and economic prosperity so that it does not miss the opportunity of trade with India, as well as the benefit of having a global powerhouse on its side (Rice 2000).
After the cold war, the hegemony of world affairs by two principle powers was lifted (Fawn, 2004). Countries that were previously without a national interest because of their puppet status for the two super powers, the US and the Soviet Union, now have a say in the formulation of their foreign policies. Each country relates to another in terms of its survival (Fox 1982). The first form of collaboration among countries is trade, and when trade flourishes then countries may move into political partnerships. World affairs are no longer shaped by two opposing ideologies. Individual countries have to assess their involvement in different causes to determine if their engagement increases their power. The US national interest has also had to be compromised as countries realize that the world’s most powerful country has its nose into so many affairs that it cannot fully influence specific issues to take a given course (Bush 2002).
The growing influence of China as a global economic powerhouse is attributed to the narrow focus of China’s foreign policy. The country has decided to put a blind eye on all issues other than economic that affect its trade partners. The decision to only concentrate on economic outcomes of its relations shows that china is maintaining a realist view of national interest, the expansion of power. Purely economic partnerships allow China to get raw materials and have a market for its finished goods. The turning of a blind eye on ideologies ensures that China experiences very little direct hostility. In addition, China does not have a clean slate at home in human rights and other significant global ideals. Its zero involvement policy allows the country to avoid most hostilities that can be threats to its prosperity.
On the other hand, the US involvement in the murky waters of world peace ensures that it is fighting numerous wars all over the globe. As a result, its national interest has become too broad to define and predict. The assumption that world peace is achievable in the current world is an ideology that the US is pursuing. Its quest for world peace and social equality is creating foes and friends alike ensuring that the state does not realize any goal of its involvement. Ideologies behind the wars fought by the US change long before the wars are over, and even with the end of wars, it becomes difficult to guarantee that there will be a lasting peace (Hastedt 2009).
For a transitional state, survival and prosperity are more important than global ideals of peace and stability. Therefore, such states use the realist perspective of viewing their national interests. These states have specific goals that shape their national interests. National interests are unique to every state; however, they might be similar in the ends they advocate. Therefore, two states might find it suitable to be allies to achieve the same goal. Given the dynamic nature of national interests, interstate relations may at one point be constructive and the next destructive. The importance of alliances to guarantee political survival as characterized in the Cold War era is over and has been replaced by globalization and world governing bodies. The individual survival of countries in an increasingly competitive world has pushed states to position themselves to gain maximally from globalization. Therefore, the most important item for a nation is survival is getting raw materials for its economy and a market for its finished goods. The economic issues that determine the health of a state are the new national interest of any transitional economy and are the key factors that determine the state’s foreign policy.

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