Defining national interest

By Saad Hafiz:

Having struggled for decades, Pakistan has an opportunity to replace its incapacity for strategic thinking with political realism and use the concept of national interest as a guideline in its policy-making. The national interest is the preferences of a nation’s leaders, or put differently, the goals that are sought by the state, which are usually expressed in terms of physical survival, economic prosperity and political sovereignty. These preferences, or set of objectives, are related to general societal goals, persist over time, and have a consistent ranking of importance in order to justify using the term. Hans Morgenthau described the ‘national interest’ as a composite declaration derived from those values that a nation prizes the most: liberty, freedom, security. Carl von Clausewitz said that all states’ behaviour is motivated by their need to survive and prosper.

The overriding reality of political life is that peace, security, and freedom require economic strength and social cohesion, not overwhelming military power. Thus, adeptness at identifying the national interest and pursuing it in a creative way is part of the challenge of governance and state leadership in the current global arena. When ideology and national interest are at odds, a country caught up in ideology is typically unable to pursue a policy of national interest, which requires a calm, uncluttered view of reality. In this context, there are three imperatives that could help define Pakistan’s national interest. First, there should be no compromise on the primacy of the rule of law, civil rights and representative democracy; second, religious control of the state and of politics must be firmly opposed; third, national interest should be defined through a broad economic and social rather than a narrow security prism.

Pakistan, unlike many Muslims countries, is able to build upon its specific and working features of democracy, including institutions such as a free press, judiciary and multi-party elections that serve as cornerstones of democratic systems. Power in a democracy is exercised by co-option, instead of by coercion; it is premised on cultural values and political ideology; it operates through persuasion and example; and it is perpetuated within a network of institutions that defines the rules and modes of legitimate behaviour. By embracing pro-democratic, pro-market and pro-modern ideologies, Pakistan can hopefully remove the psychological refuge of many developing societies that eschew any responsibility for their shortcomings.

Pakistan also needs to think of itself as a forward looking South Asian country, not a backward looking society influenced by the ideals of a nebulous Pan-Islamism. The country needs to shake off its religiosity that is fundamentally unsuited for democracy and pluralistic thinking. The creeping religious control of the state and of politics must be firmly opposed. Religious practice in a democratic society requires religions to practice a degree of restraint (and tolerance for other religions). Secularism holds out the best hope of a world that tolerates diverse viewpoints and prospers in peace.

Pakistan’s greatest national interest is to formulate a comprehensive economic strategy. The country’s future ultimately depends upon regaining economic strength. It needs to break out from its shackles of foreign aid as Pakistanis, particularly the elite, have become accustomed to its corrupting influence. Strategists should rescue economic questions from a limbo and place them at the top of Pakistan’s strategic agenda. Future economic policies should be founded on the goal of competing and advancing the country’s techno-economic position. In particular, export-oriented nations such as Pakistan depend on open world markets. Therefore Pakistan’s security is inseparable from the way in which global markets work. Pakistan’s national economic interest is best served by open markets, which require amicable relations with the global powers, because it represents the ultimate guarantee of an open international economic order. The preservation of an orderly international system that promotes the free flow of capital and goods and the guarantee of international financial stability is in Pakistan’s vital national economic interests.

In a democracy, the national interest is what a majority, after discussion and debate and through a representative parliament, decides are its legitimate long-term shared interests. The people have a responsibility to assist and guide the state in determining the country’s national interest. This requires continuous vigorous debate and broad participation through membership of political parties and participation in an organised civil society. This is necessary to ensure that the country’s policymakers manage the affairs of state effectively and in the interest of the broad population rather than for the sake of political expediency. When left unchecked, power-hungry individuals and centralised decision-making structures open the door to excessive control over and manipulation of the national interest.

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