National interest is a country’s interests which are stated explicitly in both official doctrines and unofficial publications, such as the constitution of India, foreign in policy, domestic laws etc. The interest of a nation stems from various sources and are influenced by myriad factors, including politics, personal agendas, pride, ego, altruism, and compassion. When talking about national interests, we exclude interests of individual politicians but rather focus on, traditional understanding of national interest, what states consider core or vital, such as security. Historically, national interest, international relations have been understood form the lens of geopolitics. 1Coicaud, Jean-Marc, and Nicholas J Wheeler. National Interest And International Solidarity. United Nations University Press, 2008.
Geopolitics holds significant sway in international relations, but if you examine interests other than territories, you arrive at concepts such as human rights and their inherent need, as a state is simply a collection of individuals. 2Ibid Global responsibility is the antithesis to national interests, where emphases are placed on the collective global obligation each nation has. This paper will examine the issue of climate change via global responsibility and national interest and argue that the traditional understanding of national interest needs to expand beyond geopolitics.
The national interest stems from the theory of Realism, with an emphasis on power, realism states that International relations need to be dictated national interest, as realist politicians deem national interests to be the only that impacts international politics. The theory of realism dictates since states are the main actors in International relations, the primary interest of the state is to ensure its own safety and well-being, hence the interests of other states and other intreats such as planetary, cultural group interest, individual, regional, moral and global are secondary. 3Al-Rodhan, Nayef R. F. Neo-Statecraft And Meta-Geopolitics. Lit, 2009, pp. 203-225.
Therefore, realist scholars promote that idea of a global sphere being a hostile one, as each state is looking out for its own interests of self-preservation and long term survival, which leads to the conclusion of states as global actors being non-neutral, meaning, global interest is defined by the strongest states. 4Ibid The realist school of thought-form its origins in having argued that international power politics are rooted in human behaviours hence according to Morgenthau since humans would not change, international relations will always be characterized by the struggle for power, hence the national interest that strengthens a nation is the only interest worth considering. 5Supra note 2
On the other hand, we have the liberal political theory of international relations, which has directly challenged the realist school of thought emphasizing the need for a global corporation as it highlights the common interests of the international community and that of individual intreats such as human rights. The liberal view moves from the state-centred approach of international relations as they examine the impact of non-state actors within international law, the liberal view also seeks to highlight the interdependence of states with each other, That no nation lives in isolation of one another and action of one state can affect another.
Jean-Marc Coicaud and Nicolas J. Wheeler argue that even through territorial security is the backbone of international relations, in recent times territorial focus on has been balanced by other interests mainly human rights. The idea being, that humans live in a plurality of coulters, which have varying moral practices, but all have basic needs and rights which have to be respected, the rights and needs are the core commonality of an individual across the globe.
National Interests and Global Responsibility examined through the lens of Climate Change
Climate change is a defining crisis of the modern era and is an example of global responsibility, meaning that every state shares a common responsibility to curb the climate change by tackling the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG). The debate around policy with regards to climate change is one that encapsulates the debate of national interest and global responsibility. Climate change is responsible for rising sea levels and changing weather patterns impact food security. Therefore, climate change is a threat to the globe but for coastal areas which are directly affected by rising sea level, such as Malaysia combating climate change is not only a global responsibility but a matter of national security for Malaysia hence its a national interest.
For countries like Guatemala and Honduras who have seen mass migration to the United States of America due to dry periods in those regions creating food security issues caused by caring weather patterns. To tackle climate, change the global community has proposed in the Paris Agreement keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.
If sustainable development is understood from the pure realist theory, national interest as the only guiding factor for policy, for developing countries such as India, there is very little incentive to move from fossil fuel, as one of India national interest is to decrease national poverty and become a high-middle income country by 2030 and according to trends in developing countries, as the poverty rate decrease carbon emission levels increase. China is an example of a nation that put national interest over global responsibility, as China accounts for 70 per cent of global poverty reduction since the 1980s, it has also become the largest polluter due to its rapid industrialization, outputting more emissions than both the USA and European Union combined.
The effects of China’s environmental protection law, which were last revised in 1989, are already felt within the country as 1.1 million premature deaths and a loss of US$38 billion due to early deaths and lost food production, are a result of air pollution in China. Deaths due to air pollution are not limited to China. In 2016, half a million people died a premature death in India due to pollution, in the short span of four years, that number has risen to about 2.3 million per year in India, a total of 8.3 million die globally due to pollution.
Therefore, it is imperative for a good policy to understand not only the short term gains but also to look at the long-term consequences, the west during its industrial era, like China ignored the long-term effects of GHG emission on Climate change. 6Climate Change Science. National Academy Press, 2001, pp. 16-17 The argument for global responsibility stands thus, national interest cannot be paramount, as the action of individual state actors can effect/adversely affect the globe. Therefore, the liberal theory would argue sustainable development as a global responsibility.
Coicaud and Wheeler argued that historical national interests were based on geopolitical/territorial consideration as a matter of security, because security allows nation sovereignty and thus prosperity, however in recent times national interests could be looked through the dimension of human rights, Al-Rodhan attempts to reconcile national interest with global interest through the metric of multi sum security principle, as he argues that the traditional concept of security needs to expand to include human, environmental, national, transnational and transcultural dimension to create a compressive concept of security. 7Supra note 4
National Interest and Global Responsibility are not necessarily in conflict with each other in all instances, sometimes national interests and global responsibility align them themselves. As we have seen with climate change there are other global issues which no one nation can tackle alone, as stated by the former prime minister of United Kingdom, Gordon Brown, global issues such as environment i.e climate change, financial issues due to the global economy, and terrorism which are a threat to every country. In tacking such issues every nation has a duty to act responsibly and to not act purely on self-interest, as the world has shifted people are no longer classified by the country they come from, according to Brown.
Analyzing National Interest
What needs to be the consideration for a policy purpose when determining which national interest to pursue are the short term and long-term benefit, some short-term national interests can lead to long term geopolitical disasters, hence short policies sited should be avoided. Secondly, not all national interests have the same value hence they need to classify by weighing, prioritizing, and assigning significance. And lastly the ability to achieve said foreign policy goals, often resources are limited hence goals need to prioritized and in some cases, some very worthwhile objectives must be abandoned.
Overall, a national interest needs to be situated in some comprehensive societal narrative developed thorough the nation’s history, Wilsonianism school of thought states a nation need to have a sense of who it is as a nation and no amount of global influence will overcome the lack of direction of a nation, hence a lack in direction on how to use it. Realists are correct in viewing national interest as the priority, as without security a nation cannot operate to its full potential. When we look at the USA, according to Mearsheimer, American foreign policy should be aimed at maintaining global hegemony, therefore they attempt to have high domestic security, secure a free flow of natural resources and commerce, pursue the security of allies, spread ideological influence and maintain a secure grasp on the aforementioned interests.
America has such high levels of domestic security that it can venture into engaging in profitless adventures. This is possible because America was able to attain physical security to its borders through the federal U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency that there are no immediate threats to their territory nor are their disputes. This is unlike the situation in India where there are constant territorial disputes its neighbours and threats of terror attacks. High levels of Domestic security addresses the threat of Terrorism, violence, and disaster by appropriately responding to the threat, the ability to mitigate a threat plays an internal role in how foreign policy is shaped.
The realist school of thought which prioritizes national interest as the core of policy creation are correct in holding self-interests above all else, a nation cannot be faulted in prioritizing their own safety and development in lieu of countervailing circumstances. When a nation continues to develop and has achieved a certain level of domestic security it be better able to project global influence. However, the liberal school of thought is also correct in stating that each nation has a certain level of global responsibility eg: sustainable development to slow down climate change and achieve the goals of the Paris agreement.
As Al-Rodhan attempts a reconciliation of national interest, because the traditional understanding of security is no longer primarily territorial security, national interests needs to encompass global threats that are beyond any one particular nations border, threats such as Climate change and unsustainable practices. Therefore sustainable development goals should be a priority for any nation and its foreign policy should aim to advocate sustainable development in other nations.
As the world has globalized it has changed what security for a nation means, therefore foreign policies of a nation need to take into account these changing definition of security and national interest and should reflect the same. Moreover, foreign policy should not be based on short term benefits but be cemented with long-term benefits which are a reflection of the nation’s identity.