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National Interest

National Interest

History of the concept

Limitations of the concept

Future of the concept


The concept of the national interest is used in both political analysis and political action. As an analytic tool, it is employed to describe, explain, or evaluate the sources or the adequacy of a nation’s foreign policy. As an instrument of political action, it serves as a means of justifying, denouncing, or proposing policies. Both usages, in other words, refer to what is best for a national society. They also share a tendency to confine the intended meaning to what is best for a nation in foreign affairs.

Beyond these general considerations, however, the two uses of the concept have little in common. In its action usage the concept lacks structure and content but, nevertheless, serves its users, political actors, well. As an analytic tool the concept is more precise and elaborate but, nevertheless, confounds the efforts of its users, political analysts. These differences arise out of the fact that the national interest is rooted in values (“what is best”). While analysts have discovered that the value-laden character of the concept makes it difficult to employ as a tool of rigorous investigation, actors have found that this very same characteristic renders the concept useful both as a way of thinking about their goals and as a means of mobilizing support for them. That is, not only do political actors tend to perceive and discuss their goals in terms of the national interest, but they are also inclined to claim that their goals are the national interest, a claim that often arouses the support necessary to move toward a realization of the goals. Consequently, even though it has lost some of its early appeal as an analytic tool, the national interest enjoys considerable favor as a basis for action and has won a prominent place in the dialogue of public affairs.

History of the concept

The national interest has a much longer history as an instrument of action than as a tool of analysis. According to a historian who traced past uses of the term, political actors made claims on behalf of the national interest as early as the sixteenth century in Italy and the seventeenth century in England (Beard 1934, pp. 22-24). At that time claims made in the name of “the will of the prince,” “dynastic interests,” raison d’état, and other older catchwords began to lose their effectiveness as a new form of political organization, the nation-state, came into being and served as the political unit to which men owed their allegiance. Thus, the old terms were gradually replaced by new ones that reflected the new loyalties. The national interest was one of these, as was “national honor,” “the public interest,” and “the general will.” Beard also found that “the term, national interest, has been extensively employed by American statesmen since the establishment of the Constitution” (1934, p. 26).

Many decades elapsed, however, before the national interest attracted attention as a tool of analysis. Not until the twentieth century, when two world wars made it clear that mass publics had both a vital stake in foreign affairs and played a vital role in them, did analysts focus on the national interest as a concept which could be used to describe, explain, and assess the foreign policies of nations. Beard was himself one of the first to develop the concept for this purpose and to distinguish it from the “public interest,” which through convention has come to be used in reference to the domestic policies of nations.

Initially, the national interest appealed to analysts whose main concern was to evaluate the foreign policies which led to World War II. Impressed with the thought that the global conflict might have been avoided if the British and the French had not acquiesced to Hitler at Munich in 1938 and if the United States had not adopted isolationist policies throughout the 1930s, a number of analysts turned to the national interest as a way of determining the adequacy and effectiveness of past, present, or future policies. They reasoned in retrospect that the advent of World War II made it clear that the prewar policies of the three nations were ill-advised and that the policies proved to be contrary to the best interests of England, France, and the United States. To these analysts it thus seemed obvious that the best interest of a nation is a matter of objective reality and that by describing this reality one is able to use the concept of the national interest as a basis for evaluating the appropriateness of the policies which a nation pursues. Because of their underlying assumption that the national interest can be objectively determined, we shall call these analysts “objectivists.”

It should be noted that most objectivists do not have an explicit and elaborate rationale for their approach to the national interest. Interested primarily in analyzing the contents of foreign policy, the objectivists are not particularly concerned about the methodological and philosophical foundations of their inquiries. They make no special effort to explain how and why their descriptions of the national interest are in accord with reality because, for them, the correspondence between their descriptions and the objective situation is self-evident. Objectivists thus leave to their readers the task of inferring their conceptualization of the national interest from substantive observations which are as variable as the situations which they describe.

It is possible, however, to derive some insight into the underlying rationale of the objectivists from the writings of one analyst who did undertake to develop an explicit framework for explaining why his substantive interpretations of the national interest reflect objective reality. The analyst is Hans Morgenthau, whose works advance “a realist theory of international politics” founded on the concept of national interest. “Interest is the perennial standard by which political action must be judged and directed,” Morgenthau wrote ([1948] 1954, p. 9), emphasizing that, therefore, the “objectives of a foreign policy must be defined in terms of the national interest” (p. 528). And exactly what constitutes the interest of a nation? Morgenthau recognized that “the kind of interest determining political action in a particular period of history depends upon the political and cultural context within which foreign policy is formulated” (p. 8), but he envisioned accounting for these contextual factors by defining interest in terms of power (p. 5). For Morgenthau the power at a nation’s command relative to that of other nations is, at any moment in time, an objective reality for that nation and thus serves to determine what its true interest is and should be. As will be seen, however, the difficulty with Morgenthau’s formulation is the lack of a method for determining what a nation’s relative power is. That is, he does not indicate how use of the criterion of power will enable nations to “follow... but one guiding star, one standard for thought, one rule for action: the national interest” (1951, p. 242).

As the discipline of political science gave increasing emphasis to scientific explanation, another group of analysts joined the objectivists in converging upon the national interest as an analytic concept. Concerned less with evaluating the worth of foreign policies and more with explaining why nations do what they do when they engage in international action, this group found the national interest attractive as a possible means of probing the sources of foreign policy. They reasoned that nations do what they do in order to satisfy their best interests and that by describing these needs and wants the analyst would be in a position to use the concept of the national interest as a tool for explanation. These analysts, in other words, deny the existence of an objective reality which is discoverable through systematic inquiry. For them the national interest is not a singular objective truth that prevails whether or not it is perceived by the members of a nation, but it is, rather, a pluralistic set of subjective preferences that change whenever the requirements and aspirations of the nation’s members change. For want of a better term, hereafter we shall call those who approach the national interest in this way the “subjectivists.”

The advent of the decision-making approach to international politics (Snyder et al. 1954) provided the subjectivists with an additional rationale for their approach to the national interest. Partly as a reaction to the objectivists and partly out of a concern to render concepts usable by linking them to observable behavior, students of decision making contend that the national interest, being composed of values (what people want), is not susceptible of objective measurement even if defined in terms of power and that, accordingly, the only way to uncover what people need and want is to assume that their requirements and aspirations are reflected in the actions of a nation’s policy makers. For these analysts, in other words, the national interest is whatever the officials of a nation seek to preserve and enhance. As two leading spokesmen for this approach put it, “The national interest is what the nation, i.e., the decision-maker, decides it is” (Furniss & Snyder 1955, p. 17).

It is worthy of emphasis that although the objectivists and subjectivists differed profoundly in their premises and conclusions, both came to accept the appropriateness of analyzing foreign policy and international politics in terms of the national interest. To be sure, the two groups focused on different phenomena when they investigated the national interest, but they both emphasized that its relevance to the external actions of nations was considerable.

Limitations of the concept

Despite the claims made for the concept and notwithstanding its apparent utility, the national interest has never fulfilled its early promise as an analytic tool. Attempts by both objectivists and subjectivists to use and apply it have proven fruitless or misleading, with the result that, while textbooks on international politics continue to assert that nations act to protect and realize their national interests, the research literature of the field has not been increased and enriched by monographs which give central prominence to the concept.

The reasons for this failure of the concept as an analytic tool are numerous. One is the ambiguous nature of the nation and the difficulty of specifying whose interests it encompasses. A second is the elusiveness of criteria for determining the existence of interests and for tracing their presence in substantive policies. Still another confounding factor is the absence of procedures for cumulating the interests once they have been identified. This is in turn complicated by uncertainty as to whether the national interest has been fully identified once all the specific interests have been cumulated or whether there are not other, more generalized values which render the national interest greater than the sum of its parts.

These limitations are readily discernible in the premises and writings of the objectivists. What is best for a nation in foreign affairs is never selfevident. More important, it is not even potentially know able as a singular objective truth. Men are bound to differ on what constitute the most appropriate goals for a nation. For, to repeat, goals and interests are value-laden. They involve subjective preferences, and thus the cumulation of national interests into a single complex of values is bound to be as variable as the number of observers who use different value frameworks. Yet the objectivists proceed on the assumption that some values are preferable to others (for example, that it is better for the nation to survive than not to survive) and that therefore it is possible to discover, cumulate, and objectify a single national interest. Consequently, the objectivists find it possible to characterize every foreign policy as either reflecting or opposing the national interest. Indeed, it was precisely this line of reasoning that enabled them to posit an objective reality about the conditions of prewar Europe and to conclude that Great Britain and France did not follow their national interests when they ignored this reality and acquiesced to Hitler at Munich.

However, such reasoning breaks down as soon as it is recalled that the national interest is rooted in values. If every member of a nation wishes to have it go out of existence by joining a larger world federation, who is to say that the goal or act of federation is contrary to that nation’s interest? If the British and the French believed they were satisfying their wants and needs when they compromised at Munich, who is to say they were wrong and acted in violation of their national interests? The analyst who does make such an observation is merely enjoying the benefits of hindsight to justify the superiority of his own values over those of the British and French policy makers who decided to acquiesce to Hitler (obviously, the policy makers would have acted differently if they could have foreseen the consequences of acquiescence). Since values are not susceptible of scientific proof, the objectivists have never been able to demonstrate the validity of their assessments of the extent to which foreign-policy actions reflect a nation’s interest. To explain that a certain policy is in the national interest, or to criticize it for being contrary to the national interest, is to give an imposing label to one’s own conception of what is a desirable or undesirable course of action.

The objectivists do not consider that their own values serve as criteria for determining the substantive content of the national interest. Rather, as has been noted, they conceive of a nation’s power as the source of what is best for it and as the basis for ranking some values as preferable to others. From their point of view, a nation’s power has an objective existence and thus values need not enter into a determination of its national interest. The objectivists concede that the national interest may be defended, criticized, or explained in value, rather than power, terms. Such formulations, however, are regarded as merely ideological justifications and rationalizations which conceal the true nature of the policy under consideration. Policy makers may claim that moral principles serve as the basis for their actions, but the objectivists assume that in fact “statesmen think and act in terms of interest defined as power” (Morgenthau [1948] 1954, p. 5).

This reasoning of the objectivists is essentially erroneous. The dictates of power are never clearly manifest. Power is as elusive and ambiguous a concept as is interest. Its components are a matter of dispute. Furthermore, many power components consistv-of intangibles, such as morale, which are difficult to measure. Even more difficult, if not impossible, is the task of cumulating the tangible and intangible components into a single entity called “the power of a nation.” For not only does the cumulation of unlike factors constitute a difficult problem in itself, but it also necessitates the introduction of values. To cumulate the components of power one must assess the relative importance of each component, and such an assessment can only be made by referring to the goals which the power is designed to serve. Hence, whether he wishes to or not, the analyst must inevitably fall back on a value framework—the one from which goals are derived—if he is to define the national interest in terms of power. It follows that there is no reason to assume that different analysts will necessarily arrive at similar, much less identical, interpretations of what a nation’s power dictates its national interest to be. [SeePower.]

In short, there may be an “objective reality” about the situations in which nations find themselves at various periods of history, but neither predictively nor retrospectively can its contents be clearly demonstrated. A description of the national interest can never be more than a set of conclusions derived from the analytic and evaluative framework of the describer. The objectivists unknowingly concede this point whenever they criticize foreign policies for not being in a nation’s interest. For such a criticism contradicts their view that the national interest determines the contents of what nations do abroad. For example, Morgenthau goes to great lengths in his writings to show how “a foreign policy guided by moral abstractions, without consideration of the national interest, is bound to fail” (1951, pp. 33-34), an observation which undermines his assumption that policy makers always think and act in terms of interest defined as power.

Nor have the various subjectivist approaches to the national interest been conspicuously successful. Although subjectivists carefully and explicitly avoid the premise that the national interest can be objectified, their formulations and uses of the concept are far from free of its inherent limitations. The recognition that many groups in a nation have different and often conflicting concepts of what external actions and policies are best for it—and that consequently the national interest is a reflection of these preferences rather than of objective circumstances—gives rise to as many conceptual and methodological difficulties as it avoids. First there is the problem of which groups constitute a nation. Should the boundaries of a nation be equated with those of national societies or does a nation consist of persons with a common background who speak the same language? If the latter, more traditional formulation is used, then analysis is complicated by the fact that some nations exist within or extend beyond the boundaries of national societies. Such nations may have neither governments nor foreign policies, so that inquiries into their interests would be far removed from the concerns which attract attention to the concept of national interest. For this reason most subjectivists equate nations with national societies and employ the terms interchangeably. In other words, the national interest usually means the societal interest. [SeeNation.]

Defining the nation in this way, however, is a relatively minor problem and only proves troublesome for the terminological purist. Much more difficult is the problem which follows immediately from the assumption that nations are heterogeneous units encompassing a multitude of ethnic, cultural, social, and other types of groups: namely, the problem of identifying and classifying all the diverse and conflicting interests which clamor for satisfaction in a national society. Stated simply, how does the observer determine which groups have an interest in a particular foreign policy and how does he specify what the substantive contents of the interests of each group are? The subjectivist’s obvious reply is that interests are equivalent to the demands and recommendations which group spokesmen in the society articulate and press. But this answer is of little help to the researcher. The groups with specialized interests in modern industrial societies are so numerous, and the types of policies in which they have a stake are so varied, that the quantitative dimensions of such a procedure render it virtually unusable. Furthermore, even if this quantitative problem could be overcome, there would remain the qualitative task of accounting for the groups whose interests lack a spokesman (for example, future generations, consumers, and repressed minorities). Presumably this can only be accomplished through estimates of what is best for such groups, a procedure which brings the subjectivist perilously close to the objectivist’s practice of ascribing his own values to others.

Nor does the subjectivist’s dilemma end here. Assuming that he is somehow able to identify all the expressed and unexpressed interests of a society, he must then combine the multiplicity of values into a meaningful whole. Not to do so would be to treat the national interest as a mass of contradictory needs and wants, a procedure which is hardly suitable to the description, explanation, and evaluation of foreign-policy goals. But in order to aggregate many contradictory values into an over-all formulation of the national interest, one must face the probability that some of the specific interests carry greater weight than others, and it is this probability that perpetuates the dilemma. For it raises the question of how the relative weight of the conflicting interests is to be determined. The most tempting solution is to attach weights on the basis of one’s own assessments, but this procedure would again lead the subjectivist down the misleading path followed by the objectivist.

Most subjectivists avoid these complex, seemingly insurmountable problems by relying on a procedural rather than a substantive definition of the national interest. Rather than attempt to sum the values that prevail in a society, they rely on the society’s political processes to do it for them. That is, they fall back on a decision-making conception in which the foreign-policy goals that a society sets for itself are considered to result from bargaining among the various groups claiming satisfaction of their needs and wants. If some interests carry greater weight than others, it is assumed that the differences will be recognized and accounted for in the policy-making process. In other words, regardless of whether democratic or authoritarian procedures are employed, the needs and wants of groups within national societies are assumed to constitute demands that policy makers must sort out and obey, an assumption which relieves the observer from having to resort to his own values to determine which interests are weightier. Operationally, the substantive content of the national interest thus becomes whatever a society’s officials decide it to be, and the main determinant of content is the procedure by which such decisions are made.

This approach also allows for the operation of generalized values which render the national interest greater than the sum of its parts. If the over-all perspective of their high offices leads policy makers to conclude that the demands made upon them are, taken together, insufficient to serve the welfare of the nation, and if they therefore superimpose their own values on the decisionmaking process, then clearly the analyst can treat the national interest as more than the cumulated total of subnational interests without falling back on his own view of what is best for the society he is examining.

Yet the decision-making approach to the national interest also suffers from limitations. The main weakness is that it is not always possible to ascertain when a policy has been officially decided upon, since most policies undergo a continuous process of evolution and revision as external conditions change and internal demands shift. This difficulty cannot be circumvented by focusing on the values which officials espouse at any point in the decision-making process. For the various officials of a society often hold and assert different conceptions of what the goals of foreign policy ought to be. Under these circumstances, which usually prevail in open democratic societies, the analyst gets little guidance from the formulation that the national interest of a society is what its duly constituted policy makers claim it to be. The United States offers a good example of this dilemma. Not infrequently does it happen that the president, members of his cabinet, other executivebranch officials, and the leaders, committees, and individual members of Congress pursue values and policy goals which are in direct conflict and which they all contend are best for the nation. Who is correct? Operationally, they all are, as they all have some official responsibility for formulating and executing foreign policy. What, then, is the national interest? The question seems unanswerable unless the analyst is willing to fall back on his own values to decide which officials express the soundest and most representative views.

A second difficulty with the decision-making approach concerns closed authoritarian societies. Many groups in such societies have no opportunity to articulate their needs and wants, thereby undermining the assumption that the various interests of a society are sorted and summed in its political processes. It hardly seems plausible, for example, to equate the national interest of Germany during the Nazi period with the actions, pronouncements, and aspirations of Hitler. Such a formulation runs counter to the concerns which make the national interest attractive as an analytic concept. Yet, under the decision-making approach the analyst has no choice but to view Hitler’s purging of the Jews and his launching of World War II as in the German national interest. To do otherwise is either to fall back on an objectivist view that there is a “true” national interest of Germany which Hitler violated or to be confronted with the insuperable problem of identifying and aggregating the unarticulated interests of the various groups then existent in Germany.

Future of the concept

There can be little wonder, then, that the na tional interest has not sparked research or otherwise lived up to its early promise as an analytic tool. All the approaches to it suffer from difficulties which defy resolution and which confound rather than clarify analysis. As political inquiry becomes more systematic and explicit, the concept is therefore likely to be used less and less. Serious doubts about its analytic utility have already been expressed (e.g., Modelski 1962, pp. 70-72), and it seems probable that objectivists and subjectivists alike will find that they can evaluate and explain foreign-policy phenomena adequately without having to resort to the national interest as an over-all explanation or characterization.

The trend toward more systematic inquiry is not the only reason why the abandonment of the con cept is likely to be hastened in the future. The ever greater interdependence of nations and the emergence of increasing numbers of supranational actors is also bound to diminish reliance on the concept. Increasingly, decision makers act on be half of clusters of nations as well as their own. They identify their own interests as inextricably tied to the welfare of their region, their continent, or their way of life. Many U.S. officials, for example, now argue that the public must make sacrifices for Latin America because a higher standard of living throughout the Western Hemisphere is in the best interests of the United States. Similarly, other statesmen make decisions with a view to enhancing unformalized supranational communities, such as “the West,” “the Arab world,” and “the communist bloc,” or formalized economic and political unions, such as the Common Market, Malaysia, and the West Indies Federation. Clearly such global tendencies further reduce the utility of an attempt to explain international behavior in terms of the national interest.

Yet, the national interest cannot be entirely abandoned. Even though the nation is declining in its importance as a political unit to which allegiances are attached, the process of decline is many decades—perhaps even centuries—away from an end. Political actors will no doubt continue to make extensive use of the national interest in their thinking about foreign-policy goals and in their efforts to mobilize support for them. And, to the extent that they do, political observers must take cognizance of the national interest. In other words, while the national interest has little future as an analytic concept, its use in politics will long continue to be a datum requiring analysis.

James N. Rosenau

[See alsoForeign policy; International politics; National security. Other relevant material may be found inInternational relations; Public interest.]


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