Taking An Interest In National Interest

Beinart liked Rand Paul’s foreign policy speech:

Paul approvingly quoted the diplomat and scholar George Kennan as distinguishing “between vital and peripheral interests.” That may not seem significant, but it is. For most of American history, U.S. foreign policymakers had a rough idea of which chunks of the globe really mattered to American security. They started with the Monroe Doctrine, the belief that no foreign power should make the Americas a base for operations against the United States. In the 20th century that expanded to include the belief that no single power should be allowed to dominate Western Europe or East Asia, since that power might then threaten American access to key overseas markets. That principle was finally extended to the Middle East on the theory that no adversary should be allowed to threaten America’s access to oil. …

When the Cold War ended, however, the idea of a foreign power dominating Western Europe or East Asia, or creating a beachhead in the Western Hemisphere, suddenly seemed fanciful.

As a result, the language of national interest largely disappeared. It has been replaced by a discussion of foreign “threats” and American “values.” But without a definition of interests, it’s impossible to define what constitutes a threat. And without a definition of interests, supporting American “values” is a limitless pursuit. Americans will never reach a consensus on where exactly our interests lie, but just reintroducing the concept suggests an overdue recognition that because America’s power is finite, its interests must be too. Which is what Paul did on Tuesday night.

Larison responds:

[T]he problem of the last twenty years isn’t that American politicians and policymakers have ceased referring to national interest, but that many of them tend to treat even relatively minor foreign disputes and conflicts as things that threaten “our vital interests” and some go beyond that to pretend that “our vital interests” are at stake wherever our “values” are coming under attack. It isn’t enough to “reintroduce” the phrase national interest to the debate. It is essential that it be defined in a much less expansive, bloated way than it has been for the last twenty years, or else it will continue to be used to justify endless meddling all around the world.