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Foreign Policy

Clarity in Core Interests, a Must for “A New Type of Great Power Relations”

Apr 08 , 2014

Thank You Mr. Putin 

I am not trying to be ironic.  I and my fellow Americans, and, indeed, people the world over, but particularly in Japan, are in Mr. Putin’s debt. He has given us something that is precious–indeed, potentially life-saving. I am talking about a lesson in realpolitik and raison d’etat, in the pursuit of “core” national interests and the reality that “power politics” has been and remains the way of the world. 

Stephen Harner

Most importantly, Putin has demonstrated the meaning and implications of the term “core national interests.” As Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, writing in the New York Times on March 26, explained: “Threats from America and Europe will never be the determining factor in Mr. Putin’s decision making. Ukraine is Russia’s single biggest national security issue beyond its borders, and Mr. Putin’s policy, including whether to seize more of Ukraine, will be informed overwhelmingly by national security interests, not near-term economics.” 

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry should, says Bremmer, “see the Ukraine crisis from Russia’s viewpoint…. This will require an acknowledgment of Russia’s core interests and America’s limitations — and an end to empty threats.” 

Somewhere over the past 50 or 60 years, the United States seems to have lost an understanding of “core national interests.” High-minded U.S. rhetoric in forums like the UN has created an impression that America’s “core national interests” are conceits like the propagation of (highly Western-centric) “universal values,” “international norms” and “the rule of law.” 

Mr. Putin reminds us that “core” interest are ones for which a state is prepared to expend blood and treasure, most especially when its national (territorial) security is threatened.  

China also understands the meaning of “core national interests” and has tried over several years to engage the United States on this topic. President Xi Jinping has articulated that “core national interests” is a key concept in the framework of a “New Type of Great Power Relations”:  For a truly equal and constructive relationship, the United States and China should mutually recognize and respect each other’s “core national interests.” 

Summarizing what was communicated during a China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue meeting held on September 27-28, 2009, Chinese state councilor Dai Bingguo articulated China core interests as comprising three elements:  First, maintaining and defending the country’s basic system and national security; second, ensuring the inviolability of Chinese sovereignty and territory; and third, sustained, stable development of China’s economy and society. 

An official White Paper entitled “China’s Peaceful Development” published September 6, 2011 by the Chinese State Council Information Office formally reaffirmed and elaborated Dai’s explication. 

What, may we ask are the United States’ “core national interests?”  I doubt that anyone in Washington, D.C. can answer this question coherently.  Different answers–or vague, non-answers–are likely to be given by the Department of Defense (DoD), the State Department, and Obama’s National Security Council, or the President himself, and to change over time.  

In August last year President Obama, speaking of the Syrian crisis, stated that chemical weapons use or spread in the Middle East would be a threat to America’s “core national interests.”  Why?  It was mainly a matter of defending allies and American bases in the region. 

Looking further for definitive statements is a largely fruitless task.  While U.S. officials (and once and would-again-be officials ensconced as “fellows” in Washington “Think Tanks”) almost never define or refer to “core” national interests, they see American “interests”–i.e., justifications for U.S. military presence, intervention, alliances, and “leadership”–everywhere. 

Sensing the muddle (and opportunity) in defining U.S. “interests” a “bipartisan” group of largely “neo-con” academics and former and current officials set up in 2000 a study group, The Commission on America’s National Interests, to come up a list.  

This commission–whose members included John McCain, Condoleeza Rice, Sam Nunn, Richard Armitage, and Paul Krugman–was clearly seeking to set a robust agenda for the exercise of American “leadership” and military power (and, we can be assured, higher levels of spending on military weapons and personnel).  

Still, the commission was unable or unwilling to posit, in parallel with China, “core” U.S. interests.  Rather it arrayed interests four categories:  “vital,” “extremely important,” “important,” and “less important or secondary.”  These, a total of 30, were presented in the form of “actions”:  “to prevent,” “to ensure,” “to promote,” “to suppress.” 

In the category of “vital” interests, the first (of five) is to: “Prevent, deter, and reduce the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons attacks on the United States or its military forces abroad.”  The second is: “Ensure US allies’ survival and their active cooperation with the US in shaping an international system in which we can thrive.”  The fifth is:  “Establish productive relations, consistent with American national interests, with nations that could become strategic adversaries, China and Russia.” 

Of 11 “extremely important” interests, one is to: “Prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon in important regions, especially the Persian Gulf.” Another is “Promote the well-being of US allies and friends and protect them from external aggression.” 

Among ten “important” interests, one is to: “Maintain an edge in the international distribution of information to ensure that American values continue to positively influence the cultures of foreign nations.” Among four “less important or secondary” interests, one is: “Enlarging democracy everywhere for its own sake.” 

How, we must wonder, are foreign countries, and most particularly, China, supposed to engage with U.S. “interests” that are so often mushy, sweeping, grandiose, Napoleonic, or messianic?  How much do interests relating mainly to “allies” and non-U.S. territory really matter? How can other countries really know what to expect from American leaders?  How, indeed, can the American people know? 

China has defined its core interests. Making real progress toward “A New Type of Great Power Relations” will be hard until the Obama administration does the same for the United States. 

Stephen M. Harner has served in the U.S. State Department (FSO) and worked in international banks (Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Ping An Bank) in China and Japan.  He is graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).   

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