Originally Published 2005-11-05 06:38:13 Published on Nov 05, 2005
In a perceptive essay written some years ago, Joseph Nye had observed that "national interest is a slippery concept used to describe as well as prescribe policy." Decades earlier, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle had cautioned against "systematically misleading expressions" couched in a syntactical form improper to the facts recorded.
The doctrine of "national interest"
In a perceptive essay written some years ago, Joseph Nye had observed that "national interest is a slippery concept used to describe as well as prescribe policy." Decades earlier, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle had cautioned against "systematically misleading expressions" couched in a syntactical form improper to the facts recorded. 

Away from, or despite, the din of the current debate on the direction of certain aspects of foreign policy, conceptual analysis necessitates dissection. What is national interest? How is it determined? By whom? How is the validity of such determination assessed? 

Ours is a world of nation-states, sanctified by the United Nations Charter. In law, they interact on the principle of equal rights; in reality, they concede disparities of power. In law they determine their own destiny; in fact, their self-determination is circumscribed by distortions induced by domestic or external impulses. Despite intense debate, the central question in the theory of state remains unresolved: is the state reflective of the "mind objective," or is it the product of a contractual arrangement of the citizen-body? 

Practical implications  
The debate goes to the heart of the matter and has practical implications. Rousseau's doctrine of the "general will" has been used by democrats and autocrats alike to build the edifice of the modern of the state. This has thrown up dilemmas: of perceived gaps between the "general will" and the "will of all," and of the disjuncture between the state as a determining authority nationally and various forums at international levels that circumscribe national decision-making. 

These dilemmas are central to the doctrine of national interest. Is national interest a monolith? Can it be understood better in terms of the plural - of sectional, sub-national, and transnational interests? Should they not cover matters sociological and environmental, besides political-strategic, economic, and technological interests? Can it be defined at one point or does it need a wider framework of consensus-building? 

Some years ago, Peter Trubowitz analysed the sectional and regional dynamics at different points of time in American decision-making and concluded that there is no singular national interest when it comes to foreign policy. A similar study in terms of Indian interests may yield interesting results. 

Thucydides recorded for posterity Pericles' remark that citizens are fair judges of public matters; "instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action," he said, "we think it is an indispensable preliminary to any wise action." This, surely, is a dictum for democratic functioning. Its observance, regrettably, leaves something to be desired. Citation of "national interest" often becomes a closure clause. Need it be so? 

Focus on independence of approach  
The Common Minimum Programme of the United Progressive Alliance outlines the foreign and defence policy of the Government. 

In conceptual terms its focus is on independence of approach on all regional and global issues "keeping in mind past traditions," promotion of multi-polarity and opposition to unilateralism, protection of national interest in World Trade Organisation negotiations, modernisation of armed forces, and maintenance of a credible nuclear weapons programme. Most, if not all, sections of opinion are supportive of this approach. 

The devil, however, lies in the details of implementation. Here the institutional arrangement - Parliament and its Standing and Consultative Committees - only addresses the matter sporadically and inadequately. A comparison with the committees in other parliamentary systems - British, Canadian, and Australian - reveals the difference. 

The blame would seem to lie with political parties and their representatives in Parliament. The executive is let off with little more than a drafting exercise on questions that are inadequately researched. The President's Address to Parliament on February 25, 2005 spoke of "the centrality of national interests" in the conduct of foreign policy and of "retaining our freedom of options." Did this lead to a serious debate on interests and options, on situations of divergence between the two, on congruence or otherwise of policy and actions with electoral commitments? 

The current turmoil highlights the absence of debate on options and their implications. It profiles a genuine concern about the methodology of decision-making. It reflects a real divide within the country on core issues of national interest. It needs to be addressed. The Indian state, presumably, is not an embodiment of Hegel's "hieroglyph of reason." 

Some years ago an Indian analyst with decades of experience of statecraft reflected with some unease on "the continuing contradictions between the amoral ground realities of world politics and the moral norms" to which India and others should subscribe. He felt an interim remedy may lie in "the creation of a national consensus based on enlightened public opinion responsive to our changing national interests in a continuously changing world." 

A prerequisite to such an endeavour would be a candid examination of the objectives and their underlying assumptions. Above all, the pitfall of prescription should be eschewed. 

The writer is a former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, former Ambassador to Iran and Saudi Arabia, and former Vice Chancellor, Aligarh Muslim University. He is presently Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Source: The Hindu, November 4, 2005.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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