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National Interests: Grand Purposes or Catchphrases

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It has become virtually a matter of faith among statesmen and academics that foreign policy is best made when national interests are clearly defined and articulated. How best to define and prioritize national interests can, of course, be a matter of considerable dispute. Thus the controversies that swirled around U.S. policy toward Bosnia and Kosovo, for example, have been sometimes understood as reflections of fundamental disagreement about how U.S. national interests in the Balkans should be defined and prioritized relative to other national interests in the region and other parts of the world. Implicit in these and similar debates about national interests and foreign policy are two assumptions. One is that national interests can be defined precisely. This assumption is obviously true, although actually defining and prioritizing specific interests may be rather difficult in the contemporary era, with growing interdependence among nations and no superpower competition. The second assumption is that statesmen actually attempt to define national interests with precision. Judging from recent history, this assumption warrants challenge. At least in recent years, statesmen have been reluctant to define national interests with anything other than Delphic ambiguity. Like the ancient Greek oracle, famous for its double-entendre predictions and deliberately obscure advice, todays statesmen routinely offer definitions of the national interest so broad that they can be, and in fact are, interpreted in more than one way and in any case reveal little about the actual long-range goals of the nation.

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  • Government and Political Science

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