In recent years, a wave of protectionist political movements has swept through much of the United States and Europe. These ideas, such as “America First” and “Alternative for Germany” have challenged the traditional Liberal International Order, which typically holds that what is good for one globalized nation is good for all of them. Realist philosophies of International Relations emphasize that all nations will act only in their self-interests, but these hyper-protectionist policies seem to be something different entirely. The line between national self-interests and global interest is a fine one since these can often be one and the same. But when they diverge, complications often arise. Still, a country should pursue its national interests only to the extent that these do not fundamentally threaten the territorial integrity of another nation.
Of note here is the fact that this definition excludes several key metrics that could be considered part of the national interest. For instance, nations should be able to pursue their own economic interests even to the extent that they threaten another nation’s economic integrity. One example of this would be the global petroleum market. There are an abundance of nations whose fundamental economic driver is oil and petroleum. These include Russia, Venezuela, and most of the nations of the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, other nations are more than welcome to pursue petroleum ventures such as the increase of hydraulic fracturing techniques in the United States. Other economic pressures, such as sanctions, also offer a less destructive penalty for nations that engage in behavior considered adversarial to global interests.
Defensive interests can be a much trickier line, since they naturally involve military strength. These interests can take many forms such as the defense of borders, protection of allies, or the free navigation of critical shipping lanes. Since these types of activities are defensive in nature, they shouldn’t threaten another nation’s territorial integrity. They exclude offensive wars or conflicts designed to constrain or contain rival nations to the point where their continued existence is unsustainable. Such a definition would easily exclude conflicts such as the 2003 Iraq war or the Russian annexation of Crimea. However, this does not preclude nations from pursuing their own strategic interests. Weapons development systems, intelligence gathering, or freedom of navigation operations are all defensive ways that nations can pursue their own self-interests in a strategic manner without infringing on territorial integrity.
Social and cultural interests are often tied into a nation’s self-interest more than any other metric. As part of the identity of the nation, cultural self-interest must be pursued in order to maintain the fabric of the nation’s society itself. Cultures naturally spread from powerful nations to less-influential ones. The very ideas of Western democracy, monotheism, and American pop culture are rooted in various expressions of nations or peoples looking to preserve their own identity and way of life. As part of this struggle, it’s natural for other nations to attempt to export their own cultural as a means of pursuing their own self-interests. For the United States, institutions such as the State Department or the Hollywood film industry serve as a useful way to help steer the people of other nations to work for or be amenable to American interests. Here again, the dividing line is when soft power influence transcends into schemes to dissolve territorial borders such as the global movement of Soviet communism that dissolved borders throughout Eastern Europe in the 1940s.
One would think that this definition precludes pursuing political interests within other nations. Under standard circumstances, this would indeed be the case. After all, a nation pursuing political change within a foreign country is likely to be just as dangerous as pursuing territorial interests. However, the pursuit of political interests within foreign countries as an extension of political self-interest can be permissible when a nation violates the territorial integrity of another. One such example would be the process of lobbying for political change in a nation that is engaged in offensive military strikes against another. Under this definition, advocating for change in Russia because of its actions in Ukraine would be permissible.
In these ways, nations are still able to pursue their own self-interests in such critical areas as economics, defense, and culture, without drastically upending the global system of stability. Perhaps surprisingly, this does definition does not attempt to align national self-interest with global interests. Sometimes these are the same, but sometimes they are not. Nevertheless, by respecting territorial integrity, which by definition eliminates offensive warfare, national self-interests can be channeled away from destructive vectors that would threaten the stability of the global system.