Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Rethinking "National Interest"

A question emerging from my current trip to Japan and Russia has been deceptively simple: In this era of global problems, what is "national interest?"

I got into a long discussion with a prominent Japanese political scientist in Tokyo after I asked him, is it in Japan's national interest to pursue the abductee issue with North Korea as a priority?

Clearly, this issue is extremely emotional. But even the Japanese Prime Minister has said recently that if it comes down to disabling North Korea's nuclear capacity and sticking to Japan's principled position on the abductees, Japan may have to redefine success or at least adjust expectations. The Japanese scholar told me that the abductee issue was in Japan's national interest indeed because it is so emotional. If a democratic polity is telling its leadership to pursue a particular policy, that should define national interest, he suggested.

But that then calls into question what leadership is. One scholar in Moscow told me this morning that--thankfully--the Russian public has little impact on policy. I would offer that leadership is looking beyond short term political interests to pursue long term benefit. That's the difficult, ethical discussion. Sometimes as politicians become trapped by their constituencies, bureaucrats, businessmen, and civil society can look to the longer term, pushing an agenda of peace. Broadening the concept of security can help us here. If we understand security as global security rather than national, we can develop a framework from which to to develop more ethical policies.

Which brings me to the session this morning in Moscow. We heard from U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns and Victor Kremenyuk of the Russian Academy of Sciences. A theme of their talks was finding common interests shared among the U.S. and Russia. We were told that when the United States suffers economic or political problems, many Russians become "euphoric." Exchanges between scholars, think tanks, NGOs, and others can facilitate the effort toward peace even when bilateral political relations are deteriorating.

In order to avoid conflict, a global "paradigm" must be found, suggested Kremenyuk. He suggested several areas in which the two countries might cooperate:
  • Nonproliferation, particularly given the current instability in Pakistan
  • Energy management to stabilize prices
  • Climate change since Europe can't tackle it alone; we must avoid catastrophe
  • Economic imbalances
  • Combating terrorism
How do we define national interest today? Whose interest should governments pursue?

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