Now Hear This - Defining Our National Interests

By Adam Lowther and Casey Lucius

Of lesser import, major interests do not necessarily mean war when they are threatened. In such cases, “a country’s political, economic, or social well-being may be adversely affected but . . . the use of armed force is deemed excessive to avoid adverse outcomes.” 4 Last on Drew and Snow’s list, peripheral interests are of least significance to the nation. These are related to our cultural and moral preferences but are not of sufficient national significance to solicit more than a negligible response to their violation. They can, however, lead to symbolic acts—such as a redeployment of the fleet—or threats of greater action.

These definitions of vital, major, and peripheral interests help to focus on the question of what matters to the nation and what it is worth. But to move from concept to practice, we still must have a clearly defined set of national interests. We need a new version of the 1996 Commission. Comprising eminent elected officials, military leaders, diplomats, and scholars, it sought to elaborate a distinct list of criteria that could guide American foreign policy. Even more than offering useful insight, the goal was to create an informal standard for presidents to meet when seeking to exercise U.S. power. Such direction will once again assist and constrain American foreign policy.

1. Dennis M. Drew and Donald M. Snow, Making Twenty-First-Century Strategy (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2006), 32–35.

2. Samuel Huntington, “Erosion of American National Interests,” Foreign Affairs 76, no. 5 (September/October 1997), 35.

3. James Thomson, “U.S. Interests and the Fate of the Alliance,” Survival 45, no. 4 (winter 2003/04): 208.

4. Drew and Snow, Making Twenty-First-Century Strategy , 34.

Dr. Lowther is a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a former boatswain’s mate.

Dr. Lucius is an associate professor at the Naval War College and a former naval intelligence officer.




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