President George Washington’s September 1796 farewell address laid out a concept of U.S. foreign policy designed to preserve the United States’ national interest. Washington wrote: “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.” He went on to add that the United States should be a “friend to all and enemy of none” as the nation sought to “avoid the entangling alliances of Europe.” While the country has by no means always followed Washington’s advice, we have for the most part maintained a policy of commercial internationalism and military non-interventionism until the 20th century. However, during the half-century-long Cold War, while two generations of Americans grew to adulthood, the United States maintained an average of 535,000 troops overseas—a decided departure from Washington’s ideal. Even though the world has dramatically changed since the 18th century, Washington’s philosophy remains a useful reminder about self-restraint.
As the U.S. military exits Afghanistan and pivots to the Asia-Pacific, it is past time Americans required political leaders to develop a foreign policy that reflects a clearly defined set of national interests. Currently, this does not exist. But exactly what are they?
Descriptions of the concept differ. The Commission on America’s National Interests, supported by the Hauser Foundation and organized in 1996 by Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Nixon Center, and RAND, identifies four levels: vital, extremely important, important, and less-important interests. In an attempt to gauge consensus, the Council on Foreign Relations periodically polls its members.
Strategists Dennis Drew and Donald Snow suggest three components: vital, major, and peripheral interests. The first of these, they argue, has two basic characteristics: it is not acceptable to compromise on it, and resorting to war is a legitimate action in its defense.1 Samuel Huntington held a similar view, defining a vital interest as one worth expending “blood and treasure.”2 As James Thomson states: “Vital interests arise from an enduring combination of the nation’s geographic position, political culture, economy, and power.”3 Drew and Snow emphasize continuity over time. Rarely does such an interest develop overnight, nor is it common for it to fluctuate significantly. For much of early American history, preservation of the nation’s commercial interests was seen as the sine qua non of vital interests in their capacity as the foundation of economic prosperity.
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.
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. Lucius is an associate professor at the Naval War College and a former naval intelligence officer.