Books: Defining the national interest

Book review

The World Today
Published 1 March 1998 Updated 7 December 2018 2 minute READ

With the collapse of the Soviet threat there has been a somewhat desperate effort in the United States to discover, invent or work out exactly what America’s true national interest is in the post-Cold War world. In their search for the strategic holy grail policy-makers could do a lot worse than consult this truly outstanding book – one of the most interesting to have been written on American foreign policy for a very long time.

Combining a sure grasp of history, a subtle appreciation of geopolitics and a clear understanding of international relations theo r y, Peter Tr u b o w i t z ’s study of the importance of regions and regional coalitions in the shaping and remaking of American foreign policy since the late 19th century, could turn out to be every bit as seminal as the work of that old revisionist Bill Williams – whose devastating critique of the tragedy of American diplomacy inspired radicals in the 1960s. It might also be as significant as the subtle, synthetic volumes of liberal-conservative John Gaddis whose analysis of US foreign policy in the era of containment became the intellectual gold standard for all diplomatic historians of the Cold War to measure themselves against.

Thinking big

Trubowitz’s work deserves to be discussed at length by all who take the study of American foreign policy seriously and believe, like him, that the advance of knowledge does not come about as result of the accumulation of more and more facts, but by thinking big and being prepared to challenge old approaches.

Trubowitz’s central claim – which may or may not come as relief to modern policy-makers! – is that there is no such thing as an ‘American’ national interest. Rather, the external policy of the US is an expression of sectional conflict historically waged between three key American regions: the industrial North East, the rapidly evolving South and the largely rural West.

Thus during the 1890s the debate between imperialists and the anti-imperialists was in essence a struggle for control of US foreign policy fought between the dynamic Northeast and the South, with the West playing a decisive swing role in propelling the US along the path of expansion.

In the 1930s, international activism was championed by the urban Northeast and the South which together waged a ‘fierce battle’ against the isolationists and nationalists located in the West.

Finally, in the 1980s, it was a coalition of the South and West – the so-called ‘Sun Belt’– which supported Reagan’s brand of assertive free market militarism against those in the decaying ‘rust belt’ of the North and East who had little to gain from his brand of neo-liberal anti-communism.

Historically, therefore, US foreign policy has not been determined by external threats, an urge to promote democracy, or even (a la Williams) a more general desire to seek new markets, but by sectional conflict within the United States. Indeed, according to Trubowitz, the great foreign policy debates in American history have been little more than expressions of larger domestic struggles for regional economic advantage and political power.

Daring and problematic

The Trubowitz thesis is as daring as it is problematic. The first and most obvious problem with it is that it seriously underestimates the degree to which American foreign policy has always been in a few hands – and that the key actors in the process have invariably been drawn from a fairly narrow elite based in the East.

Furthermore, this group has tended to share a remarkably unified view of America’s leading role in world affairs. They have also been motivated more than Trubowitz concedes by a keen appreciation of external threats. In fact, to try and explain what America has done in the 20th century without serious reference to the challenge first posed by Germany, then by Germany and Japan together, and finally by the Soviet Union is decidedly odd. Foreign policy may not be just about ‘the world out there’, but it does have something to do with it.

This in turn raises a critical question about whether (or not) it is legitimate (or not) to talk of an American national interest. The term clearly has its problems. But the fact remains that foreign policy-makers continue to talk, and have always acted, as if such a thing existed. They did so in the late 19t h century when the US stood on the cusp of international greatness. And they persist in doing so today. It may well be the case, as Trubowitz suggests in his dazzling study, that this is merely a mask designed to obscure the sectional interests of key regions. Yet somehow I doubt it.

Moreover, the logic of his argument can only lead to the distinctly strange conclusion that there is no such thing as a distinct ‘American’ foreign policy. Place, locale and region may be critical – as Trubowitz insists – but should we therefore throw out the idea of a US national interest altogether? This writer at least has his doubts.