Dangers of self-declared vital national interests
Anisur Rahman
The vital national interest is a term often used mainly by the chauvinistic nationalistic governments, particularly by global and regional superpowers. It is primarily an ambiguous and vague term, in most cases not fully defined and explained when it is used as a pretext to carry out an invasion in another country. In a world that is becoming more and more international in character, national interest must not be inconsistent with or contradictory to the justice-based and universally accepted international order. Unfortunately, it has become the reality in most cases.
A country which often speaks about and uses this term for achieving its geopolitical goal is the United States of America, by far the ultimate superpower of the present-day world followed by other big powers. And here is the paradox or problem. When one single country is by far the most powerful, it can be less considerate, not necessarily though. They do not need to explain and define the term of vital interest in all cases.
The most hyper enthusiastic proponents of this term are the conservative and extremist think tanks of those countries. They have an enormous influence on their respective governments. Through these so-called think tanks, some powerful vested interests implement their agenda. Governments’ foreign policies are determined to a great extent by them. The US Heritage Foundation may be cited as an example in this case. However, the scenario in totalitarian countries is not at all better either. In the United States, at least there are scopes for the existence of think tanks with different thoughts. In undemocratic authoritarian states, this scope is very limited and all think tanks are, in one way or another, controlled by the rulers.
Now, what is a vital national interest? To legitimise their pretext of invasion and intervention in another country, the vested interests also need some fine and plausible definition of so-called vital national interests. If the definitions are analysed, there are scopes for people to be impressed. Who will differ when Paul J Saunders says, ‘Writers and speakers should refer to America’s “vital national interests” only in connection to something that is truly vital, meaning “concerned with or necessary to the maintenance of life” or, more loosely, “of the utmost importance”.’ In foreign policy terms, one good definition of vital national interests is: ‘conditions that are strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance the well-being of Americans in a free and secure nation.’ He further notes that avoiding a nuclear attack on the United States is a vital national interest but ending Syria’s civil war is not. But in practice, they use the term very freely. In the name of preventing a nuclear attack, they can belie or distort the facts and provide misleading information. In the name of national security, they can refuse to specify and elaborate the so-called threats and, thereby, get freehand. There might not be any real threats but to serve the interest of the vested interest groups they can take the shelter of the term ‘vital national interest’ without elaboration and specification. With the false claim that Iraq under the leadership of Saddam Hossain acquired ‘weapons of mass destruction’, the Bush-Blair clique, together with their cohorts, ruined not only Iraq but simultaneously ignited an unprecedented inferno all over the Middle East, the flame of which has not yet been extinguished. Secondly, according to Saunders, ‘ending civil war in another country does not fall under the category of America’s vital national interest.’ But in some cases, it becomes an obligation for the world community to take action to end such a civil war. It failed its obligation when hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were slaughtered in the gruesome civil war a few years ago and the international community remained inactive and unmoved. On the other hand, big powers incited civil wars in other countries. They are not guided by ethics or morality; rather by their opportunistic national interest. They involved themselves in sectarian strives of other countries unwarrantedly. Their involvements complicated the situations and they did it intentionally with ulterior motives. ‘Divide and reap the harvest’ is an age-old tactic.
It becomes worse when different big powers take different sides and all in the name of their vital national interests.
As it has been mentioned that the Heritage Foundation is one of the most influential think tanks of the United States, the founder of the foundation Edwin Feulner proudly pronounced that from Regan to Trump, all the US presidents belonging to the Republican Party greatly followed and implemented their ideas and goals. He himself acknowledged that it is a platform of conservative ideas and ideologists. This foundation has a very close link with the Christian Voice, a conservative politico-religious group which is known as a major Christian right (rightist group) within US politics. During the 1970s and 1980s its headquarters was housed at the Heritage Foundation. And through Christian Voice, the foundation came further close to the Evangelical Movement — another powerful religious-cum-political body. Today’s influence of conservative and rightist Christian ideological dominance in US politics to a large extent is the result of the deliberate and concerted efforts of these types of groups on whom, among others, war industries and certain big corporate bodies have both direct and indirect patronage. One thing must not be misunderstood. Democrats are not much better for the world than the Republicans. Differences are more of degrees than of qualities.
The Heritage Foundation is a self-declared conservative and Republican-minded think tank. But what about the think-tanks comprising, among others, the bi-partisan members of both the chambers of the congress like the one co-sponsored by the BELFER centre? One does not see much difference in their views though they are known to be moderate and more pragmatic. This ‘bipartisan group’ includes not only the members of the congress but also present and former government officials, academics and think tank analysts. Their declared goals include among others to (1) prevent, deter, and reduce the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons attacks on the United States or its military forces abroad; (2) prevent the emergence of hostile major powers or failed states on US borders; (3) ensure the viability and stability of major global systems (trade, financial markets, supplies of energy, and the environment); and (4) establish productive relations, consistent with American national interests, with nations that could become strategic adversaries like China and Russia. These are very broad and general terms which can be explained and applied according to the wishes of the US government. However, it has been noticed that even the Republican presidents have bypassed many of their guidelines to fulfil their own thinking on America’s vital national interests. As for example, Heritage Foundation wanted to maintain and expand the free trade among nations and North Atlantic Free Trade Association but president Trump hit very hard both on GATT and NAFTA. Hence, there is no consensus about it even among themselves. On the other hand, there are other interpretations of vital national interests.
Noam Chomsky, one of the most outstanding living intellectuals, has quite different observations on US national interest. He points out that theoretical assertion has been made irrelevant in practical implementation. He firmly asserts that it is the interest of the powerful of the USA — not the interest of the general people. If we summarise his observation we can conclude that America’s national interest is actually the interest of the dominant domestic forces in the US societies, particularly interest of the very rich corporations. Interests of ordinary people have become basically irrelevant. He cited some historical events and emphasised some hard facts. He categorically mentioned that the USA waged war and terrorist attacks against Cuba. The US embargo on Cuba does not reflect the opinion of the majority of people which was shown in the relevant survey.
According to him, Israel has become a bonanza for the US military industry. The United States exports super military equipment to Israel and secondary equipment to Saudi Arabia worth billions of dollars. Noam Chomsky brings attention to a very interesting fact which might seem very strange to many observers that Christian Zionism had come much before Jewish Zionism surfaced. W Wilson and H Truman were supporters of Christian Zionism. Elite Christian Zionism paved the way for popular Christian Zionism. The far-right Evangelical movement stands firmly behind Zionist designs. But paradoxically they are also anti-Semitic.
The next question is the vital interests of other countries. The United States categorically declares that it has very vital national interests in the Pacific, even near China.
What happens if China declares that she has vital interests in the Pacific, not only near herself but also even near Hawaii? One day it might surpass maritime power of the United States. In that case, it might try to establish its supremacy over there. If a major conflict arises between these two countries in these areas of their self-declared vital interests what will happen? Can any of them take unilateral military actions which may lead to an all-out war and ultimately destroy the whole world? Today, this part of Pacific ocean has become a dangerous flashpoint for the entire world. If Japan feels threatened by the Chinese naval presence and manoeuvre in the area, the United States might intervene in the name of her vital interest. And ‘flashpoints’ are increasing. All eyes are now mainly concentrated in the Hormuz straits and adjacent areas. But corridor between the Pacific and the Mediterranean cannot be overlooked. Suez is a constant factor. Who can rule out one day the Panama Canal, the corridor between the Atlantic and the Pacific, will not be another dangerous flash point for the entire region and ultimately the world at large? However, the United States and China can deter each other because of their military might. Pity on small countries with very weak military strength. They cannot defend their genuine and vital national interests when they face bigger powers. Alas, it is a fact that some states are less sovereign than other states. Big powers take every advantage of this fact. Hence a new mechanism must be evolved so that genuine vital national interests of all countries, irrespective of their size and military strength, can be protected.
So it is not a fait accompli that a country can take unilateral action just by declaring that it has a vital national interest. It must be elaborately explained and defined when applied. Secondly, it must be qualified with the term (prefix) ‘legitimate’. In case of possible conflict with another country, it should be left to the international community to judge the dispute.
In many cases, the role of the United Nations has been paralysed due to the veto ‘rights’ of the five super powers. Until a mechanism or ‘checks and balances’ system is evolved to offset these veto rights which is often misused, this world body will remain helpless on many crucial occasions.
In the past, the United Nations has been misled by certain big powers to invade a country. Iraq is an example. Those who are responsible for deliberate falsehood, misleading information and manufacturing false pretext to invade another country should be brought to justice.