So What is National Interest ?

In the year 2014 we saw the FIFA World Cup, the world teetering closer to the brink of war and the largest democratic election in history, which revealed how loosely the term ‘national interest’ is thrown at us. A term which can convey deep meaning or be used to hide an ulterior motive. All the same we as a society swallow it at face value as though we know what they are talking about, but as Shakespeare said, “There’s no art. To find the mind’s construction in the face”, their intention is disguised by the words ‘national interest[i]. So what is it?

National Interest can lay claim towards a country’s economic, military or cultural goals and it is used to justify certain goals. Historically, the French philosopher Jean de Silhon defended it as a concept by saying “it is a mean between what conscience permits and what affairs require”[ii]. Therefore, who decides or defines what it is? On what authority and with what responsibility are they doing so? Interestingly, Jean de Silhon’s argument was used to defend the Thirty Years’ War.

The same term can be used to lead men into battle, fight for peace, discriminate, subjugate, liberate and even celebrate! It is for this reason anyone who attempts to use this term should do so carefully and anyone listening to someone using this term should do so cautiously.

Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistan Prime Minister, was invited for the inaugural ceremony of Narendra Modi, the newly elected Prime Minister of India following the largest democratic election that history has seen. Subsequently, at the border multiple ceasefire violations are taking place. India and China just signed an agreement where China invests 100 billion dollars into India. Yet border disputes with China are making headlines. We want for peace, in national interest and yet because of national interest we are at cross swords. The line is so blurred that even Robin Thicke won’t sing a song about it.

The implication of using the term national interest is that the user has chosen to balance conflicting interests for you. The user has taken into account various factors and has decided that your interest is aligned with a national interest. In fact he is deciding what is good for you. And in doing so we are shepherded into an ideological debate as opposed to a problem solving exercise.

Why do we do this? That old friend and enemy of society, Morality.

Imagine you are forced to kill someone in order to save millions of lives. Imagine you are forced to silence someone for the benefit of your religion’s people. It is a moral dilemma. It is a dogfight between morally rejecting action and moral guilt for not acting at all. As Auberon Herbert says it is a manufactured conflict to destroy morality. So then is morality diluted to the demographic dividend? The more people you can aid the more moral a decision is?

Communist, Socialist and Democratic schools of thought speak of the “greater good”. An idea that implies that there are two kinds of ‘good’ that are directly opposed to each other. Auberon Herbert explains that this world of fabricated conflicts exists solely for political purposes. He elucidates that a manufactured problem will mean that there will be a manufactured solution. By solving such a problem, a transfer of power takes place from each individual to a manufactured ruling class. The ruling class by claiming this “the greater good” can ensure that fewer people are in control and so “the greater good” is diminished to the ruling classes’ interests[iii].

An example of the above can be depicted in the issue of Reservation in education in India. This example (I hope) will elucidate an attempt to balance individual interest with community interest against an institutional interest in the hopes of furthering national interest.

The caste system in India is a system of social stratification based on one’s birth in Hinduism. Social unrest in the 1920s led to change and from then on a policy of positive discrimination has been enforced to balance the hundreds of years of oppression. Reservation in education is a process set up to diminish the gap between the Upper and Lower Castes by providing increased opportunities to members of lower castes. The process involves setting aside a certain percentage of seats in government institutions for members of backward and/or under-represented communities. In part this has succeeded in its objective of bringing the gap closer but it has created a system that is against meritocracy and is breeding vote bank politics. In fact the case of State of Madras vs. Smt. Champakam Dorairajan AIR 1951 SC 226 held that caste-based reservation was in violation of Art 15(1) of the Constitution, which prevents discrimination on any basis including caste. This led to the 1st Constitutional Amendment Art 15(4) making the judgment invalid. It is now constitutionally provided that a State can make special provisions for the advancement of backward communities. However, allocating quotas on the basis of caste is not only discriminatory but is based on something that cannot be changed by an individual. Instead of basing it on economic hardships, it is based on the factor that is unchangeable making it unfair and useless. There has been improvement in the Lower Caste socioeconomic status, but the existence of caste is now being administered officially. This has led to legislation providing reservation for other minority communities based on religion, thus again defeating the Constitutional provision of being secular.

Let us look at the problem objectively. The issue lies that there is a percentage of the population that has not had equal opportunities provided and this has to be changed. The approach taken is to ensure that the reason they could not progress (in the past, caste) is reinforced and on that basis they move forward. M.N. Srinivas pointed out in his article “The Pangs of Change”[iv], that there are minimal efforts in providing appropriate primary education to the deprived classes, thereby nullifying a need to reserve seats in higher education institutions. The seats reserved are for those who are economically sound but are from a ‘lower caste’. The Telegraph article written by S.L. Rao expressed a similar concern but went further to say that political parties use the ideology of reservation as a token for their apparent accomplishment during election campaigns[v].

The goal is to level the playing field. Yet there are no actions being taken to end reservation or in other words place a timeline for it to cease to exist. As long as reservation exists, it means that its own goal has not been achieved. Herein we see a manufactured problem and those offering reservation as the manufactured solution want it to remain because that way they remain the ruling class.

The reason I used this example is because we see a number of interests are being juxtaposed against one another. Self interest versus community interest versus national interest. Leaders have to approach it as a problem needing to be solved, not an ideological debate. Because how can a policy aim to liberate, whilst its basis is to discriminate?

Is there an answer to this question, so what is national interest? I do not believe that I am qualified to dictate an answer. The truth is the answer is subjective. Nevertheless, it is the question that is important. It needs to be asked.

This battle between the ideological and the logical necessitates suppositions requiring assumptions based on factors unknown or non-existent to us. So when you hear someone talk about national interests thereby implying it’s your interest judge it from your prism of personal prejudice. When you convey it, judge it from their prism of personal prejudice; because any collective decision has the potential to affect another individual’s life financially, socially, physically and psychologically, while affecting your own.

We are in the age of the Internet, where information and its access have been democratized. I go back to Auberon Herbert who articulated it far better than I could hope to do so. It is crucial as a people, that we exercise our own will, conscience and judgment and gift from society to the people, their own personal responsibility.

National interest can be someone’s ideal; goal; inspiration or false façade.

So ask the question, that’s the first step towards finding the answer!

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