Foreign Policy: National Interests and Values

Foreign Policy linking the protection of national interests and promotion of national values.

Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.

Implicit in the introductory quotation by American politician Dean Acheson (Hutchinson Encyclopedia, 2003) is the principle that a nation has various choices in setting foreign policy. A precursor to setting effective foreign policy is the need to have a foreign policy vision, or a fundamental view of what the nation would like to accomplish in the world arena. Two considerations in setting a foreign policy vision involve deciding if the nation should focus on promoting its values internationally or if it should focus on protecting its national interests.

This essay will show that foreign policy should not require a choice between protecting national interests and promoting national values; rather, it will demonstrate that a nation can protect its national interests and, at the same time, promote its values in the world arena. Beginning with separate discussions on protecting national interests and on promoting values, the essay continues with an exploration of the linkages between promoting a nation’s values and protecting its national interests. Finally, conclusions will be presented.

Before embarking on an exploration of national interests and values in setting foreign policy, a working definition for the term foreign policy will be established to help in framing the discussion. The Republic of Ireland (1996), in observing that there is no universally agreed definition of foreign policy, furnishes this succinct definition for the term: the pursuit by a state of its interests, concerns, and values in the external environment. Foreign Policy magazine (undated, cited in Labor Law Talk, undated) offers a somewhat fuller, yet essentially supportive, definition:

A foreign policy is a set of political goals that seeks to outline how a particular country will interact with the other countries of the world.

Foreign policies generally are designed to help protect a country’s national interests, national security, ideological goals, and economic prosperity. This can occur as a result of peaceful cooperation with other nations, or through aggression, war, and exploitation.

Creating foreign policy is usually the job of the head of government and the foreign minister (or equivalent).

The definition proposed by Foreign Policy magazine is accepted as the working definition in this context as it provides a more complete description, although the Irish definition will also be referenced.

Protecting National Interests

The working definition for foreign policy states, in part, that foreign policy is designed to help protect a country’s national interests; the Irish definition states, again in part, that foreign policy is the pursuit by a state of its interests. Each sovereign country can be expected to have different national interests and thus a different foreign policy focus because external policy reflects interests or concerns internal to the country pursuing them, according to the Republic of Ireland’s White Paper on Foreign Policy (1996). Logically, then, the protection of national interests through foreign policy is the protection of internal interests.

Comparing the national interests of Canada and the United States, two closely-allied neighboring countries which are similar in many ways, provides insight into the extent to which national interests differ. Canadian foreign policy focuses on economic growth, social justice, quality of life, sovereignty and independence, peace and security, and harmonious national environment with the first three being the most important (Franks, 1997). Canada’s neighbor to the south, the United States, sets foreign policy at three levels. Vital interests, which represent the highest level, include the physical security of American territory, the safety of American citizens, the economic well-being of American society, the protection of critical infrastructures from paralyzing attacks. Military troops may be used unilaterally and decisively to protect these vital interests. The second level includes those interests that do not affect national survival but do influence national well-being (e.g. protection of the global environment and commitment to allies). Finally, humanitarian and other interests, including responses to national disasters and promotion of human rights among others, are positioned at the third and lowest level (Gladkyy, 2003, citing White House, 1999). After the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the United States placed added emphasis on national security interests: “The Government of the United States has no more important mission than (1) fighting terrorism overseas and (2) securing the homeland from future terrorist attacks. (Gladkyy, 2003, citing Bush, 2001).

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The contrast between national interests expressed by Canada and the United States is a stark one indeed. The expressed national interests of the United States are more reactive and could be considered to be more negative in tone than those of Canada which seem more proactive and uplifting. Interestingly, and perhaps demonstrating Canada’s internal cultural attributes, three of the country’s six areas of national interest are focused on human bettermentsocial justice and quality of life, which are two of the three high priority interests, and a harmonious national environment. In contrast, humanitarian and other interests are relegated to the lowest priority national interests in the United States.

Promoting National Values

The working definition for foreign policy states that foreign policy, in addition to protecting national interests as mentioned earlier, is designed to protect a country’sideological goals; the Irish definition states that foreign policy, in addition to pursuing national interests, is the pursuit by a state of itsvalues in the external environment. According to Latham (2002), the term values refers to subjective views of individuals about what is worthy or important. He continues that in politics, [values] are views about the ends that social institutions ought to advance, and the virtues they ought to embody. As government is a social institution, values are the views governments should advance and virtues they should embody.

Some examples of national values include freedom, democracy, free economies, and human dignity (The Hutchinson Encyclopedia, 2003). In addition, some national values can be discerned from the articulation of national interests. For instance, referring to Canada’s national interests, one might conclude that Canada’s values include human rights, peace, and environmental harmony.

National values can be promoted by various means ranging along a continuum from active to passive. As an example, the United States, in promoting democracy, has used military actionthe most active meansand has modeled democratic behaviorsthe most passive means. In between these two extremes, the United States has used other approaches including diplomacy, foreign aid, international broadcasting, and even covert political manipulations. (Parapan, 2005).

Linking the Promotion of National Values to the Protection of National Interests

The thesis for this essay is that foreign policy does not have to involve a choice on the part of a nation between protecting its national interests and promoting its values in the world. A nation can do both and, conceivably, doing both effectively can enhance each one individually.

A review of the literature revealed the following representative selections addressing the foreign policy linkage between protecting national interests and promoting national values:

Haass (2003) claims that in the 21st century, the principal aim of American foreign policy is to integrate other countries and organizations into arrangements that will sustain a world consistent with U.S. interests and values for the purpose of promoting peace, prosperity, and justice as widely as possible.

Abrams (2000) states a foreign policy of dominance will not only advancenational interests but will preserve peace and promote the cause of democracy and human rights.

Mead (1994) states that foreign policy is based on a combination of interests and values, calling attention to the struggles associated with defining the national interest and national values and relating the two concepts in an overall foreign policy strategy.

Using the term progressive internationalism, Falk (2004) summarizes a foreign policy based on four organizing ideas[that] embody a convergence of national values and interests: national strength, liberal democracy, free enterprise, and world leadership.

And, finally, Edel (2005) quotes U.S. President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address in January 2005: America’s vitalinterests and our deepest beliefs are now one.

Seiple (2003) cautions the United States to be uncompromising over their national values when promoting their national interests, contrasting the differences between expressed values of fair play, the use of the Golden Rule, and the cherished freedoms of religion, association, and press and American interests [revolving] largely around economic access and a military that, by and large, is positioned around the world to protect that access. One factor that may complicate the alignment of national interests and national values in forming foreign policy is what might be considered to be an inherent conflict between the realism of national interests and the idealism of national values. Talbott (2000) expresses a contradiction between championing national interests and national values. He writes about the persistent effort to combine realism and idealism in the role [the United States] plays in the world, continuing by stating that the American people have made clear that they demand something nobler and more altruistic from their government and armed forces than the coldblooded calculus of raison d’etat or realpolitik in which European statecraft has often taken pride. McCraw (2003), in claiming that realism sees foreign policy as about national interests rather than promoting values, writes that this conflict explains why national governments have not been particularly identified with promoting human rights, a position that might be considered to be part of an idealistic foreign policy.

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The range of approaches nations can use in promoting national values as described earlier could also be applied in protecting their national interestsmodeling behaviors, diplomacy, providing foreign aid, broadcasting their messages, conducting covert political manipulations, and taking military action. For instance, a country that demonstrates democratic behavior may cause people in countries with totalitarian governments to push for democratic reforms. This to a large extent happened as formerly Communist countries of Eastern Europe established democratic forms of government modeled after those in countries of Western Europe and the United States in the latter part of the twentieth century. At the other extreme, the military incursion by the United Kingdom, the United States, and others into Iraq to purportedly establish a democratic government could be viewed as an example of forcing democratic values on a sovereign nation.

The case of Iraq presents an interesting twist on the national values promotionnational interest protection issue, one that shows how the two are intertwined in foreign policy. In 2003, when the coalition of the willing invaded Iraq, the case for the incursion was based on the certainty that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be used against other nations. This case reflected the desire to protect national interests, in this instance the safety of citizens. But, the invasion revealed that [t]here were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraqno unmanned aerial vehicles, no terrorist training camps, no outlawed Scud missiles, no nuclear weapons program (The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 2004). When no such weapons were found, the rationale for the invasion changed to a desire to install a democratic government. The case changed from one of protecting national interests to promoting values, this time by military force.

If the rationalewas truly altruisticto install a democratic form of government in Iraqand the installation of such a government would help promote the stability of the region thereby ensuring the continued worldwide flow of oil (a strategic interest), then the invasion would represent an example of how the promotion of national values can be used as part of foreign policy to protect national interests. Whether the motive of installing a democratic government is true or simply a cover for the failure to find weapons of mass destruction is not a topic for this discussion; however, the efficacy of forcibly installing a democratic government is appropriate. Parapan (2005) asks a probing question: After all, what is it that terrorists hate? The American values and culture, or the American insistence on imposing those on others? Parapan suggests that reform must come from within. Only time will tell whether the new, more democratic government in Iraq will be accepted or replaced by another dictatorship or, even worse, by anarchy. Future historians will be able to compare and contrast the long-term outcomes of the popularly-installed democratic governments in Eastern Europe with the forcibly-installed democratic government in Iraq to assess which approach was more effective.


This essay set out to show that foreign policy should not require a choice between protecting national interests and promoting national values; rather, that a nation can protect its national interests and, at the same time, promote its values in the world. This thesis was proven with the caveat that the road to achieving this type of foreign policy can be difficult.

With a working definition of foreign policy in hand, examples of national interests of Canada and the United States were compared and contrasted and examples of national values were presented and accompanied by a description of the continuum of methods countries can use in promoting their values. The definitions and discussions formed the foundation for establishing the linkage between promoting national values and protecting national interests.

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At the most basic level, the two definitions cited for foreign policy link the protection of national interests and promotion of national values as purposes of foreign policy. Five extracts resulting from a literature search established the linkage between national interests and national values in foreign policy development (Abrams, 2000; Edel, 2005; Falk, 2004; Haass, 2003; Mead, 1994). Difficulties in linking interests and values in foreign policy were characterized as a conflict between realism and idealism (Seiple, 2003; Talbott, 2000). The approaches available to nations as they establish foreign policy that protects national interests were shown to be largely the same as those available to promote values. Examples from initiatives to establish democracies in Eastern Europe and in Iraq were compared and contrasted in the context of promoting national interests and promoting national values.

In summary, nations can simultaneously protect their national interests and promote their national values through their foreign policy. Perhaps the proper promotion of national values, one that models the desired values and empowers the citizens of the receiving nation to make their own choices, can actually enhance the protection of national interests in the country implementing its foreign policy through its stabilizing effects in other parts of the world.


  • Abrams, Elliott (2000). American powerfor what? Commentary, January 1, 2000
  • (The) Atlanta Journal and Constitution (2004) Strategy: Make ‘facts’ fitTime confirms the fabrications and exaggerations of the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq. June 23, 2004.
  • Bush, George W. (2001) Securing the homeland: Strengthening the nation, 2001. Cited in Gladkyy, Oleksandr (2003), American foreign policy and U.S. relations with Russia and China after 11 September. World Affairs, June 22, 2003.
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  • (The) Hutchinson Encyclopedia (2003) Dean Acheson. From speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point, December 5, 1962. April 22, 2003.
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  • McCraw, David (2003) Analysing New Zealand’s foreign policy: David McCraw replies to criticism advanced by Michael Bassett of his depiction of New Zealand’s approach to foreign affairs. New Zealand International Review, November 1, 2003.
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  • The White House (1999) A national security strategy for a new century. Defense Strategy Review Page, December 1999, 1-2. Cited in Gladkyy, Oleksandr (2003), American foreign policy and U.S. relations with Russia and China after 11 September. World Affairs, June 22, 2003.
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