Book Review – The National Interest in International Relations Theory – Scott Burchill

In my quest to read as as widely and as much this summer, I asked for a collection of good robust International Relations texts to get stuck into. The first one I’ve read is The National Interest in International Relations Theory, by Scott Burchill.

What is the national interest? Of course this is such an open question, so Burchill tackles it by presenting the main schools of thought in IR (Realism, Liberal, English School, Marxist) and how they have defined and thought about what the national interest is, how it has evolved and what it can tell us about how states direct foreign policy.

Broadly speaking, the layman’s answer of “I don’t know” applies here. The different schools of thought ask pertinent questions of one another, and Burchill does effectively illustrate what the different approaches think should be the National Interest. In doing so he demonstrates that the different approaches have so many good questions of one another we are left with little clue as to how to effectively define the national interest, but that we can see it under different auspices, and “it” being practised by different states at different times in history and contexts.

The Marxist approach negates the idea of such a thing as the national interest, and declares it is like many other ideas and institutional arrangements; merely a cover for the oppressive class in class war. It doesn’t provide convincing dialogues for interstate relations and war, and the general Marxist idea of moving towards a progressive utopia through revolutions caused by internal contradictions in capitalism along a historical narrative is of course what it says on the tin – a general Marxist idea. It so far hasn’t proven to be true, and although many hold up Marx’s ideas as just one day more it’s contribution to the understanding of National Interest is a critique, rather than useful tool to understand and develop policy. (Unless you want to overthrow the capitalist system).

Burchill outlines the realist approach, which has for the most part been a little too unrealistic to be a definitive answer. If the State is only about survival at any means, then the amount of cooperation rather than subordination in the world undermines this view. As Burchill says “the national interest is no longer national” with integration challenges such as terrorism and climate change. (As to how much of a threat these are, no comment, but these are commonly defined by states as such).

The Liberal approach further detracts meaning from the national interest. As many liberals see the benefits of globalisation, capitalism (the history of economics in theory and practise isn’t particularly rich or fulfilling here, but since this is a general problem I might write about this at a later date) and “democracy” the national interest declines in relevance – the liberals would generally accept this to be a good thing because of the insular nature of states.

Perhaps their weakness in this argument is the unequal benefits that have thus far arisen during globalisation, as larger states acting in their national interest have been able to accrue many benefits without many losses; that the “liberal” states haven’t been very liberal after all. However, assuming that national states can improve economic outcomes, and rectifying this by only pursuing a national economic strategy independent of integrating into global market processes is I think a weak one, but this isn’t the main point of the liberal approach to the national interest.

The English School perspective seeks a middle ground between the two, and should be based on enlightened self interest – yes survival, but cooperation between states as well as promotion of markets and other social bonds.

With this book Burchill goes beyond my flippant “I don’t know” remark and demonstrates that the national interest is not a particularly useful term to understand foreign policy.

In all, I enjoyed the book, and was a relatively short read at 212 pages. Probably worth a read if you have interest in IR, but not an absolute must by any means, particularly due to the price.

Here it is on Amazon, I borrowed my copy. There might be a link to a PDF file somewhere.



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