national interest

in my opinion is overhyped

– why is your selfish national interest more important than, for example, those of the Uighur Turks (Eastern Turkestan) or the Tibetans whose autonomous territories were occupied by the Chinese, the first in 47 or 49, the second in 59?
– another way of formulating this would be: at what point do more basic humanitarian concerns over-ride the national concern? if at all?
– in a way this reminds me of Asimov’s Foundation stories… the perennial quest to take everything into account, balance it all out
– so yet another way of formulating it, more algorithmically this time, would go like this: given the following:
a) solution space too big for exhaustive search
b) many variables unknown, to the extent that that neither their number, nature nor inter-relationships are known, perhaps, even perhaps not knowable
c) a rich history of previous decisions and recorded consequences and interpretations of such decisions

what is the optimal local search strategy?
I use the word ‘local’ to indicate a certain limitation of vision/knowledge. I was going to ask: what is the optimal greedy search strategy? in order to emphasise the limitation also of time and other resources involved in making the decision, but I wasn’t sure if ‘greedy’ was the right word to use in this sense.

The criteria for judging optimality would be that no other strategy would have given a better solution given the same knowledge. Again, very difficult to evaluate! (shades of Gödel?!)

A subsequent question is: is there just one fixed rule or set of rules? or do you need to figure in a lot of flexibility (in the human domain, things like creativity, patience, tolerance, humour, pragmatism) that cannot be captured/unified at a sufficiently abstract level?

ok, I seem to have enlarged the scope way too much and gone on to what is beginning to sound like jurisprudence!! not at all my original intentention, but it shows you my analytical weakness. I wanted simply to point out that actions do have consequences, what goes around, comes around and all that, and that
i) what you may think is in the national interest is not actually quite so, either because there are hidden factors at play in the present, or because of the way things will play out later, maybe even one or more generations later
ii) it is often way too early to decide what is and isn’t in the said interest, hence all claims pro and con need to be considered with caution

Finally, what I’ve been laying the ground for and shying away from stating explicitly:
given my personal level of knowledge with respect to a – c above, it seems that an ethical approach based on fairness tempered with mercy is the best. I’m quite sure that this is a good overall strategy at the personal level (i.e., for individuals and also for laws governing individuals), but I wonder how far this applies to affairs of state, especially given the lack of precedent! It appears that a basic study of international law and its applications is called for. That concept is itself so new that there are still arguments over the ICJ, the Nuremberg trials, the Balkan genocide trials. But actually, my question is bigger in that it deals with realpolitik which everyone assures you will never be governable by cissy things like international law. In a sense, my belief would correspond to a national khudi (timely that the song is playing in the background!). Self-respect through mutual respect. Self-accountability at a national level, things like that. Do unto others what you would have them do to you.

Yet again, there are other facets: what are the components of the national interest? Does your nation have a coherent raison d’être, all actions being subservient to it? If yes, is it, when considered in depth, really so different from the grandiose goals of a hundred other nations, so different that a compromise based on basic principles cannot be arrived at? A just, honourable, mutually fruitful compromise with longer term benefits. Maybe I’m unconsciously echoing many different people (and plead guilty in advance to piracy if that’s what it is), but isn’t each quarrel also a meeting? An opportunity to get to know the other better? Is its best utilisation:
a) in the worst case, war, in the best, some milder form of conflict (e.g. trade embargo/tarrifs)
b) a basic division of the spoils
c) a mutual exploitation of the bone in contention, leading to greater cooperation between the two parties

I suppose that to many this would seem like starry-eyed optimism, but after two centuries of intermittent war culminating in two glorious world wars, the French and the Germans realised, to use the old cliché, that 1 and 1 make 11, not 2, to the extent even that Schroeder a few years back actually let Chirac represent Germany at an EU meeting. This is without precedent among great powers as far as I know, but is also a measure, though anecdotal, of the amazing mutual confidence of the two countries.

Sorry – maybe I’m flogging a dead horse here, but on a personal level, I think this should make sense to anyone who has found that the best way to end a heated dispute is to talk it over calmly after a little while preferably in a neutral place like a club or bar or restaurant or a friend’s place.

I wonder sometimes if I make any sense at all. And I still can’t construct logically flowing arguments on the run.

(May 29, 2004)

One thought on “national interest

  1. Interesting stuff. Agree with you when you say that ‘an ethical approach based on fairness tempered with mercy is the best’ for personal dealings. But I feel that when it comes to national affairs, we should opt for a bit of greediness. I know that it may cause problems in the future, but there will surely be people to solve it around that time. Trust the human brain.

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