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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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Throughout this course, we have discussed and described national interest in many different contexts. Each situation that affects the Unites States provides circumstances in need of a direction through policy. The complexity of the national interest towards this direction has been described as the “4Ps”. Power, Peace, Prosperity, and Principle are the four categories created to generalize any given U.S. national interest, though, with these come trade-offs and tensions between each.

The first category of national interest is power. Power can be seen as the interest to remain in control, protect the ability to self-defend, as well as preservation of territory and independence. Power provides the ability to proceed with the agenda relating to other interests. For example the ability to impose economic sanctions and continuing diplomatic relations corresponds with the concept of power. This interest is most notably associated with Realism in the context of international relations theory, such that the affairs of the international community is defined by the achievement of power. This can explain why this national interest is essential when considering foreign policy options. The ability to progress any aspect of the United States depends on maintaining these resources, flexibility, and influence that actively participate in any level of progress.

Another generalized national interest is peace. The course textbook explains that each of the four main national interests are motivated or goal-oriented around peace, explaining why peace tends to be a common interest of most nations. Communication stems from common goals and, therefore, making peace an important U.S. national interest. A foreign policy strategy that has contributed to this interest in the past is the “peace broker” role. The United States has been involved in many outside disputes to prevent further conflict. The Israel and Egypt conflict resolved in the Carter Administration and the ending of the Bosnian War during the Clinton Administration are examples of the U.S. acting as the “peace broker”. The interest of peace has also been linked to International Institutionalism, or the theory that emphasizes the decreased likelihood of war and achieving commonalities between nations with many opportunities. In comparison, the Realist view considers the world as inevitably competitive with less dependence on diplomacy and cooperation of other nations.

The four national interests also include prosperity and principle. Prosperity is defined by policies that are economically driven and seek to provoke growth. These policies tend to include free trade, global capitalism, and contribution to the international economy. According to text, prosperity has been determined by “economism” and imperialism. These differ between viewing policies that are generally good for the nation’s economy and the view that interests of the elite including major corporations dominate policy. Though, both are essential in considering policy in the interest of benefitting economic development due to the impact economic stability has on the U.S. Differing from economic growth, the national interest of principles is rooted in democratic idealism. The United States asserts itself as the leading democracy and continues to display exceptionalism based on the principles the nation was founded on. History has shown that principle will always be an essential part of national interest. For example, when the U.S. entered WWI, the message the Wilson administration reiterated upon this entry was the support and protection of the spread of democracy.

With each of these interests playing an important role in foreign policy, there are continued occurrences, especially during the Cold War, which included trade-offs, tensions, and prioritization. An example of these occurrences would be a multitude of events that took place in Guatemala from 1945-1954. After significant progress had been made to halt a string of dictatorships, instituting free elections and freedom of speech, a pro-reform military officer, Arbenz, was elected into power. During this time, the largest landholder was the United Fruit Company (UFCO) mainly in position of land being redistributed to the poor. After disputes regarding land taxation and distribution, the U.S. government determined that the elected leader possessed ties with the Communist Party. During the Eisenhower administration, support was created around the anti-Arbenz group, which did create consistency with Imperialist views of U.S. foreign policy. After a U.S. influenced invasion of Guatemala and General Armas being elected, land was given back to the UFCO. Evidence later surfaced proving that ties between the UFCO and the Eisenhower administration lead to collusion the influenced lobbying throughout this conflict. At the time, U.S. authority chose to trade principle for power and prosperity. The Eisenhower administration made the choice to give more importance to the U.S. control of communism within Guatemala as well as economic prosperity in the region, while marginalizing the national interest principle and freedom of the democratic election process. This trade-off resulted in a positive aspect of controlling the spread of communism. However, other nations may have been hesitant towards U.S. involvement when controlling power and prosperity in relation to U.S. interest to priority. Due to circumstances, I agree with the choice to monitor Arbenz after the election due to any suspicion of communism being taken seriously. However, I disagree with the collusion between the UFCO and the Eisenhower administration. Land reform was essential at this time and protecting the ability for these citizens to acquire land could have initiated significant economic growth.      

Another example of an event that involved trade-offs between national interests was the event that took place in China in 1989. Pro-democracy students staged an incredibly significant sit-in in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Hundreds of students participated, including creating a replica of the U.S. Statue of Liberty. After being told to leave by the Chinese government and refusing, the Communist authority sent the military to take action. Over one thousand students were killed and many arrested. As the U.S. actively traded with China, many called on the imposition of economic sanctions to make it known that the U.S. would not condone the actions of a government that murders its own citizens, especially when the protest was democratically motivated. The H.W. Bush administration chose to impose limited sanctions due to prioritizing Chinese relations. The U.S. authority chose to trade principle aspects such as making it clear the U.S. does not support any act of violence such as this event, in exchange for power in the context of national interest. The aspect of power in this context is placing importance on the position the U.S. held in the relationship with China. Therefore, the administration chose to marginalize the aspects of principle that corresponded with the acts of violence. The positive aspects of this trade-off were the continued success of U.S. – Chinese relations and trade benefitting both nations. However, in comparison, public opinion shifted after the government was viewed as placing less importance on principle created a negative affect. For the time this event occurred, I agree with the decision that was made. Chinese relations were incredible important, and though sanctions cost the U.S. in trading benefits, they were still imposed as a negative response to the Chinese actions.

In the post Cold War period, trade-offs between U.S. national interests occurred in a significantly different setting. In the early 1990s, the Unites States became heavily involved in the Bosnian Civil War. Initially, as Yugoslavia started to disintegrate, the H.W. Bush administration chose to allow the European power to manage the conflict. Though, when the Clinton administration came into power, the choice was made to assume the “peace broker” role and create the Vance-Owen Plan. The administration viewed the European powers as incapable of handling security conflicts such as this civil war. After failed negotiations with European powers, U.S. leaders chose to take the lead, which resulted in NATO’s first use of military force and the Dayton Accords. This agreement was brokered by the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and ended the war. However, this agreement left Bosnia dependent on outside resources as well as European powers understanding where the U.S. priorities were going forward. The trade-offs that occurred in this situation were between power and peace. The U.S. government made the choice to alter the original stance and insert itself to resolve the conflict with the interest of peace. Though, with this choice, the U.S. marginalized the power to outline what national interests the U.S. will be prioritizing after the Cold War as well as redefining the purpose of NATO. A positive outcome of this decision was the cease of bloodshed in the region and less national security challenges between European powers, though the U.S. was left seen as undermining European powers, using NATO military force, and inserting itself in conflicts that may not have required direct interference. I agree with the interest of peace but I do not agree with the U.S. sacrificing power to approach the conflict. The U.S. had the opportunity to define policy approach moving forward and to delegate responsibly to the European powers to increase their ability, however this was not accomplished.

Another event that involves trade-offs in the post-Cold War period, has taken place over several recent years. The horrors that are currently taking place in Syria are well known throughout the U.S. government. These horrors include families fleeing across borders to escape the destruction caused by al-Assad. The U.S. has become increasingly involved in the region due to the rise of national security threats and the terrorist group ISIS. Recently, U.S. warplanes have been shifted towards the location of Islamic militants. These choices that contribute to the U.S. presence in Syria involved many national interests, though I feel that the largest trade-off is between power and peace. The magnitude of U.S. presence may be attributed to the current administration’s foreign policy and national security agenda including the prioritization of power. The choice to involve military force can be seen an assertion of power with the aspects of national security interests. However, U.S. influence goes against what the Syrian opposition is advocating for, which has the ability to cause unrest and provoke further tensions between those in the region and terrorist organizations. U.S. leadership chose to marginalize peace in the region to prioritize power and national security. A positive outcome could be the increased ability to monitor and combat national security risks as well as assert power, while a negative outcome could be the increase in tensions in an already radical part of the world. Due to the rise in ISIS, I agree with national security being a priority, however I do not feel that the extent of influence relating to Syrian civilians may be necessary.

Each of these events displays an example of trade-offs between U.S. national interests throughout history and present day. Considering these examples and descriptions from our course text, I feel that peace should always be the top national interest unless there is an evident threat to the United States. The course text and readings clearly state the motivation behind any national interest is peace. The next interest that should be prioritized is power. As stated above, many opportunities, resources, and ability to accomplish other interests come with power. Prosperity and economic growth should be considered next. Economic relations and trade correlate to the success of the U.S. economy, which impacts all Americans as well as equal impact to U.S. trading partners and, therefore, the international economy. Next, principle and ethics should be considered. The U.S. was founded on principle and the concept of doing what is right, however in such a competitive world and as shown in the examples, principle tends to be the most expendable regardless of political party or agenda. Throughout history, difficult decisions have been made and going forwards, as national interest changes, so will the approach towards foreign policy and international relations.

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