Justification of overriding state power.
There are circumstances when the need to ensure the security or well-being of the state or the nation justifies governments ignoring the normal considerations of law or morality.
David Robertson, The Penguin Dictionary of Politics (London, 1986)
Prior to reformations that swept 16th century Europe, national interest was often understood as secondary to that of religion. To engage in a war, rulers would need to justify the action in such context. The expression “reason of state” (Ragion di Stato) was first popularised by Italian political thinker Giovanni Botero, and championed by Italian diplomat and political thinker Niccolò Machiavelli.
The practice is considered to have been employed by France under the direction of its Chief Minister Cardinal Richelieu in the Thirty Years’ War when it intervened on the Protestant side, despite its own Catholicism, in order to block the increasing power of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor. At Richelieu’s prompting, Jean de Silhon defended the concept of raison d’État as “a mean between what conscience permits and affairs require.”
The notion of the national interest soon came to dominate European politics, which became fiercely competitive over the next centuries. It would become a form of reason “born of the calculation and the ruse of men,” recognizing the state as “a knowing machine, a work of reason;” the state ceases to be derived from the divine order and is henceforth subject to its own particular necessities.[page needed] States would now be able to openly pursue action based on self-interest. Likewise, mercantilism can be seen as the economic justification of the aggressive pursuit of the national interest.
The realist school of international relations (IR) is founded on this notion of foreign policy geared towards pursuing the national interest. The school reached its greatest heights at the Congress of Vienna, which amounted to balancing the national interest of several great and lesser powers, for which Klemens von Metternich would be celebrated as the principal artist and theoretician of. However, Metternich had only ever accomplished more or less of what his predecessor, Wenzel Anton, had already done when reversing many of the traditional Habsburg alliances and building international relations anew on the basis of national interest instead of religion or tradition.
Such notions became much criticized after the bloody debacle of the First World War, where some sought to replace the conceptual balance of power with the idea of collective security, whereby all members of the League of Nations would “consider an attack upon one as an attack upon all,” thus deterring the use of violence for ever more. The League of Nations did not work, partially due to the refusal of the United States to join, as well as to the fact that, in practice, nations did not always find it “in the national interest” to deter each other from the use of force.
The events of World War II along with World War I, led to a rebirth of realist, as well as the birth of neo-realist, thought, as IR theorists re-emphasized the role of power in global governance. Many such theorists blamed the weakness of the League of Nations on its idealism (contrasted with realism) and ineffectiveness at preventing war, even as they blamed mercantilist ‘beggar thy neighbor’ policies for the creation of fascist states in Germany and Italy.
With hegemonic stability theory, the concept of U.S. national interest was expanded to include the maintenance of open Sea lanes, as well as the facilitation and expansion of free trade.
As a euphemism
Today, the concept of “the national interest” is often associated with political realists who fail to differentiate their policies from those of “idealist,” seeking to inject morality into foreign policy or promote solutions that rely on multilateral institutions which may weaken the independence of a state.
As considerable disagreement exists in every country as to what is or is not in “the national interest,” the term has often been invoked to justify isolationist and pacifistic policies to justify interventionist or warlike policies. It has been posited that the term is a euphemism used by powerful countries for geopolitical aims such as non-renewable resources for energy independency, territorial expansionism, and precious metals in smaller countries. In that case, euphemism usage is necessary to stifle voices opposed to an interventionistic or warhawk foreign policy