This research paper discuss why the concept of the national interest in the study and conduct of foreign policy arouses controversy. Its thesis is that throughout American history definitions of the national interest have varied reflecting very different approaches to foreign affairs and the tensions between foreign and domestic policy in the context of American democracy. After the end of the Cold War it has become more rather than less difficult to define the national interest and to translate it into coherent foreign policy objectives.
In his discussion of the national interest, international relations theorist Waltz states "to say that a state seeks its own preservation or pursues its national interest becomes interesting only if we can figure out what the national interest requires a country to do." This essay examines what various theorists and practitioners of international relations have suggested is encompassed by the term 'national interest' and the schools of thought they represent. Those schools are roughly grouped into the realist or neo-realist or universalist or pluralist categories. The special difficulties of defining national interests within a democratic form of government and the political context of the American experiment in representative government are also addressed in this analysis. Finally, traditional ways of defining the national interest are challenged by the new environment in which foreign policy must be shaped in the post-Cold War era, especially the diminution of overt threats, the multi-polarity of power, the interdependence of nation states and peoples and the difficulties of projecting national power on the world scene.
Defining the National Interest: Realists and Universalists
Morgenthau, who is known as the modern father of the realist school of thought, argued that "statesmen think and act in terms of interest defined as power" and that the actions of nations as well as individuals ...