America's National Interests The Commission on America's National Interests July 2000

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America's National Interests
The Commission on America's National Interests
July 2000
The Commission on America's National Interests was established by a group of Americans who are convinced that, in the absence of American global leadership, citizens will find their fortunes, their values, and indeed their lives threatened as surely as they have ever been. We are concerned that after five decades of extraordinary exertion, the US is in danger of losing its way. The fatigue of many, and distraction of some with special interests, leave American foreign policy hostage to television images and the momentary passions of domestic politics. Lacking basic coordinates and a clear sense of priorities, American foreign policy becomes reactive and impulsive in a fast-changing and uncertain world.
The goal of the Commission on America's National Interests is to help focus thinking on one central issue: What are the United States' national interests? What are American national interests today and as far forward as we can see in the future for which we must prepare? In the short run, we hope to catalyze debate about the most important US national interests during this season of presidential and congressional campaigns. We also hope to contribute to a more focused debate about core national interests, the essential foundation for the next era of American foreign policy.
The Commission wishes to thank Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Nixon Center, and RAND for their institutional support of the Commission, and the Hauser Foundation for support of this Report.
A Report from The Commission on America's National Interests
Robert Ellsworth

Andrew Goodpaster

Rita Hauser
Executive Directors:
Graham T. Allison, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University
Dimitri K. Simes, The Nixon Center
James Thomson, RAND
Lead Authors:
Graham T. Allison

Robert Blackwill

Graham T. Allison

Richard Armitage

Robert Blackwill

Laura Donohue

Jeffrey Eisenach

Robert Ellsworth

Richard Falkenrath

David Gergen

Andrew Goodpaster

Bob Graham

Jerrold Green

Rita Hauser

Arnold Kanter

Geoffrey Kemp

Paul Krugman

John McCain

Sam Nunn

Condoleezza Rice

Pat Roberts

Dimitri K. Simes

Paul J. Saunders

Brent Scowcroft

James Thomson
This Report reflects the general policy thrust and judgments reached by the Commission, although not all members of the Commission necessarily subscribe to every finding and recommendation in the Report.
© Copyright 2000 The Commission on America's National Interests
Executive Summary
Chart: Summary of America's National Interests
I. Defining the Problem
II. Thinking Clearly about America's National Interests
III. What Are America's National Interests Today?
IV. Challenges to and Opportunities for America's National Interests in the Decade Ahead

China, Japan, and East Asia


Europe and NATO

The Middle East

The Western Hemisphere

Functional Issues

Nuclear Futures--US and Worldwide

The Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction

Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Drugs

International Trade and Investment

Cyberspace and Information Technology

The Global Environment

Requirements for US Military Capabilities

Commission on America's National Interests

Executive Summary
This report of the Commission on America's National Interests focuses on one core issue: what are US national interests today? The US enters a new century as the world's most powerful nation, but too often seems uncertain of its direction. We hope to encourage serious debate about what must become an essential foundation for a successful American foreign policy: America's interests. We have sought to identify the central questions about American interests. Presuming no monopoly of wisdom, we nevertheless state our own best answers to these questions as clearly and precisely as we can--not abstractly or diplomatically. Clear assertions that some interests are more important than others will unavoidably give offense. We persist--with apologies--since our aim is to catalyze debate about the most important US national interests. Our six principal conclusions are these:
America advantaged. Today the US has greater power and fewer adversaries than ever before in American history. Relative to any potential competitor, the US is more powerful, more wealthy, and more influential than any nation since the Roman empire. With these extraordinary advantages, America today is uniquely positioned to shape the international system to promote international peace and prosperity for decades or even generations to come.
America adrift. Great power implies great responsibility. But in the wake of the Cold War, the US has lost focus. After four decades of unprecedented single-mindedness in containing Soviet Communist expansion, the United States has seen a decade of ad hoc fits and starts. A defining feature of American engagement in recent years has been confusion . The reasons why are not difficult to identify. From 1945 to 1989, containment of expansionist Soviet communism provided the fixed point for the compass of American engagement in the world. It concentrated minds in a deadly competition with the Soviet Union in every region of the world; motivated and sustained the build-up of large, standing military forces and nuclear arsenals with tens of thousands of weapons; and precluded the development of truly global systems and the possibility of cooperation to address global challenges from trade to environmental degradation. In 1989 the Cold War ended in a stunning, almost unimaginable victory that erased this fixed point from the globe. Most of the coordinates by which Americans gained their bearings in the world have now been consigned to history's dustbin: the Berlin Wall, a divided Germany, the Iron Curtain, captive nations of the Warsaw Pact, communism on the march, and, finally, the Soviet Union. Absent a compelling cause and understandable coordinates, America remains a superpower adrift.
Opportunities missed and threats emerging. Because of the absence of coherent, consistent, purposive US leadership in the years since the Cold War, the US is missing one-time-only opportunities to advance American interests and values. Fitful engagement actually invites the emergence of new threats, from nuclear weapons-usable material unaccounted for in Russia and assertive Chinese risk-taking, to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the unexpectedly rapid emergence of ballistic missile threats.
The foundation for sustainable American foreign policy. The only sound foundation for a sustainable American foreign policy is a clear sense of America's national interests. Only a foreign policy grounded in America's national interests can identify priorities for American engagement in the world. Only such a policy will allow America's leaders to explain persuasively how and why American citizens should support expenditures of American treasure or blood.
The hierarchy of American national interests. Clarity about American national interests demands that the current generation of American leaders think harder about international affairs than they have ever been required to do. During the Cold War we had clearer, simpler answers to questions about American national interests. Today we must confront again the central questions: Which regions and issues should Americans care about--for example, Bosnia, Rwanda, Russia, Mexico, Africa, East Asia, or the Persian Gulf? Which issues matter most--for example, opening markets for trade, investment opportunities, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), international crime and drugs, the environment, or human rights? Why should Americans care? How much should citizens be prepared to pay to address these threats or seize these opportunities?
The Commission has identified a hierarchy of US national interests: "vital interests," "extremely important interests," "important interests," and "less important or secondary interests." This Report states our own best judgment about which specific American national interests are vital, which are extremely important, and which are just important. Readers will note a sharp contrast between the expansive, vague assertions about vital interests in most discussion today, and the Commission's sparse list.
While others have claimed that America has vital interests from the Balkans and the Baltics to pandemics and Taiwan, the Commission identifies only five vital US national interests today. These are (1) to prevent, deter, and reduce the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons attacks on the United States or its military forces abroad; (2) to ensure US allies' survival and their active cooperation with the US in shaping an international system in which we can thrive; (3) to prevent the emergence of hostile major powers or failed states on US borders; (4) to ensure the viability and stability of major global systems (trade, financial markets, supplies of energy, and the environment); and (5) to establish productive relations, consistent with American national interests, with nations that could become strategic adversaries, China and Russia.
Challenges for the decade ahead. Developments around the world pose threats to US interests and present opportunities for advancing Americans' well-being. Because the United States is so predominant in the economic, technical, and military realms, many politicians and pundits fall victim to a rhetoric of illusion. They imagine that as the sole superpower, the US can simply instruct other nations to do this or stop that and expect them to do it. But consider how many American presidents have come and gone since President Kennedy consigned Fidel Castro to the dustbin of history. Students of history will recognize a story-line in which a powerful state emerges (even if accidentally), engenders resentment (even when it acts benevolently), succumbs to the arrogance of power, and thus provokes new threats, from individual acts of terrorism to hostile coalitions of states. Because America's resources are limited, US foreign policy must be selective in choosing which issues to address seriously. The proper basis for making such judgments is a lean, hierarchical conception of what American national interests are and what they are not. Media attention to foreign affairs reflects access to vivid, compelling images on a screen, without much consideration of the importance of the US interest threatened. Graphic international problems like Bosnia or Kosovo make consuming claims on American foreign policy to the neglect of issues of greater importance, like the rise of Chinese power, the unprecedented risks of nuclear proliferation, the opportunity to increase the openness of the international trading and financial systems, or the future of Mexico.
Based on its assessment of specific threats to and opportunities for US national interests in the final years of the century, the Commission has identified six cardinal challenges for the next US president:

  • strengthen strategic partnerships with Japan and the European allies despite the absence of an overwhelming, immediate threat;

  • facilitate China's entry onto the world stage without disruption;

  • prevent loss of control of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons-usable materials, and contain the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons;

  • prevent Russia's reversion to authoritarianism or disintegration into chaos;

  • maintain the United States' singular leadership, military, and intelligence capabilities, and its international credibility; and

  • marshal unprecedented economic, technological, military, and political advantages to shape a twenty-first century global system that promotes freedom, peace, and prosperity for Americans, our allies, and the world.

For each of these challenges, and others, our stated hierarchy of US national interests provides coordinates by which to navigate the uncertain, fast-changing international terrain in the decade ahead.

Vital national interests are conditions that are strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance Americans' survival and well-being in a free and secure nation.
Vital US national interests are to:

  1. Prevent, deter, and reduce the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons attacks on the United States or its military forces abroad;

  2. Ensure US allies' survival and their active cooperation with the US in shaping an international system in which we can thrive;

  3. Prevent the emergence of hostile major powers or failed states on US borders;

  4. Ensure the viability and stability of major global systems (trade, financial markets, supplies of energy, and the environment); and

  5. Establish productive relations, consistent with American national interests, with nations that could become strategic adversaries, China and Russia.

Instrumentally, these vital interests will be enhanced and protected by promoting singular US leadership, military and intelligence capabilities, credibility (including a reputation for adherence to clear US commitments and even-handedness in dealing with other states), and strengthening critical international institutions-- particularly the US alliance system around the world.

Extremely Important
Extremely important national interests are conditions that, if compromised, would severely prejudice but not strictly imperil the ability of the US government to safeguard and enhance the well-being of Americans in a free and secure nation.
Extremely important US national interests are to:

  1. Prevent, deter, and reduce the threat of the use of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons anywhere;

  2. Prevent the regional proliferation of WMD and delivery systems;

  3. Promote the acceptance of international rules of law and mechanisms for resolving or managing disputes peacefully;

  4. Prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon in important regions, especially the Persian Gulf;

  5. Promote the well-being of US allies and friends and protect them from external aggression;

  6. Promote democracy, prosperity, and stability in the Western Hemisphere;

  7. Prevent, manage, and, if possible at reasonable cost, end major conflicts in important geographic regions;

  8. Maintain a lead in key military-related and other strategic technologies, particularly information systems;

  9. Prevent massive, uncontrolled immigration across US borders;

  10. Suppress terrorism (especially state-sponsored terrorism), transnational crime, and drug trafficking; and

  11. Prevent genocide.


Important national interests are conditions that, if compromised, would have major negative consequences for the ability of the US government to safeguard and enhance the well-being of Americans in a free and secure nation.
Important US national interests are to:

  1. Discourage massive human rights violations in foreign countries;

  2. Promote pluralism, freedom, and democracy in strategically important states as much as is feasible without destabilization;

  3. Prevent and, if possible at low cost, end conflicts in strategically less significant geographic regions;

  4. Protect the lives and well-being of American citizens who are targeted or taken hostage by terrorist organizations;

  5. Reduce the economic gap between rich and poor nations;

  6. Prevent the nationalization of US-owned assets abroad;

  7. Boost the domestic output of key strategic industries and sectors;

  8. Maintain an edge in the international distribution of information to ensure that American values continue to positively influence the cultures of foreign nations;

  9. Promote international environmental policies consistent with long-term ecological requirements; and

  10. Maximize US GNP growth from international trade and investment.

Instrumentally, the important US national interests are to maintain a strong UN and other regional and functional cooperative mechanisms.

Less Important or Secondary
Less important or secondary national interests are not unimportant. They are important and desirable conditions, but ones that have little direct impact on the ability of the US government to safeguard and enhance the well-being of Americans in a free and secure nation.
Less important or secondary US national interests include:

  1. Balancing bilateral trade deficits;

  2. Enlarging democracy everywhere for its own sake;

  3. Preserving the territorial integrity or particular political constitution of other states everywhere; and

  4. Enhancing exports of specific economic sectors.


I. Defining the Problem
In the world of 2000, with its great global changes and born-again nationalisms that drive the military and economic behavior of states and groups, it is essential for the political leaders of the United States to understand our national interests. This will not be automatic or easy, and answers will not come from public opinion polls or focus groups. Our leaders will have to define our national interests; persuade fellow citizens; and then exploit the unique leadership capacities of the United States among the major power centers of the world. American leaders of every kind must accept the challenges of building domestic foundations for foreign policy in an America where social stability, public confidence, and a sense of common purpose are in short supply.
Above all, Americans must recognize that the rest of the world includes many powerful states that are just as intent on ensuring their own safety and advancing their own national interests as we are. The organization of power--the political ordering of the international system--remains an inescapable issue that directly affects the safety and well-being of Americans.
What are American national interests today? Which regions and issues should Americans care about? How should we order Bosnia, Rwanda, Russia, Africa, Mexico, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf? And how should we weigh opening markets for trade, investment opportunities, WMD, international crime and drugs, the environment, or human rights? Why should we care? How much should we be prepared to pay to address threats and seize opportunities? To be more systematic, the following questions must be addressed.

  • Once identified, how should national interests be ranked?

  • What is the relationship between national interests, on the one hand, and American values or moral purposes, on the other?

  • Does the unique US position in the world at the beginning of a new century imply special constraints or convey special license, or even a moral imperative, in the definition and pursuit of our interests?

  • Are US national interests in the next decade mainly defined by the geopolitical and economic realities of a shrinking globe, and thus primarily objective; or instead, are US national interests principally the sum of whatever happens to capture the attention of Americans now and in the decade ahead?

The confusion and cacophony surrounding America's role in the world today is reminiscent of two earlier experiences in the twentieth century: the years after 1918 and those after 1945. We are experiencing today an extension of the third post-war transition of the past century. In the twenty years after 1918, American isolationists forced withdrawal from the world. America's retreat undermined the World War I peace settlement in Europe and contributed mightily to the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy, and the resumption of war in Europe after what proved to be but a two-decade intermission. After 1945, American leaders were determined to learn and apply those lessons of the interwar period. Individuals such as presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, secretaries of state George Marshall and Dean Acheson, and Senator Arthur Vandenberg, fashioned a strategy of thoughtful, deep American engagement in the world in ways they judged vital to America's well-being. As a result, two generations of Americans have enjoyed five decades without world war, in which America experienced the most rapid economic growth in history, and won a great victory in the Cold War.

No historical analogy is precise--but which of the two earlier experiences seems more similar to developments since 1990? The first. By 1947, after two years of withdrawal, fatigue, and distraction, the combination of Joseph Stalin's challenge and Harry Truman's response set the course for the next era. In contrast, today, a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, America remains in international limbo. Sensing no urgent danger, most Americans have thus returned to their own affairs. This shift reflects not so much isolationism as preoccupation. For a continental nation, accustomed to the protection afforded by wide oceans and weak neighbors, peace seems a natural condition. Rogues or villains emerge from time to time, such as Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf. In meeting specific threats, Americans are prepared to do their part, and more. But after the job is done, most Americans believe that most parts of the world should handle their own problems.
As the Scriptures warn, "If the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will respond to battle?" Leadership from the president and his administration is a necessary condition for constructing any consensus on American national interests. It is thus the executive branch that bears the lion's share of responsibility for articulating a coherent sense of American interests around which to mobilize support. But with a Republican majority in the House of Representatives and in the Senate as well, the collapse of comity and acceptance of exaggerated conflict between the executive branch and Congress is fast becoming a norm.
The costs of the breakdown of relations between the president and Congress can be seen across the foreign policy agenda. In relations with China, an administration that began by insisting that minimal steps toward increasing human rights for Chinese citizens were a precondition for renewal of China's Most Favored Nation status flip-flopped to argue that the absence of immediate progress on human rights should not preclude China's membership in the World Trade Organization. The costs of the divisions in American government that produce zigs and zags in American policy must be measured in the Chinese government's view of American seriousness and steadiness. As China makes decisions about the role of force in its strained relations with Taiwan, a judgment that America lacks steadiness will create great risks, including even the risk of war.
Beneath this institutional breakdown is an even more troubling divide among elements of the public, some seeking withdrawal from the world (even as communications, trade, and technology make America the capital of a global village), others demanding that the US reform the world. American television news organizations, print papers and magazines, and philanthropic foundations have all cut back dramatically on things "foreign." Some leftists' conviction that the US is not morally fit to lead in the world combines with some nationalists' tendency to believe that the world is not worthy of American efforts. Some Americans' anxiety about economic insecurities abetted, if not caused, by international competition, foreign imports, and immigration, generates support for America to withdraw and hunker down inside a fortress. Yet most Americans know better. A majority recognizes that many of America's best jobs depend on trade and that America can compete successfully on level international playing fields. Indeed, polling data consistently find large majorities supporting the proposition that the United States must play a unique leadership role in the world. On the left and right of both political parties, one finds persuasive advocates of new crusades to promote human rights and democracy.
The executive and legislative branches' ability to rise above their bitter differences to create a bipartisan coalition to grant China permanent normal trading relations (PNTR) reflects both good and bad news. The good news is that in an extreme case when priority national interests were at stake, after many missteps and high risks of failure, and even in this political season, political adversaries joined together to do the right thing. The bad news is that such an easy call--from the perspective of American national interests--should have required such an extraordinary effort across the US government and beyond. While American foreign policy has always reflected domestic politics, it risks becoming only an extension of domestic politics. Unless domestic politics are informed and disciplined by a larger sense of American stakes abroad, America will be imperiled.
What then is to be done? A necessary precondition for any effective action is a renewed sense of American national interests and values. A broad national understanding of these stakes is a necessary foundation for a steady, sustained American role in the decades ahead. Thus we ask:

  • Which American interests are vital, which are extremely important, which are important, and which are less important or secondary?

  • How can Americans think clearly about these issues? By what process or method can we hope to identify American national interests and the priorities among them?

  • What developments will challenge American interests in the decade ahead? Which developments provide opportunities to advance American well-being?

It is to these three questions that we now turn.


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