The National Interest
“The nation is not a political fiction,” Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes in his 1990 treatise, Haiti: State Against Nation, “it is a fiction in politics.” Politicians, revolutionaries, concerned citizens—we all spin yarns in our attempts to take control of the very real powers of state. One such predominant tale is the national interest, a conception of a country’s definitive aims that is held by some as easily—even rationally—determined. As international relations realist Hans J. Morgenthau wrote in a 1952 essay on the United States’ national interest, “Taken in isolation, the determination of its content in a concrete situation is relatively simple; for it encompasses the integrity of the nation’s territory, of its political institutions, and of its culture.”
Territory, politics, culture: these are quite a lot of inputs for such a monolithic concept. Morgenthau himself saw problems in his formulation, admitting the national interest could be elusive in concept and susceptible to interpretations “such as limitless imperialism and narrow nationalism.” One thinks, for instance, of the Bush White House’s security strategy of unilateral and extrajudicial force, based, in their own telling, on a “union of our values and our national interests.” In Baffler no. 67, we survey then the ways in which the idea of the national interest creates what Trouillot calls “the bleak homogeneity” pushed by those fighting for the nation’s reins.
As Lyta Gold discovers while scrutinizing conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg’s career of half-baked answers to the question “What makes America great?,” a self-justifying eminence is often cited by those claiming to act in the national interest. Others find inspiration in less lofty sources: Ron DeSantis’s America First worldview owes a debt to the 1992 legal thriller A Few Good Men, as Jasper Craven uncovers in his examination of the Florida governor’s military service history and constant public defense of an abstract “freedom” even as he rolls back civil liberties. Also worshiped and rather nebulous is the Federal Reserve, whose supposed omnipotence as public economic authority is skewered by Andrew Elrod’s detailing of the institution’s recent struggles to tamp down inflation, and its powerlessness relative to the corporate boardroom. Rising prices are felt the world over, of course, as Shamira Ibrahim describes in her account of Ghana’s efforts to sell the nation as a pan-African tourist destination while the country’s working class struggles with a ballooning cost of living.
Elsewhere in the issue, our authors consider those already subsumed by these bleak homogeneities. Vegetarianism is elevated to national creed in Sharanya Deepak’s report from an India shifting rightward, where Dalits and non-Hindus find themselves harassed and beaten for the act—and sometimes the mere suspicion—of eating beef. Tareq Baconi writes of the dilemmas faced by grassroot feminist activists in Egypt caught between imperial legacies and a neopatriarchal order. Umber Majeed’s collages imagine a world where Pakistanis dispossessed by the war on terror may virtually experience the country’s twenty-first century economic revitalization. And Gaby Del Valle chronicles the labyrinthine immigration bureaucracy that confronts migrants to the United States, where this country’s political parties are unanimous in telling them, to quote Kamala Harris in Guatemala nearly two years ago, “Do not come.”
The weather cares little for lines on a map, regardless of how much money a nation pumps into border security and deportation proceedings. As rising temperatures make water ever scarcer, Ann Neumann examines Egypt and Ethiopia’s dueling claims over the Nile. Meanwhile, Thomas Geoghegan makes the argument for world government itself to confront climate change, with a half-utopic, half-utilitarian argument in favor of the European Union that reaches back to Kant’s musings on a perpetual peace. Which isn’t to suggest that forgetting about previous conflicts would be easy. As J.C. Hallman realizes on a trip taking in gun-themed graffiti, Kentucky Fried Chicken chains, and genocide memorials in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, at times the national interest is a desperately commemorative one, a furious insistence on not forgetting horrors past, nor dismissing them as fictions.
Finally, in a short story by Damion Searls, a group of aging Gen Xers reminisce about mixtapes, documentaries, and strange encounters with the ineffable, against 2016’s bewildering backdrop of Trump’s rise to power—a time in which the national interest seemed, contra Morgenthau, far from simple. “We turned away,” the narrator recounts, from “everything that past generations and centuries had told us we should want, and we had no vocabulary to describe how their absence felt or what it might mean.”