Hoffman on Values vs Interests: A false binary…


I believe, however, that the distinction between interests and values is largely fallacious, and that policy which would ignore the domestic crises that affect so many states and pseudostates today would have disastrous consequences.


The national interest is not a self-evident guide, it is a construct. It is the sum of the objectives that the policymakers have set. Some of these are indeed imperatives, imposed by the nation’s location on the map of power or by clear threats and needs. But many of the goals that states, and especially the major powers among them, pursue go beyond such imperatives, and result from preferences and choices. These goals are usually controversial. Those who support them cover them with the mantle of the national interest, and those who do not back them argue, like Mandelbaum, that they deal with developments that “could [not] affect the lives of . . . citizens” and thus are not in the national interest. Even during the Cold War, the United States pursued goals that could be connected only remotely to the imperatives of national security and deterrence of the Soviet threat. Mandelbaum presents the invasion of Grenada as part of the Cold War, but does not mention the intervention in Panama, which, of course, took place after the Soviet threat had crumbled. On the other end of the spectrum, the human rights policies that American administrations pursued, in their different ways, in the late 1970s and in the 1980s cannot be explained away as mere tactical moves in the battle against communism.

Great powers pursue both what Arnold Wolfers has called possession goals and what he terms milieu goals. National security deals essentially with the former. But much of foreign policy is concerned with shaping an international milieu that will provide a modicum of order (i.e., reduce the inevitable loads of violence and chaos that an anarchic international system carries) and in which the nation’s citizens will feel not only safe from attack or economic strangulation but, so to speak, morally at home. Among the reasons the opposition between interests and values is a sham are that a great power has an “interest” in world order that goes beyond strict national security concerns and that its definition of order is largely shaped by its values. Many of America’s policies during the Cold War–especially in relations with allies and so-called Third World countries–and many of the institutions and international regimes it helped establish resulted from preferences that could not be reduced purely and simply to the need to resist the Soviet menace or communism.


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