Monday, February 27, 2012

America's Vital National Interests

I am taking a class on strategic planning that includes discussions of America's national interests. I was pleasantly surprised at the constitutional view of the national interest implied in the course's definition. From Graham Allison's document America's National Interest.

. . . we subscribe to the sturdy one-line summary of American vital interests, first
formulated in the late 1940s: to “preserve the United States as a free nation with our
fundamental institutions and values intact.” According to this summary America’s vital interests include (1) survival as a free nation with our fundamental institutions and values; and (2) the international conditions required therefor—in current vernacular, to safeguard and enhance the well-being of Americans in a free and secure nation.
However, this definition of vital national interest got me thinking about the words "free nation" and "fundamental institutions." Both concepts require a little more elucidation to be applied meaningfully to future planning. They are also a little slippery when we grapple with them. For example, what it means to be a "free nation" has undergone revision over time. Today, we might not call a nation free that allowed slavery, and only allowed male land owners to vote. By that standard, today's Saudi Arabia, would be considered more of a free nation than post-revolutionary America. Yet, we consider our nation the enduring continuity of that grew from that original revolution and we consider ourselves exemplars of what it means to be free. The same might be said of the concept of fundamental institutions, which has the misfortune of using part of the euphemism once used to describe slavery, "peculiar institution." Just what institutions are considered fundamental in a republic such as ours? Are only the institutions of government fundamental? I feel confident that de Tocqueville would think otherwise. So how does one determine which institutions are fundamental and what freedom means?

I don't have a full answer to the questions of institutions, but the concept of maintaining our status as a free nation seems clear. The freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of the United States form the basis of deciding whether or not we remain a "free nation." The interpretation of these freedoms does change over time, but they are enduring enough to form a stable basis for making a judgement about what is vital to the national interest. This means that the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the limits placed on the federal government in the constitution must be observed. This also has the benefit of restricting the grandiosity of our planning inside the federal government. Regardless of the threat we might face, we must respond within that framework or we are not truly acting in the national interest. This is a deeply political understanding for those of us in the federal government, enshrined in our oath of office.*

With regards to the concept of our fundamental institutions, those can only be inferred by observation. Unfortunately, it seems that the concept as discussed in "America's National Interest" only applies to the institutions of government. Other institutions such as the integrity of the family unit or the web of volunteer organizations that alleviate so many ills of our society, are worthy of protection under the meaning of fundamental institutions. However, it is not up to the government, federal or otherwise, to prop any of them up in any particular form, merely the government should do no harm. It is my belief that the constitution, as originally intended, limits the power of the federal government to do so; but the meaning of those limits have been so stretched that government is intruding into areas where American's voluntary groups have traditionally held sway. Recognizing the practical as well as constitutional limits of government might be a start.

*Full text of federal employee oath of office:
I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

The federal Office of Personnel Management helpfully adds this explanation:
As Federal civil servants, we take an oath of office by which we swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. The Constitution not only establishes our system of government, it actually defines the work role for Federal employees - "to establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty."


  1. Those who line the pockets of their benefactors have shirked the oath of office and responsibility to their constituency. I have also sworn this oath and to see our government is such collusion with their donors is heartbreaking.

    Bdaddy, this was a great post and heartily saddens me.

  2. Dawg, thanks for your comments. I think most federal employees take their oath of office seriously. Appreciate your views on the matter.