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International Relations: National Interest and the Importance of Natural Rights

Wainwright Clarke

International relations - as recent interventions into Yemen, Libya, and Ukraine prove - are greatly influenced by the vapid interests of policymakers. These interventions have resulted in countless deaths, restrictions on personal freedom, unjust seizures of private property, and overall reductions in the stability of these nations. Modern policymakers, as these results demonstrate, forget that preserving natural rights, rather than pursuing ever-shifting national interests, is the most prudent policy to adopt when engaging with independent nations.

Natural rights, or legal protections of individual entitlements which predate the earliest political communities, include every individual’s right to enjoy life, liberty, and their personal property. Natural rights doctrine also includes a moral component, or a disposition to habitually leave individuals and entities in a better state than upon first encountering them. The moral component of natural rights doctrine is grounded on the principle of consent: all parties to a relationship or agreement must accept that tweaks to that relationship benefit all who are party to it. 

National interest, by stark contrast, includes the socioeconomic, cultural, or political ambitions of a nation’s policymakers. It includes all each policymakers’ curiosities and desires but excludes the principle of mutual consent as a cornerstone of conducting international relations. 

National interest is more subjective than natural rights. Different things interest different people and nation states. It is thus difficult to form productive relationships when every political entity pursues its own desires under the guise of “national interest” rather than finding common ground through the preservation of natural rights inherent to every person and people residing within the international community.

The distinction between policymakers interested in preserving natural rights and those more attracted to pursuing national interests is strikingly clear in Winston Churchill’s short story The Dream. Churchill composes The Dream as a dialogue between himself and the ghost of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who held high office in British politics during the 1880s before dying in 1895. As Churchill describes the progression of British international relations to Lord Randolph, it becomes clear that the unfiltered pursuit of national interests incentivized great abuses within the international community during the 20th century. 

Lord Randolph is shocked to hear that the British Empire conquered and annexed two independent republics in the 1900s: the Orange Free State and the South African Republic. The annexation clearly occurs without the consent of these republics’ inhabitants, as Churchill flatly states that it took 250,000 soldiers and “a shocking drain” on the Empire’s budget to pacify the conquered territory. The British annexation thus ignored the principle of mutual consent, which Lord Randolph seems to hold in higher regard than the politicians of Churchill’s day when conducting international relations. 

Lord Randolph is also horrified at Churchill’s claim that, since Randolph’s death, the British people have constantly warred with other nations. War inevitably results in deaths, subjugation, and restrictions on private property ownership. Randolph understands this, and despairs when Churchill admits that thirty million soldiers and seven million civilians perished during World War II. He sits stunned as Churchill describes the ruin of European buildings and capitols, and that another cataclysmic war between the United States and Soviet Union appears imminent. 

By the end of The Dream Lord Randolph quickly flees Churchill’s presence, as the current state of world affairs created by modern policymakers is too horrifying to contemplate further. It is marked by violations of the equal and independent status of nations, widespread slaughter, abuses of liberty and property, and a lack of hope that international relations will improve by any significant degree.

One can see many modern examples of what Winston Churchill artistically depicts in The Dream. In 2011, U.S. policymakers assisted in deposing Libya’s longtime dictator Muammar al Qadhafi to promote democratic principles in North Africa. These policymakers quickly lost interest in ensuring that the Libyans enjoyed a stable governing arrangement. As of this writing, Libya is more accurately described as a geographic expression than a functioning nation-state. Over 800,000 Libyans require humanitarian assistance, but subnational coalitions within Libya are too busy fighting each other to provide it.

The horrors of the ongoing Yemeni Civil war have been multiplied by Saudi Arabian military operations against the Houthi people. As of mid-2020, 24 million Yemenis required humanitarian assistance, with roughly 20 million teetering on the brink of starvation. U.S. policymakers supported these operations for over six years to strengthen relations with Saudi Arabia. They prioritized national interests over natural rights, and in doing so greatly underestimated the amount of civilian casualties and humanitarian cost of their decisions.

Abuses of natural rights in the name of national interests do not only characterize actions pursued by U.S. policymakers. Russian policymakers are currently committing similar atrocities in Ukraine. No objective analyst has convincingly argued that the Russian invasion into Ukraine was done to preserve the lives, liberties, and property of Russian citizens.

As the historic and contemporary examples above demonstrate, policymakers who pursue national interests without prioritizing the preservation of natural rights are likely to leave the international community in a worse place than when they found it. Preserving natural rights is the ultimate purpose of conducting international relations.

Image: Council on Foreign Relations

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