Rice: Rethinking the National Interest--American Realism for a New World

Rethinking the National Interest
American Realism for a New World

By Condoleezza Rice

From Foreign Affairs , July/August 2008

CONDOLEEZZA RICE is U.S. Secretary of State.

What is the national interest? This is a question that I took up in 2000 in these pages. That was a time that we as a nation revealingly called "the post-Cold War era." We knew better where we had been than where we were going. Yet monumental changes were unfolding -- changes that were recognized at the time but whose implications were largely unclear.

And then came the attacks of September 11, 2001. As in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States was swept into a fundamentally different world. We were called to lead with a new urgency and with a new perspective on what constituted threats and what might emerge as opportunities. And as with previous strategic shocks, one can cite elements of both continuity and change in our foreign policy since the attacks of September 11.

What has not changed is that our relations with traditional and emerging great powers still matter to the successful conduct of policy. Thus, my admonition in 2000 that we should seek to get right the "relationships with the big powers" -- Russia, China, and emerging powers such as India and Brazil -- has consistently guided us. As before, our alliances in the Americas, Europe, and Asia remain the pillars of the international order, and we are now transforming them to meet the challenges of a new era.

What has changed is, most broadly, how we view the relationship between the dynamics within states and the distribution of power among them. As globalization strengthens some states, it exposes and exacerbates the failings of many others -- those too weak or poorly governed to address challenges within their borders and prevent them from spilling out and destabilizing the international order. In this strategic environment, it is vital to our national security that states be willing and able to meet the full range of their sovereign responsibilities, both beyond their borders and within them. This new reality has led us to some significant changes in our policy. We recognize that democratic state building is now an urgent component of our national interest. And in the broader Middle East, we recognize that freedom and democracy are the only ideas that can, over time, lead to just and lasting stability, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As in the past, our policy has been sustained not just by our strength but also by our values. The United States has long tried to marry power and principle -- realism and idealism. At times, there have been short-term tensions between them. But we have always known where our long-term interests lie. Thus, the United States has not been neutral about the importance of human rights or the superiority of democracy as a form of government, both in principle and in practice. This uniquely American realism has guided us over the past eight years, and it must guide us over the years to come.


By necessity, our relationships with Russia and China have been rooted more in common interests than common values. With Russia, we have found common ground, as evidenced by the "strategic framework" agreement that President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed in Sochi in March of this year. Our relationship with Russia has been sorely tested by Moscow's rhetoric, by its tendency to treat its neighbors as lost "spheres of influence," and by its energy policies that have a distinct political tinge. And Russia's internal course has been a source of considerable disappointment, especially because in 2000 we hoped that it was moving closer to us in terms of values. Yet it is useful to remember that Russia is not the Soviet Union. It is neither a permanent enemy nor a strategic threat. Russians now enjoy greater opportunity and, yes, personal freedom than at almost any other time in their country's history. But that alone is not the standard to which Russians themselves want to be held. Russia is not just a great power; it is also the land and culture of a great people. And in the twenty-first century, greatness is increasingly defined by the technological and economic development that flows naturally in open and free societies. That is why the full development both of Russia and of our relationship with it still hangs in the balance as the country's internal transformation unfolds.

The last eight years have also challenged us to deal with rising Chinese influence, something we have no reason to fear if that power is used responsibly. We have stressed to Beijing that with China's full membership in the international community comes responsibilities, whether in the conduct of its economic and trade policy, its approach to energy and the environment, or its policies in the developing world. China's leaders increasingly realize this, and they are moving, albeit slowly, to a more cooperative approach on a range of problems. For instance, on Darfur, after years of unequivocally supporting Khartoum, China endorsed the UN Security Council resolution authorizing the deployment of a hybrid United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force and dispatched an engineering battalion to pave the way for those peacekeepers. China needs to do much more on issues such as Darfur, Burma, and Tibet, but we sustain an active and candid dialogue with China's leaders on these challenges.

The United States, along with many other countries, remains concerned about China's rapid development of high-tech weapons systems. We understand that as countries develop, they will modernize their armed forces. But China's lack of transparency about its military spending and doctrine and its strategic goals increases mistrust and suspicion. Although Beijing has agreed to take incremental steps to deepen U.S.-Chinese military-to-military exchanges, it needs to move beyond the rhetoric of peaceful intentions toward true engagement in order to reassure the international community.

Our relationships with Russia and China are complex and characterized simultaneously by competition and cooperation. But in the absence of workable relations with both of these states, diplomatic solutions to many international problems would be elusive. Transnational terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, climate change and instability stemming from poverty and disease -- these are dangers to all successful states, including those that might in another time have been violent rivals. It is incumbent on the United States to find areas of cooperation and strategic agreement with Russia and China, even when there are significant differences.

Obviously, Russia and China carry special responsibility and weight as fellow permanent members of the UN Security Council, but this has not been the only forum in which we have worked together. Another example has emerged in Northeast Asia with the six-party framework. The North Korean nuclear issue could have led to conflict among the states of Northeast Asia, or to the isolation of the United States, given the varied and vital interests of China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. Instead, it has become an opportunity for cooperation and coordination as the efforts toward verifiable denuclearization proceed. And when North Korea tested a nuclear device last year, the five other parties already were an established coalition and went quickly to the Security Council for a Chapter 7 resolution. That, in turn, put considerable pressure on North Korea to return to the six-party talks and to shut down and begin disabling its Yongbyon reactor. The parties intend to institutionalize these habits of cooperation through the establishment of a Northeast Asian Peace and Security Mechanism -- a first step toward a security forum in the region.