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Two Faces of National Interest

by W. David Clinton

Political Traditions in Foreign Policy Series

280 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / no illustrations

Political Science & Political History

  Paperback / 9780807118955 / February 1994

In The Two Faces of National Interest, W. David Clinton sets out to form a clear definition of a concept that may have become too elastic for its (and our) own good, and to ascertain its utility in the field of foreign relations.

Much of the confusion surrounding the term National Interest, Clinton argues, stems from the fact that analysts and officials use it in two different senses, without defining it precisely or making clear which sense they mean in any particular case. In Part One of his study, Clinton presents a clarification of the two meanings—one, the common good of a society, which necessarily looks inward to the basic principles of the domestic regime; the other a specific claim, which can be supported by justifying arguments, made by the state on other states or the society of states. Clinton lays out the critics’ case against national interest, suggests that his definition meets the objections, and considers the special case of the fit between national-interest thinking and the American diplomatic tradition.

In Part Two, Clinton uses this definition to consider four departures in American foreign policy—that is, significant turns in policy that occasioned reexamination of the requirements of the national interest—since World War II. The preparation of the Marshall Plan and the decision to enter the Korean War both came during the Truman presidency and together did much to define containment; the evolution of the Nixon Doctrine and the Carter policy on human rights accompanied the end of the containment consensus and marked attempts to devise a new roster of asserted interests. Interpreting these events by means of the society’s national interest and the several national interests or claims pressed by it on the international setting, Clinton concludes that the concept of national interest, if used carefully, remains a valuable tool for understanding international relations.

In presenting a balanced treatment of what is sometimes an extremely controversial subject, Clinton addresses an issue largely ignored since Charles Beard and Hans J. Morgenthau. Written with grace and power, The Two Faces of National Interest is an informed, thought-provoking, and authoritative work that will have enduring value as a scholarly and public information resource. 

W. David Clinton is a professor of political science at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is the author of Tocqueville, Lieber, Bagehot: Liberalism Confronts the World and The Two Faces of National Interest coauthor of Presidential Transitions and Foreign Affairs, and coeditor of Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace.

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