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WHAT IS THE AMERICAN NATIONAL INTEREST?

Reading Obama with Onuf

Renee Marlin-Bennett1

With apologies to Jane Austen: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a rational unitary state in possession of power must be in want increasing or at least maintaining that power. At least that is the standard myth that is often uncritically presented in our introductory world politics classes. States, because they are states, have interests that are about getting and maintaining power. They pursue foreign policies that, to the best of their rational2 calculations given the global and regional distributions of power, will help them achieve that goal. This view holds for both neo-realist and neo-liberal takes on the world. The main difference is that neo-liberals are willing to entertain the possibility of foreign policies that are cooperative rather than con- flictual given the right mix of incentives.

“The” national interest is generally presented as an assumption (of course a state wants to pursue power) or a definitional tautology (because states only do what is in their interest, anything they do constitutes their interest). The definitional tautology is often referred to as “revealed preferences” in the rational choice literature, but with either term, there’s an underlying assertion that preferences cannot be determined before practices reveal them.

I would like to suggest, in contrast, that “What is the national interest?” is an empirical question, one that can be answered without resorting to tautology or assumption. I further suggest that we can avoid reifying the interests we expect to see based on our knowledge of the historical behavior of states and the common interpretation of that behavior. In short, it is possible to separate the reasons for foreign policies from foreign policies themselves. In this paper, I do so using an Onufian analysis of a policy speech by President Barack Obama: the 2014 graduate speech at West Point (Obama 2014). The purpose is to use this text as a set of speech acts that reveal reasons for national interest and foreign policy.

The process involves categorizing both the actual utterances and inferring what prior rules would need to be in place to make that which is uttered understandable.

The interpretation of the utterances draws on Onuf’s analysis of speech acts as assertions, directives, and commissives, with rules sometimes emerging.3 The additional steps introduced here are the reintroduction of expressive and declaration speech acts and the conjuring up of prior rules, the rules that the listener needs to accept or at least suspend disbelief about in order for utterances to make sense. To conduct this research, I take a pragmatist approach and intentionally present a possible and plausible interpretation - and emphatically not the only interpretation. I draw on abduction, an approach to drawing inferences that reconciles otherwise perplexing facts by figuring out - imagining - suppositions that might be called “fact candidates” that, if true, would allow us to understand the otherwise perplexing facts as, “a matter of course,” as Peirce puts it. The conjuring up the prior rules is thus part of the abductive method used here.4

The results of the research as described below contradict mainstream expectations about US foreign policy: instead of a foreign policy rationally formulated in response to a national interest based on assessments of power, what emerges is the scenario of US foreign policy responding to strongly held emotions. These emotions are shared among the members of the nation-state (citizens and non-citizens who identify as members).5 US foreign policy makes sense if it is understood as responding to these feelings.

The next section of this chapter provides a more in-depth explanation of the method. I then discuss the data and analysis. The conclusion provides a summary and speculation about the utility of Onufian analysis and abduction for opening up our understanding of global politics.

 
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