My latest article in Canadian Business  has stimulated discussion about the concept of national interest,  a term that has been widely used in international relations after the Second World War to help explain why countries behave the way they do.  The concept is based on the premise that the primary goals of all states are survival and security.  To achieve these things, countries must pursue wealth, economic growth and power.  Mao may have thought that all ”power came from the barrel of a gun,” but for most countries , national interest is more subtle than this.  It is a careful construction of economic, diplomatic and military policies and is rooted in the belief that nations (just like people) act out of self interest.

The French called national interest “raison d’être” – reason of the state.  There is a school in international relations called realism which tries to predict the behaviour of nations based on the concept of national interest.  Central to realism is the belief that injecting morality and values and sentiment into a country’s national interest causes reckless commitments, miscommunication, and an escalation of conflict.

So, what does this have to do with Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver’s open letter on the Northern Gateway pipeline project?

As a middle power with a large geography but relatively small population, Canada can best achieve  its national security through collective security.  That is why we are part of NATO and NORAD.  That is also why we buy the same jet fighters as our allies (so we can operate within a unified command).  If we wanted to go our own way to defend our sovereignty, we would need a thousand planes, but by relying on a collective security arrangement, we only need 75 because we can count on NATO  to help if we are under threat.

Economically, we punch above our weight.  We are the world’s 11th-largest economy with one of the world’s highest standards of living.  Developing and marketing  high-demand commodities such as oil is pretty clearly in Canada’s national interest. The oil and gas sector generates an enormous amount of direct and indirect tax revenue which government uses in turn to finance everything from infrastructure to equalization. So, against the standard of government‘s responsibility to generate wealth, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s rejection of Kyoto and Joe Oliver’s strong support for the Northern Gateway pipeline are no brainers.

The surprising thing is that most observers of public policy miss the clarity of what Mr. Harper’s government is doing.  Part of the reason is that politicians generally don’t like to be so naked in explaining their actions in terms of national “self“ interests.  They love to cloak policy in high-sounding rhetoric. That is why the Chrétien government signed Kyoto in the first place: for reasons of political sentiment, it felt that it had to support a clean air treaty. But that government’s subsequent actions underscored where Canada’s real interests lie.  It did not put a comprehensive  regulatory regime in place to actually implement Kyoto.  (The Conservatives have occasionally fallen victim to the same behaviour . Their explanation  for the acquisitions of the highly expensive F35  fighter jets, for example, had nothing to do with Arctic sovereignty, as they claimed, and everything to do with collective security.)

The tendency to resort to spin to justify policies that are in the national interest can be unhelpful because these arguments are usually shown to be weak and then only contribute to public cynicism.  Environment Minister Peter Kent ‘s explanation for pulling out of Kyoto was a pretty clear declaration of our national interests. Joel Oliver defence of Northern Gateway by playing up the involvement of U.S. interest groups in the setting of Canadian policy was, on the other hand, quickly shown to be inconsistent with Canada’s own efforts to promote the Keystone pipeline in Washington. Why not just make the case for Gateway in terms of the very obvious enhancement of our national interests?

The concept of national interests is a useful way of being transparent about why governments behave the way they do. If politicians expressed their actions in terms of the country’s self interest, there would be more believability and understanding of their actions.