H. W. Brands
No concept in the history of American foreign policy has been more contentious than the "national interest." Both words in the phrase are troublesome. "National" implies something the entire nation can rally around; hence, the phrase often serves as a summons to patriotism. To oppose, or even question, the national interest pushes the opponent or questioner perilously close to sedition or treason. As for "interest," few terms are more elastic. The inhabitants of any country would have to be dull indeed not to be "interested" in much that goes on in the world; the inhabitants of a powerful, ambitious country like the United States can expand interests almost ad infinitum. Complicating the matter further is the fact that definitions do not necessarily the national interest make. What actually is the national interest is for history to determine. And even history does not always get it right.
For every country, national interest starts with safety of the national territory; for Americans, the arguing started just past that irreducible minimum. And it started early.
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Beard, Charles Austin, and G. H. E. Smith. The Idea of National Interest: An Analytical Study in American Foreign Policy. New York, 1934.
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Brands, H. W. The Devil We Knew: Americans and the Cold War. New York, 1993. What we thought, why we fought.
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Weinberg, Albert K. Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History. Baltimore, 1935. A classic.
Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Rev. ed. New York, 1962. By the father of Cold War revisionism.