• Sean Woon

National Interest

This article is part of the Deconstructing MUN: Stance series. Check out the rest of the series below!

Part 1: Definition of Stance

Part 2: National Interest (currently reading)

Part 3: A Model of Stance (coming soon)

Stance is a combination of the foreign policy of a state (derived from its history), the policies proposed by a state, and its delegates (you!) representing the state in the present. - From my previous article: 'Definition of Stance'

Having pretentiously started my second article by quoting myself, it should come as no surprise that this article is going to elucidate the theories of international relations (IR) which lay the foundations for the model I will be introducing in the next article.

I use the term 'model' deliberately here, because at the end of the day, I firmly believe that"all models are wrong, but some are useful". I do not seek to show you how we can explain every single international phenomenon, and there may certainly be outliers.

However, I do hope to help you, the prospective delegate, by offering a framework that can guide your thoughts and research on something which even foreign policy practitioners sometimes have trouble explaining: what do countries ultimately want and why.

The more experienced among you, however, may read this article and scoff, "Isn't stance just a synonym for what the state wants? And isn't what states want simply the national interest? Why waste so many words explaining a concept this obvious?"

That is an excellent question, to which I often reply in training sessions, "Well then, what is the national interest?" The room will proceed to hurl all manners of diplomatic 'goods' at me — sovereignty, good economic ties, freedom from threats — a list that I am sure would make most IR professors smile.

What is the National Interest?

However, I do not think this is anywhere close to an acceptable working definition of national interest. For any Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the trouble comes not when these diplomatic 'goods' are secured, but rather when they need to be traded off against each other.

For instance, say there is a resolution on the floor which strongly criticises certain actions taken by State X, and your country has historically enjoyed good economic relations with State X. However, the criticisms laid out in the resolution align closely to certain principles which your country publicly espouses. To maintain consistency in your country's public image and avoid being perceived as hypocritical, it makes sense for your country to support the resolution. However, is that worth the risk of temporarily harming your economic relations with State X, and therefore create some inconvenience for your country's economic health?

Countries face such dilemmas all the time, and the stakes can be extremely high for more contentious issues like nuclear non-proliferation or One-China policy, to name a few. Furthermore, viewing national interest solely in terms of the external environment limits the scope of analysis we can perform, especially when there exists domestic policy shifts or apolitical developments (e.g. climate change, food security) that can change, sometimes dramatically, the national interest.

Realism (International Relations)

I will aim to show you how to build a model of a country's national interest, and thus stance, by returning to first principles. One of the first conclusive claims we can make about national interest is that it seeks to guarantee the state's survival. Just as what the realist school of IR espouses, the international arena is one of anarchy. There is no one to guarantee the survival of any state. (Note: While I do quote IR theories, I do not mean to say that I wholeheartedly agree with whichever theory is being mentioned, only that the theory has some truth or wisdom in it that we can extract.)

The lack of any world government, or reliable international legal regime, means that states can only rely on themselves to survive (Korab-Karpowicz, 2018). Unlike the confines of national boundaries, where there usually exists a police force with the authority, mandate, and ability to enforce laws as well as stop criminal offenders, a state that wishes to attack another — especially in cases where the latter is disliked by the international community — could quite easily do so without abandon.

The United Nations (UN), unfortunately, hardly counts as a 'world government', because there are certain rules (e.g. the Permanent-5 in the Security Council) built into the system as well as leverages (e.g. funding to UN bodies) which some countries can easily exploit to bend the UN to their will. Countries simply cannot afford to put their full blind trust in the UN to be a fair arbitrator for any and all international issues, not when there are powerful nations wielding enormous influence in the administration of the UN and which may have their own vested interests in these issues.

As a diplomat representing a state on an international platform, every action you take on behalf of your country must ensure that your state's viability is not compromised. This includes food and water security, military security, and sometimes even extends to the health and safety of your population. After all, if a large proportion of your population dies, the state does not rule over very much anymore.

Secondly, as I have hinted at above, the national interest is premised primarily on domestic policies. The government of states (since at least the Renaissance) has been run by individuals either elected and therefore expected to perform well to be re-elected, or installed through non-elected means (monarchies or dictatorships) but nonetheless having to prevent revolt by a dissatisfied populace. This concept is known as performance legitimacy (Dagher, 2018).

All states are therefore always concerned about their domestic affairs before they worry about the international sphere. Naturally, different styles of governance mean that some states might be more concerned with securing cheap imports and increasing commercial opportunities for their citizens, while another might just need to ensure that they do not face any threats of force from another state.

However, all these impacts are still domestically-oriented; no states have ever had a national interest that includes altruistically feeding the world. Even the United States' (US) war on terror was hardly motivated by a pure desire to rid the world of a menace, but rather a desire to assuage its population that something was being done after suffering the humiliation of the 9-11 attacks on home soil. The national interest is thus not any number of diplomatic goods, but basic survivability of the state and its governing officials.

Other Relevant IR Theories

Let us now take a short break from the analysis of the national interest, for I anticipate angry reactions from certain constructivist IR scholars arguing that the state is not a unitary entity that can take on personhood — it is made up of various people with differing conceptions of how it should be run, and fundamentally a social construction. Indeed, that can be true!

The state does not only seek to survive (Walt, 1998) but rather is the sum of all the interests and identities forged by those that run it, past and present. Hence, survivability is more nuanced and does not apply solely to the state. Regimes will often act in ways that allow itself to survive (or be re-elected), and so will state leaders who have personal interests such as being courted by a foreign delegation. Thus, the concept of national interest should definitely be expanded to take these additional factors into account. Nonetheless, as a delegate in MUN, it is usually sufficient to assume that most states are run by competent bureaucracies which would generally prioritise the survivability and interest of the state as a whole.

At the end of the day, good theories must have the power to explain most observations in their field of inquiry. However, this effect is difficult to directly demonstrate for IR theories, as most of these theories consider international engagement between states as an extension of their domestic concerns rather than a goal in and of itself.

Taking a leaf out of neoliberal theory, states are aware that there are substantial benefits to pursuing cooperation and international engagement with other states, and these benefits in turn increase the survivability of their own states.

Small states like Qatar and Singapore are especially aware of their reliance on modern multilateral forums, such as the UN or ASEAN, which usually adhere to the one-state-one-vote system (Fromm, 2019). Without these forums, there would otherwise be little opportunities for small states to engage in productive dialogue with larger regional and international partners, and hence demonstrate how they can add value to their larger counterparts.

Furthermore, states of all sizes have trade agreements and other economic ties as they mutually benefit from having more export bases. These increase the survivability of states by giving states incentives to cooperate (and thus respect sovereign boundaries). Vulnerable states which trade with more powerful countries are somewhat protected by this status quo, as the latter can less afford to antagonise their trade partners without indirectly harming their own economic health.

Of course, this does not mean that all international cooperation is wise or beneficial to the state in question. As Morgenthau writes, the federalist foreign policy of the US in its founding days was an isolationist one — not due to any laziness to craft a coherent foreign policy, but a deliberate calculation by its founding fathers that it required time and space to sort out its domestic affairs. A largely colonialist Europe would also be better off fighting wars to maintain the 'balance of power' across the Atlantic, and consequently be disinterested in meddling with the US' affairs. Hence, the isolationist foreign policy was not accidental, but a product of "hard thinking and hard work" (Morgenthau, 1952).

Having now shown that a working definition of the 'national interest' includes:

  1. A concern for the survivability of the state...

  2. Founded on domestic concerns...

  3. That may require different foreign policy approaches to achieve...

It is now time to turn our attention to how one can infer this national interest, and how this relates to the still somewhat nebulous idea of stance.

What has this got to do with Stance?

Stance is the art of understanding and grasping a country's national interest, and translating that understanding into actionable principles that produce pragmatic policymaking in diplomacy. Returning from the highfalutin world of IR theory, it would be useful at this point to make clear some notable differences between stance in the real world and stance in the simulation we call MUN.

In the real world, stance is not monolithic, but a constantly evolving phenomenon. The directors of foreign policy, such as the Secretary of State or Minister of Foreign Affairs or the Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office, are all individuals with their own worldviews and subjective lenses of viewing the world.

This is supplemented with a global network of embassies and high commissions sending intelligence back, filtered again by innumerable diplomats, and crafted into policies by entire departments. Hence, stance is the amalgamation of institutional knowledge, top-down directives, and fundamental principles that have been adopted by the state itself.

In MUN, you need to be all these people — or at least approximate their thought processes. Furthermore, a degree of guesswork is always in play. One only can see public press releases and past actions of the state, but have no idea how the civil service and principal office holders actually view the situation. As such, a degree of inference is necessary.

Although this article does get a little abstract (as discussions about IR theories tend to be), I hope that it has given you a better understanding of the key principles underpinning national interest. The next article of this series is much more practical. I will be explaining, using a model I developed, how you can employ these key principles to insightfully infer the stance of any country.

Read Part 3: A Model of Stance here (coming soon)

Written by

Sean Woon



Dagher, R. (2018). Legitimacy and post-conflict state-building: The undervalued role of performance legitimacy. Conflict, Security & Development, 18(2), 85–111. https://doi.org/10.1080/14678802.2018.1447860

Fromm, N. (2019). Constructivist Niche Diplomacy. Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-22519-3

Korab-Karpowicz, W. J. (2018). Political Realism in International Relations. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/realism-intl-relations/

Morgenthau, H. J. (1952). What Is the National Interest of the United States? The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 282(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1177/000271625228200102

Walt, S. M. (1998). International Relations: One World, Many Theories. Foreign Policy, 110, 29. https://doi.org/10.2307/1149275


City photography by Noah Sim and Jess Koh.