Do states have permanent interests?

Everything is in flux. As Gartzke and Weisiger (2013) argue, change is constant, but it isn’t a constant (Gartzke & Weisiger, 2013: 2). The international system, if one sees it as in anarchy or some form of order, is still subject to change. The reason for this is that the world in which the system finds itself is changing, physically, and its members are changing, shifting their influences over the system and sending ripples across it.

Lord Palmerson (1784-1865) argued that while nations cannot expect to have permanent allies, they do have permanent interests. According to Gartzke and Weisiger, this quote is fundamentally to do with the topic of relations in world politics (Gartzke & Weisiger, 2013: 2). In this regard, we can determine intuitively and based on historical evidence that Lord Palmerson is right – nations don’t have permanent friends or relations. After World War 2, Germany and Japan became friends with the United States, after being bitter enemies (Panganiban, 2017). Conversely, while the Soviet Union was on amicable terms with the United States during World War 2, the Cold War followed and the nations became rivals (Rothkopf, 2009). From these, we can see that relations are not fixed. As such, that approach does not warrant further imvestigation. Rather, this essay seeks to focus on the second part of Lord Palmerson’s much uttered quote – that nations have permanent interests. Permanent interests will be defined as a national interest that has persevered throughout the nation’s existence as an international agent. The importance in understanding the national interest is that it provides a justification for the actions of a nation.

This essay will be approaching this aspect of Lord Palmerson’s quote by examining the nature of national interest, the nature of the state and then applying this theory to the case of South Africa and its shifting political landscape.

This essay will ultimately find that nations have neither permanent friends nor permanent interests. Nations are in constant flux and, while may exhibit similar interests and friends over the course of their existences, these are not set in stone and can change across regimes and situations.

National interest is often spouted as a concrete and worthy principle. Unfortunately, it is also quite ambiguous in its nature. This has led to problems. As a principle, many have justified the actions of their nations based on the national interest. Danielle Chubb (2014) argues that national interest has become a term used to justify almost any action without debate (Chubb, 2014). Dinesh (2016) argues that national interest simply refers to the goals which nations are working towards and that that makes it a very ambiguous concept (Dinesh, 2016). Charles Lerche and Abdul provide a somewhat less ambiguous definition, defining it as the long-term continuance of the purpose of the state (Dinesh, 2016). The Brookings Institution goes along the same lines, defining it as security and well-being (Dinesh, 2016). Morgentheau argues that national interest is inherently about survival and identity. He splits identity into the physical (territory), political (the system, regime) and cultural values (Dinesh, 2016). Along these lines, Morgenthau (1949) argued that the United States’ national interest was to advance liberty internationally (Morgenthau, 1949: 209). This seems to tie in with a defence of all of Morgenthau’s identities. A global system that upholds a similar ideology will ensure territorial security, that the local political system won’t be overthrown and that cultural values will, for the most part, be defended.

Morgenthau’s explanation seems like a good framework for determining national interests. Overall, national interest does appear to be based around survival. But survival, especially if you take into account Morgenthau’s criteria, is complex and can take many forms. Intuitively, it makes sense that survival of the nation itself is a goal, but much can be sacrificed while maintaining survival. Nations, as will be discussed in the case study on South Africa, have acted like patsies before and sacrificed much of their economic and even physical security. But this may be a problem with implementation rather than interests. The real question surrounding the national interest is who gets to determine it. Is it determined by scholars imposing normative standards on nations? Is it determined by mere assumption of what a nation ought to do? Or should it rather be thought of as the genuine goals of the foreign policy makers in charge? The former contentions would allow for a fixed and permanent interest, but ignores the reality of goal-forming. Survival is a nice and vague assumption, but is too broad and too unwieldy. In examining international politics, it could even be seen as inaccurate, as nations seem to act against their own survival with foolhardy moves and policy. What is clear in determining the source of the national interest is that we cannot look to lofty, ivory tower ideology to determine it. The source of national interest is the people on the ground.

This essay contends that national interest is not fixed, or even wrought from the nation itself. In the vein of Robert A. Heinlein’s science fiction novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, states and nations should be viewed as merely collections of “self-responsible individuals” (Heinlein, 2015: 79). Succinctly: nations and states don’t have interests. They, for practical purposes, don’t exist. They are abstracts. Saying that a nation can have interests is the equivalent of saying that ideology has an interest. While we may personify the abstract and give it interests, it doesn’t truly hold these. We are just projecting our wishes upon it. So, when a scholar claims that the interest of the nation is X, what they actually mean is they think that the abstract collective of ‘nation’ should be interested in X. That doesn’t make it so. For something to have an interest, it needs to be an agent. Nations, as Heinlein’s character suggests, are not agents. As a collective abstract, nations are made up of humans, who are agents. As such, interests of the nation are determined by its member agents. This means the rulers and policy makers.

Simply, nations are inorganic and thoughtless. They cannot have interests. Rather, interests are determined by the rulers/policy makers. Nations as abstracts can outlive their rulers, but the helm is always under the control of a human agent, who determines its interests. Perhaps, the new helmsman maintains the old course and interests remain the same, but we cannot ignore the very real possibility that a new ruler may shift the entire interest of the nation according to their whims.

These interests can be shaped by a variety of factors – historical context, environment, neighbours, and more. But above all, they are determined by the leadership, who will always add a touch of human psychology to what many scholars wish would be a mechanical decision.

As such, this essay puts forward a case study on the shifting interests of South Africa, with the truisms that nations are run by people and that these people change.

South Africa demonstrates explicitly the shifting of interests of a country as its rulers and context changes. Henceforth, pre-1994 South Africa will be referred to as ‘Old SA’ and post-1994 will be referred to as ‘New SA’. The case of Old to New SA allows scholars to study a sudden observable shift in the leadership and policies of a nation, so to assess if permanent interests remained or not. Laura Nathan (2005) argues that while implemented foreign policy did change post-1994, this doesn’t necessarily mean interests changed (Nathan, 2005: 362). Broadly, the abstract idea of survival of the nation may have remained, but the form of this survival and the approach to achieve it changed dramatically. Analysing this in the broad context of Africa, one cannot see survival of the nation as an omnipotent interest. Colonial Uganda’s national interest of survival would have been as a colony to the British Empire, while post-colonial Uganda’s national interest of survival would have been as an independent state. The nation, even if referring to just one, changes. This is very much relevant to the South African case, whereby a white-dominated authoritarian state was replaced by a multiracial democracy. Both had highly differing national interests and approaches (that will be explored chronologically in the next section), but both were informed heavily by the domestic.

A.F Cooper (1998) argues that South Africa is a good case study to see how the domestic influences international policy (Cooper, 1998: 732). The domestic ideology, what Morgenthau would call the political identity, does form its own interests. Maintaining itself is one, but that takes many forms. Apartheid sought a form of radical independence from the global economy and system (Cooper, 1998: 714), while New SA sought to open up in an effort to contradict the goals of the former regime (Cooper, 1998: 707). Geldenhuys (1984) expands on this point by arguing that external influences were counterproductive and negligible compared to domestic influences in the Old SA’s policy-making (Geldenhuys, 1984: 430). These domestic influences could be seen in the Soweto Uprising and rising dissent against the domestic system (Spence, 1978: 418). The domestic interest of crushing dissent and maintaining the status quo translated into a national interest of looking to South Africa’s neighbours to ensure the survival of the political system. In this case, it took the form of an ideological war, whereby South Africa framed its national interest in terms of fighting Communism (Spence, 1978: 424). New SA has moved away from this and under, primarily, Mbeki, sought regional integration (Cooper, 1998: 718).

Even within New SA, the individual preferences and leadership styles of post-1994 presidents have shown shifts in South Africa’s foreign policy, as the ruler dictates the new national interest. What follows is a timeline of the shifting national interests and approaches of each phase of South Africa’s shifting national interests. This section has been separated into Old SA, Mandela’s Orthodoxy, Mbeki’s Renaissance and Zuma’s Fiefdom.

Old SA was characterised by internal and external restrictions, dominated by a security complex. The national interest of the time was very much maintaining security, from internal and external threats. Resource extraction was constructed around maintaining this security complex (Cooper, 1998: 708). The commanding heights of the economy were kept under control of parastatals to ensure that the government maintained economic control (Cooper, 1998: 720), while pretending that they weren’t socialists. The regime’s national interest in dealing with the external was to defend their orthodoxy. This can be seen in its treatment of military and economic affairs. The state was very protectionist (Cooper, 1998: 720), not wanting to rely on foreign trade in any way, lest it influence their cultural and political independence. In this way, the national interest cannot be merely seen to be security itself, for that is the interest of all rational organic beings. Rather, security is a means to achieve a more substantive national interest – the preservation of a political system and ideology that has this privilege only due to the personal views of the policy makers of the time. Protectionist policies were costly and led to inefficiency (Freytag, 2011: 3), and were thus not conducive to maintaining a security complex. Rather, protectionism was an ideological goal in itself. The Old SA regime desired economic independence, so to never have to fear the avarice of foreigners. This is security in its own way, and perhaps just a unique way of expressing it, but the evidence was clear that protectionism was not aiding in securing the nation. James Jude Hentz (2000) argues along these lines, that Apartheid-era liberalisation was actually counter to the policy maker’s national interests, and was more a form of “exit strategy” to weaken the next regime (Hentz, 2000: 203-206). In this way, Old SA shows how the personal ideologies of policy makers infect the foreign policy and formulate the national interest.

Mandela’s foreign policy was seen as a famous support for human rights internationally. He said so himself, stating: “Human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs” (Mandela, 1993: 88). In practice, Nathan argues that South Africa lacked genuine foreign policy during Mandela’s tenure, rather only reacting to problems than formulating overarching principles (Nathan, 2005: 361). This doesn’t mean there wasn’t a national interest. It just means that implementation was difficult. As a determiner of the national interest, Mandela’s stated goal of advancing human rights needs to be taken seriously so long as he was President. Of course, things don’t always work out. While the regime had changed, many Old SA civil servants were still working at the Department of Foreign Affairs, infecting New SA foreign policy with a more spontaneous and unprincipled view of foreign policy (Nathan, 2005: 361). Stated, at least, the desire to expand human rights abroad was a very liberal approach, departing from Apartheid’s Realist-centric national interest of security. Mandela’s foreign policy, above all else, was characterised by a desire to attain external validation (Cooper, 1998: 709). While Old SA sought isolation, Mandela’s South Africa desired to belong to the global community. While both can be seen as two approaches to the same broad national interest of security, this is petty. We cannot attribute everything to a single goal of self-preservation, a very unscientific claim due to its un-falsifiability. Every possible national interest can be linked to self-preservation somewhere along the lines. Thus, to bring some form of meaning to this debate, national interests need to be examined separately.

Mbeki is ultimately remembered, internationally, for his idea of an African Renaissance. Mbeki demonstrates the twin phenomenon of secret motives and stated agenda. On the face of it, Mbeki was an Africanist, seeking to uplift Africa politically and economically (Nathan, 2005: 362-363). This hypothetically involved regional integration and a support of African nations. Implementation, however, can often reveal the true national interest. On the face of it, Mbeki was much more prudent in his diplomacy than the heavy-handed approach of Apartheid and the haphazard method of Mandela’s tenure (Nathan, 2005: 364-365). Mbeki’s prescribed national interest was much more selfish than his predecessor’s in practice. While regional integration was a stated goal, it was never really pursued (Nathan, 2005: 366). Trade with fellow African countries was limited, as Mbeki rather sought richer trading partners to enrich the country (Nathan, 2005: 366). In addition, border restrictions and xenophobia being allowed to run rampant did not give any credence to Mbeki’s stated Africanism (Klotz, 2000),: 840-843). Mbeki’s national interest was very much based around economic enrichment for South Africa andm particularly, the rising black bourgeoisie (McKinley, 2004: 361-362). McKinley (2004) argues that Mbeki’s conduct in Zimbabwe reveals his real agenda – not Africanism, but the enrichment of South Africa (McKinley, 2004: 358-362). What is also revealed in the Zimbabwe Crisis and South Africa’s response is the influence of ideology on policy, once again. While often seen as ‘Quiet Diplomacy’, Mbeki’s conduct was not quiet at all (McKinley, 2004: 367). Mbeki did not want to be seen as a colonial shill, so sided with Mugabe and even aired support for his land reform project (McKinley, 2004: 368). In this way, ideology again presents itself as a prime factor in determining foreign policy and infecting the national interest.

Mbeki’s national interest departed from Old SA in that while wealth was a means to power for the Old SA strategy, Mbeki’s national interest is wealth (Cooper, 1998: 723). Rather than mere preservation of the state, as some scholars would like to believe is the only national interest, Mbeki’s national interest was economic enrichment.

Incumbent president Jacob Zuma’s national interest further proves the point of this essay – that the national interest is merely an externalisation of the personal agendas of the ruler. Unfortunately, formal academic work on the current president is limited, so we must rely on journalistic investigation and commentary. A common mistake that commentators make about Zuma is the presumption that there is an external national interest that Zuma is failing to fulfil. It is true that Zuma isn’t fulfilling the academic interests of those determining how to attain a prosperous South Africa, but that doesn’t mean he’s failing the national interest. As President, Jacob Zuma has a profound influence over foreign policy. He sets the national interest. Zuma’s national interest is personal enrichment. This can be garnered from his relationship with the Guptas, his patrimonialism and corruption. Zuma’s national interest is a subservience of South Africa to the Zuma clan. I argued this point in an article last year, where I contested that Zuma should not be seen as incompetent, as his real goal is personal enrichment, which he is achieving (Woode-Smith, 2016). Seeing Zuma’s national interest as personal enrichment, and self-preservation, allows us to shed light on foreign policy decisions such as the decision to leave the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC presents a threat not to national security, but to the interests of the rulers, as prosecuting dictators threatens leaders with questionable track records. Mills Soko (2016) argues that Zuma’s foreign policy is ‘muddled’ (Soko, 2016). Rather, I believe it is congruent with his real agenda. Increased solidarity with questionable leaders is building alliances with similar leaders, while appeasing the Chinese and other countries is to maintain patrimonial networks and escape routes.

In this way, Zuma’s national interest is fiefdom. The foreign policy of the country, when it is consistent at all, is based around enriching the president and keeping his head off the chopping block. This means moving away from relations with states that question his corruption and embracing networks that mean more money and less scrutiny.

Nations don’t exist. Well, sure they do. They are abstract collective entities. But as a substantive agent, nations are as real as ideology. As such, national interest cannot be garnered from them. Rather, we gain national interest from the rulers. This essay has established this through studying the case of South Africa. South Africa is a valuable case study, as it allows us to investigate multiple leadership regimes one after the other, comparing them, as well as to see how much the domestic influences the national interest. Overall, the case of South Africa and a logical study of the concept reveals that nations have neither permanent friends nor permanent interests. Scholars may continue to impose their own ideals on nations, but that will not change the fact that even as democracies, rulers still set the agenda of their kingdoms.


Chubb, D., 2014. The ‘national interest’ is a figleaf to avoid debate. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 13 October 2017].

Cooper, A.F., 1998. The Multiple Faces of South African Foreign Policy. International Journal, 53(4), 705-732.

Dinesh, 2016. National Interest: Meaning, Components and Methods. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 10 October 2017].

Freytag, A., 2011. Cummulative Costs of Trade Protection in the South African Economy. [Online] South African Institute of International Affairs: South African Institute of International Affairs Available at: [Accessed 14 October 2017].

Gartzke, E. & Weisiger, A., 2013. Permanent Friends? Dynamic Difference and the Democratic Peace. International Studies Quarterly, 29 January. 1-35.

Geldenhuys, D., 1984. The Diplomacy of Isolation: South African Foreign Policy Making. Foreign Affairs, 63(2), 430.

Heinlein, R.A., 2015. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Hentz, J.J., 2000. The Two Faces of Privatisation: Political and Economic Logics in Transitional South Africa. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 38(2), 203-223.

Klotz, A., 2000). Migration after Apartheid: Deracialising South African Foreign Policy. Third World Quarterly, 21(5), 831-847.

Mandela, N., 1993. South Africa`s Future Foreign Policy. Foreign Affairs, 72(5), 88.

McKinley, D.T., 2004. South African Foreign Policy Towards Zimbabwe under Mbeki. Review of African Political Economy, 31(100), 357-364.

Morgenthau, H.J., 1949. The Primacy of the National Interest. The American Scholar, 18(2), 207-212.

Nathan, L., 2005. Consistency and Inconsistencies in South African Foreign Policy. International Affairs, 81(2), 361-372.

Panganiban, A.V., 2017. No permanent friends or enemies. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 10 October 2017].

Rothkopf, D., 2009. America’s worst allies: friends we could’ve lived without. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 13 October 2017].

Soko, M., 2016. Zuma’s muddled foreign policy. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 14 October 2017].

Spence, J.E., 1978. South African Foreign Policy: Changing Perspectives. The World Today, 34(11), 417-425.

Woode-Smith, N., 2016. Jacob Zuma IS a political genius. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 13 December 2016].