Constructing National Interests by Jutta Weldes

Essays | Taavi Linnus | 1-02-2018, 13:35

Constructing National Interests by Jutta WeldesThe Cuban missile crisis in 1962 has probably been one of the most researched international crises in the world. However, in 1996 Jutta Weldes wrote about national interests and the missile crises in a new and refreshing manner: she improved the theory of constructivism regarding national interests and showed how the decisions taken in 1962 were the results of social environment and its reaction to the placement of nuclear missiles on Cuba. The article and the new approach has had a vast impact on the discipline as it improved the existing constructivistic approach to national interests. To this day, it is hard to find an article or book regarding national interests without a citation from Jutta Weldes. Numerous magistrate and doctorial theses have been written based on her research and contribution to the field of international relations and national interests. Although neither Google scholar nor JSTOR offer a lot of reviews on the article, the review (Belkin) that was found, was positive regarding her work. 

Jutta Weldes is addressing the issue of national interest in the field of international relations. The concept has been one of the central theories of international politics, but its analytical usefulness has also been highly contested by other authors as the concept can be considered too general and oversimplified (Weldes, 1996: 1). However, Weldes believes that the national interest is important for two reasons. First, it is through the concept of national interest that policy-makers understand the goals to be pursued by state’s foreign policy. It thus forms the basis for state action. Second, it functions as a rhetorical device through which the legitimacy of and political support for state action is generated (Weldes, 1996: 2). It is because of these two reasons that national interests are so vital to international relations and require adequate theorization. The conceptualization issue in the theory of national interests and is what Weldes is addressing. 

Weldes starts by criticizing the concept of realism as there are three major issues with realism regarding national interests. First, its content – defined as the security and survival of the state – is so general as to be indeterminate. Second, the notion of the national interest rests on a questionable empiricist epistemology which ignores the centrality of processes of interpretation (Weldes, 1996: 4). Realism is too broad, general, vague to explain state action. Political realism deals with the perennial conditions that attend the conduct of statecraft, not with the specific conditions that confront the statesman. As a result, realist analyses of the international system cannot convincingly be related to specific choices in the world of action. The traditional realist conception of the national interest therefore cannot help us to explain the adoption by a state of policies over alternative means for achieving security (Weldes, 1996: 4). 

A third reason is that realist national interest rests upon the assumption that an independent reality is directly accessible both to the statesmen and to analysts. It is assumed that the distribution of power in the system can objectively be assessed and that threats to states national interests can accurately be recognized. The difficulty is that objects and evets do not present themselves unproblematically to the observer, however realistic he or she may be. Determining what the situation faced by a state is, what if any threat a state faces, and what the correct national interest with respect to that situation or threat is, always requires interpretation (Weldes, 1996: 5). The realist approach to international politics, with its assumption that threats are self-evident, cannot explain why particular situations are understood to constitute threats to the state. It therefore also cannot explain why certain actions, ostensibly taken in response to these threats, are in the national interest in the first place (Weldes, 1996: 5).

Weldes states that there is also a major problem with constructivism. It continues to treat states in typical realist fashion, as unitary actors with a single identity and a single set of interests (Weldes, 1996: 6). In Alexander Wendt’s argument, the meanings which objects and actions have for these unitary states, and the identities and interests of states themselves, are understood to be formed through inter-state interaction (Weldes, 1996: 6). However, Weldes argues that the political and historical context in which national interests are fashioned, the intersubjective meanings, which define state identities and interests, cannot arbitrarily be restricted to those meanings produced only in inter-state relations. The meanings which objects, events and actions have for states are necessarily the meanings they have for those individuals who act in the name of the state. And these state officials do not approach international politics with a blank slate on to which meanings are written only because of interactions among states. Instead, they approach international politics with an already quite comprehensive and elaborate appreciation of the world of the international system and of the place of their state within it (Weldes, 1996: 6). 

As noted before, Weldes points out the misgivings of theories regarding national interests. Her article aims to improve the theory of national interests by formulating a new perspective on it. Her main argument is that national interests are social constructions created as meaningful objects out of the intersubjective and culturally established meanings with which the world, particularly the international system and the place of the state in it, is understood. More specifically, national interests emerge out of the representations – or, to use more customary terminology, out of situation descriptions and problem definitions – through which state officials and others make sense of the world around them (Weldes, 1996: 6)

State officials create representations, which populate the world with a variety of objects. Each of these objects is simultaneously given an identity; it is endowed with characteristics (Weldes, 1996: 7). Such representations posit well-defined relations among these objects. These relations often appear in the form of quasi-causal arguments (Weldes, 1996: 8). Their importance lies in their provision of warranting conditions, which make an action or belief more reasonable, justified or appropriate, given the desires, beliefs and expectations of the actors (Weldes, 1996: 8). In populating the world with objects and in supplying quasi-causal or warranting arguments – these representations have already defined the national interest. Interests are entailed in these representations because they follow from the specific identities of the objects represented and the relations posited to obtain among them (Weldes, 1996: 8). In short, representations created by state officials make clear both to those officials themselves and to others who and what we are, who and what our enemies are, in what ways we are threatened by them and how we might best deal with those threats (Weldes, 1996: 9). National interests, then, are social constructions that emerge out of an unavoidable process of representation through which meaning is created. In representing for themselves and others the situation in which the state finds itself, state officials have already constructed the national interest (Weldes, 1996: 9). 

These representations are themselves constructed in a social process with two analytically distinct dimensions labeled articulation and interpellation. Articulation refers to the process through which meaning is produced out of extant cultural raw materials or linguistic resources. Meaning is created and temporarily fixed by establishing chains of connotations among different linguistic elements (Weldes, 1996: 10). In the process of articulation particular phenomena, whether objects, events or social relations, are represented in specific ways and given particular meaning on which action is then based (Weldes, 1996: 11).This essentially means that objects, events and actions are not simply presented to us but their meaning for us is created; it is produced by articulating different linguistic elements so as to create and render persuasive one particular description or set of associations and no other (Weldes, 1996: 10). 

Interpellation refers to a dual process whereby identities or subject-positions are created, and concrete individuals are hailed into or interpellated by them. Specific identities are created when social relations are depicted (Weldes, 1996: 13).Once these individuals identify with these subject-positions, the representations make sense to them and the power relations and interests entailed in them are naturalized. As a result, the representation appears to be common sense and reflect the way the world really is (Weldes, 1996: 13).

The dual processes of articulation and interpellation are of central importance in the construction of the national interest. They already entail national interests. As an example, the author offers the case of Cuban missile crisis in 1962, which was the fight between good and evil. The Soviet missiles in Cuba were represented as offensive weapons, deployed secretively and with duplicity by an aggressive totalitarian state for threatening the U.S. and the Western hemisphere (Weldes, 1996: 16).

However, there are also other interpretations of the events. For example, the Soviet missile deployment could also be understood as a defensive measure designed to protect Cuba from anticipated U.S. aggression. In that way, the missile placement was not considered to be aggressive as was it in Khrushchev’s eyes.  On this view, the U.S. had neither the right nor any reason to seek the removal of the Soviet missile from Cuba (Weldes. 1996: 19). 

A third representation can imagine a strategic narrative which focuses on balance of power between the U.S. and Soviet Union. By that time, the U.S. had a string lead in front of the Soviet Unions in terms of nuclear power. In this view, the Soviet missile deployment might have been understood as re-establishing greater strategic parity between the two superpowers and so as producing a balance of power which was more stable. On this view, U.S. national interests were not threatened because the outcome was a more stable strategic relationship (Weldes, 1996: 20). Second, the Soviet missiles did not change the strategic balance in any significant way at all. Forty more missiles would have made no difference to the overall balance. On this view, the Soviet missile deployment might have been understood, strategically as irrelevant to U.S. national interests since U.S. nuclear and strategic superiority remained intact (Weldes, 1996: 21).   

However, the understanding of the Cuban missile crisis and the U.S. national interest was constructed out of articulations that defined the Soviet Union, the U.S., Latin America, the Western Hemisphere, Cuba, the Castro government and the Cuban people as particular kinds of objects (Weldes, 1996:21). The Soviet Union was articulated as a hostile and expansionary totalitarian state. It was rendered unthinkable that the Soviet Union, by nature an aggressive, secretive and duplicitous totalitarian state, could be acting to defend Cuba. Totalitarians do not protect the weak, they enslave and exploit them. Thus, missile installed in totalitarian states were necessarily understood as offensive (Weldes, 1996: 20-24). 

The U.S. was articulated as a defensive state that does not pursue aggression. The U.S. was idealized as the winner of World War Two and seen as world leader and champion of freedom and democracy (Weldes, 1996: 25). The U.S. responsibility for world leadership provided a warrant for the claim that the U.S. had the legitimate duty to defend and promote freedom and to establish a stable world order. It mandated an activist U.S. response to the missile deployment and to pursue their removal (Weldes, 1996: 26). The orthodox U.S. representation of the missile crises precluded any understanding of crises as brought on either by the American aggression against Cuba or by the American attempt to maintain its already immense strategic superiority. Third the construction of the American world leadership made sense of and legitimized a perilous policy of nuclear confrontation (Weldes, 1996: 27).

As Weldes has pointed out the Cuban missile crisis for an empirical application, I believe that this theory can be applied to most of the cases as it is almost as wide as the realist theory. Representations can be derived from every single event in the world by those who must deal with it. However, the theory most probably has clearer applicability in bipolar cases, where creating representations through articulation and interpellation are easier to come by as in comes down to friend-enemy or black-white comparisons. An example in this regard could be the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII or in the case or the Armenian- Azerbaijan conflict. 

The text related very well to the class session as most of the time went by answering question by other classmates. Most of the energy in class went to discussing about the motives behind Soviet missile placement to Cuba, but some relevant points about the theory were also discussed. The main problem seemed to be that Weldes had written the article at the point when the outcome had already been determined so there remained the question if the theory would be applicable in anopen case. Another question was whether the theory has all that different content from realism. If national interests are derived from representations, then those representations can prioritize national security in the first place and in its essence the theory would collide with realism. 

There are also some major aspects about the theory that do not make sense or are too vague. One of those aspects is that the theory does not seem to be much more concrete than the realism theory. As Weldes points out, one of the biggest issues with realism is that is too general to understand certain state actions. The problem isthat constructivism also offers a rather general solution. Even considering the empirical case of Cuban missile crisis the theory explains why the U.S. had to take an active role and eliminate the missiles from Cuba, but it does not explain why they chose to go for the blockage strategy instead of others. Even the more general realism theory would most probably reach the same conclusion as Weldes did. 

There is also the problem of the way Weldes believes people think. The representation system somewhat assumes that the chain of command among state officials all think alike or at least most of them and reach the same conclusions about some matter at hand due to articulation and interpellation. It seems to be more of a system of artificial intelligence than different human beings. In time-sensible situations the articulation and interpellation factors might have a bigger role in the decision making but to claim that the national interests are already embedded to them, seems to be far reached. The system can most probably work with people who do not think critically and whose educational level is low, but well-educated leaders of states should have the capability to see the bigger picture and not get stuck into the tunnel vision that the theory proposes.  

All in all, Weldes has created a masterpiece that is used all over the world. She has taken the concept of national interest, reinforced its importance and shown another spectrum how to see its origin and how it can alter the decision-making process amongst state officials. She has filled a missing gap in the conceptualization of national interests as the realist theory is too vague to offer any certain conclusions and the constructivism before Weldes was based on false assumptions. Her main argument – that national interests are socially constructed through the process of articulation and interpellation – seems to be able to share light to most of the cases concerning the issue. Weldes’s constructivistic approach also has some flaws. It is also a rather general theory and does not explain certain state action. It is a theory of creating an image of the actors. Another issue is that the theory supposes a tunnel vision for people who are linked to the decision-making process, which makes it all seem artificial. In the bigger picture, Weldes’s work is astonishing and deserves a lot of credit. Even with some flaws, it had the capability of showing things in another perspective.



Weldes Jutta. Constructing National Interests. European Journal of International Relations. 1996.

Belkin Aaron.  Review: Constructing National Interests. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 95, No. 4 (Dec., 2001).


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Taavi Linnus

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