Values, interests and security.

I recently attended a discussion about NZ national security that revolved around the relationship between core national values, national interests and national security. That was unusual because, while the interests-security nexus is well-established as an axiom of international relations (“nations have interests, not friends;” “States defend the national interest”), the role of values in defining national interests, and hence national security perspectives and priorities, is much less common. For foreign policy analysts values are problematic because they are subjective: one nation may value something as a priority that another nation does not. The anarchic “state of nature” that Hobbes said was the foundation of international relations is grounded in the absence of shared universal values, on the one hand, and the absence of a superordinate imposition and enforcement entity (the Leviathan) on the other. Moreover, adding values to foreign policy and national security policy-making can bring emotion to what otherwise should be an objective, dispassionate and rational process of assessment and implementation. Even basic costs/benefits analysis struggle when burdened by the weight of values, so for most foreign and security policy makers it is best to avoid adding value judgement to strategic outlooks.

It was therefore interesting to consider values, interests and security as component parts of a whole rather than as distinct albeit related issues. It was also interesting to try and address specific questions that flowed from that holistic conceptualisation, which essentially is premised on the belief that national security is in large part defined by national interests, which in turn are at least in part determined by core values.


So what are NZ’s core values and interests? Can they be and if so how are they incorporated into the concept of “national security?” Should values even factor into security policy?

More specifically, given the fact that NZ’s threat environment is increasingly “intermestic” or “glocal” in nature (where the line between domestic and international, local and global threats are blurred), should national security be considered in a holistic sense that covers non-traditional (aka human) security concerns (climate change, pandemics) that overlap domestic and foreign boundaries but distinguish between existential and peripheral dangers (as opposed to a stricter foreign versus domestic, physical versus non-physical threat dichotomy)? Should “threats” be classified according to their impact on core values as well as interests (since by definition threats are determined by the danger that they pose to strategic interests)? If so and again, what are NZ’s “core” values and interests? Are they distinguishable from each other? Should we separate values from interests in principle or when assessing and responding to threats (as realist international relations theory would have us do)? Or do we prioritise values when determining interests, and hence threats, in some instances but not others?

As a start, we can divide values and interests into what might be called “generic” and “specific” categories. Generic values and interests are those shared by all political communities regardless of geopolitical orientation, ideological persuasion or regime type. These are social peace and economic stability, physical security and territorial integrity. How these are achieved are defined by specific core values: ethno-religious, cultural-historical, secular humanist or born of other ideological conceptualisations of the proper order of things.

Think of the debate between “Asian” and “Western” values that animated discussions about political development at the turn of the past century and which continue to this day. The argument distills into the relative value placed on order versus voice: Asians are claimed to value social order and stability over representation and equality, which are supposedly the preferred values of the West. Needless to say this vulgarises the perspectives of both sides but the point is that values are different because they are subjective and they are subjective because they are culturally grounded.

This is the heart of the “clash of civilisations” thesis. The clash is one of competing value systems. For some countries, preservation of racial or ethnic heritage is a core value. For others it is maintenance of a particular social hierarchy involving a distinctive social division of labour rooted in an ideologically defined conceptualisation of the “proper” society, say, Christian heteronormative patriarchy. Some countries put a premium on their forms of governance or foundational myths. Some place value on individual and collective liberties while others reify social harmony and consensus. The list of specific values is long and broad, and when they come into contact and are juxtaposed, conflict is possible and then security is threatened.

But if national values are different and in conflict, does that means that core interests are at stake? Realists would say no and separate values from interests in security policy formation. Idealists will say yes and mesh values into the definition of national interests and security. Constructivists advocate for the building of supranational institutions that merge national interests (say, via rules-based trade networks) in ways conducive to value harmonization. Organizations like the WTO and WHO were founded on such assumptions but recent history has shown that they were and are wrong, perhaps because they do not account for different value structures, especially if these involve quests for power in pursuit of geopolitical strategies resultant from desires to maintain or achieve international dominance.

In any event, values must be considered when contemplating what is known as the “Second Image:” the domestic determinants of foreign policy (the First Image is the international system as presented to a State actor). Although obvious for understanding comparative foreign policy and strategic perspectives, the question remains whether core values define interests and therefore determine national security perspectives and requirements. A country with a history of violent secession, social division, civil war or imperial subjugation is likely to have a value structure that sees the world through a different lens than a country with homogenous demographics marked by social, economic and political consensus–if indeed the former can see the world through a unified lens. The larger question is whether the Second Image (domestic) factors influencing foreign and national security policy need to be left “at the door” when stepping through the transom into the First Image environment, or whether they can be successfully carried through the transition from the domestic into international space.

Returning to the discussion that I attended. what might be core values that influence interests and security in a small island liberal democracy like New Zealand? Democracy as a social (as opposed to strictly political) construct? Market Capitalism? Welfare statism? Free Trade? Equal rights for all? Freedom of belief and expression? Toleration of difference? Minority representation and voice? Universal suffrage? Governmental transparency and accountability? Where do Maori values, if distinct from those of Pakeha, come in, and if at least some of these are considered to be “core” values, how do they relate to interests and national security?

Given NZ’s colonial and post-colonial history, the question is not straight-forward. It is even harder to answer in larger democracies. For all its pontificating about democracy and freedom at home and abroad, the US has a historical record when it comes to interests and security that belies the often hypocritical hollowness of those words. For all the talk about égalité and fraternité, France has a less than stellar record when it comes to incorporating such values in its approach to the interest-security nexus. The UK–same. And dare we mention Australia?

Then there are the values of other democracies such as the Nordic tier. Do they incorporate values into their definitions of national interest and security? What about assorted authoritarian controlled countries, many of whom have little or no experience with democratic norms and values at the political much less social or economic levels. What might their core values be and do they factor into the construction of national interest and security?

That is why working values into the interests-security nexus is complicated and often problematic. But it is also important for understanding what goes into different foreign and security policy perspectives.

I would be interested to hear from readers on this matter. My interest is two-fold: 1) whether they can be defined and if so what are core values and interests in NZ? and, if they exist, 2) whether those values should be incorporated into conceptualisations of NZ national interests and national security perspectives?

What is certain is that the values-interests-security cloth is a complex weave.

11 thoughts on “Values, interests and security.

  1. Might be too hard, but one take could be that interests relate more to desired ends and values to the way we achieve them. But I can see problems with that.
    Another take could be that interests are informed by our values, but that in any conflict between the two interests will ultimately trump values. Realpolitik in other words.
    Yet another take could be that we should define our values and then define those in turn as our interests. We might be poor and weak and isolated, but we’d be virtuous.
    Ultimately, we have two words for two different but overlapping sets of factors. We need to know what each is and balance them according to the needs of the moment. Inconsistent? Yes, sometimes. Hypocritical? Yes, sometimes. Sensible? Yes, always so long as we look at the factors completely objectively. But that is difficult with interests and even more difficult with values.
    ps. I’m not sure your explanation of constructivism quite gets it. Your description is much closer to liberal internationalism. Constructivists, I think, will argue that you can define and make your own reality, which might include institutions, but might not. (And I’m using memory here rather than a text book.)

  2. Thanks Jim,

    Constructivist theoreticians may think that reality is what one makes of it, but constructivist policy practitioners use a mix of path dependency and critical juncture approaches to international relations in that they seek to create and maintain international institutions that shape and constrain State choices on specific policy issues. Reproduced over time, that institutional framework moulds inter-State behaviour in non-conflictual if not always cooperative ways.

  3. There can be an inherent danger in allowing politicians to unilaterally enunciate “national values.” especially when they create new values that are either out of step with the essential foundation of the society, or are new values formulated on a romantic idealist basis, or are derived from only one specific culture within a multicultural or pluralist society. Them when these values are connected with ‘national security’ those who don’t necessarily have a complete ‘buy in’ with the politician invented ‘values’ can become seen as ‘internal threats’ to the society. For example, those who feel or believe, quite plausibly, that homosexual and transgender behaviours are disgusting, unnatural and inappropriate and should be kept private rather than being publicly promoted can potentially be prosecuted for acting on their own internal values rather than the newly invented ‘values’ that a specific party holding political power chooses to promulgate as the raison d’etre of the state, when this is completely peripheral to the actual fundamental constitution of the society.

  4. William,

    I doubt that any particular NZ government or political party can impose “invented” partisan values on definitions of national interest, much less national security, without a much broader “buy-in” from other parties and society at large. Only with broad consensus in support of it can a value be considered a “core” value. Trying to impose an “invented” partisan or sectorial value on definitions of national interest and security would likely result in election losses, so it is improbable that such would occur. But consider this: Your characterisation of homosexual behaviour is one way of looking at that expression of human sexuality (and confuses transgender identification with sexual preference in doing so), but another interpretation is that support for gay and transgender rights is simply a way of applying universal human rights to those communities in the face of historical discrimination and abuse, much in the way that universal rights have been belatedly extended to minority ethnic and religious communities (and women!) in many countries. That may or may not be considered a “core” value in NZ, but even if it is, the issue is whether what is a “core” value on the domestic front can be incorporated into the definition of national interest and by extension, conceptualisations of national security. I am not sure that it can be, although NZ has a Bill of Rights and supports the UDHR as a cornerstone of NZ foreign policy.

  5. The problem with the clash of civilization is a big part of a moral question in the sense that when we plan for something we are changing things or what ever. We are doing social cohesion theory in the sense of moral values and we ought to be clear on that and we are doing things on the perception of what is right for people to do and we should be clear on that but beyond that I don’t know where all this will go. I think these to intellectual concepts are just to thin to carry us very far into the future.

    We all operate based on instincts and intuitions. I think that most people would agree that the first human instinct is the need to feed and that might clear away a lot of the ideological cover and we may be able to work with ideologies that are diametrically opposed or to clarify your own ideas or whatever. But you’d have yo find that level of moral agreement before we can ask ourselves moral questions about those values that given the way society is structured and given the people actually are then what can we do to adapt better to those moral values.

    That’s just being a reasonable human being whether you’re in a small atomised family unit or in a big area like foreign policy.

  6. William,

    I do not see anything “invented” or particularly obnoxious about the values mentioned in that speech. In fact, they appear quite idealistic and aspirational. That makes me wonder if they can be operationalised into a) a definition of national interests; and b) national security policy (which should not be confused with foreign policy, which is a broader concept).

  7. “should national security be considered in a holistic sense that covers non-traditional (aka human) security concerns (climate change, pandemics)”?

    ? NZ has taken an “all hazards – all risks” approach to national security for the past 20 years, and its public statements are very clear that it worries about “natural hazards, biosecurity events and pandemics” as well as more traditional threats. Most ODESC meetings are about droughts or floods or bovine disease (and this year, pandemics). Which is exactly what you’d expect in a peaceful country.

    I am somewhat surprised that the participants in your discussion were not aware of this.

  8. I/S:

    In spite of the “all hazards” approach, national security continues to operate along the traditional external/internal dichotomy: civil defence (internal), military security (external). The NZDF can be seconded to civil defence duties, as often happens, but its force structure, strategic doctrine, field tactics and procurement policy is predicated on defending NZ from physical attack as well as deploying abroad for a variety of purposes (including peacekeeping and humanitarian relief). The consideration of a more “holistic” approach is in light of the increasingly hybrid nature of NZ’s threat environment. I should have been clearer about that in the post.

    I also should have been clearer that the discussion was more about if and how values can be incorporated into national security policy and not about the role of the military in domestic security matters.

  9. How can ‘values’ be used to influence foreign policy making? Let’s look at one recent example regarding NZ’s relations with India:
    It might be that the ‘values’ component is little more than a cute new way of developing a context to talk about things. But in the end the FM emphasises regional multi-lateral links, trade, investment, education and people-people links, as did her predecessors. Not much different; excepting perhaps that she explicitly promotes intermarriage: “…amongst the Māori community intermarriage has been a pathway to consolidate what we have in common and share the very best of who we are.” The test however, might be in how India responds to this? And do those Maori who marry with Indians understand that in Hindu marriage ceremony, the seven circuits of the fire coals represents a unity for seven lifetimes?

  10. William,

    You have violated the cardinal rule of the blog, which is to stay strictly on topic. You have not done so and the Indian intermarriage weirdness just moved things into full troll mode. It is pretty clear where your opinions/beliefs lie, so this is the end of our conversation. Good bye.

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