Vital Interests

I don't mean to lodge this as a specific complaint about John Edwards, but I was just having a conversation with Spencer in which he said people shouldn't be allowed to use the phrase "vital interests" in Foreign Affairs essays without giving some kind of which interests they see as the vital ones and, ideally, why they're so vital. Then he walked out the door and I read Ari Melber's blog post about John Edwards' Foreign Affairs essay and it contains, at a key juncture, the phrase in question:

There is no question that we must confront terrorist groups such as al Qaeda with the full force of our military might. As commander in chief, I will never hesitate to apply the full extent of our security apparatus to protect our vital interests, take measures to root out terrorist cells, and strike swiftly and forcefully against those who seek to harm us.

The essay is almost 6,000 words long, but Edwards doesn't name any vital interests. In his defense, Barack Obama's manifesto also says that "We must retain the capacity to swiftly defeat any conventional threat to our country and our vital interests" but doesn't say anything about which interests are the vital ones.

And yet, this seems like an important question! Without answering it, these formulae take on a pretty tautological quality. The question isn't would you use force when you thought it was vital to do so, the question is when is it vital to use force? I think this now-meaningless phrase acquired its talismanic powers back during the Cold War when "protecting our vital interests" in some country or region was a thinly veiled euphemism for "not letting Communists take over." That doesn't mean that every statement made about "vital interests" was correct or reasonable, or that preventing a pro-Soviet regime in Angola really was a vital interest, but one at least knew what one meant.

By contrast, when Edwards or Obama talks about vital interests I actually have no idea what they're talking about. You have a very wide range of substantive disagreement as to what our interests are (and, of course, which of our interests are the vital ones) as well as how best to advance them, and I also here people trying to stretch the notion of an "interest" to encompass other kinds of policy priorities like genocide prevention. An essay on the subject of "what I think America's vital interests are" (heck, even a numbered list) would tell us a lot more about where these candidates are coming from than do these essays.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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