Self-interest, national interest and the political leader's responsibility

Joe Gumiensky, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


The two major schools of thought on international relations in the United States are the realists and the internationalists (often called utopians). Both have a long history in Anglo-American thinking on foreign affairs but the internationalists have taken a back seat to the realists since World War II. Internationalists have called for international cooperation in the interests of humanity while the realists have emphasized self-interest and national power. An examination of the formation of the Panama Canal Treaties shows that neither school is adequate in explaining how national interest is defined. Instead, national interest is the result of a more complex political process; According to Aristotle, the supreme virtue of a political leader is prudence. Diplomatic prudence addresses political complexity, because it is a thoughtful balance of the moral and strategic goals of the statesman. The author examines the notion of prudence and its application to international relations.