We in Pakistan are repeatedly told that decisions taken by the government will always be in the greater national interest.

Whether it is trade with China, relations with India, Afghan policy, or dealings with the United States, ministers, generals, and other government functionaries continuously inform us that pursuing Pakistan’s national interest is of paramount importance.

In and of themselves, statements of this kind are not surprising. As ‘realists’ would point out, all states put their own interests before those of others, and will utilise any and all means at their disposal to achieve them, even if success comes at the expense of others states and people. This, in turn, is simply a function of the anarchic structure of the global order; in the absence of an overarching authority possessing both the legitimacy and capacity needed to discipline states and ensure their compliance with international norms and law (whatever those might be), states are essentially free to do as they please given the power and resources at their disposal, as well as the constraints and opportunities imposed and provided by other states. Seen this way, states that do not put their own interests first simply leave themselves open to the predations of other, less scrupulous competitors.

This particular view of international relations is often countered by pointing out how trade, ideological norms and predilections, and the existence of cross-cutting and mutually beneficial interests and objectives can lead states to cooperate and work together for some kind of greater good. This is all correct but, as the case of Pakistan amply illustrates, it may also make sense to critique the concept of ‘national interest’ by focusing on precisely how this comes to be defined. Indeed, while the existence of something called the ‘national interest’ is largely taken to be obvious, very little attention is paid to the question of precisely who is involved in determining what this is, and the process through which such determinations are made.

At a purely procedural level, it might make sense to begin with the assumption that state elites, drawn from relevant government departments, play the most important role in shaping the trajectory taken by a country in terms of domestic and foreign policy. In democracies, the bureaucrats involved in policymaking will coordinate with, and usually be subordinate to, ministers and other elected representatives who, as members of parliament, might reasonably be expected to articulate a policy agenda that is in line with the aspirations and inclinations of the electorate. In developed democracies, therefore, it could be argued that the national interest is ultimately derived from a participatory democratic process in which citizens and their representatives play a fundamental role in determining state policy. That this is not always the case – as demonstrated by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by the US and UK despite tremendous domestic opposition – does not invalidate the idea that democratic governments should ideally take the will of the people into account when making decisions.

While Pakistan is formally a democracy, it is an open secret that the civilian government has little, if any, control over foreign policy and matters related to internal security. In these two policy domains, it is widely recognised that the military establishment plays a dominant role in determining precisely how Pakistan navigates its international relationships and deals with the various internal threats to its wellbeing. The military’s role in policymaking is one of the legacies of decades of authoritarianism, and is reinforced by the propagation, over time, of the idea that the military alone possesses the integrity and expertise required to be the arbiters of what is or is not in the national interest.

Militaries are not supposed to be organisations that are inclined towards diplomacy or even a relatively benign view of the world. The entire rationale for their existence is the possible threat of conflict with other states, and the foundational assumption militaries make is that the world is a hostile place. This, paired with the kind of ‘realist’ view of the world described above, is what arguably leads the Pakistani military to insist on, amongst other things, the notion that the threat posed by India is constant and unceasing, that continued involvement in Afghanistan is necessary to prevent Pakistan being encircled by hostile foreign states, and that continuing support for anti-India (but supposedly pro-Pakistan) Islamist militant groups is necessary to counter India’s conventional military superiority.

The paranoia inherent to this worldview is hardly surprising, coming as it does from an organisation that is designed to expect, and prepare for, the worst. Problems arise, however, when this becomes the only worldview on offer, and alternative perspectives are simply ignored or dismissed. The enmity between Pakistan and India might necessitate taking protective measures, but that does not automatically mean that conflict between the two states should be seen as inevitable, or that any attempts at forging peace through diplomacy and trade should automatically be eschewed in favour of an approach that supports confrontation.

In response to recent statements by the US condemning Pakistan for its role in the Afghanistan conflict, as well as a declaration by the recently concluded BRICS summit which designated Pakistan-based militant groups sympathetic to the Kashmiri cause as being terrorists, various official spokespersons in Pakistan have mouthed the usual platitudes – Pakistan has suffered tremendously at the hands of terrorists, has done more to fight them than any other country, and continues to suffer due to the machinations of hostile foreign powers. What is still not acknowledged, however, is that Pakistan has supported militant groups in the past and arguably continues to do so today. Even more disheartening is the apparent refusal to admit that the damage wrought by these groups and their ilk within Pakistan has been far more destructive than any plots hatched on foreign soil, and that Pakistan’s descent into religious intolerance and bigotry can be attributed in no small part to the sympathy and support that has historically been given to the most reactionary and violent elements of society. If this is what it takes to protect the ‘national interest’, perhaps it is time to revisit precisely what that term means.