The Enduring Interest Test

By Aaron Bazin

            In the military, we are taught that when we start to plan by conducting a mission analysis of our order from “higher.” From this mission analysis, we are taught to derive our mission, intent, and concept. At the tactical level, this works pretty well and serves to ensure that plans are nested within a larger approach.  However, as one works their way up from the tactical to the strategic level, guidance from higher gets increasingly broad and conceptual. 

At this level, it is common for military planners to become frustrated that political guidance is fuzzy, dynamic, or plain absent.  They also may find it very challenging to develop a campaign plan that synchronizes military activities in time, space, and purpose.  In these cases, the military planner may search tirelessly for the higher guidance they need in various strategic documents, only to realize they are dealing with a situation that is unique or moving so fast that there is no real guidance to be had.  In these circumstances, enduring interests can provide strategic thinkers a valid way to come up with political-military objectives when even the policymakers themselves may be uncertain as to what to do.

Why Enduring Interests?

            When trying to ascertain what should be done in any novel policy situation there are a variety of valid approaches.  One could look at past decisions and apply them to new circumstances, but at the risk of choosing the wrong lesson of history.  One could look deeply into the ideology of those in power, but risk a reversal when the political winds of change direction.  There is one conceptual anchor that one can rely on in novel situations and weather the storm of policy change; enduring interests.

            Thucydides himself identified that fear, honor, and interest where three of the primary driving factors in the decisions nations make.  Also, the idea of enduring interests plays a prominent role in contemporary U.S. national security documents. If we assume that enduring interests are of fundamental importance, then we can use them to help lay the conceptual foundation of our strategic thinking.  Enduring interests have almost an immutable power because they can persist throughout changes of administration, changes in policy, and changes in threats.

The Constitution and America’s Enduring Interests

Enduring interests are one of the most powerful forms of communicating a long-term vision because of their source, the founding documents of a nation.  In the case of the United States, the U.S. Constitution provides critical insights to the enduring interests of the nation:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

 The preamble contains some powerful language that arguably describes the enduring interests of the nation.  First, it discusses values, including the continued striving for perfection in unity, establishing justice, and securing liberty.  Second, it outlines the importance of security in the form of common defense and internal tranquility.  It also alludes to prosperity as an enduring interest when it discusses the general welfare and the blessings of liberty.  Arguably, the U.S. Constitution is the contract between the government and the people and, as such, a source of legitimacy.  If we combine these major areas together, values, security, and prosperity as a source of legitimacy, arguably we can generalize the following simplistic model:

One Model of Enduring U.S. Interests

One Model of Enduring U.S. Interests

An Enduring Interest Test

            To test for the suitability of a military activity, one should be able to tie it to one or more of these interests, let us call this the enduring interest test.  To conduct a brief thought experiment to illustrate how this could work, let us say that we are charged with developing political-military objectives for the 1990-1991 Gulf War.  To craft hypothetical objectives that pass the test, all we have to do is to connect clear connect operational objectives to one of the three categories of security, prosperity, and values, perhaps like this:

·         Defeat Iraqi forces in order to improve security in the region.

·         Maintain the free flow of economic commerce in the region to set the conditions for continued global prosperity.

·         Secure the internationally recognized territory of Kuwait to restore its freedom as sovereign nation.

            By tying operational actions to statements to items of enduring interest we can gain numerous benefits.  First, this sets forth clear logic between our military activities and political outcomes.  Second, the statements provide a clear and obtainable desired state that the military can use to see if it has accomplished what it has set out to.  Finally, it ensures these desired outcomes are congruent with the timeless ideas the nation was founded upon, thereby fostering legitimacy with both internal and external audiences. As complex adaptive systems, strategic problems continually change.  As such, military planners will always have to continually assess and adjust political-military objectives accordingly as circumstances change.


            Of course, this is not really that new of an idea.  As discussed, Thucydides was one of the first strategic thinkers to identify the importance of interests and many have adapted and applied this ideas since then.  In no way does this diminish the fundamental importance of the concept.  The bottom line is that when a nation uses the military instrument of national power it should clearly delineate just how it will further the enduring interests of the nation.

            In describing Stoic Roman philosophy, Marcus Aurelius advised to “Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.”  If you think about it, perhaps we should view enduring interests in this same way.  Ultimately, basing strategic thinking and military planning on the fundamental ideas expressed in the Constitution gives our strategic thinking more gravitas and provides military forces a clearer picture of the target they are aiming for.