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Legitimate Pursuit of National Interests

Rate the extent to which various historical events reflect the legitimate pursuit of national interests.

Outcomes References Related Resources

Suggested Activities

Students explore the positive and negative consequences of the pursuit of national interests by determining whether various historical events were motivated by legitimate national self-interest or destructive ultranationalism.

Explore the Treaty of Versailles
Suggest to students that the purpose of a treaty is to establish the conditions for stable and lasting peace in which various sides feel their interests are sufficiently addressed. Lead students through an examination of the Treaty of Versailles to determine whether the failure to create a stable peace was the result of ultranationalism and to speculate whether legitimate national self-interest could have contributed to a more lasting peace. Review the main clauses in the Treaty of Versailles. See Selected Clauses from the Treaty of Versailles (Background Information) for a summary of these clauses. Ask students to rate, from Highly Ineffective to Highly Effective, the treaty's effectiveness in creating the conditions for stable peace. You will need to ensure that students have a sufficient background to World War I and the post-war conditions in Europe.

To meet the diverse needs of learners, consider providing background information or briefing notes regarding the clauses in the Treaty of Versailles.

Explore national interests
Provide students with a brief outline of five competing nations' (Britain, France, USA, Germany, Italy) goals and their leaders' assumptions in creating the Treaty of Versailles. Ask students to complete a chart, similar to the one below, to determine the level of support each country had for a selection of specific clauses. Use a copy of the actual treaty or the summary found in Selected Clauses from the Treaty of Versailles (Background Information) to complete this activity.

Support for the Treaty

–2 = highly opposed to the clause

+2 = highly supportive of the clause








Clause 1


–2 –1 0 +1 +2


–2 –1 0 +1 +2


–2 –1 0 +1 +2


–2 –1 0 +1 +2


–2 –1 0 +1 +2

Contrast self-interest and ultranationalism
Inform students that the leaders of the major powers who negotiate treaties have to "sell" them to their electorate. For example, at the end of World War I people in France demanded that Germany be treated harshly. Ask students to respond to the question, "Does the Treaty of Versailles reflect the triumph of ultranationalism over the pursuit of legitimate national self- interest?" or "Did the victors in the World War I act in their national interests by employing ultranationalist policies?" Suggest that students use the following criteria to guide their decision:

Legitimate national self-interest

  • considers the impact of actions on others
  • seeks win–win solutions where conflict arises
  • objectives reflect global sensitivities.


  • actions taken without regard for impact on others
  • seeks to dominate where conflict arises
  • little or no consideration for global implications.

Direct students to locate their decision on a continuum, from Entirely Legitimate Nationalism to Destructive Ultranationalism, and ask them to provide three evidence-based arguments in support of their decision.

Evaluate various historical events
Invite students to assume the role of a world court judge in determining whether the pursuit of national interests in various historical events reflected legitimate national interest or destructive ultranationalism. Assign student groups a topic showing a nationalist movement or event (see References). Instruct each group to determine whether the event represents an example of the pursuit of legitimate national self-interest or ultranationalism. In making their determination, remind students to consider the criteria outlined above.

Present conclusions
Invite each group to make a presentation on the assigned event. Students should state their conclusion—legitimate self-interest or ultranationalism—with supporting evidence to the class. If needed, review the criteria for an effective presentation.

Extension: Debate the justification for ultranationalism
Invite students to respond to the following question: When, if ever, are the actions of ultranationalists justified? Student responses may take the form of an essay, prose response, journal entry, play or other format of their choice.

Last updated: May 30, 2008 | (Revision History)
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