Original Intent

The National Interest would be a dull periodical if we simply replicated the founding 1985 issue. But despite the charges of some, we remain loyal to its founding principles.

Several weeks ago, at a Cato Institute forum convened to discuss Ethical Realism (co-authored by TNI contributing editors Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman), the former executive editor of this magazine, Lawrence Kaplan, made a point of stressing in his introduction that he had worked at Irving Kristol's The National Interest-implying, as others have also done, that the magazine has undergone some radical departure from its early roots. For some readers, a magazine which stood in large opposition to the foreign policies of the Clinton Administration should have become a cheerleader for its successor-and the appearance in our pages of what might be termed the "loyal Republican opposition" to some of the stances taken by the Bush Administration (not to mention Democratic voices as well) has been taken as a sign that the magazine has "lost its way."

The magazine is now in its twenty-second year of existence, and it would be surprising if over two decades there had not been some evolution and change-in its style, format and personnel. But on my desk there is a well-thumbed copy of the first issue (Fall 1985)-my "editorial lodestone."

Re-reading the first three items that appear in the premiere issue shows to what extent the magazine throughout the years has remained loyal to its founding principles.

"A Note on The National Interest" proclaimed that the magazine would "be characterized as conservative. And so it is, though only in the sense that, these days, the assumptions from which it proceeds are more congenial to conservatives than to anyone else." (emphasis mine).

One of those assumptions-"that the Soviet Union constitutes the single greatest threat to America's interests"-was rendered moot six years later. Conservatives and moderates today continue to debate whether there has been a replacement (Islamic radicalism? China? Iran?). This is one of the areas where the magazine stays loyal to its founding injunction that the "foreign policy of this country can only benefit from such a sustained and open exchange, however sharp the disagreements that may emerge."

But the other two remain very valid-that "the primary and overriding purpose of American foreign policy must be to defend and advance the national interests of the United States" and "for better or for worse, international politics remains essentially power politics."

The second item-the first signed article to appear in TNI-was Irving Kristol's "Foreign Policy in an Age of Ideology"-in which he warned that the "real trouble with American liberal-internationalism is not that it is hypocritical and disingenuous but, on the contrary, that it is naïve and utopian." Two pages later, he identifies the principal task of U.S. foreign policy at that time as to defeat the Soviet Union's messianic ideology "not so that the world can be made ‘safe for democracy' but so that the nations of the world can have the opportunity to realize whatever potential for popular government and economic prosperity they may possess, or come to possess."

Finally, the third item in the table of contents was Robert Tucker's "Isolation and Intervention." Tucker, one of the founding editors (who is now an editor emeritus), questioned-in 1985!-whether promoting freedom ought to be the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. "The issue," he wrote, "is not the value of freedom. Instead, it is what power can accomplish in spreading freedom. It is also whether universalizing freedom is a proper interest of foreign policy. … Conservatives, despite their deep attachment to liberty, should be the first to recognize this."

A final note: Owen Harries' "Neoconservatism and Realpolitik"-the first quarterly (which now appears in the magazine as "The Realist") made a point that we at the magazine continue to stress to this day: not to conflate American foreign policy realism with an "extremely circumscribed and limited notion of realpolitik." He called on readers to ponder the example of Winston Churchill-an invocation that was repeated in the latest "Realist" (September/October 2006)-when Dimitri Simes and Graham Allison rhetorically asked: "What would Churchill do facing a grave threat to his society and way of life? How closely do the president's actions mirror his model?"

The Greeks have the concept of "phronema"-of being in the "mindset" of one's intellectual predecessors (as when this is used in theological settings, of being in the "mindset of the Fathers.") This would be a dull periodical indeed if we simply replicated the TNI of 1985. What is far more important is that we continue the debate and discussion in the "phronema" of the first issue-a charge I think we have more than adequately discharged.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the editor of The National Interest.