Over almost three decades, The National Interest, founded in 1985 by Irving Kristol and Owen Harries, has displayed a remarkable consistency in its approach to foreign policy. It is not, as the inaugural statement declared, about world affairs. It is about American interests. It is guided by the belief that nothing will enhance those interests as effectively as the approach to foreign affairs commonly known as realism—a school of thought traditionally associated with such thinkers and statesmen as Disraeli, Bismarck, and Henry Kissinger. Though the shape of international politics has changed considerably in the past few decades, the magazine’s fundamental tenets have not. Instead, they have proven enduring and, indeed, appear to be enjoying something of a popular renaissance.
Until recently, however, liberal hawks and neoconservatives have successfully attempted to stifle debate by arguing that prudence about the use of American power abroad was imprudent—by, in short, disparaging realism as a moribund doctrine that is wholly inimical to American idealism. This has been disastrous. After the Bush administration’s failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it became abundantly clear that the lack of a debate in Washington was part and parcel of a larger foreign policy failing, which was the refusal to ponder the larger implications and consequences of the promiscuous use of American power abroad. A reflexive substitution of military might for diplomacy, of bellicose rhetoric for attainable aspirations, dramatically weakened rather than strengthened America’s standing around the globe. But today, as Russia, China, and Iran assess and act upon their own perceived national interests, Washington must attempt to understand those nations as they understand themselves.
This is why a return to realism has seldom been more imperative. It is notions of interdependence, the end of sovereignty, and the inutility of power that have all proven wanting in the past decade. International relations was not reinvented in 1989. While it may be an old foreign policy concept, the notion of a national interest is not an antiquarian one. On the contrary, it has never possessed more relevance than now.
What actually constitutes true realism is, of course, an appropriate source of controversy. And so, on both its web site and in its print edition, The National Interest seeks to promote, as far as possible, a fresh debate about the course of American foreign policy by featuring a variety of leading authors from government, journalism, and academia, many of whom may at times disagree with each other. But it is only out of such disagreements that dogmas can be dispelled and clarity about America’s proper aims achieved. By contributing a vital stimulus towards fashioning a new foreign policy consensus based on civil and enlightened contention, The National Interest seeks to serve this country’s wider national interest.