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Over and Out

Over and Out

Mini Teaser: Owen Harries announces his retirement as The National Interest's editor.

by Author(s): Owen Harries

With this issue of The National Interest--the sixty-fourth--I am retiring as its editor. I arrived in Washington, DC in 1983, a displaced Welsh-Australian knowing hardly a soul in the country let alone the city, and having just finished a seven-year spell working for the Australian government. In little over a year, and with only a very modest experience in the editing business to recommend me, I was invited to launch and run an ambitious new foreign policy magazine. As they say, only in America.

The initiators and risk-takers in this venture were Irving Kristol and Michael Joyce, who was then just taking up the position of CEO in the recently formed Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. I am profoundly grateful to both of them for what turned out to be the most enjoyable and rewarding job of my life. Their only concession to caution in placing their bets on someone who was, literally, a rank outsider was to persuade Robert Tucker, a distinguished scholar and commentator in the field of international relations, to become co-editor. He was meant, I believe, to provide what the cricketing English refer to as a "safe pair of hands", should I prove to be too erratic. A co-editor arrangement can be tricky, but this one worked fine during the four years it was in place.

The National Interest was conceived not as a journal but as a magazine, not as an academic publication but as an intellectual one, not as a disinterested voice but as a committed one. Although our main focus of interest was to be foreign policy, we interpreted the subject broadly and were interested in, among other things, the history of ideas, religion, novels and poetry, anthropology, military history and movies. We wanted good clear writing and a minimum of jargon. We dispensed with "peer review" and trusted our own judgment. We tolerated footnotes reluctantly, though we have steadily given ground on this over the years.

In our opening editorial--and indeed in our choice of name--we made it clear that the disposition of the magazine would be a realist one: that is, that it would respect the primacy of self-interest as a motive, and of power as a means, in an international system that lacked a polity. As for our commitment, we were unapologetic cold warriors who firmly believed that America's opponent in that protracted conflict was indeed an evil empire. The year that The National Interest was launched was also the year that Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as Soviet leader, but the Cold War was still very much a going concern. The Soviet army was fighting a vicious war in Afghanistan, while the struggle to get Pershing missiles into Germany and the shooting down of the civilian South Korean Boeing 747 by the Soviet air force were still fresh in the memory.

Truth to tell, though, while the issues at stake in the Cold War continued to be of the utmost importance, by the mid-1980s they did not lend themselves readily to intellectual discovery and excitement. The script of the conflict had been written, the parts allocated and rehearsed, decades earlier. Until nearly the very end it was a static and monotonous affair, the arguments and counter-arguments mostly known by heart. In these circumstances, what was called for was not so much originality and brilliance as stamina and determination, a willingness to go around the block again and again, combating error and falsehood and insisting on reiterating truths, even if by now some of them verged on clichés. This we did conscientiously and effectively, but it was hard to break new ground in the process.

Only when it became clear that the Cold War was ending, I believe, did The National Interest really come fully into its own. Suddenly the international scene was full of novelty, drama and unpredictable movement. In these circumstances we were very quick off the mark. In the summer of 1989, several months before the Berlin Wall came down, we published Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History?" It was an overnight sensation--innumerable op-ed analyses, translations into more than twenty languages, requests for copies from Thatcher's No. 10 Downing Street, disparaging references in Gorbachev's speeches--and twelve years on it still remains the most discussed article on the post-Cold War era. Soon afterwards we ran a wide-ranging symposium on what was to be "America's Purpose" in that era, with articles ranging from Charles Krauthammer on "unipolarity" to Jeane Kirkpatrick on becoming a "normal country" again, and from Patrick Buchanan on "America First--and Second, and Third" to Nathan Glazer arguing that it was "a time for modesty." That was soon followed by a special issue on The Strange Death of Soviet Communism, with contributors of such caliber as Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes, Martin Malia, Peter Reddaway and Stephen Sestanovich--as well as an autobiographical essay by Saul Bellow.

In the post-Cold War climate, it soon became apparent that what had seemed a pretty solid anti-communist front for the duration of the conflict had really been no more than a coalition of disparate elements, held together only by the presence of a shared and compelling threat. There were realists and idealists; conservatives, neoconservatives and old-style liberals; patriots and globalists. And each of these positions had its moderate and hard versions: realists whose preference was for stability and balance, and realists who believed that the only sensible course was to take full advantage of a favorable power situation; idealists who advocated promoting American values only by example, and idealists who believed in the more robust methods of intervention and indoctrination; patriots who settled for respect and the status of primus inter pares, and patriots who believed that it was America's destiny and duty to run the world; those who believed that "globalization" would merely mean the complication and modification of the existing system of states, and those who insisted that it was destined to transform that system utterly.

The complicated debates to which all this has given rise have largely centered on specific issues and episodes--Bosnia, NATO expansion, Kosovo, relations with China, the European Union. In almost all of these, The National Interest I have edited has argued the case for a restrained and measured realism, one that takes account of the intractability of things, the limits of what most Americans are prepared to support, and what in the longer term other states will tolerate. It has also tried to make the case for giving as much weight to what remains the same as to what is novel and eye-catching, in a world where much is changing rapidly. And, while yielding to no one in its admiration for the United States, it has been concerned to caution against formulating policy on the basis that America is largely exempt from the forces and rules that determine the fate of other countries. America is indeed exceptional. But that does not necessarily mean that well-tested political truths do not apply in its case, or that liberties may be taken with them, even in the name of Liberty, without the risk of dire consequences.

These views have led to spirited debates and some sharp but civil differences of opinion with many friends and colleagues. This is as it should be and as we had promised it would be. In our very first issue in 1985 we said that a principal aim of the magazine would be to stimulate and focus lively discussion among the variety of conservative, neoconservative and neoliberal voices--and to prove that we meant what we said, in that same first issue we published a stimulating article by our esteemed publisher dismissing the very concept of "national interest" as "dead beyond resurrection." We have not looked back since. And we may be sure that in whatever other ways The National Interest may change from here on, it will remain committed to that aim.

Essay Types: Essay