American Interests—Then and Now

It is an honor to assume the editorship of The American Interest. Publisher Charles Davidson and chairman Frank Fukuyama remain an unbeatable combination in leading our efforts. I also have the good fortune to work with Adam Garfinkle in transition—and hope to continue our collaboration long into the future. TAI is, after all, the house that Adam built. As writer, public intellectual, and editor, my predecessor—TAI’s founding editor—is the gold standard.

Nearly a decade and a half ago TAI was born of conflict, albeit a constructive one. In the beginning there was The National Interest, a publication to which many of us turned in the 1990s for illuminating counterpoint between foreign policy realists and neoconservatives. But then the realists took control of the journal, while the neocons—together with a handful of robust realists—took control of the levers of U.S. foreign policy. America and key parts of Europe split—over the Iraq War chiefly, but also over issues like Guantanamo, Kyoto, and the International Criminal Court. As The National Interest defined itself in clearer terms, a more eclectic splinter group went off to establish The American Interest in 2005.

It’s fitting today, in this time of Trumpism, that we push ourselves to think clearly about purpose—the nation’s, and our magazine’s—as we endeavor to shape crucial debates. From its inception, TAI was never a magazine of foreign policy alone. Rightfully so. The days are long gone when foreign policy experts could huddle in one room, while economists and domestic policy pundits would neatly convene in another. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine any sensible and sustainable foreign policy today—properly aligned with voters in today’s hyper-connected circumstances—without relevant linkages to matters of migration and citizenship, religion and race, ethnicity and gender. The late Sam Huntington’s final work was the 2004 book about America titled Who Are We? Francis Fukuyama’s latest book focuses on identity. Should we be surprised that across the West debates about sovereignty are back? Did they ever disappear?

It may well be cultural conflicts—issues of community and cohesion, identity and purpose—that pull hardest now at the threads of the American fabric, and at the unity of the West as a whole. If this is right, how do we manage foundational problems, without getting lost in high-minded principles? With so much broken, how do we identify priorities among all those things to fix? It seems to have become part of the American zeitgeist that we destroy our opponents; merely defeating them seems no longer to suffice. Where does this take us? How will deepening cultural clashes at home affect America’s role and responsibility in the world?

I’m writing my first letter as editor-in-chief from Europe, a trip covering Belgrade, Berlin, and Prague—all places with tragic experience in lethal fragmentation. Belgrade is the capital of a nation that got stuck after communism. Amidst the malign nationalists and kleptocrats that rule much of Serbia today there’s a group of pro-West stalwarts fighting mightily to pull their country westward. Which West do they seek to join, though?

The sparkle of Vaclav Havel’s Czech Republic is gone. Establishment parties have become depleted and frail. In a country of ten million, billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis—a man who owns media and parts of the economy—has stepped up to fill the vacuum. Next door, I’m trying to get a handle on change for a book I’m writing, The Next Germany. Here, too, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats are in trouble. Something structural seems to be afoot. As with the Czech Republic, in Germany the economy grows, and discontent swells nevertheless.

Can rhymes of history help us to navigate today’s change? Comparison and case studies from then, and today, are useful; serious analysis, indispensable.

In this vein, a word about the current print issue.

Read Oren Cass on gigantic errors in our economic policy thinking, and Isabel Sawhill on helping those left behind. Allen C. Lynch wants us to find new ways to puzzle through old enigmas of Russia, that great spoiler of the West’s efforts to repair and renew. My colleague Aaron Sibarium reviews Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Coddling of the American Mind—and urges deeper digging into the roots of our culture wars.

We’ll keep digging. And peering ahead. Nearly a decade ago a free market economist friend said to me, “If capitalism is to save itself, capitalists must show restraint.” In the meantime it seems clear: If democracy is to heal itself, America must discover new rigor and perspective, and make room for greater empathy, and imagination.

We remain determined to do our part. Stay tuned!

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