The Center for the National Interest’s mission is to promote strategic realism in U.S. policy.

But what is strategic realism?

First—what it is not.

  • Strategic realism is not realist international relations theory, though the former shares some intellectual history with the latter.

  • Strategic realism is not a list of pre-defined policies or recommendations to master any specific challenge facing the United States.

  • Strategic realism is not pacifism or isolationism.

Instead, strategic realism is fundamentally a set of principles—a toolkit—for thinking about the international system and the best (or at times, the least bad) policies to advance and defend American interests.

What are these principles?

  • No nation has unlimited power, capabilities, or resources, including the United States, and no nation can do everything its leaders or people might want to do, either internationally or domestically.

  • Limits force tradeoffs. Understanding and acknowledging these tradeoffs in policy deliberations is an essential component of success in pursuing multiple interrelated objectives simultaneously.

  • The effort that the United States expends in pursuit of various international goals should be broadly proportionate to the interests at stake and to the expected benefits. Expending disproportionate effort in one area inherently reduces U.S. capabilities to address other challenges—of which there are many.

  • Global politics, economics, technology, and society are complex, interrelated, and unpredictable in ways that transcend human understanding. Actions can have unintended consequences. Policymakers should consider potential unintended consequences in making decisions, and they should exercise caution in disrupting established systems, patterns, or agreements.

  • The world is constantly evolving. Nothing is permanent. Policymakers should accordingly focus on defining and reaching the best achievable future for America. This includes preserving the global order established largely by the United States and its allies while adjusting that order as necessary to secure its essential characteristics and advantages.

  • Facing limits to its own power in a complex international system, the United States can increase its reach through alliances, partnerships, and friendships. Yet no two nations have identical interests. Thus, these relationships require both efforts to align interests where possible and the ability to accept and manage differing interests when necessary.

  • Sustainable policies that rest on bipartisan agreement, if not consensus, are more likely to succeed than unsustainable policies based on one party’s or faction’s aims. Especially in addressing grave and/or enduring problems, or significant opportunities, policymakers should strive to build a strong coalition with a shared view of the fundamental direction of U.S. policy.

  • A political coalition supporting U.S. foreign policy should include America’s people, whose interests should be paramount. As stated in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the purpose of the United States government is “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” In other words, the U.S. government exists to advance Americans’ interests.

  • Finally, in America’s democracy, sustainable policies also require a moral foundation. A clear moral foundation for U.S. policy similarly enhances U.S. influence internationally. Yet observers will judge morality through outcomes rather than stated intentions. Excessive moralism is more likely to highlight gaps between statements and reality, to provoke harsh judgment from Americans and others, and to undermine U.S. goals.

There are no shortage of disputes about how best to address contemporary dilemmas about foreign affairs (such as, how likely is a particular course to succeed?) or differing priorities (such as, how important, or dangerous, is a particular problem?). Fortunately, the shared language of strategic realism—as well as candor and civility—allows for vibrant debate. The Center for the National Interest and The National Interest will work to advance this debate and to help Americans and their leaders thrive in our 21st century world.