What’s the issue?

The Atlantic Council established the New America Engagement Initiative (NAEI) within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security to challenge conventional assumptions governing the conduct of US foreign policy. By forcing the foreign policy establishment to defend its thinking and policies, NAEI aims to open a new seam in the policy debate and generate a more lively, fruitful, and effective strategic dialogue—one that is capable of producing a sustainable, nonpartisan national security strategy for the United States.

As the Joe Biden administration populates the various national security departments and agencies and begins the process of drafting a new national security strategy, it should pause to consider the assumptions that guide its work. Many of these assumptions are grounded in decades of practice and habit. Some are so deeply held that they are accepted as true without a second thought, as natural as the air people breathe or the gravity that binds them to Earth.

But policymakers must always be alert to strategic surprise, wary of a failure of imagination, and attentive to how changing domestic and global trends may affect their ability to execute effective policies that keep the country safe, advance US prosperity, and preserve US political autonomy.

Policymakers must always be alert to strategic surprise, wary of a failure of imagination, and attentive to how changing domestic and global trends may affect their ability to execute effective policies.

The case for assumptions testing

Methods well suited to the past may not work in the future. After all, the world that the Biden team confronts is unlike that which Harry Truman faced after the end of World War II. Similarly, the George H.W. Bush administration’s effort to build a “new world order” after the end of the Cold War hinged on the United States’ unchallenged economic, military, and diplomatic power. Unipolar moments are rare, and fleeting. The international landscape in 2021 is populated by a plethora of actors—state and non-state, large and small, status quo and revisionists. The United States should commit itself to constant adaptation, identifying new forms of US engagement that leverage its strengths and avoid costly errors.

To support these efforts, NAEI will publish a series of papers, each of which tests a major assumption, or related series of sub-assumptions, underlying US foreign policy. The aim is to generate new, innovative approaches to US global engagement that are less reliant on the use of force, actively facilitate global trade and cultural exchange, and constantly identify avenues for broader cooperation to address common challenges.

The papers will be available through this page as they are released. To learn more about the Assumptions Testing series, read NAEI Co-Directors Mathew Burrows and Christopher Preble’s paper at the Download button below and explore the series.

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Engage with us: the New American Engagement Initiative welcomes feedback. Its success or failure hinges on the willingness of leading experts to scrutinize prior assumptions, consider alternative explanations, and be open to new approaches that collectively rethink, reshape, and reinvigorate US global engagement. Explore our program by navigating through our content, past and future events and experts pages.