Policymakers must routinely assess how certain core beliefs shape their perceptions of what is required to keep the United States safe and prosperous, and what is possible to advance US interests. They should challenge the conventional wisdom, and subject certain core beliefs to careful and rigorous scrutiny. They need, in short, a reality check.

But, too often, the marketplace of ideas rewards groupthink over originality. It suffers from path dependency, defines threats too expansively, and fails to prioritize them effectively. In these instances, men and women of principle and conviction must take difficult or unpopular stands, examine closely held beliefs, and explain, deliberately and patiently, why the prevailing assumptions deserve scrutiny.

When the crush of events seem to be pressing upon policymakers to act now, when the crowd exudes confidence, and demands boldness, the skeptic favors humility, and urges caution.

Imagine if this was done with regard to the Vietnam conflict in 1964, or prior to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

The Atlantic Council created the New American Engagement Initiative (NAEI) within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security to systematically scrutinize the critical assumptions that have guided US foreign policy, in some cases for many decades. The NAEI team identifies these core beliefs and assesses how conditions have changed since they were first adopted; proposes modifications to existing assumptions or proposes alternatives; and suggests different policies, as warranted, that are better aligned to contemporary reality.

Communicating these policy alternatives in a timely manner to the widest possible audience is critical to the NAEI’s success.

Accordingly, the initiative launched a new series of short policy briefs dedicated to exploring a particular policy or set of policies, assessing their efficacy, and, where appropriate, proposing alternatives.

The papers in the “Reality Check” series will all follow a consistent pattern: first, describe the issue under consideration; second, provide a critical assessment of the conventional wisdom surrounding it; and third, make recommendations for the path forward.

Some will be tied to the news of the day, others will derive from NAEI’s Assumptions Testing series. But all will be succinct and straight-to-the-point. The briefs are designed for busy professionals anxious for pragmatic and timely policy options.

The need for fresh perspectives is particularly acute at this moment in time. Coming out of the tumultuous years of the Donald Trump presidency, some are anxious to take the United States back to the pre-Trump era and see little value in trying to derive any lessons from it, or assessing how we got there. Still others, however, would build on the experience of the past four years to redefine and adapt America’s role in the world. They aim to fashion a foreign policy for the United States that can deliver tangible benefits for the American people, even as it works with allies and partners to shape the global future.

The short papers in the Reality Check series will be available through this page as they come out.

Read the latest

Reality Check

Jul 22, 2022

Reality Check #13: Great-power competition threatens climate disaster response

By Evan Cooper and Alec Evans

Today’s military planners must contend with two potentially conflicting demands: growing requirements for the US military to respond to climate-driven disasters and the effort to restructure the force for great-power competition.

China Climate Change & Climate Action

Reality Check

May 17, 2022

Reality Check #12 — Russia, the West, and the rest: The hard choices the US must make to reinforce its global leadership

By Ferial Saeed

Washington needs to make hard choices now to blunt the global consequences of the war in Ukraine and the sanctions regime while delivering a decisive strategic setback to Russian President Vladimir Putin necessary to reinforce US global leadership. 

China Conflict

Reality Check

Apr 6, 2022

Reality Check #11: America’s Indo-Pacific strategy requires tough choices

By Kelly A. Grieco

The Biden administration will need to scrutinize key assumptions and confront hard decisions regarding how to keep ends and means in balance in the Indo-Pacific.

Africa Conflict

Reality Check

Feb 18, 2022

Reality Check #10: China will not invade Taiwan

By Harlan Ullman

Key points Despite Beijing’s longstanding desire to invade and conquer Taiwan and achieve “one China,” China simply lacks the military capability and capacity to launch a full-scale amphibious invasion of Taiwan for the foreseeable future. With a potential defending force of 450,000 Taiwanese today, using the traditional three-to-one ratio of attackers to defenders taught at […]

Africa Conflict

Reality Check

Aug 4, 2021

Reality Check #9: Ensure US security sector assistance serves US interests and values

By Aude Darnal, Evan Cooper

The United States must review its security sector assistance strategy, which frequently assist security forces that commit abuses against the people they are supposed to be serving, contradicting the United State’s espoused mission to promote human rights and democracy.

Africa Conflict

Reality Check

Jun 24, 2021

Reality Check #8: Rethinking US military policy in the Greater Middle East

By Robert A. Manning, Christopher Preble

The core assumptions underpinning US policy in the Middle East—ensuring oil flows, maintaining Israel’s security, preventing the rise of a dominant hegemon, and countering terrorism—have been upended by new realities.

Conflict Defense Policy

Reality Check

Jun 14, 2021

Reality Check #7: Red-teaming the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance

By Emma Ashford

The Biden administration has released an Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (INSSG), a stepping-stone to a full National Security Strategy (NSS). Although this document presents a more realistic vision of the world than the Trump administration’s NSS did, the INSSG still contains some questionable assumptions.

China Middle East

Reality Check

May 14, 2021

Reality Check #6: The consequences of an ‘America First’ vaccine policy

By Evan Cooper, Mathew Burrows

The Biden administration has been slow to distribute surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to countries in need or to facilitate foreign manufacturing of vaccines, squandering a diplomatic opportunity and potentially endangering US security.

China Coronavirus
Korean DMZ Joint Security Area

Reality Check

Apr 26, 2021

Reality Check #5: Learning to live with a nuclear North Korea

By Robert A. Manning

North Korea’s nuclear program is firmly established. Living with a de facto nuclear North Korea may be the least-bad option for now, requiring continued pressure and stronger deterrence measures.

Arms Control Defense Policy

Reality Check

Mar 5, 2021

Reality Check #4: Focus on interests, not on human rights with Russia

By Emma Ashford, Mathew Burrows

The Biden administration should seek to build a less aspirational policy toward Russia, minimize the use of sanctions, and look for incentives that might induce Moscow to take steps in line with US interests.

Politics & Diplomacy Russia

Reality Check

Mar 1, 2021

Reality Check #3: The uses and abuses of deterrence

By Erica Borghard

Policymakers tend to describe as “deterrence” actions or situations that are, in fact, coercive. Confusing these terms leads to muddled strategy and poor communication.

Politics & Diplomacy
Port de Barcelona at night

Reality Check

Feb 22, 2021

Reality Check #2: Economic sanctions should not always be the go-to foreign policy tool

By Erica Borghard

US policymakers should focus on whether sanctions are likely to produce the desired effect, rather than serving as simply a tool to signal displeasure.

Economic Sanctions Politics & Diplomacy

Reality Check

Feb 18, 2021

Reality Check #1: Build cooperation cycles, not security spirals

By Emma Ashford

Confidence building measures could help to prevent escalation and create a virtuous cycle of cooperation and reciprocity.

Politics & Diplomacy Security & Defense

Explore NAEI

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.

Follow our work on Twitter with @ACScowcroft and connect with us using #NAEI and #FutureForeignPolicy.