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

Fri, Mar 5, 2021

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

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.

Reality Check by Emma Ashford, Mathew Burrows

Mon, Mar 1, 2021

Reality Check #3: The uses and abuses of deterrence

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

Reality Check by Erica Borghard

Port de Barcelona at night

Mon, Feb 22, 2021

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

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

Reality Check by Erica Borghard

Thu, Feb 18, 2021

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

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

Reality Check by Emma Ashford

Explore and support