The National Interest was founded in 1985 by Irving Kristol as a foreign policy counterpart to his Public Interest, which until it was shuttered in 2005 was a key outlet for neoconservative views on domestic policy. In 2001, the Nixon Center, a foreign policy think tank with a realist bent, took over the National Interest, and Dimitri K. Simes, the center's president, became copublisher. Over the years, the pages of National Interest have straddled both the realist and neoconservative positions on foreign affairs, with the magazine's various authors often fiercely debating each other over the direction of U.S. policy.
An example of the bruising debates in the National Interest was the one spurred by Francis Fukuyama, an erstwhile supporter of the neocons, when he published a harsh critique of the neoconservative support for the Iraq War, reserving special criticism for Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post columnist, whose ideas Fukuyama argued had become "strangely disconnected from reality." After Krauthammer published a critique of Fukuyama's article in a following issue of the magazine, a long debate ensued in the letters section of the magazine about neoconservatism and the role of U.S. power.
Fukuyama eventually left the journal's editorial board, along with Krauthammer and several others, and announced that he was starting a new magazine called the American Interest to compete with the National Interest. "We wanted our own magazine," Fukuyama told the Washington Post. Responding to the announcement, Dimitri Simes said: "Years ago, he predicted the end of history, which proved to be somewhat premature. If somebody expects they will build their magazine at the expense of the National Interest, those hopes, I'm certain, will also be premature" (Washington Post, May 7, 2005.)
More recently, in early 2007 Interest writers argued over Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's appointment of Eliot Cohen, a neoconservative academic at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies who champions the idea that the United States is currently fighting World War IV, to serve as her counselor. Commenting on the pros and cons offered in the magazine, Anatol Lieven, a fellow at the liberal New America Foundation and a member of the Interest's editorial board, wrote in an article posted on the Interest's website that he "emphatically" supported those critical of the appointment. He wrote: "Dr. Cohen's radical failings extend beyond the Iraq War to much of his intellectual record as a military historian and analyst in recent years. They are not open to serious question, since they are amply documented in his own published writings and recorded interviews." Lieven highlighted Cohen's 2002 book Supreme Command as a case in point, writing, "In the years before and immediately after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Dr. Cohen used one aspect of his historical 'scholarship' to drive a particular contemporary agenda: namely, his argument that on several occasions in modern history, dynamic and visionary political leaders have been correct in intervening directly in the control of military operations, overruling their professional militaries ... From 2001-2003, this historical material was clearly intended by Dr. Cohen to bolster support for the Bush administration's drive for war with Iraq ... In the process, Dr. Cohen is guilty of some very bad historiography. This applies especially to his suggestion that Churchill was not just a great leader whose rhetoric and example inspired British resistance to Hitler, but that he was a successful strategist. In fact, an overwhelming mass of open material has long existed to demonstrate that this was far from the case" (Anatol Lieven, "Eliot Cohen and Democratic Responsibility," National Interest Online, March 16, 2007).
The National Interest editorial team and board represent a diverse array of writers, including contingents of both realists (Henry Kissinger, John J. Mearsheimer, and Graham Allison) and neoconservatives (Daniel Pipes and Ruth Wedgwood). A note from the editor and publisher posted on the National Interest website states: "In recent years we have seen, regretfully, that on the critical foreign policy issues of the day (Iraq, Iran, China, North Korea, the Lebanese crisis, and so on) there is too little real debate, often simply bumper sticker clichés reflecting American domestic politics more than complex and contradicting international realities ... This is what National Interest Online seeks: to provide a space for vigorous debate and exchange not only among Americans but between U.S. and overseas interlocutors. This is the new home for informed analysis and frank but reasoned exchanges on foreign policy and international affairs."
In late fall 2004 the contingent of realists on the magazine's advisory board began critiquing the Bush doctrine of preemption, embodied in the U.S. invasion of Iraq and championed by the neoconservatives. Advisory board members, including the neoconservatives Midge Decter (who is married to Norman Podhoretz) and Charles Krauthammer, as well as Samuel P. Huntington and several others, resigned in protest of the magazine's direction under its leadership at the Nixon Center (New York Times, March 13, 2005).
The Winter 2004/2005 issue of the National Interest featured an article by Robert Ellsworth and Dimitri K. Simes—"Realism's Shining Morality"—which amounted to an indictment of neoconservatism and a call for a more realist foreign policy: "The second Bush administration will have to deal with two fundamental dilemmas: first, how to reconcile the war against terror with a commitment to make the world safe for democracy; and second, how to assure that unchallenged U.S. military supremacy is used to enhance America's ability to shape the world rather than provoke global opposition to the United States, making us more isolated and accordingly less secure."
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank attributed the schism between the neocons and the realists to "a classic Washington brawl about ego and influence" that goes back to the Ford administration's arms control agreements, when the neocons were advocating for a hardline posture on the issue (Washington Post, May 7, 2005).
Despite Fukuyama's earlier criticism of the likes of Krauthammer, several high-profile writers associated with neoconservatism joined him on the editorial board of the American Interest, including Eliot Cohen and James Q. Wilson. At least one well-known Democrat, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, also abandoned the National Interest to join Fukuyama's team, arguing that he was "increasingly uncomfortable" that the National Interest was "essentially an organ of the Nixon Center" (Washington Post, May 7, 2005).