The backlash after the heady Arab revolutions of 2011. The rumblings of war with nuclear-aspiring Iran. The bloody persistence of Bashar al-Assad in civil war-torn Syria. Not to mention a Europe mired in its biggest crisis since World War II and an American presidential campaign that distracted and depressed in equal measure. If ever there were a year for Big Ideas, and a frustration at not hearing them from our leaders, 2012 was it.
Which made it all the more rewarding -- if even more challenging than usual -- to identify this year's Foreign Policy Global Thinkers. It's particularly inspiring to have settled on a most heroic and unlikely pair as our top honorees for 2012: Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, the once-jailed dissident and the longtime general who joined hands to open up one of the world's most repressive dictatorships. It's also testament to the notion that individuals and their ideas can truly change the world, a theme that resonates in ways large and small throughout this year's list, from digital-age visionaries like Sebastian Thrun (whose robot cars may just make him the Henry Ford of a new era) to rare political leaders like Malawian President Joyce Banda, who is imagining a new Africa freed from toxic corruption. Still, many others on this year's list are there not necessarily for reinventing the world but for waging its ever-more complicated intellectual battles -- think Paul Ryan budget austerity versus Paul Krugman stimulus. If you want to shape the global conversation, you have to be a part of it.
Indeed, if there's one theme to this year's list, it's all about the perils and possibilities of free speech in this globalized age. As Columbia University President Lee Bollinger notes in a powerful essay, "Today, we quickly experience how censorship anywhere becomes censorship everywhere."
In an age when ideas, good and bad, travel the world at hyperspeed, we are proud to celebrate the brave thinking of those at the cutting edge of this global debate over freedom of expression. Welcome to the global marketplace of ideas, 2012 edition.