Missing Links


And thanks for reading.

Does the editor of Foreign Policy magazine need to be a U.S. citizen? That was my first question in mid-1996 upon learning that the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the think tank that then owned the magazine, was looking for a new editor. Maybe a written or, perhaps, unwritten rule reserved the position for Americans? In most other countries, after all, it would be hard, if not impossible, for a foreigner to run an elite publication like FP. But not here: It turned out that my Venezuelan nationality was not a problem. I could apply, and to my surprise, I got the job -- a job that I have decided to leave in June after 14 great years.

My appointment as editor was the first of many improbable events in the life of this magazine over that time. The most important improbability is that FP is not only alive but thriving (in 2009 alone, 428 magazines folded). Initially, there were many doubts about the wisdom of turning Foreign Policy from a respected, academically oriented journal to a glossy magazine catering to thought leaders around the world. But I was convinced that FP had the potential to tap a rapidly expanding global market of readers interested in international politics and economics. These new readers did not think of themselves as specialists and did not care about the minutiae, acronyms, and narrow debates that clog journals aimed at insiders. Rather, they wanted -- and needed -- to know about the world, how it was changing, and how these often forbiddingly abstract and seemingly remote global changes would touch them, their companies, and their countries.

To reach these well-informed, intellectually curious readers, we needed to change FP. And change we did -- much to the horror of some of our longtime readers. I still remember one contentious meeting at which a leading international affairs expert explained how our plans would wreck what was one of the field's most respected publications. "You will lose the magazine's traditional readers, and it will be too late to recover them once you realize that your new readers only exist in your imagination."

We pushed ahead anyway. We changed the format, edited more aggressively, made our content more reader-friendly, introduced powerful photography and art, and offered new entry points and features designed to win over time-starved, information-saturated readers. We increased the frequency of publication, launched editions in other languages, developed a conference business, and, of course, launched ForeignPolicy.com, a domain that, to our surprise, was still available in 1997.

It worked. FP gained readers, advertisers, and worldwide recognition. A decade later, FP has won all the industry's top awards, including three National Magazine Awards for General Excellence. Naturally, these achievements reflect the unstinting efforts of a team of creative, hard-working editors, designers, and publishing professionals who got things right almost every day -- for 14 years.

Nearly two years ago came another big surprise: The Washington Post Company bought FP from the Carnegie Endowment. Once again, this was a decision that ran counter to prevailing trends. While magazines everywhere were closing or shrinking, FP would be expanding. While faith in print publications was scant and dwindling, our new owner was betting on FP. While media analysts were arguing that, to survive, newspapers and magazines ought to become nonprofit entities subsidized by foundations or philanthropists, FP was moving from its think-tank owner to a publicly listed, for-profit corporation.

This move, too, has served FP and its readers well. We now have the support of one of the world's most respected media companies. Our integration with the Slate Group -- another Washington Post Co. property -- has allowed us to harness the Web experience of that pioneering online magazine. FP's executive editor, the talented Susan Glasser, who will be my successor, has led the formidable effort that has made ForeignPolicy.com the indispensable and daily Web destination for millions around the world. And, as in previous years, FP continues to win National Magazine Awards. I am sure that under Susan's leadership it will continue to thrive. Producing an excellent magazine is deeply ingrained in FP's organizational culture.

This conviction is what makes my decision to leave FP now so much easier. I know that FP will be in good hands and will continue to lure readers, attract great authors, publish a beautiful magazine, soar on the Internet, and surprise everyone with its smart content.

Editing Foreign Policy is the best job I have had. I was lucky to work here during a period of immense international changes that startled pundits, baffled experts, and confused leaders. Trying to make sense of it all for our readers with the help of some of the world's best minds and a talented group of colleagues was a unique privilege. From my perch at FP, I saw how China's exports grew nine times from what they were in 1996, a year when India's economy was three times smaller than today. I watched as an obscure band of insurgents, the Taliban, took power in Afghanistan, were driven back, rebounded, and now again seem to be on the defensive. In 1997 we introduced al Qaeda to our readers; in 2000 we explained the motivations of suicidal terrorists and predicted the dot-com bust. Then came 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the spread of terrorist attacks from Bali to Madrid -- only to be followed by 2008's economic crash. It has been quite an education. I learned how decisions made in Washington were misinterpreted in Beijing -- and vice versa -- and saw how economic forces can overrun deep cultural mores or be contained by nationalism. I watched how power is gained, used, abused, wasted, lost, and, sometimes, regained. I tried throughout to give our readers concrete examples of how globalization, freer markets, and democracy shape the world -- along with darker forces such as economic inequality, social injustice, and myriad other grievances. Mostly, I learned about the power of ideas.

The time has come for me to continue my education from a different vantage point. I will be moving back to my old home at the Carnegie Endowment, where I will have the privilege of thinking and writing about these same interests without the pressures of deadlines and the complex demands that all editors face. I plan to write a book -- or more than one -- about what I learned at FP.

I leave FP with an enduring gratitude for those who made these 14 years so rewarding and important. But mostly I leave with great pride about what FP is today, immense enthusiasm for what it will become, and an enduring curiosity about the global forces and issues that shape our lives. Many thanks for reading.

Missing Links

Mixed Metaphors

Why the wars on cancer, poverty, drugs, terror, drunk driving, teen pregnancy, and other ills can't be won.

What's worse: declaring war against a social problem or calling for a Marshall Plan to solve it? Both are enduring and popular metaphors. Unfortunately, both lead to bad government decisions. Public policies shaped by such thinking more often than not result in waste, blind spots, and Manichaean mindsets that limit the search for more effective approaches. Think of the long-running wars on drugs, terrorism, and cancer. The results, all too predictably, have been more confusing than the problems.

In fact, no imitation of the Marshall Plan has ever worked, and no war on a big social problem has ever ended in defeat for the enemy (save, perhaps, cigarettes). But the allure of these spurious comparisons remains as strong as ever. Without any apparent effect, Marshall Plans have been proposed to help Africa, the Middle East, New Orleans, Iraq, and even Wallonia, Belgium's least prosperous region. Bill Gates wants a Marshall Plan to broaden access to technology, French President Nicolas Sarkozy urges one for his country's poor suburbs, and the AFL-CIO thinks the U.S. auto industry deserves its own Marshall Plan.

Advocates of war against big problems are just as plentiful. We have been asked to go to war against poverty, drunk driving, email spam, and teen pregnancy, just to name a few. In the United States, liberals denounce the Bush-era "war on science" while conservatives each year mobilize against the "war on Christmas." And of course, there's the favorite war of the global chattering class -- the war against global warming. "This is World War III," Barbara Young, then head of Britain's Environment Agency, declared in 2007. "This is the biggest challenge to face the globe for many, many years. We need the sorts of concerted, fast, integrated, and above all huge efforts that went into many actions in times of war."

There are many good reasons why declaring war on a social problem or launching a Marshall Plan to help a country or region are such attractive metaphors for politicians. Wars unite countries and stifle internal dissent. Wag the Dog is not just the title of a movie in which a war is manufactured to rally support for a government, but also an age-old political tactic. The war metaphor is also attractive because real wars -- those between nation-states as opposed to those against concepts or bad socioeconomic trends -- are finite. University of Notre Dame scholar Daniel Lindley has found that the average length of a war is 308 days when the country that starts it wins and 660 days when initiators lose. No surprise, then, that the war metaphor keeps getting deployed: It boosts expectations that in a few years a major scourge -- cancer, terrorism, poverty -- will be eliminated. "War" also holds the seductive promise of an open checkbook for the politicians who so liberally apply the term; after all, budgetary constraints tend to disappear during war along with all those pesky rules. Wars are for heroes, not for accountants who limit the resources needed for victory.

The Marshall Plan metaphor has been similarly irresistible, with its implications of massive funding and unquestioning public support. But the original Marshall Plan launched by the United States to help Europe after World War II was neither as financially sizable nor as uncontroversial as proponents commonly assume. (Economist Tyler Cowen estimated U.S. aid, which peaked at around $90 billion in today's dollars, was no more than 5 percent of the gross national product of the recipient nations.) Still, the plan has come to epitomize a bold, massive -- and successful -- governmental mobilization.

Alas, these good metaphors yield bad policies. The war on drugs, for example, has been more successful in spawning immense bureaucracies and winning big budgets and partisan political fights than in ending drug use. Decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes is becoming a popular reform in the United States, and 14 states have already adopted it, with more sure to follow. But do we know if marijuana does indeed have the medical benefits claimed by reformers? No. As a result of the mindset -- and the policies -- nurtured by the war on drugs, medical researchers have been blocked from access to marijuana and unable to scientifically test the claims. Only now, after four painful and futile decades, is the war on drugs losing support.


The same perils apply to the "war on terror." As former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski famously noted: "The damage these three words have done -- a classic self-inflicted wound -- is infinitely greater than any wild dreams entertained by the fanatical perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks when they were plotting against us in distant Afghan caves. The phrase itself is meaningless. It defines neither a geographic context nor our presumed enemies. Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique of warfare." Indeed, the war on terror was even more spectacularly successful than the war on drugs in securing political, legal, military, and financial blank checks for those waging it. But that, too, is changing as anti-terrorism efforts are now more carefully scrutinized, checks are written with more strings attached, and alternative approaches are tested. Recognizing that language is power, U.S. President Barack Obama took a key first step in banning the bad metaphor. At his insistence, the Pentagon was forced to lose its precious GWOT (global war on terror) acronym and the GWOT mentality that went with it. But as many of his predecessors learned, Obama is finding that wars are hard to exit. Once a war against poverty, crime, or terrorism is launched, announcing a unilateral truce is usually political suicide. Instead, presidents get boxed into absolutist policies in which compromise is impossible and victory is the only acceptable outcome.

But no matter the complications, these wars aren't going away -- they're just too politically convenient. It took only a few hours after Haiti's terrible Jan. 12 earthquake for pundits to call for a Marshall Plan. One thing by now is certain, however: Although aid will materialize, a Marshall Plan will not. As we all know but the metaphor users routinely and conveniently ignore, the Marshall Plan's success was driven by the hard-to-replicate conditions in Europe after World War II, with its highly educated populations, well-developed private sector, and relatively efficient public bureaucracies.

So: Beware the metaphor. All these wars and Marshall Plans are getting the world nowhere. But their frequent use does have a silver lining: At least you'll know that whenever they are proposed, bad policies will soon follow.