Once again, Foreign Policy has with characteristic humility compiled its list of leading Global Thinkers. How we could possibly identify the top 100 thinkers on a planet of 7 billion people when we've never met a fairly considerable number of those people is not something we dwell on when discussing our methodology. Suffice it to say, the list is impressionistic. (OK, it's more than a little ridiculous. But this is a tradition, so let's just keep that between us, shall we?)
Dubious or not, there is something even more, shall we say, curious about the idea of a foreign-policy magazine doing the ranking. For starters, policy itself is more or less the opposite of thinking. It implies the development of a set of rules or guidelines that shape and direct actions. In fact, however, policy is designed to help keep people who aren't actually policymakers from doing any thinking at all at critical moments. And it doesn't take much more than a cursory look at how well things are going here on this little planet to reveal that foreign policymakers are not doing such a great job with all the thinking they are allegedly being paid to do.
Take U.S. foreign policy. The biggest, most important idea it gave us in the past decade was "the war on terror." This was just a terrible concept on every level, an ill-conceived misuse of resources in pursuit of an unachievable goal that did vastly more damage than good. And it came straight from America's policy elites.
It's hardly an exception. There's a whole pantheon of recent American ideas about the U.S. presence in the world that were seemingly created in a thought-deprived environment. The United States, for example, is still committed to spending more money on defense than the next 17 countries combined -- even though the country is broke and the vast majority of those countries are either America's allies or not a threat at all. Indeed, the notion that the United States needs to make defense spending its No. 1 national discretionary spending priority, ahead of things like investing in education, research, infrastructure, or other pursuits that actually make the country stronger, is a proven formula for national calamity. (See Paul Kennedy on the decline of empires.)
If you look at what the United States is spending that money on, the bad idea is revealed to be even worse than it appears. Quite apart from the waste that is such a substantial part of America's self-destructive defense-spending spree (yes, it's true: the U.S. military has more musicians in its bands than the State Department has diplomats), the U.S. national security budget is rife with redundancies and outmoded systems. For example, each branch of the service has its own air force, and now the CIA wants to expand its drone fleet to create yet another. (For that matter, the United States has more intelligence agencies than actual enemy nations.) And it won't take too long into the next major world war to reveal how antiquated are the carrier battle groups around which much of U.S. naval power is built.