The Opposite of Thinking

The key ingredient missing in our policymaking these days? Creativity.

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.

Invading Iraq? Bad idea. Spending more than a decade fighting in Afghanistan? Ditto. Regularly violating other countries' sovereign airspace with drone attacks? National security need or not, it's hard to argue that the policy doesn't violate the fundamental rules of an international system that America spent much of the 20th century trying to develop. War on drugs? A failure by any measure. And how's that "reset" with Russia going? Or that campaign to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons? Efforts to bolster the international economic system following the 2008 financial crisis? Also a loser -- today, there are more banks that are too big to fail, more dubious derivatives being created, and arguably more risk in the system than when the crisis started.

As bad as these are, however, they are in many ways transcended in the bad-idea category by our failure to address the real big issues that confront us. Take the unrest in the Middle East, which is clearly due to the failure to create jobs and opportunity for the region's millions of young people. Yet the world is unable to unite behind any major measures to make progress there. Or consider this: According to the United Nations, lack of access to clean water and water-borne diseases kill 5 million people a year, about 90 times the number who die in war annually. According to the U.N. Environment Program, spending just $20 million on low-cost water technologies could dramatically improve the lives of 100 million people -- about what the war in Afghanistan cost in 2011 every 90 minutes. Then, of course, there's global warming, where notwithstanding tidal waves of scientific evidence suggesting we are overcooking the planet and could displace hundreds of millions of people and destroy vital swaths of the environment, it is apparently a priority of exactly no one in an influential position in either U.S. political party.

All the above may seem obvious to you. But if genius is the ability to recognize the obvious before anyone else, isn't stupidity therefore the failure to do anything about the obvious even after everyone with a functioning brain has come to see it as readily apparent? The point is: Big challenges demand big ideas. New challenges demand new thinking. And right now, the big new challenges of our time -- from the rise of new powers and the changing geopolitical landscape to shifting global resource demands -- require a kind of thought they are clearly not getting. Instead, we have a policymaking apparatus that discourages creativity.

That's why lists like our Global Thinkers are important. Flawed though they may be, they highlight and celebrate people who are willing to think outside the box. They reward the kind of creative rigor that is cheered in artists and entrepreneurs but all too often is utterly missing in our policymakers. And who knows, with a little bit of luck, they may even get a few more of those policymakers to thinking themselves.

Illustration by Peter Wilson via Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Reasons to Be Thankful

Bubba, the fiscal swamp, after Gaza... the list goes on and on. 

Fiscal cliff? What fiscal cliff? Congress has taken the week off for Thanksgiving.  Middle East calamity? What Middle East calamity? The president is traipsing around Southeast Asia in a number of countries that haven't been urgently important to the United States since the 1970s.

To read the newspaper, you might conclude our leaders in Washington have their priorities all wrong. But then comes the news that, according to Jill Kelley,  America's most influential real housewife of Tampa Bay, both our CIA director and the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan took time out of their busy schedules to seek her help stopping the threat posed by Bubba the Love Sponge.

Mr. Love Sponge, for those of you who have missed this glittering chapter in America's national security history, had announced earlier this year that it was his intention to deep fry a copy of the Quran in animal fats. Apparently, according to the estimable Ms. Kelley, whose three visits to the White House last year almost certainly rank her ahead of many members of Congress or ex-presidents, the potential consequences of the repulsive shock jock's bit of performance diplomacy would have been devastating for America's standing in the Middle East. (While that is certainly true, you can't help but wonder whether policies our leaders apparently are more comfortable with, like invading people's countries, blowing up their villages, and killing their friends and family might be even more inflammatory.)

Fortunately for America, we have the honorary consul from South Korea, Miss Inviolability herself, Jill Kelley, just one touch of a speed dial button away from our national security brain's trust. Generals Petraeus and Allen were able to reach out to her, as they had done in the past when other Floridian nitwits had threatened harm to the Quran. She called the mayor of Tampa, to whom she asserted she was acting on behalf of the generals, and sought his assistance bringing the hammer of justice or at least good taste down on the Love Sponge, a man who until recently had been Tampa's most best-known resident and cultural leader.

As an aside, prior to this bizarro incident in America's War on Terror, Bubba had most recently made his way into the headlines when it was discovered that his then wife was the sex-tape partner of aging, former wrestler and reality show star Hulk Hogan. Thus it came to pass that the CIA sex scandal and the Hulk Hogan sex scandal somehow merged into one, both part of the seemingly permanent oil slick of sleaze that now floats on the surface of American society.

Do not despair, however. It is no accident that this vignette has drifted into view on the eve of Thanksgiving. It allows us to be thankful for our vigilant public officials and for public- service minded citizens like Mrs. Kelley, who are there to protect us from the blowback caused by the stupid publicity stunts of third-rate radio personalities. It also allows us to be thankful that Florida exists because if it did not, incidents like this might happen just anywhere at all and get in the way of the serious business of this country. It is also deeply funny -- the kind of thing God cooks up to put comedy writers in their place, reminding them that there is no one more hilarious than Him when He puts his mind to it.

That said, we have much more to be thankful for. Families, top the list of course.  And friends. And good health, if we are fortunate enough to have it. But we can add two other things to the list.

The first has to do with the fiscal cliff. Most of the time, if Congress is not doing anything, you can assume it is because our revered lawmakers are trying to do something but failing. In this particular case, I think Congress has felt comfortable going home for Thanksgiving because they know that they can work a deal to avoid hammering the economy by going over the fiscal cliff. They can make a few minor concessions and then do what they do best and punt the big issues to a distant future that seems impossible for them to imagine (which is anything beyond a couple weeks). They know that even if they were stymied and the market tanked, they could cut a deal the next day. And they will. We won't fix anything material this time around. But we also won't go over the fiscal cliff. Rather, by punting we will do something worse: sink further and further into a fiscal swamp that will get us not in one instant, but slowly and inexorably.

OK, maybe that's not something we can be unequivocally thankful for, so let me attempt to conclude on a more upbeat note by saying that the president's decision to continue on to Asia in the midst of a war in Gaza is encouraging on several levels. First, it shows the president is confident he and his team can manage the U.S. role in this conflict from wherever they are, as any modern administration should. Second, it sends an important message that the president is still committed to focusing on the big issues of the future rather than those of the past. Finally, it shows that the White House understands that Gaza is a short-term initiative by the Israelis. They felt, after absorbing far more rocket blows than any other nation would have, that action was required. The Israelis know that to be successful, efforts of this sort must be measured in days, not weeks or months.

Gaza will soon be over, and we will all be thankful for that. But the longer-term question will be whether Israeli leaders understands how the situation around them is shifting, and along with it America's attentions and needs. If they do-and it is likely take a future government to accept this-then they will realize that the United States is no longer the country most important to their future. Nor is it a changing, undependable Egypt. Nor is it a fragile Jordan. The country most important to the future of Israel is Palestine. Unless it emerges secure and economically viable, Israel will never know true security. That means building, not bombing their neighbor-the one path toward giving all the peoples of that battered corner of the world what they would most like to be thankful for: real peace.

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