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.