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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

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