The Keys to the Foreign-Policy Kingdom

A four-step guide to navigating the pressures and prerogatives of the powers-that-be.

The recent emergence of the Twitter hashtag #WhereAreTheWomen is a helpful reminder that the U.S. foreign policy and national security communities remain characterized by similar-looking people repeating variations of a similar conventional wisdom. The distinct impression that one has is that there is a marked underrepresentation of not just women, but also minorities, non-Americans, younger analysts and scholars, and generally people who alter the status quo or provide alternative approaches. Many often describe the perpetrators of this situation pejoratively with the monolithic shorthand of: "the media," "the academy," "think tanks," or -- worst of all -- "D.C." While these descriptors are accurate, they are also misleading, because they diffuse any responsibility for the current state of these communities.

In reality, it is individuals, or very small groups of individuals, who decide each day who is heard, seen, or read. They are effectively the gatekeepers of the institutions and outlets for mainstream foreign-policy research and commentary. This includes managing editors of opinion pages for newspapers or web outlets, booking producers of television talk shows, book editors, think-tank fellows convening roundtables and workshops, directors of programs at foreign-policy institutions, program officers at grant-giving institutions, deans and professors in the academy, and so on. They have tremendous power and influence, as well as competing professional obligations and a finite time to complete them. When considering the causes of, and looking for solutions to, the problem of underrepresented voices in the foreign policy and national security fields keep these four factors about gatekeepers in mind:

1. Old people can be ageists too.

Gatekeepers tend to be older, because it tends to take time to achieve the mid-level management positions in which one becomes empowered to make the difficult choices. The downside of this is that they are less likely to be aware of new and original voices in academic journals, policy websites, or blogs. Or, they probably no longer have the time or inclination to do so. Moreover, their contemporaries with whom they socialize the most tend to be in the same age bracket, and are similarly less aware of smart up-and-comers.

2. Even bosses have bosses.

In the less frequent instance where gatekeepers are younger, generally found in media, the constraint of time and the need to push content acceptable to supervisors leads to a similar repetition of voices. Gatekeepers have bosses -- and probably a boss above that boss -- who scrutinizes and reviews their performance. Most have work plans mandating that they deliver a certain number of people, events, or products. For example, the program officer at a grant-giving institution has a president and board of directors to whom they must answer. The projects that they recommend for funding must produce the agreed-upon "deliverables" on time and on budget. Moreover, they ideally should be able to "demonstrate impact." That means an established or prominent researcher who has worked with the program officer repeatedly in the past, and can be relied upon to deliver a product on time, is often privileged accordingly. A gatekeeper's safest course of action is often the one that he or she believes that their boss or home institution would accept. This is a matter of quality control, not overt exclusion.  

3. Timing is everything.

Like any of us, gatekeepers face pressures to deliver on deadline. But making a senior hire at a public policy school or think tank can drag on for years, in which case there is no excuse for not sifting through qualified but underrepresented scholars. In contrast, when an unexpected story breaks somewhere in the world, and a journalist needs a few quotes, or a booking producer needs someone knowledgeable and available to go on air in an hour, they will refer to their rolodexes. But most decisions fall somewhere in between, with plenty of opportunities to think and plan ahead. And yet, most of their rolodexes are full of safe and familiar names. Not only do gatekeepers generally not make an effort expand their rolodexes, but a networking gap exists between gatekeepers and new voices, creating a barrier to entry.

4. Hidden efforts don't necessarily produce results.

Gatekeepers can make an effort at promoting diversity, but fail miserably. For example, I routinely run roundtable meetings and workshops, and at some point in the question and answer session, someone inevitably makes a critical and loud observation about who was invited to present and attend: "Why wasn't person X invited?" or "It would have been useful if you had someone from organization Y." What I cannot say at that moment is that I might have extended invitations to the person and organization under question, and assuredly others, but they declined for various reasons. (It is impolite to start a meeting with "we're honored to have today's speaker, our fifth choice.") The point being that the absence of an observable outcome does not mean the absence of effort by gatekeepers. However, given that the underrepresentation of diverse voices is so widespread in the foreign policy field, gatekeepers do not appear to be trying very hard to promote diversity, or at least too few of them are.

* * *

The positive news is that most foreign policy and national security gatekeepers are conscious of the relative homogenization of people and opinions in their fields. You meet mercifully few gatekeepers who believe that everything is fine with the current state of affairs. They are receptive and grateful when they ask, "Who's smart on X?" to be made aware of a new and well-qualified expert. But the extent to which they are willing to assume some risk -- and take the time -- to find and promote new people is often determined by whether their bosses signal that this should be a priority. Without institutional "top cover" that openly encourages or mandates this, it is arbitrarily up to gatekeepers themselves to make it a point to actively scan their field and then bring underrepresented and diverse voices into the debate. Of course, doing this entails some degree of risk for the gatekeepers' reputations, both inside and outside of their institution.

However, the benefits of exposing readers, listeners, and viewers to people and ideas that are unique and refreshing is perhaps the only thing that can keep the foreign policy and national security fields relevant and attractive for a dwindling number of followers, and, in some cases, results in greater quality and more successful findings for a field of research. It is true that gatekeepers no longer have a stranglehold over the people and ideas that enter these fields. Blogs, Twitter, and the growth of news "context" websites  have provided many new venues for engagement. Yet, for the prominent outlets and institutions that still define the mainstream, gatekeepers remain -- collectively and often unconsciously -- unwilling to promote the multiplicity of people, approaches, and ideas that are required to transform and advance the foreign policy and national security fields. That's to our dismay, and loss.

Carsten Koall/Getty Images


Let Them Eat Apple Pie

Income inequality in the U.S. is now as bad as it was in aristocratic Europe. Are the bread riots finally coming?

Inequality has come out of the fiscal shadows. U.S. President Barack Obama, a scrupulous consensus-builder who long avoided all zero-sum formulations, is now rallying citizens to stand with him against "the relentless, decades-long trend" of income inequality. Bill de Blasio became New York's mayor by campaigning on the issue. And earlier this week, Christine Lagarde -- the executive director of the International Monetary Fund (the epicenter of neo-liberal orthodoxy) -- told New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter that she was very concerned about the macroeconomic effects of rising inequality.

Everyone's a convert -- except, of course, for the Republican Party. Congressman Paul Ryan's budget plan (which the GOP-controlled House has now adopted) proposes to cut the top tax rate both for individuals and corporations from 35 percent to 25 percent and to sharply reduce virtually all forms of domestic spending which benefit the poor and even the middle class.

It's almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which the Ryan plan would not increase what is already the most unequal distribution of income and wealth in the industrialized world. If the Republicans were applying for an International Monetary Fund (IMF) stabilization package they'd be laughed out of the office. Republican intransigence virtually assures that efforts to address inequality in the United States will be carried out at the local rather than the national level.

Wealth distribution in the United States is now as skewed as it was in ancien regime France, according to Thomas Piketty's magisterial new work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. But not only are there no signs of bread riots, the American economy is now growing faster than that of all but a few Western nations, including France and England. The problem with gross inequality is that it's so, well, gross that one tends to assume it will produce terrible effects which it may not actually yield -- for example, increasing labor unrest.

Economists remain very much divided over those effects. In another interview with Porter, sociologist Lane Kenworthy, author of an upcoming book with the working title Should We Worry About Inequality?, said that he saw no evidence that rising inequality in the West had limited economic growth or reduced employment, though it had hobbled middle-class income growth, among other things. And ultimately, Kenworthy concluded that there was more than enough reason to pursue redistributionist policies.

Whatever those doubts, Lagarde's open embrace of the subject means that the effects of inequality will be on the agenda at the IMF meetings this coming week. And that, in turn, may help remove the stigma that only lefties who would rather re-distribute revenue than generate it care about inequality. The argument for dramatically increasing the minimum wage is big in Seattle, where techies feel guilty about low-paid baristas, but not in Pittsburgh. Occupy Wall Street, the revolt of the many against the few, fizzled.

Yet the moment of quickening may not be far off. A debate over the salience of inequality has already begun to split the Democratic Party, with de Blasio and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren on one side and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the other. Piketty's Capital feels very much like a Category 4 hurricane that hasn't yet made landfall. A French economist, Piketty draws on a vast store of historical data to argue that the broad dissemination of wealth that occurred during the decades following World War I was not, as economists then mistakenly believed, a natural state of capitalist equilibrium, but rather a halcyon interval between Belle Époque inequality and the rising inequality of our own era.

"Broadly speaking," Piketty writes, "it was the wars of the twentieth century that wiped away the past to create the illusion that capitalism had been structurally transformed." Piketty's most provocative argument is that the discrepancy between the high returns to capital and much more modest overall economic growth -- briefly annulled during the mid-century -- ensures that the gulf between the rich (who profit from capital investments) and the middle class (who depend chiefly on income from labor) will only continue to grow.

Is capitalism itself the cause of rising inequality? Or rather is it, as others argue, that globalization has turbocharged wealth while hollowing out much of the middle class?

Whatever the case, inequality in the West is increasing in ways which seem politically, if not also economically, unsustainable. Piketty points out that the dynamic of redistribution upwards is so remorseless that only two years after the immense wealth-destroying effect of the global financial crisis, the upper-tenth in the United States once again received 46 percent of national income, not counting capital gains, as it had in 2007. Still, that understates real disparities, since the top 1 percent take home 20 percent of national income.

The United States is the outlier both in degree of inequality and in its resistance to address the problem. Yet, as Piketty points out, it was a deep national aversion to inherited privilege that in the years after World War I led the United States to raise the top income tax rate to over 70 percent, where it remained until Ronald Reagan became president. Throughout the middle decades of the century, the United States and Britain -- today's joint guardians of the citadel of economic liberalism -- led the world in confiscatory taxation; both also taxed "unearned" income yet more heavily.

Sustained economic growth had dulled the appetite for redistribution. Americans will tolerate even vast inequality so long as a rising tide lifts all boats. But middle-class incomes have been flat for a generation. Today's right-wing populism will eventually run aground on the rocks of economic stagnation. A recent IMF policy paper notes that rising inequality is producing rising demands for redistributionist policies. Indeed, the authors point out that one good reason to address the problem is to forestall populist solutions which could kill the goose that lays golden eggs. It was prudent reform, after all, that prevented the Great Depression from destroying all faith in capitalism.

But the free-market conservatives who now dominate the Republican Party insist that all such solutions kill the goose, or at least severely limit the goose's egg-laying gifts. They will argue that to the death. The authors of the IMF paper, however, conclude that "redistribution appears generally benign in its impact on growth; only in extreme cases is there some evidence that it may have direct negative effects on growth." In a separate account of policy prescriptions, IMF economists suggest that developing nations address rising inequality through "means-tested cash transfers" rather than policies offering universal benefits, and by targeting health and education spending towards those services used chiefly by the poor.

In the West, where up to half of national income is taxed, slowing inequality means returning to the more progressive tax policies of an earlier era. Piketty's chief policy prescription, which he concedes is "utopian," is a global tax on all forms of capital -- i.e., a wealth tax. He also supports restoring the top rate on income taxes to the levels of half a century ago. I'm guessing that many economists, not to mention all rich people, will question his belief that an 80 percent tax on incomes over $500,000 or $1 million will not harm economic growth in the United States.

The best reason to raise tax rates is not to punish the rich, of course, but to raise the revenue which the United States needs to invest in infrastructure and research, not to mention to pay for Social Security and health care. That investment gap poses a clear and present danger to American global economic leadership. Rising inequality exacerbates the problem by sapping the collective political will needed to address the problem.

The obvious, and very discouraging, analogy is to global warming, where the problem grows ever more real, and more threatening, but the political system, in thrall to beneficiaries of the current state of affairs, remains paralyzed. "Without a radical shock," Piketty concludes, the "current equilibrium" will likely persist: "the New World may be on the verge of becoming the Old Europe of the twenty-first century's global economy."