Ten Things I'm Thankful For This Year

I've posted on Valentine's, Father's Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day and Halloween, so at this point I assume a few readers are expecting me to offer up some thoughts on Thanksgiving. I'm happy to oblige, because Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Not only do I enjoy helping produce a feast and welcoming friends and family, but I like the idea of a day to reflect on whatever blessings we may have received. In my own case, I've been blessed with a wonderful family and a lot of undeserved good luck, and I probably ought to be even more grateful than I am.

So in that spirit, here are the Top Ten things I'm thankful for this year. (For the "official" FP version, check out Josh Keating's list here). I've limited myself to items that relate in some way to foreign policy or international affairs.

1. The Foreign Policy team.  First off, I'm grateful for the invitation to write this blog, and especially for the terrific backup we get from the editorial and production team at FP. Special thanks to Rebecca Frankel (who finds all those great photos), to Susan Glasser, who keeps the whole operation running, and of course, the boundlessly inventive and fearless Moises Naim.

2. Free Speech. Every writer lucky enough to live in a country that protects free speech ought to give thanks for that good fortune every single day.   Compared to the millions of people who risk persecution (or worse) if they dare to express their own ideas, intellectuals in the United States have it pretty soft. We should never take that luxury for granted.

3. Great Power Peace:  Throughout history, wars between great powers have been one of the most potent causes of human misery.  Just think about World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, which together killed over 85 million people and impoverished millions more. Yet today, great power rivalries are quite muted and the danger of a true great power war seems remote.  There are plenty of other problems still remaining, of course, but I'm grateful that one of the big ones isn't troubling us right now. Let's try to keep it that way, ok?

4. Nuclear Deterrence.  Unlike some writers whose work I nonetheless admire, I think nuclear weapons did contribute to peace during the Cold War and remain a stabilizing force today.  As Churchill put it, safety has become the "sturdy child of terror." So despite some lingering reservations, I'm glad that nuclear weapons exist. But I'm not giving thanks for the number that we have, which is far in excess of what is needed for deterrence. 

5. Critics.  Some of my recent work attracted a lot of criticism, and I'm genuinely grateful for it. First of all, my co-author and I have been fortunate that our most vehement critics chose to misrepresent our work and to smear us with various baseless charges, thereby confirming some of our central arguments and helping us win over a lot of readers. At the same time, scholars who have challenged my various writings over the years in more serious ways helped me refine my ideas and gain a fuller understanding of numerous topics. And I'm always thankful for students who don't accept ideas at face value and push back, because we need more independent thinkers and vigorous discussion helps us all learn.

6. SupportersThe controversy over The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy also brought me a legion of new friends, some of whom I would never have met otherwise. My thanks to inspired writers and activists like Phil Weiss, Tony Judt, M.J. Rosenberg, Jerome Slater, Avi Shlaim, Uri Avnery, Sydney Levy, and many, many more. I'm also grateful to the various people who faced pressure to cancel speaking engagements and didn't succumb to it, as well as the many friends who offered their support privately, in countless small ways.  You know who you are, and I won't forget.

7. The Fruits of Globalization. I don't know about you, but I'm grateful to live in a world that is increasingly interconnected. Indeed, this aspect of the modern world still strikes me as nearly miraculous, and I feel enormously lucky to be able to enjoy it. I've eaten hummus in Tel Aviv, camel in Abu Dhabi, fish head curry in Singapore, and tapas in Barcelona. My iPod contains music from all over the world, and the last two novels I read were by Orhan Parmuk (Turkey) and Haruki Murakami (Japan). My children attend a public high school where students speak over fifty different languages at home, and there are students from over 80 different countries where I teach. Cultural differences often create awkward tensions (or worse), but I'd feel terribly impoverished if I lived in an isolated mono-culture.

8. Bullets Dodged.  I am also thankful that we have thus far avoided some even more dire events in recent years. The world economy may have tanked in 2007-08, but we seem -- knock wood -- to have avoided a complete replay of the Great Depression. Swine flu has been a serious problem but is not a true global pandemic. Terrorists still conspire and sometimes succeed, but another 9/11 (or worse) has not occurred  And we have not been so foolish as to attack Iran (at least so far). We should not forget that many are suffering in today's economy, roughly 5000 people have died from H1N1, both soldiers and civilians are still dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there are still influential voices clamoring for more war. But things could be much worse and for that we should all be grateful.

9. The Internet.  Boy, am I glad that Al Gore invented this! After all, this blog wouldn't exist without it. Not only has it revolutionized how many of us do research (and in a good way), but it is becoming the main engine of accountability in a world where it is often lacking. Bloggers are exposing the flabby fatuousness of mainstream media and politicians everywhere live in fear of their own "YouTube moment."  And whether it is a brutal crackdown in Tehran, torture at Abu Ghraib, or possible war crimes in Gaza, the Internet is helping bring misconduct to light in ways that governments cannot easily suppress.  I say: let the sunshine in!

10.  Readers.  Finally, a heartfelt thanks to all of you who've been reading this blog since its inception, and especially those who've taken the time to offer words of support. I've learned a lot in the process-including some of the more constructive comments that readers provide -- and I intend to keep going until the tank is empty. Tomorrow is a holiday, however, and I'm going to take the day off. You should too, and don't forget to give thanks.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images


The Third-Rate Third Way

Just a few years ago, politicians like British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President Bill Clinton rejected left-right distinctions and proclaimed the emergence of a new “Third Way.” English sociologist Anthony Giddens, whose book The Third Way provided much of the intellectual ballast for the movement, called it a “fundamental paradigm shift in politics” and predicted that it would “dominate the next twenty or thirty years.” Leaders embracing the Third Way -- which combines a reliance on free markets with progressive social policies -- gained power in Germany, Belgium, Italy, and several other countries. Prominent politicians and public intellectuals debated Third Way principles at conferences in Florence, New York City, and Berlin, reinforcing the impression that an innovative global movement had been born.

Today, however, this once contagious movement looks less promising than its proponents anticipated. Blair’s popularity has eroded steadily over the past year, and several other Third Way leaders have experienced significant electoral setbacks. The recent wave of antigovernment protests in Europe and the continued weakness of the euro have put Third Way governments on the defensive. The U.S. economy remains strong, but Third Way rhetoric was noticeably absent from the 2000 presidential election. And at the most recent gathering of centrist politicians, held in Berlin in June 2000, the phrase “Third Way” was abandoned in favor of the bland “progressive governance,” raising new doubts about the movement’s claims to ideological novelty.

The initial popularity of Third Way politics was due in part to the natural tendency of political leaders to emulate success. By combining conservative views on free markets with liberal concerns about social justice (while ignoring the thorny issue of how one resolves trade-offs between them), both Clinton and Blair were able to seize the center without appearing overly opportunistic. The “Third Way” made “triangulation” sound like a principled innovation rather than a cynical political tactic. And with U.S. and British success, politicians in other industrial democracies were quick to leap on the bandwagon.

So why did the movement lose steam? One problem may be boredom: Though it is hard to find anything objectionable in the ideology, it’s equally hard to find anything exciting. There was genuine drama in the old struggle between left and right, but only the most dedicated wonks will find their pulses quickening while reading the banal proclamations from a typical Third Way proceeding. Second, attendance at annual Third Way conferences has not helped save politicians who fail to deliver at home, demonstrating that membership in the Third Way club cannot guarantee electoral success. Third, the allure of these policies may have owed less to the program itself than to the personal charisma of its proponents; men like Clinton, Blair, or German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder have few equals in the fine art of making vague nostrums sound fresh and appealing. Finally, Third Way thinkers had little to offer nondemocratic and less developed countries, except for the familiar (and often unwelcome) advice to become more like the West. As a result, the program has had little impact outside the Western world. Political fads fade when they are mostly style and no substance, and the Third Way is beginning to look less like the wave of the future and more like a catchy slogan with a short shelf life.