Gabby Giffords has an op-ed in the New York Times today, excoriating the Senate's failure to pass legislation expanding background checks on gun purchases. Once it went live, Ezra Klein tweeted something quite provocative:
Op-eds almost never change American politics. This one, from Gabby Giffords, might prove an exception: nytimes.com/2013/04/18/opi…— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) April 18, 2013
Now this led to a rollicking Twitter debate about whether any op-ed has ever changed American politics. The consensus among the Twitterati seemed to be "no" -- but that might be an unfair bar. Often, op-eds are condensed versions of longer essays that might have an effect on public policy. After all, earlier in the week there was a whole kerfuffle about some mistakes in a Carmen Reinhart-Kenneth Rogoff paper and whether the Reinhart-Rogoff argument contributed to the wave of austerity policies that swept the developed world starting around 2009.
Narrowing the focus to international relations and U.S. foreign policy, I started to think if one could point to essays that really did affect the contours of world politics. The effect couldn't just be because of who the author was -- say, for example, Hillary Clinton describing the rebalancing strategy, which mattered because she was the U.S. secretary of state -- but rather the content of the ideas. Here's my somewhat obvious short list:
1) George Kennan, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct,"Foreign Affairs, July 1947. Now let's be clear - the animating ideas behind Kennan's essay were already affecting U.S. foreign policy before the "X" article. That's because they originally appeared in Kennan's Long Telegram, and because Kennan, was in a government position to affect policy. That said, everyone in the foreign policy community read and imbibed Kennan's arguments. Even if they disagreed with how to execute the "containment" strategy, they had to use Kennan's language. So yeah, this essay mattered.
2) Jeane Kirkpatrick, "Dictatorship and Double Standards,"Commentary, November 1979. Kirkpatrick's basic argument was that, in trying to affect change on human rights, engagement with communist dictatorships was futile, while engagement with anti-communist dictatorships had at least some chance of succeeding. When Ronald Reagan was elected, he appointed Kirkpatrick to be his ambassador to the United Nations. As I've argued here, Kirkpatrick's ideas really did shape Reagan's human rights agenda during his administration.
3) Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History?"The National Interest, Summer 1989. Talk about timing. Fukuyama's essay was published just as the Soviet Union's Warsaw Pact allies saw their communist regimes disappear. How did this abstruse essay about Hegelian dialectics matter? Because it provided a narrative for what was happening during the end of the Cold War. Perhaps more importantly, it offered a narrative that suggested the United States did not need to act aggressively in response to the Soviet collapse.
4) Samuel Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs,Summer 1993. The doppelgänger to Fukuyama. Huntington's essay had some influence in the 1990s when foreign policy analysts were trying to understand the Bosnia conflict. I'd argue that Huntington's argument, however, carried even greater weight in the post-9/11 world, when a clash of civilizations seemed, for a moment, to be a semi-plausible explanation for the terrorist attacks.
5) Zheng Bijian, "China's 'Peaceful Rise' to Great Power Status,"Foreign Affairs, September/October 2005. Ironically, China's government scuttled the "peaceful rise" rhetoric pretty damn quickly because the word "rise" seemed to freak out everyone. By then it was too late, however. I suspect this mattered less for the content of the ideas and more for the fact that it was the first time a lot of the U.S. foreign policy community read something about China's worldview written by a Chinese national. Still, much like Kennan's "containment" language, it was impossible to talk about China during the last decade without "peaceful rise" being part of the conversation.
OK, readers, which essays did I leave out? Make your case in the comments. And bonus points if you can come up with a peer-reviewed paper that did so (I can think of one or two that might have made the list, but I think the effect was indirect and not direct).