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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

The real global thinkers

Gian Gentile and Julian Assange. Photo: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

It’s that time of year, when magazines and websites rush to publish their top listicles of whatever they think is important throughout the year. One of the most interesting is Foreign Policy’s annual list of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers.” It is a rather prestigious list: being on it means you’re literally one of the most interesting thinkers on the planet. But almost as interesting as the people on the list are the people who are not.

As one example, nowhere on Foreign Policy’s top thinkers list do we see Julian Assange. The founder and main public figure for the transparency group WikiLeaks, Assange has languished for nearly a year under house arrest in  London, awaiting extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault charges.

Assange deserves consideration because of what he achieved over the last year: one of the most, inventive attacks on American statecraft in decades. The leaking of the “Cablegate” files often classified private correspondence between diplomats abroad and their superiors in Washington, D.C. – along with the publishing of classified incident reports from Iraq and Afghanistan has had an enormous, transformative effect both on American statesmanship and the intelligence community.

Assange’s leaking stems in part from his political philosophy (published in an online manifesto of sorts), which posits that authoritarianism is only supported through conspiracy. Exposing that conspiracy, Assange wrote, is how you can undermine and collapse authoritarianism. By attacking the ability of the U.S. government to transit information in secret, “eliminating important communication between a few high weight links” in the conspiracy, as he put it, Assange believes he can destroy the “conspiracy” of American power.

Say what you will about Assange – I’ve certainly written at length, for Need to Know, about the toxic effect I think he’s had on global affairs – but there’s no denying he is a major intellectual force. His absence from the Foreign Policy list is truly puzzling.

But FP missed other notable thinkers as well. Two of this year’s winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, both from Liberia, are missing. These two women have pioneered non-violent struggle for gender equality and peacemaking in the war-torn country. The Nobel Committee certainly felt they were relevant, but the editors at FP did not.

In more down-to-earth topics, too, there are some names curiously absent from the list. While British politician Rory Stewart gets praise for his “challenge” to the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency doctrine, Foreign Policy neglected a surely more important, and more influential critic. Gian Gentile, a Colonel in the U.S. Army and a professor at West Point, has been challenging counter-insurgency, or “COIN,” for years, with a substantial risk to his career. When General David Petraeus (another thinker FP failed to laud) was testifying before Congress in 2008, Gentile was one of the few critics to voice opposition to the common belief that COIN reduced violence in Iraq. It was almost unheard of for a Colonel to publicly challenge a popular general like that, and it earned him a lot of enemies within the Army.

But Gentile kept going, first at Westpoint and later as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Gentile kept up his criticism, going so far as to call the pro-counterinsurgency faction a “cult” and to decry policymakers’ belief in its efficacy as “hubris run amok.” Despite Stewart’s similarly strong condemnation of U.S. activity in Afghanistan, Gentile has broadened his criticism to Army culture in general, questioning the Army’s ability to think adaptively. It is unlikely Gentile will win any further promotions, given how strongly he has challenged the Army orthodoxy on COIN.

There are others Foreign Policy left off as well. But going through them all misses the point. The editors intended to start a conversation with their listicle, and they have certainly succeeded (even if a lot of that conversation has been negative). Several people I’ve harshly criticized are on the list, but so are people I find inspirational. That’s how these things go.

To me, what’s much more interesting about this list is how much it basically endorses the status quo. Sure, Foreign Policy loaded the top of the list with brave Arab activists who have been agitating – at great cost –for democracy in their countries. But the editors also loaded the list with presidents, prime ministers and other kinds of government officials who have created the very problems those Arab activists are trying to  solve.

It also seems strange to include people like Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke on the list while excludingthe people in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street who have criticized his decisions. This only makes sense if Foreign Policy’s list is designed as an endorsement of the establishment – a review of the people who just happen to be in charge when things happen, rather than a  catalog of interesting or influential ideas. I’m not sure that qualifies as “thinking,” per se, but it does have a certain logic to it. Sadly, a lot of really innovative thinkers get lost in the shuffle as a result.



  • John Ross

    Identifying “top thinkers” is not as important as identifying what needs more serious thought. The basic problem is the human growth syndrome: almost everyone wants to grow the economy on this slowly shrinking planet of limited resources. So, how much more human-generated waste products can the biosphere absorb before it collapses in ecocide and we go extinct?

  • Tony

    I do not see many thinkers if any at all.
    I think the american people should be told the truth not lies and or smoke and mirrors. 
    They need to be able to choose.
    Like this idea which is probably true. As scary as it is.
    Back in the day when the Mid East was nationalizing there oil a strange thing happened at the Banks. The countries like Iran had to disclose it’s Oil Reserves. Of course the previous drillers lied. And Countries like Iran lied big time. They all did I remember. So there letters of credit are now based on those so called reserves. Now remember how fast this can change. In 1962 the US was the largest exporters of oil. Boy how did that change.
    So Iran knows they are running out of oil but can not say anything or else there economy will collapse.
    So they go for building reactors. Actually if you think about it they have no choice. What else do they have besides sand to sell when everyone learns what is really going on.
    And as they get into it with all the help from Russian Scientists from the 50s and 60s they have a lame idea. We need the bomb.
    Now you are thinking Fission bomb I bet???
    That would be stupid.
    In the 50s, remember this is over 50 years ago we tested a Hydrogen Bomb that was so big it could not be dropped but put on a ship it was so large. It was a thousand times larger than the two we dropped it was the first fusion bomb. THINK ABOUT A THOUSAND TIMES BIGGER AFTER LOOKING AT THE PHOTOS OF THE SMALL ONES WE LET OFF AND THE PEOPLE WHO DIED FROM THOSE LITTLE ONES.
    A short time later the Russians decided they needed to answer. But they did one thing better than us. OH maybe two or three things better. They dropped a bomb from a plane. Something we could not do at the time and this was really scary. THE RELEASE OF ENERGY WAS 2000 TIMES WHAT WE DROPPED AND WE SOON FOUND OUT THEY HAD ONLY GONE 50%.
    THAT MEANS IT WOULD HAVE BEEN 4000 TIMES LARGER THAN THE TWO WE DROPPED.  Just think about that!!!!!!!!!!!! How scary is that???
    How did they do it??? It was just a small tactical what might blow up a city block nothing large. And one other thing any one can get even you.
    So knowing this exited in the freeking 50s and is easy to make what would you do if you were Iran???  Remember the joke when they said they would send some boats just off the American Coast. What a joke unless you think about that old Russian Bomb so easy to make when you have some of the Russians who worked on it helping you in other ways.
    How close can they get to us and others by using international waters????
    The secound think and even more scary is BIO MADE VIRUSES.
    Now the Russians again produced Viruses that were not only say 50% kill but as high as 100% kill. That means that half the population of the entire world would die or on the other side ALL OF US. 
    There is a Netherlands firm that has figured out how to make a virus with a tage in it. What is this. They can use it or others can use it to Mutate a Virus so sat it only kills Black People. That is kind of scary is it not.
    So if you know a country like Iraq say has one vile of one of these brought to them by a poor starving Russian Scientist what would you do.
    You could try to sent in people to find it. Or bomb the hell out of the areas you think that small vile is. Or you can go one better USE A HYDROGEN BOMB TO STERILIZE IT.
    I am saying this will be the future. It is becoming so easy to manufacture a virus or even a bacteria that in the future EVERY COUNTRY AND IT’S PEOPLE WILL NEED TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR WHAT HAPPENS WITHIN THERE OWN BORDERS.
    Because the ability to Manufacture a pathogen that can destroy most of the world is now here. Not tomorrow BUT NOW.
    And the only way to destroy something like this is to burn it. 
    I think entire countries could be destroyed. Made into a sheet of glass as they decide to proceed in this area and are caught.

    So where are the Thinkers who are telling us the truth. They wont even tell us and discuss 50s teck that could be used today.
    And they will not tell you in a manner you can understand how close we are
    to the end if we do not put this on the table and discuss what we should do if we have evidence a country has one of these pathogens.
    Lets hear the Thinkers because this is not a future thing. It is here now.,