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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.