Putting Your Big Think on the Map

A how-to guide.


China was cracking down in Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall still had a few months left to stand when 36-year-old Francis Fukuyama published a wonky essay in the summer of 1989 proclaiming the triumph of democracy and free markets. “I thought it would be read by a few friends,” Fukuyama recalled. "People who were interested in political theory and international relations — a pretty narrow group."

It’s hard to blame him. The 10,000-word tract in the National Interest ruminated about a "universal homogenous state" that existed only in "the realm of human consciousness." Even today, it’s hard to get through the whole thing.

But Fukuyama also put forth an idea that, two decades later, won’t go away: "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution."

Once you declare the end of history, well, the rest is history. Fukuyama’s essay became a manifesto for the post-Cold War world, going viral even in that benighted pre-Web age. Yet, almost as quickly as the idea gained fame, it lost credibility. To this day, whenever something big and bad happens — the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the past year’s Great Recession — Fukuyama is dragged out for ritual flogging. He’ll never escape the end of history. We won’t let him.

"I’m afraid that is going to be my fate," Fukuyama told me. "From the moment the article appeared I’ve been running away from it. … I am now resigned to the fact that it will be very hard to do that."

Just as Fukuyama remains forever linked to this one big idea, several other grand theories soon followed, with various thinkers peddling sweeping visions of what the world after the Cold War would — or should — become. And so Fukuyama’s "End of History" was followed by Samuel Huntington’s "Clash of Civilizations," Joseph Nye’s "Soft Power," John Williamson’s "Washington Consensus," and even Robert Kagan’s "Americans Are from Mars, Europeans Are from Venus" before arriving, perhaps inevitably, at Fareed Zakaria’s "Post-American World."

Each in its own way has come to define the geopolitics of the past two decades, serving as shorthand for everything from the rise of American neoconservatives to the ebb and flow and ebb again of American global power. And though few readers may have slogged all the way through most of these treatises, each one has earned widespread name recognition today. (Being right, as Fukuyama showed, is certainly no prerequisite for success in the marketplace for big ideas.)

So how did they do it? For all their differences, these six big ideas follow a basic set of rules that have helped them outlast their rivals in the battle for big-think bragging rights. How well does the world remember Naomi Klein’s No Logo or G. John Ikenberry’s "Myth of Post-Cold War Chaos" today? Then again, talk to the authors and you realize pretty quickly that none of these ideas was preordained for stardom; rather than declaring history’s end, they could just have easily ended on history’s trash heap.

Herewith, their playbook.


Make It Catchy

Robert Kagan did not intend to launch a passionate debate over what it means to be European versus American in the 21st century. Nor, he says, did he mean to insult Europe’s collective manhood.

But he did, and you can pretty much blame his wife.

Kagan found himself living in Brussels when his spouse, a U.S. diplomat, took a nato post there. Washington was still supposedly basking in post-9/11 support, but living among the natives, Kagan heard what European thinkers really thought of Washington, and it wasn’t pretty. "When the Americans were not in the room," he told me, "it was a different conversation."

Some 11,000 words later came Kagan’s "Power and Weakness," published in Policy Review in 2002. He argued that the force-wielding United States and peace-loving Europe had grown estranged, no longer agreeing on key strategic matters or even on the nature of global threats. The irony, to Kagan, was that Europe could enjoy its peaceful paradise only because America guarded it. "The United States, with all its vast power, remains stuck in history, left to deal with the Saddams and the ayatollahs, the Kim Jong Ils and the Jiang Zemins," he wrote, "leaving the happy benefits to others."

Kagan’s essay sparked fierce debate, but it likely never would have exploded without a memorable line from its opening paragraph: "On major strategic and international questions today," he wrote, "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus."

The play off the best-seller, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, seemed to contrast brawny Americans with Euro girly-men, and it made Kagan a star. "The Mars-Venus line was not one I was most proud of," Kagan said, but he understood its power. "To come back and sell the book, to get on TV shows, the line was all you needed."

Yet the line almost never was. He’d written the essay without it, but his wife told him that he needed something grabby to persuade readers to endure such a lengthy article. Had he meant to suggest Europe was a bastion of effeminate metrosexuals? "That was a total mistake," Kagan claimed when we talked. "I feel like an idiot…. I was not thinking about men versus women. I was thinking about people talking past each other."

No matter. The line stuck, proving that the unforgettable catchphrase is a key element of a winning foreign-policy idea. It needn’t even be entirely original to be effective. Fukuyama, for one, doesn’t claim "The End of History" as his own. It was "not a very novel idea," he told me. "It was derivative from Hegel, and anyone who had read him understood that." (Of course, if Fukuyama had called his essay "Hegel Revisited: The Recurring Ascent of Market Liberalism," we wouldn’t be discussing it today.)

Huntington’s famed 1993 Foreign Affairs essay "The Clash of Civilizations?" didn’t have all that original a line, either. As Huntington noted in the piece, historian Bernard Lewis had used the "clash" phrase in The Atlantic three years earlier. The title of that piece? "The Roots of Muslim Rage."

Then again, Polish historian Leszek Kolakowski was railing against Soviet totalitarianism and warning of a "clash of civilizations" in the mid-1980s. But history has given the line to Huntington.

When it came to civilizations, the third clash was the charm.


Everybody Loves a Critic

As a group these authors can be unsparing in their criticism of each other; intellectual combat does wonders for buzz and book sales.

When Fukuyama’s "The End of History?" came out, Huntington was quick to respond with a broadside about the "errors of endism." When he published "The Clash of Civilizations?" four years later, the two pieces became forever paired as dueling visions of the coming world order.

Kagan, in his 2008 book The Return of History and the End of Dreams, criticized the undue optimism that followed the end of the Cold War, as embodied in the "End of History" argument. In our interview, Kagan took shots at other would-be big ideas. Zakaria’s The Post-American World and Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat are simply "a businessman’s perspective," Kagan told me. "They see the world as a series of hedge fund opportunities."

Zakaria, for his part, told me he viewed Kagan’s Mars-Venus argument as "spirited and elegantly written," but said that "by the end of the book it seems he is disagreeing with himself." Meanwhile, Fukuyama dismissed Kagan’s latest book as intellectually "incoherent."

It’s like Foreign Affairs meets Mean Girls.

Then again, enemies aren’t necessarily a problem; few might ever have heard of John Williamson’s Washington Consensus if not for the opposition it generated.

In late 1989 the British economist authored an obscure paper — "What Washington Means by Policy Reform" — for a Washington conference on economic development in Latin America. In dry prose never intended for a mass audience, Williamson laid out 10 economic policies "about whose proper deployment Washington can muster a reasonable degree of consensus." He asked conference participants to comment "on the extent to which the Washington consensus is shared."

The policies he outlined for developing countries included fiscal discipline, fewer subsidies, tax reform, free trade, privatization, market interest rates, deregulation, and openness to foreign investment. To Williamson, they seemed uncontroversial. But the "Washington Consensus" quickly became shorthand for the dictates that the International Monetary Fund imposed on poor countries, for globalization and untrammeled capitalism. Williamson went from Washington wonk to worldwide whipping boy, pummeled by anti-globalization protesters and Third World politicians. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was still attacking the concept at this spring’s G-20 summit in London, declaring the "old Washington Consensus is over."

Yet, it is precisely the relentless critics, many of whom exaggerate the Washington Consensus’s scope, who have kept the controversy alive. For a true blockbuster idea, it’s indispensable to have a reliable nemesis, the more high-profile the better.

When asked to name the "worst distorter" of the Washington Consensus, Williamson pointed to Columbia University economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who attacked the Washington Consensus as "market fundamentalism" in his 2002 best-seller Globalization and Its Discontents. "Joe is guilty there," Williamson said. "I’m a good friend of Joe, but he says anyone who believes the Washington Consensus must think all markets are perfect. And that’s nonsense."

Yet the authors can also internalize the critics. Williamson told me that Harvard University economist Dani Rodrik, a frequent Consensus-basher, had made him realize there are times when a conservative fiscal policy doesn’t make sense. When I reminded him that he’d made the same point himself in the original paper, Williamson seemed surprised. "Really?" he replied. "Guess I haven’t read it in a while.”


Timing Is (Almost) Everything

No one could accuse Joseph Nye of not revisiting his own writing often enough. The Harvard political scientist is best known for "soft power," a notion he unveiled in Foreign Policy in 1990 and one he has since refined endlessly in essays, speeches, and books. Even Nye’s 2004 novel, The Power Game, features a State Department official who faces moral dilemmas, sleeps around, and calls for soft power-type strategies.

Soft power, as Nye defined it initially, involves one country’s ability to get other countries to want what it wants, in contrast to ordering or forcing others to do what it wants. The tools of soft power, he explained, include a country’s culture, ideology, and institutions. As with the other big ideas, Nye doesn’t claim he’s the first to imagine it. "There is nothing new about the power of seduction," he told me. "Philosophers have known this forever, but I found a way to encapsulate it."

Seductive or not, soft power "took off slowly," Nye recalls. At first, the timing wasn’t right. The end of the Cold War already seemed to signal the triumph of American ideology; soft power may have seemed redundant. The world wanted to know what came next, so arguments like "Clash of Civilizations" and "End of History" won more attention.

Indeed, to attain rapid blockbuster status, the right moment is critical. "The extent to which something has an impact," Huntington told an interviewer in 2006, "depends overwhelmingly on timing…. If you set it forth five years too early, or five years too late, nobody pays attention."

For Nye, it took more than a decade — and a major U.S. foreign-policy blunder. The Iraq war, launched in 2003, was largely a hard-power, shock-and-awe U.S. show. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even publicly admitted his ignorance of soft power: "I don’t know what it means," he said in the early months of the war. But as Iraq descended into chaos and Rumsfeld was sent packing, the limits of hard power became clear. In a 2007 speech, Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert Gates, decried the "gutting" of U.S. soft power, and in his 2008 National Defense Strategy, Gates invoked soft power five times.

So, very belatedly, soft power had finally arrived, officially enshrined in U.S. military strategy, and a recent survey of more than 2,700 international relations scholars rated Nye as the scholar with the most influence on U.S. foreign policy over the past two decades.

Fukuyama is still hopeful a similar twist could vindicate his end of history, telling an audience in 2007 that it would take another two decades to see if he was right.

When I asked Fukuyama why we needed to wait that long, he cited China. "I believe there will be pressure in China to open up their political system as they get richer," he said, "but it has not happened yet."

After all, he reminded me, "There was always that question mark at the end of the title."



As the Cold War came to a close, old notions of American exceptionalism and Pax Americana made a comeback — and no surprise, this "America first" attitude permeates the big ideas of the past two decades.

Early in his "Soft Power" essay, for instance, Nye criticized arguments that America was in decline. In our interview, he even cited Paul Kennedy’s 1987 The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers as counterinspiration, "but Paul got all the royalties," he quipped. Williamson’s "Washington Consensus" was by definition an effort to share America’s wisdom with the world. And in Kagan’s view, a united Europe also resulted in part from farsighted U.S. policy.

At first glance, Zakaria’s latest book seemed to take the opposite approach. Published in 2008, just as the global financial crisis was making American-style capitalism seem vulnerable, Zakaria’s The Post-American World looked particularly prescient.

Although the United States remains the world’s dominant political and military force, Zakaria wrote, "in every other dimension — industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural — the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance."

Subsequent events appeared to confirm his views. Although Zakaria largely missed the coming global financial turmoil (proclaiming, in fact, that "global growth is the big story of our times"), the emergence of the G-20 to tackle the crisis is a clear instance of Washington sharing power with China, India, and others.

The irony, though, is that the notion of the post-American world is a bit of a misnomer because the world Zakaria describes is in fact a creation of Washington. "For sixty years, American politicians and diplomats have traveled around the world pushing countries to open their markets, free up their politics, and embrace trade and technology," Zakaria wrote. "And it worked: the natives have gotten good at capitalism."

If so, then what separates a post-American world from a most American one? Zakaria himself still bets on the United States to lead. "I am optimistic about America and American power," he told me. "If I had anyone’s cards to play in this world, I would pick the United States’."

Zakaria makes the argument with a sort of big-think medley. Like Fukuyama, he thinks that the Soviet collapse left but a single path forward. "Suddenly, there was only one basic approach to organizing a country’s economy," he wrote. (Washington Consensus, anyone?) And though Zakaria rejects the premise of "The Clash of Civilizations?" his rise-of-the-rest predictions offer a benign version of Huntington’s "West versus the rest" warning. Finally, his belief that America should become a global chairman of the board — setting agendas and mobilizing coalitions — smacks of soft power. "Washington needs to understand that generating international public support for its view of the world is a core element of power," Zakaria wrote. Nye would be proud.


Second Thoughts

For all their apparently definitive pronouncements, many of the authors seem to fear that they might be wrong after all. So they hedge their arguments, concluding their landmark works with odd contradictions.

In the last and strangest paragraph of his essay, Fukuyama speculated that the end of history would be a sad time, devoid of art or philosophy. "Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again," he concluded.

In the final passages of "The Clash of Civilizations?" Huntington called for common ground and deeper cross-cultural understanding — the only hopeful notes in an essay that makes a persuasive case to the contrary. At the conclusion of his piece, Kagan acknowledged that the United States and Europe share similar aspirations and that "a little common understanding could still go a long way." And throughout his paper, Williamson emphasized his differences with the very consensus he identified. "Is the Washington Consensus, or my interpretation of it, missing something?" he asked.

So, maybe history never ends; maybe civilizations don’t have to clash; maybe post-America fails to arrive; maybe the United States and Europe work it all out; and maybe Washington never really agrees on anything! But such caveats have done little to change how we regard these ideas, notions so powerful they still mark the intellectual tides since the end of the Cold War.

The George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton years can be thought of as the End of History/Washington Consensus era, with visions of benign world orders and free markets dominating foreign policy. George W. Bush’s administration had more of a Clash of Civilizations/Mars-Venus flavor after 9/11, forged by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Rumsfeld’s barbs against "old Europe." And the current administration seems more of a Soft Power/Post-American World crew. (A Nobel Peace Prize certainly suggests some soft power, and Barack Obama was caught toting around Zakaria’s book during the campaign.)

Despite such influence, several of these writers — like Fukuyama still trying to outrun "The End of History?" — profess serious second thoughts. Zakaria speaks wistfully of his prior book The Future of Freedom, "a more serious book, to be honest," than the best-selling The Post-American World. Williamson jokes that the Washington Consensus is his illegitimate child and admits he’s not sure it accomplished what he had hoped. "The plus is that, of course, it’s made me famous," he said. "The minus is that I’m not sure the phrase really was conducive to promoting reform, which was the object of the exercise."

Or, as Kagan put it about the Mars-Venus essay: "I was arguing contrary to desire. I wanted Europe back in the power game. Part of me is always hoping to be wrong."

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