Missing Links

The Missing

Where have all the Sakharovs gone?

JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images
JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

Where are the Japanese? Why are there no Russians? Who else is missing from FOREIGN POLICY‘s list of the top 100 global thinkers?

Look at the countries whose best minds are not represented on this list of those who’ve most shaped the conversation in 2009 — a year of worldwide economic crisis and dangerous wars — and it’s clear: Understanding who’s not on the list is as revealing about today’s global marketplace of ideas as debating who’s on it.

Perhaps it’s a simple matter of bias. After all, the United States and Britain are clearly overrepresented, so maybe the explanation is just that the list is tilted in favor of those who communicate in English. But in today’s world, when an idea attracts attention, it becomes available in English regardless of the language in which it was originally presented. Satellite TV, the Internet, and other modern communications technologies have only accelerated the process through which local ideas reach a global audience. It takes no time for Osama bin Laden’s terrorist musings to go from Arabic to English or for someone to find nearly instant translations from such non-English types on the list as Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (No. 10), the former jihadist whose renunciation of violence has outraged the bin Ladens of the world.

So, if it’s not language, then what factors nurture a country’s production of thinkers whose ideas influence decisions beyond their borders or change how the world talks about an important issue? Economic power and population size would seem to matter. Yet Japan, with the world’s second-largest economy and more than 127 million people, is absent from FP‘s list of top thinkers. And ours is far from the only list on which Japan is not represented: Consider that only 16 Japanese have won a Nobel Prize since its inception in 1901, while the United States boasts 320 laureates (even Austria, with a population 15 times smaller than Japan’s, has had 20 Nobel winners, four more than Japan).

The case of Japan points to the fact that culture matters more in determining a country’s ability to spawn world-class thinkers than its economic might or population size. The individuals whose arguments capture international attention challenge and even disrespect reigning ideas. But Japanese culture and its educational system do not encourage dissent and intellectual confrontation. Moreover, disruptive intellectual leaders are often highly individualistic, a trait not honed in societies where the community’s collective well-being is more important than the rights of any single person.

But even "culture" fails to fully explain why Japan is missing. After all, a couple of decades ago Japanese thinkers had wide international appeal; with the Japanese postwar economy roaring on, Japanese management theories and ideas on governing were all the rage in the 1980s. Books such as William Ouchi’s Theory Z: How American Business Can Meet the Japanese Challenge and Kenichi Ohmae’s The Mind of the Strategist: The Art of Japanese Business became major international best-sellers (though both Japanese popularizers were actually associated with American institutions — Ouchi was a Stanford University professor and Ohmae a consultant at McKinsey). In retrospect, it’s clear that the appetite for these ideas and the celebrity of the thinkers who disseminated them had more to do with Japan’s widely touted "economic miracle" at the time than with its ability to permanently supply ideas the world is eager to consume. Once the Japanese economy sank into a deep rut in the early 1990s, the intellectual fad for Japanese ideas faded along with it.

Instead, the world turned its attention to other Asian economic miracles: Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. Thinkers who argued that the economic success of these countries was rooted in their "Asian values" became very popular. Then came the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. Crony capitalism, lack of accountability, corruption, and authoritarianism were singled out as major causes of the crisis, and the global appeal of the so-called Asian values and the thinkers extolling them waned.

Today, the Asian countries that command the world’s attention are, of course, China and India. Yet, though the two giant countries are not missing from FP‘s list, the number of Chinese and Indian thinkers who had an international impact in 2009 is surely lower than what their countries’ sizes and global importance would justify. In contrast, thinkers hailing from Arab and Muslim countries have a comparatively larger presence than Chinese and Indians. Why? Thinkers who help us understand the threats we face are as in demand as those who explain a country’s success. Neither India nor China is seen as a dangerous global actor today, but radical Islamist fundamentalism, jihadist-inspired terrorist attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Middle East’s always perilous situation have inevitably fueled the world’s interest in the culture, history, and nature of Islam and the countries where it is the dominant religion.

A generation ago, dissidents from inside the Soviet Union such as Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn drew an enormous global following for their ideas on how to resist the totalitarian state. Today, Russian thinkers are absent from our list. That the Russians are missing may reflect the world’s ambivalence about post-Soviet Russia. If the global marketplace of ideas truly does prioritize those thinkers who come from either very successful or very threatening countries, then the international disinterest in what Russian thinkers have to say is likely because Russia is neither perceived as a miracle economy nor a global threat. Sadly, it’s also true that while the demand for Russian thinkers may be weak, the supply is also far from booming. These days Russia is simply not a major producer of the kind of ideas the world wants to hear. There are no modern Sakharovs or Solzhenitsyns. If there were, we’d put them on the list.

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