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Does the editor of Foreign Policy magazine need to be a U.S. citizen? That was my first question in mid-1996 upon learning that the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the think tank that then owned the magazine, was looking for a new editor. Maybe a written or, perhaps, unwritten rule reserved the position for Americans? In most other countries, after all, it would be hard, if not impossible, for a foreigner to run an elite publication like FP. But not here: It turned out that my Venezuelan nationality was not a problem. I could apply, and to my surprise, I got the job — a job that I have decided to leave in June after 14 great years.
My appointment as editor was the first of many improbable events in the life of this magazine over that time. The most important improbability is that FP is not only alive but thriving (in 2009 alone, 428 magazines folded). Initially, there were many doubts about the wisdom of turning Foreign Policy from a respected, academically oriented journal to a glossy magazine catering to thought leaders around the world. But I was convinced that FP had the potential to tap a rapidly expanding global market of readers interested in international politics and economics. These new readers did not think of themselves as specialists and did not care about the minutiae, acronyms, and narrow debates that clog journals aimed at insiders. Rather, they wanted — and needed — to know about the world, how it was changing, and how these often forbiddingly abstract and seemingly remote global changes would touch them, their companies, and their countries.
To reach these well-informed, intellectually curious readers, we needed to change FP. And change we did — much to the horror of some of our longtime readers. I still remember one contentious meeting at which a leading international affairs expert explained how our plans would wreck what was one of the field’s most respected publications. “You will lose the magazine’s traditional readers, and it will be too late to recover them once you realize that your new readers only exist in your imagination.”
We pushed ahead anyway. We changed the format, edited more aggressively, made our content more reader-friendly, introduced powerful photography and art, and offered new entry points and features designed to win over time-starved, information-saturated readers. We increased the frequency of publication, launched editions in other languages, developed a conference business, and, of course, launched ForeignPolicy.com, a domain that, to our surprise, was still available in 1997.
It worked. FP gained readers, advertisers, and worldwide recognition. A decade later, FP has won all the industry’s top awards, including three National Magazine Awards for General Excellence. Naturally, these achievements reflect the unstinting efforts of a team of creative, hard-working editors, designers, and publishing professionals who got things right almost every day — for 14 years.
Nearly two years ago came another big surprise: The Washington Post Company bought FP from the Carnegie Endowment. Once again, this was a decision that ran counter to prevailing trends. While magazines everywhere were closing or shrinking, FP would be expanding. While faith in print publications was scant and dwindling, our new owner was betting on FP. While media analysts were arguing that, to survive, newspapers and magazines ought to become nonprofit entities subsidized by foundations or philanthropists, FP was moving from its think-tank owner to a publicly listed, for-profit corporation.
This move, too, has served FP and its readers well. We now have the support of one of the world’s most respected media companies. Our integration with the Slate Group — another Washington Post Co. property — has allowed us to harness the Web experience of that pioneering online magazine. FP’s executive editor, the talented Susan Glasser, who will be my successor, has led the formidable effort that has made ForeignPolicy.com the indispensable and daily Web destination for millions around the world. And, as in previous years, FP continues to win National Magazine Awards. I am sure that under Susan’s leadership it will continue to thrive. Producing an excellent magazine is deeply ingrained in FP’s organizational culture.
This conviction is what makes my decision to leave FP now so much easier. I know that FP will be in good hands and will continue to lure readers, attract great authors, publish a beautiful magazine, soar on the Internet, and surprise everyone with its smart content.
Editing Foreign Policy is the best job I have had. I was lucky to work here during a period of immense international changes that startled pundits, baffled experts, and confused leaders. Trying to make sense of it all for our readers with the help of some of the world’s best minds and a talented group of colleagues was a unique privilege. From my perch at FP, I saw how China’s exports grew nine times from what they were in 1996, a year when India’s economy was three times smaller than today. I watched as an obscure band of insurgents, the Taliban, took power in Afghanistan, were driven back, rebounded, and now again seem to be on the defensive. In 1997 we introduced al Qaeda to our readers; in 2000 we explained the motivations of suicidal terrorists and predicted the dot-com bust. Then came 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the spread of terrorist attacks from Bali to Madrid — only to be followed by 2008’s economic crash. It has been quite an education. I learned how decisions made in Washington were misinterpreted in Beijing — and vice versa — and saw how economic forces can overrun deep cultural mores or be contained by nationalism. I watched how power is gained, used, abused, wasted, lost, and, sometimes, regained. I tried throughout to give our readers concrete examples of how globalization, freer markets, and democracy shape the world — along with darker forces such as economic inequality, social injustice, and myriad other grievances. Mostly, I learned about the power of ideas.
The time has come for me to continue my education from a different vantage point. I will be moving back to my old home at the Carnegie Endowment, where I will have the privilege of thinking and writing about these same interests without the pressures of deadlines and the complex demands that all editors face. I plan to write a book — or more than one — about what I learned at FP.
I leave FP with an enduring gratitude for those who made these 14 years so rewarding and important. But mostly I leave with great pride about what FP is today, immense enthusiasm for what it will become, and an enduring curiosity about the global forces and issues that shape our lives. Many thanks for reading.