Welcome November 2010
A graying world, lifelines for the president, and getting inside Talibanistan.
There’s change, and then there’s really big change, of the earth-shattering type. This issue of Foreign Policy brings you meditations on both. In the coming weeks, U.S. President Barack Obama is likely to find his job that much harder, with the unwelcome change of a significantly more Republican Congress than the one he has dealt with so far — and the inevitable consequences for how he steers America’s course in the world. But there’s also opportunity for Obama amid the politicking, which is why this issue features a presidential Plan B: 14 ways for him to seize the moment, by leading thinkers such as economics guru Nouriel Roubini, former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, and climate-change prophet James Hansen. They came up with an array of creative ways for Obama to hit his own reset button, from a global-warming plan of attack that might be genuinely politically popular to specific proposals for avoiding another plunge into global recession. We also consulted historian Robert Dallek, whose bestselling chronicles of America’s 20th-century leaders have made him an expert on the tyrannical power of a few misguided metaphors when it comes to presidents trying to make tough decisions about war and peace. His must-read essay, “The Tyranny of Metaphor,” starts on page 78.
It takes our Think Again in this issue to really conjure up change on an epochal scale: the monumental graying of the planet, already proceeding at dramatic pace and rewriting world politics and economics in numerous and surprising ways. Phillip Longman’s masterful cover story takes on everything you thought you knew about global aging — and shows how it’s even more consequential than you might have imagined. It’s not just America’s aging baby boomers who are turning everything associated with retirement into a booming business; if anything, the aging of Asia and the revolutionary drop in birth rates in the Middle East portend even more significant global changes. Longman’s article is filled with astonishing detail on the very real threat of global population decline, the myth of “geriatric peace,” and the worldwide failure of governments to address the aging problem. It’s also a cautionary tale about the perils of prognostication: The piece starts with a quote from the 1968 blockbuster book, The Population Bomb, warning — with absolute certainty — that future generations would “starve to death” as a result of exploding population growth.
Avoiding such disastrously wrong predictions certainly is a cause to be taken to heart by those who’ve been peddling us our economic information over the last decade. The economy is the subject of a special edition of our In Box section, featuring everything from former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker’s epiphanies to a Prime Numbers dedicated to figuring out the truth about just how bad the jobs crisis is, plus Clyde V. Prestowitz on the myth of how the United States trumped Japan in the trade wars (and how the Chinese have figured out the real story). In his Opening Gambit, FP associate editor Charles Homans debunks the seductive but, alas, untrue idea that the incredible exponential progress in computer chips — Moore’s Law — that powered our last few decades of technological revolution will apply to other industries.
Technological change — the promise of it, and the hazards of pursuing it — is also the subject of FP contributing editor Steve LeVine’s fascinating report on the geopolitical race to dominate the electric-car industry of the future. The race, it turns out, may well hinge on which country — the United States or China — can figure out first how to reinvent a humble 19th-century technology: the battery. And finally, the dark side of the technological revolution is on full display in Jarret Brachman’s memoir of his years as an Internet al Qaeda watcher. Brachman, a CIA counterterrorism analyst turned academic, thinks the new al Qaeda might be even more dangerous than the old — and it’s certainly a lot more attractive to the young Americans whom the Facebook-era al Qaeda now recruits. Skeptical? Brachman’s correspondence with a suburban Virginia kid who went from watching South Park to threatening its creators with death for insulting the Prophet Mohammed ought to convince you.
— Susan Glasser