Letter from the Editor: Winter 2008

In his fine contribution to this journal, David Bell guesses that most World Affairs readers will not know anyone killed in Iraq. The same cannot be said of many of its contributors. The loss of a friend has a way of testing the depth of one’s convictions—a thousand times more if it was one’s convictions that led to one’s loss. The first impulse is to disparage the world of ideas, to mock the “ists” and “isms” and their remove from the “real world.” The second is to mourn
their relevance.

Who can doubt anymore that ideas have consequences? Or that they need to be debated, urgently and thoughtfully, and scrutinized rather than protected? Even today many foreign policy experts, loath to credit American politicians with coherence in any enterprise apart from campaigning for re-election, dismiss any suggestion that U.S. foreign policy evidences patterns or intellectual coherence. Thus do some journals invite their readers to indulge in the conceit that, ultimately, places more than ideas have guided America’s conduct overseas. We believe this gets things exactly backward. World Affairs will not lack for regional and functional expertise. But it will pay special attention to first- and second-order questions. “Whither Tuvalu?” Truly, we don’t care. World Affairs intends to be a small journal that argues the big ideas behind U.S. foreign policy.

Does this mean that we ought to, as the saying goes, exalt the importance of ideas? Not necessarily. If they propose a historical narrative with an obvious destination, or reflect nothing more than sectarian pride, or reject the world when the world fails to respond to their commands, then, no, we should not exalt the importance of ideas. We should lament them. But we must also engage them. As the man once said, we may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in us.

So what one idea will World Affairs champion? There won't be one, but many: Rather than adhering to some party line, this journal will celebrate and encourage heterodoxy and open debate. Readers too often know what to expect when they crack open a foreign policy journal. This one comforts the sensibilities of liberal readers, that one discourages an honest accounting of what has gone wrong in Iraq, and another one is not so much read as it is endured. World Affairs, by contrast, will feature wide-ranging comment and will glory in ferocious argument. The knowledge that philosophical purity does not make for sound policy, that facts change and opinions change with them, will be evident in every issue. Our mix of contributors, and our even more heterodox editorial board, guarantees this. The opinions published in World Affairs will not always fit comfortably with theirs. But, then, that is the
whole point.

“When intellectuals cannot do anything else,” Irving Howe said, “they start a magazine.” Howe’s quip provides a useful caution. World Affairs will not referee intramural disputes and hairline disagreements that have no relevance beyond Riverside Drive. It will debate the scope, purpose, and substance of America’s role in the world. Lately, critiques of this role have moved well beyond particulars to the point where nearly anything goes. This is hardly the first time that dissents from a controversial war have broadened into all-encompassing indictments of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, this and subsequent issues of World Affairs will give these critiques a full airing. But the tone of much of the debate, the apocalyptic, paranoid lines of argument that so many bloggers and political activists (whatever their bent) traffic in—it often seems as if nothing has been learned, and nothing remembered, from the last time America had a nervous breakdown.

The biases of World Affairs may seem quaint, even parochial, by comparison. The journal will not wear its heart on its sleeve; it’s probably somewhere in the space between board members Kagan and Kazin, which, as it happens, is also the distance between two sides of the same creed. American Exceptionalism, whether summoned to argue for America as exemplar or missionary state, sets the terms of this country’s foreign policy debate—as even those most insistent that America is not exceptional concede. Most members of our board view the international scene as being fundamentally anarchical and treacherous. Where we part company is over the question of whether and to what extent this condition may be tamed, whether it can be tamed through the ameliorative possibilities of American power and ideals, and whether such possibilities even exist. This country’s leaders have for two centuries been engaged in a serious and legitimate debate on these very questions. World Affairs, which, in one form or another, has been published since 1837, will take up the arguments in this new century.

Serious ideas require serious minds, and World Affairs boasts contributors of intellectual distinction, none of them above engaging with the world around them. That means you won’t find very many reclusive specialists in our pages. Nor, from the opposite extreme, will you find yourself being edified by digital Maoists, to borrow a phrase from technology writer Jaron Lanier, who advertise their contempt for expertise as if it were a virtue. At the same time, we value thinkers, not think-tankers, above all thinkers who can write and writers who can think (the capacity for both is not a given). Civil-military relations, the art of breaking ranks, Indiana Jones—the World Affairs bench will wrestle these and even more varied subjects in the issues ahead.

This being a foreign policy journal, World Affairs will even feature writers with the ability to make you laugh (intentionally, that is), among them P. J. O’Rourke and a few surprises down the road. Christopher Hitchens will pen a regular column, “Dear Mr. President…” (which, in the event, can always be renamed “Dear Mme. President…”), where he will exercise his wisdom and wit to alert World Affairs readers to perils and opportunities abroad. Looking ahead, the spring issue will feature articles by H. W. Brands, Robert Kagan, Benjamin Barber, and a long and diverse list of first-rate intellects. We hope you will join them in an occasionally unruly, seldom dull, and always edifying debate. If ideas truly do have consequences, readers of World Affairs will be well prepared.

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