Foreign Affairs magazine: the Ancien Régime

In this essay I try to come to grips with the leading publication of the American foreign policy establishment, paying homage to its strengths while highlighting its weaknesses and asking what can be done to use its franchise more beneficially under new management. Read on…



Foreign Affairs magazine: the Ancien Régime


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


The November-December 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine was the farewell issue of James F. Hoge, Jr., who occupied the post of chief Editor for the past 18 years. Entitled “The World Ahead,” the issue carries a cast of contributors and an editorial slant which might be more suitably characterized as stuck in “The World Gone By.”


In the essay which follows, I will try to come to grips with this highly visible platform of the American foreign policy establishment, paying homage to its strengths while highlighting its weaknesses and asking what can be done to use its franchise more beneficially under new management.


To be sure, the reason why we must take FA seriously and why it deserves constructive criticism on these pages is that it has been very, very successful in terms of subscription numbers and the attractiveness of its pages to would-be contributors of content.


I do not have at hand figures showing the growth of circulation under James Hoge’s stewardship, only the present-day number of 160,000 registered readers. That alone is quite amazing for a fairly specialized and intellectually demanding journal. It tells us that its managers have been doing something right.


I believe the explanation is partially found in its publishing at regular intervals foreign policy pronouncements of highly placed U.S. officials. FA is clearly required reading for business people and analysts of American foreign policy worldwide.


At the same time, every issue contains assorted essays by American researchers both in universities and think tanks, as well as by joint teams of American researchers and foreign contributors. This, together with its book reviews, indicates that FA aspires to be a genuine forum of discussion of major issues in international relations.


Being published in FA is a very useful CV reference to mid-career academics looking for their next position. It has also been sought after by senior public servants in their quest for advancement. Indeed, FA can be viewed as the ladder right to the top. Richard Holbrooke’s featured essay in the September-October 2008 issue, just ahead of the presidential elections, was clearly intended to serve his candidacy to be the next U.S. Secretary of State. In the event, his essay revealed intellectual poverty rather than brilliance and he failed in his bid for power.



The online edition of FA allows us to gauge how successful the editors have been in generating reader interest, because each article is followed by a Commentary space inviting the participation of registered subscribers. As a practical matter, in my spot monitoring, I have yet to see any article that drew more than a handful of subscriber comments. That is quite damning given the numbers of potential bloggers and it opens the door to consideration of what the management of the journal has been doing wrong.


Let us first consider the question of those very 18 years of service of the recently departed Editor.


The waves of popular revolution which swept across North Africa this winter of 2010-2011 have brought to the fore the notion that enough is enough, that the tenure in power of authoritarian rulers for three or four decades is excessive and can justify as well as explain protest and even insurgency. These ideas are propagated incessantly by our media.


To be sure, journals do not provide room for corruption to fester in the pecuniary sense as occurs regularly in the entourage of a state leader. And journals cannot be accused of stifling human rights. But they can suffer their own ills of intellectual sterility from complacent and unchallenged management.


It is self-evident that the top executive position of business structures, and FA may surely be considered a business, is authoritarian, not democratically elected. Hence, even before looking at the specifics of the political stance, editorial style, positioning and mission of FA in recent years, for which we shall arbitrarily take Hoge’s dedicated final issue as emblematic, we may ask whether 18 years in power was not, in and of itself, a serious demerit for the institution.

Isn’t it a formula for failure to hand over a public trust like FA to a manager (and, after all, Hoge was neither the founder nor the owner of the magazine) on a life tenure basis. This issue becomes all the more salient when you consider that Hoge brought to the job a very clear mindset formed in one age (the Cold War) and exercised power over the entire post-Cold War period which should have been a time of reflection, regrouping and letting a thousand flowers bloom.


Horses for courses is another business principle which has relevance to the case at hand.

Hoge came to FA at the end of a successful career in journalism, starting out as a reporter directly after receiving his bachelor’s degree. His highest academic achievement was the MA degree in modern history. Reading his biography, we find he quickly moved on to the editorial offices and then further on to the business management side. While this skill set and experience would be optimal in certain times of the business cycle, is it optimal for all phases of the several business cycles passed through during his tenure? And were his corporate skills at major daily newspapers with big production and manpower issues entirely appropriate to a much smaller institution with some intellectual pretentions at trading in ideas? Moreover, his entire journalistic career appears to have been spent in tabloids and his positions of greatest responsibility were with The New York Daily News, a publication with a well established reputation for jingoism and chest-beating patriotism.


In the case of Foreign Affairs, under James Hoge too many windbags were kept on to the very end, as we see even in the November-December issue: the likes of Leslie Gelb, Joseph Nye and….most egregiously, Walter Laqueur writing about contemporary Russia from his notes of 30 years ago.

In saying this I am not indulging in age discrimination. But I am insisting that these and other authors in Hoge’s stable have been repeating themselves endlessly and offer very few new insights to the discussion of international affairs while taking up valuable real estate in the journal.


When I mentioned my irritation with the absence of serious debates on the pages of FA to a senior professor in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University last November, he looked at me quizzically. “As we all know,” he told me, “Foreign Affairs represents the full spectrum of American opinion from A to B.”


That was said behind closed doors. I am not aware of this line of criticism in the public domain, and that is a genuine pity.


From my observations, that criticism is true only in limited sense. When you pick up a copy of the magazine, including the final issue under James Hoge, you do find dissonance at times. William Pfaff’s article “Manufacturing Insecurity” goes completely against the grain, against the enthusiastic endorsement of American global military power of the other authors regularly carried in FA. But inevitably, the editors choose deeply flawed works and/or authors who might be called ‘damaged goods’ to present the arguments they do not favor. In this case, Pfaff’s rambling article is one of the weakest in the issue. It hardly sticks to the interesting premise that the US has far too many bases around the world for its own good, causing rather than solving problems for its leadership ambitions.


Over the past couple of years, in my occasional discussion of articles published in Foreign Affairs, I have mentioned that even when a given issue appears to be themed, the authors have not been aligned by the editors so as to present anything resembling a round table or debate to the readers. That is the case as well in the November-December 2010 farewell issue. For example, two articles deal with demographics and have what appears to be diametrically opposed expectations of whether the world’s population is rising or falling, but they are not allowed to challenge one another’s assumptions and interpretations directly (Nicholas Eberstadt, “The Demographic Future” and Scott Thomas, “A Globalized God”). Similarly two articles deal with the political implications of our new age interconnectivity without squaring off directly (Ian Bremmer, “Democracy in Cyberspace” and Eric Schmidt, Jaren Cohen, “The Digital Disruption”). Indeed the whole featured theme of “The World Ahead” shows poor editorial direction as it pulls in all directions and allows the authors to do their own thing without reference to the other contributors.


This approach is fairly common, I agree, in scholarly journals where academics are allowed to contribute the findings of their own research, and so to expand their bibliography for their personal career purposes, not for the illumination of others. But Foreign Affairs is not scholarly in format. There is not a footnote or erudite citation to be seen anywhere. And so we have a right to ask why there is no focused, direct debate of foreign policy specialists that would serve the interests of informed public policy. Without such debate the big issues of our day are not analyzed comprehensively and the truth cannot prevail. Shadow-boxing of individual analysts does not lead to a high level of argumentation.


The excesses of doing one’s own thing are most often associated with the articles contributed to Foreign Affairs by high U.S. government officials. On 13 February 2009, I critiqued an article contributed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (“A Balanced Strategy, FA, January-February issue) noting that it was clearly pulled out of his desk drawer and had been intended as a pep talk for senior officers in the Pentagon. It was not purpose written for the FA readership and wasted our time.


But another more serious problem also arises in connection with the offerings coming from government officials: they tend to be collectively written works to put it kindly, or purely ghost written, to be less kind but probably more factual. They also are serving propagandistic purposes, disseminating the government line. An acceptance of falseness and concealment of inconvenient truths became engrained in the editorial style of Foreign Affairs. It carries over into how the journal treats other contributors as I explained in my article (10 November 2009) about the 2007 essay signed Tymoshenko but clearly written by her only in part and incorporating borrowed passages from Kissinger’s writings of a decade earlier. Such shenanigans may have been ok at a tabloid like The Daily News, but they out of order in a magazine that addresses the intellectual community as well as the business and diplomatic community.


Within the James Hoge ‘farewell’ issue of Foreign Affairs, one contribution by a high official, Hillary Clinton’s “Leading Through Civilian Power” would appear to match directly my remarks on collective authorship and propagandistic intent. Its inclusion can only serve to reinforce the magazine’s political standing in Washington, not to enlighten us.


This is not to say that an analyst of US government intentions abroad would find nothing of use here. Indeed, we see throughout Hillary’s essay that she remains as enthralled to the superficial ‘smart power’ teachings of Joseph Nye as she was in her maiden speech as Secretary. We also see that she is consciously acting under the tutelage of her mentor and benefactor, Robert Gates at Defense. He is the one who willingly parted with money for overseas development projects assigned to the Pentagon under his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, restoring it to Foggy Bottom. Her essay is a direct parallel on the civilian side to the statement of the military’s objectives set out by Gates in his article “Helping Others Defend Themselves,” FA May-June 2010.


Both are singing from the songbook of unilateralism. In Hillary’s case, she wants USAID projects to be the world’s premier development work, but she speaks as if there were no others, as if other donor states, not to mention multilateral agencies like the United Nations do not exist. She proudly cites how much of the State Department’s overseas personnel (20% of the diplomatic corps and 10% of development professionals) is stationed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, believing that having State work hand in glove with the Pentagon is a great virtue. Is this truly addressed to FA readership or is it just an inward looking exchange of courtesies and politicking between government departments?


In closing, I earnestly hope that James Hoge’s successor at the helm of Foreign Affairs, Gideon Rose, will give some thought to remedying the kinds of failures in editorial oversight that I have called out in the foregoing. I do not overlook his association early in his career with the publications of Neoconservative movement founder Irving Kristol. But with a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and teaching experience at Princeton and Columbia as well as government service on the National Security Council in the mid-1990s, he may be said to be better credentialed and professionally more grounded in the field of FA’s readers and contributors than Hoge.


One of the first tasks that I recommend to Mr Rose is to draw his colleagues together to develop a new Mission Statement for Foreign Affairs, taking the time to reconsider what kind of publication it would like to be. This is essential if the journal is to improve its performance in facilitating public discussion of foreign policy issues and formulation of well ventilated policies at the highest level.





© Gilbert Doctorow, 2011

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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book,  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.