Cliff May

For their May/June issue, the editors of Foreign Policy magazine asked 21 “leading thinkers” to propose ideas to “save the world” -- or, failing that, to come up with “one solution that would make the world a better place.”

Almost all the thinkers assigned to this task do their thinking at think tanks, universities and activist organizations. Is there nowhere else that sages can be found? I mean that as a question, not a criticism.

Foreign Policy’s thinkers tackle a diverse list of dilemmas – from poverty to gender inequality to climate change to terrorism. I think their solutions range from the innovative to the far-fetched. See what you think:

Amy Myers Jaffe, a fellow in energy studies at the Baker Institute in Texas, notes that oil is no longer owned primarily by private companies. Instead, government-controlled oil companies “now command close to 80 percent of the world’s remaining reserves.” As long as we are dependent on these oil baron states – e.g. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, Russia -- they will have power over us.

Her solution: “shift the automobile fleet to plug-in, hybrid electric vehicles.” The technology already exists, she says. We just need to get the cars on the road sooner, rather than later. I’d add: Abolish taxes on liquid fuels that can serve as alternatives to gasoline.

John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, argues that “nearly six years into the first great armed conflict between nations and networks” – global terrorist organizations – “the nations are still fighting the last war.”

Past conflicts featured “mutually massed forces clashing on a darkling plain. Now, if you can’t find, you can’t fight.” His solution: fielding a “nimble, networked force of your own.”

He adds: “Ironically, the U.S. military actually started the war on terror in a networked way when just 11 Special Forces ‘A teams’ – fewer than 200 troops overall – toppled the Taliban and put al Qaeda on the run. Each team was interconnected to the other, and to attack aircraft above them. They proved unstoppable.

“But since late in 2001, senior U.S. generals have reasserted their traditional preference for big, balky units, first in Afghanistan, later in Iraq. And so today we have two quagmires, in large part because of an unwillingness to fight networks with networks.” I would argue that in Iraq, at least, Gen. David Petraeus is shifting from congregating forces in remote bases to networked warfare on the streets of Baghdad. All that he’s saying is give netwar a chance.

Bjorn Lomborg, an environmentalist and professor at the Copenhagen Business School, points out that three million people die a year from malnutrition – and hundreds of millions of children suffer reduced mental and physical abilities because of “unsexy-sounding ‘micronutrient deficiency’ – a lack of iodine, vitamin A and iron.”

Many essential nutrients can be made available “in staple food items such as genetically modified golden rice” (assuming we can get the anti-biotech neo-Luddites to butt out). In addition, iron cooking pots, which slowly emit iron, could be distributed in poor countries. Lomborg says spending 25 cents for each individual suffering from iron deficiency can yield $50 per person in productivity gains -- a healthy return on investment in more than one sense.

Among the “solutions” that strike me as preposterous: Harvard’s Howard Gardner wants the government to confiscate excessive income and excess net worth in the interest of reducing economic inequality. Politicians and professors will, of course, define how much is too much.

Lt. Gen. William Odom (Ret.), a Yale professor, argues that the U.S. should make Iran’s radical theocrats feel less “insecure” by not opposing their acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Bill McKibben of Middlebury College wants to slow global warming with “large-scale technological and social change, with the investments of financial and political capital that such shifts imply. Even if we muster the will, we won’t solve the problem.” In other words: Do as he tells you but don’t expect any good to come of it.

I’m unconvinced also by the assertion of Stanford’s Paul Saffo that Senate ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea will, as he claims, stall global warming, feed the poor and prevent terrorism.

Stephen Lewis, a former U.N. envoy, is gung-ho for the creation of a “new international agency for women,” based at the U.N., with “at least a billion dollars annually to begin with” to push for gender equality. Want to bet that a Saudi prince won’t be elected chairman?

Still, we shouldn’t be too hard on these guys. They’re doing some heavy lifting. Thinking is no racket for sissies.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.