A How-To Guide for Putting Your Big Think on the Map

Article excerpt

China was cracking down in Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall still had a few months left to stand when 36-year-old Francis Fukuyama published a wonky essay in the summer of 1989 proclaiming the triumph of democracy and flee markets. "I thought it would be read by a few friends," Fukuyama recalled. "People who were interested in political theory and international relations--a pretty narrow group.

It's hard to blame him. The 10,000-word tract in the National Interest ruminated about a "universal homogenous state" that existed only in "the realm of human consciousness." Even today, it's hard to get through the whole thing.

But Fukuyama also put forth an idea that, two decades later, won't go away: "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution."

Once you declare the end of history, well, the rest is history. Fukuyama's essay became a manifesto for the post-Cold War world, going viral even in that benighted pre-Web age. Yet, almost as quickly as the idea gained fame, it lost credibility. To this day, whenever something big and bad happens-the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the past year's Great Recession--Fukuyama is dragged out for ritual flogging. He'll never escape the end of history. We won't let him.

I'm afraid that is going to be my fate," Fukuyama told me. "From the moment the article appeared I've been running away from it.... I am now resigned to the fact that it will be very hard to do that."

Just as Fukuyama remains forever linked to this one big idea, several other grand theories soon followed, with various thinkers peddling sweeping visions of what the world after the Cold War would--or should--become. And so Fukuyama's "End of History" was followed by Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations," Joseph Nye's "Soft Power," John Williamson's "Washington Consensus," and even Robert Kagan's "Americans Are from Mars, Europeans Are from Venus" before arriving, perhaps inevitably, at Fareed Zakaria's "Post-American World."

Each in its own way has come to define the geopolitics of the past two decades, serving as shorthand for everything from the rise of American neoconservatives to the ebb and flow and ebb again of American global power. And though few readers may have slogged all the way through most of these treatises, each one has earned widespread name recognition today. (Being right, as Fukuyama showed, is certainly no prerequisite for success in the marketplace for big ideas.)

So how did they do it? For all their differences, these six big ideas follow a basic set of rules that have helped them outlast their rivals in the battle for big-think bragging rights. How well does the world remember Naomi Klein's No Logo or G. John Ikenberry's "Myth of Post-Cold War Chaos" today? Then again, talk to the authors and you realize pretty quickly that none of these ideas was preordained for stardom; rather than declaring history's end, they could just have easily ended on history's trash heap.

Herewith, their playbook.

RULE 1

Make It Catchy

Robert Kagan did not intend to launch a passionate debate over what it means to be European versus American in the 21st century. Nor, he says, did he mean to insult Europe's collective manhood.

But he did, and you can pretty much blame his wife.

Kagan found himself living in Brussels when his spouse, a U.S. diplomat, took a NATO post there. Washington was still supposedly basking in post-9/11 support, but living among the natives, Kagan heard what European thinkers really thought of Washington, and it wasn't pretty. "When the Americans were not in the room," he told me, "it was a different conversation."

Some 11,000 words later came Kagan's "Power and Weakness," published in Policy Review in 2002. …