What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos


Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers


Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge


Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more
With rendition switcher


Question: What forces have shaped humanity most?

Jim Woolsey: I think Lincoln was right at the time and still is that the United States is the last best hope of man on earth; that we are indirectly responsible … certainly we didn’t do this all ourselves, but we are indirectly responsible for the world having gone from 20 democracies in 1945 to 90 democracies under the rule of law, and another 30 that are troubled and have corruption like say Indonesia, but still have reasonably fair elections.  So we’ve gone . . .  Counting those states, we’ve gone from 20 to 120 democracies in less than my lifetime.  No expansion in history of human freedom of that degree has ever occurred before.  It’s a stunning achievement.  I think that, like I said, this wasn’t all done by the United States, but a lot of it had to with the way we handled Japan and Germany and Italy after World War II.  It had to do with our protecting Europe along with their forces against the Soviets.  It had to do in part with our being stubborn about the Soviets expanding their power into Afghanistan, … Nicaragua etc. in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  And eventually it all worked the way George Kennan said it would.  It just took longer.  The containment and deterrents worked because, in a way, the Soviets lost their will.  The reason they lost their will is because their ideology was dead.  It was always kind of a hacked together, 19th century thing – Marxism, Leninism.  But by the time certainly – and it was still vibrant in the ‘20s and ‘30s when it was vibrant – it was even able to recruit some members of the American and British establishment.  Let’s say spies like Alger Hiss or like Philbin in his circle at Cambridge.  But by the ‘50s, -- let’s say early to mid ‘50s – there were very few ideologically committed Marxists I think at the top of the Soviet structure.  I mean the number of people there who would have died for the proposition for each according to his ability, each according to his need was pretty small.  And when your ideology dies, your will is not too far behind.  I  think that’s one of history’s rather clear lessons.  Well we deterred and detained the Soviets until the combination of their dying ideology are really almost dead by that time; and their terrible economic performance just brought them down.  And as I said that’s the way George Kennan said it would happen.  It just happened a lot slower than he thought.  It happened in 45 years instead of a few years.  The problem we’ve got now is very different.  I think a lot of people, including me, didn’t appreciate the virulence of the Wahhabi ideology in the Middle East – the governing religion essentially of Saudi Arabia – because it is effectively genocidal, right at the verge of being genocidal with respect to Shiites, Jews, homosexuals and apostates, and it is massively repressive with respect to everybody else who is not a Wahhabi male.  Saudi females don’t live a particularly comfortable life.  And so the situation that you have internationally now is that oil has, as it tends to do, augmented the power of the state in a number of these parts of the Mid East.  And some of them are states that are also heavily influenced by an extremist form of Islam, one or more forms.  When you put those together, you have a set of states – the Arab world and Iran – that it’s much harder, I think, to introduce democracy and the rule of law to that group of states than in many other parts of the world. If you look at that group I was talking about the 90 sound rule of law democracies, that included such states as Mali and Mongolia.  You know all of the people that said the Japanese will never be able to run a democracy, the Germans will never be able to run a democracy, you’ll never have Asian culture that can support democracy, they’ve all been proven dead wrong.  They just don’t want to admit it.  They’ve moved on to the Arab world, and they have a better case in the Arab world because of the confluence of Wahhabi, Islam and oil.  Ultimately I think Arabs and Iranians are as capable of operating a democratic structure as anyone else; but it would require a lot of patience and a lot of time to see these transitions.  I do think helping them move off oil so they have real economies is an important step in that direction.  Bernard Lewis says that the 22 Arab states plus Iran have a population approximating that of the U.S. and Canada.  Between them, other than oil and a little bit of liquefied natural gas other than hydrocarbons, they export to the world less than Finland, which is a country of 5 million people.  They are – directly and indirectly –oil economies, and oil being an economic material, commodity that tends to concentrate power in the hands of the ruler.  So you don’t really have at this point democracies there.  It doesn’t mean you can’t have a democracy that has oil.  If a mature democracy like Norway discovers a lot of oil, that doesn’t keep them from continuing to be a democracy; but it makes it harder for the transition, and we will be struggling, I think, for a long time trying to help bring democracy and the rule of law to that part of the world.


What forces have shaped hum...

Newsletter: Share: