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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.

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Question: How do you contribute?

Stephen Walt: Well I’m 52 years old now, and so I hope I keep writing for a long time. And therefore who knows what I’ll write about, you know, in my sixties and all that. But I hope that the contribution has been to open up discussion on a variety of issues. When I first wrote the piece about the Iraq war, we wrote it in large part because nobody else was making the argument that going to war in Iraq was a bad idea. People remember there really wasn’t much debate in the run up to the Iraq war. And John Mearsheimer, who I wrote the book with, and I wrote the Iraq article in part because we wanted to make sure that both sides got represented somewhere, and that people could like back and say, “Well at least some Americans understood that this was a bad idea before it actually happened.” So I hope that, you know, part of the legacy has been to be willing to tackle contentious issues; being willing to buck up against the prevailing sentiment, and to do so in a non-polemical, sort of “non-gasoline-on-the-fire” way to try and encourage more open and serious discussion.

Question: What do you have left to achieve?

Stephen Walt: Well I think one of the things about being an academic that’s nice is that, you know, you sort of never run out of possibilities.  There’s always new problems that are going to be emerging.  I think if you look at sort of the way the world is headed now, it’s hard not to think there’s not going to be lots of political and social issues that, you know, big minds have to think about.  So I don’t think I’ll ever run out of things to worry about.  I think that, you know, as someone who has spent most of my career thinking about American foreign policy, I think the United States is going to have to do an enormous amount of adjusting over the next 30 to 40 years – adjusting both to sort of environmental limits that we’re now starting to become aware of; adjusting to China’s emergence as a major power, followed by India’s emergence as a much more consequential state.  I think the globalization will affect us the same way it affects everybody else, and that’s gonna require some adjustments.  Just to put it in one . . . one frame of reference, the United States has had the world’s largest economy since about 1900.  We’re sort of accustomed to being the biggest economic actor on the block.  Well at some point – maybe in my lifetime, but not too long after that – that’s probably not gonna be the case.  And that’s going to involve some adjustments on . . . on America’s part.  And it’s not clear to me that these adjustments were ready to make.  Most countries, as they start to become relatively less influential, find it a painful process.  I would like to accelerate the learning process.  I would like us to learn to adjust to living in a world where we are not just the 800 pound gorilla out there.  And I’d like us to learn that as quickly as possible.  So I suspect I’ll spend a fair bit of the next 20 years trying to help that learning process go as quickly as possible.

Recorded on: 10/8/07



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