Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Foreign Affairs Editor at Columbia J-School

James F. Hoge, who has been editor of Foreign Affairs since 1992, looks like Kirk Douglas and, at 72, has the same rock-like affect. He is trimly suited, silver-maned, entirely comfortable before an audience that has left a wide swathe of seats unoccupied in front.

Hoge began his career at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he worked for over a quarter century and was successively, Washington correspondent, editor and publisher. He went to the New York Daily News as publisher in 1984, and in 1992 was the unlikely pick of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) to edit Foreign Affairs, long the gray and solemn voice of the "Eastern Establishment." Picking a journalist from the world of tabloids to edit the most important policy journal of international diplomacy was a daring move by CFR. It worked, for the circulation of the magazine has gone up by about 60 per cent since Hoge took over, and now stands at 160,000 (ABC figures for December 2007).

The Council was founded in 1921, in the wake of the First World War; Foreign Affairs began publication a year later. Americans discovered there was a "lethal world out there" which had to be engaged. CFR is no longer the voice of the "Eastern Establishment" Hoge says; "that doesn't exist any more; it's national now." He does not go into the exclusive nature of CFR membership (it is open only to American nationals) , but the Foreign Affairs web site boasts about its elite cachet:

"Its 3,400 members include nearly all past and present Presidents, Secretaries of State, Defense and Treasury, other senior U.S. government officials, renowned scholars, and major leaders of business, media, human rights, and other non-governmental groups. Each year the Council sponsors several hundred meetings including televised debates and other media events, and publishes Foreign Affairs, the preeminent journal in the field, as well as dozens of other reports and books by noted experts.

Since 1922, the Council has published Foreign Affairs, America's most influential publication on international affairs and foreign policy. It is more than a magazine — it is the international forum of choice for the most important new ideas, analysis, and debate on the most significant issues in the world. Inevitably, articles published in Foreign Affairs shape the political dialogue for months and years to come."

That is not hype. The magazine's reputation for heralding the agenda of American foreign policy has made it required reading for generations of diplomats.

The magazine is nonpartisan, self-funding and editorially independent, Hoge says. It has a small staff, no more than himself, a managing editor (now Gideon Rose), and support staff. As a "contributor magazine," Foreign Affairs is a forum for a wide range of opinion. "I spend a lot of time traveling, attending conferences ... finding out what people think." About a third of the articles are commissioned. Others "come in over the transom ... I wonder why we say that when we don't have transoms any more."

The magazine's primary aim is to educate people on foreign policy issues; there is also a "think tank aspect" in that it seeks to influence policy makers. "Every so often, we'll have a direct impact." George Kennan's anonymous article on "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" (signed by X) in the July 1947 issue outlined the need to contain the Soviet Union. "That was the basis of American foreign policy for 50 years."

Another influential article was by Samuel Huntington on the "Clash of Civilizations," in the Summer 1993 issue. There have also been cases when articles in Foreign Affairs had no impact: one such was a piece by Bernard Lewis warning about Osama bin Laden that appeared well before the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center. It went completely unheeded.

After every issue "there's usually someone protesting." The most recent notable flap was the "Lavrov affair." Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister (former UN ambassador), had submitted an article which needed to be edited. After he had signed off on the edit, just as the magazine was about to go to the printer, he called a press conference in Moscow and accused us of grossly distorting his article. "It was just to get on Putin's good side." No harm was done; when Lavrov was next in New York, he called and he was once again the smooth UN diplomat.

Much more unpleasant was the Kissinger affair. He objected to what an article on Chile said about his role there in the 1970s, threatened to resign from the Council, wanted Hoge fired. Also unpleasant was the fallout from an article detailing the "unethical maneuvering" of Zbigniew Brzezinski in pushing for the American recognition of China before the signing of the first US-Soviet Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), which Cyrus Vance had labored over. Brzezinski too threatened to resign from the Council. As editor, Hoge said, "you've got to be prepared to take the heat."

Then there are the "expose pieces."

In 2001 Foreign Affairs printed the "politbureau transcripts" -- a record of the discussions of China's top leaders at the time of Tienanmen. "There were doubts about its authenticity, but we printed most of it." Authentification came when the Chinese didn't make a big fuss about it, and had a low-level spokesman dismiss it as a fabrication. They banned the issue, but it was widely available on the Internet. "There was no firewall then."

Another notable expose came from the thousands of secret documents the US Army discovered in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein. "We devoted most of an issue to them. They made blood-curdling reading." Saddam's view of reality was remarkably distorted. Even as he could hear the rumbling of American tanks approaching his bunker, he believed that Iraqi forces were winning.

Hoge considers the situation in Afghanistan the "most dangerous" today. More broadly, there is danger in the fundamental shift of power from West to East with the rise of Asia. The last time such a shift occurred, when Germany and Japan tried to find place in the imperial European world order, it led to war. Properly managed, such a power shift need not cause conflict.

The Worldwide Web was not expected to make much difference for a magazine with 5,000-word essays, but it had a radical impact. It opened up an "enormous international audience." Hoge and his staff now spend "as much time enriching the web site as on the print magazine." The period after the end of the Cold War has also seen "an explosion of content." And Foreign Affairs is becoming a truly global publication. It is preparing to put out an edition in Chinese, and another in India. There are already versions of the magazine in Japanese, Russian and Spanish.

Foreign Affairs is now fully archived on the Web. (Hoge did not mention this, but subscribers to the magazine can access only a year of content.) The electronic archiving makes it possible to produce customized books for classroom use, instant books tailored to events. After 9/11 they ran off an instant best-seller titled "How Did This Happen?" which is still selling.

The circulation of Foreign Affairs has grown "dramatically" in the last ten years; in readership it is in a "league by itself." Other policy magazines like Foreign Policy (which was founded to remedy perceived shortcomings in the public discourse during the Viet Nam war), and World Policy Journal (intended to give the "thinking left" a voice), only have small circulations (below 20,000). Foreign Policy would not even be financially viable without a foundation to support it. The New York Review of Books, The Nation, The New Yorker and The Economist also dealt with policy issues, but there was no "head to head competitor" for Foreign Affairs.

Questions range widely. Is he was aware of his own political biases? (Yes) Does the magazine have a position on the Iraq war? (It has carried articles pro and con.) How do you edit big-name writers? ("We call them big foot writers; I talk to them before editing.") Do you ever look back and say, "Man! I can't believe we ran that! (Yes, but nothing specific comes to mind right now.) Did Ronald Reagan read Foreign Affairs? (He read a lot but not FA. Other presidents did. Kennedy, Carter and Clinton were especially close readers.) Would you like Condi Rice as a reader or 4 million ordinary Americans? (I'll take the 4 million; that will make Condi pay attention.) If John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt had offered their article on The Israel Lobby to Foreign Affairs, would you have published it? (I was mad that they didn't.) But would you have Published it? (With another balancing article, with some editing.) So you wouldn't have!

I want to ask why Foreign Affairs is so relentlessly committed to manipulative politics, whether he sees any hope for a world in which (according to the latest issue), a "Clash of Peoples" is to be laid over the "clash of civilizations." But I hold my peace. I know it will come out wrong. Americans of a certain age and background get very uptight at questions like that. But a
fter the presentation, I go up and ask Hoge when the Indian edition of Foreign Affairs will be out. It's already out, he says. It's called "India and the World." Can I get a copy in New York? He shakes his head. Who is the publisher in India? He shakes his head again. It is very strange. I pose the question on the discussion forum of the South Asian Journalists Association, and find out that the Sakaal Group in Pune has the contract to publish the magazine in India, with former Times Of India editor Dilip Padgaonkar in charge; the content will come from New York. Hoge's reluctance to tell me that is mystifying. The inscrutable West.

One final note of interest:
Warren Hoge, the UN correspondent of the New York Times, is the younger brother of James.

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