Roughly once a week I get queries from younger people about how to “break in” to the stodgy, poorly compensated, high-octane, glamorous world of foreign-policy commentary. (And now maybe I’ll get them from furloughed federal employees!)
Forthwith, my tips:
Read. You need to know stuff. You need to know what’s happening in the world and what others think about what’s happening.
Write. Make it a habit. Start a blog. Send long emails to your friends telling them what you think about the foreign-policy news of the day. Compose learned limericks about the likelihood of Middle East peace. Whatever. Just write.
Submit your writing for publication. Well, yeah. As the Powerball slogan says, “You can’t win if you don’t play.” You don’t want your immortal limericks to go unpublished, do you? So polish ’em up and send them in to editors of magazines, journals, newspapers and websites you like. What are they going to do, reject you?
Learn to take rejection. Unfortunately, they are going to reject you, at least some of the time. They’re going to explain, nicely or not so nicely, that they don’t publish limericks, or that they only publish limericks written in French, or limericks that aren’t lame, or whatever. This will happen to you. When you’re just starting out, this may even happen a lot. Don’t take it personally. Try again. If they offer suggestions, pay attention. And don’t give up. Keep sending in your queries.
Write interestingly. Here’s the fundamental problem with 99 percent of foreign-policy commentary: It’s deadly boring.
On some level, this phenomenon is utterly mysterious. As Foreign Policy CEO David Rothkopf recently mused to me, this is the most fascinating subject matter on Earth, yet it seems to generate the most ungodly tedious writing. Weird, no? Look what we’ve got to work with: We have spies, soldiers, civil wars, tragedies, triumphs, repression, famine, the devious workings of international diplomats and even the omnipresent and eternally interesting possibility of global suicide via WMD, climate change or some still-unthought-of horror. For a writer, what’s not to love?
On another level, the boring commentary phenomenon makes perfect sense. Most of the people with a strong interest in foreign policy live or want to live in Washington. Most work for the U.S. government or for stodgy think tanks. Those who don’t work for the U.S. government or stodgy think tanks usually aspire to do so in the future. And we all know the first rule of governments and stodgy think tanks: Whatever you do, don’t be interesting. Don’t do anything that will put the secretary in a spot, discomfit your boss, trigger the wrong kind of congressional interest or alienate one of your current or future think tank funders.
Thus, we get the press release thinly disguised as commentary, or the ponderous set of policy recommendations that just so happens to bear an incredible resemblance to those preferred by the White House, and so on. But there’s an inherent conflict between playing it safe and saying something someone might actually want to read. If you want to be published, and you’re not the secretary of state, you need to speak in your own voice and offer something that goes beyond the conventional wisdom.
Put down the duckie. By this I mean: Take a few risks. Sesame Street aficionados may recall Ernie’s unsuccessful attempts to play the saxophone, stymied because he refused to put down his beloved rubber duckie. Whenever he tried to press down the saxophone keys, he ended up squeezing the duck, too, producing only cacophonous squeaks.
If you want to write and get published, you’ve got to put your duckie down. I’m not suggesting outrageousness for the sake of outrageousness — that’s never useful or interesting — but you just can’t let fear stand in the way of calling it like you see it. Do your research and make sure you’ve got your facts right. Then, if you think the muckety-mucks in your world are wrong about something, say so. If you think an issue everyone dismisses as trivial is in fact important, say so. If you think the emperor has no clothes, say so.
Let the chips fall where they may. (Can I mix metaphors? Yes, I can.) You have to be willing to accept that sometimes you’ll make people mad. If you say anything worth saying, you’ll get hate mail from complete strangers.
Develop a thick skin, because if you depart from the conventional wisdom in whatever world you inhabit, you’re likely to be criticized even by people you like and respect. Listen courteously when they buttonhole you and tell you how uninformed, mistaken and ungrateful you are. Look sorrowful when they tell you you’re going to jeopardize your future employment prospects if you don’t shut up and get with the program.
But stick to your guns. All those people telling you you’ll never have lunch in this town again? They’re wrong. You will. I promise.
In the long run, getting a reputation as someone willing to tell it like it is will not hurt you. On the contrary: Despite the superficiality and play-it-safe aspects of much that goes on in the foreign-policy world, I’m convinced that most people — even in Washington! — recognize the value of truth-telling, creativity, and unconventional thinking. Any person or institution worth your time and interest will respect you all the more if they know you can think for yourself and have the guts to speak honestly.
A caveat here: Sometimes you will make a mistake. When you do, admit it. Over the years I’ve been writing, I’ve made mistakes ranging from the trivial to the fairly profound. I’ve added numbers up wrong, mixed up the names of important people, used occasional intemperate phrases I later came to regret, and reached conclusions I now consider highly suspect. There is no shame in saying, “I used to think such-and-such. I’ve come to believe that I was wrong.”
Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior adviser at the U.S. State Department.