An intellectual surge

Thinking up the surge, "winning" the war in Iraq, and rethinking America's military strategy. David Petraeus is a worthy pick for Prospect's public intellectual of 2008
January 17, 2009

Earlier this year Prospect teamed up with Foreign Policy to list the world's 100 greatest living public intellectuals, a contest won (after some sharp-elbowed campaigning) by the Turkish cleric Fetullah Gülen. But who has had the most impact in 2008? We gathered an all-star judging panel (see opposite) from the worlds of policy, media and ideas to find out.

The concept of "public intellectual" remains satisfyingly vague. Nonetheless, we instructed our panel to weigh up the field on three criteria: novelty, real-world impact, and intellectual pizzazz. Internal debate, along with soundings on our blog, First Drafts, created a shortlist of ten—the names you see on these pages. From there it was down to one judge, one vote. A three-way contest for the crown quickly emerged, with Roubini, "Thalerstein" and Petraeus all popular. Generally the panel voted according to type: the wonks liked Nudge, number crunchers wanted an economist, while foreign policy watchers thought the scholarly general deserving of the nod. On our website we provide details of all our judges' votes, and their reasons. Ultimately, though, there could only be one winner. As in Iraq, so in Prospect: Petraeus surged to victory.

The top three

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1. David Petraeus

American general and current commander of United States Central Command

This was the year in which General David Petraeus, who holds a PhD from Princeton, demonstrated the battlefield success of his marine field manual—itself a solid intellectual piece of work produced after 16 months of study and consultation. Arguably, the so-called "Petraeus doctrine" is the only written piece of intellectual output in the last two years that has made a direct difference to the lives of millions. It's radical among other things for being the first actively humane warfighting doctrine to ever come out of the Pentagon, enshrining the ideas that winning a modern war requires ensuring the security and wellbeing of the civilian population, that humanitarian assistance and construction projects are critical to any fight, and that 80 per cent of the battle is a political one. Petraeus has also waged a war of ideas against many in Washington who have argued that fewer constraints and more ruthless tactics were required in Iraq. This year, he won. And so he is a worthy winner of our award. Prospect was against the war in Iraq. But we know an original thinker when we see one, especially one who uses brainpower to achieve change in the most difficult of circumstances. He is a worthy winner.

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2. Nouriel Roubini

Professor of economics, NYU

The Economist noted last year that Roubini's "commentary seems carefully calibrated to avoid any hint that economic disaster may be avoidable." Sadly, the gloomy sage of the credit crunch has been right almost every step of the way. Dismissed as Dr Gloom, Roubini is almost the only economist who can claim to have seen it coming. As one judge put it: "he has consistently marshalled arguments to demonstrate America's fiscal imbalances—he was right; now his competition is out of business." A worthy runner-up.

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3. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Professors at Chicago and Harvard universities

Authors of Nudge, this year's most talked about policy tract, the buzzy duo brought behavioural economics and social psychology into the mainstream. Strong political links—advising Obama while also finding favour with Cameron and Osborne—added to their mystique. It was a simple idea, brilliantly packaged and communicated—unquestionably the most influential single idea of the year. As one judge noted: "They nudged us all."

The best of the rest

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Margaret Atwood

Atwood's new collection Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth was timely, from a writer and thinker who consistently manages to grapple with complex and political themes in her fiction and non-fiction.

Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell is a masterful populariser of new ideas, ranging from his New Yorker essays to sell-out stage shows. His ubiquitous new book Outliers has been among the year's most discussed.

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Robert Kagan

A McCain advisor famous for his Europe vs US thesis, Kagan was also behind Bush's surge decision, a leading proponent of a "league of democracies" and author of a new book on the rise of Russia and China as autocracies.

Orhan Pamuk

Winner of the 2006 Nobel prize, Pamuk caught our eye for his opening speech at the Frankfurt book fair, denouncing Turkish oppression despite speaking alongside President Abdullah Gül. His new book, The Museum of Innocence, is also well regarded.

Susan Rice

Obama foreign policy guru, and now UN ambassador, Rice will spearhead America's re-engagement abroad. Less showy than some, her intellectual and political leadership on the "responsibility to protect" theory, especially over Darfur, put her in our top ten.

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Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani

Sistani is a Shia cleric and serious scholar who, although Iranian by birth, has been a consistent and high-profile voice of moderation and democracy amid Iraq's instability. He was especially influential in building support for the recent "status of forces agreement," a crucial stepping stone towards any future US withdrawal.

Reverend Wright

The real inspiration behind "the audacity of hope," Reverend Jeremiah Wright riled both America and Obama by saying the unsayable. A serious thinker, his ideas on race and inequality are more mainstream among many African Americans than America would like to admit.

The following made the longlist, but not the final cut

We drew up a longlist of those we might include. The following made the long list, but not the final cut. Deceased figures do not qualify for our poll, variously ruling out John Maynard Keynes, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Karbouli, the leader of the Anbar awakenings, and Benazir Bhutto.

Ben Bernanke Scholary Fed chairman threw every textbook at the credit crunch .

Ingrid Betancourt Freed hostage, icon, and likely future Colombian leader.

Paul Collier Author of The Bottom Billion, populariser of development.

Niall Ferguson Timely new finance book, ubiquitous writer and broadcaster.

Thomas Friedman Bestseller mainstay whose new book further boosts green America.

Gary Kasparov Dissident, brave Putin critic, author on chess and politics.

Doris Kearns Goodwin Team of Rivals: readable history, but also a manual for Obama's cabinet.

Naomi Klein It's no No Logo, but the flimsy Shock Doctrine looks wiser, post crunch.

Paul Krugman Serious economist, nobel winner, vital credit crunch writer and blogger.

Toni Morrison First new book in ages, inspiration to Presidents and the public alike.

Nassim Taleb Insightful scholar of randomness, author of huge hit Black Swan.

Barack Obama The first "intellectual" in the White House since FDR.

Louis Moreno Ocampo Brave, controversial Argentinian lawyer heading the ICC this year caused a huge stir charging Sudan's President Bashir with genocide.

VS Ramachandran Brilliant neuroscientist, anticipated new book out in early 2009.

Robert Shiller Author of The Sub Prime Solution, another credit crunch sage.

Hu Shuli Journalist and thinker dubbed "the most dangerous woman in China."

Polly Toynbee Influential, Cameron icon, with timely book on the "super rich."

Adair Turner Just Capital author, now saving both the City and the environment.

Paul Woolley British economist, popularised dysfunctional capital markets well before everyone agreed with him.

Martin Wolf Must-read credit crunch commentator.

Muhammad Yunus Admired microcredit economist, with a new book on "social business."

Fareed Zakaria Newsweek editor and author of the Post-American World, flavour of the month with Washington wonks.

Rising stars—who to watch in 2009

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Michael Ignatieff
, who just won the leadership of Canada's Liberal party at the second attempt, could quite conceivably become his country's prime minister in 2009. Getting a second bite at the cherry, this year's bronze medalist Cass Sunstein and his new Obama-advising bride Samantha Power are surely the intellectual power couple to watch. VS Ramachandran, the "Marco Polo of neuroscience," should be prominent with his new book. In Britain, look to "red Tory" Phillip Blond to stake a claim, while Darwinian biologists can't fail to prosper during the 200th anniversary of the great man's birth.

Disappointments—missing in action, 2008

For every winner, there must be a loser. First among equals was Wall Street druid Alan Greenspan, embarrassingly and publicly undone by events. Pope Benedict, a serious theologian, has said little of consequence. Perennial favourite Noam Chomsky seemed largely absent in debates about America's future, while disappointingly little was heard from Fetullah Gülen, Prospect's runaway 2008 public poll winner. Roberto Mangabeira Unger left Harvard to became Brazil's "minister of ideas," but little has been heard since. But the true booby prize goes jointly to the Francophone world and all living Marxists. Capitalism finally came close to collapse—but the inheritors of '68 were nowhere to be seen.

Our judges—and their picks

Bartle BullForeign Editor, Prospect


When was the last time a war was remembered by the single general who won it? And when was the last time such a general not only possessed a world-class PhD but also won his war after an extended intellectual retreat involving academic study, philosophical reflection, and the writing of a classic? The doctrine document alone is worth the prize: it's probably the only written piece of intellectual output in the last two years that has made a direct difference to the lives of millions of people and an indirect but real contribution to huge swathes of the real economic and political world—and the only written achievement from that period that will be discussed in 20 or 100 years. Outside of the hard sciences, the rest are fairly frivolous by comparison. This war will be Petraeus's forever.

Diane CoyleEconomist


The literary voice of our times. All great fiction finds the universal in the specific, but Pamuk articulates the acute importance of the way we are all shaped by our local histories in an era when global connections bring these individual narratives into contact, or all too often into conflict. And of course he does so from the border of Europe and Asia, the Christian and Islamic heritages.

James CrabtreeSenior Editor, Prospect


There is an unfortunate tendency in media and political circles to see the military as all brawn, and no brain. But this narrow view of who can be an "intellectual" is, in effect, a bias against the army, and senior military figures, and does a great disservice to our men and women in uniform. Military leaders are often philosophers in disguise, whose battle plans rest on deep insights into history, sociology and human psychology. Generals like Petraeus—whose ideas, this year, arguably improved the lives of millions in Iraq—can have a much greater impact in the real world than any normal essayist or author.

Dr Catherine FieschiDirector—Counterpoint, The British Council


My vote will reluctantly have to go to Thaler and Sunstein—I'd love to pick Gladwell, but his book is only really just out, it hasn't set the world on fire for 2008. Maybe next year. Thaler and Sunstein tick all three boxes—they changed the course of public conversation and policy conversation; they (or at least Sunstein) did it with pizzaz. Nudge, has become as much a household concept as the Tipping Point.

Jonathan FordDeputy Editor, Prospect


Even stopped clocks are right twice a day—and the same is often said of stock market bears. They go on and on for years until they are finally able to say: "I told you so." But this charge cannot be levelled at Nouriel Robini, the bearish economist who get my vote. True, Roubini predicted the credit malaise in Cassandra-like tones for several years before the bubble burst. But what marked him out in 2008 was the way in which he remained a step ahead of almost all other economists and policy-makers in understanding its depth and its implications.

David GoodhartEditor, Prospect


Prospect was against the war in Iraq. But I see no shame in both thinking the whole venture was a mistake, and recognising success when it happens. We, as a magazine, called the bottom of the war, with Bartle Bull's excellent essay in 2007. And things have been getting better since, in no small part because of the intellectual contribution of General Petraeus. My vote, therefore, goes to the soldier-philosopher; 2008's biggest thinker.

James HarkinAuthor of Cyburbia (forthcoming, Little Brown)


Cass Sunstein deserves the gong on his own. On everything from the politics of risk to the American constitution to the dangers of the net, Sunstein has brought his obscure discipline of rational choice theory into the intellectual mainstream and made it dance. Together with his new bride Samantha Power, who is also very close to Barack Obama the pair add up to the intellectual equivalent of a superpower; the ideologists of our age.

Julia HobsbawmEditorial Intelligence


My pick is Margaret Atwood. There is something constantly challenging, surprising yet reassuring about her as a public voice. I have been reading her fiction and poetry for years, but her new book shows that she is able to define the zeitgeist of the present, not just the past or the future.

Parag KhannaDirector, Global Governance Initiative, New America Foundation


This was the year of finance. All the rest are just fluff. Thaler/Sunstein was a repetitive idea, that didn't really fly. Roubini, meanwhile, has been dismissed as Dr Gloom for years, and for as many years he has consistently marshalled concrete arguments to demonstrate the dangers of America's fiscal imbalances—he was right; now his competition is out of business.

John LloydFinancial Times


Choosing the general is choosing one who isn't regarded, probably least of all by himself, as an intellectual. But he needed, first, intellectual courage to oppose the burden of thinking, not just among policy thinkers but also in government and in the military; and he needed a courageous intellect to hold on to his ideas through hard times. He has not achieved victory, but he has won a battle against those who itch for civil war—and that must be one of the most important facts of 2008. Let's hope he has the same effect in Afghanistan.

Toby MundyAtlantic Books


Few thinkers have made such resolutely bold and insightful interventions and then, unfortunately, been able so quickly to see them all come true. From the outset he has been alive to the flaws in the system, the wilful blindness of its advocates, and the gravity of the current crisis. Plus he is an excellent communicator. My clear winner.

Richard ReevesDirector, DEMOS


Thaler and Sunstein, of course. The ideas contained in Nudge were not born in 2008. But they were brilliantly explicated, packaged and communicated by this heavyweight scholarly duo. They are confident enough of their intellectual standing to be willing to speak a language the thinking public can understand. They nudged us all.

Phillipa StroudDirector, Centre for Social Justice


Thaler and Sunstein should win—their book Nudge tells us what we already know, but don't always do. For many life is made up of good intentions and missed opportunities. Taking us closer to who we want to be and supporting the grain of human aspiration rather than clobbering us for getting it wrong is refreshingly creative.

Matthew TaylorDirector, RSA


In a year that will only be remembered for one thing we should surely give the intellectual of the year prize to one of the few people who predicted what was coming, especially as he described all the key features of it to a sceptical IMF a full year ahead of the crisis appearing on most people's radar.

Thomas Wright, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs


Would any of the progress in Iraq have occurred were it not for his thought processes on counterinsurgency doctrine, the minimal use of force, and how to think about local diplomacy? He may have done more to change the culture and behaviour of the world's largest military than any other person in recent history.