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Defying Conventional Wisdom with Stephen Schlesinger

by Stephen Schlesinger

One of the most agreeable memories I have of the World Policy Institute during my tenure as Director was of the constant flow of visiting journalists, international specialists, foreign dignitaries, interns, forum speakers, scholars and fans in and out of our offices at the New School. Blessed by the leadership of Arch Gillies and Sherle Schwenninger, WPI had long earned a reputation of being an off-beat, confrontational, cutting-edge organization that defied conventional wisdom on international affairs and embraced new ideas from all parties. Consequently we were attracting a flood of intriguing visitors to see the Fellows, meet with the World Policy Journal editors, and speak to me — usually to alert us to events abroad that were not being heard about in the mainstream media. These encounters made my job always interesting, exciting and fun.

Given the outsized role we played in challenging the accepted precepts of the times, however, meant that we did not always have the resources to support ourselves. Dissent is not a terribly profitable route. Indeed, the World Policy Institute struggled financially in the shadow of better-off, more establishment, foreign policy think-tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations, the Carnegie Council For Ethics in International Affairs, the Washington-based Brookings Institution and Center for American Progress. We survived year after year, on a shoestring budget, without any endowment and with only intermittent donations from corporate sponsors, big-time foundations and wealthy individuals — sometimes meeting our expenses, sometimes not, though always sustaining our operation without compromising our standards.

The strain could have been great on all of us, but it proved to be the opposite because we had the freedom to do things as we wished. We mounted ventures that more "respectable" organizations could not undertake. We hosted weekly panel sessions from an outspoken liberal internationalist point of view. Our Fellows published innumerable books that defied the centrism of the era — some 40-50 books during my tenure – and did special reports, lectures and speeches around the country as well as frequent appearances on TV and radio. All of this activity increased the influence WPI had in the ongoing debates over foreign policy during the Clinton years and especially in the conservative age of George W. Bush.

Meantime, our flagship publication, The World Policy Journal, continued to out-write, out-report, out-shock its competitors, producing fresh, insightful coverage of foreign lands, new insights into old disputes, reasoned arguments for change, and a willingness to fight for progressive reforms whether in the United Nations, in disarmament matters, in treaties, or in opposition to doctrines like pre-emption and unilateralism. The Congressional Record even noted that the Journal’s articles were among the most-read on the Hill. Two extraordinary editors during my directorship, James Chace and Karl Meyer, set the magazine along a brilliant pathway.

Through my nine years as Director, we kept our flag aloft due primarily to our doughty Advisory Board which managed to fund us through thick and thin. Our hosts, the New School, too, stood by us for almost twenty years until the relationship regrettably ended, but we nonetheless benefited from the backing of the university immensely. I look back with huge pride on being associated with the WPI. It was an organization ahead of the curve. I am confident it will continue to subvert the common wisdom and educate the American public about foreign affairs for years to come.  

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Stephen Schlesinger served as director of the World Policy Institute from 1997-2006

[Photo of Stephen Schlesinger at the World Policy Journal 20th Anniversary]

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