Who will carry on the cause?

If you are a young and promising toiler in advocacy for a cause you believe in, feel free to read on, but I address myself primarily to those who are aging out of the “young and promising” category or have already done so. I used to be young and promising myself, a posture one can maintain (with diminishing plausibility) well into one’s 40s. I’m now in my late 50s. That’s the same age the author Douglas Preston is in Lost City of the Monkey God when his doctor mocks him as follows: “Oh-ho. So you’re still telling yourself you’re middle-aged. Yes, we all go through that period of denial.”

The reason I bring this up is that at a certain unspecified age just above “young and promising,” I think we in the advocacy or policy or, more broadly, the ideas world, acquire a responsibility to which we have probably given insufficient thought hitherto. It is this: Who will come after us to carry on the cause? What about the next generation?

I won’t say this problem is unique to the world of ideas and advocacy, but it is especially prominent there. In the corporate world, one starts out at “entry level” not with the idea that one will remain there, but rather in anticipation of mastering that level and moving up. Some people go farther than others, and some people get to skip rungs because of exceptional performance. You can also start your own company à la Mark Zuckerberg. But in general, an established progression is in place. The military likewise has officer or enlisted ranks through which one progresses—and procedures for easing out those who, in the view of superior officers, have reached their limits. A successful Foreign Service Officer starts out stamping visas somewhere, but her career path continues to increasingly senior positions, perhaps culminating in an ambassadorship or something yet more senior.

The ideas and advocacy world is just not organized that way—something my good friend Charlie Brown of Strategies for Humanity brought home to me by issuing me a challenge: He said I should include among my next projects in atrocity prevention the cultivation of a new generation of people who care deeply about this issue.

Of course there are many young and promising people working on issues connected to human security and governance and humanitarian causes. The needs of human beings worldwide in these areas will continue to attract idealistic young people. But that’s a little too complacent, I think. When I was working on the Genocide Prevention Task Force, one of the main recommendations we devised was to establish a standing interagency body to assess risk of atrocities and devise prevention strategies and policies—what became, under the Obama administration, the Atrocities Prevention Board. In the course of our fact-finding, we discovered something very interesting: That in fact, toward the end of the Clinton administration, there had been a nascent version of just such a body, convened by the estimable David Scheffer, then Ambassador-at-Large for war crimes issues. Eight years later, at the end of the George W. Bush administration, its existence had become all but forgotten in official and NGO Washington, memory of it consigned to the personal recollection of Scheffer and other participants. It’s always a good thing to reinvent something as useful as the wheel, but it’s better to not to forget all about it such that it needs reinventing.

How to avoid this problem in the advocacy and ideas world? That’s a challenge not just to me from Charlie but to all of us.

A few thoughts from my experience. Out of college in 1982, I moved to New York to work for the great Irving Kristol at The Public Interest. I was hired as an assistant editor, more or less the lowest rung on the ladder of “New York intellectual”—a category later subsumed, albeit imperfectly, under “public intellectual.” Irving had an explicit program. He would typically hire two assistant editors a year, and the understanding was that the position was for one year—something like a paid internship. The job would provide sufficient entrée to the magazine, publishing, and ideas world that one could make a reputation for oneself and move on. Not everyone did, but most did. Everyone understands the importance of mentoring, but this wasn’t exactly that. More important, I think, is that Irving institutionalized it, providing a small but steady stream of young people a start on a career path Irving wanted to promote.

Second example: When I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1985, as the founding executive editor of The National Interest (sister publication to The Public Interest), I pretty much figured I would be fighting the Cold War for the rest of my life. No, it turned out. And I was very interested in the fate of the formerly communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the debate over NATO and EU enlargement, and the liberalization of the international order more broadly. Fortunately for me, Jeffrey Gedmin (who went on to head Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) was running the American Enterprise Institute’s New Atlantic Initiative at the time. Jeff was (and is) always on the lookout for new people to bring into the mix on matters transatlantic, and he started inviting me to roundtables and small conferences he was then organizing in Europe. I started writing more about those issues, and that led to additional invitations for fact-finding and publication.

My work on atrocity prevention emerged as an extension of my commitment to work to help bring the people of Central and Eastern Europe in from the cold. The concept of the “responsibility to protect” is aimed at challenging the appalling doctrine that states have no responsibilities toward their people to go along with their sovereign rights—a position the Communist world upheld with cruelty and vigor.

Now, it takes resources to run conferences abroad and to adopt a hiring strategy intended to bring on a new generation (as opposed to a strategy to deploy free intern labor; well, maybe do both). The point I want to make is that it’s worthwhile to think systematically about recruiting the next generation and to find resources for programs and activities of the kind that brought me along. I vividly recall with pleasure and gratitude pretty much every invitation I received when I was just entering the category of “young and promising.” Those opportunities amounted to very effective strategies to recruit me to causes I have pursued ever since.