WASHINGTON - Eighteen months ago a relatively obscure academic named Condoleezza Rice published a prescription for U.S. foreign policy in Foreign Affairs, a bimonthly journal in New York.
Titled "Promoting the National Interest," the article included a pointed warning against "symbolic" treaties and urged American diplomats to focus on big powers such as Russia and China. Although Rice had recently joined Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign, the piece attracted little notice, blending into a background of "Rwanda in Retrospect" and other items in the same issue.
Rice became President Bush's national security adviser. Her essay has become required reading in Washington, where it is regarded as something of a Rosetta stone for deciphering the new administration's approach to the world.
Not for the first time had one of statecraft's trade journals risen above theory and analysis and published something close to a policy memorandum, seemingly leaked from the halls of power. Fifty-four years after George Kennan published a Foreign Affairs article under the anonymous byline "X" that laid out what would become Washington's "containment" policy toward the Soviet Union, foreign policy magazines are trying to explain, predict and influence international politics.
But they're also trying harder to engage readers and secure subscriptions while adjusting to a world where bond markets often hold more power than several military divisions and affairs of state include AIDS and coral-reef destruction as well as border disputes and missile throw-weights.
"The magazine has changed a lot in the last eight years," says James Hoge, who has been editor of Foreign Affairs since late 1992. "We're paying a lot more attention to economics - geo-economics - as one of the driving forces of the post-Cold War era, and a lot more attention to Asia and its rise as a power" as well as to issues such as drug trafficking and environmental problems.
What are arguably the three most influential American foreign policy journals - Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy and The National Interest - have seen their circulations increase in recent years, in some cases through editorial tweaking that includes shorter pieces, more graphics and better writing.
Foreign Policy's makeover, which made its debut last year, is the most drastic. Founded in 1970 and underwritten by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the magazine has changed from an academic-looking quarterly, viscous with text, to a glossy, multicolored bimonthly with crisp pie charts and photos, more-colloquial writing and ads for Cartier.
"There are ways of presenting that information to readers that retain the rigor and intellectual deepness of the substance without boring readers to tears, without overwhelming them with jargon [or] confusing them with equations," says Moises Naim, Foreign Policy's animated editor and publisher. "We do not assume you are being paid to read this magazine."
Other journals have tried to become more reader-friendly, too.
Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, has shrunk article lengths by about a third since Hoge took over and added a letters section and maps and charts along with "a considerable amount of editing ... to reduce redundancies and academic formulations," Hoge says.
The changes, editors say, make international affairs commentary more "accessible" to time-deprived 21st-century readers. Critics say accessible sometimes means dumbed down.
Foreign Policy's new mission seems to be "to combine insight with entertainment," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration and, by one count, the most prolific Foreign Affairs contributor in that journal's 80-year history. "I suppose in terms of education, maybe it's a good philosophy. After all, the thinking is, if you entertain kids, they learn more."
Before Hoge took over Foreign Affairs, he ran tabloid newspapers, including the New York Daily News. Early in his term at Foreign Affairs he tried to deflect worries about his intellectual depth by producing a parody cover, in vivid pink, pitching pieces such as "Boris' Babes" and an international gossip column by Liz Smith.
Readership matters to foreign policy journalists, but it seems to matter in different ways to different editors.
"We don't care, really, how many people read the magazine. The numbers are not important," says Adam Garfinkle, editor of The National Interest. "We care who reads the magazine, not how many."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Garfinkle's quarterly looks pretty much the same as it did in 1985, when it was founded by Irving Kristol as a neoconservative antidote to what many saw as the liberal-moderate orthodoxy of Foreign Affairs and other foreign-policy magazines.
Its fans would say The National Interest, circulation 13,000, doesn't need change.