Interview with John Tessitore, Editor of Ethics & International Affairs Journal

Mar 9, 2011

As Ethics & International Affairs journal celebrates its 25th anniversary and its move to Cambridge University Press, Editor John Tessitore discusses the journal's mission, its themes, its peer-review process, and its global reach.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: I'm sitting down today with John Tessitore, because the Carnegie Council is about to celebrate the 25th-anniversary edition of its Ethics & International Affairs journal. What better time to talk about the journal—its history, its future, its global reach?

John Tessitore, editor of Ethics & International Affairs, thanks so much for joining me.

JOHN TESSITORE: I'm delighted to be here.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Let's just begin with the mission of the journal itself, for those who haven't read it or aren't familiar with it. What is the purpose of Ethics & International Affairs?

JOHN TESSITORE: The journal, as we say here, has been in circulation for 25 years. The mission of the journal from its very inception has been to promote, popularize, and expand on the value, the importance, the need for ethical consideration in the process of what we call international affairs, which is another way of saying decision making.

A lot of people are scared by the word "ethics." What do we mean by that when it's in our title? I always like to say, "It really means about the same thing it means when you use it in your own life."

Ethics is about making choices. Often those choices are quite difficult. It's between good choices and bad choices. But the world isn't quite that Manichaean and simplistic. And, when we take it to the level of states, it becomes exponentially more complicated.

What we write about, the discussion that we feel needs to be promoted, is how one takes this one tool—and we stress it is one tool, one arrow in the quiver, but those who value us think it's an essential tool—and uses it to guide and assist states, peoples, governments, regions, even global decision-making bodies, to get from point A to point B, to lead us forward into the world that we all want to live in.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: What specific types of themes come out in the journal? We talk about "ethics and international affairs," but practically what types of issues are you discussing?

JOHN TESSITORE: The scope is almost without limit, in the sense that there really are no issues that do not have an ethical dimension.

We began with Greek tragedy. We all know about dilemmas. We have discovered that every important issue that we face as a society, as a nation, as a globe, has so many dimensions. How do we navigate through these dimensions? How do we navigate through all the various parties that are going to be affected by these decisions?

Of course some themes that come immediately to mind are environmental. We all know, just by reading our daily papers, the enormous complexity of going forward and advancing an agenda to address global warming and climate change.

We also know the issues between sovereignty and what we now call the responsibility to protect, the overriding urgency for intervention for the protections of a people, the demos, that is subject to either external or internal atrocity, what we call international war crimes.

These are decisions that can never be made easily, and there are certainly debates surrounding every one of them. There are often sides drawn. Sometimes it is quite difficult for those sides to find compromise. But one of the tools that we can use to help navigate our way through this very difficult terrain is in fact that of making ethical choices, informing our decisions with that particular dimension.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: So in these themes and issues that you're discussing, it seems that a lot of the struggle is defining a state and state sovereignty and how far a state can reach in terms of other countries' affairs and how far international institutions can reach. Why is that such a key struggle in ethics in international affairs?

JOHN TESSITORE: Sovereignty is one of those old bogeymen that's been around for a very long time. It was accepted for centuries as the sine qua non for international relations, that borders were inviolate and that what went on within a nation was only of concern to that nation itself.

We know very well that there was a gradual eroding of that concept over the 20th century and that we have created through so many channels a greater sense of global community, however one might define that. But we would all agree there is something that has brought us together, if nothing more than just the media, as well as growing common concerns. I mentioned a moment ago the environment, that's certainly one. Health is another; we talk about global pandemics. AIDS is not restricted to any one country. Issues of hunger, issues of human rights and justice—we are now more cognizant of them.

We seem to have crossed a boundary where we say there is a point at which it is the responsibility of the international community—and I will immediately acknowledge that even that phrase is often contested—but let us say that there is a general feeling among a host of nations, however one defines them, that there are certain acts which cannot be tolerated by what we'll call a civilized people, by a global community that cares about its fellow citizens. And by "fellow citizens" I mean citizens of the world. However one defines these relationships, there is this general understanding that has gained enormous credence, particularly in the last 20 years.

There have been champions, one of whom is Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was something of a groundbreaker in this area in the 1990s, culminating in a very important UN decision by the General Assembly, the community of nations, that there are limits, and at a certain point we have three responsibilities:

  • One is the responsibility to take preventive actions so that we do not have the horrors that we have experienced even as recently as the massacre in Rwanda.

  • Beyond that, we have the responsibility to protect. That is defined very cautiously and with all kinds of provisions and qualifications. But to speak again in general terms, it is defined as the responsibility to intercede in very extreme circumstances.

Then the third, which we in the journal talk about quite a bit—it is not as generally discussed but is of enormous importance—and that is the responsibility to rebuild, to go in and assist those nations that have suffered extreme damage, often who are now without proper governmental direction, governmental leadership, and the various services that are provided by some kind of central authority. You can imagine the havoc and hardship that that can create. That is the third leg of the stool and it has been carefully articulated in international agreement. But international agreement is always subject to a great deal of discussion, debate, and interpretation.
That is one of the things that a journal like Ethics & International Affairs can help do. It can promote that discussion, it can help to articulate the various aspects of the dimensions of these very difficult issues that have no one right answer. We are always striving toward the most right answer. The more we can think about it, the more good minds and thoughtful articulation we can provide, the more hopeful we are of finding the most right answer.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: You're talking a lot about policymakers and the UN. A lot of people think of an academic journal as targeted towards universities and an academic audience. I'm curious how you define your audience.

I'm glad you asked that, because there is something which I won't say is unique about the journal but is special and important, in that we are not simply a journal of theory.

We say in our guidelines that what we want to focus on is where theory meets practice. A great many of our readers are not just in the academic world but they are very much practitioners. They are in the area of diplomacy, members of nongovernmental organizations, and journalists. They are people who are in one way or another involved in this tremendously complex decision-making matrix.

There is what I would like to call a practical dimension to our journal. While we may receive pieces that are theoretical, and even occasionally publish them, we always are looking to see how that theory applies in the "real" world.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: I'm so glad I have you here in the hot seat, because I've always wondered something.

JOHN TESSITORE: It's warm. I don't know how hot, but it's warm.

Something I've always wondered about—and you are, after four or five years putting out this journal very expert on—is how a journal gets from a submission, an idea for an article, of a scholar or policymaker to the hands of a policymaker or on a library shelf. Could you tell me how the process really works, because we hear words like peer reviewed? What exactly does that mean?

JOHN TESSITORE: Julia, you're asking one of the deep mysteries of publication, how do we go from alpha to zed.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Pull back the veil here.

JOHN TESSITORE: To begin with, we have to have a reputation that would entice people to want to send their manuscripts to us.

We work, as do all journals, with a combination of targeted solicited manuscripts—that is to say, "I would like to have an article on topic A by author B;" so we go to author B and say, "Would you do this?" and we make arrangements and a schedule. We also have what we fondly refer to as "over-the-transom," the unsolicited manuscript. This is absolutely commonplace and we're happy to get them.

All of them are subject to the same rigorous process, which is called peer review. We are a peer-reviewed journal. This means we have to find three or four people who will agree to read and assess the paper on our behalf.

They do so anonymously—not in the sense that we don't know who they are, but the author does not know who is assessing his or her paper. We share that assessment with the author.

Based on that assessment, and based upon an internal assessment among the editorial staff, we decide one of three things: either accept the paper; reject the paper; or offer a revise-and-resubmit, which is a very common third way. These papers will come back to us if the author wishes to revise. They may wish to send it elsewhere. It is always their prerogative.

Even in the case of the rejected, we feel we provide a very serious service, because we are giving that individual very specific feedback on what it was that led to that decision, both the strong and the weak points of a particular article. That's really invaluable. Most authors genuinely appreciate that.

Once we make a decision to publish, we go through our editing process, which is somewhat exacting at our particular journal. Every journal has their litmus test, their level of exactitude. I'm not commenting on others, but ours is quite high. It takes often several rounds of going back and forth between the editors and the authors before we get to what we consider to be a polished paper.

We also have certain word limitations. Some journals allow an essay or a peer-reviewed piece to go 12,000 to 15,000 words. We have found that 8,000, with just a few exceptions for a little bit longer, forces people to be a little bit more rigorous and economical in their language. As a result our usage has grown exponentially. I would like to focus on the qualitative, but quantitative also reflects qualitative decisions.

We can say that quantitatively the number of downloads of journal articles has actually doubled in the last four years, from roughly 35,000 four years ago to 70,000. That tells us that we're doing something right.

It's not just the numbers, but it's also the nature of the usage. We are being used in approximately 30 nations globally, literally on every continent.

We are receiving papers from countries all over the world. One would naturally expect that they're coming from English-language countries, and they are. But they're also coming from non-English-language countries. We're getting papers from the Middle East, from the Nordic countries, from Asia, South Asia, et cetera.

We do have at this point a truly global outreach both in terms of what we are receiving and how we are disseminating the journal.

I'm also delighted to say, inter alia, that with this 25th anniversary we also begin a new relationship with Cambridge University Press, which we are tremendously pleased and proud about. We are looking forward to a long relationship.

That's another benchmark in terms of where the journal has come. Cambridge is widely recognized as the foremost publishing house for international relations, as it is in many other areas. So we're very happy about that.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: The process sounds quite meticulous.

JOHN TESSITORE: It is meticulous. It's exacting. It's time-consuming. I will even say it's rigid, but I hope not inflexible. I dare say we have a sense of humor about it as well. We try to create a rapport with our authors. We've been very successful. We consider them for the most part our friends.

We have also cultivated a wonderful editorial advisory board. We have splendid people who are there to help us, who we can turn to for consultation and for peer review. Peer review is a voluntary act, and so our gratitude is enormous to those who are willing to take the time to read these papers.

Our small thank-you is to acknowledge them in the last issue of each volume. Having just looked at the winter issue of 2010, it's a very long and impressive list of really major figures in international relations and political science.

At the same time, I want to also point out that we are extremely eager and happy to promote younger scholars. In fact, I consider that a kind of mandate for the journal. I always urge, and I am always very happy to receive, papers from people who have recently earned their Ph.D., in some cases even graduate students.

Mind you, the peer reviewer does not know whether they are reading the paper of a junior scholar or a very senior, well-known one. That's an important aspect of the anonymous peer-review process so that we really have an objective judgment.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: And open to newcomers?

JOHN TESSITORE: Absolutely open. In fact, we can point to some young people who have told us that we have helped them launch their career. It's always a pleasure to see young talent and to be a party to their getting on.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Everywhere in the publishing world, all kinds of different publications have welcomed and feared the march of technology. How are you adapting to new media and getting materials online?

JOHN TESSITORE: That's absolutely true. Once upon a time, a journal was a physical product that you could see on your tabletop, on your desktop, and that was the extent of it.

In fact, I remember at least one journal that redesigned its format into a narrower compact shape so that supposedly one could put it in their jacket pocket and take it onto an airplane. We think of that as quaint in hindsight.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Now they're making jackets with pockets to fit your iPad, right?


JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: So it's gone the complete opposite direction.

One cannot be in the publishing world unless one is electronic.

Cambridge University Press began something like 400 years ago. They obviously have seen a lot of innovation, and they're still here, and they're going to be here for a long time.

The Council's journal, Ethics & International Affairs, has been here for 25 years, and will be here for a long time.

We evolve. We welcome the technology because it's precisely the technology that has allowed us to so expand our outreach. I mentioned before that we have gone from 35,000 to 70,000 downloads.

We are now in roughly 3,000 institutions worldwide. Of that 3,000, approximately 400 are in developing nations. Imagine just 20 years ago, ten years ago, five years ago, how difficult it would be for these institutions in developing nations, with limited budgets, to be accessing and paying for paper products produced in another part of the world. Instead, they now have the ability to electronically download these. Wherever there is a computer, there is the capacity to access this journal. We are riding that wave, and we are very happy to be doing so, and we think that that in fact only bodes well.

It also, going back to a much earlier point, contributes to the global nature of the dialogue that we are looking to promote. The more people, the more bodies, the more states, that are invested in this dialogue, the more likely it is to succeed, or at least to progress.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Also there are some dialogues that are jumping from the page to online too. Do you want to tell me a little bit about that?

JOHN TESSITORE: That's another aspect of what we do, and we're very happy about this. This gives us the ability to respond to our own materials very rapidly.

What we do is called online exclusives. We may publish an article by Professor X in one month and in a matter of days or weeks have a response, which of course enhances that initial article, from Professors Y and Z.

What does one do? In the old days, you had to wait until whenever the next issue came out and prepare that for publication. We're talking quarterly journals. This is not a daily newspaper. You can't do immediate responses in print, but you can do them online. That's the great benefit of being able to immediately attach the response to the initial article and have this online, up and available to anyone whatsoever in a matter of days, hours.

Also, when one goes to the original article using your search engine, and you want to find out about climate change, just to use a popular example, you find this article. The article will also immediately lead you to the responses. You don't have to do the additional searching. We have links that we can create and thereby enhance the product.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: This is one change that has happened in the journal. We're talking about your change of publishers.

As you look back over the 25 years of the journal—I know you've not edited it the whole time, but I assume you're familiar with the history of the journal—


JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: —with your long relationship with the Council as well. So how has the journal changed in other ways?

JOHN TESSITORE: I'm happy to say there has been a consistency of mission. It was founded 25 years ago by then-president of the Carnegie Council Robert Myers, who had a vision, and he articulated that vision in the very first issue, that he wanted ethics to become not only a dimension of international relations but become commonplace. He envisioned the day—and it was extremely prescient of him because his vision has come to a reality—where we don't ask the question "Why consider ethics?" but it is accepted as an essential part of the decision-making process.

It was an annual when it was first launched, one volume a year. It had wonderful contributors—names like Stanley Hoffmann, and people that we all know and revere.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Joseph Nye in the first edition.

JOHN TESSITORE: We can go on and on, indeed.

We went from once a year to at one point, curiously—and I can't explain quite why—it was three times a year. Then, it was approximately five years ago, where we became what would be considered a full-blown quarterly journal. Four times a year is quite traditional for a peer-reviewed journal. So that takes us to the current day.

We have had marvelous contributors. It's quite interesting—if you look at the ten most popular articles that were most downloaded a year ago, about half are very recent articles and then half come from the deep well of past publications, the perennials. It's nice to see that these articles of five years ago, ten years ago, even more, have such shelf life and continue to influence and be used in the classroom. That's very important. We want to see these things used in the classroom. We want to see them promoting discussion.

That's one of the reasons why in fact there is a kind of energy, whereby we know that we're in, for example, countless syllabuses. For all of the technology, there's no method for us to access every syllabi globally, but it's in the thousands. We realize that there are then tens of thousands of students, graduate and undergraduate, who are being exposed to our publication every year. Those are people who then we might see a year or two or so down the line when they come back to us being authors themselves.


What are you doing to celebrate your 25th anniversary?

JOHN TESSITORE: You mean besides popping the champagne bottle?

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Well, that's step one. What comes after that?

JOHN TESSITORE: First, we have made efforts to begin the year with a very special issue. It is the spring issue of 2011. It begins with a foreword by the Carnegie Council's president and publisher of the journal, Joel Rosenthal, who does a wonderful job of looking back and discussing where we've been and where we are going.

We have several essays by editorial board members, people who have been with us for quite a while—Terry Nardin, who is a long-time contributor and friend of the journal; the very distinguished Professor Henry Shue, to whom we are extremely grateful; Leif Wenar—all of whom have made very original contributions.

We are going to continue to do our best to give our readers some special issues this year.

We are also reaching out to authors who we have a deep desire to communicate with, and we hope to prod them and cajole them into coming back with something new for us. These are going to be some old and new friends.

We are also going to be working with Cambridge in terms of outreach. They are extremely innovative and they have some wonderful ideas and the capacity to execute them.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: I wanted to ask you about that new relationship with Cambridge. What does that bring to the table for you?

JOHN TESSITORE: It brings a number of things.

First of all, not to put too fine a point on it, but it brings a sense of achievement. They were kind enough to flatter us by coming to us and asking us if we would care to be one of their journals under their banner. We were very happy about that.

We recognize them for what they are, a great leader in the field. We are not in any way denigrating others. It's just a very happy relationship. Lovely people to work with. A lot of energy and excitement on both sides. They have ideas, which I won't go into now because nothing has been absolutely finalized.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: You have to let them percolate a little.

Exactly. And frankly, they can be so technical that it's not something for this discussion.

They are, without question, an asset, and, happily, they see us in the same way. It's a mutual admiration society.

We will be together at the ISA Convention in March of this year, coming up shortly.

We hope to let all of our friends in the international relations community know about our new relationship and to share that excitement with them and to invite them to participate in this process in various ways: by essays—and by "essays" I refer to the non-peer-reviewed articles that we print, which tend to be a little bit more timely than the peer-reviewed pieces, obviously a little bit more subjective—and also those who are submitting the longer features—that's our term for the peer-reviewed articles, which I mentioned tend to be about 8,000 words.

We also are very happy and proud of our book review section. We, on average, publish four or five timely book reviews. In addition, we have the occasional review essay, in which we ask an individual to talk about two to four books assembled around a single theme, and go beyond just the reviewing process, to actually bring his or her own expertise and thoughts to the topic and create this kind of overview, which we think has enormous value in terms of putting forward clear ideas on particular issues of concern to our readers.

There's a great deal that can be done. There's a great deal we are doing. There's more that we want to do. The future is always bright. We are trying to seize the moment and enjoy this 25th anniversary.

Anniversaries are exactly that, they are a kind of demarcation, they are a steppingstone in our lives, whether it's our own anniversary or the anniversary of a journal.

But we always have to think beyond anniversaries. We have to think about the 26th year and the 27th year. We'll just have to see what comes.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: That's my last question: What is your vision for the future? If you're celebrating your 50th anniversary at the journal, what do you hope to have by then? You had the vision set out for you to make ethics a no-brainer in terms of considering international affairs. What's the next big bridge?

Life is incremental. We are optimists, we're realists, we're pragmatists, we're idealists. We take it one year at a time.

The underlying, motivational goal, actually goes back all the way to the founding of the Carnegie Council itself, the publisher of the journal. That takes us back to 1914 and it takes us back to Andrew Carnegie himself.

Mr. Carnegie was a visionary in many ways. He was a man who really felt a responsibility to use his wealth and his power in a constructive way for the benefit of mankind. His vision was global.

He endowed the Carnegie Council in 1914 with the idea of working toward world peace. No one is so naïve as to think that we have achieved it—maybe we never will—but he realized, and so has the Council for nearly 100 years—in fact, the Council will be celebrating its centennial in just three years—that it is a process.

The journal is part of that process. We are looking to incrementally move people—the thinkers, the actors, the players—in a direction that brings benefit to humanity at large. If we can do that, however slightly, then we have a role to play—one role among so very many, but it's our role—and we have to do our best to make sure that we do it as well as it can be done and as effectively as it can be done, and, with some luck, we'll make a little bit of a difference.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: John Tessitore, editor of the journal and executive editor of the Council, thank you so much for sitting down with me today.

JOHN TESSITORE: Thank you for this. I enjoyed it very much.

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