Book: THE AGE OF THE UNTHINKABLE Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It

April 29, 2009


Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us
and What We Can Do About It
By Joshua Cooper Ramo
280 pages. Little, Brown & Company. $25.99.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously divided thinkers into two categories:
hedgehogs (like Plato, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen and
Proust), who know one big thing and tend to view the world through the lens
of a single organizing principle, and foxes (like Herodotus, Shakespeare,
Montaigne, Goethe, Balzac and Joyce), who know many things and who pursue
various unrelated, even contradictory ends.

According to Joshua Cooper Ramo’s provocative new book, “The Age of the
Unthinkable,” one study — in which hundreds of experts in subjects like
economics, foreign policy and politics were asked to make predictions about
the short-term future and whose predictions were evaluated five years later
— showed that foxes, with their wide-ranging curiosity and willingness to
embrace change, tended to be far more accurate in their forecasts than
hedgehogs, eager for closure and keen on applying a few big ideas to an
array of situations.

It’s a finding enthusiastically embraced by Mr. Ramo, who argues in these
pages that today’s complex, interconnected, globalized world requires policy
makers willing to toss out old assumptions (about cause and effect,
deterrence and defense, nation states and balances of power) and embrace
creative new approaches. Today’s world, he suggests, requires resilient
pragmatists who, like the most talented Silicon Valley venture capitalists
on the one hand or the survival-minded leadership of Hezbollah on the other,
possess both an intuitive ability to see problems in a larger context and a
willingness to rejigger their organizations continually to grapple with
ever-shifting challenges and circumstances.

With this volume, Mr. Ramo, managing director at the geostrategic advisory
firm Kissinger Associates and a former editor at Time magazine, seems to
have set out to write a Malcolm Gladwellesque book: a book that popularizes
complicated scientific theories while illustrating its arguments with
colorful case studies and friendly how-to exhortations.

In drawing upon chaos science (explored in detail in James Gleick’s 1987
book, “Chaos”), complexity theory and the theory of disruptive innovation
(pioneered by the Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen),
Mr. Ramo does a nimble job of showing how such theories shed light on the
current political and economic climate while avoiding the worst pitfalls
(like an overreliance on suggestion and innuendo and the use of
unrepresentative examples) of Mr. Gladwell’s clumsy last book, “Outliers.”

But if Mr. Ramo is adept at assessing the precarious state of today’s
post-cold-war world — in which nation states face asymmetric threats from
the likes of terrorists, drug cartels and computer hackers — he proves much
less convincing in articulating practical means of grappling with such
daunting problems.

The central image that Mr. Ramo uses to evoke what he calls this “age of
surprise” is Per Bak’s sand pile — that is, a sand pile described some two
decades ago by the Danish-American physicist Per Bak, who argued that if
grains of sand were dropped on a pile one at a time, the pile, at some
point, would enter a critical state in which another grain of sand could
cause a large avalanche — or nothing at all. It’s a hypothesis that shows
that a small event can have momentous consequences and that seemingly stable
systems can behave in highly unpredictable ways.

It’s also a hypothesis that Mr. Ramo employs in this book as a metaphor for
a complex world in which changes — in politics, ecosystems or financial
markets — take place not in smooth, linear progressions but as sequences of
fast, sometimes catastrophic events.

Real-life sand-pile avalanches, like the collapse of the Soviet Union or the
1929 crash of the stock market, Mr. Ramo declares, demand “a complete
remapping of the world”: policymakers must junk a lot of their old thinking
to cope with this unpredictable new order.

For instance, many of the assumptions of the realist school of
foreign-policy making — which focused on nation states, “assumed countries
were rational, and made the bet that pure power was the solution to any
problem” — have been undercut by the irrationalities and contingencies that
have recently multiplied on the world stage.

As Mr. Ramo observes, “Theories that involve only armies and diplomats don’t
have much use” when “confronted with the peculiar nature of a financially
interconnected world, where danger, risk and profit are linked in ways that
can be impossible to spot and manage.”

To make matters even more complicated, Mr. Ramo continues, complex systems
“tend to become more complex as time goes on”:

“The systems never get simpler. There was no moment at which they would
evaporate or condense into a single, easy-to-spot target such as the
U.S.S.R. The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, for example, was a single very
knotty event that, in turn, gave birth to hundreds of jihadist groups, each
of which developed different methods of terror, particular techniques of
attack and destruction, which themselves were always changing and evolving.”

In this sand-pile world, a small group of terrorists armed with box cutters
can inflict a terrible blow on a superpower — as Al Qaeda did on 9/11, just
as bands of insurgents in Iraq managed to keep the mighty United States
military at bay for three long years.

Iraq, Mr. Ramo astutely notes, is a war that showcased all of America’s most
“maladaptive” tendencies. It was inaugurated on the premise of flawed idées
fixes: that it would have “a clean, fast end” and would lead to a democratic
regime that would transform the Middle East in a positive fashion. And the
certainty of Bush administration officials not only led to incorrect
assumptions (like the bet that “the ‘ecosystem’ of Iraq would settle into
something stable that could be left to run itself”) but also resulted in an
ill-planned and rigid occupation that was “incapable of the speedy
refiguring that life in a war zone” inevitably requires.

So how should leaders cope with the sand-pile world? How can they learn to
“ride the earthquake” and protect their countries from the worst fallout of
such tremors? Mr. Ramo suggests that they must learn to build resilient
societies with strong immune systems: instead of undertaking the impossible
task of trying to prepare for every possible contingency, they ought to
focus on things like “national health care, construction of a better
transport infrastructure and investment in education.”

He suggests that leaders should develop ways of looking at problems that
focus more on context than on reductive answers. And he talks about people
learning to become gardeners instead of architects, of embracing Eastern
ideas of indirection instead of Western patterns of confrontation, of seeing
“threats as systems, not objects.”

Though Mr. Ramo sounds annoyingly fuzzy and vaguely New Agey when he tries
to outline tactics for dealing with “the age of the unthinkable,” he’s at
least managed, in this stimulating volume, to make the reader seriously
contemplate the alarming nature of a rapidly changing world — a world in
which uncertainty and indeterminacy are givens, and avalanches, negative
cascades and tectonic shifts are ever-present dangers.

April 28, 2009
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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