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November 2009

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The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It
Review by Ambassador (ret.) Edward Marks

bookJoshua Cooper Ramo, The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It, New York: Little, Brown and Company; 2009, ISBN-13: 978-0316118088, $25.99, 288 pp.

The Age of the Unthinkable is another entrant into a distinct literary niche: the revelation that the world is not as you have thought, written in a breezy, deliberately non-academic style.  Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat is the most successful recent example of this type of book, although Friedman’s thesis is not as cosmic and his book is better written.

Joshua Cooper Ramo’s explains that we are now in an historic moment of peril while the ideas and institutions that we relied upon hitherto are failing, and that therefore our attempts to deal with the new threat(s) are only making things worse.  The old thinking he refers to is the belief that there is a logical relationship between the power of states and the process of change. Today, however, he argues that the changes of the past one hundred years have produced a revolutionary age in which the dominant reality is uncertainty combined with unpredictability. The world is now a “complex system wherein most phenomena around us seem rather distant from the basic law of physics” according to the Danish scientist Per Bak who appears to be the scientific source of this concept.  Specifically, according to Bak, “Complex systems can exhibit catastrophic behavior where one part of the system can affect others by a domino effect”.  The concrete example of this is the sandpile, where sand being piled up organizes itself into a little cone which contains within its structure inherent instability which might trigger a large avalanche upon the addition of a single grain of sand at some point - or might not.

On the basis of this concept, if I have explained it fairly, the author says that his purpose is “to destroy, politely, the idea that our current thinking about international affairs is of much use” and to declare the “fundamental impossibility of adopting our old diplomatic or financial habits to this new world”.  Therefore we are finding ourselves unable to deal with contemporary threats ranging from Hezbollah to hedge funds.

To deal with contemporary problems characterized by rapid and unpredictable change, Mr. Ramo formulates the new concept of “deep security”, a “whole new way of composing a grand-strategic view”.  Deep security strategy is based upon three elements: look holistically instead of narrowly at problems; focus and develop our own resilience and adaptability; augment our instinct for direct action with the “incredible power of an indirect approach”.

He admits that that deep security will not produce all the answers we need but it will provide “a way of seeing, thinking, and of acting that accepts growing complexity and ceaseless newness as givens” which “used properly” will be “best allies.”  In essence, he says that precedent and experience are essentially useless in dealing with today’s problems which are characterized by unpredictability, rapid change, networking and adaptability.  In presenting his concept of deep security as a response, Mr. Ramos refers many examples of successful adapters to the new situation: Gertrude Stein and Picasso at the dawning of modern sensibility; an Israeli spymaster and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Hezbollah (“the management secrets of”), a young Brazilian businessman. He also turns to Sun Tzu and the Chinese masters of strategy, contrasting them (unfavorably) with the focused Western perspective of cause and effect.

Mr. Ramo’s addresses the specific question of the need to reform the USG foreign policy system, specifically the National Security Council and the State Department, where he argues that merely improving policy execution by any of the old methods will not save us from disaster. (This sudden descent from a global perspective to the operations of the NSC and State may reflect his day job at managing director of Kissinger Associates.) With respect to the NSC he suggests that we might establish a parallel “equally smart group” possibly called the Deep Security Council to look at problems from “unusual and new perspectives”.  He imagines closing down State in phases, replacing the existing bureaus with a less hierarchical structure “in which individual departments took more authority to innovate, to propose radical solutions to problems like computer viruses” which he states are too low on the priorities of Secretaries of State. As suggestions only, they any detail or concreteness and are apparently intended to contribute to creating a system of foreign policy entrepreneurs who can produce the new, radical, and inventive approaches we need.

Obviously this summary of Mr. Ramo’s discussion may unfairly portray it - but probably not.  His discussion of the changes which afflict us is accurate enough but there appears to be an unstated assumption that all has been changed.  He does not mention the unchanging character of human nature, or the legacy elements of human society in including old habits such rampant nationalism or identity politics or the continuing willingness of human beings to go to war. He never mentions the age-old questions of authority or politics or religion.  He appears to assume that all of these continuing traits of human society have been fundamentally changed, and do not operate in their traditional roles. At least he does not provide any serious discussion. Yes, Hezbollah poses a completely new type of challenge, but does Russia? 


authorEd Marks served more than 40 years in the U. S. Foreign Service, including an assignment as ambassador to Guinea-Bissau. He graduated from Michigan and Oklahoma universities and attended the National War College. Retiring in 1995, he subsequently served on detail to the U. S. Pacific Command. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College and a member of the American Diplomacy board.

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