The Age of the Unthinkable

Keeping the US truly safe, argues a journalist, requires us to radically rethink our sense of safety.

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The war on terror creates more terrorists. The push for Middle East peace sparks more conflict. Radical remedies for the financial crisis seem only to hasten recession.
These are the tragic paradoxes that mark our modern world, writes Joshua Cooper Ramo in The Age of the Unthinkable. The chief problem is that foreign-policy elites don’t see the world as it really is.

We wouldn’t run a nuclear reactor relying only on Newtonian physics. So why do we run foreign affairs with a Napoleonic view of the world?

This is a book that sparkles with insight and imagination. You’ll learn more about foreign policy from this text than you would in most university courses.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

As a former journalist, Ramo seamlessly fuses the bird’s-eye and worm’s-eye views to render a compelling picture of global security threats.

Many authors could dispassionately distill the management lessons of the terrorist group Hezbollah. Few could do it while recounting the time they debated Ted Turner’s religious orientation with Hezbollah fighters from the back seat of a navy blue BMW careening around tiny roads just a gunshot away from the Israeli border.

Even fewer could supplement those lessons with insights from the forests of Borneo, the habits of Asian mothers, and even Gertrude Stein’s aesthetic. This is connect-the-dots writing at its best.

Ramo’s study of the dangers we confront is at once sobering and hopeful. Take terrorism. A few dollars worth of box cutters and a fanatical vision was all it took to “beat” the greatest military force in history and take down the World Trade Center.

Today, several wars, agencies, and hundreds of billions of dollars later, we shouldn’t assume that we can anticipate – let alone deter – the next attack. Yet that is what the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in concert with other agencies, exists to do.

It’s a hopeless mission, Ramo argues. We can’t stop every strike. But we can boost our ability to absorb their effects. Doing so would spur us to invest in better education, transportation infrastructure, and national health coverage. DHS itself should be rechristened as DHR: Department of Homeland Resilience.

At first glance, those prescriptions seem trite – and some are undercooked – but Ramo is trying to help us recognize the power of slow, not fast, variables; the salience of background, not foreground; and the potentially destructive power of a single grain on the sand pile.

To survive and thrive in today’s unpredictable world, Ramo urges us to aim for “deep security.” Doing so requires a radical reorientation of our sense of safety.

In the game of Whac-a-Mole, traditional security tries to keep up with the randomly popping moles through better guessing and by honing reflexes to hit them faster. That just leads to exhaustion and failure. Deep security admits that one person can’t keep up. It asks everyone at the arcade to help.

Some tilt the machine, some hack the computer’s scoring, and others swarm overthe moles with dozens of small mallets.

Ramo’s concept of deep security is rooted in the body’s immune system. That may be an apt and reassuring analogy, but it’s also controversial.

Strong immune systems are built on a cold Nietzschean logic: that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Thus, exposure to many moderate viruses is a good thing, no?

Just as no parent would sign off on that strategy, no politician would recommend that we stress our defenses to strengthen them. Yet Ramo reminds us of the tragic cost of warding off every threat.

In the real world, curbing every small fire makes a forest more vulnerable to a big blaze. Likewise, juicing the economy to retard even a mild recession – which the Federal Reserve has done for years – has arguably hampered our ability to deal with today’s severe downturn.

Ramo isn’t saying that we should be passive in the face of danger. He’s saying:

•Don’t be mesmerized by the most obvious – or most recent – threats. Look at the periphery.
•Be nimble, adaptable, resilient.
•Learn to see the signs of change and embrace it.
•Understand that small things can have big impacts.
•Don’t fear chaos; work with it.
•Promote peer relationships and tap the wisdom of crowds.
•Don’t beat your enemies; empathize with them and manipulate them.
•Be willing to give up grand strategies such as bringing democracy to the Middle East.

Essentially, Ramo is calling for geostrategic jujitsu. Indeed, many of his recommendations are rooted in East Asian thought and practice. That’s understandable from a China hand who served as an analyst for NBC’s coverage of the Beijing Olympics. But his warmth for Chinese wisdom leads him to exaggerate American folly.

Like St. Augustine, who asked for chastity, but not yet, Ramo asks for epistemological modesty, but evidently not for himself. His description of the ideal foreign-policy worker smacks of self promotion.

And his dismissal of centuries worth of foreign-affairs thinking – and the Bush administration’s approach in particular – betrays an overconfidence in his own thesis and a surprising inability to hedge the possibility that decades hence may vindicate some of the strategies he finds so stupid.

Some of his prescriptions appear contradictory. In an account of fighting disease in South Africa, Ramo concludes that success depended on bureaucrats stepping aside and empowering individuals to take full ownership over their health. Yet elsewhere he calls for national healthcare in America.

Might that lead to some of the government oversight and centralization that was so detrimental in Africa?

Finally, his concept of grand strategy seems untethered to the granite post of ideology. Ideology has a bad taste today, but many of America’s enemies are driven by it and some of them think in terms of centuries, not years. Might it not be wise to match that will with a set of principles that are equally durable?

Ramo’s strength is his power of perception. Like Malcolm Gladwell – the author of “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” and “Outliers” – Ramo amazes us as he effortlessly connects the insights of visionary figures as diverse as an Israeli intelligence chief and a venture-capital legend.

But, unfortunately, also like Gladwell, Ramo doesn’t bring that perspicacity to his own thesis. What are its weaknesses? What’s the counterevidence? Wrapping his argument in a bow is pretty, but it doesn’t let readers examine the contents of the box.

Despite these shortcomings, “The Age of the Unthinkable” is a fascinating study of the way the world really works. As a new generation of leaders maps out America’s course in the world, Ramo’s navigational skill will surely be in high demand.

Josh Burek is the Monitor’s Opinion editor.

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