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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.