Tuesday, 28 April 2009

“The Age of the Unthinkable”, by Joshua Cooper Ramo (Little, Brown)


Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It

According to the author, the world works much the same way a sand-pile does. If you keep dropping grains of sand onto first a flat surface and then on top of the growing pile, it will eventually experience an avalanche effect. It is inevitable, but also unpredictable. This metaphor is used to help explain everything from power politics to the environment, and also business and stock-markets.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Ramo argues we are entering a world where previously unacknowledged forces are creating considerable instability, resulting in “an avalanche of ceaseless change”. We are, the author proposes,

“at the start of what may become the most dramatic change in the international order in several centuries, the biggest shift since European nations were first shuffled into a sovereign order by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.”

One of the main problems facing us is that “some of the best minds of our era are still in thrall to an older way of seeing and thinking.” This includes the tendency of international relations scholars and political elites to rigidly adhere to the long-held notion that states are the key actors in geopolitics and domestic politics. The world is much more complex than that: large corporations (in a non-conspiracy way) can have great effect on domestic and international politics, and terrorist organisations can throw nations and economics into turmoil (as just two examples). Myriad forces are at work in the world, exerting influence daily on these traditional bulwarks of political and economic life and order. Basically, our leaders “lack the language, creativity, and revolutionary spirit our moment demands,” meaning we have effectively left the fate of our future “in the hands of people whose single greatest characteristic is that they are bewildered by the present.”

The Age of the Unthinkable is a broad book in scope and ambition, covering a number of issues and topics, using varied examples as far apart as Hizb’allah, global economics, Nintendo, spymasters, Picasso and Cubism, and investors in Silicon Valley; it also draws on examples of creative thinking from music, the Internet, science and medicine. Ramo displays his frustration with international relations theory and its practitioners by calmly and intelligently (and a touch humorously) pointing out the flaws of realism – the dominant IR theory – and Democratic Peace Theory. For the two theories, he provides illuminating, concise histories and summaries. He describes how

“lovely as they were in the classroom, those [theoretical] models were largely useless in reality… Despite their good intentions, most of our foreign policy thinkers today resemble students who arrive to take a test that is composed in a language they do not speak.”

Democratic peace theory, in particular, is frowned upon:

“Believing… that the triumph of democracy and capitalism is inevitable should disqualify you immediately from a serious position in foreign policy.”

Rather than predicting our inevitable doom, as some authors are wont to do, Ramo hopes to offer a guide of how we can save ourselves – through a “heroic act of reimagination” – in this ever-changing, volatile global environment. The first part of the book is his attempt to “destroy, politely, the idea that our current thinking about international affairs is of much use.”

The choice the author presents to us is simple: “imagination or crisis.” The ability to adapt to unpredictable forces, to accept the world as a far more complex entity than we perhaps do at the moment, while also insisting on the importance of empathy and resilience, are all key to Ramo’s prescription.

“laying the foundation for a sensible international order – one that fits 2009, not 1989 – requires moving into areas where traditional thinkers about power are least comfortable, a whole way of thinking where old math rules are discarded.”

It’s very difficult to disagree, in the face of the economic and political crises currently presented to us and the failure of specific theories to predict or explain our current situation. His use of seemingly unrelated examples bears fruit as he clearly explains how creative thinking in one field can be applied to others, with considerable results. The rigidity of our leaders is prohibitive.

Ramo’s writing style is exceptional. It is inviting, accessible, and lucid, formed during his incredibly successful years as a journalist. Working now as Managing Director of Kissinger Associates, it is somewhat surprising that he would take realism to task (Kissinger being perhaps the most famous realist). Some might consider his opinion of IR theorists and scholars overly harsh, but his criticisms bear consideration and do (in certain instances at least) have the ring of truth to them. The benefits of flexibility and new thinking are clearly lacking in today’s international relations fields (both academic and practical). His arguments are balanced and well substantiated, lacking in polemic, and should be taken to heart by all.

This is an essential read, pure and simple.

Also try: Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (2008); Chris Patten, What Next? (2008); Francis Fukuyama, Blindside (2008) it’s actually difficult to make proper recommendations, as this book is wonderfully unique.

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