The Age of the Unthinkable

I’ve read a book by Joshua Cooper Ramo titled “The Age of the Unthinkable” that has some interesting ideas. Most particularly for me is his insistence that many traditional ways of viewing the world and how nations approach ideas like security and defense need a complete clean-sheet revamping. For example, he argues that a concept such as “deterrence” needs to be replaced by “resilience” when dealing with today’s threats, especially from terrorists.

According to Cooper Ramo,

For centuries now the main element of any grand strategy has been “deterrence” – the idea that the best defence is the ability to terrify anyone who would attack you. But that concept is nearly useless today. It’s impossible to deter terrorists who want to die for their cause. And other dangers, from financial panic to disease, can’t be terrified away.

Instead we now need to shift away from relying on (and investing fortunes in) deterrence and move instead to focusing on resilience, which is our ability to snap back once we’ve been hit by the expected or unexpected. Our future will be judged not by our ability to scare the world but by our ability to recover after we’ve been hammered by something we never imagined.

The concept of resilience is something we are seeing more and more of. For instance it is one of the primary ideas behind the work of Erik Hollnagel, who studies risk and safety in industries ranging from food, to health care, to oil drilling and so on.

In their review of the book, the Christian Science Monitor wrote:

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?

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.

There is also a good interview of Joshua Cooper Ramo on Charlie Rose:

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