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Age Of The Unthinkable (2009)

Age of the Unthinkable (2009)

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3.68 of 5 Votes: 3
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0316070017 (ISBN13: 9780316070010)
Little, Brown & Company

About book Age Of The Unthinkable (2009)

Resiliency. Maybe that was what was lacking.In the opening pages of The Age of the Unthinkable Joshua Cooper Ramo cites long-time Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s 2008 testimony to Congress on finding a “flaw” in his reasoning about how to manage the economy.“In other words,” Greenspan’s questioner said, “you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right. It was not working?”Greenspan replied, “Absolutely. . . I was shocked. Because I have been going for forty years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working very well indeed.”If Alan Greenspan were the only world leader who found himself at a loss to explain why his policies had gone awry, we wouldn’t be facing so many crises simultaneously. But he is far from the only one. He’s just the only one with high name recognition who has honestly and publicly admitted how baffled he is that, in effect, everything he knew was wrong. “The sum of their misconceptions,” Ramo writes, “has now produced a tragic paradox: policies designed to make us safer instead make the world more perilous. History’s grandest war against terrorism, for instance, not only failed to eliminate terrorism, it creates more dangerous terrorists. Attempts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons instead encourage countries to accelerate their quest for an atom bomb. Global capitalism, intended to boost the quality of life of people around the world, claws the gap between rich and poor ever wider.” And the litany goes on: financial regulation, environmental protections, Middle East peace initiatives — every major effort to confront a threat to human well-being seems to backfire with unintended consequences.In The Age of the Unthinkable, Ramo explains patiently and brilliantly that this is so because, at the most fundamental level, the architecture of civilization has become unimaginably complex. He turns to little-known cognitive scientists, terrorists, ecologists, military leaders, venture capitalists, and other insightful observers in their own fields to illuminate the larger challenge: that the way our brains work and the way we have been taught to think in the West equip us poorly to cope with the emergent properties that inevitably appear when complex systems are tweaked. The only way to survive over the long haul in such circumstances is always to view the Big Picture and to build resiliency into every system — military, financial, environmental, you-name-it.In one of the most revealing scenes in the book, Ramo refers to research conducted at the University of Michigan contrasting the ways American and Chinese students viewed a series of the same images. Each image depicted a large object in the foreground (a tiger, for example) with its environment shown in the background. The American students devoted an overwhelming proportion of their time to viewing the foreground objects and later proved largely incapable of describing the backgrounds against which they appeared. The Chinese students focused on the environment, viewing each picture holistically and spending only a limited amount of time on the objects in the foreground.Ramo points to this contrast (Greenspan’s “flaw”) as a signal of what’s wrong in the Western approach to problem-solving. Given any problem, we’re schooled to attack it head-on, ignoring the context and often the possible repercussions of our actions. Instead, Ramo argues, we should take several steps backward, view every problem as the manifestation of numerous intersecting factors, and look for indirect ways to prod the system to make an end run around the problem. For instance, Ramo cites the work of General Aharon Farkash, Israel’s most successful leader of military intelligence, who found that head-on attacks against insurgents invariably led to failure and that asking the usual questions would lead only to confusion. Rather than focus exclusively on the movement of arms through Iranian border crossings, for example, Farkash asked his agents to study the most popular show on Iranian TV to understand what was new in their adversaries’ thinking. “Focus on things that move and change,” Farkash insisted. Ramo sees that injunction as essential for a successful response to the challenges of the future.The Age of the Unthinkable is now on my short list of contemporary books that truly help explain how the world works today. It’s one of the most thought-provoking works I’ve read in many years.According to Wikipedia, Joshua Cooper Ramo is a former senior editor and foreign editor of Time magazine and later Vice Chairman at Kissinger Associates, the consulting firm of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Esler Research Notes The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Ramo By Joshua Cooper Ramo Author Background The author of this book is a managing director of Kissinger Associates. This group provides advice to governments around the world. He was previously the managing editor of TIME Magazine. And he splits his residence between Beijing and the United States. Part I � The Sandpile Effect Chapter 1 � The Nature of the Age Ramo uses the first chapter of the book to set the stage that there are massive changes going on in the world and because of this we are reeling, trying to figure out what is happening. He suggests that we are at the beginning of a period in world history in which there will be significant changes in the international order. These changes will be as big as any that have been seen in the span of history. His hope is that his book will help us to think about the changes that are coming. He contrasts the old way of thinking and the new way of thinking. The old way is slow moving and conservative, the new way is entrepreneurial and filled with new ideas. He believes that the major problems of our day, whether it be global warming, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, economic chaos or other threats demand that we have a new �grand strategy� (Ramo 2000:10). Instead of coming to grips with these changes, our society is only making minor changes to the existing order and this will lead us down a dangerous path. The book's aim is to come up with a new way of thinking about the world. The main argument of the book is, "In a revolutionary era with surprising innovation, we need to think and act like a revolutionary" (Ramo 2000:11). The development of these new ideas is of course, built on past ideas although they are revolutionary. "The old laws of power, confronted with a faster-moving and a more intricately ordered system, are now in need of modification" (Ramo 2000:14). Ramo gives us a few ideas of radical changes in our ways of thinking. For example, perhaps we don't want a peace agreement in the Middle East (2000:14-15). He notes that the ideas of a hundred years ago are radically different than the ideas of today. Today's system of economics, science and other areas of life are actually very complex and when we have problems in one part of the system will often lead to problems in other part of the system (2000:17-18). Chapter 2 � The Old Physics There's a theory that says that democracy is a way of keeping nations from fighting against each other that was �scientifically proven� by a researcher named Babst (Ramo 2000:21-22). Unfortunately, this theory did not hold up. In 1999, American bombers began dropping bombs in Belgrade, Serbia. As a result, researchers have gone back to the drawing board to look at other options. Ramo is beginning to build an argument that the past theories of geo-politics are no longer holding true. He traces Morgenthau's views that there are rules for the governing of nations and of power. Morgenthau, a member of the "realist" school of political science (2000:31-32), wrote a number of substantive books that talk about political power and how nations make decisions. Ramo states out that realism is no longer applicable. What we thought was true about international relations was destroyed on September 11(2000:35). Realism suggests that there are particular ways that nations should act. It also believes that states have a monopoly on the use on violence or the machinery of war (Ramo 2000:35). In this day of "computer hackers, terrorists and drug cartels", that is certainly no longer accurate. So, Ramo deconstructs the realists school of political science that has governed our way of thinking on international affairs for many years. "Today, our global policy is largely conducted by elites who are descendants of Morgenthau and disciples of Babst" (Ramo 2000:37). Ramo proposes that this is rather self-serving for the elite. He goes on to note that in a revolutionary world, these types of people make very poor revolutionaries. This chapter concludes with a quote from an economist named Hayek. After receiving the noble prize for economics, Hayek stated that we should be very careful about listening to experts. There are substantial limits to what we know. To expecting more is "the pretense of knowledge" (2000:39). Chapter 3 � The Sandpile In chapter three, Ramo open with an illustration about a researcher named Levin. His focus is on ecological systems that were hit by some sort of unexpected shock and what the response was to the shock (Ramo 2000:43). He then conjectured about the shock that would come from a bio-medical attack. Levin concluded that when the system changed, you needed to change the way that you think about it (2000:45). So Ramo teamed up with Levin to consider what would happen if these ideas would were in fact applied to geopolitics. The author uses the metaphor of a sandpile upon which grains of sand are added until it creates an avalanche. Similarly, various geopolitical events and ideas are put on top of one another until a change occurs. He traces this to a number of different laboratories and scientists and focuses on a scientist named Held. The conclusion of his research is that there is a complex arrangement of items which create critical mass when moved. We must divorce ourselves from the idea that there are simple inputs and outputs. Ramo proposes that we should think about the world with two different affects operating at the same time. The first principle is granularity, the "unstoppable tumbling of fresh sand into a pile" (Ramo 2000:59). The second one is interdependence, "the surprising connections of one pile to another� (Ramo 2000:59). These two things are relating back and forth with each other in a complex world system that we simply are not able to fully grasp or understand. They are too complex. Chapter 4 � Avalanche Country Ramo frames the fall of the Soviet Union as an event that historians should have seen, but didn�t (Ramo 2000:65-66). This is important because it highlights the possibility that large changes may be going on around us and we are unable to see them. Ramo again uses the metaphor of a sandpile, now relating it to the Par Bak Avalanche Principle (2009:66). This is a phenomenon seen in nature in which unseen factors combine to create a rapid change event. In tracing the events of the Soviet Union, Ramo is suggesting that we cannot be deterministic about the future, particularly when it comes to complex systems (2000:73). Granular effects can produce big collapses. Chapter 5 � Budweiser The use of air power to gain superiority over an opponent is the standard US military doctrine. The Chinese, in 2002, began selling a box that could disrupt the signals that manage air superiority. This is, for Ramo, an example of a new technology displacing the old (Ramo 2000:82-87). This is, of course, the age-old dilemma of warfare. He notes that by increasing your security, you are threatening the security of your neighbors. Thus, nation-states are doomed to be insecure (2000:91-92). Perhaps, suggests one researcher (Robert Jervis) a nation should make only defensive weapons, thus avoiding threat to ones neighbors. Because military technology waivers between advances in defense and office, in the end the answer became, �was it less costly to attack or defend?� (2000:94). Current trends indicate that attacking is currently cheaper, thus Ramos predicts that we will see more attacking in the future (2000:96). This means that what is currently unthinkable might become reality. Part II � Deep Security Chapter 6 � Mashup This chapter is introduced with a story about a Gertrude Stein, an American-born art critic who lived in Paris. She was particularly enamored with combining old styles with new ones. Ramo �demolishes the idea that we can somehow manage the international system toward a period of peace as if balancing it on a teeter-totter� (2000:107). Instead, he believes we need a new �grand strategy� that takes current realities into consideration. He suggests something he calls, �Deep Security� (2000:108). In this approach, one seeks to become immune to the dangers by containing the risk that they represent (2000:109). The place to look for these dangers is along the �fault line of the old and the new� (2000:117). After spending about six pages of text on the development of the Nintendo Wii (something that Ramo feels was a game-changer), he introduces the concept of the �mash-up� (Ramo 2000:126). Mash-ups are when things that are, on the surface, very different are put together to create something new. So, Ramos is describing a new world in which we attempt to combine the old and new into something that has been, up until now, unthinkable. Chapter 7 � The General and the Billionaire Aharon Farkash provides this chapter�s introductory story. Appointed to be the head of Israel�s defense ministry, his successful career was made possible, according to Ramo, by being able to �look deeply� at a problem (Ramo 2000:133-134, 168). Ramo invites the reader to ask the question, �What is the right way to think in this new age?� (2009:134). A current challenge we have is too much information. We can�t determine which pieces we should be looking at and consider important. Farkash would ask, �Where can I fail?� (2000:136). He accepted that his view of the world would be incomplete. He studied terrorist failures in order to know what could be done to thwart them (2000:139-140). Moritz, a venture capitalist working in Silicon Valley, is another example Ramo draws from to make the case that we must think differently (2000:145-153). He is credited with looking at the whole picture of a new venture, not particularizing or getting bogged down in technical details. Nisbett, an experimental psychologist, discovered that different cultures think differently about change (2000: 157-161). This entire chapter explores the above stories in detail with the goal of suggesting to us that we can and should learn new ways of seeing the world. Chapter 8 � The Management Secrets of Hizb�allah Henry Kissinger developed the idea of d�tente, which would go on to become the dominant US approach to the Soviet Union (Ramo 2000:169-171). This approach to foreign policy no longer works as the US no longer is fighting the cold war. We now need, according to Ramo, resiliency. A challenge to resiliency is the interconnectedness of our world. Another challenge is people�s insistence on �following the rules� of the old order even though they have been invalidated (2000:175). Ramo points to Hizb�allah as an organization with resiliency. They moved into Palestinian areas and became part of the local scene. They learned how to blend it, and ran away when attacked. They sought to be subversive and not frontal when they attacked (2000:181-190). As an example of no resiliency, Ramos provides the Bush administration during the Iraq War (2000:192-199). Chapter 9 � The Limits of Persuasion Using the Falklands war to make his case, Ramo highlights one of Bak�s laws, namely, that small things can have huge impacts (Ramo 2000:202). Small targets might have large repercussions. The proposal of this chapter is to ask how we can make these things work for us. In the new world order, we are often �targeting� systems and networks (2000:204). These are much harder to hit targets than a person, nation, etc. One strategy might to conduct a different type of war than simply hitting the enemy at their weak point. Instead, concentrating on a limited attack, if done in the right places, may yield better results (2000:205-208). This type of approach is an effects-based approach. You are trying to create a certain effect versus achieve a particular objective. The remainder of this chapter is a story about Kaminsky, an Internet routing specialist, and his discovery of a �hole� in the Domain Naming System. The purpose of the story is to highlight how a problem can be addressed using Ramo�s new way of thinking. Chapter 10 � Riding the Earthquake Using a doctor�s experience fighting a deadly strain of TB in South Africa as his foil, Ramo provides an example of how different ways of treating problems give different results. In this example, TB patients were watched to make sure they complied with the treatment. In the case of AIDS, the patients were educated. The latter had a much higher �following� of the regiment and thus a higher success rate (Ramo 2000:226-237). The point of this story is �the moment you hand power over to other people, you get an explosion of curiosity, innovation, and effort� (2000:235). The remainder of this chapter is devoted to examples which uphold this contention. Chapter 11 � The Revolution and You This chapter is a call to engage in the author�s ideas. The opening illustration is about a painting to pulls you into the artwork. It suggests that something terrible is about to happen and you are going to be a part of it (Ramo 2000:255-258). Another example is of a Chinese intellectual caught with contraband during the Cultural Revolution (2000:258-260). How will the reader handle the new era of the unthinkable? Ramo, JC. 2009. The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It. Little, Brown and Company.

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A refreshing and incredibly useful way of looking at the challenges we face.

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