These are unstable times, says Joshua Cooper Ramo, AB’92, and U.S. foreign policy is out of date.
By Ruth E. Kott, AM’07
Photography by Beth Rooney
In summer 2001 Joshua Cooper Ramo, AB’92, took a sabbatical from his job as foreign editor at Time magazine. He spent the time off working at an AIDS hospice in South Africa: although as a journalist he observed the state of the world, he also wanted to improve it, he explained at an April 2 talk for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. While in Africa, he became focused on some tragic inconsistencies: “How are so many people dying of AIDS, but on the other hand, we’re seeing incredible progress in the world?”
He returned to work on September 11. That afternoon, in a darkened room, Ramo and the other Time editors viewed slides of the terrorist attacks. “The last tray of slides had image after image of bodies falling from World Trade Center.” It was then, he said, that he realized America’s foreign-policy models were flawed. Ramo, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, native who majored in Latin American economics at Chicago, left Time that year and moved to China “to be more involved in the world,” placing himself in the epicenter of what he calls “the age of the unthinkable,” when “change is the order of the day.”
The phrase, referring to the inevitability of global revolutionary change, is the title of his 2009 New York Times best-seller, The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Order Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It (Little, Brown), in which Ramo argues that everything the West teaches about international relations is wrong. As terrorism, global financial crises, and constant technological innovation shape foreign relations, Ramo says, theories of democracy’s inherent stability and rational leaders acting in predicable ways miss the mark. Much of U.S. foreign policy since the 1960s has been based on an idea promulgated by Western political scientists and policy makers that claims democracies never go to war with each other. “Democratic Peace Theory,” writes Ramo, “was at heart as much an encapsulation of every triumphalist American dream as Mickey Mouse.” Listing countries, including Guatemala, Indonesia, and Chile, he asserts that imposing democracy often creates more conflict, not less.
Now managing director at international consulting firm Kissinger Associates, Ramo, 40, departs from the realpolitik policy—the practice of détente, for example—espoused by the firm’s founder, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. “The logic that guided international affairs for centuries was that threats of violence could buy safety,” he writes. “But that logic can’t even begin to contain the dangers of an age of surprise.” Events like 9/11 proved that policy makers would need to deal not only with other countries’ leaders but also with terrorist groups that have technology at their disposal and religious fervor rousing recruits.
In the age of the unthinkable, Ramo says, disruption is inevitable. An effective way to envision contemporary global relations, he suggests, is as a sandpile, using as an analogy the Bak-Tang-Wiesenfeld model. As falling grains of sand heap into a cone, Ramo explains, “the stack would organize itself into instability, a state in which adding just a single grain of sand could trigger a large avalanche—or nothing at all.” The more complex the system, the more likely a single grain will cause disruption.
To counteract these ever-impending disruptions, Ramo says, the United States must develop resilience. He points to China, which has established procedures to cope with threats. Based in Beijing for seven years and NBC’s China analyst during the 2008 Olympics, Ramo has an informed sense of the country’s foreign-policy models. Viewing the world as a constantly changing system, he says, the Chinese can more easily adapt. They “have been actively building systems that are capable of surviving all kinds of shocks,” Ramo told Huffington Post blogger Diane Tucker in April, “and they are more suspicious of markets than we are—they see everything as having the potential for collapse.”
The ability to see the context of a crisis, Ramo writes, comes from China’s violent and unpredictable history, which “produced a philosophy obsessed with avoiding collision.” Ancient Chinese writers would commend expert generals for attacking the strategy instead of the troops, for their ability to “open a ten-ton door with a one-ounce key,” he explains. American generals, on the other hand, “would be requisitioning ever-bigger battering rams.”
That same adaptive quality can be applied to industry, Ramo writes, specifically Silicon Valley, which also has developed a sandpile mentality. Leading companies can be overthrown in an instant, so the most successful firms exhibit flexibility. Consider Google: venture capitalist Michael Moritz’s wide-angle view of information technology—Moritz believes, says Ramo, that success is determined by the “always-changing interaction between the context and the company”—helped him adjust to new challenges. Google emerged out of a chaotic moment in which early search-engine leaders (Yahoo and Ask Jeeves) struggled to keep up. The company changed the face of the Internet, creating a better and faster spread of knowledge and information.
“Revolutionary moments don’t simply destroy the old order,” Ramo told his Chicago audience. “They are also moments of great potential.” Bureaucracy is not conducive to quick responses, he said, so the government should consider new solutions: “The most effective leaders of the age have fluency with dynamics of the age. We need Internet entrepreneurs in the White House.”
If the United States can shake off dated ideas like democratic peace theory, he argues, it can build up a powerful system of “deep security,” an immune-system–like response that doesn’t merely react to threats but adapts. Ramo suggests abolishing Homeland Security to create a Department of Resilience, to let the country “absorb the worst nightmares and walk away with the core attributes of our freedom intact.” As large as the Department of Defense, it would focus on creating policies that strengthen the country—national health care, for instance, would better prepare the country for an epidemic—instead of the government simply creating resistance strategies that may or may not work.
Citizens are key to Ramo’s plan. With “more power than ever before,” he said in April, citing President Obama’s grassroots campaign as an example, individuals should do a “resilience audit” of their own lives. “Are our lifestyles resilient?” he asked. “Are we mindful of resources? Are we doing everything we can to try to make the world a better place?”
Optimistic that America can come out of this volatile period on top, Ramo noted that the American Dream has its origins in human creativity and resourcefulness: “America has been the most successful engine in human history for manufacturing your own dreams. Most innovation occurs at moments of creative ingenuity.”
There’s a new phrase that’s kind of bouncing around [Chinese blogs]…“leaving the dollar behind.” And once the popular opinion in China starts to coalesce around this notion that they need to unscrew themselves from our economy, that makes the negotiations that much more complex.
Meet the Press, April 5
I don’t think the triumph of capitalism and democracy is inevitable. Institutions do fail. In truly resilient systems, what makes them resilient is that they diversify.
Flow Chart blog, U.S. News & World Report, April 10
Capitalism, unrestrained capitalism, is clearly an engine for inequality. And that’s something that you can’t sustain in a world where you have a very few people with a lot of money and a lot of people, more people every day, with the political power. That’s a recipe for disaster. …
Lateline, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, April 18
On the financial crisis:
Right now on the economic side, it is all about stimulus policy, spending, spending. If that doesn’t work out, what’s our contingency plan? We have to be thinking down the road.
Toronto Star, April 19