Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Age of the Unthinkable

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

Joshua Cooper Ramo is Managing Director of Kissinger Associates, which makes him a high priced consultant in the field of foreign relations. He's a Nixon to China kind of guy, speaking Mandarin and promoting the idea of talking to those funny furriners, even if they do eat strange food and speak in unintelligible gibberish. I'm sure he hangs out with Henry Kissinger. He has written two books about China and one about skydiving.

In this newest book Ramo discovers that the world doesn't always do what we expect and he proposes that we all get loose and flexible as the best way to deal with crisis. Ramo seems to think that this is something new. I tend to disagree with him. The problems du jour change but the surprises have kept on coming throughout history. Every time that our peerless leaders, whether they be Nixon or Napoleon, thought they had a handle on things, all hell has broken loose.

Ramo believes that the high degree of global interconnectedness we are experiencing today, in trade, communication and travel make the world more unstable instead of less. Viruses from afar can hitch rides on airplanes and travel thousands of miles in a few hours. Trouble in the U.S. mortgage markets cause a panic in Russia and China. A bunch of highly educated Saudi's, financed with millions in oil money, can wreak havoc in New York, London or Washington D.C. It would actually be more impressive if a gang of goatherds from the Afghan mountains could do that, but without the Saudis money that still isn't possible.

The pace of things has surely speeded up, but we haven't seen anything like the 1918 flu epidemic or the black death, for some time. (Knock on wood.) Genghis Khan made a pretty hash of things for the Chinese in his day and the South Sea Bubble is still the most egregious example of financial markets gone bad. Things have not really changed all that much.

I do rather like Ramo's proposed solutions. He has invented the term "deep security," which means paying attention to the basics, like ensuring meaningful work for people and giving them universal health care as a way of cushioning the effect of financial panics, employing diplomacy, to ensure that our enemies as well as our friends know what we (talking about the U.S. here) expect from them and what we are willing to do to get it. It may be a hard sell politically but I do think that aggressively fighting AIDS and engineering clean water supplies in sub Saharan Africa will, in the long run, lead to fewer wars, fewer pirates and fewer terrorists.

It took quite while, after chapters of scary scenarios, for Ramo to get to his point about "deep security," and even then, I found him a bit vague on details. Creating "deep security" is a lot of work. Even talking about it is. It's a lot easier to make up slogans like "bomb bomb Iran," which is why politicians do so much of that sort of thing.


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