The Age of the Unthinkable

The Age of the Unthinkable

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

Joshua Cooper Ramo

As the great seventeenth-century statesman François de Callières wrote: “There is no such thing as a diplomatic triumph.” Even when you think you’ve reached the end of a problem, you are usually simply at the start of new troubles.

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Politicians and thinkers would be wise not to try to bend history as “the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner a gardener does for his plants.” To see the world this way, as a ceaselessly complex and adaptive system, requires a revolution. It involves changing the role we imagine for ourselves, from architects of a system we can control and manage to gardeners in a living, shifting ecosystem.

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Bak’s sandpile universe was violent —and history-making. It wasn’t that he didn’t see stability in the world, but that he saw stability as a passing phase, as a pause in a system of incredible —and unmappable —dynamism. Bak’s world was like a constantly spinning revolver in a game of Russian roulette, one random trigger-pull away from explosion.

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Were the ideas in Bak’s head also true in the lab? Bak had first suggested the idea in a theoretical journal; he didn’t seem to have much of an intention to test it in reality. Could it be done? How do you build a sandpile grain by grain? No one had ever attempted it. So Glenn Held decided to give it a try.

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Browder’s investment model at Hermitage wasn’t just to buy and sell Russian stocks. It was to buy shares in the most corrupt, worst-run Russian companies and then press them to change. A company whose shares traded at $ 1 because it was overseen and looted by goons could be worth $ 10 a share if it was managed even slightly better. Buy, agitate, sell: this was Browder’s strategy. And, given the people he was dealing with, between “agitate” and “sell” he made sure he had plenty of security if need be.

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“When you’ve been in a market that really can go to zero, it changes the way you think afterward,” he told me. “The main lesson is that just because something is too terrible to contemplate doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.”

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When Bak described the “tendency of large systems to evolve into a poised ‘critical’ state, way out of balance, where minor disturbances may lead to events, called avalanches, of all sizes,” he could have been speaking about the Middle East, relations between the United States and China, the oil market, disease, nuclear proliferation, cyberwarfare or a dozen other problems of global affairs and security.

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Holling and a team of mathematicians and biologists also found examples of the opposite sorts of systems, filled with what he called a “perverse resilience,” that insisted on preserving bad ideas. In such “maladaptive systems,” Holling explained, “any novelty is either smothered or its inventor ejected. It would represent a rigidity trap.” Such systems might look good for a while, but when they are hit with the unexpected, they react in ways that doom them. They simply can’t shed their wrong ideas fast enough. Sound familiar?

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People agreed because they wanted to be part of the community more than they wanted to be right. It was a situation you could find echoed around the world in foreign policy or finance in 2008: a set of shared, wrong ideas, clung to loyally by people who couldn’t quite see past their illusions or the imagination-killing need to agree and fit in. Bak knew that if you wanted to truly understand the world, these commonly held ideas were absolutely blinding.

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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.

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These elites were a very small percentage of the Soviet population. But, Kotz and Weir found in their discussions, the nomenklatura decided, once Gorbachev began reforming a system that had protected their rights and privileges, they had more to gain by letting the USSR fracture than by holding it together. If you were sitting on top of the empire when it fell down, the nomenklatura logic went, you would surely be in the best place to pick up the pieces. This was a cold, selfish decision. It was also, fatally, one that Gorbachev hadn’t anticipated in full. “The ultimate explanation for the surprisingly peaceful and sudden demise of the Soviet system,” Weir and Kotz wrote, “was that it was abandoned by most of its own elite.”

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Soft power sounds good, it reassures us that there must be something great about our own way of living, but it doesn’t really make much sense if you think about it. Those murderous Bosnians in their Air Jordans are an expression of the diversity that awaits us and that we have to plan for —not some weird exception.

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George Santayana, the English philosopher, was right: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Make us poor and we war out of fury; make us rich and we war out of greed.

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During times of “offensive dominance,” when technologies gave the edge to attacking forces, wars were more frequent.

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Cubism thus begat camouflage, life reflecting art instead of the usual opposite arrangement. Braque liked to joke that this wasn’t a first. After all, he said, soldiers arrayed in the last century’s pale blue or off-white uniforms resembled nothing so much as an impressionist canvas —at least until someone started shooting at them.

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Buddhist masters like to say that if you’re trying to reach enlightenment, you must develop, in this order, “right view, right intention, and right action.”

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Israeli intelligence task forces coordinated teams of hundreds of people who would spend millions of dollars for a single kill. It also presented all sorts of moral questions for the Israeli military: for instance, how many innocent civilians was it acceptable to kill when trying to take out a keystone terrorist? (The Ministry of Defense asked a group of mathematicians to work on this problem. They submitted an answer —3.4 civilians per dead terrorist —but no one was happy with either the process or the coldness of such a figure.)

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what Chinese call a shanshui painting, literally a “mountain and water” image, with looming peaks, hazy clouds, and an ocean that stretches across most of the painting. People or animals usually feature in a shanshui landscape only as tiny brushstrokes, almost accidental ticks of ink dwarfed by the mountains or rivers around them. This is an expression of the idea in Chinese philosophy and art that the environment is far more powerful than any individual. It is never stable and, in its sudden changes from one state to another, more important than the desires of any of us.

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When you focus on an object (“ Saddam” or “bank bailouts”) to the exclusion of the swirling, furious energy of the environment around that object (clan rivalries, say, or the real-economy demands of homeowners), you force yourself into a very limited understanding of the world.

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any time you hear a crisis response from our leaders that seems to focus on just one object —“bail out the banks” or “kill Osama” —you should feel nervous.

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the logic of economist Raghuram Rajan, who argued in 2004 that a Fed policy of constantly fighting for economic growth was limiting the ability of the financial system to develop tools to deal with crisis and slowdown. “Perhaps Chairman Greenspan should be faulted for allowing only two mild recessions during his tenure,” he wrote. “And perhaps we can sleep better at night if we pray, ‘Lord, if there be shocks, let them be varied and preferably moderate ones, so we can stress test our systems.’” This is deep security.

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resistance also leaves us in a state of unnerving psychological weakness. It forces us into a reactive mode, waiting to be hit. It drains us, and when resistance policies fail, they leave us more afraid, insecure, and vulnerable.

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It might be best to rechristen Homeland Security as the Department of Resilience (a twin to the Department of Defense). The recognition that we need a major commitment to fostering real resilience would in turn elevate ideas like national health care, construction of a better transport infrastructure, and investment in education to a new level of importance. Universal health coverage makes sense not only because it is decent but because building a medical system that touches everyone in the country prepares us to better deal with the unknown. Resilience acknowledges that we can’t possibly anticipate or prevent all future dangers any more than you can look at your beautiful newborn child and be certain that it will never catch a cold or break a leg.

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Studies of food webs or trade networks, electrical systems and stock markets, find that as they become more densely linked they also become less resilient; networks, after all, propagate and even amplify disturbances. Worse, the more efficient these networks are, the faster they spread those dangers. Interconnections such as the ties between brokers and banks or between the health of every passenger on a long-distance airplane flight are vehicles for sharing risk, for triggering hysteresis. In a simple linear system, say one bank and one farm, you can map out the effects of a crisis as if you were plotting the route of falling dominoes. But in a networked society, lit up by revolutionary change, such easy prediction is a fantasy. Drop a shock into a network and you get, the strategist Edward Smith has written, “the chain reaction that is set off when a single ping-pong ball is tossed onto a table covered with mouse traps upon which other ping-ping balls are balanced —an almost explosive reaction whose direction and end-state cannot be predicted.” The more closely we are bound together, the weaker we may become.

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the minute we try to attack or pin them down, the threats morph into something unrecognizable and even harder to name or confront. Frustrated intelligence analysts call these “self-negating prophecies”: as soon as you figure out what your enemy is doing and move to stop him, he simply shifts to something else.

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“the greatest generals who ever lived, we don’t even know their names.” As Jullien explains, they’re unknown to us because they never had to fight a single battle. Their sense of the terrain, of their environment, allowed them to create effects so profound and irresistable that they mooted the need for actual combat.

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a lesson that applies almost everywhere in our world now: the moment you hand power over to other people, you get an explosion of curiosity, innovation, and effort.

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our future is a race between good innovation and bad innovation. That’s a sprint that will be decided purely by our ability to create. It’s a shift so profound that it evokes the ideas of the American philosopher John David Garcia, who once said that we should reject the notion that increasing human happiness is the most important goal for society. Far better, he said, to increase human creativity. Happiness will follow.

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We’re not just passive. We can choose what to do and what not to do. We don’t have to take what we’re being told unquestioningly. We don’t, and can’t, let the same people who got us into this disastrous misalignment with our world pull us further into danger. But making a difference demands that we do, in fact, act. We can no longer outsource our security or our foreign policy the way we might once have. The line between our lives and the world is ever more permeable. In our comfortable cars and houses, in our wealthy-looking nations and our secure-feeling businesses, we can’t delude ourselves about the facts: we’re in history now.

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History is on no one’s side. It depends on what we do.”

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