Henry Kissinger held a party recently for his protege, Joshua Ramo Cooper. Speaking about Ramo Cooper’s new book to a New Yorker reporter, he said, “[it] has one basic theme that is a little difficult for me, which is that my generation is sort of a bunch of dodos.”

The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprise Us and What Can We do about It focuses on the failure of current approaches to foreign relations and the misconceptions of those who conduct it. The book is divided into two parts – the first focuses on complexity and disorder that drives current global relations and undermines those try to control global affairs. The second part puts forward a number of suggestions about how to respond successfully to this greater complexity and disorder.

Ramo’s key insights are informed by complexity sciences. In particular, he picks up on the ‘sandpile effect’, identified by Per Bak, which at its heart is about how interconnected systems can reach a critical state when one more ‘grain of sand’ leads to non-linear changes (“the straw that broke the camel’s back” in folk wisdom terms). He cites a number of examples of organisations which are particularly adept at dealing with this new ‘unthinkable’ world – Google, Nintendo and, controversially, Hezbollah. These actors are successful because they pay serious attention to context and patterns, and do not try to exert control, but rather foster and facilitate.

As Ramo says early in the book, “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.”

In this growing world of complexity and disorder, Ramo Cooper argues, successful leadership pays far greater attention to context and builds ‘resilience’  into strategy and policy. He uses a number of experiments and studies to illustrate his point. For example, one study he cites is of an experiment conducted with Chinese and American students is summarised neatly below (thanks to the FT editor, Lionel Barber):

…In late 2004, Richard Nisbett, the experimental psychologist, conducted a study at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. A group of students, half American, half Asian, were recruited to look at a succession of images on a computer screen. On a desk nearby was a head-mounted device to track the students’ eye movements. One by one, at three-second intervals, a series of pictures appeared on the screen. All had a large object set against a complex background such as a tiger in a forest or a horse in a field of flowers. The results of the experiment were, quite literally, eye-opening: while the Americans all had excellent recall of the specific object, the Chinese homed in on the background. Nisbett’s conclusion: Americans are naturally inclined toward a “me first” view of life in a simpler, deterministic world, while the Chinese are more comfortable with a world of constant change…

Although some of his examples may be rather questionable, the fundamental argument Ramo Cooper makes – that it is time for policymakers and political leaders to break out of their 20th century bureaucratic  mind-sets – is hard to argue against. To cite Barber again:

…there are plenty of reasons to doubt that the west’s present security apparatus is fit for purpose. For example, the British armed forces, still regarded as one of the most effective in the world, are still largely configured on cold war lines. They are designed to combat jets and tanks, not cyber- or bio-terrorists… We do live in the age of the unthinakble. On balance, Ramo’s wake-up call has done us a service… 

Find out more here (first chapter is freely downloadable on the site).

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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Organisations, Public Policy, Reports and Studies, Resilience, Strategy