Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

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  by Joshua Cooper RamoRamo - Age of unthinkable

The foxes who thought they were hedgehogs

Most people would be aware of Isiah Berlin’s famous metaphor of hedgehogs and foxes. The former know one big thing, the foxes many little things. This idea crops up frequently in books like ‘The Age of the Unthinkable’. It also perfectly describes them. They are largely the work of foxes, dashing from idea to idea and telling you it all amounts to one big insight.

Generally it doesn’t.

I’ve grown more cautious about pulling subtitle-heavy books off the shelves these days. You know the form. A catchy 3-5 word title, laden with a 3-5 clause long claim. In this case “Why the new world disorder constantly surprises us and what we can do about it”. If you go in expecting that the book will fail to live up to its claim, these texts can sometimes be good pointers to interesting ideas or other thinkers. And they do help point to some of the intellectual currents out there. Reading one or two may not tell you much, but skim a few regularly and you can help get the pulse of an era, even if it’s more reverberation than beating heart.

There’s often a central contradiction at the heart of much of this type of literature. The world is both extremely complex and contradictory, but this one simple trick solves it all. That’s why there needs to be dozens and dozens of facts and cases thrown at you, but none explored in any more depth than a page or two.
Just when you think Joshua Cooper Ramo has properly started a topic and will now give foundations to the wisps of ideas that have been introduced, you turn the page and find yourself in a different corner of the world, starting afresh with another random anecdote and another set of ideas. Or at least the faintest traces of them. You never get more than a few fragments scattered alongside observations about the significance of change today. And then you’re off again.

That the author is a former journalist is almost immediately obvious. Almost every chapter, every section begins in the same way. ‘Person X took a long breath and starred out the window… “that’s a good question” he says to me at a café in [exotic location]. Person X knew one vital thing to be true, but most people never saw it”. Who the person is, what their profession or history is, doesn’t really matter. We’ll have left them behind in a moment. All you need to know is, the lesson of their experience is apparently perfectly clear.

To be fair to Ramo, it feels like he has done his reading. Where he pauses long enough to discuss a particular thinker – such as the scholar Hans J Morgenthau— if helps ground his work and some clarity starts to form. Likewise there are interesting perspectives that he has scattered through the text. He was after all a former foreign editor at Time magazine and a leading part of Kissinger associates consultant firm (yes that Kissinger). So he clearly can think. And his pen has occasional elegance to it.

But then you have to ask yourself, are you in the presence of a far-sighted thinker who can clearly see the pattern and is forced to adopt a scattered fashion in order to communicate it? Or is this just someone as overwhelmed by information as everyone else, but with enough of a fascade of confidence to put their musings in book form? Someone hoping that the sheer quantity of name dropping and promises of about to be revealed “counter-intuitive but compelling logic” will be enough.

This book did make it to the New York Times Bestseller list, and has reasonable overall ratings on Amazon and goodreads. But there’s an awful lot of readers who seem to firmly believe this book fits into the latter category. Mile wide, inch deep has hardly been more appropriate.

Yet there is at least something here in The Age of the Unthinkable. Towards the end, Ramos stops trying to tell stories and looks ahead. What he grasps — and I see something to this — is the need for the sense of decentralized, organic innovation that thrives in markets and is desperately needed in government. Like the old soviet managers of old, we’re finding the central planning approach to national strategy doesn’t seem to produce. No matter how many resources it is fed. But this time we don’t have a readily available mechanism like the market to transfer power to. So how to get from here to that different future? I don’t know and after reading Ramos’ book I’m not really any closer.

If you do care to dip into this torrent of ‘complex world, outdated structures’ current affairs books, Moisés Naím’s The End of Power is a clear cut above the rest. It has its own flaws, but it hangs together better than most.

There may well be one big idea out there that helps clarify our era or ideally the form of governance it will take to manage it. But that outcome will probably take the digging of a true hedgehog to get there, rather than these pale imitations by confused foxes.