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Deep Security: Keeping Up With the World?

age-of-the-unthinkable4 Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It. Boston:  Little, Brown and Company, 2009. 279 pp. $25.99 Hardback.

Before I graduated from Kent State this past year, I became bewildered with the lack of imagination—political, cultural, economic, etc.—exhibited by many of our politicians, activists, and intellectuals in every corner of our political arena (conservative, liberal, democrat, republican, whatever…). My advisor and I often discussed how there was no one trying to get beyond the political rhetoric on the right, left, and center, in order to present an alternative framework that best suits our moment. I have made one of my goals for this summer (next to hunting for and nailing down potential dissertation topics, ha!) to absorbing and wrestling with as much information and ideas about these unpredictable times before I leave for Michigan in the fall. Thus, while I will probably dust off some older classic materials in order to continue to hone my incomplete understanding of the past, I have already made countless stacks of books (addressing a variety of issues like race, politics, urban/suburban development, activism, globalization, etc.) in my nook of my partner’s apartment. I think this could be the last time I have a chance to be so ambitious about my learning outside of the realm of history, only if that’s narrowly defined of course. If my body can keep up with the multitasking, I hope to craft and hone a working language and an analysis—a better way of keeping up with the world.

My search for an adequate language to describe and analyze these seemingly uncertain times led me to Joshua Cooper Ramo’s newest book, The Age of the Unthinkable: Why The New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About it. For those unaware, Ramo is the managing director of one of the world’s leading strategic advisory firms, Kissinger Associates, and a senior editor and foreign editor of Time magazine. Released this past year, Ramo presents an analysis of our current times through an international relations prism. In The Age of the Unthinkable, Ramo is concerned with developing newer and adaptable approaches to American foreign policy and national (and international) security. While his argument is not that profound, it is surprising coming from a journalist working in the “mainstream media.” Ramo claims that today’s leaders “lack the language, creativity, and revolutionary spirit” to confront the threats lurking in the midst of these uncertain times. Then Ramo lays out his alternative model to dealing with our uncertain future, threats real, imagined, and unseen:  an idea, where I’m unsure of the terminology, he ambitiously calls, “deep security.” I want to assess his notion of deep security and whether any of its lessons are worth incorporating into work for social change and my own lexicon as I move forward in my quest.

Despite his inability to clearly define deep security, possibly due to the concept getting lost in Ramo’s stories, I was able to identify a variety of its elements and characteristics. Ramo sees deep security as a series of concepts that would ultimately characterize an immune system. Deep security is essentially an ideology that emphasizes anticipating, adapting to, and cultivating change; resilience in the face of adversity (Fareed Zakaria also cites in The Post-American World that resilience as a crucial attribute that we’ll have to cultivate in the future.), decentralized participation, and seeing the world in a more complex manner.  Unfortunately, his book fails to convey what a national immune system would look like institutionally. (One reviewer of the book claimed that Ramo would support a “Department of Resilience,” but what is that exactly?) Ramo only illustrates how some individuals such as Silicon venture capitalist, Michael Moritz, and the Islamist group, Hizb’allah (or Hezbollah) personified ideals of deep security. For Ramo, Hezbollah is an exemplary organization because of the manner in which they were able to reconfigure themselves and respond quickly upon attack, as well as their ability to project military power and use social programs to shore up support in Lebanon (sort of like the Black Panthers during the 1960s and 1970s).

A few more interesting insights and illustrations that Ramo provides readers includes his argument that we need to see the world differently. Using the Danish physicist and biologist Per Bak as an example, Ramo argues that we live in a “sandpile” world. According to Ramo, Bak assumed that after sand piled itself into a little cone, 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.” For Ramo, it is nearly impossible to assume that institutions, and society in general, are stable features in human life:  as our systems of social/political/economic/cultural organization become more complicated, they also “organize themselves into instability,” possibly creating conditions that could precipitate major crises, such as—as Ramo pointed out—excessive deregulation in the financial market leading to the present economic recession.

Another relevant point that Ramo makes is the one considering what he calls “mash-up” concepts. “Mash up” concepts are ideas that seem to fuse two or more seemingly unrelated notions together. Even though Ramo uses the example of Japanese video game designer Miyamoto and his invention of the Nintendo Wii to illustrate this point, he points out that this concept also reflects global political realities in China and Venezuela, two countries that Americans like to deride as strictly Communists. In China, for example, much of the elite have moved to a more capitalist model of economics while retaining their authoritarian stance. See Mark Leonard’s What Does China Think? for more of an explanation of China’s experiments with local democracy and capitalism under the guise of socialism. Ironically, one could argue that China is playing the game better than the US at the moment when looking at their knack for foreign investments in the US and Sudan in particular and their recent industrialization. This is where political activists, and politicians in general, here could really benefit from Ramo’s type of thinking. We may have to become more open to really examining the various ways of social/political/economic/etc. development (like capitalism, socialism, etc.), taking these models apart and seeing which parts should be discarded, which should be kept, in order to create newer, and more flexible, ideologies and forms of organization instead of demonizing particular models.

Do not pick up Ramo’s The Age of the Unthinkable if you are looking to read a book where the that is proclaiming that “the sky is falling.” This work is entertaining (and I learned a lot about the designers of Nintendo), especially if you enjoy the use of narrative similar to Malcolm Gladwell. The Age of the Unthinkable also represents Ramo’s call to action. He encourages his readers to be active participants in the world, not passive and paranoid observers. Ramo declares that thinking in terms of deep security and keeping up with the world, “surely demands that we sharpen our instincts to rebel against what is against what we are told can never be.” One of the major flaws of the book is his disjointed storytelling. He also fails to develop his ideas beyond his discussions of his examples. Despite these shortcomings, however, a person searching for newer ways to see the world can take Ramo’s concepts and try to develop them further. And one should take his basic proposition to heart. The world is, and always has been, changing, and it’s time that our thinking accounts for that reality.

Americans have had to deal with a catastrophic terrorist attack, devastating natural disasters, multiple wars, and the ebbing, flowing, and breakdown of the economy in the last ten years. I’m not sure how “flat” the world is becoming, but it is getting smaller and activists and politicians in the left, right, and center are having trouble with developing ideas that explain our moment adequately. Many of us seem to be more concerned with trying to prove the “correctness” of our particular ideologies instead of searching for ways to actually solve problems. We have also focused too much on elections and party politics where the discourse and rhetoric lags behind the present. Instead of decrying the “rise of China,” or as Fareed Zakaria describes this development in The Post-American World, “the rise of the rest,” and demonizing Muslims, maybe we should look to the global anti-capitalist movement to see how they have made use of modern globalization in organizing against its most deleterious effects. Instead of worrying about regaining America’s “moral leadership” in the world (which we have always had little), we may first need to think about how we should step down from our pedestal and enter the 21st Century world.

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