Sunday, June 14, 2009

The changing nature of threats

Would a sane person abide any commonality in the mindsets of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the strategists of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamist outfit? Well, that is the jaw-dropping case that Joshua Cooper Ramo, a former journalist-turned-Managing Director at Kissinger Associates, makes in his new book—and he makes it well.

The Age of the Unthinkable follows the tried and tested Gladwellian territory: set out a grand theory and bolster it with crisp, real-life examples. But it avoids the latter’s worst excesses. While Gladwell is less successful with his attempts at pop-science, Ramo, painting a broader canvas, is a decidedly more muscular writer.

Gladwell tends to base his theories on hunches and wayward analogising, for instance, faulting the higher number of Korean air crashes in the 1990s to a culture of subservience, in Outliers. Consequently, he arrives at conclusions that would not withstand scientific scrutiny. Ramo, on the other hand, relies on chaos theory and disruptive innovation to write a book that’s more Black Swan than Outliers—tipping his hat to the unpredictability of ground-shifting events in geopolitics, economics, sociology and science.

The central idea of the book is the sand pile effect: if you piled sand, grain by grain, into the shape of an inverted cone, sooner or later, the tiny pyramid would give way. The question is when? How does one know at what precise moment the precarious balance that keeps sand grains together in perfect harmony will yield a minor avalanche?

Ramo uses this example to drive home the point that small events (the putting together of sand grains) can lead to momentous consequences (the entire pile destroying)—and if this can be true for a tiny sand pile, imagine the scope of its applicability to real-life phenomena of much greater complexity (Ramo quotes the breakup of the Soviet Union and the pack-of-cards collapse of US financial giants in 2008).

Ramo furthers his case by pointing out the fallacy of the adage: “Democracies do not fight among themselves,” first propounded by American sociologist Dean Babst. Inherent to this statement is the understanding that the idea of democracy is for the greater, common good and its widespread dissemination would usher in everlasting peace.

But this is not always true, says Ramo. Apart from America’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan being obvious irritants, he also states: “Without a basis of economic development, without a culture of politics that fits democratic discourse, becoming democratic was often a guarantee of instability. Democratising Arab countries, for instance, might not make them less militant—particularly given cultures that tended to thrive on violent conflict.”

The scales can tip any moment, says Ramo, as on 9/11 when one gigantic, mind-numbing event went on to have protracted consequences. The notion of a “quick fix war”, Ramo asserts, has as little relevance today as at any point in history — violent insurgencies and quixotic hopes of seeding democracy can play havoc with the most fool-proof military strategies.

It is left to global policymakers and heads of government, then, to not fall into the familiar trap of “looking for answers”, when such crises require a complete remapping of how they are approached. For Ramo, China is the only nation that comes close to displaying the mindset that a new-age nation must adopt to survive. Perhaps it’s the split nature of the country’s raison d’ĂȘtre — an undemocratic, yet strong growth driver — that has kept the Middle Kingdom on its toes and kept it prepared for all eventualities. Ramo lavishes encomiums on China’s unstoppable juggernaut.

It is this—the quality to adapt—that makes Ramo liken the Silicon Valley startups to Hezbollah. If Google does not rest on its laurels and constantly innovates to give the world fascinating, new products, Hezbollah too has tapped the inverted glamour of suicide bombing to reinvent itself in its battle with Israel.

Having spent time in a Hezbollah outpost in Lebanon, Ramo returns impressed. “Spend time with Hezbollah, and you see it’s possible to run the most sophisticated cellular network and be willing to blow yourself up. We have to accept that and not think that if we make people modern, we make them Western. That’s not the case at all,” he says in an interview.

A few false notes, however, mar this smooth inquiry. While he is engagingly articulate at enumerating the dangers of our complex new world, Ramo’s remedies read more like nostrums. For a book that directs the reader to appreciate the many pitfalls of falling for stereotypes, Ramo’s prescriptions follow old terrain. Somewhere in there, though, there is an interesting study of how Eastern thought—of addressing problems in context without confrontation—is the way forward.

The Age of the Unthinkable is a stimulating read in the tradition of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which backs up its pessimism with solid facts and, only much later, gossamer stirrings of hope.

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This review will appear in the June 15 edition of Business Standard.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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