What I like about Joshua Cooper Ramo’s book, The Age of The Unthinkable is that it it starts with the premise that complexity in world affairs is here to stay. Maybe it is Joshua’s background in physics that has made him see foreign policy as an area where Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle also applies. That in human affairs also we can never know where things stand that we can only speak in terms of probability. That when we oversimplify, our policies backfire and we end up in the “Age of the Unthinkable” where financial markets, world peace, the environment all blow up in our face. So who are the winners in this era? A minority of unlikely candidates that range from Sergey and Larry at Google to China as a nation, to Hezbollah as an organization. The losers however seem to be mostly in the USA, Europe and elsewhere and are those who stick to simplistic models (i.e. Bush Cheney Middle East approach) and fail to tackle the diversity of inputs that may lead to a certain outcome. A good example of Ramo’s challenge of the status quo is criticism of Joseph Nye´s soft power theory. Soft Power theory says that if the “enemy” likes our culture he will stop being our enemy. As Ramo shows it is possible for terrorists to listen to our music, watch our movies, dress like us and still….want to blow us up. And what makes the book more interesting is that Ramo’s past as the Foreign Editor of Time Magazine made him meet many “despicable” characters such as the head of information of Hezbollah and, surprisingly, learn from them. In a style similar to that of President Obama, he shows us how talking to the enemy and learning from the enemy can be a better strategy than spending trillions trying and failing to destroy it. But before getting carried away here is my advice: Buy the book and come up with your own opinion. It’s worth it.

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Kingsley Hill on April 19, 2009  · 

I submit that Ramo and Nye are both right. Ramo argues that regardless of how hard we try to manage things with policy and rules, the results are rarely as we plan them to be. The mere presence of policy and rules can cause the target of those policies and rules to reject them and deliver an opposite result. Politicians’ normal reaction to an infraction is to apply more rules or tighten the rules. The more rules, the less flexibility any system has. Flexibility provides resilience to impact and change.

Projection of soft power does not set in place rules and policies which limit flexibility but presents a broad approach to promote mutual respect between all parties. As mutual respect develops parties are more willing to allow more flexibility in their relationships. Mutual respect among the parties creates sympathy among the parties for the others’ situations.

We might look at this in light of North Korea. The Bush administration refused to even deign to talk to North Korea. They simply tried to impose rules against N. Korea. This was construed as an imposition on its sovereignty requiring a effort to save face. Showing some respect for Korea (certainly without endorsing or even approving of its behavior), but simply for its position as a sovereign state, and Kim Jong-il’s position as a head of state may have elicited a different result.

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Jens on April 26, 2009  · 

I am just reading Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind from Hofstede. He would also contradict the soft power theory to a certain degree.

Hofstede argues, that culture consists of 4 things: values, rituals, heroes and symbols. Just try to picture an onion, where the values are the core and the other three words are outer layers. Rituals are the most inner layer being in touch with the value core and symbols are the most outer layer. The three layers (rituals, heroes, symbols) can be summarized as practices. Those practices change easily and rapidly and can be copied by other cultures (or minorities within a national culture). But that still does not indicate a change of culture as the values haven’t changed. Values are invisible and only change over decades or centuries, whereas practices are visible and change rapidly.

The soft power theory is just imprecise. Instead it should say: “If the enemy likes our values, he will stop being our enemy.”

3.0 rating

Martin Varsavsky on April 27, 2009  · 

Interesting with agreeing with our values but even then it may not work. For example a value that is fiercely defended by USA is sovereignty. If the Iraqis fight for the same values then USA has to immediately leave Iraq. I think the Iraqis, or most of them hated Saddam Hussein. But most people prefer to be ruled by their own dictator than by a foreign democracy. I don´t but I think I am a minority.

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