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Author 'Nervous' About D.C.'s Lack Of Innovation
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Author 'Nervous' About D.C.'s Lack Of Innovation



Here's some advice to Washington about policy in Afghanistan or any place else. We need to learn an instinct for indirectness. That prescription comes from Joshua Cooper Ramo in his new book, "The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do about It."

Joshua Cooper Ramo is managing director of Kissinger Associates and he's a former editor at Time magazine. His book is an attempt to apply concepts of contemporary science to problems of statecraft and to find alternatives to the blunt and direct application of power which so often proves counter-productive.

He joins us from New York. Hi.

Mr. JOSHUA COOPER RAMO (Author, "The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do about It"): Hi.

SIEGEL: Your image of the way we do not understand the world can be summed up by a sand pile. I'd like you to explain that one.

Mr. RAMO: You know, one of the ideas I think that we've used, really, for centuries now in thinking about the world is that there's a kind of a reliable relationship between input and output. So, if you attack a country and you knock out its systems, if you attack terrorists and knock out their infrastructure, they should get weaker.

What we've discovered now is that actually many of our best policies not only fail but they backfire. The war on terrorism produces, at the end of the day, more dangerous terrorists. And the reason for that is that the world we live in now operates at a level of complexity and indeterminacy that requires a whole new way of thinking about how we make policies.

SIEGEL: And the sand pile, actually, is an example of kind of a small science physics experiment of trying to determine when, if you drop one grain of sand, and then anther grain of sand, and another grain of sand onto the same place, when does the pile suddenly turn into an avalanche?

Mr. RAMO: Absolutely. The idea of our world is really that it is exploding in complexity. And complex science really emerged at a time in the 1980s where physicists found that there were stuff going on at small levels that simply couldn't be explained using traditional models. And the reason for that is that there were so many small particles floating around and the interactions were very hard to map.

So if you were making a sand pile in your lab, obviously if you were dropping a grain, after a grain, after a grain onto the sand pile, at some point the sides would get steep enough that there would be an avalanche of sorts. But there was no way that contemporary physics could actually model when that avalanche was going to occur. And so you had to prepare for the fundamental uncertainty and the instability that was loaded into the pile itself.

And today, that's what our world looks like: constantly arriving new complexity that makes old ways of managing the system very difficult to use.

SIEGEL: When you think of the movements or entities that epitomize what the world is all about nowadays, and what the winning strategies have been for the world, it's an odd assortment. Everything from Hezbollah, which has done very well in pursuing its own agenda, to Google.

In a word, what is it that links these institutions and entities, that shows that they have a leg up in the world these days?

Mr. RAMO: It's an absolute passionate belief in change and disruption as much as possible. And you can see what that means for established institutions, whether it's large companies like Microsoft trying to compete with Google or the U.S. State Department or the Israeli military trying to compete with Hezbollah. When you're confronted with a foe that is relentlessly adapting and innovating, it makes it very difficult to compete using old ways of thinking.

SIEGEL: Of course, one could say there's nothing new about this. Microsoft was playing the role of Google when IBM was the big player, for that matter. Zionists settling mandatory Palestine were the insurgents long before Hezbollah became anything like that.

Mr. RAMO: And for that matter, the United States served that purpose in the role - the lesson of a world that's changing very quickly is you've got to keep that revolutionary spirit alive. I think the technology industry is a wonderful analogy for what's going on in the world today. That characteristic of that business that demands constant innovation, where you can be upset or overthrown almost overnight is exactly this kind of spirit we need to have.

And so, when you look at Washington today, and you see these policies and institutions that look more or less the same as they looked 10 or 20 years ago, you get a very nervous feeling that this is not a set of ideas or institutions that are capable of the kind of the innovation that we need.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks for talking with us. Joshua Cooper Ramo is the author of "The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It." Thanks.

Mr. RAMO: It's really been a pleasure.

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