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N.M.-Native Author Sees a World of Sand

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
       Joshua Cooper Ramo wants you to think of our complex modern world as being like a simple sand pile. Except the sand pile is not as simple as you might think.
    If you drop grains of sand one at a time, you can slowly build a conical pile. Every so often, a single grain will trigger a little avalanche that reshapes the pile.
    But you can never predict when.
    That metaphor — inherent complexity that defies prediction — is at the heart of "The Age of the Unthinkable," a new book by the Albuquerque-born journalist and foreign policy expert.
    It is the type of complexity that Israel faces in its battles with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and that surrounds attempts to explain the rapid collapse of the Soviet Union.
    While the difficulties posed by geopolitical complexity might seem to be hopeless, Ramo is ultimately optimistic that the underlying complexity of the world's problems can be tamed.
    Rather than trying to force them into old-style models of simple predictability, he argues, we need to embrace uncertainty, developing systems and approaches to our place in the world that are resilient enough to allow us to cope with the unexpected.
    The 40-year-old Ramo is a former foreign editor at Time Magazine who now manages the Beijing office of the Kissinger and Associates consulting firm. He said in an interview that he was struck in his work by how much old modes of thinking about foreign policy, strategic affairs and the role of nation-states in the world no longer work in the fast-moving, interconnected 21st century.
    It's not that people making global decisions lack enough information to make the right predictions. It's that the world's sand pile avalanches are inherently unpredictable — now more than ever. Ramo, the son of Albuquerque cardiologist Barry Ramo and lawyer Roberta Cooper Ramo, is a 1987 graduate of Albuquerque Academy who went on to study Latin America at the University of Chicago and economics at New York University.
    Ramo these days splits his time between Beijing and New York City, but still tries to get back to New Mexico as often as he can. His view of geopolitical strategy means the simplistic model that drove the Iraq war — the idea that democracy would easily flourish once Saddam Hussein was removed from power — missed important complexity within the system.
    Complex tensions beneath Iraq's surface were unleashed following the 2003 U.S. invasion, and the avalanches set off then are only now beginning to settle. While there were people within the Pentagon and State Department who understood the uncertainties that would follow an attack, they were overridden by those who held a simplistic "input soldiers, output democracy" model, Ramo writes.
    The failure, Ramo argues, is a result of an old way of thinking in which powerful industrial nation-states can have their way in the world, using their military and economic might on a stage in which other nation-states are the major players.
    Instead of tanks and planes and armed battalions, we face "adaptive microthreats and ideas," like improvised explosive devices made of cheap cell-phone components.
    Because of such thinking, Ramo writes, "no major power has been able to defeat an insurgency anywhere in the world" since World War II.
    "People are trying to explain the world using models that just don't work," Ramo said this week from New York, where he will make the rounds of television appearances to promote the book.
    The central metaphor in his book comes from the late Per Bak, a Danish physicist who realized that much of what happens in the world is like the little avalanches on a pile of sand: systems poised at the edge of instability, where small events can have large consequences.
    It is an idea that has been embraced by the Santa Fe Institute, a research institution in New Mexico where Bak spent time, and where an interdisciplinary group of scholars has tried to extend the central insights of what they call "complexity theory" to a wide range of activities, from biology, ecosystems and physics to the economy.
    In the interview, Ramo acknowledges that his bold goal with "The Age of the Unthinkable" is to begin extending complexity theory to political science and foreign policy.

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