cover“Louis Halle, and American diplomat and strategist of the 1950’s, once observed that foreign policy is made not in reaction to the world but in reaction to an image of the world in the minds of the people making decisions. ‘In the degree that the image is false, actually and philosophically, no technician, however proficient, can make the policy that is based on it sound.'” AOTU, 13).

“If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible.” F. A. von Hayek, “The Pretence of Knowledge,” 1974.

If you were raised in an Asian home..

If you are under thirty and net savvy.

If you understand “hockey stick” systems and sandpile theory.

If you read Fritjof Capra and lean toward chaos theory in understanding the way things work..

If Sun Tzu makes more sense than von Clausewitz.

If you love and approve the work of people like Margaret Wheatley and Peter Senge..

If you follow missional leadership gurus like Alan Roxburgh or Ryan Bolger, and you dig complex adaptive systems. Then you don’t need to read Joshua Cooper Ramo, “The Age of the Unthinkable.” You are already there.

In some ways the book could be summarized by any of several of the aphorisms of Sun Tzu, like this one: For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.

“The Age of the Unthinkable” is the recognition of the triumph of networked reality in the world. As such, it is also the de facto affirmation that attempting to work in the old ways (“use a bigger stick”, or “command control is key”) has now become both naive and self-destructive.

For most of us, especially those of us over forty years old in positions of leadership in traditional structures, it really is worth the purchase. Because it’s important that we realize just how strange and different the world has become. It’s important because NOT realizing the difference is going to make us both less effective and potentially dangerous. We are going to live with more pain, and cause more pain, than is needful as we attempt to lead in the places we are called.

Where to start to try to give you a sense of what Ramo is trying to convey? This VIDEO is a good place to begin. Watch the video and answer this question: How many passes does the team in white make? THEN read on below..

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In the second half of the book Ramo points to the discoveries of social researcher Richard Nisbett. In working with graduate students Nisbett discovered that the world views of east and west are distinctive in some intriguing ways. In the east change is seen as a constant. In the West we lean toward determinism, even where we interpret it through a religious lens (God upholds the Universe and creates laws which make interactions predictable). Moreover, and related, in the east the emphasis is on context, a relational and more-or-less gestalt approach to reality. In the West, we look at the whole through the parts. Our interest is in knowledge as power/control and we stress independence of context.

A test was designed to measure the focal interest of eastern and western students. Thirty-six images flashed, changing every thirty seconds, with an eye-tracker recording where the subject looked. Western students immediately looked at the foreground object — the horse or tiger, for example. And once they spotted the central image they spent the bulk of the time looking right at it. Chinese students, by contrast, looked at the environment first, probing the complex background of forest or field. They did look at the focal object, but for far less time than the American students. (159-161)

Consequently, those immersed in the eastern world much more quickly perceive the meaning of relationships. They are far more sensitive to context, and they will thrive in this connected world in ways that Enlightenment westerners will not.

Ramo spins out implications for politics, diplomacy, economics, ecology, and systems in general and the revolution he seeks is toward “deep security.”

Related article: Martin Varsavsky. An interview with Charlie Rose