Joshua Cooper Ramo on "The Age of the Unthinkable"

Swine flu. Stock-market implosion. The Taliban advancing toward Islamabad. If it seems to you that every day brings with it yet another potentially earth-shattering event, you're not alone. In Joshua Cooper Ramo's new book, The Age of the Unthinkable, he argues that technological and economic shifts have created a world of unprecedented complexity, in which radical changes in one area are increasingly likely to produce radical effects in another. "One bank fails, then fifty; one country develops an atom bomb, a dozen try to follow; one computer or one child comes down with a virus, and the speed of its spread is incomprehensible."

The correct response, he writes, is unlikely to be found in the West, where most policymakers treat crises of all kinds as discrete events with well-defined endpoints. The Pentagon is guided by this world view, drawing up lists of dangers and then budgeting, training and organizing itself to eliminate each threat, head on. After September 11, George W. Bush vowed that the conflict would "end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing." The problem, says Ramo, is that when you focus on one object like "Saddam" you miss "the swirling, furious energy of the environment around that object," including clan and Sunni-Shiite rivalries.

Ramo, a managing director of Kissinger Associates based in Beijing and New York, finds inspiration for a better approach in places like Asia, where he says people tend to avoid the assumption that every problem can be isolated and cleanly resolved. Instead they cultivate an ability to take one's eye off the central object, to see the world around it. That understanding of context, he says, means problem solving is based on a more indirect approach, with a preference toward "dominating instinct," not "titanic strength."

Ramo says Washington might mimic that strategy. For instance, rather than going head-to-head with Beijing over narrowly defined issues like human rights or the environment, it might think of China "as a mesh to be shaped," and work with it on dozens of areas at once in order to indirectly influence its direction. Ramo would extend this concept "to all the problematic indirect fights ahead of us," including looming financial crises and nuclear proliferation. Whether Western policymakers can do so remains in question, but Ramo's book is a call to arms for smarter management of this increasingly complex world.