I am still wrestling with my opinion of The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It by Joshua Cooper Ramo. It is both a very good and a very annoying book.
To explain that contradiction, I’m going to talk a little bit about Clausewitz and Jomini. They’re a pair of 19th century military writers, and some of the most influential military thinkers of all time. I do them a great disservice in simplifying their work here, but they are iconic of a division in military thinking which is mirrored in most other sorts of thinking. Clausewitz argued that the way to win a war was through overwhelming force, applied unrelentingly at your enemy’s weakest point. In contrast. Jomini argued for winning a war by fighting smarter – strike at your enemies’ supply lines, fight only when you can win, pick your battles and in doing so you can overcome a vastly superior force.
This actually got played out very interestingly in the US civil war, which was fought in a pretty Jominian fashion form the outset, which went badly for the north because Robert E. Lee and his generals were much, much better at it than the union generals. Grant’s victory came in large part because of a shift to Clausewitzian tactics, and a willingness to grind out the fight with the south to its brutal conclusion.
This conflict, between force and calculation, has been with us for most of history. George Eliot called it the dirk versus the cudgel, and I’ll use those terms now if only because I’m tired of trying to spell Clausewitz. It shows up in fascinating places in military history (look up Thomas Jefferson’s idea of a navy sometime), as recently as with the modern American fascination with air power. Like the perpetual cycle of offense vs. defense, the dirk and the cudgel rise and fall in relationship to one another, but this pattern is a bit more interesting because of its predictability.
Put simply – intellectuals and engineers love the dirk. They love its elegance and its emphasis on knowledge, understanding and intellect. They are constantly certain that the cudgel is just going to up and go the way of the dinosaur any time now because the dirk is just so much more elegant. And they are always surprised when someone shows up and takes a cudgel to the side of their head (or, more properly, the heads of the guys they’ve sent to fight for them).
On a lot of levels, Age of the Unthinkable is a predictable tract on the death of the cudgel, written in a manner better suited to an ambitious grad student than a veteran of the world stage. It is so enamored with flexibility and resilience that it either dismisses or merely pays lip service to strength and determination, and that is what keeps it from being great. By the end there is a nod to the idea that we need both to thrive, but it is so absent from the rest of the book as to cut it off at the knees.
Worse, it falls right into the worst sort of traps. Have you seen Rising Sun? Recently? It was a kind of fun action flick when it came out, but nowadays it’s running theme of JAPANESE SUPERMEN WILL RULE US ALL is almost comical to behold. Ramo seems to feel the same way about the Chinese, and he does things like quote Sun Tzu in ways that might have been novel and interesting 20 years ago, but are just tired now.
And that’s sort of the rub. 20 years ago, this would have been a brilliant book. Earth-shakingly brilliant. But now, it’s full of insights that are going to be trite to anyone who has read any decent non fiction (or good science fiction) in the past decade or so.
The thing that keeps me from dismissing this book entirely is that they are good and legitimate insights, even if some of the analysis (and writing) around them is flawed, and it’s possible that there are people they would be new for. So if you’re a reader who is actually baffled by the rate of change in the world, and if you don’t understand why planning and response might make for a more robust defense than barriers or why an organizations ability to learn is important, then this book is a great primer for such things. It’s probably a great read for high school freshmen, for example.
On a purely practical level, the first chapter can be skipped, as can most of the second. If you’re annoyed by gimmicky writing, expect to get annoyed early and often – he overuses narrative tricks like the reveal pretty much every chapter. For all my cycnicsm about this, if you aren’t a regular reader of non-fiction or science fiction, this may be an interesting read. If you are then this will likely provide a few interesting anecdotes, but little in the way of revelation.