One of the most diverting historical party games runs like this: first, select a pivotal moment in the evolution of the global order, one of those vivid instants when human history teetered between one choice and another. The 20th-century struggle between fascism and democracy, for instance, or the 1800s battle between the Napoleonic empire or an Austrian concert of powers. Then ask yourself: what was the object that mattered most then, the possession (or lack) of which marked the bloody line between success and failure. Take “1917, the tank”. Yes and survival for Allied France, Britain and the US; no, for Wilhelimine Germany. Or “double-entry book-keeping”. Yes, the Medici, who mastered the skill and built a trading empire; no, for most of the rest of Italy, which lagged behind until they developed similar modern methods of commerce. You can play this game endlessly: nuclear weapons, the compass, abundant timber. How did they each tip history one way or another?
These essential objects or ideas themselves are usually unpredictable at the time they arrive. Most people are too busy living according to old rules to see clearly that some radical invention is coming along to change the world. But these innovations turn out in retrospect to have been as important as oxygen to a drowning man or water to one in the desert. They are decisive and they each tell us a great deal about the historical priorities of the moment, the need to mechanise and industrialise violence in 1917, for example, or to expand commerce in Renaissance Italy.
But the real allure of this game is that once you’ve started playing, it’s hard to resist trying it for our own era. If we look back at today from 100 years hence, what will be the totemic survival object of our time? What will that object teach us? And while history is honestly not always a useful guide today (what on earth couldNapoleon tell us about managing cyber weapons?) it is at least helpful in framing this question: what matters most now? We are living in what feels like a revolutionary moment, and I am willing to bet that 100 years from now the object that will turn out to have been the most important for navigating radical change will be this: a completely blank sheet of paper.
Today we are facing challenges that are new in human history, not simply in content, but in scale and complexity. We stare at a global order that is exploding in granularity. There are more actors, from hedge funds to NGOs to terror cells, than ever before. Each of these players, and each of us, now has more choices about how to live than ever before.
And of course, we’re all more interconnected than we’ve ever been. The result is an explosion of disruptive innovation. Sometimes this is innovation for good, for instance when a small team in a lab in Singapore masters new genetic cures for cancer. But just as often it can be disruption for the bad: unregulatable financial trades that sink markets, terrorists who combine benign technologies into dangerous weapons, political leaders who invent nationalist ideologies that mix history and fascism. Our only hope for dealing with such constant, border-pressing newness is completely fresh ideas of our own. The innovator’s instinct is to say, “Let’s take out a completely blank sheet of paper and think out what we could do,” which has become the most essential tool of survival.
What we need now, urgently, is new ideas and institutions. This is true at the level of individual countries: China, for example, has to urbanise 300 million people in the next 15 years, a new feat in the long human story. That certainly can’t be managed with any old organisations. And this need for new structures is true globally too: we need to find ways to cooperate to survive a financial panic, to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, to plan for unthinkable health disasters.
We now stare at a list of fundamental problems, some old and some creations of this new disruption, that can’t be managed with our old models or institutions. You can find signs of this everywhere, such as Alan Greenspan’s bashful 2008 admission about the way in which his world view collapsed: “I was shocked because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”
And it’s at moments like these when our best minds confess to bafflement, that our own anxiety begins to expand. On some dark days it really does feel that if we are not using Napoleon exactly to control cyber weapons we are at least using his old rusty ideas about states or power or armies. This is a useless and dangerous pursuit.
And this actually points at something quite hopeful: we get to invent a new world. This is the work of the next decade or so. It’s work we have to do – by which I mean you and I, since our governments in many cases will be too knotted up by confusion and old priorities. Asking them to innovate would be like asking your grandparents to start a competitor to Twitter. No treaty we have today, no foreign ministry and maybe no political leader can hope to corral this whole mess into an easy-to-address set of priorities. The evidence speaks for itself: we haven’t had a single new international agreement in nearly two decades on major globe-changing issues such as nuclear proliferation, food trade, chemical weapons, or the rights of migrants. It’s been impossible to fit the demands of these problems into existing frameworks. How should we begin? What can you and I do with this new responsibility we’re going to have to manage while theGreenspans of this world wander in a perplexed haze? Well, the first thing is probably to sit down and find something you care about and begin dreaming of what you’d put on a blank sheet of paper for an ideal solution.
I’ll give you an example: I care a lot about people dying without access to pain mediation. This is a common problem and, for reasons I won’t go into here, it bothers me a lot. It’s not the sort of problem – this idea of global access to hospice care – that most international aid organisations pay attention to. So I’ve begun exploring ways to address the problem: can we develop home-grown herbal gardens to provide teas and soups for people in pain? Can we find ways to form small businesses which provide bedside hospice care in the developing world?
I’m not sure how these problems will be worked out in the end. The odds are that whatever I’m able to do will look quite different to what I first put down on that blank piece of paper. But that change from my initial idea to reality only highlights why, exactly, the blank paper is so important. It is a licence to dream, an impetus to start, to begin stroke of the pen by stroke, to sketch out a plan. Revolutionary ages don’t simply destroy the old order. They also create new fortunes, new historical champions and turn dreams into unimaginable realities.
In trying to see how this works in practice, I spent much of the past few years travelling the world and hanging out with people who do understand this need for innovation. I lived with Chinese officials who know that without innovation their country will explode. I travelled with Hezbollah guerillas who instinctively understand that constant innovation is their only hope of survival under the ceaseless pressure of Israeli attack and, also, with Israeli generals who knew that finding fresh ways to study terror is their only hope of cracking groups like Hezbollah. I learned from Silicon Valley investors, from the heads of giant new internet companies, from American officers just back from inventing new ways to fight in Afghanistan.
And what marked all of them was a relentless search for fresh ways to see the world. These were people who wanted change, who relied on it, who pushed for ever faster change when they felt it was coming too slowly. And they all wielded, with astonishing skill, that one essential weapon of mass disruption, the tool that makes the unthinkable real: the blank sheet of paper.
Joshua Cooper Ramo is managing director of Kissinger Associates, one of the world’s leading geo-strategic advisory firms.
Three must-know ideas for ‘The Age of the Unthinkable’:
Drop these phrases into your brain for help diagnosing the world around us.
Risikogesellschaft is a phrase which means “risk society”. It was first coined by German sociologist Ulrich Beck in the terrifying aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, which chilled Europe with the prospect of cancerous clouds that could neither be predicted nor controlled.
The concept of a “risk society” captures one of the more worrisome trends of our age: we’re all ensnared in each others’ risks, like it or not. Events such as Chernobyl, Beck believed, were signs of a new global order in which geography or income or class can’t protect anyone from risks as they might once have. But if the idea had its start in his studies of ecosystems, it’s easy enough to see how true it is also for financial markets, terrorism or cyber viruses. Beck’s argument is that as the world gets more modern and interconnected it also becomes riskier – and that demands brand new ways of thinking about and managing risk.
**02 Caring economy: **
Brazilian legal expert and sociologist Ricardo Unger was something of an obscure cult intellectual favourite until he went mainstream in 2005, running for the presidency of Brazil and – after losing – finding himself as an ever-more powerful minister in the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva government.
Unger’s writings are filled with energetic notions about how to re-energise the left. One of them is that each of us needs to devote some part of our lives to caring for other people directly. Governments writing cheques on our behalf isn’t enough,Unger argues.
Instead, he says, having everyone take time to care for people outside our immediate family is a way to both rebuild diminishing social capital and unleash innovation. Once we start engaging our hearts with the world, he reasons, it’s inevitable that we’ll become passionate about fixing the holes in globalisation’s expanding web.
For centuries now the main element of any grand strategy has been “deterrence” – the idea that the best defence is the ability to terrify anyone who would attack you. But that concept is nearly useless today. It’s impossible to deter terrorists who want to die for their cause. And other dangers, from financial panic to disease, can’t be terrified away.
Instead we now need to shift away from relying on (and investing fortunes in) deterrence and move instead to focusing on resilience, which is our ability to snap back once we’ve been hit by the expected or unexpected. Our future will be judged not by our ability to scare the world but by our ability to recover after we’ve been hammered by something we never imagined.
China: how the country is inventing its future on the fly
Of course there’s plenty of old stuff to see on a trip to China, from the Great Wall to Ming vases, but what’s probably most important – and most interesting from a global perspective – is all the new stuff. Jiang Zemin, who was General Secretary of the Communist Party of China from 1989 to 2003, famously used the word “new” 90 times in his 90-minute farewell speech. His implicit message was that China’s future was dependent on the new, on the ability to invent and create and innovate in the face of social, economic and political pressure.
Any one of the challenges China’s leaders now face is staggering in complexity: re-engineer the financial system on the fly, provide healthcare to more than a billion people, find jobs for five million unemployed new university graduates, create a safety net for angry laid-off coastal workers. It’s a long list and what all these problems have in common is that there are no off-the-shelf solutions that can be imported from elsewhere in the world and used in China as if the leaders were simply installing new lights. For many years China prided itself on what it called development with “Chinese characteristics” – which meant taking ideas from overseas such as Marxism or financial reform and then adjusting them to local Chinese needs. But the problems China faces now are completely new and completely native. Which means non-stop innovation, that constant “newness” Zemin was talking about, is the only hope for the country.
As you travel around China today you can find plenty of examples of this: new housing schemes in the northeast, an attempt to create a new political philosophy in Guangdong, water transfer projects in the centre of the country. There’s no doubt China’s top leaders want the country to be fresh and innovative.
But two questions remain: can the Communist Party be flexible enough to allow the sort of widespread innovation the country needs and, even if it does, can Chinese society withstand the strains of so much newness? For China’s leaders the blank sheet of paper is their greatest hope – and the greatest danger.