By Ruth E. Kott, AM’07, courtesy the University of Chicago Magazine
Photos by Beth Rooney, courtesy the University of Chicago Magazine

The logic that guided international affairs for centuries was that threats of violence could buy safety. But that logic can’t even begin to contain the dangers of an age of surprise.”
—Joshua Cooper Ramo
AB’92

These are unstable times, says Joshua Cooper Ramo, AB’92, and U.S. foreign policy is out of date.

In summer 2001 Joshua Cooper Ramo, AB’92, took a sabbatical from his job as foreign editor at Time magazine. He spent the time off working at an AIDS hospice in South Africa: although as a journalist he observed the state of the world, he also wanted to improve it. He became focused on some tragic inconsistencies: “How are so many people dying of AIDS, but on the other hand, we’re seeing incredible progress in the world?”

He returned to work on September 11. That afternoon, in a darkened room, Ramo and the other Time editors viewed slides of the terrorist attacks. “The last tray of slides had image after image of bodies falling from World Trade Center.” It was then, he said, that he realized America’s foreign-policy models were flawed. Ramo, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, native who majored in Latin American economics at Chicago, left Time that year and moved to China “to be more involved in the world.”

The Age of the Unthinkable

In his 2009 New York Times best-seller, The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Order Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It (Little, Brown), Ramo argues that everything the West teaches about international relations is wrong.

Now managing director at international consulting firm Kissinger Associates, Ramo, 40, departs from the realpolitik policy—the practice of détente, for example—espoused by the firm’s founder, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. “The logic that guided international affairs for centuries was that threats of violence could buy safety,” he writes. “But that logic can’t even begin to contain the dangers of an age of surprise.” Events like 9/11 proved that policy makers would need to deal not only with other countries’ leaders but also with terrorist groups that have technology at their disposal and religious fervor rousing recruits.

Are We Making the World a Better Place?

Ramo suggests abolishing Homeland Security to create a Department of Resilience, to let the country “absorb the worst nightmares and walk away with the core attributes of our freedom intact.” Citizens are key to Ramo’s plan. With “more power than ever before,” he said in April, citing President Obama’s grassroots campaign as an example, individuals should do a “resilience audit” of their own lives. “Are our lifestyles resilient?” he asked. “Are we mindful of resources? Are we doing everything we can to try to make the world a better place?”

Optimistic that America can come out of this volatile period on top, Ramo noted that the American Dream has its origins in human creativity and resourcefulness: “America has been the most successful engine in human history for manufacturing your own dreams. Most innovation occurs at moments of creative ingenuity.”

Originally published on July 13, 2009.