The thick coffee, in two small gilt-edged cups and with that bitter bite of near-burnt Arabic chicory, has gone cold. We are sitting more or less in silence, each of us thinking, staring idly at a muted television nearby. It is the early fall of 2008, and the headlines, even on the station we are watching—Al Manar, the TV channel of Hezbollah here in Lebanon—are about the global financial crisis. Fouad and I have a settled peace about us at the moment, the slow calm of an early afternoon, each of us getting ready to return to our respective lives. He will, when he leaves, go back to his work as a chief of information technology for Hezbollah, the guerrilla and terror group that is, as one Israeli general has said, “the greatest in the world” at what it does.
The passion for innovation and the geeky curiosity of fighters like Fouad reminded me of friends of mine who had started great Internet companies or people I knew who were managing gigantic hedge funds.
Fouad and I have had a long conversation about the Koran, about the demands of martyrdom, about his sense of himself as “already dead,” simply walking the earth doing the work he is meant to do before ascending to heaven, probably at some moment chosen in Tel Aviv. We’ve talked about his children and his brothers and sisters. He has asked me questions about China, which is where I live and is a place he wants to understand better. I had come to see Fouad because, in all my dealings with Hezbollah over the years, I had found myself particularly fascinated and intrigued by their capacity for creativity and innovation, even in the pursuit of shocking ends. Their obsession with finding better ways to fight and survive under the full pressure of Israeli attack seemed to me a signpost of sorts, but I had always struggled to figure out what precisely it marked. It meant, at the least, a record of defeat for the Israeli army. In 2006, for instance, fewer than 500 Hezbollah fighters had frustrated a 30,000-man Israeli attack, including one of the most extensive air campaigns in Middle East history. Hezbollah, to prove their point, had made a show of firing the same number of missiles on the last day of the war as they had on the first.
In trying to understand how our global order is now working and changing, I knew I needed to be intimate with the ideas Fouad carried around, no matter how repellent they might be. In a way, the passion for innovation and the geeky curiosity of fighters like Fouad reminded me of friends of mine who had started great Internet companies or people I knew who were managing gigantic hedge funds. They were mostly around my age, in their thirties and forties. And if I had encountered them first in my role as foreign editor of Time magazine, these people had remained interesting and fascinating to me once I left journalism precisely so that I could better feel how our world was changing, instead of merely observing its shifts and lurches from a reportorial distance. The instinct for change, an eager fluency with the tools of serious disruption, I had noticed, seemed particularly alive in my generation. This was the generation that had built the Web into something useful and revolutionary, that had assembled huge and unregulatable financial firms churning out billions of dollars in profits while creating trillions of dollars of risk. It was a sense you could also find in many people I knew in China as they struggled to build an economic and political order against the unpredictable demands of constant newness. Change is at the center of all of their lives. They seek it out and, when change is proceeding too slowly, accelerate it. They operate with the self-regard and courage of people who believe that the tide of history is on their side, bringing us closer to whatever dream they find most exciting, whether it is fast universal connections to data or wholly new types of government. They see this process as one in which destabilization of the existing order is not only necessary but inevitable.
You don’t dare draw a moral equivalency between the crimes of Hezbollah and, say, the innovations of Google, but you can see in each the workings of a powerful energy: the imbalance of 500 fighters against 30,000 soldiers or two university students remaking the whole Web from a dorm room. These hot cells of innovation draw the very best minds of a generation: quantitative-math geniuses to hedge funds, computer savants to tech startups and, well, darker corners. “Our email is flooded with CVs,” Fouad told me. “But of course some people don’t have the courage to be on the terrorist watch list, even if it is to serve a sacred cause.”
Excerpted from The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It by Joshua Cooper Ramo © 2009. With permission from the publisher, Little, Brown and Company.
Joshua Cooper Ramo is managing director and a partner at Kissinger Associates, one of the world's leading strategic advisory firms. Prior to joining Kissinger Associates, he was assistant managing editor of Time and worked in the advisory and banking business in China.