Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman

New York: Doubleday, 2009, pp. 272.

All too often futurists limit themselves to describing past and present trends and suggesting hat they will (or will not) continue beyond a certain point. They rarely put themselves out there by making specific, concrete, readily testable claims (or even offering a range of possibilities that may or may not approximate what could happen). This is, of course, frequently a matter of honesty and responsibility in the face of the task's intrinsic difficulty, but can frequently leave the reader unsatisfied.

George Friedman cannot be accused of that in his latest book, The Next 100 Years, in which he offers a veritable future history.

Essentially, the "plot" unfolds like this. The U.S. focus on southwest Asia and Islamic fundamentalism fades after Iraq and Afghanistan, the next great challenge coming from Russia instead. Specifically a Russia politically and militarily resurgent on the basis of natural resource exports will collide with the U.S. and its allies in a second, scaled-down Cold War-which Russia (because of its demographic slide and limited power base) will inevitably lose.

China's growth, too, will prove unsustainable, especially in the face of worsening internal stresses.

As a result, both Russia and China will collapse before 2030, leaving most of Eurasia up for grabs by neighboring countries, from Finland to Taiwan. Along with the failure of Europe to become a coherent politico-military entity (and the decline of Atlantic Europe in general) this still leaves the U.S. the world's hyperpower.

Nonetheless, the scenario has the makings of a challenge to U.S. hegemony, with the activity of three powers on the fringes of the collapse zone-Poland, Turkey and Japan-particularly relevant.

Japan is of course a great economic and technological power now (with the means to become a greater military one as well), whereas Friedman expects Poland and Turkey to eventually become that due to heavy U.S. support for these front-line players in the second Cold War.

Friedman foresees Poland as the core of a coalition of East European states, much as some Polish statesmen had hoped for in the interwar period, with influence reaching east into Belarus and Ukraine after Russia's collapse; while Turkey's sphere of influence becomes something like a resurrected Ottoman Empire, covering North Africa and the Middle East to the borders of Iran, Kazakhstan and Algeria (excluding Israel, of course), as well as a large chunk of southern Russia, and even including a Balkan presence in Bosnia and Albania.

The growing power of Turkey and Japan puts a strain on their alliances with the U.S., particularly as Turkey's sphere of influence collides with Poland's in the ex-Soviet space and the Balkans. As a result, Turkey and Japan, in alliance with a Germany that is down but not yet out, confront the U.S. and its allies (not just Poland, but an America-leaning Britain and Iberia, and friendly parties inside China) in a third world war around mid-century.

The U.S. and its allies win this war decisively, with the result that not only is the new Axis chastised, but Japan loses its sphere of influence in East Asia, and Turkey is contained, while an already powerful Poland becomes the dominant power in Europe and in due course, the U.S.'s next worry. (As a result, the U.S. supports Britain in organizing a counterbalancing alliance on Europe's Atlantic seaboard.)

More importantly, the U.S. secures the exclusive right to militarize space, and with it, control of the space-based solar energy production key to meeting the world's energy needs.

The 21st century therefore proves to be another American century, but the U.S. will face a serious test closer to home, from a populous, prosperous and potentially revanchist Mexico to its south, and its own changing demographics, much of the American southwest having become Mexican-American and "an extension of their homeland," setting up a confrontation over dominance of the North American continent, and by extension, the world as well.

The early chunk of the narrative is admittedly plausible-the turn away from the Middle East, the limited confrontation between Russia and the U.S., the problems in China. But the further the book goes into the future, the less persuasive it becomes. This is only natural enough in even the best-considered such effort, but I would also argue that Friedman's analysis is deeply flawed in many ways.

To his credit, Friedman appreciates:

* That the war against al-Qaida will not be the sole concern of U.S. foreign policy in the twenty-first century (and indeed, may be eclipsed by other matters fairly quickly).
* The limits of Russian "hard" power for all the talk of Russian resurgence (something I have also written about).
* That the rise of China is a more complex and less certain matter than generally appreciated (ditto, in my Survival Forum article last year).
* The limits of European integration, particularly in the politico-military sphere.
* The speed with which alliances turn to enmities, and in particular the historical tendency of the U.S. to back one actor, then find itself confronting it militarily a short time later (as with Saddam Hussein's Iraq).
* The reality, and some of the significance, of the demographic turnabout in the direction of a declining world population by mid-century, including the cultural changes underpinning it, which simply reflect the shift from an agrarian to an urban-industrial world.

Still, he leaves out a number of important factors, in many cases not even deigning to discuss them, including:

* The effects of climate change, or for that matter, environmental challenges of any sort.
* The likelihood of a scarcity of energy in the near term. Instead he defers serious shortages of hydrocarbons to the latter part of the twenty-first century. (His response to the question of U.S. dependence on energy imports specifically is a reply that the U.S. also happens to produce a great deal of oil and natural gas, something of a non sequitir.)
* The impact of deindustrialization, overfinancialization and unsustainable trade imbalances on the long-term power and prosperity of the U.S..
* The role of India, which is almost a non-entity in the story (save in its helping tear Tibet away from a crumbling China).
* Events in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, not only as places where major players might emerge, but also as junior partners for the bigger players, and even as pawns or flash points in the game.
* The fact that China is so large, and portions of it already so affluent, that even pieces of a fragmented China (for instance, a bloc formed around the provinces of the southeastern coastal region, perhaps in confederation with Hong Kong and Taiwan) may by themselves have the weight of great powers; or the damage a Chinese collapse is likely to do to other parts of the world economy.
* The impact of sub-state actors, which are dismissed wholesale.

He trivializes a number of others, like

* The significance of nuclear weapons, and in particular the constraints they place on great power war. (Of course, in an earlier book Friedman classed World War II as a "limited" conflict.)
* The potential impacts of new technologies, like robotics and genetic engineering, which many observers would characterize as laughably conservative.
* The effect of internal politics on state conduct.

He is also too eager to embrace a number of claims that fail to stand up to serious scrutiny, like:

* The image of an economically and demographically stagnant Western Europe. The truth is that when adjusted for population growth, the expenses of German reunification and higher American expenditures on health care and security (which can be thought of as "bad growth"), Europe's economic performance looks broadly equivalent to the U.S.'s. When European energy efficiency, trade balances and infrastructure are considered, as well as the greater robustness of Western Europe's industrial bases in the face of globalization to date, they actually appear healthier. Additionally, as Friedman himself notes, the rest of the world is not far behind Europe's changing demographic profile.
* The countervailing image of a vigorous and dynamic Eastern Europe. The East European nations are not only less populous and less economically developed than France or Germany, but in the same demographic boat as Western Europe, and while experiencing faster growth in recent years, there are grounds for real doubt as to whether they will attain comparable per capita GDP.
* The view that technological change in the twenty-first century must necessarily redound to the advantage of the U.S. relative to other major powers.
* A complacent optimism regarding the possibilities of economic growth in the twenty-first century (and especially the economic development of many of his key players), and along with it, the possibility of a backlash against capitalism.

In contrast with much recent politico-military futurism, Friedman avoids the Wall Street utopianism of Thomas Barnett, and the Kiplingesque zeal for imperialism of the neoconservatives. Still, for an author insistent on the pragmatism of his views, his thinking seems thoroughly dominated by a good many vulnerable theories:

* A state-centric, billiard ball model of international relations in which only the great powers count for very much, definitions of the national interest are unchanging, and nuclear weapons do not rule out great power-on-great power war as a viable political option.
* The salience of the geopolitical tradition in which both Halford Mackinder and Alfred Mahan are prominent.
* A "conservative" view that there is a "constancy in the human condition" that is only a slogan when not backed up by some serious thought about what precisely is being referred to as "constant" (as is the case here).
* A neoliberal approach to economics, which (at least in my view) is overoptimistic about the prospects for development inside the context he describes (which is to say, even without taking into account all the other obstacles he overlooks).
* An acceptance of the most extravagant claims made for the Revolution in Military Affairs (and for U.S. investment in it), particularly the combination of precision-guided munitions, Starship Troopers-style armored infantry and space-based command and weapons systems ("battlestars") as the defining factors in the conduct of future warfare (the focus of his 1996 The Future of War, which discusses these ideas in much greater detail and at much greater length), and the idea that by wielding these the U.S. will enjoy unquestioned military superiority over any and all potential challengers.

It should also be noted that he follows these ideas out to their logical conclusions, with few of the caveats and qualifications that would seem to be called for in a survey covering a hundred years of human history. Hence the exclusive focus on the balance among the great powers in Eurasia, the dismissal of both the ecological concerns and the important weaknesses of the U.S. economy referred to above, the embrace of an Old Europe/New Europe rhetoric that has more to do with the distaste many American conservatives have for the continent's social model than the facts on the ground, and the expectation that we could survive the conflict he imagines circa 2050.

Pull out these threads, and his conception quickly falls apart-and anyone who has followed this blog for long realizes that I doubt all of those presumptions. Consequently, even without the wild cards, from a technological "Singularity" to the emergence of a brand new ideology, it seems highly unlikely to me that history will follow the track he lays out. (Indeed, I am nearly certain that some of the things he describes-for instance, anything resembling his version of World War III-will not happen, though that side of my response would be better reserved for another blog post, at another time.) Nonetheless, the sheer ambition and breadth of the conception makes for interesting, provocative and often entertaining reading, and it is in this way that the book should be approached.

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