The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century
By George Friedman
Doubleday, $15.57, 272 pp.
On October 7, 1989, festivities were held in East Berlin to celebrate 40 years of socialism in East Germany. Present were not only the country’s leadership but also dignitaries from other socialist states with Mikhail Gorbachev as the guest of honor. Large rockets and ballistic missiles were trucked across the main square to showcase the country’s military strength. Thousands of decked out soldiers marched proudly to the apparent delight of the assembled crowds. Many speeches were made extolling the achievements and glories of socialism. To underline its irreversible progress, Eric Honecker, East Germany’s leader, declared defiantly, “socialism will be halted in its course neither by ox nor by ass."
But barely a month later something unexpected happened: the Berlin Wall came crashing down and with it the whole of the Eastern Block. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about that event was how few people – both inside and outside – had expected it. Most of those behind the Iron Curtain were reconciled to the fact of their oppression while their counterparts on the other side thought that the struggle would have to be carried on by their children and grandchildren. The collapse thus came as a shock to most, since it was widely believed that the socialism-capitalism dichotomy would pretty much exist as a permanent feature of international affairs.
The sudden and largely unforeseen collapse of the Eastern Block is illustrative of the hazards of historical prognosticating. So unpredictable is the course of history that many experts have lost their good reputation after failing to get right even their short-term projections. Like those, for example, who said that once we knocked down Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s transition to democracy would be natural and inexorable.
Given the precarious nature of historical forecasting, serious commentators are understandably loath to make long-term predictions. Not so George Friedman who in his recently released book The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century attempts to do what no analyst of comparable stature would dare to try.
Those inclined to dismiss Friedman’s project with a bemused smirk would do well to consider his credentials. A New York Times bestselling author and founder of Stratfor – the world’s largest private intelligence company – Friedman is one of America’s most incisive commentators on international and strategic affairs. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, Fox News, and MSNBC are just some of the outfits that regularly seek his expertise. Friedman’s predictive acumen has won him an impressive list of clients, which includes many foreign governments as well as many large corporations and media outlets.
The high demand for Friedman’s expertise is not surprising given his remarkable track record. He predicted, for example, Russian resurgence when much of the world still saw Russia an ascendant democracy that would in time become a responsible member of the international community. It was not until last year’s invasion of Georgia that the world fully awoke to the truth of Friedman’s warnings. As early as October 2002, Friedman predicted that the US would have to work with the Iranians on the issue of Iraq. This was a full six months before US forces entered Iraq. That prediction came true when Iranian officials met with representatives of the Bush administration in Baghdad last year. In 2004, Friedman spoke of China’s inherent instability, contending that its economic miracle would not continue as it had for the past 30 years. At the time this view was not shared by most observers, but recent events have once again borne Friedman out.
The author’s remarkable record notwithstanding, it is obvious that The Next 100 Years cannot get every detail right. Nevertheless, George Friedman maintains that he can get right that which matters the most – the major outlines that will shape the century to come. His confidence is anchored in the conviction that it is possible to predict long-term trends, because history is inescapably defined by the “cycles and geopolitical patterns followed since the time of the Roman empire.”
The fundamental assumption behind Friedman’s work is that the current of history is shaped by certain factors in the same way the channel of a river is defined by the terrain through which it flows. The challenge, then, is to devise a surveying apparatus that would take in the landscape in a manner that would enable us to see the likely path along which the waters of history will roll.
The apparatus Friedman uses is geopolitics, an analytical method that first gained wide attention early in the 20th century. As Friedman explains elsewhere, geopolitics analyzes the “behavior of human societies [as] organized into complex, geographically defined systems.” This means, Friedman argues, that at the world’s present stage of development we study nation states.
This assertion may startle some, since in the last few decades there has been an apparent tendency for countries to form supranational unions. Exhibit number one, of course, would be the European Union, which by now encompasses more than twenty countries. Friedman, however, has always discounted such international federating as ultimately chimerical. The unfolding economic crisis has proved him right when various EU countries dealt with the fallout largely on their own, each pursing policies most favorable to its particular national situation.
The point of departure of Friedman’s forecast is the central role of the United States. “If there were only one argument I could make about the twenty-first century,” he writes, “it would be that the European age has ended and that the North American age has begun… The events of the twenty-first century will pivot around the United States.” Or, as he states in a promotional video presentation, “this book is about the decline of European power and the rise of American power.”
Friedman begins by discussing the remarkable extent of America’s current supremacy in almost every field of human endeavor. Take economics, for example. In 2007 global gross economic product stood at about $54 trillion of which $14 trillion was generated in the United States. This means that 26 percent of the world’s economic activity took place in this country even though it only contains four percent of the world’s population. And yet those four percent have built an economy so vast that it exceeds that of the next four countries combined: Japan, China, Germany and the United Kingdom.
The same applies to the military sphere. The United States is the only nation that can project overwhelming power anywhere on the globe. This is a capability that no other country can come even close to approximating. To be sure, there are regional powers – like Russia, for example – but they can only dominate in limited geographic sectors. The United States, on the other had, can defeat an opposing military anywhere in the world in a short period of time. This fact was brought home with great vividness in Afghanistan and Iraq when the US knocked down two opposing governments on the other side of the world in matter of weeks. It is inconceivable that Russia, or China or Great Britain could replicate such a feat. In would be wholly beyond their ability to mount similar operations, let’s say, in South America. In fact, they could probably not do it with the same speed and success even if they all joined forces together.
America’s overwhelming superiority is evident in almost every field from technology though finance to entertainment. But here is the interesting thing: In Friedman’s view this is only the beginning as US power and dominance will only increase in the decades ahead. He bases this assessment on the fact that the US – advanced as it is – still has immense room for growth. In terms of population density, for instance, the world’s average is 49 people per square kilometer while America’s is only 31. As a point of comparison, Japan’s is 338 and Germany’s 230. This mean that compared to other developed countries “the United States is hugely underpopulated.” America’s influence can only grow further as it population climbs to more optimal levels.
Despite the alarmist talk of energy shortages, the United States is in a strong position on this count as well. Few of us realize that the US is the third largest producer of oil (after Saudi Arabia and Russia) and the second largest producer of natural gas (after Russia). Writes Friedman, “although there is great concern that the United States is wholly dependent on foreign energy, it is actually one of the world’s largest energy producers.” And this is true in spite of the fact that many large deposits across the US in the continental shell still lie untapped.
This rising power and influence of the US will thus be the defining factor of international relations as the century unfolds. Friedman describes the underlying dynamic as follows:
“The history of the twenty-first century, therefore, particularly the first half, will revolve around two opposing struggles. One will be secondary powers forming coalitions to try to contain and control the United States. The second will the United States acting preemptively to prevent an effective coalition from forming.”
In practical terms this will mean conflict that will take the form of a series of “confrontations involving lesser powers trying to build coalitions to control American behavior and the United States mounting military operations to disrupt them.” Friedman, in fact, predicts that there will be more armed conflict in the twenty-first century than there was in the twentieth. On the positive side, the wars “will be much less catastrophic, both because of technological change and the nature of geopolitical challenge.”
Having laid down the basic framework of international affairs, Friedman proceeds to fill out some particulars. The most important is the rise of a quartet of secondary powers by the century’s mid-point. Its composition will come as a surprise to most. Not one of the west European democracies will make it in. Neither will the resurgent and energy-rich Russia. In fact, Russia will not even be around in its present form. Despite its current superpower aspirations it will ultimately fail. “In the end,” Friedman writes, “Russia can’t win. Its deep internal problems, massively declining population, and poor infrastructure ultimately make Russia’s long-terms survival prospects bleak.” Early in the century the United States and Russia will enter a period of heightened tension – Cold War II of sorts – but the outcome will be the same as before: Russia will collapse once again.
Most people would assume that China would surely have a place in that power quartet. But this is not to be, for as Friedman convincingly shows China, like Russia, is also an inherently unstable country. Rather than vying for superpower status, it will struggle to hold itself together. Far from seeing it as a threat, the US will try to try to bolster China, but ultimately the country will not be able to hold itself together.
Such forecasts may have seemed far-fetched only four months ago when Russia flexed it muscle and China overtook Germany as the world’s third largest economy. But today, as the two countries are reeling in the midst of the economic crisis, things look completely different. In the last few weeks, disintegration pressures came to the fore in Russia where talk of autonomy and independence is once again heard in several regions. Likewise in China the government is trying hard to keep tabs on the increasingly restless population in the country’s interior. The United States, on the other hand, is weathering the crisis far better than the rest of the world even though it actually began here. Be that as it may, the events of the past few months serve as a striking validation of Friedman’s vision and the fact that he wrote this text before the crisis hit stands as a testimony to his predictive acumen.
In case you are wondering which countries will make it to that secondary power quartet, they are Japan, Turkey, Poland and Mexico. Due to the constraints of this format, we cannot discuss in detail the geopolitical forces that will carry these nations to the fore. What we can say here is that their rise will sow the seeds of the next global conflict, which, however, will be “fought differently from any in history.” In addition to explaining the reasons why, the book treats the reader to a whole array of fascinating forecasts like, for example, what will replace carbohydrates as the main source of energy and which country will clash with the United States toward the end of the century. The answers initially surprise, but once Friedman explains his reasoning they seemed almost inevitable.
Even though George Friedman does not have a crystal ball, one suspects that much of what he says will come true. His book, however, is also worth reading apart from its predictive value. For one thing, it offers an intimate insight into the mind and thinking of one of the leading geopolitical analysts of our time. Even more importantly, it gives us a method for making sense of the seemingly over-complex and often-confusing world of international relations. Friedman shows how the flow of history is not random, but is shaped by certain laws and facts. There are definite reasons for why the United States has emerged as a global superpower and why China will never become one.
For sheer zest, intellectual firepower, and imaginativeness George Friedman has no equal. Confidently woven by a master of his craft, The Next 100 Years races along in robust, smooth-flowing prose. Ever the perfectionist, George Friedman offers a polished product that flawlessly balances content and style.
The Next 100 Hundred Years is a tour de force of geopolitics by the world’s leading practitioner of the art. I suspect that unless the Rapture intervenes in the meantime, those reading the book in year 2100 will be deeply impressed by the insights and predictive powers of Dr. Friedman.