The first, last, and main thing to understand about the 21st Century as George Friedman, founder of the security consulting and forecasting firm STRATFOR, sees it unfolding is that the more things change, the more a few things not only stay the same, but become even more so.
Friedman’s approach is thoroughly geopolitical, and it’s almost tautological to observe that the most important geopolitical factor is geography – which in turn means that everybody trying to make a case for Sinophobia, Islamophobia, Russophobia, Indophobia, or any other conceivable -phobia (or -philia) attached to a nation, region, religion, or ideology will have to contend with facts of life that don’t change, at least in the human time-scale. In short, the global economy is critically and fundamentally dependent on oceangoing trade; North America, the North American economy, and specifically the U.S. Navy dominate the oceans; and this predominance, now firmly established, is self-reinforcing and extremely difficult to dislodge. It produces a series of relatively simple U.S. strategic objectives, as well as fairly straightforward means of achieving them affordably – and, in the final analysis, almost everything else is distraction.
In Friedman’s view, geography explains why America became rich and powerful. You can attribute American success to democratic capitalism, but it was geography that made democratic capitalism of the American type possible. In this sense, geography is why we were in a position to win the 20th Century War of the World that finished Europe, and set up a finals match between ourselves and the Soviet Union; why the Soviet Union never really had much of a chance; and why the outlines were already visible to people like de Tocqueville and others when the United States was (or were) a small and fractious confederation as much as it was a nation, Russia was a backwater, and all of the action was emanating from Western Europe.
It’s also why, looking ahead, China and India are more likely to fragment and recede than to grow and lead; why Turkey is more important than Iran; why Islam is not an existential threat and why in fact the idea may be laughable; and why certain patterns of conflict, such as between the U.S. and Japan or between the U.S. and any power threatening to dominate the Eurasian landmass, are likely sooner or later to recur and to follow familiar paths – mainly to the benefit of the U.S.
It’s not fair, but don’t blame Friedman. He wasn’t the one who created a rich, arable, relatively easily traversable, thinly populated but eminently inhabitable continent with multiple ports on both of the world’s most important oceans.
This unique position, or its results, explain further why we can afford to be sloppy, wasteful, and moody – oscillating between overconfidence and despair; why when we “lose” we so often win despite ourselves; why events that loom very large in the American public mind at one or another point in history can be all but forgotten a few years later; why citizens of less favored lands pay a much steeper price for our mistakes than we do; why we recover more quickly than anyone else can; and why no matter how much we’re envied, resisted, and hated, we’ll likely never be without friends, clients, and customers.
Unabashedly but not naively pro-American, Friedman also remains unperturbed by our recent national agonies in Southeast Asia and the Middle East: “These conflicts are merely isolated episodes in U.S. history, of little lasting importance – except to Vietnamese and Iraqis.” After explaining how our “barbarism” in such matters – a term Friedman uses descriptively, not judgmentally – works to our advantage, to the dismay of nations with much smaller “margins of error,” Friedman then sums up the “U.S.-jihadist war,” which he sees as “slither[-ing] to an end”:
An Islamic world in chaos, incapable of uniting, means the United States has achieved its strategic goal. One thing the United States has indisputably done since 2001 is to create chaos in the Islamic world, generating animosity toward America – and perhaps terrorists who will attack it in the future. But the regional earthquake is not coalescing into a regional superpower. In fact, the region is more fragmented than ever, and this is likely to close the book on this era. U.S. defeat or stalemate in Iraq and Afghanistan is the likely outcome, and both wars will appear to have ended badly for the United States. … But on a broader, more strategic level, that does not matter. So long as the Muslims are fighting each other, the United States has won its war.
Sure, in addition to leading to loss of life and treasure, this kind of thing leaves people angry, but, as Friedman is quick to point out: “Anger does not make history. Power does.”
Finally, this same higher, virtually from-orbit perspective enables Friedman to handle our current economic troubles in a few sentences:
The U.S. economy has a net worth measured in hundreds of trillions of dollars. Therefore, a debt crisis measuring a few trillion cannot destroy it. The problem is, how can this country’s net worth be used to cover the bad loans, since that net worth is in hundreds of millions of private hands? Only the government can do that, and it does it by guaranteeing the debts, using the state’s sovereign taxing power, and utilizing the Federal Reserve’s ability to print money to bail out the system.
“The crisis of 2008,” he continues,” is hardly a defining moment. Think of it as a straw in the wind, a sign of things to come.”
In other words, Friedman’s not quite Glenn Beck about our present difficulties, and is probably inclined to give Obama-Geithner-Bernanke more latitude than most conservatives will be, but he’s not a Polyanna either: He thinks we’re heading for a demographically driven economic crisis truly worthy of the name, but expects it to arise in the 2030 time frame, not next year or 2016, and expects us to be, as ever, comparatively well-positioned to handle it – and, in good time, to move on. Though Obama in particular may not, from a geopolitical view, have or need as much freedom of movement as some may wish to believe, or as Obama himself has sometimes pretended, there’s also nothing in Friedman’s analysis that prevents us from criticizing Obama-Geithner-Bernanke for handling things less well than they could or should, or that prevents us from taking advantage of the next American mood swing to correct for Obama-era over-corrections. Indeed, if Friedman’s right, it’s by no means too early to begin preparing for problems that may be much more challenging and transformative than the ’08 financial crisis and the Conflict Formerly Known As The War On Terror.
Whether you’re pleased, dismayed, surprised, or simply unpersuaded by Friedman’s depiction of a war in 2050 precipitated by a Turko-Japanese alliance, of an eventual showdown within North America itself, of nearer term hopeless maneuvers by Russia and China, or of the technological, economic, and social changes that will accompany, drive, or be driven by such events, his guesstimates and projections always combine ruthless logic and well-informed, relentlessly fact-based extrapolations. The effect may shake your assumptions, or at least shake you out of habitual modes of thought, and it may be especially welcome to Americans who’ve lately been given to exaggerated fear, pessimism, and despair – or, in some quarters, to unrealistic expectations – about the state of our nation and the world.
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century
Hardcover: 272 pages
Doubleday (January 27, 2009)