Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Shape Of Things To Come?

What do the next one-hundred years hold in store for the United States? Another cold war with Russia? Being able to fulfill most of our energy needs from space? Dealing with the emergence of Mexico as a world power? A world war pitting the United States and Poland against Turkey and Japan???

Those are just some of what George Friedman sees when he dares gaze into a crystal ball in his book The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. Lest you think his work the screed of a wide-eyed lunatic or more fictional than futurist, he asks that we imagine what the 20th century would look beginning in 1900:

Imagine that you were alive in the summer of 1900, living in London, then the capital of the world. Europe ruled the Eastern Hemisphere. There was hardly a place that, if not ruled directly, was not indirectly controlled from a European capital. Europe was at peace and enjoying unprecedented prosperity. Indeed, European interdependence due to trade and investment was so great that serious people were claiming that war had become impossible--and if not impossible, would end within weeks of beginning--because global financial markets couldn't withstand the strain. The future seemed fixed: a peaceful, prosperous Europe would rule the world.

Imagine yourself now in the summer of 1920. Europe had been torn apart by an agonizing war. The continent was in tatters. The Austro- Hun gar ian, Russian, German, and Ottoman empires were gone and millions had died in a war that lasted for years. The war ended when an American army of a million men intervened--an army that came and then just as quickly left. Communism dominated Russia, but it was not clear that it could survive. Countries that had been on the periphery of European power, like the United States and Japan, suddenly emerged as great powers. But one thing was certain--the peace treaty that had been imposed on Germany guaranteed that it would not soon reemerge.

Imagine the summer of 1940. Germany had not only reemerged but conquered France and dominated Europe. Communism had survived and the Soviet Union now was allied with Nazi Germany. Great Britain alone stood against Germany, and from the point of view of most reasonable people, the war was over. If there was not to be a thousand-year Reich, then certainly Europe's fate had been decided for a century. Germany would dominate Europe and inherit its empire.

Imagine now the summer of 1960. Germany had been crushed in the war, defeated less than five years later. Europe was occupied, split down the middle by the United States and the Soviet Union. The European empires were collapsing, and the United States and Soviet Union were competing over who would be their heir. The United States had the Soviet Union surrounded and, with an overwhelming arsenal of nuclear weapons, could annihilate it in hours. The United States had emerged as the global superpower. It dominated all of the world's oceans, and with its nuclear force could dictate terms to anyone in the world. Stalemate was the best the Soviets could hope for--unless the Soviets invaded Germany and conquered Europe. That was the war everyone was preparing for. And in the back of everyone's mind, the Maoist Chinese, seen as fanatical, were the other danger.

Now imagine the summer of 1980. The United States had been defeated in a seven-year war--not by the Soviet Union, but by communist North Vietnam. The nation was seen, and saw itself, as being in retreat. Expelled from Vietnam, it was then expelled from Iran as well, where the oil fields, which it no longer controlled, seemed about to fall into the hands of the Soviet Union. To contain the Soviet Union, the United States had formed an alliance with Maoist China--the American president and the Chinese chairman holding an amiable meeting in Beijing. Only this alliance seemed able to contain the powerful Soviet Union, which appeared to be surging.

Imagine now the summer of 2000. The Soviet Union had completely collapsed. China was still communist in name but had become capitalist in practice. NATO had advanced into Eastern Europe and even into the former Soviet Union. The world was prosperous and peaceful. Everyone knew that geopolitical considerations had become secondary to economic considerations, and the only problems were regional ones in basket cases like Haiti or Kosovo.

Then came September 11, 2001, and the world turned on its head again. At a certain level, when it comes to the future, the only thing one can be sure of is that common sense will be wrong. There is no magic twenty-year cycle; there is no simplistic force governing this pattern. It is simply that the things that appear to be so permanent and dominant at any given moment in history can change with stunning rapidity. Eras come and go. In international relations, the way the world looks right now is not at all how it will look in twenty years...or even less. The fall of the Soviet Union was hard to imagine, and that is exactly the point. Conventional political analysis suffers from a profound failure of imagination. It imagines passing clouds to be permanent and is blind to powerful, long-term shifts taking place in full view of the world.

Friedman's book suffers from no such failure of imagination. He refuses to let his thinking be bound by historical constraints and recognizes that geopolitical alignments always appear more stable and permanent at any given time than they prove to be in the long run.

Friedman's foresights are based on analysis that is largely free of passions or prejudice toward any particular country or political system. It isn't always easy for Americans to step back and take an objective view of the United States and its place in the world now or in the future. The clear-headed, dispassionate approach of Friedman reminds me in some ways of the work of Thomas P.M. Barnett.

And like Barnett, Friedman's view of the future is for the most part an optimistic one. He foresees another "golden age" for the United States in the mid twenty-first century similar to the one we experienced after the Second World War. While he recognizes the economic and societal consequences of coming technological changes will contain both positives and negatives, he generally sees more good than bad.

Two of his predictions that I found particularly interesting are:

- The struggle between the West and the Islamists is already winding down and will not have a significant influence on events the rest of the century. While this may seem a bit unlikely now, Friedman explains that since there aren't any Islamist states per se, it's unlikely that a loosely organized movement based on its beliefs can be sustained.

- Unlike many, he does not see China emerging as the next great power. In fact, he believes that China will actually begin to be riven with internal strife and fracture into disparate regions of power relatively soon (2020s).

Will everything that Friedman predicts come to pass? Of course not. But some likely will and thinking and arguing about which events might is one of the distinct pleasures of reading this book.

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