Repost: George Friedman’s “The Next 100 Years” Author’s Note and Overture

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I copy below the first chapter of George Friedman’s “The Next 100 Years.” This book was a bestseller which received positive reviews, but its author generally does not receive the esteem I believe he deserves. His company, Stratfor, is occasionally ridiculed; yet its analysis is more often right than wrong. In particular, Friedman’s and Stratfor’s forecasts and subsequent coverage of the rise of Turkey and Japan, and the relative decline of China and persistence of the United States, have only been observed by the mainstream media (and most foreign policy circles, at that) as they have started to happen. Friedman foresaw them years ago.

Beyond the general unesteemed but worthy credibility of the author, I have a particular affinity for this first chapter of “The Next 100 Years.” It is this piece that first truly introduced me to international relations, and Friedman and Stratfor have continued to inform my thinking, and my understanding of these principles, up to this very day.

All credit goes to George Friedman; I have done nothing but share his masterful intellect in hopes that others, intrigued as I have been, might look into his work.

 

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Author’s Note:

I have no crystal ball. I do, however, have a method that has served me well, imperfect though it might be, in understanding the past and anticipating the future. Underneath the disorder of history, my task is to try to see the order—and to anticipate what events, trends, and technology that order will bring forth. Forecasting a hundred years ahead may appear to be a frivolous activity, but, as I hope you will see, it is a rational, feasible process, and it is hardly frivolous. I will have grandchildren in the not-distant future, and some of them will surely be alive in the twenty-second century. That thought makes all of this very real.

In this book, I am trying to transmit a sense of the future. I will, of course, get many details wrong. But the goal is to identify the major tendencies—geopolitical, technological, demographic, cultural, military— in their broadest sense, and to define the major events that might take place. I will be satisfied if I explain something about how the world works today, and how that, in turn, defines how it will work in the future. And I will be delighted if my grandchildren, glancing at this book in 2100, have reason to say, “Not half bad.” 

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OVERTURE

An Introduction to the American Age

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 un­ precedented 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 be­ ginning—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-Hungarian, 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 peo­ ple, the war was over. If there was not to be a thousand-year Reich, then cer­ tainly 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 super­ power. 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 Sovi­ ets 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 So­ viet 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 for­ mer 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 interna­ tional 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 suf­ fers 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.

If we were at the beginning of the twentieth century, it would be impos­sible to forecast the particular events I’ve just listed. But there are some things that could have been—and, in fact, were—forecast. For example, it was obvious that Germany, having united in 1871, was a major power in an insecure position (trapped between Russia and France) and wanted to re­ define the European and global systems. Most of the conflicts in the first half of the twentieth century were about Germany’s status in Europe. While the times and places of wars couldn’t be forecast, the probability that there would be a war could be and was forecast by many Europeans.

The harder part of this equation would be forecasting that the wars would be so devastating and that after the first and second world wars were over, Europe would lose its empire. But there were those, particularly after the invention of dynamite, who predicted that war would now be cata­ strophic. If the forecasting on technology had been combined with the fore­ casting on geopolitics, the shattering of Europe might well have been predicted. Certainly the rise of the United States and Russia was predicted in the nineteenth century. Both Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Niet­zsche forecast the preeminence of these two countries. So, standing at the beginning of the twentieth century, it would have been possible to forecast its general outlines, with discipline and some luck. 

forecasting a hundred years ahead

Before I delve into any details of global wars, population trends, or techno­logical shifts, it is important that I address my method—that is, precisely how I can forecast what I do. I don’t intend to be taken seriously on the de­ tails of the war in 2050 that I forecast. But I do want to be taken seriously in terms of how wars will be fought then, about the centrality of American power, about the likelihood of other countries challenging that power, and about some of the countries I think will—and won’t—challenge that power. And doing that takes some justification. The idea of a U.S.–Mexican con­ frontation and even war will leave most reasonable people dubious, but I would like to demonstrate why and how these assertions can be made.

One point I’ve already made is that reasonable people are incapable of anticipating the future. The old New Left slogan “Be Practical, Demand the Impossible” needs to be changed: “Be Practical, Expect the Impossible.” This idea is at the heart of my method. From another, more substantial per­ spective, this is called geopolitics.

Geopolitics is not simply a pretentious way of saying “international rela­tions.” It is a method for thinking about the world and forecasting what will happen down the road. Economists talk about an invisible hand, in which the self-interested, short-term activities of people lead to what Adam Smith called “the wealth of nations.” Geopolitics applies the concept of the invisi­ ble hand to the behavior of nations and other international actors. The pur­suit of short-term self-interest by nations and by their leaders leads, if not to the wealth of nations, then at least to predictable behavior and, therefore, the ability to forecast the shape of the future international system.

Geopolitics and economics both assume that the players are rational, at least in the sense of knowing their own short-term self-interest. As rational actors, reality provides them with limited choices. It is assumed that, on the whole, people and nations will pursue their self-interest, if not flawlessly, then at least not randomly. Think of a chess game. On the surface, it ap­ pears that each player has twenty potential opening moves. In fact, there are many fewer because most of these moves are so bad that they quickly lead to defeat. The better you are at chess, the more clearly you see your options, and the fewer moves there actually are available. The better the player, the more predictable the moves. The grandmaster plays with absolute pre­dictable precision—until that one brilliant, unexpected stroke.

Nations behave the same way. The millions or hundreds of millions of people who make up a nation are constrained by reality. They generate lead­ ers who would not become leaders if they were irrational. Climbing to the top of millions of people is not something fools often do. Leaders under­stand their menu of next moves and execute them, if not flawlessly, then at least pretty well. An occasional master will come along with a stunningly unexpected and successful move, but for the most part, the act of gover­nance is simply executing the necessary and logical next step. When politi­ cians run a country’s foreign policy, they operate the same way. If a leader dies and is replaced, another emerges and more likely than not continues what the first one was doing.

I am not arguing that political leaders are geniuses, scholars, or even gen­tlemen and ladies. Simply, political leaders know how to be leaders or they wouldn’t have emerged as such. It is the delight of all societies to belittle their political leaders, and leaders surely do make mistakes. But the mistakes they make, when carefully examined, are rarely stupid. More likely, mistakes are forced on them by circumstance. We would all like to believe that we— or our favorite candidate—would never have acted so stupidly. It is rarely true. Geopolitics therefore does not take the individual leader very seriously, any more than economics takes the individual businessman too seriously. Both are players who know how to manage a process but are not free to break the very rigid rules of their professions.

Politicians are therefore rarely free actors. Their actions are determined by circumstances, and public policy is a response to reality. Within narrow margins, political decisions can matter. But the most brilliant leader of Ice­ land will never turn it into a world power, while the stupidest leader of Rome at its height could not undermine Rome’s fundamental power. Geo­politics is not about the right and wrong of things, it is not about the virtues or vices of politicians, and it is not about foreign policy debates. Geopolitics is about broad impersonal forces that constrain nations and human beings and compel them to act in certain ways.

The key to understanding economics is accepting that there are always unintended consequences. Actions people take for their own good reasons have results they don’t envision or intend. The same is true with geopolitics. It is doubtful that the village of Rome, when it started its expansion in the seventh century BC, had a master plan for conquering the Mediterranean world five hundred years later. But the first action its inhabitants took against neighboring villages set in motion a process that was both constrained by re­ ality and filled with unintended consequences. Rome wasn’t planned, and neither did it just happen.

Geopolitical forecasting, therefore, doesn’t assume that everything is pre­determined. It does mean that what people think they are doing, what they hope to achieve, and what the final outcome is are not the same things. Na­tions and politicians pursue their immediate ends, as constrained by reality as a grandmaster is constrained by the chessboard, the pieces, and the rules. Sometimes they increase the power of the nation. Sometimes they lead the nation to catastrophe. It is rare that the final outcome will be what they ini­tially intended to achieve.

Geopolitics assumes two things. First, it assumes that humans organize themselves into units larger than families, and that by doing this, they must engage in politics. It also assumes that humans have a natural loyalty to the things they were born into, the people and the places. Loyalty to a tribe, a city, or a nation is natural to people. In our time, national identity matters a great deal. Geopolitics teaches that the relationship between these nations is a vital dimension of human life, and that means that war is ubiquitous.

Second, geopolitics assumes that the character of a nation is determined to a great extent by geography, as is the relationship between nations. We use the term geography broadly. It includes the physical characteristics of a location, but it goes beyond that to look at the effects of a place on individ­uals and communities. In antiquity, the difference between Sparta and Athens was the difference between a landlocked city and a maritime empire. Athens was wealthy and cosmopolitan, while Sparta was poor, provincial, and very tough. A Spartan was very different from an Athenian in both cul­ture and politics.

If you understand those assumptions, then it is possible to think about large numbers of human beings, linked together through natural human bonds, constrained by geography, acting in certain ways. The United States is the United States and therefore must behave in a certain way. The same goes for Japan or Turkey or Mexico. When you drill down and see the forces that are shaping nations, you can see that the menu from which they choose is limited.

The twenty-first century will be like all other centuries. There will be wars, there will be poverty, there will be triumphs and defeats. There will be tragedy and good luck. People will go to work, make money, have children, fall in love, and come to hate. That is the one thing that is not cyclical. It is the permanent human condition. But the twenty-first century will be ex­traordinary in two senses: it will be the beginning of a new age, and it will see a new global power astride the world. That doesn’t happen very often.

We are now in an America-centric age. To understand this age, we must understand the United States, not only because it is so powerful but because its culture will permeate the world and define it. Just as French culture and British culture were definitive during their times of power, so American cul­ture, as young and barbaric as it is, will define the way the world thinks and lives. So studying the twenty-first century means studying the United States.

If there were only one argument I could make about the twenty-first century, it would be that the European Age has ended and that the North American Age has begun, and that North America will be dominated by the United States for the next hundred years. The events of the twenty-first cen­tury will pivot around the United States. That doesn’t guarantee that the United States is necessarily a just or moral regime. It certainly does not mean that America has yet developed a mature civilization. It does mean that in many ways the history of the United States will be the history of the twenty-first century. “

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