The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century
By George Friedman
(Doubleday, 272 pages, $25.95)
The problem with the news is that it instinctively shares John Maynard Keynes’ philosophy that “In the long run, we are all dead.” As a result, reporters and newscasters deliver update after update written under the tyranny of the urgent NOW with a nearly complete disregard for the long-term consequences of what is happening and the actions we might take to address it. The war in Iraq can only be understood from the standpoint of how bad the pain is at any given moment or in terms of how much coverage it receives in competition with other stories. This present recession becomes the new gaping wound that must be closed immediately no matter how bad a scar the rush remedy might leave on the patient’s body. The futurist George Friedman (founder of the private intelligence firm Stratfor) has attempted to remedy our obsession with the next second by mapping out The Next 100 Years.
Friedman’s interpretive prism is geopolitics which assumes three things: that politics become necessary when human beings coalesce in units larger than the family, that human beings develop loyalty for the land of their birth, and that the facts of geography will determine a great deal of a nation’s destiny. Wielding those assumptions, Friedman argues that it is possible to discern, for example, that “The United States is the United States and therefore must behave in a certain way.” He adds that the same is true of other nations. He analogizes geopolitics to a game of chess. While it appears there are an enormous number of possible moves, the constructive choices are actually quite limited. Once you are able to make out the reasonable options, you can forecast the likely future.
The geopolitical method of making out the next 100 years produces explosive results. Friedman’s biggest claims are guaranteed to shock and amaze. To most readers of the news, Russia appears to be on the cusp of a revival into a ruthless superpower no longer stuck with the albatross of communism around its neck. But Friedman predicts Russia will re-assert power and fail, ultimately collapsing. Fear a rising China? No worry. Internal instability will prevent its dominance and it will mainly be an ally of the United States. Japan will re-militarize and challenge the United States for dominance in the Pacific. The two will ultimately duel in space. Turkey will grow into a great power in the Middle East recalling memories of the Ottoman Empire. Poland will become a strong force and lead a resurgence of Eastern Europe with the help of the Americans. Mexico will rise and thanks to a global labor shortage will re-populate most of its old territory in the U.S. The two neighbors will not have resolved their tensions by 2100 as Mexico continues to grow more assertive.
With these kinds of bold predictions about the world of our future, The Next 100 Years is a compelling and provocative read. However, the degree to which you will buy into Friedman’s version of the looking glass depends on how you feel about his assumptions. The one that seems most vulnerable is that a nation is basically constrained to make the decisions that it does.
Consider the economic revolution Ronald Reagan brought to Washington. Friedman credits Reagan with radically restructuring the economy in such a way as to achieve economic growth and modernization. Surely, this is true. But the part that raises an eyebrow is that Friedman claims Reagan had no choice in forcing the American economy to evolve. He did what was required at the time as did “Roosevelt or Hayes or Jackson.” This brand of determinism is difficult to swallow. Reagan won office, but that result was far from pre-ordained. He could have lost. Jimmy Carter could have had a second term. Who is to say that the United States might not have followed a substantially different economic path? If you accept Friedman’s presentation, one is nearly compelled to believe Carter or perhaps his Democrat successor would have proposed massive cuts in marginal tax rates. A Democrat president as a supply-sider? It is difficult to imagine.
There is such a thing as a substantial ideological disagreement over the direction of the nation and its economic development. We are witnessing the reality of that fact right now as the White House aggressively increases the size of government. Compare the different opinions of how to deal with the crisis presented by President Obama and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. The differences are real. One side could be in control rather than the other.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with some of the assumptions, Friedman has produced an interesting book with many fascinating insights. He correctly notes that when marriages are held together by emotions without the reinforcing glue of economic necessity, then divorce will be more common. Friedman also observes that when marriage becomes disconnected from reproduction, as it has in the modern period, then gay marriage or its equivalent becomes a nearly unstoppable logical development. Reflections of this type regarding social life and an analysis of changes in the way we view reason do a nice job of bringing the macro-analysis back down from the lofty perch of nations to a human scale.
At the end of the book, Friedman admits that “The closer one gets to details, the more likely one is to be wrong.” But he doubles down on the prediction he believes is at the center of his entire vision for the century, which is that “the United States — far from being on the verge of decline — has actually just begun its ascent.” Reading the news, this core prophecy about our nation doesn’t feel true, but the moment nearly always counts for too much and typically lacks perspective. George Friedman declines to allow the moment to direct his sight.
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