Sunday, March 22, 2009

George Friedman's 'The Next 100 Years': unpredictable

By Edward Nawotka

Sunday, March 22, 2009 

Thanksgiving Day 2050: While most of America is "watching football and napping after digesting a massive meal," the Japanese launch moon-based missiles and destroy most of the United States' orbiting Battle Stars. This 21st-century Pearl Harbor will lead the world into war, pitting the U.S. — the globe's lone superpower — and its ally Poland against a coalition that includes Japan and a resurgent Turkey, which now controls most of the Middle East and commands an empire to rival that of the Ottomans. 

"It will be a world war in the truest sense of the word, but given the technological advances in precision and speed, it won't be total war — societies trying to annihilate societies," writes 60-year-old-Austinite George Friedman in "The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century." As such, total casualties of the fighting — which will be fought with hypersonic aircraft, space- based weaponry and armored, battery-powered foot soldiers — will cost perhaps 500,000 lives, just a few thousand of them American. It is, Friedman points out, a pittance compared with the 50 million who died in World War II. 

The 21st-century world war is the centerpiece of Friedman's work of speculation and prediction. Examining a resurgent Russia under Putin, Friedman predicts that "Central Asia will be back in the Russian sphere of influence by 2010" and foresees a "rematch" of the cold war by 2020. The book ends with the U.S. on the verge of a conflict with Mexico as a result of mass immigration that has, over the long term, empowered our neighbor to the south and destabilized the U.S. from within. Along the way Friedman explains how Japan, Poland and Turkey become world powers and why so many things that seem important to us now — such as Islamic extremism and Chinese economic dynamism — will eventually fade from relevance. 

"Some people have called me a hustler and suggested that a book like this is somehow frivolous," admits Friedman, from his cell phone while on book tour. "But this is a serious work that was written to make some complicated concepts accessible to a general audience. It is kind of the culmination of a life's work." 

That work is now running Stratfor, a private intelligence company Friedman founded in Austin in 1996. Before that Friedman — who has a political science Ph.D. from Cornell University — spent two decades in academia, most recently at Louisiana State University, where he founded a precursor to Stratfor called the Center for Geopolitical Studies. 

Like some of his theories, Friedman's choice of Austin as home for his business might seem counterintuitive. "You would think an intelligence organization would best be served by being in Washington, D.C.," he says. "But that is a city of gossip, It's easy to confuse the discussion about who is going to be promoted with making history. We wanted some distance from that in which to think. Austin has some advantages: UT has a superb library — which is essential to good intelligence — and a pool of bright, quirky people from which to recruit." He adds, "I hire a lot French medieval literature majors, people who have knowledge we don't have, see the world as we don't see it and are insatiable about learning new things. People who don't say 'That's impossible!'" 

Friedman writes in "The Next 100 Years" that "Conventional political analysis suffers from a profound failure of imagination," adding "the changes that lead to the next era are always shockingly unexpected." 

Of course, technically, a book such as this should be shelved as fiction, at least until it comes true. That said, even skeptics will find that the book's verifiable nonfiction — such as the history cited — is no less fresh when run through Friedman's mind. He offers, for example, an elegant disquisition on the unpredictability of history by moving decade through decade of the 20th century, explaining what the world looked like then and what happened a mere 10 years later. "In the summer of 1900, living in London, then the capital of the world,... the future seemed fixed," he begins. Of course, what soon followed was radically different. 

Friedman's other major concern is something that is actually fixed: geography. "Geography is important, because it changes little," he says. "As a consequence, the same things happen over and over again. The frequency of wars — between France and Germany, for example — and their importance, are rooted in geographic forces. But that is the old civilization. The U.S. only emerged as the decisive global power after World War II and is still immature. The U.S.'s power is based on its Navy and ability to control both oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, which no other power has been able to do." 

Friedman often compares the U.S.'s behavior to that of a teenager, which explains, for example, our actions post-9/11. "There is no question that American execution of the war in Iraq has been clumsy, graceless and in many ways unsophisticated. The U.S. was, indeed, an adolescent in its simplification of issues and in its use of power." He then adds the kicker: "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." 

This war, it seems, aims to prevent anyone from forming a coalition that offers a real challenge to the U.S. It is a strategy that will play itself out in the many small wars the U.S. is likely to find itself involved in during the next century — none of which we will necessarily want to "win." Ultimately, Friedman argues that the U.S., by virtue of its geography, population and technology, is likely to remain the world's primary decision maker. This message has found a welcome reception among readers, so much so that the book has become a surprise best-seller. It debuted at No. 5 on the New York Times best-seller list in January and has remained on the list. According to Friedman's Austin-based literary agent, Jim Hornfischer, nearly 100,000 copies of the book are in print. 

Perhaps the book serves as a palliative in this age of economic uncertainty. 

On the subject of the current crisis, Friedman is sanguine. Take the current financial crisis, for example. "Look at 1972, 1984...and it goes from being an unprecedented disaster to cyclical. We bailed out Chrysler in the '70s, we bailed out savings and loans in the '80s, and we're bailing out banks today. In my lifetime the world has ended from a financial standpoint at least seven times," he notes. "The one thing Americans lack and need the most is perspective."

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