October 20, 2009

Visions from a Geopolitical “Crystal Ball”

Living in a complex and dynamic world always comes with a great deal of uncertainty. It always haunts us and often pushes to the brink of extreme anxiety in turbulent times. We do not know even in times of peace and tranquillity what the future holds for us, let alone during war, conflict and other major social, economic or political (and, increasingly often, environmental) cataclysms.

20.10.2009, Tomas Jermalavičius
George Friedman, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, New York: Doubleday, 2009.
Living in a complex and dynamic world always comes with a great deal of uncertainty. It always haunts us and often pushes to the brink of extreme anxiety in turbulent times. We do not know even in times of peace and tranquillity what the future holds for us, let alone during war, conflict and other major social, economic or political (and, increasingly often, environmental) cataclysms. Some prefer focusing on managing daily emergencies, some become paralysed by inaction or live in a constant fear of inevitable strategic surprises, but some sit back and take a long view of what the future may hold and why. The art of strategy and statesmanship is very much about drawing alternative scenarios for the future, challenging one’s own mental frameworks and preparing to manage various risks or to seize the opportunities in whatever future that will eventually materialise. The conducting of methodological studies on scenario development, forecasting and other techniques, which help to prepare for the future, is a growing industry in many fields, from business to science and technology to politics. When the world has entered the zone of extreme turbulence, like we have, it is not surprising that interest in various visions for the future spikes up. And where there is demand, there will be supply. Those who are mired in the exhausting challenges of today and worried about the future will keenly reach out for this rather new book, written by George Friedman, the founder and owner of a geopolitical analysis and forecasting company, Stratfor. Its title, The Next 100 Years, holds out a promise of offering valuable insights into what we may expect to happen in world politics during this century. And that promise is fulfilled abundantly.
The fundamental argument of Friedman’s forecast is this: judging from how international relations have unfolded in past centuries and extrapolating from the geopolitical goals of the United States, the 21st century will truly be an American century. There will be no major changes in objective power parameters and the geopolitical position of the United States, which would suggest otherwise. It is a relatively young barbaric culture compared to many others, which are classified as civilised and decadent cultures. So, it is bound to continue its messianic drive and to project its values and ideals around the globe, underpinned by raw power, assertiveness, a sense of superiority and a strong belief in the moral rightness of its cause. And it will continue jealously guarding its central and dominant place in the world against any emerging or potential competitors by using military means, if necessary, because such is the perennial logic of dominant status quo geopolitical powers. Friedman insists that we should not confuse America’s current mood of gloom and doom with its terminal decline: this is a regular occurrence in U.S. history; the more so as it is quite typical for a barbaric culture to swing between, or even to experience simultaneously, the opposite extremes of mood (“the manic combination of exultant hubris and profound gloom”). And we should not interpret various political, military or economic setbacks and even failures as potential causes or indicators that mark the end of the American era. As Friedman argues, due to its sheer power, the United States has enormous room for error and manoeuvre compared to other nations. Furthermore, it does not have to aspire to defeat or eliminate its competitors. All it has to do is to thwart and obstruct them to a sufficient extent before they are capable of seriously challenging U.S. domination and turning the tables in the geopolitical arena.
As befits a forecaster who has his eyes set on a really long period of time, Friedman quickly brushes aside the ongoing struggle against Al Qaeda as inconsequential to his future forecast (“Conflict may continue, but the strategic challenge to American power is coming to an end. Al Qaeda has failed in its goals.”) and exposes the new fault lines of the coming century in the Pacific Basin, Eurasia, Europe, the Islamic World and North America. Correspondingly, he redraws boldly but in a well-argued manner the mental map of what we should view as most likely challengers to global U.S. dominance. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Friedman does not see, for instance, China as a serious geopolitical competitor in the Pacific. Constrained by geography, torn by internal upheavals and building its economic growth on an unsustainable basis, China (“Paper Tiger 2020”) will not cause great headaches for the United States. Instead, Japan will rise again to become a major geopolitical power, willing to contest the status quo and U.S. domination. On the other side of the continent, Turkey will re-emerge as the leader of the Muslim world and an economic heavyweight, geographically well-positioned to spread its influence. In Europe, Poland’s power and influence will eclipse that of Germany or France, while in North America the United States will eventually face a formidable challenge from Mexico.
But what is perhaps more intriguing for the Estonian public, Friedman does not view Russia as a source of trouble for U.S. dominance in Eurasia in the longer term. However, in line with the traditional geopolitical theory of Halford Mackinder, control of the Heartland at the centre of the Eurasian landmass is crucial for global domination. So, any country harbouring such aspirations will eventually prompt a response from the United States. Friedman asserts that during the next decade or so Russia, which is aware of the fact that its population is declining, its economy is deteriorating and fossil fuels are becoming increasingly irrelevant, will have a fleeting opportunity to reassert itself and to push back the boundaries of the West in order to recreate a strategic buffer. It will encounter fierce resistance from a new European power, Poland, backed by its Eastern European allies and the United States. After a brief Cold War-like confrontation, Russia will suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union: it will collapse and disintegrate. This will leave the Heartland in chaos and open to geopolitical ‘poaching’ by other powers, especially Poland and Turkey.
Friedman’s mid-century forecast envisages another world war – between a Japanese-Turkish coalition and a U.S.-Polish alliance. As we are talking about the 2040s, Friedman weaves into the forecast an analysis of the character of war likely to prevail at that time, including such elements as a military strategy for controlling outer space, high level of automation and new sources of energy for weapons systems. Once again, the author has no doubts that after an initial strategic surprise and some operational setbacks, the United States will prevail and gain dominance over outer space for the rest of the century. Other powers, even loyal Poland, will be denied military uses of space, while the United States will reign supreme there, just as it had commanded high seas and air in previous centuries.
Since this is going to be the American century, Friedman puts much effort into explaining the United States – its politics, society, economy, technology and nature as well as the consequences of periodic crises that it goes through. It is therefore quite natural that the most serious challenge will finally emerge at the intersection of domestic shifts and geopolitics. According to Friedman, Mexico will become a rival and a threat of such proportions that even the United States will find it difficult to cope. Mexico is a nation that has access to both most important oceans, which is of utmost significance in Alfred Mahan’s geopolitical theory. Its population is swelling and its economy is growing fast. In addition, it has a substantial demographic and cultural presence in the U.S. (not to mention centuries-old territorial grievances). It is therefore destined to redraw the geopolitical map of North America and, as a result, probably of the rest of the world. The book ends with a feeling of uncertainty about the outcomes of this last confrontation in the next 100 years, leaving it to those who will be closer to the 22nd century to forecast them.
Many readers will probably be reading this book with some incredulity and a large dose of scepticism. Indeed, Friedman defies all established conventional wisdoms and dogmas promoted by mainstream thinkers in security and defence communities worldwide. Many believe that Pax Americana is crumbling, which is why they keep producing books on how, for instance, BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) will call all the shots in a new multipolar world (Fareed Zakaria’s The Post American World is a good example here). China is regarded as a new superpower in the making, which will eventually pose the greatest threat of all (such is the view of many official national security assessments in the United States). The scenario of Russia’s potential collapse, despite its record of state failure, does not convince mainstreamers either: all we do is talk about its resurgence and use of energy supplies as a political weapon. Friedman’s choice of the next key players in geopolitics (Japan, Turkey, Poland and Mexico) would probably be regarded as outlandish by many. After all, just a few months ago U.S. officials expressed concern that Mexico – in Friedman’s forecast, the nation that will become the most formidable geopolitical rival of the United States – was on the edge of becoming a failed state. And the probability of another world war, with one of its major theatres being Europe, is simply beyond the imagination of those born and raised on the continent, which has been traumatised by two world wars.
However, despite the temptation to ridicule it or write it off as a nice piece of strategic fiction, it is necessary that we read this book with an open mind. Many things, which seem to be impossible or unthinkable today, may not be so tomorrow. As Friedman puts it, “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. /…/ the things that appear to be so permanent and dominant at any given moment in history can change with stunning rapidity.” Certainly, this may equally apply to Friedman’s view that America’s dominance will continue. Moreover, the geopolitical framework of analysis, which guides Friedman’s work, contains its own dogmas, conventions and fundamental assumptions, which may well be wrong. For instance, one would be right to argue that everything, including wars, does not happen for the reason of ruthless pursuit of power and interests – the two key themes in any geopolitical account. Fear, identity clashes, misperceptions or a sense of wounded pride can just as well breed confrontation and conflict. Friedman’s forecast, however, operates within the strict boundaries of geopolitical determinism, which limits its value significantly.
Geopolitical analyses and forecasts also tend to underestimate international cooperation, which can be achieved despite inherent geopolitical frictions or fault lines. The fact that Friedman omits this factor in an age when the global security agenda with its manifold pressing issues – from climate change to pandemics and even runaway technologies – has the potential to rally geopolitical allies and foes alike narrows his perspective on the future. Furthermore, as all geopolitical forecasts, it is completely state-centric. Non-state players, which are gaining more influence and greater empowerment, have no place in it. As a good student of history, Friedman should have known from past experience that many empires have been undone exactly by such players. This aspect sneaks into his analysis quite awkwardly and at a most dramatic moment, when the United States are confronted by the ‘enemy within’ – a swelling self-confident Mexican community, eager to redefine political and legal boundaries of the United States. In Friedman’s account, this is what lies at the roots of the most threatening challenge to America, although it has still been squeezed into a geopolitical framework by introducing an assertive Mexico and a rivalry for supremacy in North America. But are the latter factors actually necessary to challenge America’s global dominance? Or will chronic ethno-political unrests and the implosion of federal authority in the southern and south-western parts of the U.S. do the trick?
In spite of the above criticisms, The Next 100 Years is a good example of how to encourage long-term ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking about future developments among policymakers. Even though Friedman’s book represents only one possible scenario – and one that is mostly based on a geopolitical worldview – many of the questions it inevitably provokes are worth serious consideration. It also shows that we may well grow too complacent about the things we believe in, for example, our views that global inter-state wars are a thing of the past or that China or Russia will become new superpowers, rather than collapse in chaos. Having read this book and used it to exercise our strategic imagination, we will definitely be able to avoid a few nasty strategic surprises in the future.

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