The Magazine

Crystal Ballplay

When a futurist looks to the future, anything is possible and war is imminent.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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The Next 100 Years

A Forecast for the 21st Century

by George Friedman

Doubleday, 272 pp., $25.95

Forecasting several decades, not to mention a century, into the future has commonly belonged to the realm of science fiction. And there are, indeed, portions of this book that seem to belong there. But George Friedman's speculative look at the future, whatever its faults, is mostly rational, reasonable, and lacking in cant. Friedman, the founder of a private intelligence agency, is a specialist in geopolitics, the analysis of geography, history, and social science. Geopolitics focuses especially on real or potential future conflict: Friedman's analysis concentrates on looking at what he says are "powerful long-term shifts taking place in full view of the world."

As he suggests, those "long-term shifts" have led Friedman to some interesting conclusions. Want to know who-besides the ever-dominant America-will be among the global top dogs in 2100? Turkey, Poland, and Mexico.

Friedman's most interesting insight might be thought of as pure common sense. "The most brilliant leader of Iceland," he writes, "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, Friedman asserts, "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." Rather, he says, it is about "impersonal forces that constrain nations and human beings and compel them to act in certain ways."

The impersonal forces that led to the rise of Rome or the United States are, in Friedman's view, simply immune to the temporary vagaries of wise or foolish national leadership. Beware, though, of overgeneralizing; Friedman insists that the only thing one can be sure of in predicting the future is that "common sense will be wrong."

Despite those caveats, Friedman admits to a bias. He is, he says, America-centric, and the book is clearly written from an American point of view. In preempting charges of parochialism or chauvinism, Friedman makes the obvious point that the United States is, in economic terms, the pivot around which most of the world moves. Americans account for only 4 percent of the global population, yet they consume about 26 percent of global goods and services. The GDP of the entire world was, in 2007, about $54 trillion; but America's GDP for that year was $14 trillion, an amazing 26 percent of the total. The American economy was larger than the four next-largest economies combined: Japan, China, Germany, and Great Britain.

When it comes to military power, the disparity is even more startling. The United States is still the world's dominant superpower. In sea power alone, Friedman notes, the U.S. Navy fields more ships than the remainder of the world's largest navies-combined.

Why, then, does America seem afflicted by a permanent sense of impending doom? So many Americans seem convinced that our best days are past and that we are on the brink of national disaster. Friedman suggests that this is an immature basic culture expressing itself: "The manic combination of exultant hubris and profound gloom." He dismisses these attitudes as "an extended adolescent identity crisis" and says that they demonstrate the fact that America is just not yet "fully civilized." In fact, in several places, he says that America is "barbaric" while Europe, by contrast, was barbaric in the 16th century but has proceeded through maturity into decadence.

It is all very stimulating. Early on Friedman alludes to the two great originals of geopolitical thinking: Englishman Sir Halford Mackinder, with his "world island" interpretation of global power ("he who controls the heartland-Eurasia-controls the world island"), and Alfred Thayer Mahan, the American naval officer who wrote The Influence of Sea Power on History, which deeply influenced Theodore Roosevelt and was bedside reading for Kaiser Wilhelm II. Mahan's thesis was that control of the "rimland," coastal areas and ocean chokepoints accessible to naval power, would most effectively lead to global dominance.