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.

In Friedman's view, however, the 21st century equivalent of sea power will be space power, in which the United States will have preeminence, but not overwhelming dominance. In a segment that does resemble science fiction, Friedman posits a world war in the middle of this century between the United States and its allies Poland, Britain, and China and an opposing adversarial coalition of Turkey and Japan, along with reluctant ally Germany. Only America's superb industrial power will enable the nation to recover from its losses and defeat the Turkish-Japanese coalition. When victory finally comes, moreover, the United States will wisely not insist on unconditional surrender but merely the limiting of the enemy coalition's ability to expand its sphere of influence!

In this engrossing, extended rumination on the future of geopolitics, there are some interesting predictions, and some that seem surprising. Mexico, Friedman believes, will have an economy among the top 10 of the world in 2100 and will want to reclaim the territories that it lost to the young United States. Friedman wholly dismisses the possibility that China will emerge as a superpower: Internal economic and political forces, he says, will cause China to fragment. Russia will also go into decline as the expansion of Eastern European powers like Poland effectively moves the Russian border further east. Then a renascent Turkey will make its move into the Caucasus and Central Asia.

There are some curious omissions. Friedman nowhere allows for the possible triumph, regionally or nationally, of some new political ideology such as fascism or communism. He brusquely dismisses the notion that Islamo-
fascism has any more life in it. He pays no attention at all to the possibility that Europe may become Islamicized by the end of the current century.

To be sure, Friedman is modest enough to admit that, in many details, he will probably be wrong. But of course, he has every reason to be modest: His 1991 bestseller was entitled The Coming War With Japan.

David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Delusion of Disbelief: Why the New Atheism is a Threat to Your Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.