Book Review: The Next Hundred Years, A Forecast for the 21st Century, by George Friedman

First, a landmark book heralded The End of History. Then, another book defiantly announced The Return of History. Now, a new book depicts the Future of History. George Friedman's The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century is a confirmation that history indeed continues to unfold and a speculative, but utterly persuasive, forecast of the future.

Friedman, the founder of StratFor, a global intelligence provider, takes his perceptive grasp of contemporary trends and describes the next century on the basis of traditional geopolitics. Eschewing the recourse to realist or liberal schools of international relations theory or the impulse to elaborate on the post-American nature of globalization, Friedman instead unabashedly predicts another century of American hegemony. For all the continued emphasis on reviving the Atlantic Alliance or preparing for the rise of Asia, Friedman contends North America is the pivot of international relations, whereby dominance of the continent is critical but interestingly not necessarily preordained for the United States.

In stark contrast to the many observers asserting globalization entails the erosion of the nation-state, Friedman centers his argument on its continued potency. Moreover, Friedman minimizes the anxiety arising from the alleged complexity of managing international affairs in the future, arguing the fundamentals of geography and culture persist and bound the likely courses of action for many nations, including the United States. Finally, Friedman acknowledges nation-states pursuing geopolitical aims cannot simply be extrapolated on a linear basis; in his view, history is subject to the historical "curvilinearity" of geopolitical interactions. Cumulatively, these premises are the basis for Friedman's convincing and intriguingly detailed vision of the next hundred years.

Friedman readily admits the speculative nature of the exercise, but, per the above premises, his projections merit serious consideration, primarily because the last century similarly defied easy prediction and any objections to his vision would similarly based in speculation.

To reinforce this point, Friedman opens the book begins with a brisk recounting of the preceding century in tranches of 20 years. As Friedman notes, in 1900, Europe was poised for a generation of peace and prosperity, glittering with thriving economies and imposing empires. By 1920, Europe instead tore itself apart in a vicious continental war. The countryside was in ruins, empires had been overthrown, Germany was an enfeebled republic, and communism established a ruthless dictatorship in Russia. Twenty years later, Germany was master of the continent, evicted Britain from the continent and was preparing to establish a Eurasian empire at the expense of Russia.

Two decades later, the United States had become the dominant Western power and was leading liberal European nations, including a newly democratic Germany against a bloc of satellites beholden to Communist Russia. In 1980, America was reeling from a loss in Vietnam, humiliation in Iran, and economic chaos on the homefront, while the USSR seem poised to consolidate its hold on nations around the world. By 2000, the USSR was history, the United States was a global superpower on the order of Rome and at the forefront of new era of peaceful and bountiful globalization. Of course, twenty-one months later, jihadists struck American symbols of power and the luster of 2000's promise began to recede into memory.

Again, Friedman recounts the century not to undermine his predictions, but to underscore the need to, as he urges, "be practical and expect the impossible". Despite the turbulence of the past century, Friedman asserts continuity can be divined from a key geopolitical development dating back to 1871 -- the founding of Imperial Germany. Given the circumstances of Imperial Germany's arrival, Europe was bound to contend with its location; facing hostile powers on eastern (France) and western (Russia) borders, Germany continuously maneuvered to reorder the balance of power in their favor.

Even after Germany was finally emasculated by the 1945-1949 occupation, major powers still found themselves preoccupied with Germany, ultimately establishing the NATO alliance, to (in memorable terms) “keep the Germans down, the Americans in, and the Russians out.” Even amidst the euphoria of the Berlin Wall coming down, responsible leaders still hesitated to sanction the nation's reunification.

Seeking a similar geopolitical marker for the next century, Friedman identifies one markedly less recognizable than the first German unification, but just as significant. According to Friedman, in 1980, transpacific trade equaled that of transatlantic trade and was never lower thereafter.

While seemingly indicative of Asia's increasing involvement the world economy, Friedman instead surmises the event signals the shift in importance from the European continent to the North American continent. Europe had been the dominant continent for over 500 years, but with the preponderance of trade now passing to nations poised to capitalize on trade in both oceans (namely North American ones), the days of the European age were ending.

As the dominant North American power, the United States is now poised for new heights, despite contemporary commentary to the opposite.

The current locus of attention – the Middle East – will decline in importance as the United States campaigns in the region will neutralize Islamic extremists and native governments will do the rest in the aftermath of jihadists' defeat in Iraq.1

Russia will post a brief comeback, but ultimately, its deteriorating demograpy and failure to diversify its economy will preclude any enduring threat. China, everyone's favorite prospect to be the next Great Power, will falter because of the massive imbalance between the rising coast and impoverished interior, historically this civilization's Achilles Heel. Unable to resolve this inequality, China will again become unstable.

Friedman's nominees for ascendancy include Japan, Turkey, Poland, and Mexico. The first three figure heavily in Friedman's scenario for the majority of the century, while the last one impacts the century's close.

As Friedman notes, Japan remains the second largest economy in the world with an enormous and adaptive population. Japan, while pacifist now, will not remain so and will have to compensate for an aging and stabilizing population. Resistant to immigration, Japan will again seek expansion abroad to obtain the necessary labor force to maintain its standard of living, while also remaining a technological pioneer.

Turkey is another major economic power (currently 17th) with a large population, and historically has been Islam's premiere power. Poland is already the focus of American attention in reconfiguring European security arrangements. With Russia re-asserting itself and western European nations effectively “debellicized,” as Colin S. Gray has aptly noted, an economically and demographically robust nation like Poland is well-positioned to benefit from American support.2 Moreover, if Russia declines as he predicts, these powers will be poised to capitalize on the ensuing vacuum.

For Friedman, this potential dynamic provides the basis for his most auspicious predictions. Once erstwhile American allies, Japan and Turkey will seize the opportunity to expand at the expense of Russia. While expansion at the expense of a former adversary would be a natural solution to perennial security challenges, the United States will object because their efforts would result in the domination of the Eurasian landmass by hostile powers, America's gravest security fear. As before, the bid for dominance over Eurasia will only be resolved by war.

Again, Friedman acknowledges a US-Japan-Turkey war seems far-fetched but, as he also noted, so did nearly all the events of the twentieth century twenty years before their occurrence.

In the context of war, Friedman submits his other ambitious predictions.

Friedman argues the militarization of space is inevitable. In the same manner international commerce demands maritime forces, the increasingly technological nature of economic interactions will require space-based forces. Friedman paints a futuristic picture of aerospace forces, geosynchronous “Battle Stars,” and hypersonic strike capabilities. Petroleum will no longer be the lifeblood of combat logistics as technological innovations in solar power and portable batteries will permit armies to channel energy directly from space. Almost as an homage to Robert Heinlein's “Starship Troopers,” Friedman describes corps of technologically enhanced troopers both fast and lethal.

And, of course, America will win. Friedman argues Japan and Turkey will make the same mistake other American adversaries have had, going for the knockdown instead of the knockout. When America is roused, it lashes out fiercely. One only need consult with the Japanese, Vietnamese, and Islamic extremists.

Ultimately, however, Friedman predicts this future mid-century war will be several orders of magnitude less bloody than World War II – oddly enough, the one forecast not easily accepted.

Recent wars (Persian Gulf War, Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq) have indeed been less bloody, but the conflicts have not been predicated on bids to reorder standing security relationships. The likelihood powers committing forces in the name of their countries' expansive geopolitical aims will be reticent in their use of force is low. Precision weaponry and technological proficiency aside, a military's reputation for fearsomeness is just as effective and can only be achieved at the cost of the opponent's blood.

In the end, triumph in a major world war again sets the stage for an American “golden era.” As before, American industry capitalizes on military innovations, this time solar power transmission from space, and perfects it for commercial use, providing the basis for unprecedented prosperity and dominance over the world.

This golden era comes to end as Mexico finally rears its ascendant head on the horizon. As noted previously, Friedman offers Mexico as a long-term prediction.

By the latter half of the twenty-first century, Friedman posits Mexico will be one of the top ten economies. Friedman notes Mexico is unlike other petroleum producers in that it has diversified the economy. Moreover, as a North American state, Mexico is similarly positioned to capitalize on the advantages of oceanic trade in two directions, especially if its northern neighbor is preoccupied with contenders in Eurasia.

Separately, Friedman notes, as many other commentators do, the populations of major advanced countries are stabilizing. Accordingly, Friedman contends their governments will be exploring more, not less immigration in the future; in the case of the United States, current arguments over immigration will be overtaken by growing labor requirements. However, Friedman also notes the potential for peril in pursuing unrestrained Mexican immigration.

Like Samuel Huntington before him, Friedman asserts the nature of Mexican immigration is qualitatively different because of the home nation's proximity. Moreover, the affinity for the mother country is compounded by latent resentment over the hostility Mexicans feel over the cession of vast territories in the mid-1800s. Friedman sees a burgeoning Mexifornia as the basis for continued divided loyalties of Mexicans living in America and a potentially major clash between an ascendant Mexico and the United States.

In the end, North America, the new center of gravity in international affairs, has been spared the internecine conflict the previous center, Europe, endured for 500 years. At the end of the twenty-first century, North America may no longer be so fortunate.

Can such wildly original forecasts from an esteemed and informed observer be easily refuted? Only with equally speculative predictions with the same caveats Friedman has admitted. If unverifiable predictions are permitted to stand uncontested, how can they be used to inform choices when facing challenges of the present day?

In discussing American grand strategy, Friedman characterizes it as successful (even it is not purposeful). Friedman explains American grand strategy is more a recourse to action traceable to the nation's culture and instincts, not one necessarily tied to the specific designs of particular statesmen. In America's case, Friedman simply notes America has consistently pursued related objectives – domination of North America, influence over the Western Hemisphere, control of maritime approaches in the hemisphere, and mastery of international waters to dominate the global economy.

Over time, this has led America to intervene in wars in Eurasia – not to defeat specific nations or ideologies, but preclude the landmass's domination by a single power. If a single Eurasian power emerged, then inevitably its appetites would turn toward the American Western Hemisphere.

In a crude sense, American strategy mirrors ancient Sparta's treatment of its helot population. Spartan slaves, the helots, were thoroughly oppressed, but Sparta would annually declare war on them anyway to ensure the population remained docile. However, the approach also limited Spartan expansion. The small Spartan population could dominate the helots and the Peloponnesus, but not the entirety of Greece.

Similarly, the United States can wage war halfway around the world, but doing so strains the nation's ability to address more pressing global issues. American decision-makers should balance the impetus to defeat the enemy with other more critical priorities.

On another front, Friedman's focus is America's continuing domination of world affairs; the book does not examine the corresponding impact on another century of imperium would be on American republicanism.

In the infancy of American superpowerdom, the nation had to confront the perils of an imperial presidency. The immense expansion in the executive branch inevitably produced a series of major constitutional crises. Balance was ultimately restored temporarily only because the nation's major adversary collapsed. When the interregnum ended, the executive branch's growth in power once again upended domestic politics as well as the balance of constitutional powers.

The American Constitution has endured civil war and economic chaos, but presiding over an empire for just sixty years permitted its flexibility to become an invitation for opportunism at best and illiberalism at worst; what would another hundred years permit?

In conclusion, Friedman's Next Hundred Years provides provocative and invaluable insights in a world defying easy prediction.


1 Interestingly, Friedman provides a clever inversion of a popular argument. While many argue Al Qaeda succeeds by not losing, Friedman counters “The United States doesn't need to win wars,” as long as the enemy's aims are disrupted. With Al Qaeda close to being routed in Iraq and left only the paltry prize of Afghanistan, the jihadist threat will eventually succumb to local allies bolstered by the U.S.

2 In a presentation on the book, Friedman has highlighted the impact American security attention can have on a nation. Germany and Japan should have remained destitute after launching World War II, but American security objectives necessitated their revival. Similarly, South Korea had been the vassal of other powers and economic backwater for centuries until American attention transformed it into the economic powerhouse it is today.

No comments: