Stuck In The Present


With futurists like Jacques Attali, Fareed Zakaria and Philip Bobbit all predicting the end of US supremacy, North Americans must really like George Friedman. His new book The Next 100 Years — an ode to enduring American muscle — debuted at number five on the New York Times bestseller list, and nearly 100,000 copies of the book are circulating the globe.

The attention is not unwarranted. Friedman is an accomplished political analyst. His private intelligence company STRATFOR, dubbed by Barrons magazine as "the Shadow CIA", is familiar to corporate executives and Washington strategists alike, and Friedman’s one and 10-year forecasts have brought him a lot of deserved attention. His assessment of geopolitics past and present in The Next 100 Years is enlightening, a welcome antidote to the seat-of-your-pants minutiae of 24-hour news.

Friedman uses his short-range forecast methods to make long-range predictions. "A lot of people say it can’t be done," he says self-assuredly.

And it turns out a lot of people are right. In The Next 100 Years, Friedman forecasts the 21st century with a 20th century mindset — and a narrow one at that. Here’s a quick wrap of his 21st century:

The United States will rule supreme.

The US-Islamist war is already ending, and will hardly be remembered.

China will collapse like a flan in a cupboard, torn apart by internal divisions between the impoverished interior and the rich coastal provinces. The US will try to bolster it to make it a counterweight to the Russians.

There will be another Cold War between Russia and the US which will result in the collapse of Russia.

By 2050, the world’s population will decline dramatically.

Climate change? Fuhgeddaboutit. By the second half of the century, two forces will combine to "moot" global warming — population decline and the dominant use of space-based solar energy.

Three new major powers will emerge: Turkey, ruling the Islamic world; Japan, whose history of militarism will preclude it from remaining a pacifist power; and Poland, which will become the leading power in a coalition of states facing the Russians.

Japan, Turkey and the US will battle for supremacy in space.

When its baby boomers are all retired and its population is in decline, the United States will not only reduce restrictions on immigration, but start paying people to move there.

Mexico will emerge as a mature, balanced economy with a stable population, and will rank among the top six or seven powers in the world. By 2080, Mexico will have a serious confrontation with the United States, which likely won’t end until 2100.

"Much of what I’ve said here may seem hard to fathom," writes Friedman.

Actually George, except for that bit about climate change being a non-issue, not much of it is hard to fathom at all. That’s the problem with this forecast. Friedman says "Be practical. Expect the impossible", yet none of his theories are out of step with trends that are already in train. I’d like to believe that the next century will continue as George predicts, but I have a feeling my grandmother, having seen the great changes that took place in the last century, would tell me that’s foolish.

I met Friedman on a rainy afternoon at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. He is an intimidating figure, not least because he bears an uncanny resemblance to a recent leader of the free world. He’s short, a little stockier, with grey hair, those same close-set eyes and his laugh is eerily familiar. He lives in Texas.

Essentially, Friedman is your classic Cold War warrior. A refugee from Communist Hungary, he once designed computerised war games, and his academic life focussed largely on Marxism, particularly in examining the US/Soviet relationship from a military perspective. When the Soviet threat ended in 1989, Friedman started eyeballing the horizon for America’s next arch-nemesis, and published The Coming War with Japan in 1991.

The flaws in Friedman’s divination methods — which had festival punters interested, amused and agitated — can essentially be boiled down to one key fault: his close-minded obsession with geopolitics. Geopolitics totally dominates Friedman’s field of reference, to the exclusion of several other mitigating factors: paradigm shifts, radical technological breakthroughs, and, incredibly, climate change.

For Friedman’s predictions to come true, the 21st century would need to progress without any major disturbances in the aforementioned categories. According to the "black swan" theory, that is almost impossible — the increased frequency of unpredictable, game-changing events (World War I and the internet, for example) illustrate the severe limitations of using the past to predict the future.

The success of Friedman’s theories hinges on one superior paradigm remaining static: nationalism.

"In our time," he writes, "national identity matters a great deal. Geopolitics teaches that the relationships between these nations is a vital dimension of human life, and that means war is ubiquitous."

"Our time" in terms of nationalism has only been the past century. In 1900, most people — aside from a few Europeans, who invented nationalism — had little concept of their nationality. Few, notably Karl Marx, had any clue that nationalism would come to define the 20th century, much less underpin the two world wars, and later, the Balkan conflict.

It’s not the fact that Friedman bases his theories on nationalism that bothers me, but rather that he presents its enduring dominance as incontrovertible. In the recent A Brief History of the Future, Jacques Attali predicts that sovereign states and nations will give way to a "super empire" tenuously coordinated by a few powers, and by 2050, coalesce around a market that is planetary and stateless. That may sound a bit nuts, but at least it takes into account the evolving state of nationalism — to forecast the 21st century without doing so is negligent.

All this focus on "ubiquitous war" also agitates my conspiracy gland, which finds it pretty hard to resist the notion that certain vested interests, ie the military, will be especially supportive of Friedman’s new century, given it signals a continuation of the colossal profits the military industrial complex reaped in the 20th.

Since Friedman saw fit to address the future risk of climate change only in his epilogue, it seems a fitting note on which to end my interview with him. In the two paragraphs he devotes to the subject, he quotes Marx as saying, "Mankind does not pose problems for itself for which it does not already have a solution." He believes this will be true of global warming, which he says will be "moot" by two forces which will emerge halfway through this century: population decline and space-based solar power.

Since there is a generally accepted consensus that any mitigation of global warming would have to start well before 2050 — and many believe that it’s already too late to avoid major climatic disruption — I wanted to know how George came to this surprising conclusion.

"All the people publishing those reports are obviously moving and changing where they live," Friedman replied, sounding a little irritated.

I must have looked confused. "I take a look at the scientists that make these predictions, and I look at how they’re changing their lifestyle," he explained. "As an intelligence guy, the method I use is not engaging in discussions that I’m not qualified to have opinions on. I don’t know whether the science is right or not. I take a look at a man who says to me, ‘In 20 years, we’re going to have X, Y and Z’, and I see if they’re moving, if they’re leaving the areas that are dangerous or what."

"So are you saying that by that measure, that you doubt … "

"We’ve just settled the issue that there’s human-caused climate change. The question of time frame is far from settled," he interrupted.

"But there’s general consensus that there’s something already … "

"There’s general consensus that China is a great power. The whole thing that I’ve been pointing to you is that I don’t go by general consensus."

Okay then.

Friedman continued. "The weakest problem with all of these models that you see is all the change is negative. I used to design war games, so I do military modelling. I’ve never seen a model where all the outcomes are negative," he said. "You know what you call those models? Bullshit. How do you have a model with no trade-offs — no positive outcomes anywhere in the world?"

At this point I started getting the wrap-it-up signal from Friedman’s press assistant, so I wasn’t able to push him any further. But I think I know the real reason Friedman doesn’t include climate change in The Next 100 Years: he doesn’t know how. His strict geopolitical framework can’t accommodate disruptive change. If he addresses climate change, a shift away from nation structures or radical inventions, his future quickly starts to unravel.

Overall, the most disappointing thing about Friedman’s 21st century is that it’s so, well, predictable. Much of what he predicts is already talked about so commonly, it feels almost overdue. Here’s my prediction: the geopolitical world Friedman knows and loves will, in the near future, become so last century.

But what do I know? I think John Maynard Keynes summed up the future better than anyone when he famously said, "In the long run, we are all dead."

Now that’s something you can bet your house on.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.