Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Review: The Next 100 Years

I picked this book up in the middle of Barnes and Noble while taking a walk on a Saturday afternoon with not much else to do. I almost immediately wrote the book off due to my (still firm) belief that any prediction about something like international politics in the next few years, let alone the next hundred of them, is outright impossible to do with any precision.* I decided to pick it up, however, since it sounded like it would make for an entertaining piece of fiction about futuristic warfare and geopolitics.

He may not have convinced me that he'll be able to predict anything in the long run, but I was impressed by just about everything else. The author, George Friedman, is incredibly knowledgeable about everything from American academic and cultural movements (i.e. pragmatism and feminism, each of which plays a large role in his assessment of future conflicts) to the relationships between geography, economic power and military dominance. Most impressively, he's suggested a number of scenarios that run completely counter to most people's intuition about what will happen next and how it will happen. I'll sum up his main points briefly, focusing mostly on his ideas about the forces that have been shaping the world in the past century rather than the specifics of his predictions, since this is where I believe the real meat of the book lies.

Friedman suggests that what we are entering into right now is distinctively the "American Age"; not so much that he believes that the United States will remain the hegemon for several centuries (although he believes its power will not be endangered until at least the turn of the next century) but that where Atlantic Europe was the economic and cultural center of Civilization for hundreds of years, North America, bordering two of the world's major oceans and practically invulnerable to invasion, will be that center of gravity for a very long time to come and that whoever dominates the continent will dominate the world.

Friedman rightfully points out that the GDP of the United States is still greater than the next several countries after it and that despite constituting less than 5% of the world's population, it still accounts for around a quarter of the world's economic output. He attributes American dominance to a number of historical factors such as its domination of North America, the tremendous power of the U.S. Navy after World War II and the spread of the American philosophy of Pragmatism, characterized by the invention and spread of computing. Pragmatism, he says, is a distinctly American philosophy that praises ideas for their practical application and scorns the metaphysical, which although being directly at odds with much of the world, also gave birth to inventions such as the computer, which vastly expanded America's cultural and economic sphere of influence.

Friedman's general assessment of the conflicts happen today and his predictions of future conflicts are drawn from his knowledge of Pragmatism among other ideologies. He attributes America's continuing "culture wars" as well as the current conflict between America and the Islamic world to ideological fault lines. In particular, the spread of Pragmatism has created resentment in those cultures which were at odds with it, but more strongly he cites the various movements and struggles coming from the ideological conflict over the status of the family, which he sees as inevitable in the face of the massive technological advancements in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Several advances drastically changed the ways in which families and individuals behaved. Rapid advances in medicine brought down infant mortality to the point that families no longer needed to have very many children to ensure financial safety. In fact, as the 20th century progressed, having a lot of kids became economic suicide for many families as economic conditions demanded a more educated workforce and parents started having to send their kids to school for longer periods of time. Meanwhile, not having as many children, women for once had a lot more time on their hands and finally had the opportunity to work full time. Divorce also became much less financially dangerous.

Of course, many continued to hold very traditional family values, especially in the early 20th century when the technological and economic revolution had not fully set in. This has since caused a massive conflict between socially conservative institutions and an increasing number of individuals who have shed socially conservative values for a more opportunistic lifestyle. Friedman sees this as being not only at the heart of the American culture war, but also at the heart of the conflict between radical Islam and the West, as evidenced by Osama Bin Laden's letters to America.

These set up many of the initial fault-lines in the world that will erupt in the future. Other fault lines include Russia's geopolitical imperative to regain the status of the now defunct Soviet Union due to a demographic crisis and an increasingly hostile Eastern Europe, the shared cultural borderland between the United States and Mexico, which fully erupts near the end of the century due to Mexico's new found economic and cultural clout in the American Southwest, and the emergence of Turkey and Japan as world powers with spheres of influence in the Islamic bloc and coastal China respectively. I should also note that Friedman believes that China is due to fragment within the next couple of decades, suggesting that its economic growth is too fragile (a la Japan in the 1980s, the then feared competitor to the U.S.) and its politics too unstable.

There's quite a lot going on in this book, so I've omitted a lot and would like to get at his main points. Friedman doesn't concern himself with global warming or the current financial meltdown. For the former, he sees a drop in world population (and thus material demand) and the emergence of new technology as more than enough to solve it. For the latter, he sees the current crisis as very nasty but ultimately nothing more than another case of the world's economic balance correcting itself. I'm a bit skeptical on these points, but I should note that he doesn't believe there will be no crises ahead. He believes that immigration policy will take a 180 degree turn in the middle of the 21st century as steadily declining populations in the West create a massive labor shortage. He believes that the opposite will happen in 2080, causing the United States to repatriate many Mexican-Americans and creating a divisive split in a largely Hispanic America.

His main point, however, is that there are in fact static forces that allow for some degree of prediction. The geographical and demographic tensions between cultures and nations are relatively fixed and will ultimately be the backdrop for conflicts emerging from ancient rivalries. America's continued control of the seas (and eventually space) mean that it's convenient for most of the world to be complicit and in return enter the world economy (or, "the American system") under U.S. protection.

The United States' geopolitical objectives will also remain the same; to maintain dominance of North America, to control the world's oceans and to not allow any regional hegemon to emerge on any continent (but really, only Eurasia matters, because the geography of South America, East Asia and Africa don't allow for this sort of a thing.) The two current wars fought today (in which he has two kids serving overseas) are a cost-effective way to disrupt a region that Al-Qaeda was trying to unite against the West. With a civil war brewing in Iraq and the gulf states horrified at America's actions, another Caliphate is unlikely to happen, he says. For Friedman, his outlook on foreign policy will define the international system in the American age.

Although the future is far from written, whether the randomness come from free-will or a lack of knowledge; Friedman is right in saying that in fact many major forces are static and the outcomes of many scenarios might just be predictable. The one wild-card where I seriously disagree with him is technology, which relies on very random and severe jumps that open up entire opportunities. It seems presumptuous, and too in line with conventional wisdom, to say that space flight, robotics and genetics will advance in some predictable way and define the balance of power in the 21st century. That, in my opinion, is reason enough to distrust his prediction, however well informed it may be.

Most importantly, he has little opinion on any leader now or in the future. America is in a state of manic-depression, he says, blaming its supposedly imminent decline on the actions of past presidents and bitterly divided between exuberance and gloom about our current one. But, he suggests, leaders don't really have all that much say. As he describes it, world politics are like a game of Chess (please, bear with the cliche for a minute) in which many moves may be possible, but if you understand the game well, then there are fewer and fewer moves that actually make sense; however much it might seem to the contrary. That is, with the exception of that one amazing and unexpected move by the grand master that turns the entire game on its head; but I don't possibly see how Friedman can fully account for that.

*That is to say that yes, you can guess that something's going to be happen and be right about it, but that doesn't mean you've predicted it. Thus my saying "with any precision"; I'll believe in these kinds of predictions if someone can show me a consistent level of accuracy over time.