The Shape of Things to Come

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George Friedman is the leader of a strategic think-tank that forecasts macro-global trends for governments and Fortune 500 companies. He tries to take a long view of so-called “geopolitical” trends in order to forecast likely political alliances and their effects. But while predictions of particular events add color to his book, the goal is to forecast general trends, as if he were summarizing a 100-year game of chess or, perhaps more aptly, the classic war game Risk.

Overarching trends include aging populations of developed nations, the slowdown in population growth worldwide, the pace of technological innovation and — most important — the influences of geography and history that have created the present political landscape. Among his more provocative arguments, Friedman makes a compelling case that Russia will continue to decline as a world power and suggests, from cogent historical evidence, that China will continue to be a fractious society that is too large to manage.

Friedman’s central prediction may be good news for Americans — although some of his assumptions are bad news for the individual freedom that Americans prize. He begins with the assertion that each country has a “grand strategy.” Much as individuals pursue activities that are in their best interest, countries try to maximize their political and economic positions. One problem with this personification of a 21st century “manifest destiny” is that it seems to sanction the ability of political leaders to control the populace for the benefit of the “grand strategy.” Already, technological advancements in weapons, surveillance, and payments systems appear to be leading the world toward a command-and-control society, not one based on individual freedom.

Nevertheless, by examining historical trends and alliances, Friedman pro- vides a strong argument that the United States is only in its adolescent stage as a world power, while the importance of Western Europe continues to wane. The United States will continue to be dominant, since no other country will be able

to develop substantial naval power to challenge the American position in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. The next frontier essential for military control will be space, and the author predicts U.S. dominance in that sphere as well. No argument here. One look at the U.S. position in telecommunications, satellites, and the cost involved with initiating a space program, and very few serious contenders emerge. Though President Obama is cutting certain features of the space program, major advances with regard to private space travel have resulted from American investments, such as the X Prize Foundation, Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, and startup companies such as XCOR Aerospace.

While the author provides a guess that Turkey, Poland, and Japan will become the main players in geopolitics by the mid-21st century, the key to America’s continuing dominance will be its relationship with Mexico. Mexico, he claims, greatly resembles the United States in the 1930s. At some point we can expect Mexico’s problem with organized crime to diminish. The bigger issue will become inward and outward migration across the southwest U.S. border. Given Mexico’s increasing population of young people, it doesn’t take a genius to predict that by the 2030s massive immigration will be exploited to support Social Security, Medicare, and whatever other social programs the United States continues to expand at the expense of individual responsibility. Friedman believes that the south- western states are very likely to return to Mexican control at some point in the next 100 years, possibly as a result of politicians of Mexican descent serving in the U.S. Congress.

Many of Friedman’s scenarios are plausible. Yet he pays little attention to several factors that could affect peace, liberty, and economic prosperity.

First, the idea that each country has a “grand strategy” oozes testosterone. There is very little heed for the female viewpoint here; the only real mention of women’s role in society has to do with traditional versus nontraditional family structures. Yet throughout the developed nations, women play an increasingly important role in politics.

Second, considering the author’s contention that history plays a significant role in predicting the future, there is surprisingly little mention of the historical influence of religion. Much of what has shaped geopolitics over the past 2,000 years has been the result of the spread of religion. The author pre- dicts that the battle between the United States and Islamic jihadists will be short- lived, but he provides no reason before he quickly drops the subject, other than to predict that Turkey will be Islam’s geopolitical world center.

Third, many areas of the world are sparsely mentioned or completely omitted in Friedman’s presentation. Canada, Australia, and India barely merit notice; there is no discussion of Africa; and the Middle East is some- how regarded as nearly insignificant. Friedman pays a good deal of attention to emerging stock markets and economies, but it hardly seems likely — as Friedman’s book implies — that three of the four BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) will fail to be important political forces during the next 100 years. Only Brazil merits his attention as a potential world power, and even then not until the mid-2050s.

Friedman’s book is an American centric application of game theory, emphasizing what the United States needs to do if it is to survive and pros- per in the 21st century. As I read it, I had the recurring thought that there is prob- ably someone in Russia creating his own hundred-year plan. And if, as Friedman suggests, Russia is indeed declining as a world power, it will likely try some unorthodox move to keep itself in the game. The last time I looked, Russia still had a few good chess players.

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