Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Next 100 Years, by George Friedman


The title and blurb for this book was interesting enough for me to want to give it a go. Friedman is an American political scientist and founder of his own private intelligence business.

Friedman sees the United States as the dominant global power for the next hundred years. He says that nations go through three stages in their rise and decline: barbarism, civilisation and finally, decadence.

Gore Vidal once joked that the United states went from barbarism to decadence without stopping for civilisation. Friedman has the opposite view. He believes that the US is not in decline, as many on the left like to think, or dream, but rather in an early barbaric, immature period. Europe, he says, or more pointedly, countries like France and Germany, are in a state of decadence. They don't believe in anything. (Sounds like Donald Rumsfeld's derisive line about France being old Europe.)

The basic idea of this book is, by using the intellectual discipline of geopolitics you can basically map the broad outlines of what the future will be like. The discipline of geopolitics considers the many physical factors that make up the characters, and hence destinations, of nation states. Things like where a country is situated, closeness to other nation states, resources etc. etc., all determine the character of a country.

More interestingly, Friedman implies these factors over ride the democratic determination of the voters themselves. No matter who the US votes in as president, they will be unable to change the country's 'destiny'. In this case, the US pursuing its role as a global hegemon.

This raises rather curious questions. Friedman paints a picture of a militarily and technologically dominant US, controlling everything on the earth’s surface from space. The way it’s painted here, you get the impression of this militaristic behemoth, connected in some way to a democratically elected polity.

Democracies, you would think, were supposed to work like this: the people elect governments to do what they want. It turns out democratic processes in the end don't count for much. What really drives democracies like the United States is a mixture of things like destiny, the military and technolgy.

I don't mean to sound cynical about Friedman's theory, because it's an interesting one, and one that has been discussed by other people, even the likes of John Pilger. That author has long said that no matter how liberal the president elected, the US always pursues its program of global power. Nonetheless, it's an interesting problem to contemplate.

Anyway, that all aside, what's the book like? Well, the first half I found interesting and absorbing. Friedman is a smart and learned guy about international affairs. He makes lots of interesting points. Because my knowledge of international politics is limited, I can't say whether what Friedman says is right or wrong, but it seemed he made a strong case for his opinion on global history and contemporary events.

That's the good part.

Then you get deep into the second part of the book, and whoa! Things just seem to enter the realm of science fiction. In one chapter on the future of war technology Friedman calls a space centre a 'Battle Station', then informs us he's called it that simply because he thinks it's a 'cool name'. Bad move. It makes the author look like a teenage kid getting excited about a new toy. Then again, he is describing the US as being in an adolescent phase. Maybe Friedman is a part of that adolescence.

The trouble with The Next 100 Years is, the further the book predicts out, the more you wonder how on earth can we know what major wars will happen in 2080? It just seems utterly ridiculous.

Friedman says at the beginning of the book that if you'd told people in 1950 what life would be like in 2000, they would have thought you mad. In the author’s words, 'common sense' cannot be used to predict the future. But if we as people cannot employ common sense, then what do we have? Friedman gives us his science fiction fantasy.

It then comes down to this. You can only take the second part of the book as a kind of subconscious dream of the author. Indeed. the second part of the book reads like a Donald Rumsfeld wet dream. It's hard not to think that the author simply believes in America's right to rule the world, unquestioned, which is pretty scary.

I must admit, I did find some of the sections describing future technological innovation as utterly enticing. No wonder the author gets so intoxicated. How will we get our energy in the future, once the oil runs out and cuts in carbon emissions are agreed upon by all countries? Answer: massive solar panels in space that will suck up massive amounts of energy and then shoot it back to earth. The bad news for greenies like me is that this energy will be used for war. Bummer!

George Friedman has written other books on the future of war technology. These parts of The Next 100 Years I found fascinating, and would certainly look at pursuing some of his other writings.

This book to me reads like a visceral fantasy of unrivalled American power into the next 100 years.

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