The Next 100 years: Back to the future

The first thing that strikes you is that Friedman goes completely against the conventional wisdom of the day.

Zarrar Khuhro January 06, 2011

Prediction is, by definition, an inexact science. Inherent biases, an unpredictable environment and chaos theory all conspire to turn even the most succinct analysis into utter drivel. In the hands of an amateur, the risk of things going horribly wrong is even greater.

Luckily, George Friedman is no amateur; as the founder and CEO of Stratfor, a private ‘global intelligence company’ once referred to as the ‘shadow CIA’,  Friedman’s counsel is sought by the world’s top corporations, analysts and government organisations. In fact, Stratfor was one of the organisations targeted for infiltration by Russian spies earlier this year. In attempting to provide a forecast for the 21st century, Friedman is aware of the pitfalls, and at the very outset cautions readers that he does not have a crystal ball. What he does have, however, is a determination to see the pattern beneath the disorder of history and to then ‘anticipate what events, trends and technology that order will bring forth.’

Reading The Next 100 Years, the first thing that strikes you is that Friedman goes completely against the conventional wisdom of the day. To him, China is not so much a roaring dragon as a paper tiger. Friedman argues that while Chinese accomplishments of the past few decades are staggering in their own right, they are not enough. To him, the only way China can control the inevitable political fallout of rising disparities and a massive migrant population is by indefinite economic growth — which is of course an impossibility. He sees the China of 2020 as a state more concerned with trying to avoid breaking up than as one seeking to cement its position as a new superpower.

Friedman is equally dismissive of Russia. He sees the successor state of the USSR as having a minor revival in the 2020s as well as a renewed stand-off with the USA. However, Russia is, in his view, unable to sustain this new confrontation and disintegrates under the pressures of a defiant stance and unfavourable demographics. The collapse of Russia soon after the 2020’s is the central assumption from which the rest of Friedman’s anaylsis stems. The fall of Russia and the weakening of China clear the field for the countries Friedman speculates will be the world powers of the future: Japan, Turkey and, surprisingly, Poland. Turkey, by virtue of its economy and geographical position takes leadership of the Muslim world. It is in this section of the book that Pakistan is ruled out of the race for leadership of the Muslim world due to its being hemmed in geographically and being too riven by internal disputes. The India-centric amongst us may take cold comfort in the fact that India too gets little attention in Friedman’s book. Likewise, Iran is considered too ‘controversial’ by virtue of its Persian/ Shia heritage to be a far-reaching power in the Muslim world. With the eyes of the US constantly on it, Iran is too preoccupied to make a serious bid. In fact, the entire War on Terror is written off as a distraction from the USA’s real strategic goals, and Friedman sees the Islamists of the future as fighting mostly against their own governments rather than with the US.

The US-Japan confrontation of World War II also renews itself, with control of the Pacific contested between the two countries. Poland, fortified by its western alliances expands to fill the void left by Russia. Up until this part of the book, you can disagree with Friedman’s conclusions, but may find it hard to criticise his methodology. But as he moves further into the future, the book starts to read less like an impartial analysis and more like science fiction, especially when he errs in providing far too much detail of a war in 2050 with Turkey and Japan on one side and the USA and Poland on the other — a war the US wins.  In the end, even though Friedman says the book is not meant as a celebration of American power, that’s exactly what it ends up as. Nevertheless, for all its shortcomings, The Next 100 Years is a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in geopolitics.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 2nd, 2011.


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