Green Room

The Next 100 Years: Why the 21st Century Will Be an American Century

posted at 4:57 pm on June 3, 2009 by

The first, last, and main thing to understand about the 21st Century as George Friedman, founder of the security consulting and forecasting firm STRATFOR, sees it unfolding is that the more things change, the more a few things not only stay the same, but become even more so.

Friedman’s approach is thoroughly geopolitical, and it’s almost tautological to observe that the most important geopolitical factor is geography – which in turn means that everybody trying to make a case for Sinophobia, Islamophobia, Russophobia, Indophobia, or any other conceivable -phobia (or -philia) attached to a nation, region, religion, or ideology will have to contend with facts of life that don’t change, at least in the human time-scale. In short, the global economy is critically and fundamentally dependent on oceangoing trade; North America, the North American economy, and specifically the U.S. Navy dominate the oceans; and this predominance, now firmly established, is self-reinforcing and extremely difficult to dislodge. It produces a series of relatively simple U.S. strategic objectives, as well as fairly straightforward means of achieving them affordably – and, in the final analysis, almost everything else is distraction.

In Friedman’s view, geography explains why America became rich and powerful.  You can attribute American success to democratic capitalism, but it was geography that made democratic capitalism of the American type possible. In this sense, geography is why we were in a position to win the 20th Century War of the World that finished Europe, and set up a finals match between ourselves and the Soviet Union; why the Soviet Union never really had much of a chance; and why the outlines were already visible to people like de Tocqueville and others when the United States was (or were) a small and fractious confederation as much as it was a nation, Russia was a backwater, and all of the action was emanating from Western Europe.

It’s also why, looking ahead, China and India are more likely to fragment and recede than to grow and lead; why Turkey is more important than Iran; why Islam is not an existential threat and why in fact the idea may be laughable; and why certain patterns of conflict, such as between the U.S. and Japan or between the U.S. and any power threatening to dominate the Eurasian landmass, are likely sooner or later to recur and to follow familiar paths – mainly to the benefit of the U.S.

It’s not fair, but don’t blame Friedman.  He wasn’t the one who created a rich, arable, relatively easily traversable, thinly populated but eminently inhabitable continent with multiple ports on both of the world’s most important oceans.

This unique position, or its results, explain further why we can afford to be sloppy, wasteful, and moody – oscillating between overconfidence and despair; why when we “lose” we so often win despite ourselves; why events that loom very large in the American public mind at one or another point in history can be all but forgotten a few years later; why citizens of less favored lands pay a much steeper price for our mistakes than we do; why we recover more quickly than anyone else can; and why no matter how much we’re envied, resisted, and hated, we’ll likely never be without friends, clients, and customers.

Unabashedly but not naively pro-American, Friedman also remains unperturbed by our recent national agonies in Southeast Asia and the Middle East: “These conflicts are merely isolated episodes in U.S. history, of little lasting importance – except to Vietnamese and Iraqis.” After explaining how our “barbarism” in such matters – a term Friedman uses descriptively, not judgmentally – works to our advantage, to the dismay of nations with much smaller “margins of error,” Friedman then sums up the “U.S.-jihadist war,” which he sees as “slither[-ing] to an end”:

An Islamic world in chaos, incapable of uniting, means the United States has achieved its strategic goal.  One thing the United States has indisputably done since 2001 is to create chaos in the Islamic world, generating animosity toward America – and perhaps terrorists who will attack it in the future.  But the regional earthquake is not coalescing into a regional superpower.  In fact, the region is more fragmented than ever, and this is likely to close the book on this era.  U.S. defeat or stalemate in Iraq and Afghanistan is the likely outcome, and both wars will appear to have ended badly for the United States. … But on a broader, more strategic level, that does not matter.  So long as the Muslims are fighting each other, the United States has won its war.

Sure, in addition to leading to loss of life and treasure, this kind of thing leaves people angry, but, as Friedman is quick to point out:  “Anger does not make history.  Power does.”

Finally, this same higher, virtually from-orbit perspective enables Friedman to handle our current economic troubles in a few sentences:

The U.S. economy has a net worth measured in hundreds of trillions of dollars.  Therefore, a debt crisis measuring a few trillion cannot destroy it.  The problem is, how can this country’s net worth be used to cover the bad loans, since that net worth is in hundreds of millions of private hands?  Only the government can do that, and it does it by guaranteeing the debts, using the state’s sovereign taxing power, and utilizing the Federal Reserve’s ability to print money to bail out the system.

“The crisis of 2008,” he continues,” is hardly a defining moment. Think of it as a straw in the wind, a sign of things to come.”

In other words, Friedman’s not quite Glenn Beck about our present difficulties, and is probably inclined to give Obama-Geithner-Bernanke more latitude than most conservatives will be, but he’s not a Polyanna either:  He thinks we’re heading for a demographically driven economic crisis truly worthy of the name, but expects it to arise in the 2030 time frame, not next year or 2016, and expects us to be, as ever, comparatively well-positioned to handle it – and, in good time, to move on. Though Obama in particular may not, from a geopolitical view, have or need as much freedom of movement as some may wish to believe, or as Obama himself has sometimes pretended, there’s also nothing in Friedman’s analysis that prevents us from criticizing Obama-Geithner-Bernanke for handling things less well than they could or should, or that prevents us from taking advantage of the next American mood swing to correct for Obama-era over-corrections.  Indeed, if Friedman’s right, it’s by no means too early to begin preparing for problems that may be much more challenging and transformative than the ’08 financial crisis and the Conflict Formerly Known As The War On Terror.

Whether you’re pleased, dismayed, surprised, or simply unpersuaded by Friedman’s depiction of a war in 2050 precipitated by a Turko-Japanese alliance, of an eventual showdown within North America itself, of nearer term hopeless maneuvers by Russia and China, or of the technological, economic, and social changes that will accompany, drive, or be driven by such events, his guesstimates and projections always combine ruthless logic and well-informed, relentlessly fact-based extrapolations.  The effect may shake your assumptions, or at least shake you out of habitual modes of thought, and it may be especially welcome to Americans who’ve lately been given to exaggerated fear, pessimism, and despair – or, in some quarters, to unrealistic expectations – about the state of our nation and the world.

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century
George Friedman
Hardcover: 272 pages
Doubleday (January 27, 2009)

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acat – China doesn’t even have the naval resources and skills to invade TAIWAN. I think North America and Africa are safe from invasion for good while.

CK MacLeod on June 4, 2009 at 11:17 AM

Mac … no one on our side is saying anyone will invade the U.S.

What we’re saying is that this guy’s predictions for American dominance throughout the 21st century they are criminally psychedelic.

Again – you have expanding industrial / technical bases rising in China (and other places). True – the Chines PLAN can’t challenge the U.S. Navy in blue water just yet – but the PLAN is modernizing quickly to do so. They may even be moving quicker than we can know – since it’s alleged they are building many nuclear submarines in hollowed out mountainsides where they are out of sight of our satellites. What else are they building out there that we can’t see?

Make no mistake – China is on the rise. China requires resources now – and lines of trade that it can GUARANTEE will remain open. This will necessitate the PLAN moving to “blue water” status. It has to happen. It will happen. Meanwhile we’re building one nuclear submarine a year.

That’s not a scorching pace.

HondaV65 on June 4, 2009 at 9:54 PM

Our task is MORE CHALLENGING than China’s.

HondaV65 on June 4, 2009 at 9:44 PM

Honda – just in the last quarter of last year, China had to send 12 million workers home to their villages from the jobs on the coast due to economic dislocation. I ask the same question I’ve asked others: How is China, with an export-driven economy largely supported through an artificially low currency, supposed to maintain anything like its pre-’08 growth rates if, as you seem to believe, its main markets, especially the United States are in the toilet? If the dollar cracks, for example, then a) we won’t be able to buy anywhere near as much Chinese stuff, b) our own exports will become more competitive, c) Chinese debt holdings are devalued. However things work out, China will have to make major adjustments. It won’t be able to produce double digit growth rates year over year financed by American credit cards.

As for the PLAN, even if somehow China is able to finance a massive building effort despite their economy being stopped in its tracks, it takes decades to develop a functional Navy. No one in the world other than the US at this time even knows how to run a modern naval battle group, much less run it effectively. Even if China begins to make significant progress, it would inspire an active response not just from the US, but from its regional competitors, especially including Japan.

I think Friedman’s view is more likely correct – that over the long term the US will be supporting China as it was prior to Mao in an effort to prevent other foreign competitors from dominating it and Eurasia instead.

The demographic challenge is real, but in some respects it’s also been exaggerated. In any event the US is better positioned to cope with it than the other developed economies, whose age structure problems are much worse.

We may experience a labor shortage in the US, alongside real estate devaluation, loss of demand, shortage of investment capital, etc., but what we can do to address it is a big subject. When you consider that the retirement age for Social Security was set at 65 when life expectancy was 61, not pushing 80, you can see already a huge degree of elasticity that has been politically difficult to exploit, but which can sooner or later be exploited with the tap of a keyboard.

Anyway, I think you should read Friedman’s book, since he defends his view in more detail and more expertly than I can, and his and my views do not coincide 100%. I also think you might want to research China in more detail. Basing your judgments on the Chinese you may have met in your travels is an unrealistic way of assessing the prospects for a country of 1 billion people in a changing world.

CK MacLeod on June 4, 2009 at 11:26 PM

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