book reviews

Books That Predict the Future
Reviewed by: T.J. Nelson

The Next 100 Years
by George Friedman
Anchor, 2009

I  never saw this coming: a book by the guy from the Stratfor web site, predicting the future. Being from the future myself, or maybe not, all I can say is maybe some of what he says is right, and maybe it's not.

This book gets off to an awful start, with the author sounding like a paper-treaty-waving liberal who thinks Obama will solve all the world's problems. No wonder Newsweek and The New York Times loved this book. But that might have just been part of his strategy. Once he gets started, it's clear Friedman can get past petty politics, and he has some keen insights about how nations behave. So, what does Friedman think the next century will be like? Essentially, it will be just like the last one, only less bloody.

Friedman's main premise is that America is an "adolescent" power, and that it's in America's interest to create fragmentation throughout the globe to prevent the development of regional powers. The next century, he predicts, will see America, not China or anybody else, as the world's pre-eminent power. China will crash and burn by 2020. Japan will become militarily aggressive and begin to industrialize space. There will be a second cold war between Russia and America, ending in a second economic collapse for the poor Rooskies, who are so badly off they're invaded by Estonia.

Put. The bong. Down. Now.

But it gets even more science-fictiony. The biggest event of the next century, Friedman says, will be a world war with the United States and Poland on one side and Turkey and Japan on the other, starting with a Pearl Harbor-style space attack by Japanturkeyegyptarabiastan. Why and how this happens are pure Heinleinian fantasy. And would Russia, even if poor, just sit around while this happens? I think not. Just to avoid spoiling it, I won't reveal who wins this war, other than to say its name starts with a "U".

Friedman's predictions are based almost entirely on strategic balance of power considerations, with only incidental effects of resources, demographics, economics, culture, and technology. But the economic collapse we all know is coming will have consequences not even Friedman can predict. Most of all, he underestimates the effects of technology. Almost no one realizes, for example, that artificial intelligence is actually an easy problem to solve. The humans, er, I mean we, are poised to solve it in the next decade. AI will play major roles in reorganizing society. It will also transform warfare in ways that people will just have to wait and see to understand. To give one small example: today, snipers are lucky to hit a target one mile away. By 2030, leaders will be forced to live their lives underground to protect themselves from from intelligent flying bombs the size of houseflies, launched from anywhere. Friedman's idea of infantrymen in mechanical suits and hypersonic weapons from space is old thinking.

Update (Feb. 28, 4196) I just received this strange email dated 400 years in the future and submit it, as Rod Serling used to say, for your consideration.

"friedman was off by 7 years in the space platform disaster. it wasn't the japanese that did it. and, dude, what about the exavoltage power line attack that obliterated irkutsk? what about the abolition of capital letters in 2025, on the grounds that all words should be equal? and the mongolian plague that devastated southwest asia and europe in 2044? and the so-called wine-and-cheese war of 2881 that led to the annihilation of the people's republic of greenland by giant mutant poodles .. oh wait that hasn't happened yet scratch that."

Feb 26, 41962011

The Next Decade
by George Friedman
Anchor, 2011

B ack in February 2011, the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph published an article by Peter Oborne, their chief political commentator, asking how America will handle the loss of its "empire" now that the anti-government demonstrators in the Middle East are trying to overthrow their dictators. It turned out that what Oborne was really schpizzled about was America having prevented England, France, and Israel from taking over the Suez Canal back in 1956. Everything bad that happened in the Middle East since then was all ... wait for it ... America's fault.

This opinion piece set off such a predictable flood of America-bashing that for a moment I thought I must have clicked on the Grauniad website by mistake. Now it turns out that futurist George Friedman is almost as nutty as Oborne and the ten million other brainwashees who get a frisson of Schadenfreude from accusing America of being an "empire." Specifically, a "mismanaged empire."

It's all the more surprising because Friedman seems to have forgotten the premise in his previous book The Next 100 Years (reviewed at left) about how America doesn't need to win wars like Iraq. After 9/11, America had two goals: to show you don't attack America without consequences, and to shake up the region. True, President Bush couldn't find the words to articulate these goals. But it was clear that being shaken up was exactly what the Middle East needed. Allowed to continue the path they were following, they would have ended up getting nuked by somebody--probably by the USA. Their current arrangement was creating terrorists and enslaving their people. If the governments fell, so be it. If they were replaced by democracies, so much the better.

Why do so many people persist in calling America an empire? The answer is obvious: in today's popular mind, empires are evil. Depending on whether the speaker is a card-carrying Guardianista or just a run-of-the-mill America-basher, an empire is something that must either be destroyed, or something that is bound to collapse. Calling America an empire is simply a roundabout way of saying they want America to fail as a world power, or they are worried about it happening. The inability of so many commentators to distinguish between "empires" and "global powers" is a reflection on the poverty of political vocabulary in our society.

Dealing with short-term predictions, as is done in this book, takes Friedman away from strategy and into politics, where he gets overwhelmed by his anti-Bush feelings and partisan certitudes. Most of the space in the book is spent not predicting the future, but reinterpreting recent history to squish it into the mold of being an empire. He says America "must" do this or "should" do that so many times, the book starts to sound like a Foreign Affairs article.

America is certainly being mismanaged. Our massive deficit and smooshed economy are proof of that. But calling America an empire, no matter how many times Friedman does it, doesn't make it one. What it does do is damage his credibility as an objective analyst of future trends. People "must" make up their mind: does America force everyone to adopt democracy or does America go around propping up dictators? It can't be both. If you really want to know what an empire is, and why it falls, forget this book and read The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter.

Feb 26, 2011