Strap yourself in: We're in for the return of Cold War politics, the rise of new dominant powers, and a full-blown space war, according to a new book. What are the chances his dire predictions will come true?
Written in 20 year increments, The Next 100 Years by George Friedman looks out over our coming century, with an eye towards geopolitics and international power. In the next twenty years, Friedman predicts that the global war on terror, which he terms the US-Jihadist war, will be winding down, a smaller conflict that will have little consequence after all is said and done.
Instead, numerous problems will crop up in the former Soviet bloc as Russia works to regain its former power by reclaiming older territories through economic growth and outright bullying. To an extent, this has already been hapepning, especially if you look at the short-lived war last year in Georgia, as well as the outcry in Poland more recently as the United States decided to pull its missiles out of the country in favor of settling Russian concerns and more mobile missile platforms. However, Friedman views this growth as short-lived, and predicts that Russia, while growing over the next decade or so, will run out of stream due to a decreasing population and declining economy.
Friedman blames declining birth rates for the declining fortunes of a number of nations — and this is a sort of side-effect of an industrial nation. Pre-industrial countries required higher birthrates in order to counter-balance a higher infant mortality rate. With people entering the workforce at a later age, with increases in medicine and the lowered need of numerous contributors in a household, Friedman argues that there's little need for larger families.
Thus, a major point of conflict in the next century, especially in the next fifty years as populations begin to drop, won't be over immigrants illegally entering countries, it will be over which countries can lure in the most new workers to help prop up their own economies and lagging workforces.
While the major powers around the world such as the United States and Russia will have economic slowdowns during this stretch, smaller nations will use this opportunity to rise on their own. Friedman notes that the larger nations won't be down and out for the count, and will thus be powers to be reckoned with - conflict will arise between the United States, which, in his view, will remain the most powerful nation on the planet, and these new players. Friedman singles out three countries, in particular, that will become the next major powers during the 21st century: Turkey, Japan and Poland, with other nations, such as Mexico, becoming far more powerful in their respective regions.
Why these three? All of them currently have advantages that will help them in the coming decades. Japan's economy is slowly growing again. Friedman believes that China will fragment under its rapid economic growth and growing internal troubles, which will further allow Japan to become a leader in the region. Friedman looks to past examples of Japan managing to take over Southeast Asia, at various points in the region's history, as further evidence of this.
As for Turkey, this country sandwiched between Europe and the Middle East will become more and more important strategically, and will become a more vital ally to the United States as Russia first expands and then collapses. In th midst of the Middle East's chaos, Turkey will be able to resist Russia and grow its own economy — and Turkey has traditionally been the leader in that part of the world for much of its history, when it was known as the Ottoman Empire.
Finally, Poland is singled out because it is essentially between two hard places - Germany and Russia. Fearing both, it will seek to expand its influence as Russia consolidates its power back towards its center. Because of its location, Poland has been overrun numerous times by both countries, and would likewise receive US support as Russia grows, because it represents a strategic location. It's entirely possible that those missile systems will be installed after all.
At this point in time, Friedman turns to an inevitable development for many countries - space travel, and how that relates to a country's strategic needs. The United States, he argues, is able to maintain a dominant position over the rest of the planet, because of its armed forces and economic power. A major tool in the U.S. arsenal is the ability to monitor and view every inch of the planet, mainly through the development over the last half century in satellite and surveillance technology. Other nations will inevitably (if they haven't already) develop their own space programs for this very purpose, and look into ways of disrupting the ability of the United States to do the same. At the same time, the US will seek to construct better methods of doing this, including larger crewed systems that could very well be operated by crews that number in the hundreds. At some point in the 2020s-2040s, numerous countries will be utilizing the Moon for scientific and defensive purposes, both overtly and covertly.
This shift in global power, Friedman predicts, will make conflict inevitable, between the United States and these three rising powers, who will loosely band together into a coallition. In order to disrupt the United State's orbital systems, Japan, (on Thanksgiving day, around 2050) will attempt to destroy one of these orbiting platforms from lunar initiated strikes, to maximize the shock value and surprise, in a move reminiscent of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, propelling the countries into war. The United States, faced with destruction of a key military asset, will go to war, as it has done with Pearl Harbor, the Maine and the World Trade Center. The US will retaliate with reserve forces that will eliminate enemy satellites, while soldiers on US lunar bases will attack their Japanese counterparts. By around this time, the US will also have the ablility to field armored infantrymen, straight out of the numerous SF novels and films that have come before.
Essentially, the world will be at war, with Turkey and Poland (Turkey fighting for control over Europe), and Japan fighting to maintain a hold over Asia, with the United States emmeshed in both sides of the conflict. This warfare will be characterized by air forces, robotic forces and enhanced soldiers, and will rely in electrical power grids and other resources as soldiers fight across new battlefields in Europe and Asia. Space will be a vital element, as it allows for communications and the ability to watch a battlefield from a better birds eye view. Friedman theorizes that there will likely be breakthroughs in technology that will allow for microwave and solar energy to be directly utilizied on the battlefield, which might further change how warfare is fought in the future.
Friedman believes this war will last for around two years, through to 2052, when the coalition powers (Turkey and Japan) would be pushed so far as to begin to threaten nuclear retaliation. By this point, the United States will be seeking to push their enemies to sue for peace, rather than destroy them with nuclear weapons. The end result will be a shifting of powers in both the Middle East and Asia, with new nations created in a peace conference. The United States will have better control over space, and will have an expanded economy as a result of the war. America and its allies will prosper in the aftermath of the war. With war as a catalyst to essentially force the evolution of military capabilities and technology, Friedman believes that a war such as this will help to encourage space technology, which in turn will help inform civilian technology. Along with it, he notes, there will be a resurgence in American culture that begin to spread out over the globe, much as what happened during the 1950s-1970s.
By the 2080s, the United States will remain an economic and cultural powerhouse. However, Friedman believes that Mexico will be have been growing while all of this has been happening, and that it will become a dominant rival power in North America. In particular, this sort of rise will be problematic for the United States, because of a large ethnic group that will strongly identify with Mexico, one that has easy access to their homeland.
Rises in robotic technology will displace work forces from unskilled to skilled worked, and thus, unemployment will rise, which will cause problems domestically. Friedman cites a number of reasons, such as oil production and possible shifts in industry from legalized drug trades as a possible method for Mexico to increase its GDP. As Mexico rises, so too will tensions, domestically and internationally, rise between the US and its southern neighbor. Conflict will break out in the Southwest United States as a result of this, although it will be fairly low-key, and last for the rest of the century.
Now, obviously, there are issues with this future, as might be expected with any sort of look to the coming years. While Friedman notes that to look at the future, one must expect a sort of larger view that can gradually bring in vastly different environments from the present, some of his claims seem very outlandish, especially around the specifics. Additionally, he seems to disregard things such as the current 'US-Jihadist' war, which will likely last much longer - the issues in the middle east are long-standing, and neither side seems ready to give up or change to end the conflict.
Secondly, there seems to be a heavy reliance on the actions of the past that will inform the future. While Europe is a fantastic example of history repeating itself when it comes to warfare - German, Russian aggression, etc - the rest of the world generally doesn't seem to function in much the same way. The English, despite their long history as a maritime power, lost that status with the rise of the United States during the two World Wars, while European powers have not demonstrated any real interest in reclaiming influence in Africa, South America or Asia. Looking at the past is not a reliable method of looking at the future. While there are certainly examples (and some that are justly there) of this, it isn't the general rule of thumb that Friedman comes to rely on.
The main strength of this book is one of examination of the world as it is right now, and how that will inform the next two decades, and how those years will possibly inform the next. The years closest to the present are much easier to look at with a higher degree of certainty than decades from now. Friedman imparts some very good advice by pulling the perspective of the years out to a much larger view - as someone who studied geology and history in college, I can attest that looking at history in decades, centuries, millennia and eons will bring about much different perspectives on world affairs than what one might gain by only reading the newspaper or listening to the radio for current events.
The future that Friedman presents does seem very far fetched, but at the same time, somewhat plausible. Will Japan attack the United States in 2050 on Thanksgiving Day? Unlikely, but the important lesson here is the chain of events, brought together by a chain of geopolitical actions, will happen, either with that result, or with very different outcomes. The future will likely bring new conflict, war and problems — and along with them, large-scale shifts in how the world works.
In a way, Friedman presents a far different future than most of the older science fiction predictions, and more in line with some of the newer ones. (Charles Stross and Paolo Bacigalupi come to mind for modern-day examples of this.) What is certain, however, is that the actions of today will inform that of tomorrow. In the meantime, it might be a good idea to begin reading up on some of the more unlikely countries around the world. I'll be learning all there is to know about Croatia - it could be handy in my lifetime.