Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Book Review: “The Next 100 Years” by George Friedman (2009)

Are you ready for a world filled with hypersonic missiles, robotic day laborers and an all out U.S. war against Mexico? According to Friedman, if you plan on living in the 21st Century, you better be…

World War 3 will begin after Japan - from its underground moon base - launches several rocket-propelled meteors at the United States’ satellite defense system. The Thanksgiving attack leaves all three of America’s orbiting surveillance systems in shambles, which facilitates an easy attack on US military bases by Turkish forces.

Over the next three years, the United States - alongside Poland, China, the United Kingdom, India and a unified Korea - will wage war against a tripartite coalition of Japanese, Turkish and German soldiers, with a platoon of robotic-armor-clad infantrymen - running off an experimental form of space-based solar power - ultimately serving as the secret weapon that leads the U.S. and its allies to victories.

What today sounds like the makings of an Xbox game may very well be the stuff of history books come 2100, according to author George Friedman, who describes the planet’s next “global war” as the above scenario in his 2009 book “The Next 100 Years.

Friedman (no relation to Tom, in case you were wondering) isn’t just some self-proclaimed “futurist” with a hard-on for “Battlestar Galactica,” though. As the founder and CEO of STRATFOR - perhaps the premiere private intelligence and forecasting agency on the planet - the guy definitely knows what’s up, and this book, subtitled “A Forecast for the 21st Century,” might just provide us a thorough glimpse into the world of tomorrow…and if Friedman is even halfway correct about his assumptions, we are definitely in for one crazy ass ride into the 22nd.

The fundamental point Friedman makes with the book is that, for all of that ballyhoo about America being an empire in decline, the reality is that the United States - as a global power - is just now beginning to exert its full influence on the planet. He reminds us that America represents almost a full quarter of the world’s total GDP, containing an economy that’s larger than Japan, Germany, China and the United Kingdom combined, with an industrial economy that STILL outweighs the combined industrial economies of Japan and China. And for all of the hullabaloo we hear about the U.S. being “dependent” on foreign energy, we’ve somehow managed to overlook the fact that we’re still one of the largest oil exporters on the planet, in addition to being the one of the world's ten largest producers of natural gas. Friedman’s hypothesis is that at the current - even with such a monstrous economy and military presence - the U.S. is still a barbaric culture, yet to reap the full fruits of being a “selective and effective” civilization. In other words? Team America is just getting STARTED, amigos.

Early on in the book - before Friedman even gets into all of the kooky and crazy prognostications and predictions - he notes that the U.S. has five central “strategies”, which pretty much dictate every federal and international policy the entity makes. Ultimately, Friedman suggest that the United States’ primary goal as a “civilization” is to maintain control of North America, eliminating any threats in the process, while maintaining a clear domination over the world’s oceans. Eventually, an additional imperative will arise, the prevention of any domineering force emerging in the Eurasian region, but for the time being, he asserts that the USA’s control over transatlantic and transpacific routes remains the nation’s utmost security concern.

As something of an inversion of traditional Malthusian catastrophe theory, Friedman believes the number one threat to humanity as a whole over the next century is actually under-population. Around 2050, he believes global population rates will hit a steady constant, resulting in gargantuan labor shortages across the planet. This is a problem, Friedman says, that will be exacerbated by the use of robotics, which will make a majority of unskilled workers obsolete by the time 2100 rolls around.

Friedman begins the book’s proper predictions with the contrarian claim that China is, in essence, a “paper dragon,” nowhere near as economically and geopolitically powerful as most analysts assume it shall become. He notes that, at the current, anywhere from a quarter to damn near 40 percent of the nation’s GDP is tied up in nonperforming bonds (as in, debts that will never, ever get paid back, ever) - and seeing as how Japan fostered just a 20 percent non-performing bond GDP percentage back in the early 90s, he predicts that China is on course for a major economic crisis that will take it right out of the “emerging global superpower” discussion. Around the same timeframe, Friedman predicts that an emerging Russian Federation (powered by a raw export and energy based economy) will attempt to reacquire some of the territories it lost following the fall of the Soviet Union, resulting in a 10-year “Cold War 2.0” period that concludes with a regionally fragmented Russia and China being picked apart by several emerging economic powerhouses, including a revitalized Japan, an ultra-powerful Turkey (which, in essence, becomes an Islamic super-state) and even a coalition of Eastern European countries that make up what the author deems “the Polish bloc.”

Around the midpoint of the 21st century, Friedman hypothesizes that a global showdown between the world’s four largest powers (the U.S. and the Polish bloc on one side, and Turkey and Japan on the other) becomes inevitable. At that point, construction of super-advanced satellite defense systems (called “battle stars” by the author, simply because he thinks the name “sounds cool”) will become the norm, as well as the stockpiling of hypersonic weaponry - in effect, missiles launched in Nebraska that can peg a moving target in Australia in less time than it takes to prepare a lasagna dinner.

Following the World War 3 scenario discussed earlier, Friedman believes that a revolution in energy will take place, with complex solar radiation collecting devices becoming the planet’s primary form of power. However, increased energy needs stemming from elevated robotics usage - in addition to widespread immigration law measures - will create a major crisis in the latter half of the century, with an emerging Mexico challenging the United States for control of North America…a matter, Friedman says, will linger well on into the 22nd century.

Of course, all of Friedman’s conjecture is just that, conjecture. Oddly, he makes very few mentions of global warming patterns, nor does he spend any time discussing the impact of cyber terrorism (sort of ironic, really, since his firm got WikiLeaked a few years back), bioengineering or nuclear development on 21st century geopolitics. That said, none of his ideas seem all that far-fetched, and even those that do sound a little hard to chew on are at least based on existing technologies and theoretical applications - from the moon-based mega-microwave-collectors to the battery-powered War Machine suits that give infantrymen what are, in essence, superhuman abilities.

At a little under 250 pages, “The Next 100 Years” is a quick, albeit highly entertaining read, and something that will definitely get you scrambling to do some Wikipedia research on things like Scramjet engines, the Battle of San Jacinto and whatever the hell the Resolution Trust Corporation was/is (hint: if you’re a Republican, you ain’t going to like it.)

The material Friedman throws around here is interesting stuff, no doubt. But even more so, it could even be a quasi-accurate depiction of what’s ahead of us… and if that’s the case, I think I’m going to go ahead and patent the phrase “11-24-50” before it becomes a ubiquitous sticker on every flying car in the country.

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