Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Review: “The Next Decade” by George Friedman (2011)

According to one of America’s most respected strategists, the United States’ biggest dilemma is managing the consequences of being an unplanned global empire while simultaneously upholding the founding virtues of the Republic. So how will this dual-problem impact geopolitics until 2021?

A few years ago, I reviewed George Friedman’s 2009 speculative fiction title “The Next 100 Years.” It was an entertaining read, to be sure -- what, with all of those hypersonic missiles and wars with a united Turkish-Japanese-German front over intergalactic battle systems and all -- but the thing that really struck me most about the book was just how much the author knew his stuff regarding U.S. sociopolitics. As a high ranking official for STRATFOR -- one of the premier geopolitical intelligence groups in the United States -- Friedman is a guy who definitely has his thumb and forefinger on the pulse of international stratagem, and his straight-and-to-the-point explanations of how and what the U.S. must do to maintain its hegemonic influence in the world in “The Next 100 Years” piqued my curiosity in “The Next Decade” quite a bit.

“The Next Decade,” despite having a tighter locus than “The Next 100 Years,” is actually the sequel, having come out two years after “100.” Whereas the first book peered into the future with somewhat rose-tinted glasses (microwave technologies and loosened international immigration policies will save the world, Friedman predicted) this book is a lot more blunt and sardonic. Indeed, the opening chapter of the book emphasizes the need for a good Machiavellian leader a’la Lincoln, FDR or Reagan, as the POTUS during the ensuing decade will have to be an expert at finagling and fudging with an almost unlimited number of ever-changing geopolitical alliances. The core thesis of the book, then, is Friedman’s assertion that the United States -- unintentionally -- has become a global empire, and the role of the U.S. President is to more or less serve as the world’s most important political diplomat and agenda-setter. Of course, Friedman also notes that the President -- whoever he or she may be -- must also be able to at least promote the virtues and ethics of the homeland, despite the fact that his or her duties as a global leader now far supersede his or her role as a domestic figurehead. The great internal political battle of the decade, Friedman predicts, will be how the U.S. people react to an executive leadership whose primary interests rests not in serving the American people, but in maintaining a stranglehold on the rest of world’s military and economic doings.

To begin the book, Friedman says that the ongoing decade will be a quest to emerge from underneath the two defining aspects of the aughties -- the late 2000s global recession and George W.’s War on Terror. Regarding the former, Friedman asserts that downturns of the like are natural endpoints of boom and bust cycles, citing the downfall of municipal bonds at the end of ’70s, the late 1980s Savings and Loans scandal and the doomsday scenario of the early 2000s as hard-to-deny proofs of his theory. Ultimately, he believes the inevitable fallout from the Great Recession will be a general shift towards greater individual state involvement in the world markets, which in turn, will likely lead to a resurgence in economic nationalism.

As for our post War on Terror fates, Friedman believes the United States will henceforward be caught up in a skillful balancing act in the Middle East, with the utmost goal of insuring that no single regional power rises to prominence while simultaneously keeping the Gulf’s oil supply from being disrupted. Doing so, Friedman suggests, requires the U.S. to slowly disentangle itself from Israel and seek accommodations with Iran -- primarily to “use” as a Shiite counterweight to an emerging Sunni powerhouse in Turkey.

In regards to European affairs, Friedman says that the U.S. strategy is quite simple: to prevent any single nation from dominating the peninsula. Since Russia is a natural resources-strewn titan and Germany is the continent’s lone economic super power, Friedman believes it is an imperative that the U.S. do everything it can to halt Berlin and Moscow officials from coming to any major trade agreements. To drive a wedge between any possible ententes between the two countries, Friedman suggests that the U.S. powers that be help Poland and the surrounding Slavic countries develop economically, as both a financial and geographically literal buffer zone. He also expects relations between the U.S. and U.K. to strengthen in the face of a hypothetical “Mediterranean Union” between Germany and France. The key to strategic success on the continent, Friedman believes, hinges on the sneakiness of the President of the United States. “The president must appear to be not very bright, yet be able to lie convincingly,” he writes. “The target of this charade will not be future allies but potential enemies.”

As made glaringly apparent in “The Next 100 Years,” Friedman isn’t buying the hoopla surrounding China’s booming, export-dependent economy. Rather, he believes the import-reliant Japan will slowly begin to pull ahead of China as Asia’s de facto regional powerhouse, quite possibly by outsourcing to China itself. As for U.S. strategies in the Pacific, Friedman believes more investments are necessary in South Korea, Singapore and Australia -- and as bizarre as it may sound, he wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. attempted to strengthen China’s market access in a preemptive strike against Japan, either. As for India -- considered by some to be a possible “democratic China” -- Friedman remains pessimistic; not only does he not believe the economy in southeast Asia will explode this decade, he actually believes that U.S. and Indian relations are likely to grow stagnant between now and the 2020s.

Friedman isn’t too concerned about what happens south of the border, although he does note a few things that could potentially transpire in Latin America over the next few years. For one, he believes it is possible -- although  unlikely -- that Brazil could open up naval lanes in the South Atlantic, and begin scoring oil shipments from Angola and Nigeria. Just to be on the safe side of things, the author suggests U.S. policymakers start looking at ways to beef up Argentina’s economy as a counterbalance. Regarding Mexico -- the number two buyer of U.S. goods -- Friedman believes that both sides of the Rio Grande will promote “the illusion of activity” regarding illegal immigration and the drug trade over the ensuing years, while the “threat” of an independent Quebec remains a remote, if not insignificant, possibility in the Great White North. Ultimately, Friedman believes there is little worth fighting for in Africa at the moment, outside of preventing Islamic extremism from arising in oil-rich hotbeds on the west coast. Allegations of an ongoing  “resource war” between China and the U.S. in the region, the author states, are also greatly exaggerated.

On the domestic front, Friedman zeroes in on the mass retirement of baby boomers, and their vast healthcare needs. Unfortunately, he believes that technology today is more about acquiring market share than true scientific innovation, and as such, Friedman doesn’t believe we’ll start seeing true breakthroughs in energy and robotics until next decade, at the least. For now, Friedman says U.S. strategy is about maintaining its naval power…and then we’ll start talking about space ops.

Despite all of the Machiavellian stuff Friedman says about the U.S. executive branch, he ultimately states that the greatest barrier to civic progression in America is the Cerberus of bureaucratic overkill and political infighting. “Americans prefer mutual vilification to facing up to the facts,” he writes, “they prefer arguing about what ought to be to arguing about what is.” As such, he concludes the tome by stating that “an enormous act of will for the country to grow up” is essential for the United States to maintain its Republican ideals as the 2020s approach.

At the end of the day, this book is really more of a no-frills, no-bullshit look at America’s geopolitical interests -- and the underhanded ways the executive powers maintain the U.S. hegemony -- than it is a work of pure speculative fiction. There’s not that many concrete predictions the author tosses out there, although the few that he does -- like the U.S. seeking to repair its relations with Iran -- have indeed come to light since the book was originally published. All in all, “The Next Decade” is a thorough, straight-to-the-point primer on international relations and the way the U.S. of A truly views its geopolitical sphere of influence; fantastical, this book may not be, but it’s certainly an illuminating little title nonetheless.


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