Future Imperfect

Austin global intelligence analyst George Friedman specializes in seeing the future. But is his crystal ball all it’s cracked up to be—or is it just cracked?
Future Imperfect
Photograph by Adam Voorhes

As a rule, those who predict the future of world events should be viewed the same way Hermione Granger viewed Hogwarts’s divination classes—with unremitting skepticism. Social scientists may have something to offer in the way of explanation or short-term speculation, but there are serious limits to any kind of global soothsaying. World politics are simply too complex to forecast anything precisely in the medium term; it’s like asking a meteorologist to predict the weather a decade from now.

Despite these limitations, the political and economic shocks of recent years have fostered a booming market in “political risk consulting.” One of the most successful of these firms, Strategic Forecasting, is located not in Washington but in downtown Austin, a city that was chosen for, among other things, its high-tech know-how, impressive university libraries, and distance from the distracting political gossip of Capitol Hill. Since 1996 Stratfor, as it is widely known, has provided risk assessments and analyses for various governments and corporations. More recently the company’s CEO, George Friedman, has parlayed his company’s boutique success into a higher public profile. His 2009 book, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, was a surprise best-seller.

Friedman’s latest book, The Next Decade: Where We’ve Been … and Where We’re Going (Doubleday, $27.95), narrows his futuristic focus and strays a bit from his core business. In addition to predicting the rise and fall of different countries, it offers his opinions on how Washington should respond to these shifts. Essentially, Friedman is bullish on America, arguing that our fundamental strengths outweigh our temporary weaknesses.

With that marker laid down, he tours the rest of the globe to map out the lay of the land. Friedman relies on a clear method to arrive at his predictions. Indeed, many of them—and in several instances, lightly revised blocks of text—are lifted straight from The Next 100 Years. In both books his prognoses are based on two factors that persist over time: geography and demographics. Geography is what you think it is—a country’s physical attributes and resources. For example, Japan’s island status and dearth of natural resources mean that it relies heavily on sea-lanes. Demographics change more rapidly than geography, but those changes take decades. So when Friedman observes that southern Europe is depopulating, he’s going to be right for quite some time.

Leaning on these two factors, The Next Decade arrives at a few conclusions that might seem counterintuitive: The United States has devoted disproportionate resources to counterterrorism. China’s ascent has been exaggerated because rising inequality and slower economic growth will lead to domestic instability. Russia and Germany will become closer allies.

The belief that geography equals destiny, though, is complicated by the fact that geography is a constant—and constants are lousy predictors of change. Sure, Friedman sounds sensible when he forecasts that Japan, bristling at its reliance on the U.S. Navy to keep its sea-lanes open, will take a more aggressive approach to the Pacific Rim. This prediction also sounded reasonable two decades ago, when Friedman co-authored a book called The Coming War With Japan. But there are many aspects of world affairs other than geography—historical ties, technological innovation, and religious beliefs, for instance—that can influence governments. Which is why, though Friedman has been sounding the alarm for twenty years, Japan remains a staunch ally of the United States.

When it comes to policy recommendations, Friedman suggests, among other things, that Washington break free of its alliances and institutions, “including NATO, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations.” If I squint really hard, I can see the outlines of his logic; he’s arguing that these entities are inefficient and outdated. But withdrawing from them would be a surefire way of forging the sort of anti-American coalition he is ostensibly trying to help us avoid.

Friedman offers additional levels of analysis and advice, but these efforts too fall short. He recommends that U.S. presidents adopt the fierce approaches of Lincoln and Reagan, “men who managed to be utterly ruthless in executing a strategy that was nonetheless guided by moral principle.” Alas, this combination of leadership skills describes Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush too, and history has judged them somewhat more harshly. Friedman also advises the president to back away from allies while pretending to do otherwise. At such moments, The Next Decade feels as if it’s aimed at the nineteenth century rather than the twenty-first. It’s not as easy for leaders to say one thing publicly and a different thing privately in an era of WikiLeaks and Bob Woodward tell-alls.

Still, much of the book’s historical discussion is presented in an accessible manner. One is tempted to therefore recommend it to foreign-policy newbies. And I would, I really would, if there weren’t factual mistakes scattered throughout. Twice, for instance, Friedman claims that the United States entered the First World War because the Bolshevik Revolution would take Russia out of the war and hand Germany a victory. This is an odd claim: America entered the war seven months before the October Revolution. Elsewhere he claims that Germany took no stimulus measures after the 2008 financial crisis when, in fact, Berlin eventually enacted the third-largest fiscal stimulus in the world. Friedman also pooh-poohs our recent downturn, declaring it “not even the worst recession since World War II.” Practically every conventional metric of output or employment flatly contradicts this assertion.

At this point, readers might well wonder how Stratfor manages to afford its Austin rent. Why would Fortune 500 companies pay for these sorts of musings? The answer, quite simply, is that they don’t. Most of Stratfor’s work is nuts-and-bolts analysis of the day-to-day events in the world—the opposite of what Friedman is trying to do in his books.

Perhaps I exaggerated Hermione’s skepticism of divination a bit. An otherwise stellar student, she was clearly frustrated that she was simply no good at it. Similarly, I should confess a smidgen of envy at Friedman’s conviction that he will be proved right about everything. Some writers are so sure of

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week