Saturday, April 25, 2009

100 Years of Change

There’s a paradox in reading a book like George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. The author predicts a future event—for example, global war between the United States, Turkey, Poland, and Japan in 2050. The author makes a case for why it will happen. Given the extreme number of possible futures 40 years from now, the chances of that specific thing happening—or even something close to it happening—are remote, even considering that history has patterns, and events are far from random. Yet because the author has made the case, the reader is in the position of considering why that remote possibility won’t occur.

If you find that fun, or would appreciate an instigation to think long term, you might like the book. Just be prepared that war, and the balance of power enforced by the threat of war, is Friedman’s primary engine of history. He covers other factors such as demographic trends, but his main lens is geopolitical—think the board game Risk, tilted heavily toward Team USA.

For me, the book was worth finishing, but I admit to ever-increasing bouts of skimming as the future became farther flung. Ironically, my biggest takeaway from the book was its brief historical survey of how much things changed, in terms of global power, in the twentieth century. Friedman’s version is good, albeit overly dramatic in places. I’d do it a little different:

  • 1900: Europe was the world’s power center, with the major players at peace.
  • 1920: World War I ended the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, German, and Ottoman empires, resulting in a collection of fragmented, diminished states. Meanwhile, the United States was growing stronger, and Russia had just turned to communism.
  • 1940: Germany was back, invading and intimidating its way to European dominance. Russian communism had consolidated and extended its power as the Soviet Union, which (for the moment) was allied with Germany. The United States was trying to avoid direct involvement in Europe’s battles while providing backdoor aid to Great Britain’s defense against Germany.
  • 1960: World War II left Europe split between the United States and the Soviet Union, relegating the former European masters to secondary players. Japan’s defeat in World War II left the United States as master of the Pacific. China had gone communist and opposed the United States in the Korean War.
  • 1980: First among superpowers, the United States was showing weak spots. With Soviet and Chinese backing, North Vietnam drove the United States out of Vietnam; the oil cartel OPEC demonstrated its power over the U.S. economy; and an Islamic revolutionary movement was rolling back American influence in Iran.
  • 2000: The Soviet Union collapsed. China was embracing capitalism. The United States was now the world’s only superpower. It and the second tier of major players were at peace, having presided over a long economic expansion.

That’s quite a hundred-year cycle.

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