Ryan's Reviews > The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century

The Next 100 Years by George Friedman
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Nov 10, 11

bookshelves: nonfic-future
Read in January, 2011

Though this book has taken much flak from readers (and will no doubt get a lot wrong as the decades roll forward), I thought the first half was smartly argued. Friedman attempts to forecast the next century through his "history as a chess game" theory, which postulates that in global politics, as in chess, there may seem to be a limitless number of potential moves, but, in actuality, only a few are feasible at a given time. Thus, leaders are heavily constrained in their options by geopolitical trends, economic cycles, demographic changes, and the moves made by other countries. Major shifts are driven less by the issues making the headlines at a given moment, and more by slow, long-term trends that build for years.

It's a simple (and perhaps simplistic) thesis, but Friedman uses it to generate some predictions that I found difficult to argue with. Consider:

* The US will remain the world's dominant military, economic, and cultural superpower for decades to come, if only because no one else will be capable of filling those shoes. And because no one else has such a powerful navy.
* The US is still a nation in its adolescence. We have a lot of drive and energy, but a lot of internal conflict and a tendency to overreact to problems. (I couldn't help but smile at that one.)
* China's spectacular present-day growth story will wane as the country suffers from underlying economic and demographic problems. Friedman draws parallels to Japan's apparent preeminence in the 1980s, and subsequent economic meltdown.
* Russia will struggle to assert itself, but will come apart
* Turkey will become the dominant Middle Eastern power
* As birthrates slow worldwide, industrialized countries will recruit immigrants, rather than seek to keep them out
* The boundaries between the US and Mexico will blur, as Mexico gains economic power and parts of the US southwest become increasingly Mexican in culture

However, I think the chess game analogy holds up only so far into the future, and the crystal ball becomes a lot shakier in part two. I'll give Friedman credit for doing his homework on future military technology (I happen to work at one the DARPA companies that gets a quick mention), but the elaborate narrative he sets up about a 2050 space and ground war between a Turkey-Japan alliance and the United States can only be read as entertaining sci-fi speculation, not a credible forecast of reality. And some of Friedman's general assumptions make less sense than others. For example, he speaks a lot of "historic enemies" when describing potential conflicts -- while I'm sure that serious wars won't go away, I have a difficult time believing that modern states will be anywhere near as likely to mobilize their citizens for large-scale conflicts with other states as they were in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially when those citizens will have many ways of communicating with each other directly. (Then again, I'm not Polish -- maybe they do worry about being overrun once again by Germany or Russia?)

Finally, there are a lot of subjects that Friedman just doesn't touch very much. How will technology change the picture? Could something like Kurzweil's "Singularity" unfold, with implications so sweeping and profound that they make all existing schools of thought, including geopolitics, obsolete? Consider the advances in computers and computer systems between 1970 and now, then think ahead to 2050. What happens to economies when robots take over a lot of jobs? And what about climate change, medicine, DNA engineering, religion, food and water shortages, and so forth? Or the unpredictable but game-changing factors that always occur in an increasingly complex world?

All in all, definitely worth a read for futurists, but not the only work you should have on your shelf.
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