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The next 100 years

August 28, 2009

George Freidman
New Statesman
August 27, 2009

Japan and Turkey form an alliance to attack the
US. Poland becomes America’s closest ally. Mexico
makes a bid for global supremacy, and a third
world war takes place in space. Sounds strange? It could all happen. . .

In 1492, Columbus sailed west. In 1991, the
Soviet Union collapsed. These two events
bracketed the European age. Once, Mayans lived
unaware that there were Mongols, who were unaware
there were Zulus. From the 15th century onwards,
European powers collectively overwhelmed the
world, creating the first truly global
geopolitical system in human history, to the
point where the fate of Australian Aborigines was
determined by British policy in Ireland and the
price of bread in France turned on the weather in Minnesota.

Europe simultaneously waged a 500-year-long civil
war of increasing savagery, until the continent
tore itself apart in the 20th century and lost
its hold on the world. After the collapse of the
Soviet Union, there was no longer a single
European nation that could be considered a global power of the first rank.

Another unprecedented event took place a decade
or so earlier. For 500 years, whoever controlled
the North Atlantic controlled Europe's access to
the world and, with it, global trade. By 1980,
the geography of trade had shifted, so that the
Atlantic and Pacific were equally important, and
any power that had direct access to both oceans
had profound advantages. North America became the
pivot of the global system, and whatever power
dominated North America became its centre of
gravity. That power is, of course, the United States.

It is geography combined with the ability to
exploit it that matters. The US is secure from
attack on land or sea. It is vulnerable to
terrorist attack but, outside of a nuclear
exchange, faces no existential threat in the
sense that Britain and France did in 1940-41, or
Germany and Japan did in 1944-45. Part of its
advantage is that, alone among the combatants,
the US actually profited from the Second World
War, emerging with a thoroughly modernised
industrial base. But this itself can be traced to
the country's core geography. The fertility of
the land between the Appa­lachians and the Rocky
Mountains, and the configuration of the country's
river system, drove an economic system in the
19th century that helped fund an economy which
today constitutes between 25 and 30 per cent of
global economic activity, depending on how you value the dollar.

Just as important, perhaps, is that while the
population density of Japan is about 365 people
per square kilometre and that of most European
states between 100 and 300 per square kilometre,
the US population density, excluding Alaska, is
about 34 people per square kilometre. The US has
room to grow and it manages immigration well. Its
population is not expected to decline. It is the
pre-eminent power not because of the morality of
the regime, the virtue of its people or the
esteem in which it is held, but because of
Europe's failures and changes in global trade patterns.

This is a geopolitical reading of history.
Geo­politics argues that it is geography which
defines power, and that military, economic and
political power are different parts of a single
system. Geopolitics tends not to take policies or
politicians very seriously, seeing them as
trapped in reality. The finest statesman ruling
Iceland will not dominate the world; the
stupidest ruling ancient Rome could not undermine its power.

Economists talk about an invisible hand - a
concept, if not a term, they have borrowed from
Machiavelli. Geopolitics applies the concept of
the invisible hand to the behaviour of nations
and other international actors. Geopolitics and
economics both hold that the players are rational
and will pursue their self-interest, if not
flawlessly, then at least not randomly.

Think of a chess game. On the surface, it appears
that each player has 20 potential opening moves.
In fact, there are many fewer, because most of
these moves are so bad that they would quickly
lead to defeat. The better you are at chess, the
more clearly you see your options, and the fewer
moves you regard as being available: the better
the player, the more predictable the move. The
grandmaster plays with absolute predictable
precision - until that one brilliant, unexpected stroke.

Geopolitics assumes two things: first, that human
beings organise themselves into units larger than
families and that they have a natural loyalty to
the things they were born into, the people and
the places; second, that the character of a
nation is determined to a great extent by
geography, as is the relationship between
nations. We use the term "geography" broadly. It
includes the physical characteristics of a
location, but it goes beyond that to look at the
effects of a place on individuals and
communities. These are the foundation of geopolitical forecasting.

Opinion and reputation have little to do with
national power. Whether the US president is
loathed or admired is of some minor immediate
import, but the fundamentals of power are
overarching. Nor do passing events have much to
do with national power, no matter how significant
they appear at that moment. The recent financial
crisis mattered, but it did not change the basic
geometry of international power. The concept of
American decline is casually tossed about, but
for America to decline, some other power must
surpass it. There are no candidates.

Consider China, most often mentioned as the
challenger to the US. Han China is surrounded by
four buffer states, Manchuria, Inner Mongolia,
Xinjiang and Tibet. Without these buffers, the
borders of China move inward and China becomes
vulnerable. With these four buffers in place,
China is secure - but as a landlocked island,
bounded by mountainous jungle, the Himalayas, the
steppes of central Asia and the Siberian
wasteland. China is blocked in all directions but the sea.

The vast majority of China's population lives
within a thousand miles of the Pacific coast.
Beyond this line, water supply will not support
large populations. Most industrial development
has taken place within a hundred miles of the
coast. Consider the following numbers, culled
from official Chinese statistics. About 65
million Chinese people live in households with
more than $20,000 a year in income. Around 165
million make between $2,000 and $20,000 a year.
Most of these live within 100 miles of the coast.
About 400 million Chinese have household ­incomes
between $1,000 and $2,000 a year, while about 670
million have household incomes of less than
$1,000 a year. China is a land of extra­ordinary
poverty. Mao made the Long March to raise an army
of desperate peasants to rectify this sort of
extreme imbalance. The imbalance is there again,
a volcano beneath the current regime.

China would have to triple the size of its
economy - and the US would have to stand still -
if China were to pull even with the US in GDP.
Militarily, China is impotent. Its army is a
domestic security force, its ability to project
power blocked by natural barriers. Its navy
exists mostly on paper and could not possibly
pose a serious threat to the US. Casual
assertions of China surpassing the US
geopolitically ignore fundamental, overwhelming
realities. China could conceivably overcome its
problems, but it would require most of the
century to overcome problems of this magnitude.

Europe, if it ever coalesced into a unified
economic and military power, could certainly
challenge the US. However, as we have seen during
the recent financial crisis, nationalism
continues to divide the continent, even if
exhaustion has made that nationalism less
virulent. The idea of Europe becoming a
multinational state with a truly integrated
economic decision-making system - and with a
global military force under joint command - is as
distant a dream as that of China becoming a global power.

This is not an Americentric view of the world.
The world is Americentric. The US marshals the
economic resources of North America, controls the
world's oceans and space, projects force where it
wishes - wisely or not. The US is to the world
what Britain once was to Europe. Both nations
depended on control of the sea to secure their
interests. Both nations understood that the best
way to retain control of the sea was to prevent
other nations from building navies. Both
understood that the best way to do that was to
maintain a balance of power in which potential
challengers spent their resources fighting each
other on land, rather than building fleets that
could challenge their control of the sea.

The US is doing this globally. Its primary goal
is always to prevent the emergence of a single
power that can dominate Eurasia and the European
peninsula. With the Soviet Union's collapse,
China's limits and the EU's divisions, there is
currently no threat of this. So the US has moved
to a secondary goal, which is to block the
emergence of any regional hegemon that could, in
the long term, grow into something more
dangerous. The US does what it can to disrupt the
re-emergence of Russian national power while
building relations with bordering countries such
as Poland and Turkey. It encourages unrest in
China's border regions, using the ideology of
human rights as justification. It conducts direct
or surrogate wars on a seemingly random basis,
from Somalia to Serbia, from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Many of these wars appear to go badly. However,
success is measured not by the pacification of a
country, but by its disruption. To the extent
that the Eurasian land mass is disrupted, to the
extent that there is perpetual unrest and
disunion from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the US
has carried out its mission. Iraq is
paradigmatic. The US intervention resulted in a
civil war. What appeared to be a failure was, in
fact, a satisfactory outcome. Subjectively, we
would think George W Bush and his critics were
unaware of this. But that is the point of
geopolitics. The imperatives generate ideologies
(a democratic Iraq) and misconceptions (weapons
of mass destruction). These, however, are shadows
on the wall. It is the geopolitical imperatives,
not the rhetoric, that must be understood in
order to make sense of what is going on.

Thus, the question is how these geopolitical and
strategic realities shape the rest of the
century. Eurasia, broadly understood, is being
hollowed out. China is far weaker than it appears
and is threatened with internal instability. The
Europeans are divided by old national patterns
that prevent them from moving in a uniform
direction. Russia is using the window of
opportunity presented by the US absorption in
disrupting the Islamic world to reclaim its
sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union,
but its underlying weakness will reassert itself over the next generation.

New powers will emerge. In the 19th century,
Germany, Italy and Japan began to emerge as great
powers, while in the 20th century global powers
such as Britain and France declined to secondary
status. Each century, a new constellation of
powers forms that might strike observers at the
beginning of the century as unthinkable. Let us
therefore think about the unthinkable.

The United States conducts an incautious foreign
policy. The relative power of the US is such that
it has a margin of error far beyond that of the
countries it confronts. It also has a strategic
disruptive imperative, based on geopolitical
interests. This will make the planet an
uncomfortable place, particular for rising powers.

There is another dimension built into US foreign
policy - using subordinate regional powers as
surrogates, exchanging their willingness to incur
risks from a major power opposed to the US for
substantial benefits. These range from strategic
guarantees and support against smaller neighbours
to trade advantages and technology transfers. The
recovery of West Germany and Japan during the
cold war are classic examples of this. There are
three nations that are already major or emerging
regional powers that will be important to the US
in dealing with Russia in the next decade or so: Japan, Turkey and Poland.

Japan is already a great power. It is the world's
second-largest economy, with a far more stable
distribution of income and social structure than
China. It has east Asia's largest navy - one that
China would like to have - and an army larger
than Britain's (since the Second World War, both
Japan's "army" and "navy" have officially been
non-aggressive "self-defence forces"). It has not
been a dynamic country, militarily or
economically, but dynamism comes and goes. It is
the fundamentals of national power, relative to
other countries, that matter in the long run.

Turkey is now the world's 17th-largest economy
and the largest Islamic economy. Its military is
the most capable in the region and is also
probably the strongest in Europe, apart from the
British armed forces. Its influence is already
felt in the Caucasus, the Balkans, central Asia
and the Arab world. Most important, it is
historically the leader in the Muslim world, and
its bridge to the rest of the world. Over the
centuries, when the Muslim world has been united,
this has happened under Turkish power; the past
century has been the aberration. If Russia
weakens, Turkey emerges as the dominant power in
the region, including the eastern Mediterranean;
Turkey is an established naval power. It has also
been historically pragmatic in its foreign policies.

Poland has the 18th-largest economy in the world,
the largest among the former Soviet satellites
and the eighth-largest in Europe. It is a vital
strategic asset for the US. In the emerging
competition between the US and Russia, Poland
represents the geographical frontier between
Europe and Russia and the geographical foundation
of any attempt to defend the Baltics. Given the
US strategic imperative to block Eurasian
hegemons and Europe's unease with the US, the
US-Polish relationship becomes critical. In 2008
the US signed a deal with Poland to instal
missiles in the Baltic Sea as part of
Washington's European missile defence shield,
ostensibly to protect against "rogue states". The
shield is not about Iran, but about Poland as a
US ally - from the American and the Russian points of view.

To gauge what it means for a country to be a
strategic asset of a global power, consider the
case of South Korea. Any suggestion in 1950 that
it would become a major industrial power by the
end of the century would have been greeted with
disbelief. Yet that is what Korea became. Like
Israel, South Korea formed a strategic
relationship with the US that was transformative.
And both South Korea and Israel started with a
much weaker base in 1950 than Poland has today.

Russia cannot survive its economic and
demographic problems indefinitely. China must
face its endemic social problems. So, imagine an
unstable, fragmented Eurasia. On its rim are
three powers - Japan to the east, Turkey to the
south and Poland to the west. Each will have been
a US protégé during the Russian interregnum, but
by mid-century the US tendency to turn on allies
and make allies of former enemies will be in
play, not out of caprice but out of geopolitical necessity.

Two of the three major powers will be maritime
powers. By far the most important will be Japan,
whose dependence on the importation of virtually
all raw materials forces it to secure its sea
lanes. Turkey will have a lesser but very real
interest in being a naval power in the eastern
Mediterranean, and as its power in the Muslim
world rises it will develop a relationship with
Egypt that will jeopardise the Suez Canal and,
beyond it, the Arabian Sea. Poland, locked
between Russia and Germany, and far more under US
control than the other two, will be a land power.

US strategy considers any great power with
significant maritime capabilities a threat; it
will have solved one problem - the Russian
problem - by generating another. Imagining a
Japanese-Turkish alliance is strange but no
stranger than a Japanese-German alliance in 1939.
Both countries will be under tremendous pressure
from the established power. Both will have an
interest in overthrowing the global regime the US
has imposed. The risk of not acting will be
greater than the risk of acting. That is the basis of war.

Imagining the war requires that we extrapolate
technology. For the US, space is already the
enabler of its military machine. Communications,
navigation and intelligence are already
space-based. Any great power challenging the US
must destroy US space-based assets. That means
that, by the middle of the century, the US will
have created substantial defences for those
assets. But if the US can be rendered deaf, dumb
and blind, a coalition of Turkey and Japan could
force the US to make strategic concessions.

War depends on surprise, and this surprise will
have to focus on the destruction of US space
forces. If this sounds preposterous, then imagine
how the thought of a thousand bomber raids in the
Second World War would have sounded in 1900. The
distance travelled technologically between 1900
and 1945 was much greater than the one I am
suggesting by 2050. There are no breakthroughs
required here, only developments of what already exists.

It is difficult to imagine an American defeat in
this war, although not major setbacks. The sheer
weight of power that the US and its Polish ally
can throw against the Japanese and Turks will be
overwhelming. The enemy will be trying to deny
the US what it already has, space power, without
being able to replace it. The US will win in a
war where the stakes will be the world, but the
cost will be much less than the bloody slaughters
of Europe's world wars. Space does not contain
millions of soldiers in trenches. War becomes more humane.

The ultimate prize is North America. Until the
middle of the 19th century, there were two
contenders for domination - Washington and Mexico City.

After the American conquest of northern Mexico in
the 1840s, Washington dominated North America and
Mexico City ruled a weak and divided country. It
remained this way for 150 years. It will not
remain this way for another hundred. Today,
Mexico is the world's 13th-largest economy. It is
unstable due to its drug wars, but it is
difficult to imagine those wars continuing for
the rest of the century. The heirs of today's
gangsters will be on the board of art museums soon enough.

Mexico has become a nation of more than 100
million people with a trillion-dollar economy.
When you look at a map of the borderland between
the United States and Mexico, you see a huge flow
of drug money to the south and the flow of
population northward. Many areas of northern
Mexico that the US seized are now being
repopulated by Mexicans moving northward - US
citizens, or legal aliens, or illegal aliens. The
political border and the cultural border are diverging.

Until after the middle of the century, the US
will not respond. It will have concerns elsewhere
and demographic shifts in the US will place a
premium on encouraging Mexican migration
northward. It will be after the mid-century
systemic war that the new reality will emerge.
Mexico will be a prosperous, powerful nation with
a substantial part of its population living in
the American south-west, in territory that Mexicans regard as their own.

The 500 years of European domination of the
international system did not guarantee who would
be the dominant European power. Nor is there any
guarantee who will be the dominant power in North
America. One can imagine scenarios in which the
US fragments, in which Mexico becomes an equal
power, or in which the US retains primacy for
centuries, or an outside power makes a play. North America is the prize.

In due course, the geopolitical order will shift
again, and the American epoch will end. Perhaps
even sooner, the power of the US will wane. But
not yet, and not in this century.

George Friedman is the founder of the private
intelligence corporation Stratfor. His book "The
Next 100 Years" is published by Allison & Busby (£14.99)
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