A Response to George Friedman's Latest Book

World map and compass

A brilliant geopolitical analyst and forecaster for almost thirty years, popular awareness of George Friedman exploded with his New York Times best-selling The Next Hundred Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century in 2009 and The Next Decade: Empire and Republic in a Changing World in 2011. In his most recent publication, The Storm Before the Calm: America's Discord, The Coming Crisis and the Triumph Beyond, Friedman leans again on some of the major ideas set forth in these and other publications as well as turning his often-prescient gaze more directly upon the United States and its immediate future. As the founding father and long-time CEO of Stratfor for almost thirty years and founder and current CEO of Geopolitical Futures, Friedman brings his considerable experience to a challenging task as the title of his most recent book suggests.

Friedman holds to a set of assumptions about history and geopolitics that consistently dictate his analyses and forecasts. He argues that understanding history is closely tied to geography. In this book as in his previous work, he suggests that this understanding leads to inevitable outcomes that may be predicted with a high degree of certainty. In earlier books, he writes that the rise of the United States was inevitable given the country's location in the northern hemisphere between Europe and Asia and with a strategic location accessing directly the world's two great oceans. Along with this assertion, Friedman argues that the inherent natural resources located on the continent further solidified this inevitability. Likewise, other countries' futures can be equally predicted due to their own geographic locations as well as their responses to the United States and other powers, and that likewise, prognosticators can predict the responses of the United States and other nations to those countries due to those undeniable and inevitable responses.

He also adopts an understanding of world geopolitics based on a theory held, in part, by some ancient empires, early modern nation-states, all the way to the most recent empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, the British Empire. This theory is built around the importance of waterways, be it the Nile and/or Tigris-Euphrates in early ancient times, the control of the Mediterranean Sea in later ancient times, or the control of the oceanic trade routes to Asia or the Americas in the early modern time period. Further evidence of the importance of controlling the sea lanes is demonstrated by how the British Empire dominated the globe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Even the outcomes of World War II seem to him to have been inevitable given the geography of the nation states and their alliances. After World War II, he argues that the United States essentially became a reluctant empire, in part by domination of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans through its naval power. Essentially, Friedman either knowingly or unknowingly has adopted the theory of world power advanced by Alfred Thayer Mahan of the U. S. Naval Academy in the late nineteenth century that heavily influenced a second wave of imperialism by the Great Powers of Europe and included an emerging Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It also inspired U. S. leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge, and John Hay. (Warren Zimmerman, The First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002).

Another major theory which Friedman holds is that history is cyclical and thus can be predictable. This interpretive tool goes against at least some western thought regarding nature. Other historic thought—from a Judeo-Christian worldview to a Marxist one—is that history is linear and sometimes includes a utopian outcome. It may be that history is moving toward some sort of religious eschatology with a projected ending or that society and culture are continually progressing and evolving to a conclusion of perfection of some kind. Friedman's cyclical understanding of history is more closely akin to Eastern or Asian thought that history is a series of cycles that are repeated in unending fashion.

In his previous books, these three sources of inevitability contribute to what Friedman argues in the inevitability of history and its outcomes. He soundly rejects, for example, that U. S. presidents—or any leaders for that matter—have a major influence over the developments or course of history. He believes that leaders are driven by these sometimes hidden forces and in actuality have little influence over the course of events. Indeed, he believes that the responses of leaders, be they political, military, business, diplomatic, economic, religious, social, and/or cultural are driven by unseen geopolitical forces and historical cycles and as such their decisions may be predicted. To understand what Friedman writes in The Storm Before the Calm, the reader must recognize these underlying assumptions of his work. He makes convincing arguments.

In the early chapters of this book Friedman provides an overview of his understanding of U. S. history, built around U. S. responses to its geography and his definition of the American people generally as "cowboy, inventor, and warrior." Then as he transitions to Part Two, he suggests that both American history and the American people are bound by two distinct and orderly cyclical patterns. The first he identifies as "the institutional cycle [that] controls the relationship between the federal government and the rest of American society." (77) He believes this cycle lasts approximately eighty years. The second cycle is "socioeconomic" and "shifts about every fifty years." (77) This historian and reviewer has often both intentionally and unintentionally understood and taught U. S. history based on a similar cycle of eighty years. The fifty-year socioeconomic cycle is a bit more difficult to embrace from a historian's position. It should be acknowledged that, at times, Friedman oversimplifies history for his reader and there are a few places he makes questionable leaps in understanding history.

However, it should also be acknowledged that Friedman is addressing a general audience. While he does great research, by writing in a popular style he does not cite the sources for his information and he undoubtedly simplifies things for his audience. Therefore, it is difficult to recognize some of the sources for his historical theories, particularly those related to the nineteenth century that are part of the centerpiece of his arguments on U. S. history. It should be noted that he is not a historian by trade or education, though obviously history influences his writing and geopolitical theory. That said, readers are encouraged to delve deeper into the historical eras he is discussing.

The overarching thesis of the book is that Friedman believes that these two inevitable cycles are intersecting for the first time in U. S. history, in the mid-2020s and early 2030s. He predicts that this intersection explains the political and socioeconomic volatility that the U. S. is already experiencing. Indeed, Friedman sets forth the idea that the presidential election of 2016 and the current presidential election cycle in the U. S. this year are foreshadowing of a deeper and more difficult next eight to ten years. In explaining this "opening confrontation," Friedman argues that in 2016, Hillary Clinton "won the heartland of the technocracy [the Northeast and West Coast] and lost the heartland of the country" which he describes throughout as "the declining industrial base" (159) and the children and grandchildren of that base. He also opines that, in the next decade, new and yet unperceived political alliances will be formed that will add to the volatility of that decade. Further complicating the transition will be perceptions of the involvement of the federal government and unforeseen international events. Political alliances will adjust according to new realizations.

For instance, this writer has frequently argued that one reason for the continued polarization of the country is due partly to the fact that extremists on the right and the left control the elective process at the earlier stages, including the primary system that Friedman targets (177), and thus, in recent years polarizing candidates emerge that force American centrists, whom this writer would argue make up the majority of voters nationwide, to choose between the two poles when voting. Friedman concludes that "[how] much the United States will be ripped apart in the 2020s will depend on the steps taken in particular sectors of American life to rectify the situation and lessen the pain on both sides of the divide. . . ." (182)

As Friedman begins to close his book, he writes that the 2020s and this conflict of political-institutional and socioeconomic cycles will be centered upon technology and education. Since he believes that technology currently emerges from higher education and that higher education has become increasingly expensive and cost-prohibitive to many Americans, especially to minorities and the children and grandchildren of the declining industrial base, this emerging conflict will center on the university. He concludes that the solution is for higher education to adapt by clearly dividing faculty into teaching and research faculty and rewarding each similarly. Such an adaptation suggests that there needs to be a radical realignment of institutions and their missions and probably the elimination of some universities and merging of others.

Friedman continues by predicting that there will continue to be a destabilization of the American social structure. He further suggests that the "institutional and economic and social shifts will merge together in" the presidential elections of 2024 and 2028. He urges leaders in all elements of American life to consider re-thinking how they operate. For example, higher education should create "a more realistic map of excellence." Research in education and business should adjust to falling birth rates by working—or inventing, to be consistent with his themes—to ensure that as people live longer and healthier through the development of new technology that makes such quality of life possible and the aging population less of a burden on society. He readily admits, as should most of his readers, which he does not know or understand what that technology will be. However, like the development of space technology storing and converting solar power that he suggested as a possibility in The Next Hundred Years and now seems to be closer to fruition, he believes that American creativity and inventiveness will provide that technology jump to replace the microchip as the invention driving the next socioeconomic cycle. (233)

Friedman is careful to note that he has not delivered conclusions about climate change as part of his equation for the future. He appears to suggest quietly that technology and American ingenuity may well provide an adaptive method to deal with the future impact of climate change, such as the previously mentioned space solar energy conversion technology. (225)

Friedman concludes on a positive note. He believes that once the United States has weathered the "storm" of the 2020s and early 2030s, the country will witness another surge of immense progress and decades of calm before the emergence of another socioeconomic cycle around 2080. In a large sense, he is bullish on America's future for the same reasons that he interprets the past. He believes that the geopolitical forces that forged the United States, a moral and constitutional foundation, and continued American cowboy, inventor, warrior persona will provide the kind of creativity and flexibility that carried the country from its colonial past to awkward empire presently into a continued position of national prosperity and global leadership.

This reviewer does wonder how long Friedman's analytical tools of approximately fifty-year social-cultural cycles and eighty-year political-institutional cycles will remain relevant. This is especially true given the rapid change both the U. S. and the world currently experience and the explosive exponential growth of knowledge in science and technology. This experiential whirlwind that has increasingly occurred in recent years may drive cycles that develop so rapidly as to render Friedman's predictive model ineffective for understanding the future. This reviewer also wonders where the current pandemic fits into this model and if it will alter or hasten the cycles to which Friedman refers. The suspicion is that he would insist that the pandemic fits exactly into his cycle of storm in the 2020s that will lead to the ultimate calm he anticipates in the 2030s.

So what conclusions might be drawn for the current setting of this university, its mission, and the constituency it serves? While some will quibble with the role Friedman gives individual leadership—such as that of U. S. presidents in shaping the development of the future that he regards as negligible—at the very least, leaders of the university and the leaders that Dallas Baptist University hopes to produce need to be familiar with Friedman's work. At the same time, these same leaders need to read and interact with other geopolitical and international scholars and futurists such as Michael Klare, Thomas P. M. Barnette, Samuel Huntingdon, Thomas Friedman, Francis Fukiyama, and John Mearsheimer, in order to integrate their interpretations with those of George Friedman. It is incumbent upon these leaders to be flexible and respond to the rapidly changing environment forecast by Friedman. The academic community needs to consider the advice offered by Friedman that relates directly to its mission. Once again, the current pandemic may present various communities, be they geographical, political, business, religious, or academic, a golden opportunity for re-envisioning their mission or re-stating and building upon that mission and its delivery. Finally, in the context of the faith community, these same present and future leaders and including constituents, administrators, faculty, and students need to identify the necessity of moral leadership in the arena of freedom to protect and extend principles that are central to the faith community.

Written by Dr. Mike Williams

Dr. Mike Williams serves as the Professor of History for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

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