Dust flux, Vostok ice core

Dust flux, Vostok ice core
Two dimensional phase space reconstruction of dust flux from the Vostok core over the period 186-4 ka using the time derivative method. Dust flux on the x-axis, rate of change is on the y-axis. From Gipp (2001).

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Book review: G. Friedman's The Next Hundred Years

I have been going through George Friedman's book "The Next Hundred Years". It is a painful process. I find the book to be flawed on numerous levels, mainly by the intellectual limitations implied by Friedman's axiomatic geopolitical views. Nevertheless, there are some interesting points made, some of which are perhaps more interesting than the author intended.

In the book Friedman uses a series of logical arguments to predict geopolitical developments over the next century. This is a common approach in the social sciences, which distinguishes them from the natural sciences. The social sciences argue that they do not have the luxury of conducting experiments in the lab, which forces them to study their problems using formal systems.

There are natural sciences in which experimentation is similarily impossible. Paleoclimatology, historical geology, evolutionary biology--all of these involve trying to draw conclusions about complex systems on the basis of limited observations. It is very difficult to draw conclusions, and impossible to make predictions; but whenever there have been problems in these sciences, they have arisen by a reliance on axioms (e.g., increased CO2 necessarily leads to warming).

A logical (or formal system) is characterized by its rules of inference, its axioms, and its definitions. All of these characteristics serve as irreducible statements, which must be assumed true. They cannot be proven to be true. If you reject the assumptions, you reject all the conclusions. Any flaws in the axioms will be carried through to the conclusions.

Friedman defines civilization as the state achieved by a culture making itself open to the ideas of other cultures. He further defines barbarism and decadence as intervals in which the culture closes itself to external ideas; the first before they have become civilized, the second, afterwards.

I have seen better definitions of civilization elsewhere--principally, civilization involves division of labour, leading to surpluses, a portion of which is used to improve one's own standard of living and a portion of which is used to build something for the future--whether it be temples, roads, bridges, factories.

I would argue that a civilized people save and invest in future-oriented development rather than simply consuming their wealth. (This idea comes from a delightful article which argued that the very pinnacle of civilized behaviour is the making of port, which appeared on Lewrockwell.com, but which I am currently unable to find). Under barbarism, surpluses are consumed. In this schema, decadence might be the state of barbarism in which a formerly civilized people consume not only all of their own surpluses, but also the capital accumulated and built by their more civilized forebearers.

Friedman argues that cultures start off as barbaric, become civilized, and then decadent. He believes that America is still in its barbaric phase, and will become civilized sometime in the next century. Although I find this a charming scenario, I have to disagree. By the definition I have used, America was civilized in the past two centuries, when it built its infrastructure and factories. Currently consumption dominates the economy; and as formerly paved roads are being torn up and replaced by gravel (as it is cheaper to maintain); as areas of major cities have services eliminated by cities which can no longer afford to provide them--America is clearly in the state of decadence.

America's decadence is driven by the excessive rewards given to financial engineers relative to civil engineers. If you were a bright fellow, there are far more rewards in the financial services industry (hedge fund manager etc.) than in manufacturing, mining, or other productive enterprises. But decadence need not be forever. Cultures can revitalize themselves by expanding their efforts to build for the future. Hopefully this will happen in America this century. In fact I think it likely will, once the current economic system completes its apparent collapse.

Back to Friedman. Two axioms really stand out in his early arguments.

1) Economic power flows from military power.

2) War is inevitable, so long as humans act in their own interests.

Observation suggests flaws in the first two assertions. First of all, it is a virtual certainty that it is military power which flows from economic power, rather than the reverse. Invading and plundering your more prosperous yet peaceful neighbours only works for so long. The plunder will not likely lead to lasting economic power, and you either run out of prosperous neighbours or else they arm themselves.

Great economic power makes it possible to become a great military power. If military power created economic power, than the Soviet Union would have had a much stronger economy. 

I would also argue that war does not arise inevitably from competing human interests. For instance Mr. Chu, who runs the corner store down the street, and I have differing interests, but we do not need to fight. As my time-money preferences vary, sometimes I will agree to pay Mr. Chu's prices, and other times I will walk a few more blocks to the grocery store. Most people recognize that there is more to be gained by mutually agreeable trade, which adds value, than through war, which consumes and destroys capital.

(You may wonder why I kept reading this book. Well, truth to tell, our compound here in Ghana has recently suffered a direct lightning strike, blowing up the TV, greatly limiting my entertainment choices. And bandwidth being what it is, at least books are available).

Given the difficulties I have with his axioms and definitions, it is unlikely I would agree with his conclusions. Nevertheless, some do appear to be viable.

Friedman expects Turkey to become a significant regional power. I agree.

He expects China to stumble and break up. I agree that there may be a stumble, particularly given their demographic problems, and agree that there is a chance that the economic disparity between urban and rural populations will strain the country, but think that the probability of China breaking up is less than Friedman projects. I see no reason why China's future stumbles should be worse than America's early economic stumbles.

Friedman expects Japan to become the dominant Asian power. I disagree, as their demographic situation is the worst in the world (except possibly for Russia). With their general lack of resources and impending demographic collapse, they are in the midst of significant decline.

He expects America to be the dominant global power throughout the next century. I don't agree because the economic and regional disparities make America about as likely to break up as China.

Friedman believes that the conflict between the US and the jihadists (sic.) is nearing its end, as America has nearly achieved its strategic objectives. At first glance, this statement seems to be completely at odds with reality. Despite talk of winding down its military operations in Iraq, the sheer size of the bases and US embassy there suggest that the military will continue to operate there in large numbers. As their simple presence in Iraq generates more enemies, they will never cease combat operations in Iraq until they completely withdraw from the country. Yet it is their presence in Iraq which is their strategic objective.

But this view presupposes that American foreign policy has the goal of establishing order in Iraq (or Afghanistan, or Libya, etc.). Friedman asserts that this is not America's goal. In what is the most useful bit of information gleaned from this book, he asserts that America's actual goal is to sow chaos and confusion throughout Eurasia in order to ensure that no other global power arises. While I find this a nearly perfect explanation for American foreign policy in the region, I question his assertion that it is "right" for a global power like America to condemn many millions of people to lives of poverty and conflict.

He states that Al-Qaeda has comprehensively failed in its strategic objectives, which he claims are to weaken US influence enough in the Middle East so that US-friendly regimes like Egypt, Tunisia, etc. would overthrow their governments. Never gonna happen in a hundred years, according to Friedman. Actually it only took two (once they allied themselves with Ben Bernanke).

As I recall, Bin Laden stated Al-Qaeda's objectives as threefold: 1) expulsion of US forces from Saudi Arabia (not necessarily US influence over the leadership); 2) resolution of the Palestinian situation; and 3) higher oil prices. They have achieved goal 1, and made progress on goal 3 (I believe his target was $300 per barrel--so I would not classify their actions as a strategic failure. In fact they have done remarkably well, given the imbalance in power between the two adversaries.

Friedman has a lot more to say in the later chapters about Russia; inevitable wars between America and major regional powers (which would not be necessary if the US didn't keep a finger in every pie) and a demographic/economic showdown with Mexico. I am afraid that I have to classify much of the book as wishful thinking rather than hard analysis.


  1. "so that US-friendly regimes like Egypt, Tunisia, etc. would overthrow their governments. Never gonna happen in a hundred years" - not sure how long ago this guy posted but maybe he wants to tune in a TV some time

  2. Maybe you should finish reading the paragraph.