Sunday, February 13, 2011

George Friedman: "The Next Decade": Foreign affairs, and only then high-tech

Author: George Friedman

Title: “The Next Decade: Where We’ve Been … and Where We’re Going

Publication: New York: 2011, Doubleday, ISBN 978-0-385-53294-5, 243 pages, hardcover, Introduction and 14 chapters  Amazon link.

I ordered this book from Amazon by “accident”. I thought I was getting “Tech Freedoms” “Next Ten Years” or “Digital Decade” but this book popped up when I searched, and I didn’t see what it was. But it turns out to be most important.

I was lucky enough to have a great history teacher my junior year of high school (see the “BillBoushka” blog, Sept. 24, 2007), and one of his ideas was that countries are somewhat like people.

Nations, after all, are collections of people who generally, usually under political or statist authority, must act cooperatively for some kind of common economic good, even if those “at the top” benefit the most.  So discussions on foreign affairs always subsume an indirect discussion of individual rights and “responsibilities”.
The author’s basic premise is that the United States has an empire, somewhat accidentally; it’s always tricky to balance the interests of the “empire” (or euphemistically “the enterprise”) with the interests of democracy, republicanism (not the partisan kind), and federalism.  But, the author argues, the U.S. has played a balancing act for decades, preferring to keep powers within any region in balance by sometimes supporting less than ethical regimes.  In fact, most of today’s major conflicts can be seen in these terms.

That paradigm, for example, explains all US policy back to the time of the fall of the Shah of Iran. It was in US interest that Iraq and Iran fight each other during the 80s, as long as the oil Straits of Hormuz kept open. I know, for example, that Petty Officer Keith Meinhold, and early “warrior” against the military ban on gays, flew PT-Orion reconnaissance missions in that area for some years, helping to keep the oil flowing.

The Persian Gulf War, and then the later neo-con and “Bushie” invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein can be understood in these terms, too.  But Friedman’s interpretation of 9/11 is genuinely challenging. He calls the Bushie euphemism of “war on terror” as a non sequiter; terrorism cannot itself pose an existential threat to the West, but maybe a group like Al Qaeda could if it could execute.   

Friedman provides a bit of a mixed interpretation of the WMD threat to ordinary civilian populations in the West.  He covers the “rumors” right after 9/11 that Al Qaeda might have some loose suitcase nukes (or that they could be diverted from Pakistan), but says later fact-finding makes that unlikely. WMD’s are extraordinarily hard to deploy and can be detected by stings and decoys. (Sam Nunn’s Nuclear Threat Initiative might interpret things differently.)  In fact, in April 2002, my own website underwent a hack at the exact point where I was discussing this threat, so I really wonder about this. 

My own feeling is that “enemies” could destabilize our system by hitting “soft targets” or ordinary (and perhaps attention-seeking) westerners much more seriously than he admits. (Think about the “Salman Rushdie Problem” or the Jylands-Posten Muhammad Cartoon Controversy.)

His interpretation of the Israeli Palestinian problem is interesting. Arguing that Israel had no right to settle its original homeland is like arguing Europeans had no right to colonize the New World.  So if Israel has the right to “exist”, then it may reasonably argue it needs to settle some areas for security. But of course, Palestinians can argue property or land was expropriated from them by force.  There is no perfect answer here the way individualistic morality would analyze it – so are countries really like people?

His analysis of many other areas of the world, especially Russia, China and Mexico, are more pragmatic. But a common thread is population demographics.  In many societies birthrates have fallen and working populations are hard-pressed to support their elderly.  The illegal immigration problem for the United States is governed by the needs of Americans and westerners in general to have grubby work done for them that they don’t want to do or are too physically vulnerable to do.

In his last chapter, Friedman talks about statism and innovation of technology, which he thinks has stalled at a fundamental level in the past decades. Our culture has become split between manipulation (financial derivatives) and applications (like social networking), rather than “real” innovation which requires very carefully nuanced public policy. But he may be underestimating the effect of global communications and social networking technology as a democratizing force, which may eventually prove neo-conservative ideas of military intervention for nation building misplaced.  Just look at what happened recently in Tunisia and Egypt (after the book was published).

At some point, one has to wonder about how much individual “morality” (in terms of patriotism, self-sacrifice, and “family values” as commonly understood – definitely not commensurate with objectivism or hyper-individualism) can affect the well-being of whole societies striving to remain economically stable and prosperous democracies.  Much of the “karma” of individual Americans has been described by hostile elements in terms of American statist (and intentionally manipulative) foreign policy. Likewise, economic turmoil (especially the recent 2008 financial crisis) could be understood in statist support of the idea of “getting something for nothing”.   But at some point, you have to wonder about moral fundamentals, like sharing of sacrifice and motivational integrity. Authoritarian politicians, ranging from Hitler to Chairman Mao and Pol Pot, have not been reluctant to exploit this in the past.

The style of the book is interesting. There are many maps, and at a certain level it is like a supplementary textbook, maybe for a high school world history course.  Having substitute taught some in recent years, that’s how it strikes me.