February 6, 2011 | SFGate.com

The Next Decade,’ by George Friedman: Review

The Next Decade

Where We've Been … and Where We're Going

By George Friedman

(Doubleday; 243 pages; $27.95)

One can easily understand why George Friedman is an optimist in general and about America in particular.

Born in Hungary to Holocaust survivors, he spent his first years in a camp for displaced persons in Austria after his parents fled the communist takeover of their homeland. Eventually immigrating with his family to the United States, Friedman went on to earn his doctorate from Cornell. A political science professor, he first gained notoriety for his 1991 book “The Coming War With Japan,” which predicted a conflict between Washington and its closest Asian ally because of Tokyo's then-burgeoning economic muscle.

That the prediction did not quite pan out – in fact, the bottom fell out from the Japanese economy about the time the volume hit bookstores – did not prevent Friedman from launching Stratfor, a political intelligence and forecasting consultancy with a not-insignificant subscriber base, especially after 9/11.

Thus, despite the reverses of recent years, there is no doubt in Friedman's mind that the current century is the American century. His 2009 book “The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century” made the case that the United States would dominate in every sector: economic, technological, political and military. More tendentiously, he predicted the economic collapse and political fragmentation of China, the breakup of Russia, and the rise of Japan, Poland, Turkey and Mexico as major powers, although the latter will also pose a challenge to its northern neighbor as it tries to recover territory lost in the 19th century.

In the end, he is convinced that the United States will prevail, not least because its scientific geniuses will have put into orbit gigantic “battle stars” from which military commanders will be able to deploy “missiles that can be fired from space with devastating effect” on those who would stand in the way of America's manifest destiny.

In his most recent offering, “The Next Decade: Where We've Been … and Where We're Going,” Friedman justifies the fantastic landscape he painted previously by arguing that “in the course of a century, so many individual decisions are made that no single one of them is ever critical.” In contrast, “in the shorter time frame of a decade, individual decisions by individual people, particularly those with political power, can matter enormously.”

And no individual will matter as much as the president of the United States, whom Friedman unabashedly describes as the “global emperor” of an “unintended empire.” The president's job, according to the author, is “to anticipate what will happen, minimize the unpredictability, then respond to the unexpected with keen and quick insight” – a tall order indeed, but one with which Friedman, who explicitly invokes Machiavelli's counsel to the prince, is more than willing to lend a hand in fulfilling.

Moving through several chapters at a dizzying pace, Friedman assumes the mantle of the Florentine, dispensing advice to what he actually calls “the Machiavellian president” on how to implement his preferred foreign policy of maintaining regional balances of power amid what he sees as the global dynamics of the next decade. In the Middle East, Washington should distance itself from Jerusalem in order to restore the balance between Israel and its neighbors, and then reach an entente with Tehran in order to counterbalance the Arabs.

In South Asia, Pakistan must be strengthened against India so as to divert the latter from achieving a level of naval development that would threaten U.S. hegemony in the Indian Ocean. In Eurasia, with the European Union falling apart, the United States should undermine growing ties between Germany and a (temporarily) resurgent Russia by cultivating a new strategic partnership with Poland. In the Far East, America needs to buy time for a splintering China so as to prolong Japan's dependency on the security umbrella provided by the U.S. military.

Latin America and Africa are afterthoughts for Friedman, the former, with the exception of laying the foundations for containing Brazil, merely “an arena for commercial relations,” while the latter is a place where the United States is “free to remain aloof” for want of any overwhelming interest.

If all this strikes one as a bit of Yogi Berra's “deja vu all over again,” it is. Friedman's futuristic prognostications are essentially straight out of English geographer Sir Halford Mackinder's deterministic “Heartland Theory” whereby command of the Eurasian “heartland” is the key to power over the “world island,” which, in turn, leads to global domination. In short, the next century is just like the last century and the next decade is merely a return to history. Not that such an outcome is discomfiting in the least to the unflappable Friedman, who remains unshaken in his faith that “the United States is far more powerful than most people think” and that its problems, though real, are “trivial compared to the extent of its power.”

While serious scholars and analysts will find much in “The Next Decade” with which to take issue, amid the political and economic uncertainties of the day, it should be no surprise that Friedman's optimistic vision – delivered in an engaging style and with no little dramatic flourish, rather than the dry prose of more wonkish foreign policy tomes – should nonetheless find a wide and receptive popular audience.

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