The Next 100 Years is fun because of its contrary, anti-conventional wisdom thinking about the shape of nations: instead of assuming the perpetual rise of China and India, the book sees internal weakness in both, as well as greater problems with a resurgent Russia and a nationalistic Turkey. Rather than focusing on current American battles with what Friedman calls “global jihadist,” which he argues are a passing trend in terms of their overall threat, it examines what a more assertive Russia might look like as it tries to expand its influence in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses. Immigration from Mexico and Latin America is unpopular in the United States today, that immigration might become desired by the late 2020s as industrialized countries age. The United States is a “young” and “barbaric” country using the definitions Friedman gives. And the list goes on.
The problem with The Next 100 Years is that almost every page also contains a wildly implausible assertion or historical reading. To pick one example: after an extended discussion of Russia’s geopolitical interests leading toward 2020, Friedman says that openings in southern Russia combined with a continued American presence in Afghanistan means that “If there were an army interested in invading, the Russian Federation is virtually indefensible.” By conventional metrics, this is true, but it ignores the thousands of nuclear weapons Russia might have. Such an analysis reads like someone planning military adventures in Europe in 1900: it so utterly miscalculates what kind of destruction would occur under its situations that it really doesn’t seem to understand the situation.
Elsewhere, in a specious discussion of the 50-year cycles of American history, Friedman talks about the cycle “From industrial cities to service suburbs,” along with the malaise of the 1970s. He doesn’t mention the Arab oil embargo, energy spikes, or our response to both—instead he focuses on tax policy. Friedman says that in the 1980s, “Reagan’s solution [to economic problems] was maintaing consumption while simultaneously increasing the amount of investment capital. He did so through ‘supply-side economics’: reducing taxes in order to stimulate investment.” But Friedman completely ignores the monetary policy side and Paul Volcker’s efforts to tame inflation (see here, here, and here for more on him). He also ignores the foreign currency issues regarding China, as described, for example, here.
On the war front, the introduction of The Next 100 Years says regarding World War II that “The United States simultaneously conquered and occupied Japan, almost as an afterthought to the European campaigns.” This a) ignores that Japan was the proximate cause of the United States’ entry to the war, b) ignores the enormous strain of fighting World War II in the Atlantic and Pacific, and c) ignores the hundreds of thousands of United States causalities in the Pacific. Calling it an “afterthought” seems wrong. In addition, Friedman writes that:
A country’s grand strategy is so deeply embedded in that nation’s DNA, and appears so natural and obvious, that politicians and generals are not always aware of it.
Funny: I’ve yet to see a country’s “DNA” expressed as a double-helix, and the idea of countries having completely describable characters seems overly limiting and simplistic in this sense.
Still, despite these kinds of problems, Friedman does an admirable if shaky job of refocusing on long-term trends; for example, he says that Vietnam and Iraq were and are, respectively, “merely isolated episodes in U.S. history, of little lasting importance—except to the Vietnamese and Iraqis.” In both cases (at least so far), it appears unlikely that the United States has been permanently hurt, and the great strengths the country possesses, like the universities and immigration that James Fallows writes about here, have not been affected in major ways.
Friedman ties together demographic trends, the status of women, the status of families, and international politics in novel, unusual ways, arguing (for example) that, for example, Osama bin Laden’s rants often include comments about family values and the status of women that indicate he, like Pat Robertson, is riled up about women being independent enough to choose partners, divorce, and so forth. Demographics power some of the major social and political tensions of our era, even when they’re masked by surface reasoning, much as the 100 Years’ War was putatively about the souls of Catholics and Protestants while actually being about the distribution of power and resources in Europe.
I haven’t said much about Friedman’s views about China because those views are so easily arguable. He thinks that China is riven by tensions between wealthy coastal cities and the poor interior, which might eventually tear the country apart again, and that China is heading towards major problems with bad debt, economic structural incoherence, and banking problems. Maybe: but it’s also possible that China will knit itself closer together through telecommunications, roads, and railroads, and that its central leadership is aware of the problems Friedman enumerates.
By the same token, Russia could collapse again around 2020, but one could construct an equally attractive alternative scenario. In his defense, Friedman says that he thinks the broad outlines he gives will be followed even if the specifics are wrong, and in the epilogue he says:
It might seem far-fetched to speculate that a rising Mexico will ultimately challenge American power, but I suspect that the world we are living in today would have seemed far-fetched to someone living at the beginning of the twentieth century.
I’m sure the world of 2100 will seem “far-fetched” to someone from today, but the real question is, “far-fetched in what way?” The way Friedman describes, or some as-yet unforeseen way? I would bet more the latter, amusing though it is to anticipate the former. Too much is left out, including, notably, the threat of nuclear weapons and the possibility of global climate change. He says, however, that “My mission, as I see it, is to provide you with a sense of what the twenty-first century will look and feel like.” On this account he succeeds, provided that he changes the word “will” to “might.”