Forecasting is tough, especially about the future

George Friedman makes some surprising predictions in his look at the next 100 years.
Alistair Nicholas | Jan 13 2015 | comment  



George Friedman is one of the smartest men alive. His company, Stratfor Global Intelligence, specialises in strategic forecasting for corporations using open source material.  When he gazes into his crystal ball, global CEOs take notice and companies change or adjust business strategies accordingly. (He also contributes regularly to MercatorNet.)

I’ve had some experience working with other strategic forecasting companies, one of which successfully predicted the Arab Spring of 2010, enabling its clients to take necessary steps to protect people and assets throughout the Middle East. Generally strategic forecasting companies are good at predicting the near future (next year) or the medium term future (three to five years).

Their predictions are based on the quality of their analysis and intelligence networks in relevant markets; that is to say, of their reading of the media and talking to key people (politicians, journalists, diplomats, etc.) on the ground in volatile markets. It is no easy task and they do sometimes still get the details wrong even if they have the trends right. Of course, it is the trends that matter in that game.

Their task is all the harder the further into the future they peer. To quote Niels Bohr, the Danish Nobel Prize winning physicist (1922) , “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

One might therefore expect a futurist to exercise more caution the further he looks. Not so Friedman. His latest book, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, while fascinating, is flawed by its own assumptions and oversights. Parts of it read like fiction and even science fiction and some issues, like global warming, are ignored.

Without wanting to give too much away, Friedman forecasts the end of the current jihadist conflict and threat to the West and a return to conflict between two or three major powers. No prizes for guessing that the US will be one of those major powers (indeed, Friedman forecasts that the US’s ascendancy has only just begun). But the other powers, that Friedman says will rub up against the US, may be surprising for some. Although he has Moscow coming into conflict with the US in the medium term, Russia, and China, will not prove longer-term threats to American power in the 21st Century. They will fall away because of internal geopolitical problems that will hinder their global ascendancies.

Friedman reserves the roles of the US’s antagonists for two countries that are currently friends and allies of Washington, countries that Britain and the US have clashed with before, Turkey and Japan.  

Although Friedman’s argument for this surprising contention is intricate, it is flawed by his focus on historical and geopolitical factors that he regards as inevitable. One weakness is that he ignores the reasons Turkey and Japan became close allies of the US in the post-WWII period, and, indeed, the reasons they might choose to remain so well into the 21st Century. He prefers to focus on historical geopolitical factors that will be a source of friction with the US. If he is right, political leadership, democracy, and the fruits of capitalism and international trade are meaningless, and the global political stability and economic achievements of the 70 years since the end of World War II have been in vain.

Other issues touched on by Friedman but not fully explored include the population crisis that the West is facing. Although Friedman’s forecast that the West’s ageing populations will place considerable strains on governments is correct, there is defeatism in his analysis of it, driven almost exclusively by an economic determinism that overlooks man’s ability to assess his situation and make choices above the mere rationalism of economics.

For example, Friedman puts the rise in divorce rates down to the end of “economic necessity” as the basis of marriage because people are unlikely to stay married for love, which, he says, can be “fickle”. In Friedman’s world of economic rationalism and determinism short term-marriages, “serial monogamy”, pre-marital sex, homosexuality and gay marriage, “civil unions without reproduction … becomes unextraordinary”, possibly even inevitable.

Although it is true that the world is heading in this direction I am not prepared to accept its inevitability. If this is our future, we are doomed. Conservatives, Christians, Jews and Muslims calling for a return to traditional family values should pack our bags and retreat to the wilderness. But we don’t because we believe in the supremacy of the human spirit and common sense.

Another peculiar “prediction” is that America’s large Hispanic population poses a threat to the integrity of the US. His view that Spanish-speaking Americans will rise up, particularly in those parts of the country that belonged to Mexico prior to the Mexican-American War of 1848, is fundamentally flawed. Indeed, he goes so far as to predict another Mexican-American war towards the end of the 21st Century and says we will have to wait until the 22nd Century to see who ultimately gains control of North America – the US or Mexico.

But why would Mexican-Americans (or other Hispanics) rise up against the US and try to join Mexico when they have a vested interest in staying American? It makes no sense that Hispanics would rise up against a country which has given them democracy, freedom and capitalism, in order to reunite parts of the southern US with a country many of them have fled for political and or economic reasons. No matter how strong and economically viable Mexico becomes I cannot imagine third and fourth generation Mexican-Americans wanting to return to Mexico or reunite with it in any way, shape or form.

Indeed, the picture painted of Mexican-Americans by Friedman is perhaps the biggest disappointment of the book. It almost reduces Friedman to the ranks of xenophobes and survivalists holed up in a cave in the Mojave Desert with an AK-47. Focusing on this almost racist idea greatly diminishes an otherwise compelling read.

The book also touches on the future of science and warfare in the 21st Century with interesting discussions about harnessing solar energy in space and beaming it back to earth to solve the energy crisis, and space-based weapons systems, including what Friedman calls “Battle Stars”, that will determine the outcome of World War III (yes, it’s inevitable).

The Next 100 Years is flawed by the very science of geopolitics that drives Friedman’s (and Stratfor’s) analysis when looking at near-term issues around the world. Geopolitics makes sense when you are forecasting strategic trends in one to five year frames in specific geographical regions. However it loses force for long-term forecasting because it cannot predict ideas and the influence of ideologies, or indeed the role of great leaders and popular sentiments. Nineteenth Century geopolitical futurists could never have predicted Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Gandhi, or Mandela.

With all its flaws, The Next 100 Years is still thought-provoking reading. Sadly, though, George Friedman won’t be around in 100 years’ time to verify his forecasts. Niels Bohr got it wrong: prediction is very easy, especially about the future.

Alistair Nicholas is a public affairs professional who works with Australia's federal and state governments.



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