Skip to main content

Culture Books

Shadow wonk



Shadow wonk

For author and strategic thinker George Friedman, all geopolitics is inevitable and impersonal

"I am Hari Selden." That's what George Friedman told me in an email after I read a proof of his new book that is likely to hit the best-seller list next week, The Next 100 Years (Doubleday). But to understand the significance of that comment, you need some background.

Friedman is the CEO of Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting, Inc.), which Barron's calls "the shadow CIA." Stratfor publishes a highly informative daily intelligence briefing concerning developments around the world, and also has taken on special assignments for clients such as major companies and foreign governments.

Friedman founded Stratfor in 1996 as the culmination of a life of risk-taking. His parents, Holocaust survivors, escaped with him from Hungary in 1949 while he was still a baby. He came to the United States at age 3 and grew up in the dangerous terrain of the Bronx. He found libraries a safe haven and started reading more, eventually receiving a Ph.D. from Cornell in government, with an emphasis on Marxist political theory.

Those experiences left Friedman proficient in three realms of knowledge prized by the CIA during the 1970s: He was a native speaker of Hungarian, he knew (and hated) Marxism, and he knew how to wield a knife. He joined an intelligence agency and also built a solid professorial career, teaching for nearly two decades at Dickinson College and moving to LSU in 1994. Then he took the risk of giving up academic security and started Stratfor.

Stratfor's philosophical trademark is a wizened cynicism like that which dominates the book of Ecclesiastes until its last chapter: All is vanity, and there's nothing new under the sun. Economic, political, and societal structures dictate events, with individuals running with necessity or getting run over. Friedman's The Next 100 Years is filled with phrases like: "The Chinese cycle will move to its next and inevitable phase. . . . This isn't about policy. It is about the way in which impersonal geopolitical forces work. . . . [Russia] has no choice but to become a major regional power. . . . The Turks will make an unavoidable strategic decision around 2020."

Some historians might debate this stress on inevitability. For example, Friedman writes that the reelection of Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 was unimportant: "The details might have changed, but it is hard to imagine the United States not getting into the war or the war not ending in an allied victory." But had not Winston Churchill rallied Britain and developed a strong relationship with Roosevelt; had an isolationist like Charles Lindbergh been elected president in 1940 (as Philip Roth fantasizes in his novel, The Plot Against America); had not Germany invaded the Soviet Union-could the outcome have changed?

Friedman does offer the usable metaphor of "history as a chess game in which there are many fewer moves available than appears to be the case. The better player you are the more you see the weaknesses of moves, and the number of moves shrinks to the very few." He's right, but Friedman's predictions are rooted in philosophy as well as observation: "If human beings can simply decide on what they want to do and then do it, then forecasting is impossible. Free will is beyond forecasting. But what is most interesting about humans is how unfree they are."

And here we come to Hari Selden, central character of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series, which began as a trilogy and eventually became seven volumes written over 44 years-and the winner of a Hugo Award as the best science fiction series ever.

Asimov has Selden, a mathematics professor during the declining years of a future Galactic Empire, invent "psychohistory," a method of predicting the future on a large scale. Psychohistory assumes that individuals will behave erratically but the behavior of a large mass of people is predictable. Selden predicts that the empire will fall into 30,000 years of barbarism, but through rational action-namely, listening to the advice a holographic version of Selden will give at the appropriate time because he can predict each crux-this dark age can be reduced to 1,000 years.

Friedman, like Hari Selden, analyzes rather than assumes. Instead of pontificating about immigration generally, Friedman in The Next 100 Years notes the difference between immigrants to a far country and immigrants from a country next door: "Mexicans who move into the borderland behave differently from Mexicans living in Chicago," who behave like traditional immigrants.

Friedman's analysis of the U.S. situation in Iraq is fresh and significant: Instead of saying that the United States is fighting just for oil or just for democracy, he argues that "the United States wins as long as al Qaeda loses. An Islamic world in chaos, incapable of uniting, means the United States has achieved its strategic goal. . . . So long as the Muslims are fighting each other, the United States has won the war."

Friedman also shows why the Russian bear is able to throw around its hefty weight: "In an energy-hungry world, Russia's energy exports are like heroin. It addicts countries once they start using it." Predictions are perilous, though, because actions large and small always have unanticipated consequences. For example, the United States in the 1950s started building an Interstate Highway System for purposes of national defense, but fast roads to downtown led to a burgeoning of distant suburbs.

The further out Friedman goes, the more speculative his forecasts become. He argues that Mexico, Turkey, and Poland-Poland?-will become great powers. He predicts economic turns that seem inherently unpredictable: "The years around 2040 will be a flush time in the United States." He speaks of rising Japanese power and has fun with science fiction in an amusing section about U.S. space-based weapons facing a sneak attack from Japanese missiles hidden on the backside of the moon.

But why not? Hari Selden made predictions and so can Friedman, if his belief in the limits of leadership is true. He writes about decisions made by Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, "Reality dictated this evolution." But can't leaders disregard reality, and don't we often act irrationally? In fiction Hari Selden could anticipate that certain crises would produce wise leaders; therefore, individuals did not have to abstain from action because it might be that action on which a psychohistorical projection depends. But in life, can leaders be both trapped and godlike?

Friedman is a political conservative unfazed by the election of Barack Obama over John McCain, because he predicted that outcomes in Iraq and other key areas would be the same no matter the winner: "The patterns are too powerful, too deeply rooted in fundamental forces." Friedman acknowledges that an Obama administration will be a good test of his theory (although, of course, we'll never know what a McCain administration might have done).

And that theory implicitly brings questions about the purpose of politics and even the purpose of life. Why work hard for a candidate (who's probably a windbag) if all that effort is merely a striving after the wind, as Ecclesiastes contends? Why develop new concepts, if ideas have little effect on history? Why do anything in life?

Friedman's motives are not easy to peg. He's a patriot, loyal to the country that has sheltered him. He's also a pragmatist who argues that we all live on a slippery slope between total immorality and the perfect impotence of perfect morality, so what matters to him is not a moral stance but the ability to act decisively. (He praises Winston Churchill for defeating one monster, Adolf Hitler, by allying with another, Josef Stalin, and then working to defeat Stalin.)

Yet Friedman, coming from a secular Jewish background, is perhaps most an existentialist. Desiring to set an example of bold living, he praises the honesty to "believe what you see, even when you're laughed at," and to "profoundly and deeply not care what people think of you." That's good-it distinguishes him from the herd of television pundits-but I like to think he is seeking even more.