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George Friedman is the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures (geopoliticalfutures.com), a publication dedicated to explaining what happens around the world and predicting what’s next. His books include The Next 100 Years, The Next Decade, and Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe. I interviewed him at his Austin, Texas, home.
Norman Angell just before World War I wrote The Great Illusion, a bestseller that said war was unthinkable because European countries had become economically interdependent. Is it unthinkable today? In the 1990s 100,000 Europeans died in the Balkans. We already have a near-war situation in the Ukraine. Wars are started by interdependence. Brazil is not going to go to war with Madagascar. France and Germany fought multiple times because they did have that connection. The interdependence that the European Union created is in decline and has become a point of friction. Will Europeans go to war? The history of Europe is the history of war. Perhaps this time they will avoid it, but the precedent says not.
Is Vladimir Putin a monster? If I were the president of Russia, I would do precisely what Putin has done. Having been defeated in the Ukraine, and facing a massive internal crisis, I would try to move my pieces around to finagle America into various traps, as with Syria. It is important to admire your enemies: When you underestimate them, that’s when you get into trouble. Putin is acting on behalf of his nation and is neither a fool nor a monster, but he is our potential enemy and as such we can’t get sentimental.
If Putin were to send his forces into Estonia, what should be the U.S. response? He knows the United States has a very powerful counter: large-scale air attacks. The U.S. Air Force was created to defeat a Soviet thrust into Europe. You can’t use those forces to take care of guerrilla operations or uprisings, but you can certainly use them to defeat a main attack by a large armored force.
‘Presidents don’t make history. History makes presidents. George W. Bush never thought his presidency was going to be about the Islamic world.’
What about a subtle Russian approach of finding sympathetic people in those regions and agitating? That attempt in Ukraine failed: A great many people did not want to get engaged in the dangers and risks of an uprising. If he tries to make a move into Estonia, will the Russians rise up? They are a substantial minority, but still a minority. Russian troops in Estonia will have to be fed, with trucks lined up to carry the fuel. It’s a complex process, and the greater your point of entry, the greater the risk.
Putin’s gambit in Ukraine has failed? There was once a pro-Russian government in Kiev. Now there is a pro-Western government. Putin holds Crimea, but he always holds Crimea under treaty, effectively. In the east he has tried to force an uprising. The Ukrainian army has been blocking it. His only next option is a large-scale military invasion; but if he takes that risk and fails, he is finished—and he doesn’t know that he would succeed.
So Putin’s next move is … What Russians have historically done: Move to the Middle East. Bog down the Americans there. He really doesn’t have a very large force in Syria. He tries to make it appear larger, but it’s only about 70 aircraft, and that force is getting bogged down too. So beware of the Middle East. Everybody can get bogged down.
What, then, is next? Economic reality drives Russia. Russia was built for oil prices no lower than $70 a barrel. The Russian government has about a year and a half before its cash reserves run out. When those reserves run out and teachers and soldiers no longer are paid, Putin is in exactly the same position that Gorbachev was in before the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union fell because … Defense spending soared and the price of oil fell. That for Russia has been a deadly trap—and Putin is trapped. So I’ve argued that the Russians are going to become much more aggressive than they were. That’s happened. I’ve also said the Russian Federation will collapse like the Soviet Union did and for very much the same reasons.
When? I’ve written that 2020 is the outer limit of Russian Federation survival. The Russian Federation is a federation and can fragment just as the Soviet Union did, or the Russian Empire did. I don’t see civil war or anything, but the Russian system works by collecting money in Moscow and distributing it to the various oblasts, the various regions. At some point the oblasts stop getting money and Moscow can send out the secret police to shoot anybody who dissents, or the oblasts go their own way. I don’t think the FSB [secret police] can be relied on to carry out that function internally any longer.
So he becomes desperate, and desperate people sometimes do desperate things. Gorbachev decided not to do desperate things. Putin was part of that decision. He was in the KGB, the first institution that knew Russia was failing because it had all the information. There is, of course, one terrible danger: several thousand Russian missiles with nuclear warheads. Putin loves the use of power and is not a fool, and if he launched nuclear missiles, what would he get? My best guess is he’d fold his cards and walk away with what he has rather than risk a nuclear war. But that is a difference between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Russian Federation. When the Soviet Union collapsed, nuclear weapons from all parts of the former Soviet Union were transferred to the Russian Federation. If the Russian Federation collapses, to where do you transfer them?
Whoever becomes president will face crises. Overall, is Donald Trump good or bad on international relations questions? About as bad as everyone else. The only difference is that he’s also incoherent. But look, presidents don’t make history. History makes presidents. George W. Bush never thought his presidency was going to be about the Islamic world. The real question about Trump: Is he capable of focusing down and making the treacherously difficult decisions that the president must? What is his character?
Do you have any sense of that? I don’t vote for a presidential candidate’s foreign policy because I know he’ll never carry it out. He’ll never have that opportunity. I look for his character. I want to know that when he has to send in troops, my children, he will use them wisely. My fear of Trump is that he is an extraordinarily self-confident man—and I want presidents who are afraid.
Would a Hillary Clinton presidency produce different foreign policy outcomes? With these two particular people the outcomes would be similar. Hillary Clinton’s response would be to intervene. That’s everything she’s practiced, everything she’s learned. Trump’s instincts would also be to intervene, to do something. As different as they are as people, both think something has to be done in a crisis. In most crises it’s best to do nothing because what you can do will be insufficient. Both are far more similar than they are different. It’s interesting they are both despised to the same extent.