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Culture Q&A

George Friedman

A fragile stability

Geopolitical update: Sifting through the headlines to analyze international developments

A fragile stability

George Friedman (Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Image)

WORLD periodically interviews George Friedman, founder of Geopolitical Futures and a leading forecaster of international developments based on demography, geography, military capabilities, and ideologies. We have run previous magazine articles featuring Friedman in issues dated Jan. 30, 2009; Jan. 15, 2011; March 21, 2015; Nov. 12, 2016; and March 31 and April 28, 2018.

We’re sitting down on March 2, 2019, and hearing about India and Pakistan fighting. It seems serious: Two nuclear-armed countries shooting down each other’s planes? They do this regularly. Islamic groups occasionally carry out attacks on the Indians. India responds by blowing something up. In the end India feels better, the Pakistanis feel better, and life goes on.

The headlines are dire. Yes, something more for CNN to get hysterical about. This happens all the time. It was a slow news day.

OK: Let’s take a tour of Asia, starting with North Korea. Kim is not going to give up his regional nuclear weapons. He has no reason to. We’re not going to go to war because it’s very difficult to invade North Korea. It’s very difficult to know where his nuclear missiles are. So we have a standoff. The United States cannot eliminate the nuclear threat, and we’re pleased so long as Kim doesn’t build an ICBM that could reach the United States, which he has not done.

Is Japan pleased? Japan is a historic enemy of Korea going way back. Japan is moving more and more aggressively toward being armed.

Why would North Korea fire nuclear missiles at Japan? I don’t believe it will, but the Japanese after Pearl Harbor want to be prepared for the worst. Japan could rapidly have nuclear weapons. It’s the most advanced nuclear power country in the world, it’s very good at technology, and this technology is 70 years old.

Five years from now you expect Japan to have nuclear weapons? It’s one turn of the screw away from having them. President Trump has said the Japanese should develop their own weapons because we don’t want to take responsibility for their national security. Japan also faces two other major nuclear powers, Russia and China, and it has a very serious dispute with China over the status of the East China Sea.

Was it odd that Trump and Kim met in Hanoi? The United States and Vietnam have been building a friendship. U.S. naval vessels are based in Cam Ranh Bay once again. Germany and Japan, once our enemies, became allies: We specialize in this kind of alliance switching. The Vietnamese are not hostile to the United States: They are hostile to China. The U.S. and the Vietnamese are cooperating in many different ways because both have a common interest in blocking the Chinese. And the closer we get to Vietnam, the more we can irritate the Chinese, which is our foreign policy.

Our war effort in Afghanistan has now gone on longer than our Vietnam War. The invasion of Afghanistan made sense. The original intention was to disrupt the Taliban and their allies in al-Qaeda. We achieved that in the first six months. We then set as the goal creating a free and democratic Afghanistan. This was demented: Afghanistan is many things, but it is not democratic. It doesn’t want to be democratic. It has its own, very ancient method of governing itself.

And Afghans know that the Taliban is not going away, but we are. So we talk to the Taliban and arrange a graceful exit. I have to say that this could have been arranged 10 years ago or longer, and the tragedy is that it was not. We did not understand the limits of power. We could disrupt the Taliban and al-Qaeda. You can blow something up and leave, without the pretext of rebuilding, but you always have the idea to stay a little more, put in a little more power. This happened in Vietnam and in Iraq, and it happened in Afghanistan. Afghanistan broke British hearts.

It broke Russian hearts. It just about broke Alexander the Great’s heart. Afghanistan has withstood invasion for millennia. If there’s one thing that history tells us, it’s don’t mess with Afghanistan. If you need to do something, go there, do it, and get out.

Does that apply to Iraq? We disrupted Iraq. We took out Saddam Hussein, who certainly deserved to be taken out, but we also took out the plug. Iraq was blocking the Iranians from the Mediterranean. The Iranians have now expanded to occupy part of Syria, most of Lebanon and Iraq, part of Yemen. Still, their economy is in shambles, partly because of our sanctions.

Was going into Iraq a mistake? Iraq was a critical country for projecting force in the Middle East. The Iranians had a serious problem with the Iraqis, against whom they fought a war, and they were delighted to see Saddam Hussein, their mortal enemy, go. We assumed we would be welcomed because Iranian intelligence told us we would be welcomed. Iranian intelligence manipulated us and persuaded us that the Shiites would support the Americans. Then the Sunnis attacked us, and for various reasons the Shiites also decided to attack us. We got caught in the civil war, and now the Iranians dominate the country.

And Russia is allied with Iran? Russia was happy to use the Iranians in Syria, but Russia is worried about Iran becoming very powerful and using its substantial influence in Azerbaijan to put Iranian forces in the Caucasus, which the Russians could not tolerate. The Caucasus is the second area, after the West, from which invasions come.

Here’s one of the confusing things: When Syrian government land-to-air missiles mistakenly shot down a Russian plane last fall, Russia blamed Israel. What was going on? The Russian response gave away the game: Russia told Israel, You didn’t give us enough warning. That means Israel is notifying the Russians about upcoming airstrikes and the Russians are not telling the Iranians, their supposed allies, that Israeli planes are coming. This is the Middle East and it’s complicated.

Fear of Iran has given Israel some Muslim allies. The Israelis and the Saudis have worked together for years, covertly. They have common interests and common enemies. The Trump administration has chosen a prudent approach. We’re going to pull back a bit in the Middle East. It was a good thing to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement.

Is the Trump administration doing better in the Middle East than its predecessors did? It’s not as bad as people say, but nothing could be as bad as people say. It’s not as good as Trump supporters say, but nothing could be that good. Trump’s instincts are not bad. His execution is bizarre. His decision to withdraw from Syria was not a bad one, but saying 2,000 troops would move out of a combat zone in a week?

That was a dangerous situation with Russia and the United States potentially coming to blows in Syria. Russia is in deep trouble. It needs $70- to $80-a-barrel oil to stabilize. When a country has deep economic problems, it tries to solve them by creating national security issues, so Putin threatened another Cuban Missile Crisis. He’s trying to convince the Russian people that even though he hasn’t given them a prosperous life, he’s made Russia great again. Russia does have 3,000 nuclear missiles, but Putin’s not a fool. He’s trying to point out that he’s a player, but since he’s extremely weak it’s a pretty weak move.

How’s Xi Jinping doing? China’s elite was afraid China was fragmenting. Xi became the dictator. Countries don’t get dictators when everything is fine and they say, Hey, why don’t we have a dictator? He became dictator trying to hold together a country in the midst of a terrific economic crisis quite independent of American sanctions. China has an economy too large for domestic consumption.

It needs exports? It’s entirely dependent on exports to stabilize its economy, and since 2008 the appetite of the world for Chinese exports has declined—first the recession, and then China no longer has the cheapest exports.

But it’s getting into high tech. In technology it’s up against the United States, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Germany … that’s tough competition. You can’t just decide you’re going to become a technological power. So China is caught between its past and its future.

They’re worried about regional warlords? The Chinese are afraid they’ll go back to the condition they were in prior to 1948: They had a century of regional conflict as each region tried to secure its own interests. Xi’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen. He periodically arrests corrupt people.

Isn’t “corrupt person” another way of saying “government official”? They’re almost all guilty of it. He’s getting rid of his enemies. Xi wants to make certain that no force arises within the Communist Party to challenge him. The question is how loyal the People’s Liberation Army is. It appears that the PLA is united and faithful to the government, but Xi is nervous. 

Kevin Vandivier/Genesis

George Friedman (Kevin Vandivier/Genesis)

What about ideological and religious challenge, such as that posed by the very rapid growth of Christianity in China? This is about raw power. How many army divisions do the Christians have? This is not one of Xi’s major concerns.

Why, then, is repression and persecution of Christians getting worse? Why not? Xi has a general policy to suppress anything that even remotely could threaten the regime.

What’s the biggest tension now between the United States and China? The Chinese are terrified the United States will set up a blockade in the South China Sea and cripple the Chinese economy. Americans have a legitimate concern that the Chinese will push into the Pacific. It comes down to naval power. For 10 years the Chinese have been talking about doing something about the South China Sea. For 10 years they have failed. I have great confidence in the U.S. Navy, and I would be very surprised if it could not cope with anything China has.

Isn’t China’s naval power growing? Two forces want to overestimate China’s power: the Chinese and the U.S. Navy. China wants to appear stronger than it is. The U.S. Navy does it to increase its budget—and I have no trouble with the Navy getting more money.

And space power? China is trying to land on the moon. Well, we did that 50 years ago. So they’re way behind. I don’t see any chance of war anytime soon. We can’t possibly land on the Chinese mainland: It would be a disaster. They can’t possibly challenge us. Basically, we will make faces at each other and stick out our tongues.

Will China open its markets for exports from the United States? The Chinese have all sorts of informal ways to block American goods. One way: Tell their citizens, “Don’t buy this stuff.” That works very well.

So, any real cause for alarm in South Asia or East Asia? At the moment it is stable, not because it is inherently stable but because various powers don’t have the military force to do anything. The Chinese have two aircraft carriers, neither truly finished. The Japanese are thinking about what to do. The North Koreans can’t hit the United States. But this is an area that could in 15 to 20 years become very dangerous.

One question about the Western Hemisphere: What do you expect will happen in Venezuela? Venezuela should be one of the most prosperous countries of Latin America, given its oil. It’s a wonderful place destroyed by a regime that bought support from the poor. Now there’s no more money and the party’s over. It should be a message to everyone about what happens when people are too generous with public funds. I don’t think the regime meant to destroy the country, but it has.

‘Venezuela should be one of the most prosperous countries of Latin America, given its oil. It’s a wonderful place destroyed by a regime that bought support from the poor. Now there’s no more money and the party’s over.’

Neighboring countries are putting on the pressure? The Brazilians want to make speeches. The Colombians are allowing transports to come through, but Venezuela will have to solve its own problems internally at some point. The military will have to act to remove Maduro, whereupon it will then be attacked as a stooge of the United States.

And books will be written about how Americans planned the coup? In Venezuela you can’t plan anything, not even a bus trip. In due course the army will get rid of Maduro, but then the rebuilding starts. That will take a very long time, and the army has a problem: It has to deal with the Cubans that are guarding the regime. Remember, Maduro is not guarding himself. Cuban intelligence security people are. At a certain point the Cubans will withdraw, and that will be the endgame—but after that comes rebuilding.

Final set of questions: Since 2001 we’ve made fighting terrorism our top national security issue. Is that changing? The United States in Afghanistan disrupted al-Qaeda, but didn’t solve the problem. Going into Iraq or Libya didn’t solve the problem. Some problems of violence are not solvable by military means. So terrorism remains a high priority, but it’s shifting away from a military solution.

If someone goes into a building and starts randomly shooting people … He will be able to do so. But look at 9/11. That was strategic terrorism, a massive attack on not just two important buildings in New York, but the Pentagon as well. It was a highly orchestrated operation. We had a massive military response to it. We were able to disrupt the command structure of al-Qaeda, but then ISIS emerged.

Are you saying we just have to live with apparently random terrorist acts? We’ve lived with them for a long time. I remember when Croatian nationalists blew up a building in New York City. An incident like that is not a strategic threat to the United States. It is murderous, and tragic for those who are there, but it does not undermine the country unless we allow it to.

When we make terrorism a major military question, are we fighting the last war? It’s how we fight a military action, but this is not a military problem. It’s an intelligence problem finding out who’s doing it. It’s a police problem arresting them.

Why haven’t we had another 9/11? 9/11 was a very sophisticated operation by people who knew how to evade surveillance by the FBI and the CIA while they gained training in learning how to fly.

So they all died. It was asset-wasting. Few people can carry out those operations. But it’s almost impossible to stop a lone individual who drives a car into a crowd of people. It’s an act by a person who’s come to believe something, and he’s prepared to give his life for it.

We can build barriers. He’ll strike somewhere else. This is a form of terrorism that’s indistinguishable from a psychotic killer. Some people have motivations that don’t fit into the political or religious mode. Why in the world does a 16-year-old decide to kill children in a school? There is such a thing as madness. In a country the size of the United States there are many maniacs.


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  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Mon, 04/01/2019 02:17 pm

    Informative. Illuminating. Interesting. 


    I couldn't think of any more "I" words. Nonetheless thanks for this fine article.