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Culture Q&A

George Friedman

Weak countries with big bluffs

China, Russia, and North Korea aren’t nearly as strong as they pretend to be

Weak countries with big bluffs

George Friedman (Illustration by John Jay Cabuay)

Since 2008 I’ve interviewed seven times international strategist George Friedman, chairman of Geopolitical Futures. We have different perspectives—he’s a materialist—but his analysis is valuable and his forecasts are often accurate. For example, when the United States a decade ago was emphasizing Libya, and Syria’s civil war tragedy had not yet begun, Friedman said our Libya focus was a mistake: Syria would be the crucial cockpit. Here are edited remarks from our visit last month. 

We hear China is so big, so strong, and so mighty. Is it?

The Chinese economy is staggeringly weak. Their banks—that’s the first place you see problems—are in trouble. We’ve been hearing that China, an economic miracle, will overtake the United States in five years. Journalists don’t come back and notice it isn’t overtaking the United States, or even coming close. The Chinese “One Belt, One Road” project is not happening.

We’re repeating our Japanese worries?

In the 1980s the Japanese were the Chinese. Pundits proclaimed we had to be more like the Japanese. In 1993 Business Week had a big story about “the Japanese economic miracle.” The Japanese banks had collapsed four years before. We left Japan in the dirt.

Individually, it’s easier to see the sin in others than in ourselves. Are big media doing the opposite now: Seeing problems in the U.S. government but not cracks in the Chinese regime?

It’s a general tendency. During the Cold War, we vastly overrated Soviet military capability. It was a wonderful thing we did: By overrating it we overmatched and overawed the Russians. France always underestimates its enemies, but we overestimate them—and we exert added energy.

The Chinese economy is staggeringly weak. Their banks—that’s the first place you see problems—are in trouble.

A big debate in the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates concerned a supposed missile gap. 

Within the military there were technical discussions concerning the capabilities of the Soviet Union: It had 5,000 tanks but only 1,000 drivers and inadequate fuel. But Pearl Harbor taught us never to underestimate our adversary. Greatness does not come out of complacency.

With China’s rapid growth ended, is the Communist Party asserting its authority and trying to cover up major social contractions by increasing the pressure on dissidents?

Very much so. The system is failing. What does a regime do when the system is failing? Fix it, which is hard to do, or frighten people. With American pressure on the Chinese economy, the Hong Kong affair, and the regime’s failure to make any headway in the South China Sea, there must be unease about Xi Jinping.

Moving to another dictatorship: Ten years ago you predicted concerning Venezuela, “In all likelihood, Hugo Chávez will lose power within the regime he created.” Which did happen, because death is a way of losing power.

Chávez, as a dreamer, was irrational, but he was already losing power because the drug dealers and Cuban intelligence operatives were coming in. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, is a thug. 

Don’t revolutions always go that way? An idealist or ideologue starts things off and a thug succeeds him? The United States is the exception.

Yes—it takes a thug to impose the ideology.

Can we do anything to help the suffering Venezuelans? 

Venezuela is in the grip of a monstrous dictatorship, but not so monstrous that it threatens anyone else. We could stage a coup d’état. When it went wrong, and all coups d’état somehow go wrong, we would be condemned for it. 

I interviewed you a year ago when headlines were dire about a clash between India and Pakistan, two countries with nuclear weapons shooting down each other’s airplanes. Your response was, “Something more for CNN to get hysterical about. This happens all the time, it was a slow news day.” How much of what we see in big media is hype or propaganda?

The media have declined extraordinarily. I used to go to The New York Times and gain from it some information. Now I see in the Times an article about a PowerPoint the president was supposed to have watched in the Situation Room, where everything is classified. The Times, which used to have people who knew about intelligence, never explained how its source could know what happened there, unless he was breaking the law.

Do Times editors really care about truth?

They don’t care. They have someone who’s willing to say something that they repeat as truth, if it suits their agenda.

Any good news from the Middle East?

The Russians are double-crossing the Iranians by allowing the Israelis to fly through their airspace without notifying the Iranians. That’s nice. And the Turks are beginning to think about doing something serious against the Iranian-Syrian regime, which they don’t like. 

Two years ago when I asked you what you expected from Russia, you said, “Vladimir Putin will be precisely where he is, bluffing a busted flush. His economy is a wreck.” Any change in that evaluation?

No. The economy is still bad and getting worse. In Syria he has won a great victory—for what end I don’t know, but he can say to the entire world, I won in Syria. Every time there’s a crisis he flies to a discussion, so he’ll be noticed. But he’s bluffing: That can get dangerous at times, but he doesn’t have the weight to turn history.

He’s announced he has some new super missile.

Yes, there are many hypersonic missiles.

Are the North Koreans also bluffing?

Look, you’re North Korea and you’re afraid of everybody. It’s like being in a bar when you’re the small guy and everybody’s having a fight. What do you do? Cry? No, you make absurd claims about your strength and your manliness. 

Why would reporters trust anything he or other dictators say?

Most of us can’t see what’s going on, and modern journalists who are in a position to watch have little life experience. Reporters years ago grew up in the streets and understood nonsense. Military reporters had been in combat. But most people coming out of a journalism school these days never had a fistfight, never had to bluff themselves out of a tough spot. They’re shocked when a politician does that. They lack empathy for what political leaders go through.

In your forecast for 2020 you note that the global economic slowdown now underway will create huge stresses. We tend to miss that in the United States because the stock market has done well and unemployment is low.

That low unemployment rate means there’s almost nobody else to hire. Our ability to put money in a bank and get significant interest does not exist. The number of people participating in the stock markets is limited. 

We could improve productivity.

Individual productivity hasn’t grown in years. It will grow when we start having unemployment and then redeploy the workforce to more productive jobs. In 2008 about 15 percent of the American workforce worked for financial institutions, a staggering number. Afterward, many of them didn’t. They became bartenders or real estate agents or what have you. They moved. The economy redeployed.

Most of us can’t see what’s going on, and modern journalists who are in a position to watch have little life experience.

Redeployed often in an unpleasant way.

Restructuring an economy is very unpleasant because people have to change the way they live—frequently for the worse. The alternative is to look like Bulgaria, where everybody will do everything the same way forever. 

I enjoy your skepticism and cynicism, but what hope do you have?

My hope, as you know, is not that the Messiah will come and end all our pain. My hope is that the same pain experienced 2,000 years ago will continue, and we will endure. Human beings at ease become corrupt. When they must act, they become decent. 

Decent?

They’re forced to do the things they must do.

They might feel forced to kill people.

That may mean killing people. It may also mean I’m not going to be an investment banker, but I have to support my children and maybe I’ll learn to be a waiter. There is a charm in that and at the time it may not be desirable, but when you look back on your life and you see the things you overcame, you treasure them far more than the things you slid by.

There’s a charm in becoming a waiter if you see it as a worthwhile calling. Those who don’t may become bitter and strike out at others.

Doing what you don’t want to do is the foundation of courage. And, over time, you realize, I was a man. My children needed to eat and I fed them. That’s enormous. The adversities that we confront allow us to show courage.

Depending on our beliefs?

Of course we’ll find who’s vile and who isn’t. What is this drama we’re living through? It’s not a Disney movie. We’re struggling with life and watching some succumb to evil. A full life is having done evil things, having done noble things, and experiencing all that. What else would it be?

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  • RC
    Posted: Thu, 03/05/2020 10:41 am

    Mr. Friedman’s answer to the question, “Depending on our beliefs?” is highly depended on the individual recognizing that they are a “man”.  In the “Abolition of Man”, C.S. Lewis makes this abundantly clear.   When we raise kids without a faith in God, they have little reason to become a man when they grow up.  So, when hard times come to them, we end up with really busy food pantries feeding their children.