This Wacky Century 21

It will all be over in just a couple of years. “The most important outcome of the war,” Mr. Friedman

It will all be over in just a couple of years. “The most important outcome of the war,” Mr. Friedman assures us, “will be a treaty that formally will cede the Unites States [sic] exclusive rights to militarize space.” The 2060s will be a “Golden Decade” for the victors, with Poland dominating Europe and America increasingly powered by satellites microwaving solar energy to Earth. The next, and perhaps most serious, challenge of the century will come around 2080—when a mature Mexico undermines the territorial and cultural integrity of America’s southern border.

 

ON WHAT REGISTER are these extended forecasts made? Mr. Friedman freely acknowledges the danger of predicting the future in fussy, minute detail. (He reminds me of a little boy fantasizing with toy soldiers, or—let’s keep it up to date—the computer game Civilization.) But he also strenuously asserts, on just about every page, that however outlandish his timeline can seem, it’s informed by an understanding of the deep currents steering human history: geography, technology, nationality, Weltgeist. This is the rationality celebrated in his epigraph—and if nothing else, The Next 100 Years demonstrates the uncomfortable closeness of Hegelian rationality and, well, the kind of numerology Nostradamus would love.

Either the 2028 or 2032 presidential election will be transformative, Mr. Friedman claims, “because there is an odd—and not entirely explicable—pattern built into American history. Every fifty years, roughly, the United States has been confronted with a defining economic and social crisis.” Undoubtedly true, if you’re looking for a defining economic and social crisis every 50 years.

The first turn of this semicentennial cycle is reasonable enough: The election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 replaced a republic dominated by moneyed gentry with a democracy of immigrant pioneers. The most recent turn replaced F.D.R.’s focus on “urban working class consumption” with Reagan’s “toward the suburban professional and entrepreneurial classes.” But to make the numbers work, Mr. Friedman has to call Abraham Lincoln, who by all accounts hated the man, “the emblematic hero of [Jackson’s cycle],” which only ended when—you guessed it—Rutherford B. Hayes was elected in 1876, and instituted the gold standard.

Mr. Friedman’s feats of gymnastic tautology might—might—not be so alarming if they weren’t wedded to a certain insouciance with respect to past history, and if his grand accounts of national psyche weren’t so risible. He claims, for instance, that the American “idea of pragmatism, as it has evolved into languages like C++, is a radical simplification and contraction of the sphere of reason.” Has this man ever written a line of object-oriented code? Has he ever read a line of William James?

There’s no inherent danger in sci-fi speculation, or even clever charlatanry. The danger comes with the market power of supposed expertise. The Next 100 Years is, in this sense, a terrifically entertaining book whose success would be terrifically unsettling. Today’s balance of power is the child of the nuclear bomb. Recently, even erstwhile hawks like Henry Kissinger have begun imagining a global peace secured through multilateral disarmament. Will such efforts be derailed by the governments, businesses and NGOs who take STRATFOR’s proclamations as truly the uncomplicated result of “look[ing] on the world rationally”? Which is to say, how might Germany have developed had there been no Hegel proclaiming its civilizational destiny?

The prophetic ramblings of a Nostradamus at least have the charm of avoiding self-fulfillment. In all likelihood, the world will not end in 2012. But if George Friedman sells enough copies of this book, who knows? Fifty thousand Americans might just die fighting a world war against Turkey in 2050.

 

Jonathan Liu, a writer living in Brooklyn, reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at books@observer.com.

This Wacky Century 21