April 29, 2009 | Commentary on Internet And Technology, National Security and Defense

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century

For a book that purports to tell the story of the upcoming 100 years, George Friedman's The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century reads like a decidedly old-fashioned book. Those who are not tracking the many threads futurists try to weave together to unveil the fabric of the future may find value in Friedman's introduction to a range of topics from demographic trends to energy research. Other than as a source of light entertainment, however, this volume does not have much to offer.

The Next 100 Years outlines a future history conceived from studying current economic, political, social and cultural trends. What is ahead, Friedman suggests, is a mixture of collapsing empires, titanic wars, breakneck resource competition and breathtaking technological advancements.

Friedman, a former political science professor at DickinsonCollege and the founder of STRATFOR, a private open-source intelligence company, argues he has a remarkable method for peering into the future that amounts to more than just guessing. He calls his method of analysis geopolitics. Sadly, that admission is hardly inspiring news. Predicting the future this way (combining the impact of geography, demographics, culture, economics, politics and Technology to assess the future course of states) is nothing new. Friedman even acknowledges this when he discusses two of the granddaddies of looking at the world through a geopolitical perspective, British geographer Halford Mackinder and the American naval strategist and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan.

Recognizing that The Next 100 Years looks at the next century in the same manner as people looked at the last two might prompt the question: What makes Friedman's way of predicting things new and interesting? The answer: It is hard to tell. There is precious little in The Next 100 Years to suggest that the narrative is anything but Friedman's musings. There are no footnotes, no index, no bibliography and worst of all, no real discernible analytical method. This is remarkably disappointing, particularly from a CEO who runs a company that claims to do cutting-edge analysis. Indeed, Friedman seems to have a lot more in common with the 19th-century futurists described in Antulio Echevarria's fascinating book, Imagining Future War: The West's Technological Revolution and Visions of Wars to Come, 1880-1914.

The lack of any real analytical framework is doubly disappointing given that there is so much potential to do really good future studies today, notably the proliferation of computer Technology, the Internet and everything else that comes with the "information revolution." Researchers today have access to vast digital libraries and databases as well as powerful search and computational programs. New means of manipulating data, like informatics (the science of information processing); data mining (extracting and analyzing data to identify patterns and relationships); computer simulation (modeling a system); and open-source intelligence (acquiring and analyzing information from publicly available sources to produce actionable intelligence) are delivering revolutionary instruments of knowledge discovery.

With new knowledge there comes a number of forecasting techniques that hold remarkable promise. For example, one way to combat the tendency to plan against only the most anticipated end state is through an analytical approach often called scenario-based planning, in which analysts postulate alternative future conditions and determine the optimum response for each. This method was used effectively by the Pentagon and State Department interagency-led study group called Project Horizon.

Other innovative methods of forecasting involve studying and predicting the behavior of complex systems and networks. Most problems faced by policymakers today involve trying to understand, predict or affect the behavior of complex systems, from border and immigration security to financial markets to transnational terrorist organizations. Describing complex systems--how they work, what they produce--and then applying various planning methods and choice models to determine how the systems' performance can be changed is the task of complex systems analysis, which is merging with something called network science that examines how networks function. Network science studies diverse physical, informational, biological, cognitive and social networks searching for common principles, algorithms and tools that drive network behavior. The understanding of networks can be applied to a range of challenges, from combating terrorist organizations to organizing disaster response.

Ironically, while the means of knowledge discovery have become more sophisticated, the process of public policymaking has become increasingly intuitive. In Washington, talking points, gut feeling, partisan preferences and ideological fervor crowd out cutting-edge analysis. Friedman's book reads more like he is joining the crowd than bucking the trend.

That's not to say there is nothing noteworthy or worthwhile in The Next 100 Years. For example, Friedman offers a refreshingly state-centric view of the future, a counterpoint to books like Philip Bobbitt's Terror and Consent, which predicts that the traditional nation-state is about dead.

Friedman also has some interesting views about the threats he believes will fall by the wayside, including Islamist-based transnational terrorism and long-term strategic competition with China or Russia. His future threats are upstart coalitions of states that take on great powers.

To his credit, Friedman also emphasizes the potential for advancing America's interests as well as battling the challenges. He is right, for instance, to emphasize the importance of maritime power in the future world. Ironically, as information Technology puts global commerce in high gear, the economy becomes increasingly dependent on one of the world's oldest forms of transport. Moving things by sea will remain one of the most economically viable and environmentally friendly means to move bulk goods around the planet.

In addition, The Next 100 Years is certainly spot-on in placing a great emphasis on space as a vital area of future competition. That, however, hardly requires a fortune teller. The modern world is already dependent on space for almost everything that makes the world modern, from predicting the weather to protecting against ballistic missile attack. Without access to space, life in America today would look an awful lot more like life in the 19th century than the 20th--and certainly the 21st.

Unless the United States does a lot more now to ensure access to the commons of space and protect American assets that are out there, future wars could include a free-for-all in outer space like the warring "Battle Stars" described in the closing chapters of The Next 100 Years. The fact that current U.S. plans for space are so lackluster and conservative compared to the stakes leaves little room for comfort.

James Jay Carafano is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and the author of GI Ingenuity: Improvisation, Technology and Winning World War II.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First Appeared as a book review in Army Magazine