Condivergence: The storm before the calm

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 4, 2020 - May 10, 2020.
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Forecasting is a dangerous game. The psychologist Philip Tetlock (Superforecasting, 2015) did a famous study of political experts’ predictions over 20 years and came to the conclusion that the average expert was roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee.

George Friedman is one of the most daring of forecasters, having written the best sellers The Next 100 Years, The Next Decade and, this year, The Storm before the Calm: America’s Discord, The Coming Crisis of the 2020s and the Triumph Beyond. This is a timely book, even though it did not predict the pandemic, so Friedman wrote a free Chapter 2: Coronavirus and the Crisis of the 2020s, available on his website Geopolitical Futures.

Friedman is an iconoclastic analyst and forecaster of global issues. He is not afraid of making very bold predictions, some of which were not right, and many of which I disagree with, but his analytical approach is nothing short of daring, original and much more insightful than many Cold War strategists writing on global security. He is a realist who says it as he feels, but with an idealist streak.

He is always optimistic about America, even though he dissects its flaws with clinical precision. His signature contribution to geopolitical analysis is his comprehensive methodology that is much more systemic and systematic than many of the grand historian ilk.

Friedman starts with how geography shapes a country’s geopolitical perspective. His earlier analysis of Borderlands, where all conflicts between states occur, is illuminating to anyone interested in geopolitical conflict and strategy.

He dissects America’s shift away from the neoliberal order she created after World War II as the conjunction between two major cycles in American history — an institutional cycle of roughly 80 years, and a socioeconomic cycle of about 50 years. He predicts that around the mid-2020s, these two will overlap, culminating in a crisis or difficult period. Nevertheless, he sees the 2030s as a period of rejuvenation and renewed prosperity.

Lest some Asians think that this sounds vaguely familiar to the alignment of Jupiter with Mars in Indian astrology, Friedman convincingly documents these two cycles by going deeply into the institutional and sociological texture of America since its founding, or “invention”, in 1776.

In 1787, at the Constitutional Convention that ended with the adoption of the US Constitution, the founding fathers “invented” a new form of government, different from that of Britain (no written constitution with a monarch) and continental Europe (mostly monarchies with a new French republic).

The spirit of the US Constitution is depicted in the Great Seal, adopted in 1782, with three mottos — E pluribus unum, from many, one; Annuit coeptis, He (God) has favoured our undertaking, and Novus ordo seclorum, a new order of the ages.

The Declaration of Independence also speaks of three rights: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Friedman defines the last right of happiness as “the emotional energy powering the United States”.

Part One describes US geography and its people, a continent defended on both sides by two great oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific. At the point of independence, there were 2.5 million Americans, confined to 13 states on the Eastern Atlantic Coast. Through the seizure of Northwest territories west of the Mississippi river and the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon for US$15 million in 1803, the country added 15 states and 828,000 square miles. The rest came from the conquest of the many native Indian nations, fragmented and decimated by disease, and the acquisition of California and Texas through the 1848 Mexican Cessation, adding 915,000 square miles for another US$15 million. Alaska was bought from the Russian Tsar for US$7.2 million in 1867.

As Friedman shrewdly identified, “America was born out of battle. Its institutions forged in war… America is a warrior culture.” Having won the War of Independence against the British, the American armed forces were tested in the War of 1812, the Indian frontier wars and the Mexican wars, and then honed in the Civil War of 1861-1865, when 600,000 Americans died. Those who think that Americans will not go to war forget the military strain of American thinking.

Part Two discusses the American cycles, the first institutional cycle being from 1776 to 1865, when through military conflict and acquisition, America would evolve eventually into what president Dwight D Eisenhower later called a “military-industrial complex”, driven by technology and markets. If science was invented in Europe after the bloody Thirty Years War (1618-1648), America invented technology thereafter that applied science to the advance of business and power.

By 1870, with the railways opening up the west to new lands with new European immigrants, America had already matched Great Britain in GDP output, even though the British Empire still led with her colonies in India, Southeast Asia and Africa.

The second institutional cycle lasted from the civil war to the end of World War II, when the US became the leading global hegemon. This cycle was marked by the Great Depression, consolidation of federal power, and the creation of world-class money and financial markets in New York and Chicago.

The third cycle consolidated Pax Americana over globalisation and a new neoliberal multilateral order.

Friedman’s twin cycle thesis improves on Nikolai Kondratieff’s 60-year economic cycle theory, because it separates the institutional building phase from the ideology/paradigm formation phase. Friedman identifies five of the latter socioeconomic cycles, with roughly six presidents shaping each cycle. The first cycle began with George Washington to John Quincy Adams; the second, Andrew Jackson to Ulysses Grant; third, Rutherford B Hayes to Herbert Hoover; and fourth, Franklin D Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter. We are in the fifth cycle from Ronald Reagan to someone who will be elected in 2028.

Friedman captures the failures of the post-Reagan neoliberal era as how “the middle class currently can barely afford a middle-class life”. His big insight is how technocrac-y has increasingly controlled America through credit and ideology.

Part Three is a superb analysis of how the current storm of “political confrontation, social tension and economic dysfunction” will have to be resolved. Friedman sees this as the old cycle collapsing under its own weight to be replaced by a new cycle, symbolised by a new president. The challenge is how to politically manage the technocracy, which has dominated both the institutional and socioeconomic cycles.

America has always believed in meritocracy, but technocracy has itself become an ideology that believes that the world is understandable and can be “perfected by those who have the knowledge to understand and manipulate the world”. This is David Halberstam’s 1972 “Best and Brightest” thesis writ large in the 21st century, except that the technocrats failed in the Vietnam War and may still fail, because they lack “common sense”.

Friedman’s description of Hillary Clinton is spot on — she was the presidential candidate of the technocracy, won its heartland “and lost the heartland of the country — the declining industrial base”. “The problem of the third institutional cycle is that the hyper-engineering of the technocrats created very rational solutions in general, but only at the cost of ignoring the endless idiosyncrasies that life consists of.” In short, those who are smart may not be wise.

There are many nuggets of wisdom in this brilliant book, but I would not do it justice if I did not point out its incomplete parts. Friedman’s analysis insightfully sees the world evolving as systems within systems, with its parts interacting with each other in unending cycles of change. In his new chapter on Coronavirus and the Crisis of the 2020s, he depicts the geopolitical structure of the pandemic as the interaction between the political, medical, economic, social and military structures. Friedman reminds us that the military is always centre stage in all things geopolitical, even though it often acts backstage. If all fails, there is always a military solution, either through a coup d’etat, civil war or global war.

He wisely understands the limitations of all technocrats (military included): “The problem is that the method and worldview of each are sealed off from alternatives within their field and views beyond their field.”

There are at least two areas which have been underplayed in his story — finance and climate change. He thinks despite the massive central bank printing of money, inflation will be low, although unemployment will be high. Can American finance be created infinitely without costs or what economists call “hard budget constraints”? I do not know the answer, but seriously doubt this.

Friedman is upfront on not touching upon climate change because he feels that it is an area that he “can’t unscramble”. He is honest to admit that he has “not forecasted a global response to climate change, because I don’t think there will be one”. But the non-solution of climate change itself will endanger the whole world.

I commend this book as a “must think”, because it must be read again and again to understand how America sees the world from her unique vantage as top Alpha, wounded by her own flaws and all. This book is a realist view of the world, but with an idealist optimism that America will re-invent herself, but so will other nations or communities. His view that this re-invention will be through technology is surely correct. But how each country uses technology — for good or evil — and how they interact with each other will be the real storms to come.

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective

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