The Next Decade: What the World Will Look Like - George Friedman (2011)


In discussing American foreign policy, I have examined every continent and numerous countries, but I have by no means been exhaustive. Because of the global nature of the American empire, every country in the world is in some way important to the United States. From Niger’s Islamic threat to the effect that Nepal might have on the Sino-Indian balance to Ecuador’s role in the drug wars, it is difficult to imagine a country to which the United States can afford to be utterly indifferent.

There are many who would argue that the United States is overextended and that these complex international involvements ultimately are not in the American interest. This is not an unpersuasive argument, except that it isn’t clear how the United States might disentangle itself from its global interests. During the next decade, the United States must manage the chaos of the Islamic world, a resurgent Russia, a sullen and divided Europe, and a China both huge and profoundly troubled. In addition it must find the path out of the current economic problems, not only for itself but for the world.

We should also remember that while the American economy might be battered at the moment, it is still almost 25 percent of the world’s economy, and U.S. investments and borrowing swamp the world. Simply being the United States creates the pervasive entanglements we must strive to manage. The United States may indeed be overextended, and it might be preferable if the U.S. had never achieved imperial status, or for it now to retreat. But wishes don’t make policy. Policy is made by reality, and the reality of what has been created, whether intentionally or not, can’t be abandoned without breathtakingly severe consequences. The United States entered the path to global power with the Spanish-American War of 1898. It has been on this trajectory for over a century. Changing course at the velocity the United States is traveling is simply not an option. Calling for it is a fantasy.

The only option is to manage what has been created. That begins with the reconciliation of moral principles with the exercise of power. Starting with moral principles is the most practical beginning. Much of the internal conflict over waging wars is rooted in lack of clarity about the relationship between morality and power. What is needed is a common understanding of reality and morality.

The exercise of power is always morally ambiguous, yet the moral principles of the United States mean nothing if the country is destroyed. The pursuit of universal rights requires more than speeches. It requires power. “Nobody gets hurt” is unrealistic, and the best we can do is to make difficult decisions about who gets hurt and when. Lincoln had to support slavery in Kentucky. It wasn’t right, but it was either that or lose the war, and if he lost the war, then his entire moral project was destroyed.

At the same time, simply pursuing power without any moral purpose leads nowhere. Nixon exercised power without purpose, and it was his lack of moral perspective that led him to Watergate and destruction. It is one thing to justify the means by the end. It is another thing for the means to become the end.

During the next decade, the United States must overcome the desire to simplify, because there is no single phrase or formula that solves the problem. The moral problem at the core of the exercise of power repeats itself in endless and unexpected forms that have to be solved each time they occur. No leader can solve them properly each time. The most that can be said about any leader is that on the whole, he or she did well, given the circumstances.

To reach this point, the American people must mature. We are an adolescent lot, expecting solutions to insoluble problems and perfection in our leaders. Churchill could not be elected president of the United States: he was, by any reasonable measure, an alcoholic, and certainly he was an elitist in the snobbish sense of the term. It is clear that Roosevelt had at least one affair while president and another before he became president. Lincoln appears to some biographers to have been suffering from bipolar disorder, a mental disease. Reagan was probably in the early stages of Alzheimer’s late in his presidency. These were all men who, to say the least, did well, given the circumstances. Unless the American people can reach the maturity to discipline themselves to expect this and no more, the republic will not survive. The demands of an unintended empire and immature expectations of our leaders will bring down the regime long before militarism or corruption might.

Obviously, American society is being torn apart in rancorous discourse. This isn’t new. The things said about Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt were not pleasant. Having endured the clashes over civil rights, Vietnam, and Watergate, we cannot really argue that we have reached new levels of incivility. But Iraq, Afghanistan, and the recent financial crisis have raised significant questions about the global interests of the American elite and whether they have undermined the interests of the general public. Villains and saints are sometimes difficult to distinguish, so there is no simple approach to this discussion. The Tea Party’s vilification of Obama and Obama’s vilification of the Tea Party don’t contribute much to creating a coherent political road map.

The last decade posed challenges to the United States that it was not prepared for and that it did not manage well. It was, as they say, a learning experience, valuable because the mistakes did not threaten the survival of the United States. But the threat that will arise later in the century will tower over those of the last decade. Look back on the middle of the twentieth century to imagine what might face the United States going forward.

The United States is fortunate to have the next decade in which to make the transition from an obsessive foreign policy to a more balanced and nuanced exercise of power. By this I don’t mean that the goal is to learn to use diplomacy rather than force. Diplomacy has its place, but I am saying that when push comes to shove, the United States must learn to choose its enemies carefully, make certain they can be beaten, and then wage an effective war that causes them to capitulate. It is important not to fight wars that can’t be won and to fight wars in order to win. Fighting wars out of rage is impermissible for a country with such vast power and interests.

The United States has spent sixteen of the past fifty years fighting wars in Asia. After his experience in Korea, Douglas MacArthur, hardly a pacifist, warned Americans to avoid such adventures. The reason was simple: as soon as Americans set foot in Asia, they are vastly outnumbered. The logistical problems of supplying forces thousands of miles from home, and of fighting an enemy that has nowhere to go and is intimately familiar with the terrain, only compound an already overwhelming challenge. Yet the United States continues to wade in, expecting that each time will be different. Of all the lessons of the last decade, this is the most important for the decade to come.

The lesson we should have learned from the British is that there are far more effective, if cynical, ways to manage wars in Asia and Europe. One is by diverting the resources of potential enemies away from the United States and toward a neighbor. Maintaining the balance of power should be as fundamental to American foreign policy as the Bill of Rights is to domestic policy. The United States should enter a war in the Eastern Hemisphere only in the direst of circumstances, when an onerous power threatens to overtake vast territory and no one who can resist is left.

The foundation of American power is the oceans. Domination of the oceans prevents other nations from attacking the United States, permits the United States to intervene when it needs to, and gives the United States control over international trade. The United States need never use that power, but it must deny it to anyone else. Global trade depends on the oceans. Whoever controls the oceans ultimately controls global trade. The balance-of-power strategy is a form of naval warfare, preventing challengers from building forces that can threaten American control of the seas.

The American military is now obsessed with building a force that can fight in the Islamic world. Some say that we have reached a point in which all warfare will be asymmetric. Some describe the future in terms of the “long war,” a conflict that will stretch for generations. If that is true, then the United States has already lost, because there is no way it can pacify more than a billion Muslims.

But I would argue that such an assessment is misguided and that such a goal is a failure of imagination. Generals, as they say, always fight the last war, and it is easy to reach the conclusion while the war is still raging that all wars in the future will look like the one you are fighting now. It must never be forgotten that systemic wars—wars in which the major powers fight to redefine the international system—happen in almost every century. If we count the Cold War and its subwars, then three systemic wars were fought in the twentieth century. It is a virtual certainty that there will be systemic wars in the twenty-first century. It must always be remembered that you can win a dozen minor wars, but if you lose the big one, you lose everything.

American forces might be called on to fight anywhere. It was hard to believe in 2000 that the United States would spend nine of the next ten years fighting a war in Afghanistan, but it has. Shaping a military to keep fighting these wars would be a tremendous mistake, as would deciding that the United States doesn’t want to fight wars any longer and slashing the defense budget.

The first focus must be on the sea. The U.S. Navy is the strategic foundation of the United States, followed closely by U.S. forces in space, because it will be the reconnaissance satellites that will guide anti-ship missiles in the next decade, and shortly after that the missiles themselves will find their way into space. In an age when fielding a new weapons system can take twenty years, the next decade must be the period of intense preparation for whatever may come. The next decade is the time for transition.

The British had the Colonial Office. The Romans had the Proconsul. The United States has a chaotic array of institutions dealing with foreign policy. There are sixteen intelligence services with overlapping responsibilities. The State Department, Defense Department, National Security Council, and national director of intelligence all wind up dealing with the same issues, coordinated only to the extent that the president manages them all. To say there are too many cooks in the kitchen misses the point—and there are too many kitchens serving the same meal. Bureaucratic infighting in Washington may be fodder for comedians, but it can shatter lives around the world. It is easier to leave it as it is, but only easier for Washington. The American foreign policy apparatus simply must be rationalized. The president spends much of his time just trying to control his own team. This must change in the next decade, before things spiral out of control.

Americans like to hold everyone responsible for the problems of the United States but themselves. The problem is said to be Fox News or special interests or the liberal media. At root the problem is that there is no consensus in the United States about whether it has an empire and what to do about it. Americans prefer mutual vilification to facing up to the facts; they prefer arguing about what ought to be to arguing about what is. What I have tried to show is the reality as I see it, in terms of both the regime and the next decade. In arguing that the United States has unintentionally become an empire, I have also made the case that the empire poses a profound threat to the republic. To lose that moral foundation would make the empire pointless.

I have also made the argument for what I call the Machiavellian president, a leader who both understands power and has a moral core. The president is the only practical bulwark for the republic, because he alone is elected by all the people. It is his job to lead so that he can manage, but the president, no matter how crafty, cannot lead alone. He must have the other institutions the founders gave the republic functioning maturely, and, above all, he must have a mature public that takes responsibility for the state of the nation. The New Testament contains this passage: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” The United States has grown up. Its public must too.

Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan all led fractious nations. Each was skillful enough to craft coalitions that were sufficiently strong to get through the storm. But going forward, we need not only clever leaders but also a clever public. A woman asked Benjamin Franklin after the Constitutional Convention about the kind of government the delegates had given the country. “A republic,” he told her, “if you can keep it.”

I genuinely believe that the United States is far more powerful than most people think. Its problems are real but trivial compared to the extent of its power. I am also genuinely frightened, not about America’s survival, but about the ability of the United States to keep the republic provided by the founders. The demands and temptations of empire can easily destroy institutions already besieged by a public that has lost both civility and perspective, and by politicians who cannot lead because they are capable of neither the exercise of power nor the pursuit of moral ends.

Four things are needed. First, a nation that has an unsentimental understanding of the situation it is in. Second, leaders who are prepared to bear the burden of reconciling that reality with American values. Third, presidents who understand power and principles and know the place of each. But above all, what is needed is a mature American public that recognizes what is at stake and how little time there is to develop the culture and institutions needed to manage the republic cast in an imperial role. Without this, nothing else is possible. The situation is far from hopeless, but it requires an enormous act of will for the country to grow up.