Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Book review: The Next Decade - George Friedman (2011)

This book is not quite what its cover leads the unsuspecting buyer to believe it will be. The cover underplays the book's US-centricity, and although the whole world does come in for consideration at some point, it's all from a US point of view. Happily I was fine with that; others may not be.

Friedman begins by trying to make the case that the US has an empire, and it's arguable whether he succeeds. I must admit that, being a Brit, I bristled at the suggestion - a reaction that exposes a hitherto unrecognised and rather troubling well of pride somewhere within me at the fact that my national forebears dominated and exploited less well-resourced nations in the not-too-distant past. But questionable nationalism aside, I'm not sure the US should be considered an empire in the same mould as the British or any other from history. Friedman recognises that the US does not have any formal control over its 'empire', but in my opinion he doesn't give this fact due weight. However, it may ultimately be a matter of semantics: Friedman states that 'it is simply impossible for a nation whose economy is so vast to have commercial relations without political entanglements and consequences' and that 'the power of the American economy and the distribution of US military force ... binds countries to the US more tightly than any formal imperial system could hope to accomplish'.

He then goes on to make the case that the President is the sole office that can effectively plan or control this empire, before trying to get to grips with the morality of doing so. And again, I'm not sure he succeeds with the latter task. He describes an idealist-realist dichotomy in US foreign policy, with the idealist position being that the US must act on moral principles, and the realist position being that it must protect its national interest. Friedman thinks that this is a distraction, that both positions have internal contradictions, and that the only genuinely realistic course lies somewhere between the two extremes. But he must not like the idea of giving up on morality because, having abandoned the straightforwardly moral position, he then seeks to reinstate morality from another source, turning to Machiavelli for inspiration: 'conventional virtue ... is unacceptable in a president ... Machiavelli introduces a new definition of virtue, which instead of personal goodness consists of being cunning ...' This unpromising-looking path is indeed soon revealed to be little more than a revival of the realist position, wrapped up in comforting justification: '[The president's] task is to protect the republic from a world full of people who are not virtuous in any conventional sense.'  (Italics mine) What comfort here for the Pakistani civilians on the border with Afghanistan who are being indiscriminately killed by America's persistent drone strikes? Doesn't the empire owe those it dominates a degree of justice if it is to be considered moral?

However, once the self-serving justifications are out of the way, The Next Decade switches to a chapter-by-chapter consideration of America's most pressing foreign policy concerns, and it is from here on out that it shines. Again, the book did not deliver what I was expecting. I thought it would be a lot of pie-in-the-sky prediction, but actually much of it consists of summaries of how each situation got to be where it is, and what the main considerations now are. And these I found to be concise, authoritative, and absolutely fascinating.

They're probably not without controversy, even before you get to any strategic suggestions for the future. For example, Friedman states that America invaded Iraq not because it thought Saddam possessed WMDs (they knew this was not the case), and not even for it's oil, but as a show of strength to convince the other states in the region to increase their cooperation with the war on terror. This seems very plausible the way he states it, but I don't think I've come across the idea before, and I wouldn't be surprised if others took issue with it.

I found myself feeling troubled more than once as I read the book, and not only when the fates of nations were being discussed purely in terms of what would be best for the US. The book also raised many questions which, understandably, it did not attempt to answer:

1. To what extent should the elected leader of a democratic state lie to the populace if he/she thinks it's in the nation's best interests?

Friedman says:

'It is the president's job to align with public opinion .. while quietly pursuing his own moral and strategic ends.'

'... he must always convey a sense that the elimination of Islamist terrorism is possible, all the while knowing it is not.'

'To many Americans, these appear to be critical issues ... they must not be told that ... their sense of what is important doesn't matter...'

'... all presidents must in all things hide their true motives and vigorously deny the truth when someone recognises what they are up to.'

This stance is somewhat undermined in the conclusion, where Friedman says:

 '... the American people must mature. We are an adolescent lot, expecting solutions to insoluble problems and perfection in our leaders ...'

I would love to receive recommendations for books that deal with this question more fully.

2. To what extent are other nations and their peoples aware of their subservience to the US?

Friedman says: 'Australia has no control whatever over the security of its sea-lanes ... Australia's strategy for dealing with this vulnerability has been to ally itself with the dominant naval power in the Pacific ... [through] participation in their wars.'

3. Finally, did Friedman not expect anyone outside the US to pay attention to his book?

Friedman says:

'The US should ... [make] purposeful moves along with some that seem arbitrary. Everything must be done to lead the Germans and perhaps the French to a sense that the US is unfocused in its actions.'

'To keep Indian naval development below a threshold that could threaten US interests ... [The US should] support a stronger Pakistan, thus keeping India's security planners focused on the land and not the sea.'

Its US-centricity will no doubt make it of no interest to many potential readers, but I greatly appreciated The Next Decade for its clarity, authority, brevity, and fascinating if morally questionable dissection of strategic matters. It has its issues, but it's a damned interesting read.

No comments:

Post a Comment