European Affairs

And what will matter? alt

First, the U.S. will dominate the century because of its military and economic power and its favorable geography with Atlantic and Pacific coasts. No power will rise to challenge successful U.S. dominance.

Second, the population explosion of the past century will end and populations will begin to shrink, creating profound changes, including the positive importance of attracting immigrants. 

Third, advanced countries will develop technologies to deal with shrinking populations, including harnessing solar power and new computer and robotic technologies.

What will NOT matter?

Neither Europe nor China will be major players in the 21st Century. Wow. That is a mouthful.

Friedman takes pleasure in building a powerful case against what passes for conventional wisdom.

“Europe has been in decline since 1917 and the destruction of Germany,” says Friedman. “It emerged from World War II as an occupied continent that had lost its empire.” But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, “Europe has re-entered history, and started building structures (such as the European Union).” But problems are not solved and “Europe is in reality just staggering into the 21st Century.”

”Europe is too busy congratulating itself, “says Friedman. He adds, “It is like the U.S. announcing victory in 1810. There is a way to go. Big problems remain.”

And Friedman does not think Europe will solve its problems or bridge its internal differences. He discounts the creation of the European Union and the euro zone as no more than a “customs union or trade bloc.”

“As long as Europe cannot speak with one voice on foreign policy it is hard to see how it can influence geopolitics,” says Friedman. And because European countries have not given up sovereignty and because individual countries have different interests, it seems unlikely to Friedman that integration will coalesce enough to give Europe a meaningful role on the world stage.

And what about the recently adopted Treaty of Lisbon and the appointment of a president and high commissioner for foreign affairs.

“What do they do. What are their powers?” asks Friedman. “These officials could have been given powers, but Europe chose not to do that. The president has no army, no police force. The bureaucracy in Brussels does not have to be obeyed. Europe will say this is a work in process. But I see no process under way.”

“As long as the decision to go to war is not in Brussels but rests with nation states, there is no integration,” says Friedman. He sees no easy or speedy end to the tension between France and Germany on one hand and other parts of Europe, like the UK, Eastern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula on the other hand.

What he does see is the increasing rise of Eastern Europe in an evolution not unlike the power shift that moved from Spain in the 16th Century, to France and England and later to Germany.

“Every couple of centuries there is a changing of the guard in Europe,” says Friedman. He sees Poland as the “heart of dynamism” in Europe today.

Another problem with Europe, says Friedman is the “profound divergence” between the elite perception of Europe and the popular (man-on-the-street) perception. A good example of this disconnect, says Friedman, was the strong vote in Switzerland to prohibit the construction of Islamic mosque minarets. The importance of the event, says Friedman, was not that 57 percent of the population voted against minarets, but that the elite was so surprised at the result. “That showed how far out of touch the elite has become.” The broad masses in Europe, says Friedman, “are very uneasy about what is happening to Europe.”

The recent economic crisis demonstrated many of the weaknesses of Europe, thinks Friedman. The crisis was not tackled in Brussels but in the individual capitals, and Germany and France declined to assist Eastern Europe, which had to depend on the International Monetary Fund (IMF). And problems continue in the weaker economies like Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain.

“Greece will probably be ok in the end,” says Friedman. “But Spain is too big to save.”

“Europe is tired, worldly, decadent,” says Friedman. “They are exhausted, and they call it a virtue.”

Turkey on the other hand is growing and dynamic. But Europe is missing the point and almost surely will not allow Turkey in the EU, says Friedman. “The European image of Turkey is fixed at around 1960 as a vision of impoverished, semi-literates coming to do construction work.” 

In reality, says Friedman, Turkey has the largest and most competent army in Europe. It has influence in the Baltics, in the Caucasus and in Central Asia. “I know of no European country that is acting as confidently and as unilaterally as Turkey,” says Friedman.

“Turkey is not a future power,” says Friedman. “Turkey is a power.” Accession to the EU – which is unlikely to happen – is important to the secularists in Turkey who want “to nail down secularism.” But much of the country, including Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogen, can “take it [the EU] or leave it.”  Friedman says Turkey was lucky NOT to be in the EU during the financial crisis, since it has recovered much more quickly and robustly than Europe.

Friedman thinks that Russia will present a near term issue as it attempts to regain the sphere of influence of the old Soviet Union. Russia is making progress already in reasserting its sphere of influence in the “Stans,” in the Ukraine, in Belarus and even in Georgia.

But, Friedman says, the same forces that destroyed the Soviet Union, including demographic diversity, will rise again and around 2020 the Russian resurgence will fail. “It is hard to see how Russia, which has abandoned its industrial base in favor of exporting commodities, will be able to sustain itself against a dynamic Poland backed up by the U.S.”

Perhaps Friedman’s most audacious prediction concerns China, which he feels will not become an important player in the 21st Century.

“China is an incredibly poor country with a small segment that is essentially an extension of the United States,” he says. Friedman notes that one of seven export containers out of China go to Wal-Mart. “This shows the vulnerability of the country,” says Friedman. “All of the prosperity of China is built on the willingness of the U.S. and Europe to buy its products.” 

Friedman does not think that the Chinese “miracle” can be extended to the almost one billion persons still living in poverty. Even moving its manufacturing plants to the interior to address unemployment will be a problem, says Friedman, because that will drive up Chinese costs and the margin on Chinese products is too thin to sustain the increase.

“China is in crisis,” he says. “It will take three years before the crisis becomes apparent.”  He thinks the signs will be an increasingly nationalistic and oppressive society. “If you are a Chinese leader you don’t have an economic solution to your problems,” says Friedman, “but you do have a political

And what should the U.S. do to ensure the dominance that Friedman predicts for it?

“America is in the position of Great Britain in the 19th century. Its national interests are served by maintaining a policy that balances powers off against each other. U.S. interest is not to have a global peer power. As long as that does not happen, the U.S. can make as many mistakes as it wants. If a global peer power does emerge, the world gets much more dangerous.”

Bill Marmon is Assistant Managing Editor of European Affairs Magazine.