By Chet Yarbrough
By George Friedman
Narrated by Bruce Turk
“The Next Decade” is a provocative book. Political Science is an oxymoron but George Friedman, a Political Science Ph.D., rivals Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) in his cynical assessment of world politics in the 21stcentury. Friedman suggests that this is the age of American empire. He believes America is on the precipice of decline without a re-evaluation of its role in the world.
Friedman argues in his book, “The Next Decade”, America has become a de-facto Empire with the hegemonic power of first century Rome and eighteenth century Great Britain.
Friedman is not saying America is choosing to be an Empire; in fact, he argues that the American public abhors the idea of being considered an Empire. However, he believes America is thrust into that position by its economic wealth; supported by unrivaled military force.
The 1920s depression cliche characterizes Friedman’s economic argument; i.e. “…when America sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold”. Examples are given of America’s financial impact on Ireland and Poland when Dell decided to move manufacturing from one country to another; he also cites American consumption of shrimp that ballooned and deflated to have out-sized economic and environmental impact on the Mekong Delta (Southwestern Vietnam). These, of course, are only small examples but the world depression of 1929 and 2008’s financial collapse offer larger examples of American viral influence.
Friedman suggests that Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan exemplify Machiavellian’ geo-political decision makers. He suggests America needs that kind of leader in the next 10 years. He argues that these three Presidents were willing to lie and mislead the Republic in order to accomplish ends based on their perception of morality and what they believe are in the best interests of the country. Now we have Donald Trump and “The Art of the Deal”. However, what is missing in Trump is world perspective, and an appallingly ignorant understanding of history.
Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus (a human rights law that says one cannot be detained without evidence) to prevent Maryland from seceding from the Union. He was willing to ignore slavery in slave states in order to preserve the Union. Franklin Roosevelt illegally provided weapons to France, and protected sea lanes while providing material supplies to Great Britain for defeat of Germany when America was officially a neutral country. Ronald Reagan illegally traded arms to Iran for release of hostages with an equally illegal and convoluted plan to support Nicaraguan Contras with secret funding.
As Voltaire wrote and Friedman infers, “With great power, comes great responsibility”; i.e. Friedman writes that Presidents of the United States which fail to use inherent powers of Empire to protect the Republic are failing in their Imperial’ responsibility.
Friedman believes that Presidential’ actions, grounded in morality, whether legal or not, are obligations and discretionary responsibilities of Empire leaders. (The key in that pronouncement is “grounded in morality”. Morality is historically a fungible human characteristic; often substituted by self-interest.) Friedman is not saying that Presidents will not make mistakes but that a President without a Machiavellian’ sense of what is right will destroy the Republic. The concern in the nuclear age is that a President’s mistake can be catastrophic.
Friedman acknowledges invading Iraq was a mistake but not because of intelligence errors or lies told to the public. Friedman condemns the act because it was an American administration’s failure to understand geo-political balance-of-powers’ responsibility in Empire management. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a counterbalance to Iranian influence in the Middle East. Iran’s influence in the Middle East increased with America’s invasion of Iraq because Iraq’s government could not be re-stabilized as an opposing political force in the region.
Friedman makes a compelling argument for one to recognize America as an Empire. However, two impediments exist today that are obstacles to America’s credible use of power as a 21st century Empire.
Friedman relies on the ideal of Plato’s “philosopher king” where educated rulers have a superior perception of reality. The American education system does not create philosopher kings; it creates sheep without shepherds. There are few philosopher kings in history and President Trump is no philosopher.
Modern American culture is based on what other people think rather than what individuals think; i.e. politicians rely on opinion polls to make decisions; they do not think for themselves; they have no inner moral compass; their primary interest is re-election.
The second difference between previous Empires and today’s American Empire is the structure of American government; i.e. America’s checks and balances dilute decisions through compromises that impede unilateral action; particularly in a technologically advanced era that makes it difficult to create the illusion of leadership.
This is not to say that checks and balances are not an essential characteristic of a Republic but America has become a democracy rather than a representative Republic as originally intended by the Constitution. American’ democracy is ruled by opinion polls rather than rational, individual, inner-directed and representative leaders.
America is an aircraft carrier in a sea of agile boats. The boats are less substantial vessels (smaller political factions) but they can maneuver faster and have equal or greater effect on public opinion. The obvious example is al-Qaida’s New York terrorist attack that killed 3,000 innocents. That single act changed worldwide transportation security, instigated America’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and opened the door to a new balance of power in the Middle East.
America may be a third Empire in history but one may doubt its ability to rule in “The Next Decade” based on 21st century’ events and actions.