"Cold-eyed, I contemplate the world"
~ Mao Tse-tung
Predicting the future is always a perilous enterprise. As Isaac Asimov demonstrated in his seminal science fiction series The Foundation Trilogy, even the most intricate and scientific of prognostication techniques is bound to be derailed by unpredictable and unlikely events.
Nevertheless, the analysis of trends and the construction of paradigms are necessary for people to make coherent sense out of the events occurring in the world around them. Without these paradigms, our perception of society would be nothing more than a miasma of concrete events unrelated to abstractions. We would be as infants, with every occurrence being a new and unprecedented phenomenon.
We are living in an age of accelerating conflict and tumult. A quick glance at the daily news reveals incidents which, by themselves, may be of minimal import. But when these events are seen as data points on a larger trend line, they rise to a greater level of significance.
It is with these ideas in mind that I decided to compile my nominees for the three major geopolitical trends of our era. These trends are complex, and thus will take years, or even the rest of this century, to "play out."
Since most columnists live in dread that their annual predictions will be exposed as ridiculously inaccurate, forecasting century-long trends has the added benefit that none of us will be around in 2100 to see just how wrongheaded my prognostications actually were. (As another aside, I should also remind the reader that these are predictions based on my understanding of history and human nature. They do not represent the way I think things "should" be…so don’t blame the weatherman for the hurricane.)
With that caveat in mind, my hunch is that this century is shaping up to be one of the most tumultuous in history. Indeed, without trying to sound melodramatic, I believe that events of the 21st Century will threaten the very existence of Western Civilization.
While many hopeful trends are evident, particularly in science, technology, and medicine, I see three ominous narratives which will dominate the next several decades:
#1 America: Brother, can you spare a dime?
The fate of America can be summed up by one simple libertarian adage: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Since World War II, Americans haves switched the focus of our economy from production to consumption. We’ve seen a proliferation of industries dedicated to nothing more than the pursuit of unearned wealth (injury-accident lawsuits, lotteries, malpractice attorneys, welfare, etc.).
Americans have come to view the gilded lifestyle as a birthright unrelated to actual productive activity. Since our economy no longer produces enough wealth to maintain the majority of the population in this lifestyle, we have resorted to a variety of scams to square the circle.
Foremost among these scams is debt. As extensively described in Empire of Debt by William Bonner and Addison Wiggin, America is now awash in debt. Consumers are maxed out with staggering credit card and mortgage re-fi debt. The government is slowly sinking under the burden of hundreds of billions of dollars in annual deficit spending. The economy is swamped with some 750 billion dollars in annual trade deficits.
Whole cottage industries have appeared in mainstream academia and government dedicated to propagating the idea that debt no longer matters. Consequently, the American people have come to literally believe that consumption is the key to prosperity and that America can live indefinitely on borrowed money.
While debt is dangerous enough, it is accompanied by an evil companion: inflation. Since our government cannot realistically pay for its outstanding obligations (Social Security and Medicare being the two most unstable of its many Ponzi schemes), its motivation for inflating our currency is obvious. Specifically, paying off loans with devalued dollars saves money and makes the books appear more solvent than they really are.
All of these factors point to major economic troubles on the horizon.
Exactly how it all plays out, I haven’t a clue. We may enter a hyperinflationary scenario which paralyzes the economy. We may enter a long period of stagnation in which a generation of Americans reaches adulthood in an economy sporting double-digit inflation, double-digit unemployment, and double-digit interest rates. Or perhaps there will be a terrifying dollar crisis which drastically increases the cost of our imports and sends interest rates into the stratosphere.
Regardless of the exact scenario, it is fairly certain that our current situation cannot continue indefinitely.
Despite the latest hallucinogenic economic theories being parlayed by the Fed, an economy cannot go on forever living on borrowed money. Sooner or later, the wolf will show up at the door. And when it does, America will cease to be "the world’s only superpower."
#2 Europe stares into the abyss (or, for the more poetic folks in the audience: Gtterdmmerung).
The 20th Century was an unmitigated calamity for Europe. In 1900, Victorian culture still dominated the Old Continent. It was the land of waltzes, ballets, and genteel aristocrats. It harbored the wealthiest financial establishments, the richest cultural traditions, and the most productive industrial economies. The universities of Austria, Germany, and England were world-renowned as the epicenters of learning and innovation.
All of that ended with the advent of WW I, which was arguably the greatest single disaster in human history. That brutal, senseless war uncorked the evil genies of fascism, communism, and genocide. By mid-century, Europe was exhausted…demographically, economically, and spiritually.
The Europeans responded to this shock in several ways. Most importantly, they largely abandoned their cultural traditions, opting instead for post-modern secularism with a healthy dollop of moral relativism. Essentially, they turned away from inspirational endeavors and focused their energies on La Dolce Vita.
While there is much to be said for La Dolce Vita, it brought with it two major negative side-effects. First, was a particularly stifling brand of sclerotic socialism. Second, was a collapse of Europe’s birthrate.
Most studies show that people have large families for religious reasons and because they fear poverty in their old age. Socialism and secularism eliminated these concerns and prompted the continent’s birthrate to plummet to less than 1.4 children per woman (2.1 is considered replacement level).
Unfortunately for Europe, a civilization cannot be maintained if no one wants to have children.
Thus, socialism and secularism have brought Europe to the doorstep of extinction. While the economic dangers of socialism are readily apparent (uncontrolled government debt, unsustainable public pension programs, etc), the resulting population collapse prompted European governments to make a fateful step that will dictate the course of European politics throughout the 21st Century. Namely, the Europeans opened their doors to large-scale Muslim immigration.
While I have no particular animosity towards Islam (indeed, having lived in the Middle East for a period of time, I observed many admirable things about Arabic and Muslim culture), the stark reality is that European and Muslim cultures are utterly incompatible. The streets of Amsterdam, for example, are famous for legalized prostitution, hashish bars, and tolerance towards alternative sexual lifestyles. Most Europeans consider things such as fervent religious belief, the death penalty, and the subordination of women to be apparitions from the Dark Ages.
The Muslim world, on the other hand, demands female chastity, despises atheism, and routinely metes out harsh punishment for even petty criminal activity.
Layered on top of these fundamental differences are fourteen centuries of mutual contempt and vicious warfare between the two cultures.
A quick look at the numbers is sobering indeed. Over the next 40 years, Muslims will make up close to a majority of the population in many Western European nations. These numbers do not even require continued immigration. For instance, according to a recent article in The American Conservative by Paul Kohout, Denmark will have an immigrant majority by 2039 even if it stops all immigration today (due to differential birth rates). I’ve also seen reports that in 2005, for the first time in history, the majority of babies born in France were to Muslim parents.
To my knowledge, no population group has ever allowed itself to be peacefully displaced in the land of its origin (much less by a group with which it has considerable historical animosity).
The London train bombings, the murder of Theo van Gogh, and the French intifada are the harbingers of things to come. In many ways, Europe is experiencing a "late Tito" period similar to Yugoslavia in the early 1980s. At that time, Yugoslavia’s socialist economy was starting to unravel even as its society was being shaken by barely-concealed tribal rivalries fueled by changing demographics. The communist government tried to manage these tensions through a choking, all-encompassing program of political correctness.
It didn’t work.
Similarly, the entire European continent is now drifting towards the same poisonous dynamic that touched off vicious ethnic wars in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Since I consider the possibility of peaceful coexistence (inside the same state) between Islamic and European cultures to be unrealistic, the 21st Century holds only negative outcomes for Europe. As the demographic situation reaches a crisis, things will break in one of three ways. In the first scenario, nationalist parties will come to power in Europe and initiate armed confrontations with Islam, resulting in its violent expulsion. In the second scenario, the violence will fragment the continent into Muslim and European cantons. In the third scenario, the Muslims will emerge victorious and impose their social norms on the European population.
This will leave a Europe that resembles Mussolini’s Italy, Lebanon, or Zimbabwe, respectively.
No matter which course history follows, it will not be a pretty picture.
#3 East Asia: Cold or Hot?
It shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone that the world’s economic center of gravity is shifting to East Asia. Most of these nations have hard-working populations, expanding economies, and large trade surpluses. Cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur are growing exponentially and will likely be the preeminent cultural and financial centers of the future.
While optimism is certainly warranted, there are potential dangers as well. History shows us that whenever one nation is supplanted by another at the top of the world system, it is usually accompanied by a period of instability. For instance, both world wars can be viewed as attempts by a rising Germany to replace the waning British Empire as the world’s dominant hegemon.
In all probability, China will be the major power of the coming century, both economically and geopolitically. The United States, for reasons discussed previously, will be in no shape to realistically challenge China’s rising dominance.
Hence, East Asian nations will likely enter a period of uncertainty, suspicion and hostility as the new pecking order is defined. Some nations, especially Japan, may feel threatened by China’s rise and may attempt to stop its progress.
This competitive dynamic could set in motion a smoldering economic and political conflict similar to Europe’s before World War I. (Some folks point to the extensive trade relationships between Japan and China as proof that conflict is not possible. While I agree that this makes war less likely, it is no guarantee. After all, in 1913 (and again in 1938) Germany and Britain were each other’s largest trading partners. They also shared the same religion…and their monarchs were first cousins.)
In this scenario, the region will segregate into hostile power blocs and experience a new cold war. Japan will collect allies (Taiwan, Vietnam, and perhaps India) in its camp while the Middle Kingdom does the same (probably with a united Korea and maybe a few of the smaller ASEAN nations on its side).
Just a few weeks ago, in an omen of things to come, a diplomatic row between the two Asian giants began after Japan’s Foreign Minister made controversial comments in the media concerning China:
Japan’s foreign minister has said China is becoming a “considerable threat” because of its increased military spending and nuclear weapons, in comments that have sparked a fresh row between the neighbors. China is “a neighboring country with one billion people and nuclear bombs whose military spending has been growing by two digits every year for 17 consecutive years,” Foreign Minister Taro Aso told reporters.
The Japan Times continues with an interesting analysis:
His comment underscores the fact that two processes are occurring simultaneously in East Asia — the “rise of China” and the evolution of Japanese security policy. These changes are pushing Asia into uncharted territory. Never before has the region had to accommodate two “rising powers” at the same time
While this may have never happened in Asia at the same time, it has happened several times before in other parts of the world.
My guess is that Japan is too demographically exhausted (its birth rate is even lower than Europe’s) to provide a serious challenge to China. While Japan will probably stage diplomatic food-fights on occasion, I don’t think this coming cold war will turn hot.
If it does, it will make World War I seem tame by comparison.
But if Asia avoids the mistakes of 20th Century Europe, it will likely see a flowering of technology and culture that will initiate one of the most creative periods in human history.
This century will likely see Europe and America enter periods of serious distress that will imperil the future of Western Civilization. Meanwhile, the East, if it avoids open warfare, may see the rise of a uniquely prosperous and high-tech civilization.
If things progress according to this paradigm, this will be a century of stark winners and losers:
The United States: Bankruptcy is never pretty.
Europe: Sectarian strife is even less pretty.
Israel: The demographic trends are all in the wrong direction. And once the USA goes belly-up, things will start to look mighty lonely over there.
Japan: The Land of the Rising Sun is destined to become a vassal in the Chinese-run "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" (how ironic is that?).
China: If it avoids a confrontation with its neighbors, it will be the dominant nation in the coming century.
Islam: Demography is destiny.
Australia and New Zealand: Both nations are stable, mature democracies with abundant natural resources. They are also isolated enough to avoid the trouble spots, yet close enough to export their resources to the Asian tigers.
Serbia: I’m not expecting anything particularly great for Serbia in the realm of politics or economics, but they may well appreciate the irony of watching their Western European tormenters become embroiled in a vicious conflict with Islam. And America’s impending bankruptcy might be good for a few laughs too.
Russia: One must always be cautious when predicting anything good for Russia. It has a disturbing tendency to have its ship go down just when port is coming into sight. Nevertheless, Russia has a few things going for it that could make it one of the few success stories in 21st Century Europe. First, it has enormous natural resources, many of which will be in very short supply over the coming century. Second, having barely survived its horrific experience with secular, materialist Bolshevism, Russia is reconnecting with its cultural and spiritual roots in a way that is not even on the radar screen of post-modern Western Europe. Russia may thus become the first European nation to rediscover some of that which was lost in 1914. Unfortunately, its perennial bad luck, its lingering gangsterism, and its shrinking population could upset the applecart. Thus, it earns the status as the century’s great wild card.
In conclusion, I note that most of these trends are already firmly in place, and little can be done to avoid the days of reckoning (while carefully remembering that history always has a way of shuffling wild cards into the deck). The debt problems in America, the demographics of Europe, and the competitive dynamics in Asia probably cannot now be altered enough to matter.
Thus, the fuses are lit…and the fireworks are about to begin.