The Next 100 Years

George Friedman, New Statesman: Japan and Turkey form an alliance to attack the US. Poland becomes America’s closest ally. Mexico makes a bid for global supremacy, and a third world war takes place in space. Sounds strange? It could all happen…

In 1492, Columbus sailed west. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. These two events bracketed the European age. Once, Mayans lived unaware that there were Mongols, who were unaware there were Zulus. From the 15th century onwards, European powers collectively overwhelmed the world, creating the first truly global geopolitical system in human history, to the point where the fate of Australian Aborigines was determined by British policy in Ireland and the price of bread in France turned on the weather in Minnesota.

Europe simultaneously waged a 500-year-long civil war of increasing savagery, until the continent tore itself apart in the 20th century and lost its hold on the world. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no longer a single European nation that could be considered a global power of the first rank.

Another unprecedented event took place a decade or so earlier. For 500 years, whoever controlled the North Atlantic controlled Europe’s access to the world and, with it, global trade. By 1980, the geography of trade had shifted, so that the Atlantic and Pacific were equally important, and any power that had direct access to both oceans had profound advantages. North America became the pivot of the global system, and whatever power dominated North America became its centre of gravity. That power is, of course, the United States.

It is geography combined with the ability to exploit it that matters. The US is secure from attack on land or sea. It is vulnerable to terrorist attack but, outside of a nuclear exchange, faces no existential threat in the sense that Britain and France did in 1940–41, or Germany and Japan did in 1944-45. Part of its advantage is that, alone among the combatants, the US actually profited from the Second World War, emerging with a thoroughly modernised industrial base. But this itself can be traced to the country’s core geography. The fertility of the land between the Appa­lachians and the Rocky Mountains, and the configuration of the country’s river system, drove an economic system in the 19th century that helped fund an economy which today constitutes between 25 and 30 per cent of global economic activity, depending on how you value the dollar.