Q&A: George Friedman

The author of the new book The Next 100 Years explains why China poses little threat to US supremacy

In your new book The Next 100 Years you reject those who argue that we are moving into what Fareed Zakaria describes as 'the post-American world'. Why do you believe that American power will be more durable than many predict?

I think we need to remember that the United States only became the undisputed global power in 1991. In the first half of the century, the United States was far from a global power. In the second half of the century it was locked in a Cold War that was, and certainly seemed to be, a desperate contest that the United States was not clearly winning at all times. Remember Sputnik, Berlin and Vietnam. Thus, if the United States is genuinely in decline, it is the shortest hegemony on record. Global power does not emerge quickly, nor does it erode that fast. The enormous percentage of the global economy that the United States constitutes may well wither, but if for no reason than structural ones, its decline cannot happen quickly. It should be noted that power is relative, so that a decline in American power requires the emergence of a replacement, either a single power or a coalition. Unlike Fareed Zakharia, I do not see the individual power or a coalition of powers that would usurp American primacy. In the end, great powers measure their time in centuries, not years or decades.

You do concede that "in due course ... the American epoch will end", though not necessarily this century. What are the main threats to US supremacy?

Great powers are most frequently broken by war or internal fragmentation. In the case of Britain, the World Wars of the 20th Century delivered blows to its economy and society that were staggering. The wars also produce new powers, the United States and Soviet Union both emerged from the wars towering over Britain. The Soviet Union in turn was shattered by internal fragmentation. Its institutions ceased functioning, shattering the regime and society. For the United States the threat of a war that exhausts American society opening the door for a greater power is the first threat. Over the long run, regional disintegration is the second threat. The United States is a vast country and stresses that are not visible at the moment can arise. One of the reasons I argue for American power in the 21st century is that I don't see the forces that will generate this very quickly. It will take a long time to get there.

Has the rise of China been overestimated by most analysts? After the United States will it be possible for another country to become a superpower?

I don't find superpower a useful term. There are global powers and regional powers -- and nations with little or no power. The United States is a global power. China is now a regional power. So the question is can China move from being a regional power to a global one? I don't think so. China's growth is not overstated, but its challenges are understated. Over a billion of its people live in a condition of poverty on the order of some of the poorest third world countries. This is an inherently unstable situation that focuses a great deal of the regime's attention, and certainly can't be addressed in anything short of generations. Militarily, its army is locked in by geography and is basically an internal security force. Building a navy of any substantial size requires not only building ships, but training the crews and the Admirals to man the fleet. Building a Navy that could challenge the United States would take generations. It is hard to see mechanically how they become a global power.

The only visible challenger to the United States would be a united Europe that operated as a single entity economically and militarily. It does not seem to me, particularly after the economic crisis, that European institutions work all that well. Europe chose national solutions and multinational cooperation. Europe is a coalition of regional powers, linked economically but lacking military force, let alone global military force. I don't see that changing. So I do not expect to see global challenges. I do expect to see substantial regional challengers to the United States in particular areas of the world, some of whom can be quite effective in a limited arena.

Is the European Union likely to become more or less significant in the future?

It is not clear to me what the European Union is. It is certainly nothing akin to a multi-national state, as sovereignty is genuinely in the hands of the national governments. It seems to be an attempt to have the benefits of scale without the abandonment of sovereignty. It reminds me of the United States in 1861 when the southern states argued that sovereignty rested with the states, and that membership in the federal union was an elective matter; that even as members, they were free to pursue their own independent policies. There was a conference held on this at Gettysburg in 1863 that ultimately settled the question. There is no force in Europe prepared to wage war to preserve the European Union, or to enforce the policies of the central government. Thus, Europe is a cooperative framework that individual states may ignore or withdraw from at will. I doubt that it will become more than this because of underlying mistrust among the nations and an unwillingness of the nations to subordinate their interests to the Union. It may stay where it is or decline. I find it difficult to imagine it growing stronger.

Your account of the next 100 years appears to downplay the impact that climate change will have on the world. But won't the extreme consequences of climate change have a damaging effect on states' internal cohesion and on the global economy?

I take climate change seriously. But I think the discussion is heading in the wrong direction. At the moment, the critical dimension of global warming is the surge in industrial output in China and India. They are not going to cut their emissions to preserve the wealth and lifestyle of the advanced industrial world. The advanced industrial world will talk about conservation, but will take no meaningful steps in that direction. To really effect massive reductions in green house gasses requires decline in the consumption of industrial goods and transportation that would be stunning. A series of small but earnest steps will not get us there. We require wholesale slashing of consumption. Politically, that isn't going to happen. The solution rests in replacing the hydrocarbon economy. In my book, I discuss what I think is a likely solution -- space based solar energy generation. I expect that to emerge as a new energy source because it can have a massive impact, it requires no intellectual breakthroughs, and it suits the interests of the United States Department of Defense. Conservation will not happen in my view. New technology will. This new technology will make the United States even more powerful and more unpleasant to deal with.

Iran currently shows no signs of abandoning its nuclear ambitions. Some fear that a nuclear-armed Iran could trigger an arms race in the Middle East involving Saudi Arabia and Egypt. How great a threat do you think nuclear proliferation will be in the future?

I wrote a book called The Future of War in the 1990s which explored the lack of use of nuclear weapons. The lack of use has always fascinated me. As for Iran, I do not see it very close to a nuclear weapon, although it may be closer to a nuclear device -- something that can be tested in a fixed environment, but which isn't mechanically stable enough, rugged enough or small enough to be a weapon. The Iranians have struggled simply with nuclear enrichment. But the real key is making a weapon small enough to fit on a missile, and rugged enough to withstand 10gs on launch, entry into a vacuum where temperatures vary by hundreds of degrees in seconds, then survive the high temperatures of reentry and the terrific vibration -- and then be relied on to explode. This requires lots of engineers in disciplines like material science, advanced electronics and above all, quality assurance. Iranian capabilities seem to me to be far short of that. This leaves aside the launch platform. It is easy for a university freshman to sketch a nuclear weapon's basic design. Building it is harder. Pakistan is the last country to have achieved a deliverable nuclear weapon, and it exploded its first device in 1987. It's been over a generation since a nation last became a nuclear power. North Korea remains at a device level. So, proliferation is limited by the complexity of the engineering and implementation of the weapon.

What do you say to those who argue that prediction is a futile pursuit?

When the United States invaded Iraq, it was based on a prediction of what would happen. When investors placed their money with Bernie Madoff, they were predicting that it was a good investment. When we cross the street we predict that the car standing at the light won't suddenly press the accelerator. All of us, in our daily lives, must make the best prediction available on every level. Prediction is built into our existence.

The question of course is what the value is in a prediction of the next hundred years. For me, the reason had nothing to do with the next hundred years. It had to do with this moment -- trying to understand what is of enduring importance and what is of passing insignificance. In order to predict anything I must make that judgment and it was by thinking of the century that I gave myself the benchmark of what is important and what isn't. What is important would be what would shape the rest of the century. If I had been alive in 1900, I would like to think I would have identified the three most important things of the twentieth century: the collapse of the European imperium, the quadrupling of the human population and the revolutions in transportation and communications. I would hope that I wouldn't have selected the Boer War or the Spanish American War or investments in Russian Railway bonds as of transcendental significance, even though they were on everyone's mind.

This book was an attempt to define what mattered right now. For me it is three things: the rise of American power, the massive global decline in birth rates, and technologies to deal with population shortages. I may be wrong, but the only way I can get there is by focusing on the shape of the century, and distinguish the profoundly important from the noisy present.

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.