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If World Slips Toward War, Blame Leaders' Imaginations

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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When George Friedman, founder of the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, published a book of predictions for the 21st century in 2009, a lot of it read like comedy. It no longer does: Regardless of whether Friedman got his specific forecasts right, old-fashioned geopolitics is making a comeback in the very countries he named as key players for his vision of the future.

Friedman's brand of geopolitics can be hard to square with our everyday world. As the publisher of the Russian translation of "The Next 100 Years," I couldn't resist laughing when I read a sentence like "the only physical advantage Russia can have is depth," or "the secret lunar bases will represent the crown jewels of the Japanese military." It was hard to imagine a mid-century world war between two blocs, one dominated by the U.S. and Poland, the other by Turkey and Japan. In 2009, talk of a world war, never mind the specific shape of coalitions fighting it, appeared to belong in dystopian novels or conspiracy theory websites. 

I'm no longer laughing. Wars and political conflicts are born of leaders' worldviews. If top politicians see their countries' interests in terms of territorial control and expansion, and of exerting influence through military strength -- the bread and butter of geopolitics -- they're going to revert to the traditional means of protecting and advancing these interests, including war.

"Geopolitics is back" articles proliferated last year after Russian President Vladimir Putin grabbed Crimea from Ukraine. They stressed that the West should never have assumed Russia's acquiescence in its Cold War defeat. Friedman, however, had been saying the same things five years before, when Putin wasn't even president and the U.S. was trying to "reset" its relationship with Russia. In the 2009 book, the Stratfor founder wrote:

Given the simple fact that Russia did not disintegrate, the Russian geo­-political question will reemerge. Given the fact that Russia is now reenergiz­ing itself, that question will come sooner rather than later. The conflict will not be a repeat of the Cold War, any more than World War I was a repeat of the Napoleonic wars. But it will be a restatement of the fundamental Russ­ian question: If Russia is a united nation-state, where will its frontiers lie and what will be the relationship between Russia and its neighbors? That question will represent the next major phase in world history—in 2020, and in the years leading up to it. 

Friedman was right about that, although he failed to predict the specific shape of the conflict: a hybrid Russian-Ukrainian war. The reason he was right is that Putin clearly thinks in the same categories as Friedman does. To Russia's leader, creating territorial buffers against a hostile West and making his country less vulnerable to invasion are concrete goals, not old-fashioned theoretical constructs. 

It appears Friedman also correctly identified other countries where this kind of thinking would be on the rise toward 2020. Among these, Turkey, Poland and Japan are the most important.

Friedman described Turkey as "a stable platform in the midst of chaos" in the Middle East and the emerging dominant power in the region. That's not exactly the case now -- Turkey isn't particularly stable domestically, despite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's efforts at consolidating power; its dominance in the face of other regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, is not obvious. Again, though, this is how Turkey's leaders appear to frame their goals. Erdogan's rhetoric is that of revenge and resurrection, of turning his country into the leading power of the Sunni Muslim world. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has articulated these goals on several occasions. "Whatever we lost between 1911 and 1923, whatever lands we withdrew from, from 2011 to 2023 we shall once again meet our brothers in those lands," he said in 2012.

Friedman's take on Poland is that it's a dynamic new power that will become the center of an eastern European bloc, challenging the dominance of decaying western European powers. This sounded incongruous in 2009: Poland under then Prime Minister Donald Tusk was a compliant European Union member, building a strong relationship with Germany and hoping for a bigger role in EU institutions. Tusk is now president of the European Council. But the right-wing Law and Justice Party has just won power in Poland, and it sees the country's interests differently. Jaroslav Kaczynski and his allies are determined euro-skeptics, who believe in a strong military alliance with the U.S., American military bases in Eastern Europe and a Polish national resurgence. Poland is emerging as a leader in Eastern Europe's drive to reject Syrian refugees, whom Germany has welcomed. The ruling party's program says:

Geopolitics has become the dominant pattern of international relations in the 21st century. After a period of hope for a world order based on the liberal vision of an "end of history" and globalization, which would make the world flat, we see a return of the rivalry for spheres of influence, a hierarchy of states, the disclosure of imperial ambitions and the use of the classic tools of power in exerting pressure on weaker countries.

Law and Justice, in short, wants to steer Poland in a world of geopolitics; that's the world it inhabits.

Japan, to Friedman, is a country with a weaker geopolitical role than its large economy might have allowed. "With a history of militarism, Japan will not remain the marginal pacifistic power it has been," the Stratfor founder wrote. And indeed, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been intent on broadening Japan's global influence and watering down the pacifism of the Japanese Constitution. He has, for example, sought to make it possible for Japanese troops to fight abroad, for the first time since 1945. This kind of change was difficult to predict in 2009. 

Friedman's vision of what comes next includes the breakup of Russia around 2020, a Turkish push into the Caucasus and a Polish one into Russia's sphere of influence in the West (presumably Ukraine and Belarus). In this narrative, the U.S. backs the emerging great powers because they are American allies and Russia is an adversary, but then Turkey allies itself with Japan against the U.S. One doesn't have to buy this scenario; Friedman is the first to admit that it's difficult to make predictions decades in advance. Still, it's probably necessary to accept that if the leaders of Russia, Turkey, Poland and Japan subscribe to the geopolitical worldview -- as they all now seem to do -- outcomes such as those Friedman foresaw are possible.

In a world of geopolitics, it's getting harder for anyone to pursue value-based policies. In a recent column, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer warned fellow Europeans about that:

It is time for Europeans to end their wishful thinking of a continental order determined by the rule of law. The world, unfortunately, isn’t like that. It is much harder, and power rules.

The more leaders heed these warnings and cross the line into the world as Friedman describes it, the tougher, more lawless and less safe the world will become. Friedman discounts old Europe in his calculus, but for now, it's an important stronghold of non-geopolitical policymaking, negotiation and economic rather than militarized thinking. That's not obsolete luggage to be abandoned; it's a different version of the future that Europeans, and responsible politicians everywhere, should cherish and defend.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net