Why does George Friedman think the other round?
The text was originally published in Russian
It has been two weeks since George Friedman, the main advocate of the global superiority of the US, visited Moscow. He is well-known in Russia and beyond it for his founding of the private intelligence agency Stratfor in 1996, which publishes and distributes at low prices original analytic materials on international relations and security. Apart from that, Friedman is the author of several international best-sellers that develop the notion of a geopolitical model of international analysis.
George Friedman’s ideas stand out in the American mainstream. The latter may be characterized with a distinct liberal bias, the belief in ideals and transforming role of democracy. Standing out as pragmatic or even cynical, he at the same time does not claim to be keeping to a balanced or objective approach. Instead he aims at exceeding readers’ expectations with his surprising, provoking and even outraging analysis. Friedman seeks to convince the reader that these are exactly the rules of international relations.
In Moscow George Friedman was received broadly. His writing for the Valdai Club preceded his visit. After a series of meetings in MGIMO University he was received in the Russian Foreign Ministry, and his interview for the Kommersant newspaper was very popular among the Russian media: it was cited by the Russian Channel 1, Russia Today and other media agencies.
All this popularity was based on the mere statement of the Stratfor founder, which sounded so close to the notion common in the Russian establishment, that the US policies seek to prevent the rise of a hegemon in Eurasia with Western technologies and Russian resources at its disposal.
The notion is both dreaded and praised in Russia irrespective of its feasibility or accordance with the historic practice of the American foreign policy. Thus, Friedman’s words are a balm for the soul of Russian conservatives, who share the view of Friedrich Ratzel, Alfred Mahan and Halford Mackinder, the founders of the geopolitics concept of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and believe that the US aims to balance the strengthening of any regional leader in Eurasia.
It seems that Friedman’s statement that Russia is an expansionist power, which makes the US act against it, will remain in the heads of many in Moscow for a long time – as well as the other statement of his that the US global superiority will stay undoubted for the upcoming century with the American foreign policy serving as the key driving force in the international processes.
Meanwhile, the claim hardly corresponds to the reality. Firstly, Russia does not seek expansion and is on the defensive. Interestingly, before his visit to Moscow Friedman used to think that Moscow aims at extending its pressure onto the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Poland, however, he changed his point of view on his return to the US.
Secondly, Friedman tends to overestimate the American resources as compared to those of the other world powers. The advantage that Washington enjoyed for the last 20 years is impossible to regain. Furthermore, the US misused its superiority having dragged itself in lengthy conflicts that had nothing to do with the main American interests.
Thirdly, the era of feasible containment and balancing doctrines are a thing of the past. No one wants European security issues to be back on the agenda, likewise no one is preparing for a war against Russia: the victory in such a confrontation is not guaranteed, and the cost is too high. The efficient British diplomacy on the continent of the 18th-19th centuries is something the US cannot afford. And is simply incapable of.
The US joined the group of great world powers no sooner than the second half of the 20th century without having gained any of the European experience in conflicts and cooperation, through which the Europe obtained, among the other qualities, its prudence in international affairs.
At the same time the US – unlike Britain – may afford to be ignorant about events unraveling far from their borders. The American economy is the largest in the world and is practically self-sufficient with exports amounting to about 10 per cent of the GDP and three quarters of it going to Canada and Mexico. The US safely controls its coastal seas and do not have to worry about all the rest. This makes maintaining a favourable image inside and outside the country – but not achieving success in relations with other states – the key goal of the American foreign policy: a pattern first acknowledged by American diplomat George Kennan.
The history also demonstrates that the US failed to contain the imperial Japan in the first half of the 20th century and the Soviet Union in Europe in 1940s, as well as the Islamic Revolution in Iran in late 1970s, the rise of Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Middle East in 1990s and 2000s. The US-China relations are far from balancing nowadays, and questions remain on what the alternatives of Washington will be if Russia and China act decisively in the Baltics and in Taiwan.
The balancing concept is a mere simplification, which is rather a wishful thinking for the US than a description of the current developments. However, the fact does not bother Friedman, who is advocating geopolitical determinism: all states are hostages to their geography and circumstances guided by the invisible hand of geopolitics.
According to Friedman, what is happening in international relations has no alternatives. But his interpretation of the logic of the world processes is set upside down with blatant mistakes in action gaining their meaning. For instance, the goal of the US in Afghanistan and Washington, supposedly, was to destroy the rising powers – and not to establish its control over the two countries. In my turn I can say that in 2000s I spent a long time studying the motives of policies of George Bush’s Administration, and I may claim that this statement is wrong. For Afghanistan it was the American revenge that laid the base for intervention, and in the Middle East the US actually believed that democracy may take root in the region. Apart from that, Friedman’s model fails to explain why it cost so much for the US to “destroy the rising powers” and why it required a lengthy occupation. Similar questions rise in reference to the US war in Vietnam.
The problem with the geopolitical approach is that it implies too broad a vision unrelated to a concrete international situation. This hinders a reliable prognosis.
Explaining the Ukrainian crisis with the Russian need for a buffer at the NATO borders is as unreasonable as making a weather forecast for the upcoming week on the basis of the time of the year. The correct question that will lead to a practical conclusion may be the following – how to preserve the stability and conditions for development in a fragile region that separates the two macro-regions without provoking Russia.
With the Russian immunity to the simplified geopolitical assumptions (although the public excitement about Friedman’s visit suggests otherwise) it is hard to imagine the impression his ideas may make on an inexperienced audience. It is common knowledge that Stratfor was consulting the Georgian government shortly before the war in 2008. According to Wikileaks data, these consultation suggested that the US security guarantees for Georgia are indisputable. I think that was the answer the Georgians were awaiting. At the same time, neither Sratfor, nor the US do not bear the responsibility for the consequences of their recommendations, and if the Georgians of the Ukrainians followed them – it is nothing but their own problem.
It seems to me that George Friedman’s geopolitical doctrine simplifies both the international reality and the liberal ideas of the American mainstream. Acceptance of the reality of the existing balance of powers, aspiration for preserving stability and guidance by the international law – these are the key ingredients in the realist policies recipe that the US still fail to manage.
Western governments locked up in short electoral cycles are bound to continue same policies towards Russia.
This appointment has almost no implications for the US military strategy like all the previous appointments in the last 20 years. Irrespective of who holds the position of the Defence Secretary, the US remains a naval power, whose continental territories will remain immune to opponents at least till 2050.
The President promised to redirect Russian energy streams to countries where “economy is not confused with politics”. He was referring to the Summit host Turkey in the first place with its increasing need for energy resources. Despite the differences between Turkey and Russia on the Syrian issue, the two states are deepening their cooperation in the energy field making their relations genuinely strategic.
Although coping with sanctions, plummeting oil prices and a devalued ruble is challenging, it is paramount that Russian leaders continue to spend time and energy to address the economy’s structural problems and give it a new focus. That is the path to creating an economy that is stronger, more efficient and more flexible in the years to come.