Businesses need to try to peer 30 or more years into the future as they make investment decisions. How can they separate long-term trends and opportunities from the rush of the present? Strategist George Friedman, author of The Next 100 Years, says to look at constraints, not possibilities.
Q: In The Next 100 Years you point out that extraordinary unexpected changes actually happen as a matter of course: Londoners in 1900 likely felt that they were securely in the center of the world, someone in Japan or Germany in 1950 would have had a hard time believing those countries would rebuild to become the second and third largest economies by the end of the century, and someone in China in 1970 would have as hard a time imagining the country would become the fourth largest economy by 2007. How do you go about looking into the future to make forecasts?
By looking at constraints, not possibilities. The most interesting aspect of any political or business decision maker is what he can't do, because of political or market decisions. We spend most of our time eliminating the impossible or the improbable. Many policy makers act as if they had an infinite palette to choose from. In fact they have very few choices. For example, when we said that there would be very little change in foreign policy after President Obama took office, it was based on an understanding that whatever he subjectively may have wanted to do, he had very few options, and that he would basically continue President Bush's foreign policy. We forecast, particularly geopolitically, by eliminating the impossible, then looking at what's left.
Q: You predict the rise of countries like Turkey, Mexico, and Poland in coming decades. What do businesses do with this sort of information now?
Companies need to be looking 20 or 30 years into the future for their investments. That will cause them to identify opportunities that most people think are preposterous, but if you look at countries as if they were companies, rising and falling, you want to identify not those who have already reached the top, where the herd is, but those that are beginning to emerge.
The time to have invested in Germany was in 1950. The time to have invested in China was 1975 or 1980. We speak about 30 or 40 years of emergence. That appears to be a very long time, but in 1975 China would have been a very interesting country to invest in. That was 35 years ago.
Q: Do businesses just need to assume that major political upheaval might render their investments completely valueless?
That's always a possibility. In fact, it's common. I mean, one of the things that interests me about business leaders is that they regard political events as black swans, yet if we look at the past century, the exceptional events have been the major definers of the international system. The Great Depression had far more to do with the First World War than it had to do with any decision the Fed made.
It's extremely important to understand two things. Geopolitical events are a constant shaper of the business environment. And these events have a degree of predictability. The only certain erroneous assumption is to think that geopolitical events will not reshape the marketplace dramatically in the course of an investment. It always does.
In the 20th century, 17% of the time, the United States was involved in a major multidivisional war. So far in the 21st century it's been almost 100% of the time. You don’t have the option of pretending that the only issues are business and market issues, because both of them are constantly being shaped and reshaped by political and geopolitical forces. Any investment made right now in the financial community is heavily dependent on the political process. An investment made in the energy industry is heavily dependent on geopolitical processes. So the option of not taking these into account just isn't there.
Q: Is it something you see companies doing well?
No, I think companies are very poor at making these judgments because they tend to focus in on the economics of the deal, without understanding the manner in which economics is reshaped by outside forces. Many companies made substantial investments in Russia in the 1990s without understanding that the situation at that point was the outlier and not the future of Russia. So many of the investments they made were at risk.
The other problem that businesspeople have is their obsession with relationships. Relationships are crucial, but too many businesspeople forget that as things change the people they have the relationships with may no longer be there or may not be important. It’s kind of like building a business in Los Angeles and being shocked when an earthquake comes. Geopolitical upheavals are constant. If you're going to have relationships, you'd better understand the politics of the situation. War and disruption: that's the way the system works, and it's going to affect you.
Q: Are there businesses or whole industries that are notably more sophisticated in their approach to geopolitics?
Energy is one business that I think is pretty smart. I also think that retail that sells overseas is pretty smart. They tend to think in very granular ways. The companies that tend not to be very sophisticated are those that are running after wage differentials. I'm going to set up a factory in China and make a lot of money because I can produce cheaper. They fail to understand how temporary the wage differential is. They fail to understand the politics.
In general, European companies are far more sophisticated in dealing with their foreign investments than American companies. That's not always the case, but it is generally. Americans tend to assume that all reasonable people will behave as someone from Wisconsin might. I'll give you an example that I think is quite telling. I was talking to someone in China, pointing out a case of corruption when a person got a job and hired all his relatives. The person I was talking with said, "That's not corruption. Who should I hire, if not my blood? I cannot think of anything more immoral than the American position that you should hire indifferent to your obligations. What kind of people are you?" That was a very telling moment. An American businessman looks at Chinese practices and immediately assumes they're corrupt, oblivious to the fact that the Chinese look at Americans and think of them as monsters. The Europeans, I think, are more sophisticated, having been imperial monsters themselves.
Q: When a company comes to STRATFOR, what are they seeking?
Well, normally they would like to know everything about a particular subject. We point out they can't afford it, so we help them focus down on what they do know and what they really need to know. Usually they have a tremendous amount of information—they just don't know they have it. From there we identify very clearly the information they must have to make their decisions. Then we try to get that.
Q: And when you are looking at bigger trends?
Well, the geopolitical situation can only be understood through a myriad number of facts. Without the facts, geopolitical forecasting is meaningless. And if the facts don't add up to a vision of what's going to unfold, they're pretty useless. So intelligence is the art of both gathering facts and making forecasts. In my book, I describe the development of space-based solar energy. That didn't come to me one night in a flash. It was the result of extended work trying to understand the constraints on the energy industry, the likelihood of rising demand, and the limits of current technologies. It involved a tremendous amount of fieldwork to draw that conclusion.
Q: Climate change, limited freshwater, and a whole string of other environmental issues are raised as very pressing. Why don't you give more attention to environmental or natural resource issues in the book?
Because these are all one problem: energy. We don't have a water problem if we have sufficient energy to do conversion of salt water. And our core energy problem is that energy consumption is going to rise. As the population ages, the workforce will contract. We will be using more and more robots to take the place of human labor. Robots are massive consumers of energy, as are computers.
The possibility of conservation isn't there. It's an impossibility. If we go to China and India and say we want you to remain poor, third-world countries so that the environment isn't screwed up, they're going to say no, right? And there is no possible political coalition that can exist in any advanced industrial country that is possibly going to get people to agree to, if you will, impoverishment in order for future generations to survive. The environmental movement tries to make conservation appear to be the acceptance of inconveniences. You ride your bicycle to work. That's not the solution. You have to have a massive willingness to accept a massive decline in the standard of living, for which there is no political will, which is why Copenhagen turned out to be such a farce. Nobody's prepared to do that.
Therefore the question is, how do we get energy at lower cost that's not polluting? And that has to do, as most technologies in the United States have to do, with the military. That's where technologies start, whether it's the microchip or the internet. The military is interested in controlling space, where energy is free. From space you can beam solar energy down to earth. The United States is beginning to want private companies to get into the business of lifting satellites; we are moving in a certain direction.
So I spend very little time on it because the environmental arguments are uninteresting. They have no political weight. I'm far more interested in the manner in which technological solutions will be found. If you talk about water sources, you're talking about energy. If you talk about global warming, you're talking about energy. The center of gravity of the problem is to find low-cost, non-polluting energy. And that's why I go to space-based solar power.
Q: How important is business in shaping the future?
Business of course is important, but it rarely dominates. There were periods in which business decisions dominated, like in the 1990s. But businesses are political events. A corporation is based on the concept of the limited liability corporation, where I will be able to invest in a company but my liability is limited to what I put in. The risk is based essentially on a political and legal decision, not a business decision. There is no such thing as a free market, so long as it's built around the idea of a corporation, because you already have a government-defined structure of risk, and therefore all businesses live within an environment that's constrained by the two other major variables, politics and the military.
As we can see with the financial system today, the major decisions about the financial system are going to be made by the politicians. The politicians, in turn, may be trumped by war. You have a highly interactive system, in which every part depends on every other part. But businesses who fantasize that they are free from these processes, or should be free, are bound to be disappointed.
Q: Are there major pools of capital that will be particularly important to the world economy going forward?
Countries like China will throw off money because they can't absorb it themselves, but the major pool of investment capital remains the United States on a global basis, both as a consumer and a source of capital. We have to remember, the United States is 25% of the world economy. That's a huge amount.
Certainly the U.S. borrows money. But foreigners desperately want to invest here. It's fascinating to watch the urgency with which they buy government paper that pays almost no interest. To understand this, you really have to understand why the United States is so attractive to foreigners and why a lot of money that comes into the United States gets recirculated as foreign direct investment out of the United States. We're kind of the grand engine of the system—again, it's possible to take a very short-run view of a couple of years and think that this is changing, but it is the long-run safe haven.
Q: China is described in the book as a paper tiger. Why do you come to this conclusion?
China is 1.3 billion people. According to Chinese government statistics, 600 million of those people have a total household income of $3 a day or less. Another 440 million earn between $3 and $6 a day. What we would call middle class, people with a household income of $20,000 and above, account for only 60 million people in China. That's still comparable to a large country, like France, but it represents less than 5% of the Chinese population. China is an extraordinarily poor country. Most business people travel to that small part of China that contains the tiny middle class. And they extrapolate from that.
You always have to remember that China can't sell electronics or toys to people earning $2 or $3 a day. They have to sell those goods to the advanced industrial world. And if the advanced industrial world isn't buying, China is in tremendous trouble. When the United States or Europe stops consuming as much as they did before, you’re dealing with unemployment in a country where unemployment can yield malnutrition. What we're seeing right now is China introducing a massive security crackdown to try to control a situation of enormous unhappiness in China.
China is also holding extremely large dollar reserves. Japan in 1990 and the United States in 1929 held massive foreign currency reserves, which was a precursor to serious economic dysfunction, because when you are unable to metabolize that much money, there is something wrong in the virtuous cycle of exports, investments, and so on.
I'll leave you with one final figure. If the United States grows at 2.5% a year, China will have to grow at 8.25% a year simply not to fall behind the United States in absolute numbers. The idea that China will catch up to the United States within 10 years is just an arithmetic impossibility. And so China is a case where businessmen have bought into several propositions that were true 10 or 15 years ago, but are not true now. That shows the constant need to reexamine the premises on which you're building your investments.
Q: We seem to have a pattern, as humans, of thinking of our moment as particularly exceptional. How do you deal with that bias for the present?
Well, remember, for human beings, this moment is exceptional. It's the moment in which we are alive. Those who succeed in life are those who can live outside of this moment and think a little way ahead. So, for example, to invest in Microsoft when Digital Equipment Corporation says there's no demand for personal computers, you have to imagine the future. You have to be able to think in terms of cycles—long cycles and short cycles. But that is an act of will and discipline. At a certain point, you say, the way that I am going to achieve my goals is by not thinking about this moment. And then you realize that, aside from the fact that you happen to be alive right now, this is a pretty ordinary moment. And the more you can discipline yourself not to get excited, the more you can find what actually matters.
Q: Are there actually singular moments in history or are they all parts of cycles?
There are singular moments. The movement of Iberia into today's Latin America and into the Indian Ocean Basin was the first time in human history a global system started to emerge. That was a singular moment. But, by definition, singular moments are pretty rare. It happens that in 1991, I think, a singular moment occurred. In 1991, for the first time in 500 years, not a single European power was a global power. That happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that moment, the only global power was the United States. Twenty years later, that is still the case. And I expect that to be the case for a very long time.
Now, in a certain sense I guess you could say that's not that singular. The European creation of the global system was the singularity, and this was a secondary one, but I still regard it as pretty important. It was the profound conclusion of the decline of Europe in the 20th century, a decline that's still unfolding.
Q: Something that was particularly remarkable to me in your book was how important something as basic and unchangeable as geography can be. Could you touch on that?
Begin with oceans. Two things happen on oceans. The bulk of international trade takes place on oceans, and wars, whether invasions or sea battles, occur on oceans. Whoever controls oceans can control the pattern of international trade if they wish, and they are in a position to invade other people and not be invaded themselves. The United States is the first country in human history to control all of the world's oceans. That gives it enormous power.
In 1980, something very important happened. For the first time in human history, trans-Pacific trade equaled trans-Atlantic trade. Up until that point, whoever controlled the North Atlantic controlled the highway to Europe, the main industrial power in the world. In 1980, that was no longer the case, so any power that is native to both the Atlantic and the Pacific has a tremendous advantage. That happens to be the United States. It would be very hard to have a trans-continental power in Latin America because of the Andes and because of the jungles. So the United States is, by definition, the center of gravity of the international system, because of its geography, because of its control of the oceans through its navy. Ultimately, if the United States decides that China isn't going to trade anymore, it can make that decision. The United States is very benign in its foreign policy. It rarely intervenes in trade. But it's always there. And countries like China are painfully aware of that fact.
Q: How do the big, slow-moving trends of demographics shape geopolitics and international business?
We have been talking for several generations about the population explosion. But probably the single most important fact, is that, everywhere in the world, birthrates are declining—not just in developed countries but everywhere. In some places it's still above 2.1, which is the replacement rate, but in Europe and elsewhere it's fallen below that level. That sets in motion a range of things, from technological solutions to shortages of population, to changes in the status of power within regions and between regions, to switching from an anti-immigration policy to a desperate-for-immigration policy around the world.
We have been living for 500 years with a population expansion, which meant there were always going to be more consumers, more workers, more soldiers, more everything. That's just not true anymore. By the end of this century, it will be pretty much untrue everywhere. That means that the nature of capitalism changes. More population meant you always had forces suppressing the cost of labor, more population meant the price of land always rose. The great arbiter in capitalism was capital—whoever had the money to invest was tremendously powerful. That’s not going to be the case, any longer. Labor is going to be the high-cost item, the great variable. In the 21st century, whoever controls labor is in the most powerful position.
Interview conducted and edited by Ted O’Callahan.