Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Book Review: 'The Storm Before the Calm: America's Discord, the Coming Crisis of the 2020s, and the Triumph Beyond' by George Friedman

There has been a minor trend of books predicting the end of the American Empire by 2030. The Storm Before The Calm at first appears to be yet another, but it is more nuanced and clever. It doesn’t predict the end, but a new beginning, one that happens every 50-80 years since America was founded. The idea is that there are two series of waves or cycles: the institutional one runs 80 years (or so), and the economic/sociological one runs 50 years. For the first time ever, they will almost overlap in the 2020s according to George Friedman, who theory this is.

These waves or cycles have no names, just descriptions. They give plenty of warning, a decade or more, and can take another decade to settle down for a calm(er) run over the following 50 years. My problem with them is they are so unscientific, so packed with cherry-picked events, that they could appear any time, or never. Just pick the trends, developments and events you want to populate them with, et voila! They fit the theory.

Meanwhile, back in the cycles, Friedman positions them after major wars and economic crises. So cycles figured in independence, the Civil War, World War II and after Jimmy Carter. The last president of every cycle is a dismal failure, largely because he does not have the perspective to know his position in the cycle. Similarly, the first president in the new cycle makes all kinds of big changes, unknowingly setting up the next calm period with them. In that definition, Donald Trump does not even place. The last president in the upcoming cycles will be 2024-28. Many might think differently about the damage Trump is doing to government agencies and institutions, international trade, treaties, relations, morals and values, but in Friedman’s theory, he’s just more, not majorly different. And not The End.

Trump does however fit Friedman’s requirement of an ever-failing attempt by a president near the end of a cycle to bring back the good old days of an era that is gone forever. So one way or another, there’s more of that to come. Previous presidents at the end of cycles were John Quincy Adams, US Grant, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter.

Besides the timelines, the evidence for the upcoming changes are that institutions have twisted themselves out of scope. For example, Friedman cites mortgage assistance. That was a postwar effort to help veterans become civilians, but morphed into a feeding frenzy down to subprime civilians and led to a massive debt bubble bursting in 2008. Similarly, the country no longer has the luxury of leaving declarations of war to the deliberations of Congress, he says. Nuclear and terrorist attacks have changed the playing field, requiring instant response. In his theory, these are tension points that will need unwinding.

Cycle ends are characterized by deep social and economic dislocation. There would be little disagreement we are undergoing such change, but it can also be said of pretty much any stretch of American history. The USA is a constant struggle to adapt. Westward expansion, Southern Reconstruction, urbanization, suburbanization, ghettoization, public education, computerization, drugs, mass media of various levels over the decades, have all contributed their piece to the strain. To me these cycles, lasting as short as Friedman specifies, might as well not be accounted for at all. He does not make the case they are distinct and recognizable to anyone but him.

Friedman spends a chapter explaining how the USA is an empire in denial, a reluctant empire, an immature empire, and not a particularly competent empire, using too little or too much force, largely dependent on Russian involvement for its efforts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Countries worldwide must toe the US line or be invaded, taken over, have their governments replaced or bankrupted. The USA maintains over 840 overseas military bases in far less than the 200 countries of the world, precisely to maintain its empire. And what it doesn’t threaten with its military, it manipulates with its money.

He says Americans don’t care much for ideologies, but that is absurd. The whole country has devolved into ideologies, voting by party, marrying by party, moving house by party allegiance. People don’t know the names of the candidates any more, they simply vote by party. For him to base his cyclical conflicts on the lack of ideology sends the whole project off the rails, for me.

Instead of ideology, he thinks the next big conflict will be over the federal government vs the citizenry, that the technocrats want to defend their power of complexity over the people’s desire for simplicity. But the federal government has been neutered and no longer matters very much. From the EPA to the weather service, the president has been interfering, reducing, minimizing and emasculating government. The EPA has been reduced to counting toilet flushes, the FBI to investigating the FBI. It’s not that no one trusts government any more, it’s that government isn’t there any more. The Justice Department did not take down a single financier over the 2008 Financial Crisis. Antitrust is a quaint notion. Regulations are being rolled back for no reason. Parklands are shrinking. Even the IRS is incapable of carrying out its mandate. So where exactly is the front line of this future battle?

He also forces things to fit his theory. He says the George W. Bush administration was the last time there was co-operation and rationality in government (“calm”), that beginning with Obama and now Trump, rigidity and lack of progress rule. But during Bush II, the W. stood for Worst president in history. His cabinet members were not merely unqualified or incompetent but maliciously so. He accomplished nothing lasting (structurally), even with the loud influence of the Tea Party. He was embarrassing internationally, and ridiculed nationally. To be nostalgic for W. as a pillar of calm stability is ludicrous.

Finally, this theory is only valid in the USA, it seems. It is special for Americans alone. Which doesn’t help its standing as a theory.

George Friedman was the chairman of Stratfor, the geopolitical prognosticator. It should be noted that another alum, Peter Zeihan, has just published a book called Disunited Nations using the Stratfor brain trust to predict how nations all over the world will fare in the coming decades, but not coming even close to what Friedman says about the USA. It would seem the crystal ball business is not quite as reliable or replicable as its adherents would have it.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.