By George Friedman
Where will the next earthquake strike and what will it look like? To answer that question we need to examine the geopolitical fault lines of the twenty-first century. As with geology, there are many such fault lines. Without pushing this analogy too far, we have to identify the active fault lines in order to identify areas where friction might build up into conflict. As the focus on the Islamic world subsides, what will be the most unstable point in the world in the next era?
There are five areas of the world right now that are viable candidates. First, there is the all-important Pacific Basin. The United States Navy dominates the Pacific. The Asian rim of the Pacific consists entirely of trading countries dependent on access to the high seas, which are therefore dependent on the United States. Two of them — China and Japan — are major powers that could potentially challenge U.S. hegemony. From 1941 to 1945 the United States and Japan fought over the Pacific Basin, and control of it remains a potential issue today.
Second, we must consider the future of Eurasia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since 1991, the region has fragmented and decayed. The successor state to the Soviet Union, Russia, is emerging from this period with renewed self-confidence. Yet Russia is also in an untenable geopolitical position. Unless Russia exerts itself to create a sphere of influence, the Russian Federation could itself fragment. On the other hand, creating that sphere of influence could generate conflict with the United States and Europe.
Third, there is continuing doubt about the ultimate framework of Europe. For five centuries Europe has been an arena of constant warfare. For the last sixty years it has been either occupied or trying to craft a federation that would make the return of war impossible. Europe may yet have to deal with the resurgence of Russia, the bullying of the United States, or internal tensions. The door is certainly not closed on conflict.
Fourth, there is the Islamic world. It is not instability that is troubling, but the emergence of a nation-state that, regardless of ideology, might form the basis of a coalition. Historically, Turkey has been the most successful center of power in the Muslim world. Turkey is also a dynamic and rapidly modernizing country. What is its future, and what is the future of other Muslim nation-states?
Fifth, there is the question of Mexican-American relations. Normally, the status of Mexico would not rise to the level of a global fault line, but its location in North America makes it important beyond its obvious power. As the country with the fifteenth highest GDP in the world, it should not be underestimated on its own merits. Mexico has deep and historical issues with the United States, and social forces may arise over the next century that cannot be controlled by either government.
In order to pinpoint events that will occur in the future, we need to examine now which of these events are likely to occur and in what order. A fault line does not necessarily guarantee an earthquake. Fault lines can exist for millennia causing only occasional tremors. But with this many major fault lines, conflict in the twenty-first century is almost certain.
The western shore of the Pacific has been the fastest-growing region in the world for the past half century. It contains two of the world's largest economies, those of Japan and China. Along with other East Asian economies, they are heavily dependent on maritime trade, shipping goods to the United States and Europe and importing raw material from the Persian Gulf and the rest of the Pacific Basin. Any interruption in the flow of commodities would be damaging. An extended interruption would be catastrophic.
Let's consider Japan, the world's second-largest economy and the only major industrial power to possess no major natural resources of any sort. Japan must import all of its major minerals, from oil to aluminum. Without those imports — particularly oil — Japan stops being an industrial power in a matter of months. To gauge the importance of this flow, bear in mind that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 because the United States had interfered with its access to raw materials.
China has also emerged as a major industrial power in the last generation, with growth surpassing that of any other major economy in the world, although its economy is still far smaller than that of Japan or the United States. Nevertheless, China is now a key player in the Pacific Basin. Previously, it was much more self-sufficient than Japan in terms of primary commodities. But as China has grown, it has outstripped its own resources and become a net importer of raw materials.
The Pacific now has two major Asian powers that are heavily dependent on imports to fuel their economy and on exports to grow their economy. Japan and China, along with South Korea and Taiwan, all depend on access to the Pacific in order to transport their goods and commodities. Since the U.S. Navy controls the Pacific Ocean, they rely on the United States for their economic well-being. That is a huge bet for any nation to make on another.
There is another side to this. The United States consumes massive amounts of Asia's industrial products, which benefits the United States as a whole by providing consumers with cheap goods. At the same time, this trade pattern devastates certain American economic sectors and regions by undermining domestic industry. What benefits consumers can simultaneously increase unemployment and decrease wages, creating complex political crosscurrents within the United States. One of the characteristics of the United States is that it tends to be oversensitive to domestic political concerns because it has a great deal of room to maneuver in foreign policy. Therefore, regardless of the overall benefits of trade with Asia, the United States could wind up in a situation where domestic political considerations force it to change its policy toward Asian imports. That possibility, however remote, represents a serious threat to the interests of East Asia.
China sends almost one-quarter of all its exports to the United States. If the United States barred Chinese products, or imposed tariffs that made Chinese goods uncompetitive, China would face a massive economic crisis. The same would be true for Japan and other Asian countries. Countries facing economic disaster become unpredictable. They can become aggressive in trying to open up other markets, sometimes through political or military pressure.
Militarily, however, the United States could shut down access to the Pacific Ocean whenever it wished. Economically, the United States is dependent on trade with Asia, but not nearly as dependent as Asia is on trade with the United States. The United States is also susceptible to internal political pressures from those groups disproportionately affected by cheaper Asian imports. It is possible that the United States, responding to domestic pressures, might try to reshape economic relations in the Pacific Basin. One of the tools it can use is protectionist legislation, backed up by its military strength. So East Asia has no real effective counter to an American military or economic move.
Subjectively, the last thing any nation in the region wants is conflict. Objectively, however, there is a massive imbalance of power. Any shift in America's policies could wreak havoc on East Asia, and a shift in American policy is far from unimaginable. The threat of American sanctions on China, for example, through which the United States might seek to limit Chinese importation of oil, strikes at the very heart of the Chinese national interest. Therefore, the Chinese must use their growing economic strength to develop military options against the United States. They will simply be acting in accordance with the fundamental principle of strategic planning: hope for the best, plan for the worst.
Over the course of the last fifty years, the western Pacific has dramatically increased its economic power, but not its military power — and that imbalance has left East Asia vulnerable. China and Japan will therefore have no choice but to try to increase their military power in the coming century, which the United States will see as a potential threat to U.S. control of the western Pacific. It will interpret a defensive move as aggressive, which objectively it is, whatever their subjective intent. Add to this the ever-evolving nations of South Korea and Taiwan, and the region is certain to be a powder keg during the twenty-first century.
What's more, any Asian country that believes that huge mega-surges in the price of oil are a realistic possibility cannot discount the threat of an American energy grab. In the near term, the next twenty to fifty years, this is actually a very real scenario. Any rational Asian power must plan for this. The only two that have the resources to challenge the United States at sea are China and Japan, each antagonistic to the other yet sharing a common fear of American behavior during an energy price spike.
Control of the Pacific intersects with a more specific issue — control of the sea lanes used for energy transportation. The higher the price of oil, and the longer non-hydrocarbon energy sources are from being a reality, the greater the likelihood of a confrontation over sea lanes. The imbalance of power in this region is severe. That, coupled with the issues of energy transport and access to the American markets, gives the Pacific Basin its massive geopolitical fault line.
For most of the second half of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union controlled Eurasia — from central Germany to the Pacific, as far south as the Caucasus and the Hindu Kush. When the Soviet Union collapsed, its western frontier moved east nearly a thousand miles, from the West German border to the Russian border with Belarus. From the Hindu Kush its border moved northward a thousand miles to the Russian border with Kazakhstan. Russia was pushed from the border of Turkey northward to the northern Caucasus, where it is still struggling to keep its foothold in the region. Russian power has now retreated farther east than it has been in centuries. During the Cold War it had moved farther west than ever before. In the coming decades, Russian power will settle somewhere between those two lines.
After the Soviet Union dissolved at the end of the twentieth century, foreign powers moved in to take advantage of Russia's economy, creating an era of chaos and poverty. They also moved rapidly to integrate as much as they could of the Russian empire into their own spheres of influence. Eastern Europe was absorbed into NATO and the EU, and the Baltic states were also absorbed into NATO. The United States entered into a close relationship with both Georgia in the Caucasus and with many of the Central Asian "stans," particularly after September 11, when the Russians allowed U.S. forces into the area to wage the war in Afghanistan. Most significantly, Ukraine moved into an alignment with the United States and away from Russia — this was a breaking point in Russian history.
The Orange Revolution in Ukraine, from December 2004 to January 2005, was the moment when the post-Cold War world genuinely ended for Russia. The Russians saw the events in Ukraine as an attempt by the United States to draw Ukraine into NATO and thereby set the stage for Russian disintegration. Quite frankly, there was some truth to the Russian perception.
If the West had succeeded in dominating Ukraine, Russia would have become indefensible. The southern border with Belarus, as well as the southwestern frontier of Russia, would have been wide open. In addition, the distance between Ukraine and western Kazakhstan is only about four hundred miles, and that is the gap through which Russia has been able to project power toward the Caucasus. We should assume, then, that under these circumstances Russia would have lost its ability to control the Caucasus and would have had to retreat farther north from Chechnya. The Russians would have been abandoning parts of the Russian Federation itself, and Russia's own southern flank would become highly vulnerable. Russia would have continued to fragment until it returned to its medieval frontiers.
Had Russia fragmented to this extent, it would have created chaos in Eurasia — to which the United States would not have objected, since the U.S. grand strategy has always aimed for the fragmentation of Eurasia as the first line of defense for U.S. control of the seas, as we have seen. So the United States had every reason to encourage this process; Russia had every reason to block it.
After what Russia regarded as an American attempt to further damage it, Moscow reverted to a strategy of reasserting its sphere of influence in the areas of the former Soviet Union. The great retreat of Russian power ended in Ukraine. Russian influence is now increasing in three directions: toward Central Asia, toward the Caucasus, and, inevitably, toward the West, the Baltics, and Eastern Europe. For the next generation, until roughly 2020, Russia's primary concern will be reconstructing the Russian state and reasserting Russian power in the region.
Interestingly, the geopolitical shift is aligning with an economic shift. Vladimir Putin sees Russia less as an industrial power than as an exporter of raw materials, the most important of which is energy (particularly natural gas). Moving to bring the energy industry under state supervision, if not direct control, he is forcing out foreign interests and reorienting the industry toward exports, particularly to Europe. High energy prices have helped stabilize Russia's economy internally. But he will not confine his efforts to energy alone. He also is seeking to capitalize on Russian agriculture, timber, gold, diamonds, and other commodities. He is transforming Russia from an impoverished disaster into a poor but more productive country. Putin also is giving Russia the tool with which to intimidate Europe: the valve on a natural gas pipeline.
Russia is pressing back along its frontiers. It is deeply focused on Central Asia and will over time find success there, but Russia will have a more difficult time in the even more crucial Caucasus. The Russians do not intend to allow any part of the Russian Federation to break away. As a result, there will be friction, particularly in the next decade, with the United States and other countries in the region as Russia reasserts itself.
But the real flash point, in all likelihood, will be on Russia's western frontier. Belarus will align itself with Russia. Of all the countries in the former Soviet Union, Belarus has had the fewest economic and political reforms and has been the most interested in re-creating some successor to the Soviet Union. Linked in some way to Russia, Belarus will bring Russian power back to the borders of the former Soviet Union.
From the Baltics south to the Romanian border there is a region where borders have historically been uncertain and conflict frequent. In the north, there is a long, narrow plain, stretching from the Pyrenees to St. Petersburg. This is where Europe's greatest wars were fought. This is the path that Napoleon and Hitler took to invade Russia. There are few natural barriers. Therefore, the Russians must push their border west as far as possible to create a buffer. After World War II, they drove into the center of Germany on this plain. Today, they have retreated to the east. They have to return, and move as far west as possible. That means the Baltic states and Poland are, as before, problems Russia has to solve.
Defining the limits of Russian influence will be controversial. The United States — and the countries within the old Soviet sphere — will not want Russia to go too far. The last thing the Baltic states want is to fall under Russian domination again. Neither do the states south of the northern European plain, in the Carpathians. The former Soviet satellites — particularly Poland, Hungary, and Romania — understand that the return of Russian forces to their frontiers would represent a threat to their security. And since these countries are now part of NATO, their interests necessarily affect the interests of Europe and the United States. The open question is where the line will be drawn in the west. This has been a historical question, and it was a key challenge in Europe over the past hundred years.
Russia will not become a global power in the next decade, but it has no choice but to become a major regional power. And that means it will clash with Europe. The Russian-European frontier remains a fault line.
Europe is still in the process of reorganizing itself after the loss of its empire and two devastating world wars, and it remains to be seen whether that reorganization will be peaceful. Europe is not going to regain its empire, but the complacent certainty that intra-European wars have ended needs to be examined. Central to this is the question of whether Europe is a spent volcano or whether it is merely dormant. The European Union has a total GDP of over $14 trillion, a trillion more than the United States. It is possible that a region of such wealth — and of such diversity in wealth — will remain immune from conflict, but it is not guaranteed.
It is unreasonable to talk of Europe as if it were one entity. It is not, in spite of the existence of the European Union. Europe consists of a series of sovereign and contentious nation-states. There is a general entity called Europe, but it is more reasonable to think of four Europes (we exclude Russia and the nations of the former Soviet Union from this list — although geographically European, these have a very different dynamic from that of Europe):
- Atlantic Europe: the nations that front the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea directly and that were the major imperial powers during the past five hundred years.
- Central Europe: essentially Germany and Italy, which did not come into existence until the late nineteenth century as modern nation-states. It was their assertion of national interest that led to the two world wars of the twentieth century.
- Eastern Europe: the nations running from the Baltic to the Black Sea that were occupied by Soviet troops in World War II and developed their recent national identities from this experience.
- There is, of course, a fourth less significant Europe, the Scandinavian countries.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Atlantic Europe was the imperial heart of the world. Central Europeans were later comers and challengers. Eastern Europeans were the victims. Torn apart by two world wars, Europe faced a fundamental question: What was the status of Germany in the European system? The Germans, frozen out of the imperial system created by Atlantic Europe, sought to overturn that system and assert their dominance. The conclusion of World War II found Germany shattered, divided and occupied, controlled by Soviets in the east, and England, France, and the United States in the west.
West Germany was indispensable to the United States and its NATO alliance because of the confrontation with the Soviets. Creating a German army, obviously, posed a problem. If the origins of the two world wars were in the growth of German power, and Germany was encouraged to be powerful again, what was to prevent a third European war? The answer rested in the integration of the German army into NATO — essentially putting it under American command in the field. But the broader answer lay in the integration of Germany into Europe as a whole.
During the 1950s, when NATO was created, the European Economic Community was also conceived. The European Union, which emerged from it, is a schizophrenic entity. Its primary purpose is the creation of an integrated European economy, while leaving sovereignty in the hands of individual nations. Simultaneously, it is seen as the preface to a federation of European countries, in which a central European government, with a parliament and professional civil service, would govern a federal Europe where national sovereignty was limited to local matters, and defense and foreign policy rested with the whole.
Europe has not achieved this goal. It has created a free-trade zone and a European currency, which some members of the free-trade zone use and others do not. It has failed to create a political constitution, however, leaving individual nations sovereign — and therefore never has produced a united defense or foreign policy. Defense policy, to the extent it is coordinated, is in the hands of NATO, and not all members of NATO are members of the EU (notably the United States). With the collapse of the Soviet empire, individual countries in Eastern Europe were admitted to the EU and NATO.
In short, post-Cold War Europe is in benign chaos. It is impossible to unravel the extraordinarily complex and ambiguous institutional relationships that have been created. Given the history of Europe, such confusion would normally lead to war. But Europe, excepting the former Yugoslavia, has no energy for war, no appetite for instability, and certainly no desire for conflict. Europe's psychological transformation has been extraordinary.
Where, prior to 1945, slaughter and warfare had been regular pastimes for centuries, after 1945 even the conceptual chaos of European institutions could not generate conflict beyond rhetoric.
Underneath the surface of the EU, the old European nationalisms continue to assert themselves, albeit sluggishly. This can be seen in economic negotiations within the EU. The French, for example, assert the right to protect their farmers from excessive competition, or the right not to honor treaties controlling their deficits. Therefore, in a geopolitical context, Europe has not become a unified transnational entity.
For these reasons, talking of Europe as if it were a single entity like the United States, or China, is illusory. It is a collection of nation-states, still shell-shocked by World War II, the Cold War, and the loss of empire. These nation-states are highly insular and determine their geopolitical actions according to their individual interests. Primary interactions are not between Europe and the rest of the world, but among European nations. In this sense, Europe behaves far more like Latin America than like a great power. In Latin America, Brazil and Argentina spend a great deal of time thinking about each other, knowing that their effect on the globe is limited.
Russia is the immediate strategic threat to Europe. Russia is interested not in conquering Europe, but in reasserting its control over the former Soviet Union. From the Russian point of view, this is both a reasonable attempt to establish some minimal sphere of influence and essentially a defensive measure. However, it is a defensive measure that will immediately affect the three Baltic states, which are now integrated into European institutions.
Obviously the Eastern Europeans want to prevent a Russian resurgence. The real question is what the rest of Europe might do — and especially, what Germany might do. The Germans are now in a comfortable position with a buffer between them and the Russians, free to focus on their internal economic and social problems. In addition, the heritage of World War II weighs heavily on the Germans. They will not want to act alone, but as part of a unified Europe.
Germany's position is unpredictable. It is a nation that has learned, given its geopolitical position, that it is enormously dangerous to assert its national interest. In 1914 and 1939, Germany attempted to act decisively in response to geopolitical threats, and each time its efforts ended catastrophically. The German analysis is that engaging in politico-military maneuvers outside of a broad coalition exposes Germany to tremendous danger. Atlantic Europe sees Germany as a buffer against Russia and will see any threat in the Baltics as being irrelevant to their interests. Therefore, they will not join the coalition Germany needs to face the Russians. So the most likely outcome will be German inaction, limited American involvement, and a gradual return of Russian power into the borderland between Europe and Russia.
But there is another scenario. In this scenario Germany will recognize the imminent danger to Poland in Russian domination of the Baltics. Seeing Poland as a necessary part of German national security, it will thus exercise a forward policy, designed to protect Poland by protecting the Baltics. Germany will move to dominate the Baltic basin. Since the Russians will not simply abandon the field, the Germans will find themselves in an extended confrontation with the Russians, competing for influence in Poland and in the Carpathian region.
Germany will find itself, of necessity, both split off from its aggressive past and from the rest of Europe. While the rest of Europe will try to avoid involvement, the Germans will be engaged in traditional power politics. As they do that, their effective as well as potential power will soar and their psychology will shift. Suddenly, a united Germany will be asserting itself again. What starts defensively will evolve in unexpected ways.
This is not the most likely scenario. However, the situation might galvanize Germany back into its traditional role of looking at Russia as a major threat, and looking at Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe as a part of its sphere of influence and as protection against the Russians. This depends partly on how aggressively the Russians move, how tenaciously the Balts resist, how much risk the Poles are willing to take, and how distant the United States intends to be. Finally, it depends on internal German politics.
Internally, Europe is inert, still in shock over its losses. But external forces such as Islamic immigration or Russian attempts to rebuild its empire could bring the old fault line back to life in various ways.
We have already discussed the Islamic world in general as a fault line. The current crisis is being contained, but the Islamic world, overall, remains unstable. While this instability will not gel into a general Islamist uprising, it does raise the possibility of a Muslim nation-state taking advantage of the instability, and therefore the weaknesses within other states, to assert itself as a regional power. Indonesia, the largest Muslim state in the world, is in no position to assert itself. Pakistan is the second-largest Muslim state. It is also a nuclear power. But it is so internally divided that it is difficult to see how it could evolve into a major power or, geographically, how it could spread its power, bracketed by Afghanistan to the west, China and Russia to the north, and India to the east. Between instability and geography, Pakistan is not going to emerge as a leading Muslim state.
After Indonesia and Pakistan, there are three other major Muslim nation-states. The largest is Egypt with 80 million people, Turkey is second with 71 million people, and Iran is third with 65 million.
When we look at the three economically, Turkey has the seventeenth-largest economy in the world, with a GDP of about $660 billion. Iran is twenty-ninth, with a GDP of just under $300 billion. Egypt is fifty-second, with a GDP of about $125 billion a year. For the past five years Turkey's economy has been growing at 5 to 8 percent a year, one of the highest sustained growth rates for any major country. With the exception of two years of recession, Iran has also had a sustained GDP growth rate of over 6 percent for the past five years, as has Egypt. These two countries are growing fast, but they are starting with a much smaller base than Turkey. Compared to European countries, Turkey already has the seventh-largest economy and is growing faster than most.
Now, it's true that economic size is not everything. Iran appears to be the most aggressive of the three geopolitically — but that is actually its basic weakness. In trying to protect its regime against the United States, Sunni Muslims, and anti-Iranian Arabs (Iran is not an Arab country), Iran is constantly forced to be prematurely assertive. In the process, it draws the attention of the United States, which then inevitably focuses on Iran as a dangerous power.
Because of its interests in the Persian Gulf and Iraq, Iranian goals run counter to those of the United States. That means Iran must divert resources to protect itself against the possibility of American attack at a time when its economy needs to develop very rapidly in order to carry it into the first rank regionally. The bottom line is that Iran irritates the United States. Sufficiently alarmed, the United States could devastate Iran. Iran is simply not ready for regional power status. It is constantly forced to dissipate its power prematurely. Attempting to become a major regional power while the world's greatest power is focused on your every move is, to say the least, difficult.
There is also the question of geography. Iran is on the margins of the region. Afghanistan is to the east, and there is little to be gained there. In any expansion of influence to the north, Iran would collide with the Russians. Iraq is a possible direction in which to move, but it can also become both a morass and a focal point for Arab and American countermeasures. It is not easy to increase Iranian regional power. Any move will cost more than it is worth.
Egypt is the largest country in the Arab world and has been its traditional leader. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser, it made a major play to become the leader of the Arab world. The Arab world, however, was deeply fragmented, and Egypt managed to antagonize key players like Saudi Arabia. After the Camp David accords with Israel in 1978, Egypt stopped trying to expand its power. It had failed anyway. Given its economy, and its relative isolation and insularity, it is hard to see Egypt becoming a regional power within any meaningful time frame. It is more likely to fall into someone else's sphere of influence, whether Turkish, American, or Russian, which has been its fate for several centuries.
Turkey is a very different case. It is not only a major modern economy, but it is by far the largest economy in the region — much larger than Iran, and perhaps the only modern economy in the entire Muslim world. Most important, it is strategically located between Europe, the Middle East, and Russia.
Turkey is not isolated and tied down; it has multiple directions in which it can move. And, most important, it does not represent a challenge to American interests and is therefore not constantly confronted with an American threat. This means it does not have to devote resources to blocking the United States. With its economy surging, it will likely soon reemerge in its old role, as the dominant force in the region.
It must be remembered that until World War I, Turkey was the seat of a major empire. Shorn of its empire, Turkey became a secular state governing a Muslim population. It was, until 1918, the most powerful Muslim country in the world. And, at its height in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, the Turkish empire was far reaching and extremely powerful.
By the sixteenth century, Turkey was the dominant Mediterranean power, controlling not only North Africa and the Levant but also southeastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the Arabian Peninsula.
Turkey is an internally complex society, with a secular regime protected by a military charged constitutionally with that role and a growing Islamist movement. It is far from certain what sort of internal government it might end up having. But when we look at the wreckage of the Islamic world after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and consider which country must be taken seriously in the region, it seems obvious that it must be Turkey, an ally of the United States and the region's most important economic power.
If anyone had said in 1950 that the world's great economic powerhouses a half century later would be Japan and Germany, ranked second and third, that person would have been ridiculed. If you argued in 1970 that by 2007 China would be the world's fourth-largest economic power, the laughter would have been even more intense. But it would have been no funnier than arguing in 1800 that the United States by 1900 would be a world power. Things change, and the unexpected should be expected.
It is important to note, therefore, that in 2007 Mexico had the world's fifteenth-largest economy, just a bit behind Australia. Mexico ranked much lower in per capita income, of course, placing sixtieth, with a per capita income of roughly $12,000 a year as measured by the International Monetary Fund, ranking with Turkey and way ahead of China, undoubtedly a major power.
Per capita income is important. But the total size of the economy is even more important for international power. Poverty is a problem, but the size of the economy determines what percentage of your resources you can devote to military and related matters. The Soviet Union and China both had low per capita incomes. Yet the sheer sizes of their economies made them great powers. In fact, a substantial economy plus a large population have historically made a nation something to be reckoned with, regardless of poverty.
Mexico's population was about 27 million in 1950. It surged to about 100 million over the next fifty years and to 107 million by 2005. The UN forecast for 2050 is between 114 million and 139 million people, with 114 million being more probable. Having increased about fourfold in the last fifty years, Mexico's population will be basically stable in the next fifty. But Mexico will not lose population (like the advanced industrial countries will in the future), and Mexico has the workforce it needs to expand. This gives it an advantage. So, in terms of population or size, Mexico is not a small country. Certainly it is an unstable country, torn by drugs and cartels, but China was in chaos in 1970. Chaos can be overcome.
There are plenty of other countries like Mexico that we would not label as significant geopolitical fault lines. But Mexico is fundamentally different from any of these, like Brazil or India. Mexico is in North America, which, as we have discovered, is now the center of gravity of the international system. It also fronts both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and shares a long and tense border with the United States. Mexico has already fought a major war with the United States for domination of North America, and lost. Mexico's society and economy are intricately bound together with those of the United States. Mexico's strategic location and its increasing importance as a nation make it a potential fault line.
To understand the nature of the fault line, let me briefly touch on the concept of borderland. Between two neighboring countries, there is frequently an area that has, over time, passed back and forth between them. It is an area of mixed nationalities and cultures. For example, Alsace-Lorraine lies between France and Germany. It has a unique mixed culture and individuals with different national loyalties. French, German, and a mixed regional argot are spoken there. Right now, France controls the region. But regardless of who controls it at any given time, it is a borderland, with two cultures and an underlying tension. The world is filled with borderlands. Think of Northern Ireland as the borderland between the United Kingdom and Ireland. Kashmir is a borderland between India and Pakistan. Think of the Russian-Polish border, or of Kosovo, the borderland between Serbia and Albania. Think of the French-Canadian-U.S. border. These are all borderlands of varying degrees of tension.
There is a borderland between the United States and Mexico, with Mexicans and Americans sharing a mixed culture. The borderland is on both sides of the official border. The U.S. side is unlike the rest of the United States, and the Mexican side is unlike the rest of Mexico. Like other borderlands, this one is its own unique place, with one exception: Mexicans on both sides of the border have deep ties to Mexico, and Americans have deep ties to the United States. Underneath the economic and cultural mixture, there is always political tension. This is particularly true here because of the constant movement of Mexicans into the borderland, across the border, and throughout the United States. The same cannot be said of Americans migrating south into Mexico.
Most borderlands change hands many times. The U.S.-Mexican borderland has changed hands only once so far.
Northern Mexico was slowly absorbed by the United States beginning with the 1835-1836 revolution in Texas and culminating in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. It constituted the southwestern part of today's United States. The border was set at the Rio Grande, and later adjusted in the west to include the south of Arizona. The indigenous Mexican population was not forcibly displaced. Mexicans continued to live in the area, which was later occupied by a much larger number of American settlers from the east. During the second half of the twentieth century, another population movement from Mexico into the borderland and beyond took place, further complicating the demographic picture.
We can draw a distinction between conventional immigration and population movements in a borderland. When other immigrant groups arrive in a country, they are physically separated from their homeland and surrounded by powerful forces that draw their children into the host culture and economy. A movement into a borderland is different. It is an extension of one's homeland, not a separation from it. The border represents a political boundary, not a cultural or economic boundary, and immigrants are not at a great distance from home. They remain physically connected, and their loyalties are complex and variable.
Mexicans who move into the borderland behave differently from Mexicans living in Chicago. Those in Chicago behave more like conventional immigrants. Mexicans in the borderland potentially can regard themselves as living in occupied territory rather than a foreign country. This is no different from the way American settlers in Texas viewed their position prior to the revolution. They were Mexican citizens, but they saw themselves primarily as Americans and created a secessionist movement that tore Texas away from Mexico.
At a certain point, the status of the borderland simply becomes a question of military and political power. The borderland belongs to the stronger side, and the question of strength is determined on the ground. Since 1848, the political border has been fixed by the overwhelming power of the United States. Populations might shift. Smuggling might take place. But the political boundaries are fixed by military reality.
Later in the century, the current border will have been in place for two hundred years. Mexican national power might reemerge, and the demography of the borderland on the American side may have shifted so dramatically that the political boundaries might not be able to hold. At that time, it's quite possible that Mexico may no longer be the fifteenth-biggest country economically, but well into the top ten. Stranger things have happened, and free trade with the United States helps. The countries currently ranked ahead of Mexico include many European countries with severe demographic problems.
Given the impact of a potential Mexican-American confrontation on the border, there is no question but that this fault line must be taken seriously.
If we are looking for new challenges after the U.S.-jihadist war is over, there are two obvious places to look. Mexico and Turkey are clearly not yet ready for a significant global role, and Europe will remain insular and divided (it will react to events but will not initiate them). That leaves two fault lines, the Pacific and Eurasia, and, in the context of 2020, that means two countries possibly asserting themselves: China or Russia. A third possibility, more distant in the context of 2020, is Japan, but Japan's behavior will depend heavily on China's. Therefore, we need to examine with some care the geopolitical positions of China and Russia in order to predict which will become active first, and which will therefore pose the greatest challenge to the United States in the next decade.
What we are talking about here, geopolitically, are what we call "systemic" conflicts. The Cold War was a systemic conflict. It pitted the two leading powers against each other in a way that defined the entire international system. There were other conflicts, but most of them got sucked into the vortex of the major conflict. Thus everything from the Arab-Israeli wars to Chilean internal politics to Congolese independence got drawn into the Cold War and shaped by it. The two world wars were also systemic conflicts.
By definition, such a conflict must include the dominant geopolitical power at the time. Therefore, it must include the United States. And, again by definition, the United States will include itself in any major confrontation. If Russia and China were to confront each other, U.S. indifference or neutrality would be highly improbable. The outcome of the confrontation would mean too much to the United States. Moreover, Russia and China could not fight each other without absolute guarantees that the United States would stay out of the war. The United States is so powerful that its alliance with either would mean the defeat of the other.
Which country, China or Russia, is more likely to act in such a way as to bring it into confrontation with the United States? Given what we have seen of American grand strategy, the United States is not inclined to begin a conflict itself, unless it is faced with an aggressive regional power seeking to increase its security to the point of being able to threaten American interests in a fragmented Eurasian landmass. So, looking into future decades, we need to address the inclinations of China and Russia. Let's begin with the power everyone takes most seriously — China.
Excerpt from the book, The Next One Hundred Years, by George Friedman, published by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.