I liked and would recommend the book for its first part, but I quit after chapter 9. Which, at 4/5ths in, is probably later than I should have.
Because while it starts out as a fun and perhaps even insightful read (even though from the outset it has its flaws, including one truly bizarre claim*) it quickly derails as Friedman neglects the principles he sets out at the beginning, which are: pay attention to solid facts like geography and demographic and technological trends, and forget the contingent details that may emerge from them.
Friedman illustrates this advice very clearly by letting us look at the state of the world from the perspective of the years 1900, 1920, 1940, 1960, 1980, and 2000. At each step, the world and looks completely different from the previous one. Europe rules most of the world at the first step, but at the next step is almost ruined. Germany especially is on the verge of death, but then dominates Europe at the next step, only to be defeated and occupied at the next. Etc. etc. The lesson here is clear: the course of history is fickle and unpredictable if you watch the surface.
Friedman then introduces the prism of geography and technology, and lets us have look at the same century in light of the unification of Germany in 1871, setting it up for a clash with both France and Russia, and the invention of dynamite. Now things as they went not only seem less surprising, but actually were predicted to a certain extent, Friedman informs us. So the lesson here is clear: stick to the solid facts, pay little attention the fickle details, and your predictions may turn out “not half bad”.
This is sound advice, which Friedman then completely ignores. Because instead of basing his narrative on the solid facts (of geography etc.), he bases most of it on his own early predictions derived from these facts. For example, Friedman predicts the collapse of both China and Russia, in the mid 2010s and the early 2020s, respectively. These predictions have by now already failed.* This would not matter very much if Friedman would have heeded his own advice and ignored the fickle details (his own predictions in this case) and simply stuck to geography and demographic and technological trends. But instead of ignoring these fickle details, he builds on them. Predicting the rise of Japan, Turkey, and Poland as a consequence of the predicted collapse of China and Russia. He then continues to build on the rise of these three countries, so stacking layer upon layer upon layer of assumptions and wild guesses. As a result, the narrative becomes increasingly unhinged and unbelievable, to the point of being quite useless.
So after chapter 9, about a war between the U.S. and a Turkish-Japanese coalition, fought out with something Friedman calls ‘Battle Stars’, I just had to quit.
The book has some other big flaws besides its increasing ridiculousness. One is that Friedman doesn’t explain exactly how or why Russia will collapse. He explains how it will get into a fight with an new Eastern Block (led by Poland and backed by the U.S.) but he doesn’t explain how or why Russia’s collapse will follow from this, not why this collapse won’t be accompanied by nuclear fireworks. So he leaves us with a big question mark right in the foundation of his narrative.
Another is major flaw is Friedman’s use of a reasoning based on mysterious ‘cycles’ in history. Both the U.S. and China receive this treatment. The U.S., according to Friedman, runs on fifty-year cycles, and this is why in 2030 there will be an American crisis. China runs on thirty- to forty-year cycles, and this is why “[b]y 2010 China will be struggling with internal disruption and economic decline.” And this in turn means “that another reversal is likely sometime in the 2040s.” Friedman at least goes through some effort trying to explain the American ‘cycles’, even though stating they are “not entirely explicable”, but with the Chinese ones he doesn’t even bother at all trying to explain them. What’s worse about these perceived Chinese ‘cycles’ is that they are based on apparently arbitrarily chosen coincidences that have very little to do with the internal workings of China. Here they are. 1842: China cedes Hong Kong to to Britain. 1875: Europeans begin to take control of Chinese tributary states. 1911: collapse of Qing. 1949: Mao takes over. 1976: Mao dies and Red Capitalism dawns.
These incidences are so randomly chosen and have so little to do with the inner workings of China that I can only assume Friedman ascribing these events to Divine Intervention or something. That Heaven looked at Its Wristwatch and said: ‘What, 1976 already? Well, cycle’s up. Time to die, Mao.’
In the above quotes on these mystical ‘cycles’ we see another big flaw popping up its tedious head: Friedman’s prediction of China’s collapse. Now, I’m not a China expert, but even I can smell there are things rotten about these repeated predictions of China’s imminent collapse. They are starting to resemble a cultish chant. (‘His name is Robert Paulson. His name is Robert Paulson. His name is Robert Paulson and China is going to collapse.’) That in itself should invite some skepticism.
The core of this chant is always the assumption that there is some kind of ‘contract’ between the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and the people of China: lack of freedom and democracy, in exchange for economic growth. And as soon as the growth stops, the oracles warn, the people will rise up to demand a western-style democracy. My point is not that this won’t happen, it may very well, I don’t know, my point is that it’s important to keep in mind this is not a fact, but merely another one of those self-congratulatory projections the west is getting famous for. This projection is also getting increasingly axiomatic, oracles predicting the collapse of China today don’t even bother anymore with explaining why this should be the case. It simply has become a dogma in their faith.
I also don’t think Friedman’s argument on why China is going to collapse economically is very convincing. Basically what he says is, China is manufacturing and selling goods below cost, thereby building up debt, and producing a bubble which will eventually burst. And again, I’m not a China expert, so I’m not in a position to tell whether Friedman is right or wrong about the basic facts he’s stating here. So I’ll just assume here that he’s right, and that China is producing and exporting below costs, building up debt, and producing a bubble that will eventually burst. But even if this is all correct, it still does not imply a ‘collapse’.
Because what Bertrand Russell says in his essay on idleness is indisputably true: one cannot eat bread baked tomorrow. (Or something like that, I’m paraphrasing.) What I mean by that is, the productive capacity that is building up and running in China now – whether or not it’s selling goods at a loss – is very real. And will remain very real even if a debt-bubble bursts.
Friedman uses Japan’s burst bubble in the early 1990s as an illustration of what he thinks will happen in China. Let’s say he’s right and assume a Japanese scenario for China. As we can see, Japan did not collapse. Far from it, in fact. The gains in productivity Japan made during its ‘Economic Miracle’ weren’t lost at all. Yes, the gains halted, and yes, they lost part of their ‘miracleness’, but it wasn’t a catastrophe and it certainly wasn’t a ‘collapse’.
So I can’t say, maybe this will happen to China. Leading to a serious recession or lengthy stagnation, maybe an even bigger one than in Japan. But this still doesn’t necessarily imply a ‘collapse’. Nor does it mean Chinese citizens because of this will suddenly rise up demanding to become a western-style democracy. It just doesn’t follow.
Nevertheless, despite its flaws, I had good fun reading the first part of this book. And there is at least one prediction Friedman makes that is based on solid geographic facts, namely the continuing dominance of the United States. I completely agree with Friedman that the U.S. (of A.) possesses the best piece of geopolitical real-estate on the planet and that this will all but ensure its prosperity and safety.
The only way I see this changing is if there will be a new round of Red State vs. Blue State civil war in America. Which, I have to say, looks increasingly likely, and would probably, exactly because this piece of real-estate is so valuable, be one of the most vicious and catastrophic wars seen in modern times.
Now that I think of it, I might just start my own cult predicting the collapse of the U.S. Looking at the China Collapse Cult, I don’t even have to be right to make a good buck.
* The bizarre claim I was talking about here is Friedman stating that the U.S. (of A.) meant to destabilize the Middle East with its invasion of Iraq in 2003. According to him, the catastrophic chaos that followed wasn’t the result of poor planning or a disturbingly wrong-headed worldview, but in fact the calculated outcome of a geopolitical masterplan designed to prevent the emergence of an Islamic Empire lead by Al-Qaeda. (This claim can be found on pp. 5 & 46 of the 2010 Anchor Books paperback edition.) However, bizarre as this claim is, it’s an unimportant detail in the book and doesn’t really harm the main narrative.
** Technically the predicted collapse of Russia in the early 2020s still has some time of course, but as two of the prerequisites leading up to this collapse have already failed to happen or are clear to not happen anytime soon (a continuing high oil price & the eventual return of Ukraine into Moscow’s orbit; leading to Russian troops at the Polish border) we can already say that the collapse of Russia will not happen in the way Friedman predicted it.