World War III is coming, and you’ll never believe who’s going to start it
At first blush, the key players in George Friedman’s World War III scenario seem to have been plucked from a random-country generator: Japan, Turkey, and… Poland?
But take a step back. First, consider the source. Friedman, 68, has been in the geopolitical strategy game for decades. He founded the Austin, Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor in 1996 and led it until retiring in 2015. Along the way, he wrote bestselling books of immense scope and ambition, including The Next 100 Years and, most recently, 2015’s Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe. In 2016, he founded Geopolitical Futures, a geopolitical forecaster focused, as he puts it, on allowing readers “to distinguish the significant from the trivial” in a world “inundated with information.”
His World War III scenario is another example of Friedman’s ability to drink in a deluge of information and distill it down to a fascinating, plausible (if counterintuitive), and indeed significant essence. What’s more, it is not nearly as crazy as it sounds.
Let’s start with Japan, a geostrategic focus of Friedman’s since he co-authored the book, “The Coming War with Japan” in 1991. While the threat of Tokyo buying up the entire island of Manhattan has subsided since those heady days, Japan’s economy remains the second-largest in the world, Friedman reminds us. And while China has enjoyed enormous growth in both economic and geopolitical terms, Japan is unburdened with “a billion people living in Sub-Saharan poverty,” he says.
“It is unified. It has the largest navy in Asia,” Friedman says. “It has a military larger than the British. This is a substantial power that prefers to stay out of the limelight.”
On to Turkey, which Friedman notes is the 17th largest economy in the world and the largest in the Islamic world.
“Whenever Islam merges into some sort of coherent political entity, which it hasn’t done in a century, Turkey’s almost invariably at its center,” Friedman says. “Turkey has by far the most powerful and effective military in Europe. Its influence is felt in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Iraq, Syria and Central Asia. The Turks are influential everywhere in the region.”
And finally, Poland. “Few people know that Poland is the 18th largest economy in the world, and the eighth largest in Europe, and by far the most dynamic,” Friedman says. “It is also a country very much afraid of two other countries — Germany and Russia.”
So what triggers World War III? The seas, and then space. Japan depends on sea lanes to import and export its products. The United States controls those sea lanes. Turkey, Friedman says, is going to be a major Mediterranean power. The United States, which lords over the oceans in general, “has a particular hostility to any maritime power.” As Japan and Turkey assert themselves on the seas, they’ll meet with increasing hostility from the United States and seek out a counterbalancing alliance not unlike the one Japan forged with Germany in the Second World War, Friedman says.
And Poland? A combination of no maritime ambitions and a fear of Turkey will push it into the arms of the United States along with others in Eastern Europe. Given the relative weakness of the Turkey-Japan alliance in this scenario, the odds are that they would strike first in what Friedman calls a “space Pearl Harbor.” That bit in particular, he says, is easy to predict.
The center of gravity for American military might is in space, he says — everything from navigation to communication to intelligence gathering. “Whoever it is — Russia, China, anybody — would have to blind us.”
There is room for skepticism. Russia and China get the short shrift here, as does the role of Western Europe. Japan’s deep ties to the United States, which the fraught U.S.-China relationship only strengthens, could continue to be a mitigating factor, as could Turkey’s ongoing membership in NATO. The time frame Friedman speaks of — this would all be decades off — means much can happen in the interim to completely change the playing field. But Friedman’s scenario, if no more likely to manifest than so many other impossible-to-predict futures, is a plausible one — most certainly an interesting one — and one among many we should pay heed to.
George Friedman will be returning to his birthplace as one of 40 masterminds slated for Brain Bar Budapest 2017. He’s part of a stellar lineup of the thinkers, creators, innovators, doers on tap to share insights with the more than 7,000 people attending this year’s festival. Discount tickets are available here.
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Article by Todd Neff