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Revisiting George and Meredith Friedman’s The Future of War in 2022

When George and Meredith Friedman’s The Future of War: Power, Technology and American World Dominance in the 21st Century appeared in 1996 the book, while certainly getting its fair share of attention, did so in spite of being distinctly unfashionable. After all, the authors’ concern in the book was traditional, interstate, great power, war at a moment when, because of U.S. strength relative to any plausible opponent, and the expectation that globalization and other changes would soon make the nation-state and its traditional security agenda less relevant to the life of the world (“We no longer fight wars against countries, we fight them against individuals!” many a fashionable “analyst” enthused), with the result that that form of conflict not only seemed remote, but likely to go on becoming only more so over time.

Of course, even at the time many were skeptical of this “conventional wisdom” — for various reasons. The Marxist left, for example, with its stress on capitalism’s contradictions, and its theories of imperialism (Luxemburg, Bukharin, Lenin), never bought into all this. However the Friedmans came from the opposite end of the political spectrum — and stood on a rather doctrinaire, “life never changes” insistence on the continuing validity of old-fashioned International Relations 101 “billiard ball”-model-of-the-international-system realpolitik. In doing so the Friedmans did not venture guesses as to who would be the belligerents in the armed conflicts this realpolitik-based vision of international relations anticipated as virtually certain (the U.S. apart), or the specific objects for which they could be expected to fight, or any of those things which could be concluded from such premises, like when and where such wars could be expected to break out — perhaps chastened by their having made a colossal recent error here. (Just a few years earlier here George and Meredith, at the peak of American Japanophobia, warned darkly of The Coming War With Japan.) Instead what the Friedmans emphasized was the long-term evolution of the means for fighting such wars — specifically the shift from massed explosive power and the land, sea and air-based platforms which deliver it (tanks, gun-armed vessels, planes) to precision-guided munitions, highly technologized “Starship Troopers”-style infantry, and eventually space platforms (“battlestars”), making senile and eventually obsolete the systems that dominated the twentieth century battlefield.

As yet we remain far from possessing the technologies to the Friedmans’ vision. And certainly George’s more specific political predictions have since been unimpressive. (In his book The Next 100 Years he forecast that China would collapse in the 2010s — and Russia not long after, and that without anything like the stress of the current war the country is fighting, which he also failed to predict, instead anticipating a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis.) However, if there is much that he has clearly got wrong already, he seems to have been sounder than his more fashionable colleagues in realizing that the illusions of the ’90s were only that, illusions, a fact whose fuller implications many are only now beginning to realize.

Originally published at https://naderelhefnawy.blogspot.com.

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