An annual assessment
Forecasting tensions with China and Russia
George Friedman, now 72, is the chairman of Geopolitical Futures and the author of books including The Next 100 Years and The Storm Before the Calm. He does not share the worldview that I and most WORLD readers have, but many of his forecasts have been both provocative and accurate. Here’s an edited and tightened version of our interview last month in my home in Austin.
George, we’ve averaged one interview a year since 2009, so our readers and I know your belief that geography counts more than personality, and material pressures more than ideas. Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden are certainly rhetorically different: How do you compare their foreign policies? Their foreign policies are identical. Obama set three goals for the United States: withdraw from the Middle East, confront China, contain Russia. Trump came in with the same three priorities: withdraw, confront, contain. Presidential speeches are like diapers: The words change regularly, but the babies don’t. Biden has to deal with the same three problems. He doesn’t have a choice. Saying, “I’m not going to confront China, I’m instead going to confront Antarctica,” is not an option.
On the role of individuals in history: Was Xi Jinping’s intensified dictatorship inevitable in China? Xi Jinping has been a catastrophe for China. The Chinese live by exporting goods. If they don’t export goods, they’re really hosed. One of the amazingly stupid things they did—the United States was their biggest customer. When you’re in business, basic rule: Do not tick off your biggest customer. They did.
Xi has isolated China? He’s had to crush a rebellion in Hong Kong, which he’s losing as a financial center. He has alienated Europe. He has alienated Australia, China’s main supplier of raw materials. He has not a single ally in the world except Pakistan, and that’s against India. Not a single other country, including Russia, is committed to helping China, and the Russians can’t help anyway because they have a ground force, not a naval force.
We don’t hear much of that in the American press. We hear about a possible invasion of Taiwan: That requires amphibious warfare China is not ready for. Biden’s national security advisers tell him it’s important to keep China from getting into the western Pacific. We hear Biden is senile, stupid, and incapable of working: We’ve heard that concerning just about every American president. But the institution of the United States functions: The war plan that’s in place will have more influence on what’s being done than anything else.
What’s the war plan? Let’s look first at the context. China is in a terrible geographic position. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, India, and Australia are all arrayed against it. China faces a string of islands that have choke points. Invade Taiwan? China has six amphibious transports: They go 20 knots. They’re wide open for American strikes. We can see them with drones, we can see them from space, we can see them in a lot of ways. These ships have to shuttle back and forth, and the assumption is the United States is going to sit there and say, “That sure is good”?
You’re saying it’s certain the Biden administration would go to war with China over Taiwan? The U.S. has to do something, because the massive coalition we’ve built against China depends on American guarantees: If we don’t come through, the Japanese are going to go away, the South Koreans are going to cut a deal, the Philippines are always on the edge of something.
Doesn’t the Democratic Party tilt toward pacifism? Bill Clinton bombed Belgrade for 60 days on behalf of Bosnian independence, a cause we’d never heard of. Obama went to war in Libya. The Vietnam War started with Kennedy and Johnson, both Democrats. Democratic politicians, as opposed to Democratic loudmouths, understand their place in history will be judged by what they lost and gained. Joe Biden wouldn’t give up Taiwan because the institutional structure, the war plan—the United States has plans for every war with everybody—calls for holding firm.
But the Democratic Party has changed a lot since the Lyndon Johnson days. We heard about the pacifism of the Clinton administration and of Obama—but he was one of the most ruthless appliers of war. So you can say it’s different, but I see no evidence.
The Clinton battle against Serbia was against a little guy. Losing the western Pacific would be catastrophic for the United States. Biden, given his age, probably doesn’t have another election to win. So the probability that he wants to go down in history as the president who gave up what we won after Pearl Harbor is not great.
Are the Chinese boxed in? When the Soviets were boxed in, they tried to break out by putting missiles in Cuba. The logical move for the Chinese to make regarding Taiwan is to get a stronger negotiating position with the United States. For that, they need some chips.
A Chinese deal with Venezuela? No, that doesn’t bother us. Cuba does. Cuba has two straits near it, north and south. If those two straits are closed, the ports of New Orleans and Houston are closed. Those are two of the most important ports we have. The Chinese worry that we’ll close their ports along their eastern coast. Looking to bargain? That would be the bargain.
What about their investment in Argentina? We’ve seen a lot of Chinese investment in Argentina, but that doesn’t mean anything: Argentina can nationalize it. China’s only military move was offering to sell three fighter aircraft to Argentina, which denied making a deal after the U.S. delegation showed up and promised heaven and earth, which will be delivered shortly.
OK, Cuba. The Cuban regime wants to survive. It doesn’t know if it’s strong enough to survive. It would probably take a risk. If the Chinese were able to put submarines into Cuba and use that base to close off the two straits, then come negotiations. China: We don’t want you fooling around with our ports, and you don’t want us in your ports. Let’s make a deal.
So, another Cuban missile crisis? The Russians tried it in 1962 and the result was not pleasant for them, but a Chinese submarine base in Cuba would worry us. It’s easier to take out missile bases than submarines. If we went to war, with submarines roaming that area, key ports will be closed for a long time.
Why isn’t China already doing this? I don’t know. I suspect the leaders don’t want to go that far. They know Americans have a habit of overreacting. From their vantage point, we don’t just go to war. We go insane. The Chinese fought with us in Korea and saw what we did to the Chinese army. Vietnam was a crazy war for the U.S., and from that the Chinese deduced we’re crazy. But so long as they don’t make a move into Cuba, which I have not been able to detect, I don’t take the Taiwan threats seriously, because that’s not where you fight the war. You’ve got to find a lever on us. They don’t have one, but they could get one.
Let’s talk about another dictator, Vladimir Putin. What if Russian hackers take out a bunch of our pipelines in the winter? Cyberwarfare goes both ways. The United States, where every 12-year-old used to be a hacker, is capable of taking on the Russians. But they know how to hit us psychologically: take out a power line, something that affects consumers.
What did Biden say to Putin when they met in Geneva? “Hi, how you doing?” Nothing was going to come from this particular summit. We held it to show we could hold a summit. Putin sounds off to Biden. Biden comes out of it looking like a statesman. What’s interesting is our redeployment of air defense systems out of the Middle East. Where do they go? How about Ukraine? The rumor was that Israel would sell Iron Dome, its great air defense system, to the Ukrainians. It did not, and the Ukrainians can’t afford it. But that means somebody is talking about deploying a system.
What would happen if the United States deployed a system there? Checkmate on Putin, who has massed his armored armies all around the Russia-Ukraine border. He can’t attack unless he has command of the air. He’s got to keep the missiles, aircraft, and F-16s we have in Incirlik, Turkey, off their backs.
How good are the Russian forces? I was involved in Cold War planning. The Russians had an extraordinary number of tanks available, but afterward we discovered they couldn’t supply them—that’s a lot of gasoline—and the drivers were mostly drunk. We always look at the hardware the enemy has. We imagine it’s manned by people like us: obsessive technocrats, people who have spent a career learning their tasks. It’s not. The human factor determines the outcome of wars more than anything else.
You’ve said Putin’s regime can’t last. Who’s going to overthrow him? I suspect the country will fragment. Russians are doing the same thing they did in the 1980s: increasing defense expenditures but not building their economy. In Russian villages teachers aren’t being paid. The Soviet collapse in the 1980s began with not being able to pay many government workers, including doctors. Russia is vulnerable, and Putin, a KGB man, is desperately searching for a lever to stabilize Russia—but he has national and strategic imperatives without the resources to support them.
—We’ll run George Friedman’s analysis of other hot spots later this year. WORLD interns Carolina Lumetta and Grace Snell contributed to interview editing.
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