McStrategy

George Friedman built a private, subscription-based CIA. But is his intel any good?

How would you like to tap into an exclusive private intelligence service staffed by ex-CIA analysts who glean exclusive information from shadowy sources, cross-grid raw intel to detect relevant patterns, and alert you by email when the product requires your attention? Membership in this elite club will cost you just $349 a year, and you’ll also get a free book that predicts the next 100 years of human history.

Welcome to Stratfor, the brainchild of George Friedman, a Texas academic and sometime U.S. government consultant, who became an intelligence entrepreneur and runs what the press routinely calls “a private CIA” out of an office building in downtown Austin. In a crowded market where The New York Times can’t successfully charge for premium content, Friedman’s thriving business targets a key market niche: corporate types with geopolitical exposure who are too busy or too ill-informed to use Google.

“Controlling costs but without skimping on quality” is the secret to the McDonald’s-like commercial success of Stratfor, Friedman explains during a break from his New York book tour. “The secret is the division of labor: we have people who collect intelligence, people who analyze intelligence, and people who write,” he says. “It’s designed to give the subscriber a consistent product.” Friedman is promoting an exercise in futurology titled The Next 100 Years—it’s the book you get free with your $349—that teems with counter-intuitive assertions, for example, that Poland will become Europe’s great power by the middle of this century. Poland? I spent some time in the country a few years ago, pitching the Polish finance ministry on sovereign debt issues for Credit Suisse. You could have fooled me.

Friedman and I meet in the bar of a New York hotel, where I sip a cappuccino while Friedman drinks white wine. He checks the label of the bottle of house white burgundy with the eager eye of a man who has recently traded up to the good stuff from academic plonk. With his diminutive frame, wide mouth, and pedantic smile, he reminds me of Yoda, but without the Eastern European grammar. The child of Holocaust survivors who fled the Communist regime in Hungary, Friedman attended public schools in New York and put in 20 years teaching at middling colleges with side gigs consulting for the defense community. His children are yeshiva-educated, and two of them are serving as officers in the U.S. military.

Does being Jewish affect the way you view the world, I begin. “Being Jewish keeps things in perspective,” he says, smiling. “We lost two temples.”

Friedman is not selling sophistication. Subscribers to his premium service get more items in their inbox than the most avid geopolitics junkie could digest. Friedman’s private CIA, for that matter, isn’t much different from the official version. My old boss from Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council, Norman Bailey, always read the press himself to make sure he caught key items that the CIA analysts missed. Most of the cubicle-dwellers in the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence are academics who didn’t get tenure and chose the government’s health and pension benefits over the uncertainties of adjunct teaching.

For all his commercial focus, Friedman does not pander to his readers’ prejudice. The Next 100 Years dismisses the stuff of scare scenarios—Islam taking over Europe, China confronting the United States, a failed Mexican state dumping its surplus millions over the American border—and offers an idiosyncratic vision that will leave most readers confused. Forget Russia and China, Friedman insists: they will collapse of their own weight during the next generation. The great powers of the future are Japan, Turkey, Mexico, and Poland. The great crisis of the mid-21st century, he believes, will be a war between the United States and a fearsome Turkish-Japanese alliance.

It’s old-fashioned geopolitics doped with some eyebrow-raising professorial assumptions. China, India, and Russia will fail as states, while the Muslim states will remain stable enough to crush radical Islam. And Poland will arise as Europe’s major power.“Poland hasn’t been a great power since the sixteenth century,” he wrote. “But once it was—and, I think, will be again.”

Poland? I ask Friedman if he’s kidding. He isn’t. In his book, Friedman cites two factors. “First will be the decline of Germany,” he writes. “Its economy is large and still growing, but it has lost the dynamism it has had for two centuries. In addition, its population is going to fall dramatically in the next fifty years, further undermining its economic power.”

I protest: But isn’t Poland’s fertility rate even lower than Germany’s? According to U.N. projections, Poland’s working-age population will fall by half between 2010 and 2050—from 25 million to 13 million. Germany’s is projected to fall from 50 million to 30 million.

Friedman brushes this aside. “The most important reason for Poland’s ascendancy,” he says, is that Germany didn’t have the benefit of a Nazi and Communist occupation. “Poland is a blank slate and is free to develop any way it wants, while Germany is crippled by its historical obligations.”

I wonder: If you’re looking for a European power without the baggage of Nazism, why not pick on France? France has the highest fertility rate in Europe, close to replacement, while Poland is at an apocalyptic 1.3. “The high fertility in France is due to Muslim immigrants,” Friedman replies. That stretches credibility; the fertility rate for French-born women is around 1.8, according to available data. We argue for a minute or two and move on.

Next, I question Friedman’s claim that Japan will not only become a great power but will then ally with Turkey and go to war against the United States. “The fragmentation of China in the 2010s and the breakup of Russia in the 2020s will create a vast vacuum from the Pacific to the Carpathians, Friedman wrote. “Because of cyclical instability in China, Japan will have to protect its assets.”

In the low variant of U.N. projections—which Friedman in his book says he considers most accurate—Japan will have an elderly dependency ratio of 85 percent by the year 2050. Are the Japanese going to war with the United States in submersible armored wheelchairs?

To be fair, Friedman’s scenario for a mid-century war between the United States and a Japan-Turkey alliance starts not with wheelchairs but with the deployment of Battle Star satellites. The United States will use its Battle Stars to force Japan and Turkey to limit their acquisition of territory, he writes, and Japan and Turkey will react—but no spoilers. If you want to find out who wins the Great Battle Star Battle of 2050 you have to buy Friedman’s book.

So we have American satellites hovering above Turkey and Japan, and Japanese battle robots roaming through a splintered and chaotic China, operated by joysticks by orange-haired septuagenarians who cut their teeth on computer games during the 2010s. Warfare no longer depends on demographics, Friedman explains with exquisite patience. With precision-guided munitions and battlefield robotics, Japan can project military power without a large army. Israel, after all, is the biggest military power in the Middle East, and its demographic presence is trivial. “One computer scientist is worth a great many soldiers,” Friedman says.

That ends the discussion of Japan. “But you also predict that Mexico will rise up and confront the United States by 2080,” I add, remembering one of the most exciting passages of Friedman’s book: “If the United States and (its ally) Poland were both defeated” by Turkey and Japan, “then Germany would have an opportunity to move in quickly for the kill… The only other possible member of the coalition might be Mexico, however unlikely. Recall that Mexico was invited into an alliance by Germany in World War I, so this idea is hardly unprecedented.”

I ask how many doctorates in computer science Mexico graduates each year. Friedman doesn’t know. The correct answer is nine. Japan is going to be a world power despite its vanishing population because it’s got the computer scientists, and Mexico is going to threaten the United States despite its lack of computer scientists because of its large unskilled population.

Doesn’t all of this seem inconsistent? “Not at all,” Friedman answers. “I look at the discrepancy between economic status and economic potential and draw conclusions from there.” And that, in essence, is what his method entails. He looks for countries with a high growth rate, like Turkey or Mexico, and projects this forward 50 years in a straight line. He is not trying to be sensational; he is simply being academic. Why a country like India, which now produces more graduate students in math and sciences than the United States, does not figure into Friedman’s vision of the future is perplexing. “You can’t speak of India as a unified country,” he says. “They have marvelous technology in Mumbai, and a hundred miles away they have Maoist guerillas. India was invited by the British. It has vast political diversity.”

The fact that India and China are graduating millions of bright young people trained at the cutting edge of technology and conversant with Western culture—China is training more than 50 million classical musicians—doesn’t matter, for Friedman takes for granted that the world’s two largest nations will turn into failed states, while Mexico will become America’s geopolitical rival.

Don’t demographic trends, though, tell us something about the spiritual character of a country? When people choose leisure and hedonistic pursuits above children, haven’t they given up on the future?

Friedman waves this aside with the first lapse from professorial patience in the hourlong discussion. “People always were hedonistic,” he responds. “In the past children were cheap labor and social security. Having children coincided with economic needs. Having children was self-interested then, and not having children is self-interested now.”

So moral, cultural, and spiritual factors play no role whatever in his geopolitics? “My training was in political philosophy,” Friedman says. My advisor was Werner Dannhauser,” a student of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, “so I am keenly aware of Athens and Jerusalem. But I see the world in terms of three stages: barbarism at the beginning, decadence and decline at the end, and with luck, a brief civilized moment in the middle.”

The comparisons of Stratfor with the CIA are not entirely off-base. By main force and superior salesmanship, George Friedman has managed to replicate the key features of the intelligence establishment on a private footing. He didn’t invent what I call McStrategy—the splintering of tasks that puts one analyst at the deep fryer, another at sandwich assembly, and a third at the cash register. But the eccentricity of the final product is easily recognizable.

The truth is that even a moderately interested consumer could gain more accurate and detailed information in two minutes of searching on Google. As a random (and of course unscientific) test I picked the most recent Stratfor comment on Iran on the day of the interview, a January 28 bulletin noting that President Barack Obama had said nothing about the prospective nuclear power the previous week, while Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel had warned of stricter sanctions. That could hurt German business, Stratfor notes: “Tehran has relied on Germany as one of its most consistent supporters in the West. German businesses, particularly in the heavy industrial sector, exported nearly $6 billion worth of goods in 2008, a marked increase from barely $1 billion in 2000, especially considering the worsening relations between Tehran and the rest of the West’s powers.”

Typing the relevant search terms into Google News, the top item to pop up was in fact a lot more informative than the bulletin I received from Stratfor. On January 27, Richard Kiessler of the German-language news site derwesten.de had reported that German exports to Iran were melting down, falling to only $4 billion in 2009. This isn’t news; a senior German official had told me in November that German exports to Iran would collapse. “Massive Israeli pressure,” the site reported, had canceled a German contract to construct the Bandar-Abbas port in Iran, and big industrial contracts from Siemens and Thyssen “are in the pillory.” The Stratfor item lacks the updated export data and the telling detail from the Google News article – that Germany’s biggest construction contract with the Islamic Republic had already been canceled. In my random but entirely unscientific sample, it was Google News 1, Stratfor 0.

Stratfor’s entrepreneurial success sheds valuable light on the failures of U.S. foreign policy. Americans really are incurious about the rest of the world; they do not learn foreign languages, absorb other cultures, or think much about world history. It was Barack Obama, our shining model of the intellectual as public servant, who recently told a Viennese audience that he did not know how to communicate in “Austrian.” American officials can absorb only so much information about the rest of the world, and we forgive our own dire ignorance with startling alacrity. The nuggets of McStrategy beamed to Stratfor subscribers really do resemble the briefings that senior officials get. And that explains a lot.

David P. Goldman, a senior editor at First Things, formerly headed global fixed income research at Bank of America. He also writes the “Spengler” column at Asia Times Online.