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McStrategy

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

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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.

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will edwards says:

This article is great. I thoroughly enjoyed it and as a North Texas Jew I can really relate to the concept of the ignorant selling ignorance to the rich and stupid. Most of the wealth in this nation is controlled by decidedly republican slanted bigots who don’t want their beliefs questioned by truth or reality. This article was fun reading and I am still laughing at its rather obvious conclusions. Good for you sir! The failure of our system won’t be because of anything other then complete oblivion to the reality that is very bluntly beating us on the forehead but our leaders simply refuse to accept it. Such is the way of fools.

Hilarious. You should launch a series–sipping with blowhards.

Dan S. says:

Don’t count out Iceland.

It is frightening to realize the extent of how poorly intelligence services communicate and shrare information with each other.As long as people still hold the James Bond view of these services too many things will continue to slip under the wire and The President who has to rely on this same information will be blamed.It is also frightening to realize how many people can be taken in once again by another talking head with pockets wanting to be filled with so obvious and agenda!It won’t be too long before The Darwin Awards become a highly respected honor!!!I wonder if that is included in his book?

I read Stratfor’s analysis and I find them to be quite good the majority of the time. The writer here portrays the Stratfor operation as misinformation for sale primarily because he doesn’t agree with Friedman’s conclusions and opinions and he was able to find one fact out of place in an analysis. Thats baloney.

Having read many of their analyses, I think they are often value added conclusions about current events and the proof of that is the fact that world events often have more clarity for me after reading one of their analyses. They are not always right, but they put forward a reasoned opinion about what is going on in the world. The writer seemed to have a bit of a stick up his arse, nose in the air attitude, looking down on the lowly information proletariat customers of Stratfor. One would do well to read a few of their geopolitical analyses (freely available at their website) before buying into this highly misleading article.

AussieBoy says:

Occasionally Strafor can have some interesting articles but for the most I find them very insular. For me they have three main problems:

1) The divsion of labour. It might work for a production line but in terms of a product based on theory and opinions this is the wrong way to create an accurate product, ideas needs to bounce around the office and develop via interaction. I guess this method is mass produced intelligence for good profits.

2) I find the articles lack an economic edge. When I speak of economics I’m refering to resources, not money. These countries he talks about for the most part cannot even effectively manage their resources to effectively develop their economies. How is this going to change when the pressure on what are already poorly managed resources increase. An example would be Spain after the discovery of the Americas. Spain become the richest and most power country in Europe via the pillage of new world gold, not because they deserved it via good resource management, gives some insight into how Spain became so bankrupt so quickly after being so rich and powerful. Good economics matter, they relate to good government, effective development, effective law and order, economics enables the development of society, yet stratfor severly lacks expertise in this area.

3) Alot of the predictions seem so insular, almost formed via an academic prism unexposed to reality and the human condition. Come on, Japan, that country hasn’t managed its resources well for two decades and is distinctly racist towards much need immigration. Turkey maybe, but alot of work is required, most of its population isn’t the modern westernised population of Istanbul. Russia does have many problems but again it has one of the highest immigration rates in the world, rather than seeing Russian collapse I expect to see alot of its internal power, economically and eventually politically move to the booming Far East, a place where there is currently a baby boom taking place. China, wont collapse, the ordinary Chinese are not that stupid as to let that happen. Their economy does contain strucural problems but the country is run by smart people that only take conservative decision after much internal discussion. In fact China’s greatest problems could be its debt within its banks and political reasons that could prevent the creativity of the population reaching its potential. Stratfor argues China will fall apart due to the division between the coast and interior. Chengdu, Chongqing are booming and increasing gaining political power, the old Shanghai gang no more. Not to mention the feel good prediction that America will always recover quickly because the world needs it, yeah the world does need America but that doesn’t mean the great problems within the US will go away. China should be America’s partner, they both want stablity, economic and social development, this relationship will form the backbone of the future.

What about Brazil, remarkably well managed currently and a country with huge potential. How about Indonsia, sure there is corruption and it doesn’t have ideal geography for development on intial look but when you consider almost half of Indonesia’s population live on one island, Java; Develop Java and the country will be half way on the road to a modern economy, potenially another China. Where are they in stratfor’s analysis?

Statfor just seems too much of the ‘great game’ thinking and a schoolboys fantasy of strategy, rather than an analysis of the economic fundamentals and needs that will shape a changing world.

I agree 100% with AussieBoy & David Goldman. Any sophisticated reader can see that most of their Geopolitical ‘analysis’ is grounded in Cold War Hubris. Their economic ‘analysis’ is a joke. Too much simplistic meaningless straight line extrapolations.

Germany has lost it’s dynamism? Germany today is the most dynamic country in Europe, she just has timid leadership lacking in vision.

Finally, quite frankly, today the world needs the US like a hole in the head. This illusion about the world needing the US is a fantasy cooked up by a corrupt, decadent, genocidal US bankster elite.

I guess being bunkered in Texas he would think Mexico has more geopolitical mojo than India or China.

Sisyphus says:

It would seem that ex-cia —by correlary, disaffected academics— come to much the same conclusions and utilizing similar methodology as those of the genuine article. I prefer the Spengler method; form a hypothesis, do the research, mull it around a bit, and offer conclusions, all within the scope of one’s singular effort.

As I see it, the clash between the fruition of Schumpeter’s predictions and the machinations of the current crop of merchantilist bankers will be decided, not by some black swan, but by the inherent conflict these philosophies represent; the former affecting a socialist order which has, and will, prove incapable of sustaining societies as currently arranged, and the latter resulting in another world war. Where the prescriptions of Von Mises are most needed, those of Lord Keynes are applied and, I suspect, with a similar outcome. As Keynes so callously pointed out, “In the long run we’re all dead.” Unfortunately for us, this is the long run. When the smoke clears, and the 25% who remain
are faced with the choice of how to proceed, I pray it will be toward the affirmation of liberty, of a world in which Bastiat would revel.

Thank you Mr. Goldman for your many efforts in the education of vulgus such as myself, and for directing me toward yet another compelling source of information— this, and not the offerings of Mr. Friedman. One minor point; I would have preferred you remained anonymous over at the Asia Times. Though I understand the reason for your having revealed Spengler, the speculation surrounding that persona added greatly to the mix.

crocodilechuck says:

STRATFOR’s strength is in geopolitics. I find its analysis too unidimensional, however. 1)In the ‘Next 100 Years’ book, for example, there is no mention, let alone treatment, of the stratospheric levels of household, corporate and government debt that currently afflict all developed countries. This is going to end well? 2) Friedman extolls the virtues of high tech in warfare. Like what? The F-35 fighter? Or the even more expensive F-22 ($400M unit cost). How about StarWars-how many billions have flushed down that sinkhole? Not a good template/pathway to his putative geo stationary spaceships of mid century. 3) No mention of resource constraints, eg peak oil, potable water and arable land-in a world that will be lucky to not pip a 9 B population by 2050. The Economist has been saying for years that the next war in the Middle East will be over water. UPSHOT: ‘A’ for effort, ‘C’ for content. ‘Must do better’ in terms of understanding of economics, application of technology to solve problems and appreciation of finite resources first articulated by Paul Roemer and the Club of Rome in the ’70’s.

Staufer says:

Reading Nassim Taleb’S “The Black Swan” has convinced me that making predictions for the next 100 years is ridiculous. The financial markets didn’t see WWI coming two weeks before the shooting started. The collapse of Communism in 1989 took us mostly by surprise, too. A collapse of India seems highly unlikely- the country’s federalism has allowed it to manage internal stresses due to its diversity rather well. The cherry-picking of Friedman grates as well; either demographic decline is a problem, or it isn’t. Fundamentally, societies and their path of development are too complex to predict. We don’t even know what really works in economic development, we’re moving on trial and error. Bottomline: this is “sound and fury, signifying nothing”

STRATFOR – cool name, irrelevant at best as a source of information. Anyone prone to believing the printed word, will know less and less about the world after reading each additional “analysis” from Mr.Friedman &Co., until they know nothing at all. STRATFOR is at best a wishful thinking masquerading as intelligence, at worst an empty silly propaganda desingned to spoon feed a desperate American and a gullible foreigner. David Goldman is absolutely right on this one.

epaminondas says:

Friedman overlooks the menace to the security of Europe posed by the Latvians, who are much more likely to take over the continent than the Poles. Have you seen the blonde babes in Riga?

And it’s not Mexico that will overwhelm the US but Canada, who will benefit from the improved climate resulting from global warming. The shrewd Canadians are preparing for world dominance by consuming more fossil fuels and releasing more carbon to the atmosphere per capita than any other nation by far. And now the Alberta tar-sands project may alone double atmospheric methane as gas trapped under permafrost is released. The Canucks are executing a brilliantly evil strategy of aggression by climate manipulation!

Hey, I ought’to go to work for Stratfor!

Mark Davenport says:

“The truth is that even a moderately interested consumer could gain more accurate and detailed information in two minutes of searching on Google.”

You are a pompous moron. Really. Think about it if you can spare two minutes.

Derek says:

mmm – I think the author went into this interview with the a primed agenda. Stratfor’s analysis on current events (say those of about 1-2000 words) excels as it brings in past and future, military strategy, technology and does not deny how topography has an impact on defense, influence and regional mindset. I haven’t read the book, but agree with the cases made by Goodrich and Ziehan et al on Turkey, Russia and the Balkans (1910, anyone?)
My own belief is that the Sahel and Magreb will experience disruption in the next decade and a new ideology will come out of Latin America and take hold there. Now to find the articles that back it up…

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Asher Roth says:

epaminondas : lol There is no chance of the latvians taking over, great article though would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic http://cashforgoldincanada.com

What about Brazil, remarkably well managed currently and a country with huge potential. How about Indonsia, sure there is corruption and it doesn’t have ideal geography for development on intial look but when you consider almost half of Indonesia’s population live on one island, Java; Develop Java and the country will be half way on the road to a modern economy, potenially another China. Where are they in stratfor’s analysis?

Statfor just seems too much of the ‘great game’ thinking and a schoolboys fantasy of strategy, rather than an analysis of the economic fundamentals and needs that will shape a changing world.

Well, I’m a professional fighter currently living in Brazil and I just returned from a visit home from the US. I returned to virtually find the city in flames as a crime wave is literally leaving cars and building`s torched left and right. Brazil will be a macroeconomic power, it will never be an entrepenuerial state and most brazilians actually believe that themselves.

I`d like to add that you are all criticizing Stratfor for the wrong reasons. Stratfor is a big picture thinker and squinting down at the tiny economic numbers is fruitless. India is a country that speaks 14 languages. No matter how many engineers it develops, it is still a fractured nation held together by…..what exactly.

What bothers me most about all of Stratfor`s critics is the outright dismissal of China as ended up as fractured. This almost seems obvious to me. I have read Fareed Zakaria`s books on the Post=American World, everything Nouriel Roubini puts out and the 10,000 articles screaming about power moving east. I went to Barnes and Nobles and found more books than I could count about “The Indian Century”, The Chinese Century”

Chinese statistics are doctored enought o make any US hedge fund manager blush, read Brad Setsers columns if you disagree. I will psot and complain some more

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I first tan into George Friedman circa 1999 when I responded to an article he wrote about the unfolding Jewish-Turkish relationship. I commented that the relationship made sense in light of the Jewish tradition of international trading. George lambasted me as an anti-Semite in a personal attack as he related how proud he was of his Jewish heritage. My conclusion: George Friedman is a Jewish bigot. Anyone who buys intelligence from him needs his head examined.

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McStrategy

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

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