Thursday, May 12, 2016

Flash Points: The Emerging Crisis in Europe by George Friedman

Published in 2015

George Friedman's Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe (2015) provides a brief but cogent history of Europe from (at least what used to be called) The Age of Exploration up to the present. Friedman presents the history as a background for an assessment of current affairs in Europe. This is not just an homage to the idea of history, but instead it provides the necessary foundations to understand contemporary Europe.

The Portuguese, followed by the Spanish, initiated the exploration of the world of the Atlantic Ocean on around to the Indian Ocean and into the Pacific as a result of the monopoly on spice trade held by Venice and the Ottoman Empire. The existence of the Ottoman Empire as a major Muslim civilization pressing (once again) on Europe bears no small resemblance to the problems that Europe faces today. Today, the Muslim world of North Africa and the Levant are not unified as they once were under the Ottomans; instead, they're very disunited. But the resulting social and economic dysfunction are pressing Muslin migrants toward a relatively under-populated but relatively affluent Europe. The conflicts between Christian Europe and neighboring Islam began shortly after the establishment of the Muslim tradition in the 700s, and these conflicts continue today.

In addition to identifying the ongoing the Christian-Muslim conflict along the borders of Europe, Friedman notes the development in early modern Europe of commercial adventures, scientific and military knowledge, capitalism, nationalism, and (later) industrialism, that allowed Europe to dominate the modern world. At its apex in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the British Empire included areas around the globe, followed by the French and other European ventures. What Europeans didn't control directly, they greatly influenced. But as Friedman notes, all of this was thrown out the window beginning in 1914 with the horrible destruction of the First World War. The immense destruction of this war was followed by an interregnum of 20 years of relative peace only to break out again in the conflagration of the Second World War that ended in 1945. By 1945, Europe was exhausted. Into that scene stepped the U.S. and the Soviet Union to impose peace and bilateral division of the continent. By the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, Europe had arrived at the point where believed it could establish a perpetual peace through the integration of nations that eventually became the European Union.

Friedman provides a much more in-depth history than I have summarized here, but it is a speedy one that only obliquely references some deeper issues. Friedman reveals that he was originally a student of political philosophy, specifically of New Left movements in Europe in the 1960s and 1970sand the political philosophy of the Frankfurt School. I sense that Friedman knows it deal about the intellectual history of Europe, which he only hints at, and which he ignores in his emphasis on geopolitical relations.

After this brief history lesson, Friedman focuses on the problems of contemporary Europe. These are not new problems. He identifies them as often long-standing problems that arise from the fact that Europe is an amalgamation of borderlands that create flashpoints of conflict. Those borders include those between Christians and Muslims; between Romans (and their Romance language-speaking successors) and Germans; between peninsular Europeans and mainland (Russian) Europeans, and so on. Each part of Europe exhibits its own problems of borders. Friedman makes a point of including the Balkans and the Caucasus mountain region as a part of Europe, although the major European nations often want to ignore them. Of course, the Balkans were the tender that set off the explosion of the First World War, so contemporary Europeans ignore this area at their own peril.

Friedman's analysis focuses on the geopolitical and economic needs of each of these regions of Europe. His analysis is knowledgeable cogent. His ability to take the long view of these complex makes it especially worthwhile

My only serious criticism of Friedman's analysis is his disinterest in political systems and ideologies. I also have this criticism of the work of Robert Kaplan, who worked with Friedman at STRATFOR, an international political analysis and forecasting venture. Certainly national leaders, and those who need to understand their decision-making, ignore geopolitical realities at their peril. For instance, U.S. decision-makers often ignored geopolitical motivations when trying to assess the intentions of the Soviet leaders in the period immediately after WWII.  There should be a balance. George Kennan was correct in his contention that certain geopolitical and historical realities that influenced Soviet behavior were carried forward from the Russian Empire. However, neither can ideology and political systems be ignored. To this end, Philip Bobbitt's work, The Shield of Achilles, provides an exemplary counterbalance. Bobbitt recognizes that changes in strategic dynamics entail changes in constitutional regimes. Friedman (and Kaplan) gloss over this important factor in nation-state decision-making, and thereby limit the effectiveness of their analysis. Indeed, with the rise of extreme ideologies in Europe (and in the U.S.), we are experiencing competing ideologies and political systems at play in the foreground. Political systems and ideologies never don’t negate geopolitical realities, but they do add a complexity into the mix that Friedman ignores. This surprises me because of Friedman's background in political philosophy. It's not the regimes necessarily adopt a political philosophy outright—even Marxist regimes never fully went down that path—but they do have an influence that is overlooked in this work.

My criticisms notwithstanding, I came away from this book with a much deeper understanding of European conflicts and attitudes that have been around for a long time and that are likely to create tensions and problems in Europe in the immediate future. Indeed, with the possibility of Britain exiting the EU, with right-wing regimes arising in Hungary and Poland, with renewed Russian aggressiveness, and with a growing tide of Muslim immigration, Europe is likely to be in for a tumultuous period. Friedman is a knowledgeable guide for helping anyone interested in attempting to comprehend this puzzle called Europe.