The world is flat

In this post I began considering the prognostications in George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, in light of some of the kinds of changes in technology that might come online during the century. This is obviously hard to do, but imagine trying to predict the geopolitical course of the 20th century without understanding the possibility of ICBM’s.

We’ve already had our first space-based war, you see. It was the Cold War. The fact that it was cold was due to the nature of the weapons available, which changed the nature of the fight into, to use Carl Sagan’s colorful phrase, two men fighting in a phone booth with machine guns. The nature of the struggle was transformed to jockeying for position and advantage around the peripheries of each other’s sphere of influence.

It’s Friedman’s thesis that the (real) American century is just beginning, and it is based on the US Navy’s control of the seas of the whole world. He calls this unprecedented, but there was a clear example in that direction in the Pax Britannica, when Great Britain controlled enough of the sea lanes to give the world a century of peace (compared to preceding and following centuries).

The Next 100 Years reads to some extent like a rerun of the 20th century, but with overtones of the 19th. That’s because the geopolitical realities are generally the same, and therefore the same countries will be in the same positions (literally, we are talking about geography here) they were before, with the same needs for resources, security, and so forth. The big difference is that the US will control the seas.

Friedman has a number of interesting maps in which he shows how many of the countries of the world are effectively on islands — cut off from easy trade and attack by mountain ranges or impassable deserts as well as the sea. (I suppose this makes Australia an atoll. 🙂 )

Technology could radically challenge these geopolitical realities in the 21st century, however. The first way is with an invention that is just about a century old: the airplane. Right now, air travel has halfway superseded travel by boat: for passengers but not for freight. Aircraft are small and expensive compared to ships if the cargo is not time-critical. But nano-manufacturing will change that. One simplified way of thinking about the next phase shift is to say that what we can now do in the air, we’ll do in space, and what we do on the sea, we’ll do in the air. The correspondence isn’t close to exact, but the general range of capabilities is probably roughly in the right range.

Thus by 2050, control of the sea lanes (and any other lanes) will belong to whoever controls space — and that’s an open question. The US has the ability to be in the lead here but only if we buckle down and do it. Otherwise there are lots of challengers.

Flying cars and trucks will change the extent to which mountain ranges are obstacles to trade and convenient travel. It won’t be necessary to build roads. (We see a pre-echo of this in communications — half the earth’s population now has cell phones, because it’s no longer necessary to build the expensive wired infrastructure for universal phone service.)

This means that mountains and oceans won’t be barriers but instead convenient places to live. Geopolitically, the mountain ranges begin to be leveled, and the oceans begin to be filled in.

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