This review is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 10: Friends, Allies and Enemies.
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Optimistic accounts of contemporary America are in short supply, but George Friedman has written several. In each of his readable books (most are New York Times bestsellers), he has constructed a compelling case for believing that the United States has some distance to run. That argument is given a historical anchor in his latest release, The Storm Before the Calm. While the main text was written between 2015 and 2019, the addition of a foreword to the Australian edition, written in July 2020, allows him to address COVID-19 and the proof it affords his thesis.
That thesis is captured in the title: America endures stormy weather (riots, depression, war) which inevitably gives way to calm (prosperity, freedom, innovation). It has ever been thus, he argues, and ever will be: if we understand the cycles of US history, we can better grasp the nation’s future. “The current storm,” he writes, “is nothing more than what is normal for this time in America’s history and our lives.”
The first part of the book outlines why America has been such a success. The second describes how and why its triumphs will continue.
Why successful? The United States has three things going for it: its government is entirely invented; its people are mostly immigrants dedicated to continual reinvention; and they are afforded the geopolitical space in which to do this. Regime, citizens and land. “All of these created a platform,” writes Friedman, “not only for rapid growth but for managing the growth.” This exceptional and evolving combination continues to give Americans distinct advantages over their geostrategic opponents.
Russians have land, but have been continually hampered by a series of regimes incapable of reinvention – one system arises, oppresses and dies, only for another to follow suit. Russian society produces very little entrepreneurialism: oligarchs, yes; Henry Ford, no. The land on which Russian political experiments must take place is prey to invasion from the West; the United States enjoys an enviable security by comparison.
China is surrounded by nations that do not quite trust it. Its political and economic innovation is more borrowed than organic. Its governments of the last 100 years have tilted from chaotic to authoritarian. Chinese communism, an adapted Western import, seeks to mediate all technological development, whereas Washington had very little to do with the success of Silicon Valley. China’s huge, low-wage workforce means it can create iPhone jobs, but not Steve Jobs.
Neither Russia nor China attracts immigrants. Even people who hate America, Friedman reminds us, want to send their children there.
A Hungarian émigré to the United States, married to an Australian, Friedman is keen to extol the enduring attraction of an immigrant nation. The Europe he left behind – though he remains a popular public intellectual in Hungary – asks him who he is. America, in contrast, wants to know what he does. That liberation from blood and soil, and elevation to a realm where work and ideas define identity and success, remains central to the author’s self-perception. And he wants to evangelise his experience.
Why and how will this success continue? In the book’s second half, Friedman identifies “two very orderly cycles” of American history – the institutional and the socioeconomic. Understand these, he tells us, and one’s faith in the US experiment will be restored: “This is how the United States was designed to evolve.”
The institutional cycle “runs its course roughly every eighty years”, Friedman writes. Each emerges from war. Thus, 1787 to 1865, 1865 to 1945, and 1945 to the 2020s are comparable periods in which US institutions were invented to keep pace with the restless energy of the people, fractured under the weight of new restlessness and were reinvented.
The third institutional cycle, concluding now, is central to his argument. During and after World War II, deference to experts and technocrats transformed the productive capacities and wealth of the United States. Technological innovation, in everything from whitegoods to military hardware, kept pace with the demands of a victorious people. But by the 1960s and 1970s, government technocrats were starting to fail as social engineers. American society began to fracture and its economy to weaken: “What started as splendid ideas eventually wore out as the society changed.”
By the 2010s, the Great Recession and defenestration of America’s manufacturing base had brought economic experts and technocratic elites into disrepute. Friedman is especially hard on the universities (“the center of gravity of the technocracy”) for perpetuating this managerial class. In 2016, Donald Trump performed his role in the cycle by calling this smug elite to account. By 2025 to 2030, Friedman predicts, institutional reinvention will begin a confident new cycle, which in turn will collapse around 2100–10. The COVID-19 pandemic has put the cycle “on steroids”, hastening the institutional reinvention (not least of American federalism) that punctuates US history.
What makes our decade unique is the ending of not just an institutional cycle but also a socioeconomic one. This second cycle, according to Friedman, runs every fifty years. The two cycles have never ended simultaneously. The creative destruction it will involve, he assures us, will be a wonder to behold, “transforming” how society works. The election of 2028 (“2032 at the outside”), predicts Friedman confidently, will mark the beginning of the end of technocracy and its replacement by a more egalitarian, commonsensical and inclusive governing philosophy. This struggle will be “grim” but will ultimately end well.
The last cyclical transition occurred when Ronald Reagan changed economic policy in 1981. This worked until the system fell into disrepair and recession in the 2010s. Institutional and socio-economic reinvention will happen simultaneously and symbiotically as its replacement emerges in the 2020s and 2030s. Failure will be followed by creativity. Storm will give way to calm. Why? Because it always has. Look at the pattern, insists Friedman. “The cycle is working itself out in the murky depths.”
A respected expert in geopolitical forecasting, Friedman is read more as prophet than historian. He wears both hats well in this book. Too many academics remain rooted to one era or cause; too few range from the past into even vague contours of the future. Friedman corrects some of these deficiencies with his approach.
The imposition of patterns on American history is not novel. Some important scholars have surveyed the last 240-plus years and heard distinctive rhythms. In 1986, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr identified “cycles of American history”, but resisted the confident forecasting Friedman specialises in. In 1982, Samuel P. Huntington located a “gap” between ideas and the institutions needed to advance them that has echoes in Friedman’s cycles. And, of course, Karl Marx said history moved in a clear and predictable direction. Despite assimilating much of their logic and approach, Friedman discusses none of them here.
Politics in the United States has a mathematical regularity – elections occur every second November, and representatives, presidents and governors, and senators are elected every two, four and six years respectively. So there is a certain attraction to seeing events unfold in patterns, as Friedman does. US presidencies have a neat, predictable stop-start timeframe that Australian prime ministerships do not. Friedman’s five socioeconomic cycles are all named for the presidents who initiated them: Washington, Jackson, Hayes, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Reagan.
While I share much of the author’s optimism about America’s prospects, I am sceptical that renewal follows the neat timetable he constructs. The US Constitution was intended as “a machine that would go of itself”. However, it has been the nation’s sheer good luck in getting the right leaders at the right moments – a function of fortune rather than of orderly cycles – that accounts for much of its success. Men and women do not make the weather; they do make politics.
Friedman has given us a positive account of US political, economic and social development, and is optimistic about the nation’s prospects. In a time of Trump and plague, this happy outlook is a rare commodity. As such, his arguments demand the widest possible airing. Without interventions like his, we are in danger of a scholarly discourse of unrelenting gloom. In The Storm Before the Calm, Friedman has offered us a timely reminder that US successes far outweigh US failures – and that the odds on this continuing look strong.
Timothy J. Lynch