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Book Review – George Friedman – “Flashpoints”

May 20, 2015

Summary: The past isn’t dead and it’s not even past. Thought-provoking geo-strategic analysis, drawing extensively and appropriately from history, from George Friedman. This is a very useful examination of risks of conflict in and around Europe in the future. The further east you go from the UK, the greater the risk…

Friedman book flashpoinsWith the European Games 2015 athletics event being held in Baku and Australia now joining the Eurovision song contest (which has had Israel as a member for years), one can perhaps be forgiven for wondering what “Europe” actually means. Is it a concept or a geographical expression? For the first half of my life, I was brought up to see “Europe” in reality as “Western Europe”, with only half of Germany allowed to play. More recently, we have talked of “old” and “new” Europe, roughly coinciding between East and West and most recently, evidenced in the post-2008, economic-depression, European downturn, we even talk of a north and south Europe (Germany vs Greece?).

A new and, as ever, highly intelligent and thought-provoking book has come from the geo-strategic analyst and founder of STRATFOR, George Friedman. Here, Friedman attempts to pull apart “Europe” with three core questions:

  1. How did Europe achieve political, military, economic and intellectual domination of the globe?
  2. What flaw caused this domination to be thrown away in the course of 31 years, from 1914 to 1945?
  3. Is the post-1945 peace in Europe now the natural state of affairs or can the continent slip back to old ways?

To which latter question, I suggest we already know the answer…

Friedman takes us through Europe’s history and highlights the nature and causes of its expansionism – the “sheer barbaric will and nearly insane courage” of Spanish and Portugese explorations and conquest of the Americas and the role of religion and intellectual development in this process – “the fragmentation of the mind”.

“Such an enterprise as conquering the world and inventing humanity carried with it a price. No one is certain how many died through the direct impact of European imperialism, from military action, starvation, disease and other causes. Some experts estimate 100 million dead over the course of four centuries of empire building, but no one really knows.”

The destruction of Europe and its empires that began in 1914 and ended in 1945 was unprecedented in human history in terms of the speed, scale and savagery that overtook the continent:

“As in all great tragedies, the virtues responsible for Europe’s greatness were precisely those that destroyed it…the right to national self-determination celebrated by the Enlightenment evolved into rage at the stranger…The technologies that transformed the world created systems of killing previously unimaginable. The domination of the world led to constant conflict with it and for it.”

The Cold War broadly held an exhausted Europe frozen in place for 45 years. It was the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in February 1992 that heralded – largely unseen and unpredicted – sweeping new and destabilising consequences, including conflict, across the European peninsula in the decades to come. The fighting in the Balkans during the 1990s was one of the first indicators that things were changing and showed that the darker and more brutal side of Europe’s history past was neither dead nor past.

Mainland and Peninsula

Much of the book is about this continual and continuing tension in the “borderlands” between Germany and Russia – Germany’s capacity for economic (and sometimes military) expansion and Russia’s fear of invasion and need for buffer zones. Sometimes this tension is concealed, sometimes not.  This region (a historically fluid line up of countries, including the Baltic states, Poland, Belarus and the Ukraine) is historically the contested meeting space between the Eurasian landmass (read “Russia”) and the small, crowded and increasingly fragmented European peninsula. Friedman’s working reference to differentiate between mainland and peninsula is a line drawn between St Petersburg and Rostov-on-Don. Snyder has perhaps more aptly called this geographically open and difficult-to-defend North European plain the “Bloodlands” in his study of totalitarian brutality in the 1930s and 1940s. Friedman is remarkably well-placed to bring personal family experience into play. As a family of Hungarian Jews living in Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries they had direct experience of the blood-letting, strife and displacement of the “31 years” (1914 – 1945). This included a perilous and precarious existence under both Nazi and Soviet regimes Their family lived in a city which changed its name three times in two generations – Bratislava, aka Pozsony, aka Pressburg.

Bringing us up to date, Friedman highlights the year 2008 as critical to our understanding of what has gone wrong and what the risks are for conflict in Europe – the financial crisis and the Russian invasion of Georgia.

Russia does not want to overtly dominate the region.  But it does want to limit the power of NATO in the east.  It also wishes to limit European integration, which could evolve into a strategic threat, by offering Eastern Europe economic alternatives…The Russians had two tools at their disposal.  One I would call commercial geopolitics…Second, and as important, the Russians had their intelligence service, and they had developed powerful relationships and sources in all these countries both during and after their occupation

Every step of the way, Friedman reminds us clearly that Europe can be at risk of conflict particularly at its north-eastern (read Baltics), eastern (read Ukraine) and south-eastern (read Balkans and Causcasus) peripheries. He warns against ignoring historic lessons and how the prejudice and resentment of generations (and even centuries) are only a little bit below the easily scratchable surface of Europe. Unchangeable geographic factors, centuries-old historic grievances and modern economic and technological factors are all at play, whether we recognise them and heed them or not.

No solutions offered here, just an important identification of the issues and a suggestions of the lessons, should we want to learn any.

I review Friedman’s other ambitious and excellent work “The Next 100 Years” here

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