Book Review by:
I read George Friedman's intelligence reports almost every day, and reviewed one of his books: The Next Hundred Years, several years ago. Friedman is chairman and founder of Stratfor (Strategic Forecasts), a leading private intelligence company. I think he, and several of his collages (including Robert D. Kaplan) are the best analysts of international geopolitics. Few other analysts regard geography as a major player in world affairs, an oversight that makes so many get it wrong.
For the past few years, his reports have focused on the world's borderlands, those faultlines where countries or ethnicities meet with latent hostility. His latest book, Flashpoints, explores Europe's past and present (and potential future) with an eye to the borderlands which can become flashpoints for conflict.
The only other scholar mentioning this issue was Samuel P. Huntington, with his much discussed Clash of Civilizations. Huntington noted that ever border shared with Muslim countries is, and has always been bloody. This observation has proven itself many times over in the past decades.
Europe has given much to the world in the past 500 years: the scientific revolution, religious reformations, political liberalism with participatory governance, and nationalism: the creation of nation states ideally governed by their own people in democracy. The modern world with its peaceful civil life, rule of law, and amenities available for all that were once the exclusive luxury of the ruling elites. We are only talking about Western Europe here, along with its British offspring, the United States.
But there is another side to Europe: a region of catastrophic conflicts along its many geographic and political flashpoints. The “Enlightenment” on the 18th century has been much admired by the educated among us because it largely discarded religion as a governing institution, replacing it with “reason.” Friedman explores the underbelly of the Enlightenment, in which some of its prized institutions gave rise to unanticipated and ugly consequences.
Nationalism can be a benign institution when it only means that a country's people love their country and its culture. However, when love of country morphs into hatred of other countries, nationalism becomes an excuse for violence. Europe's two world wars exemplify this.
Reason, replacing religion, can morph into ideologies that demand as much fanaticism as that of the true believers of religion. Furthermore, the decline of religion in Europe has left the young with a nihilism that discards both national identity and cultural identity; it becomes an “anything goes” culture that is ill equipped to defend itself against such fanatical ideologies as neo-Nazism and Militant Islam.
With this book, Friedman provides us with the definitive analysis of today's Europe, exploring Europe's geography, political life, and history. The geography alone dictates regional and country borders. His important contribution is the interaction of geography, history, and politics.
In his preface, he reminds us that
“Between 1914 and 1945 roughly 100 million Europeans died from political causes: war, genocide, purges, planned starvation, and all the rest. It was particularly striking in Europe, which had, over the course of the previous four hundred years, collectively conquered most of the world and reshaped the way humanity thought of itself.”
How could this happen in a place that in 1913 represented the highest level of civilization, rich in culture, with a population similarly educated, with rulers related by blood (offspring of Queen Victoria) and institutions such as the military trained with the same standards and values?
Friedman shows that Europe's descent into hell in the 31 years between 1914 and 1945 was not a fluke. It was the natural outcome of the emergence of the negative sides of all the institutions it most valued---and the fact that geography matters.
Europe's unification is based on ideology and optimism, neither of these enough to overcome the geographic, cultural, and behavioral patterns of European history. Friedman explores the issues, and this book makes for fascinating reading.