The Storm Before the Calm intends to describe the way the United States works. It works, as a machine might, by cycling through phases. The transition from one phase to the next involves waves of social and political instability, and even chaos. At the moment, the United States is coming to the end of the old phase, in anticipation of the next. Given this timing, the arguments in this book are even more important for us to consider.
In the 1960s and 1970s, during the end of the last phase, the country was torn apart by the Vietnam War, profound economic dysfunction, intense racial tensions, a wave of assassinations of prominent figures, and the resignation of a president. It seemed to many that the United States was in the process of decline and even collapse. What was actually going on was that the United States was revealing the exhaustion of the prior era and clearing the decks in anticipation of the next.
The time after this, from around 1980 to the present, was a period of extraordinary technological and economic growth. It also saw strong political leadership and the downfall of America’s great adversary, the Soviet Union.
Today, all of those gains appear to be disintegrating in the midst of economic decline, political incoherence, and social dysfunction, and there is a serious concern that the United States may be heading for ruin. Once again, we are seeing the exhaustion of an era, and a clearing of the decks in anticipation of the next. As the United States makes the transition, the racial tensions that haunt us have re-emerged, although less intensely than in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X were murdered, entire areas of New York, Detroit, and other cities were consumed in flames. The original sin in the United States is slavery, and the impact of this institutionalised cruelty and its ongoing consequences rises with intensity during these transitional periods.
The arrival of COVID-19 has shattered the expectations of a generation. This book was published in the United States on February 25, 2020, just as the nation was shutting down to prevent the spread of the virus. When I wrote it, I had no idea that the virus was lurking; nor did I really grasp its significance initially. It might seem that the global pandemic of 2020 would undermine the arguments in this book. Oddly, it does not. In these pages, I forecast that the United States will be rent by social and economic crisis, and while I never anticipated the virus or the magnitude of the disorder it would sow, it reinforces this thesis. The United States, along with the rest of the world, will spend much of this decade dealing with the dysfunctions caused by COVID-19, setting the stage for the next cycle. The virus has not disrupted the cycle, but put it on steroids.
One of the things I argue in The Storm Before the Calm is that the microchip economy – all the things made possible by its invention – is mature. The microchip was first deployed in 1970, fifty years ago. The automobile was first mass-produced in 1915; its fiftieth anniversary was in 1965. By then, apart from some lesser innovations, the internal combustion engine was mature as a technology. There will be many more applications of the microchip, but productivity growth in the United States had neared zero even before the pandemic struck. The microchip changed the world and dominated the last American cycle, but its youth is now over.
What will the next core technology be? Electricity, the internal combustion engine, the microchip – each changed the world by addressing the central social problem of its time. Technology was a response to social needs. Electricity made the industrial city possible; the internal combustion engine enabled the rapid movement of people by car and airplane; the microchip made management of the vast amounts of data created by industrialism practical. There is no question in my mind that the next technology must be a radical leap in biology. In the United States, life expectancy is surging, but the birth rate is significantly lower than in previous generations. In the next era, older people will outnumber the younger. Apart from the strange political dynamic this will create, it will lead to a medical and economic crisis. The problem of longevity is that the elderly are massive consumers but do not produce. The impact of this will crush US society. Therefore, there is an impetus to find radical solutions to incapacitating diseases such as Parkinson’s. The massive, and growing, cohort of the elderly must be helped to remain productive for longer.
The advent of COVID-19 makes a revolution in biology even more necessary. Medical research (as opposed to medicine) does not have an emergency mode. The Hippocratic Oath demands first that the physician do no harm. In extreme circumstances, the refusal to risk harm can cause more casualties than accepting a degree of harm. The COVID-19 pandemic can be compared to a war. An assault has taken place, and the population is being harmed or killed indiscriminately. There is no known way to defeat the enemy. Doing nothing means accepting the current rate of casualty. A rapid solution involves an element of risk: strategies will not have been fully tested, and friendly fire will kill some. But the principle of warfare is calculated risk. Unlike doctors, who serve the Hippocratic Oath, the military during war must choose between widespread casualties, or casualties with a chance of mitigation.
A medical innovation will be the microchip of the next cycle. It will have two characteristics: it will bring about dramatic improvements in the process for dealing with the unexpected and deadly, and it will overcome the debilitating diseases of old age, allowing for extension of life without causing catastrophic social and economic impact. The pace at which the medical researcher determines the response to an event causing mass deaths, such as a pandemic, is insufficient. A system that offers potential solutions quickly while accepting that some harm might be caused in the implementation of these measures would be a radical shift. Currently, medical strategy is based on statistical analysis of results among humans. There is an opportunity to introduce modeling techniques in emergencies. Such modeling could then be extended to other medical areas, further aiding in the elimination of certain debilitating diseases.
The new era is born in failure and in growth. The failure of the United States in the Middle East and the maturation of the microchip combine to form a model for a still-maturing nation. Domestically, out of the current chaos will come a radically new and utterly essential technology that will drive the United States in the next era. I strongly suspect I know what that technology will be – but then, I didn’t recognise the power of the microchip when I held one in my hand in the form of the first digital calculator in 1971. Technology surprises.
Less of a surprise is the fact that whereas the last institutional cycle plunged the federal government deep into American society, and into the world in general, the next cycle will consist not of the withdrawal of either government in society or America in the international realm, but of finding a rational basis for making decisions that transcend a single source of expertise, and creating a new relationship for the United States with the world and with itself.
The United States is a global empire. It produces 25 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product, is the only power able to project its military through all oceans, and is in a way a cultural hegemon, shaping technology, language, and entertainment across the world. There are those who resent that. Nations with such global command are never loved, and frequently despised. The United States still hungers to be admired; as it matures, it will learn to be indifferent.
Inevitably, one day a state or group will challenge the United States and topple it. But powers its size do not withdraw willingly.
US alliances with Japan, South Korea, and India are born from self-interest, not from a common past. Australia is different. Both countries originated from the strategic imperatives of another empire, Britain. America fought its way clear, while Australia was, in a way, abandoned by the weakening world power. The two nations share deep cultural roots and common appetites, and have fought side-by-side in many wars, wise or unwise. Both are filled with immigrants with no link to this common past, but who, like me, carry the culture of the country they were born in along with the culture of the country that gave them shelter. I am certain that Australia and the United States share strategic interests, but also that we will experience the crisis of redefinition at the same time.
I remember the first visit I made to Australia, with my Australian bride. I remember how strange it was, and how familiar, too. When you consider our histories, the similarities should not be odd. Nor will it be odd that both countries will experience a decade of uncertainty and emerge stronger for it. Our lives are governed by cycles. We are born, we live, we die. As it is for one of us, so it has to be in some way for all of us.
This is an edited extract from The Storm Before the Calm, out now. See George Friedman in conversation at Melbourne Writers Festival.