Geopolitical Predictions: Place Your Bets


The historian is a prophet looking backwards. ― Friedrich von Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments

So where is it all going, folks? Does anyone have an instinct?

When I wrote about why Margaret Thatcher mattered, I concluded “that the political figures who matter have two rare gifts.”

First, they are able to perceive the gathering of historical forces in a way their contemporaries were unable to do. What do I mean by “the gathering of historical forces?” I mean, they are able to sense the big picture. Lenin was able to discern a convergence of trends in Czarist Russia — the migration of the peasants, the rise of revolutionary consciousness, the weakness of the Czarist government, the debilitation inflicted upon Russia by the First World War — and to recognize what this convergence implied: The old order could now be toppled — not merely reformed, but destroyed. Czar Nicholas II could not perceive this. It is thus that Lenin now matters and Nicholas II does not.

Second, when promoted to power, those who matter are able to master those historical forces. Chiang understood perfectly that China was vulnerable to communism and understood as well what communism in China would mean. But he was unable, for all his energy and efforts, to master them. And so, tragically, he does not matter.

Churchill perceived the forces of history and then mastered them. In 1933, Hitler was widely regarded outside of Germany as no more than a buffoon. Churchill knew better. His assessment of Hitler was at the time astonishingly prescient and singular. He perceived the unique danger of Nazism when others could not see it or refused to believe it. He was steadfast in his warnings. When at last Churchill acquired power, he discharged his responsibilities in a fashion as to gain him immortality.

When politicians matter, they matter because of these gifts.

Thatcher had these gifts. She perceived — as did many of her contemporaries — that Britain was in decline. She perceived that the effects of Marxist doctrine upon Britain had been pernicious. But unlike her contemporaries, she perceived that Britain’s decline was not inevitable. And she perceived too that socialism was not — as widely believed — irreversible.

Simultaneously, she sensed a wider and related tide in history that no other leader, apart from Reagan, sensed at all. She understood that the Soviet Union was far from the invulnerable colossus it was imagined to be. She sensed, in fact, that it was unable to satisfy the basic needs of its population. It was corrupt, moribund, and doomed.

Having perceived the gathering of historical forces, she mastered them. She reversed the advance of socialism in Britain, proving both that a country can be ripped from a seemingly overdetermined trajectory and that it takes only a single figure with an exceptionally strong will to do so. She did not single-handedly cause the Soviet empire to crumble, but she landed some of the most devastating punches of the Cold War, and extraordinarily, emerged unblooded from the fight.

I wrote those words in 2007, and as you can see immediately, my own ability to perceive the gathering of historical forces will not leave me numbered among the immortals. Shortly after I wrote that conclusion, Lehman Brothers collapsed. The world’s confidence in capitalism was shaken by the subsequent events nearly as greatly as its confidence in communism after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

If you had told me then that in 2015, the better part of the Islamic world would be consumed in anarchy and savagery; that hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees would be streaming across Europe’s borders, threatening its unity and stability; that Russia would determine to re-prosecute the Cold War; that China would surpass America as the world’s largest economy and expand its military influence beyond its own shores; that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty would be in shreds, that the United States would begin a long, slow, melancholy retreat from the world stage — or even that Jeremy Corbyn would be the leader of a Labour Party whose own former director of media relations said, in 2002, “We are all Thatcherites now” — I suppose I wouldn’t have published that book.

So I don’t have the gift. I did grasp that Turkey was by no means a model democracy, and I said so before it was a truism. I saw exactly how serious the events in Syria were, and what their implications would be. But I have no strategy now for mastering these disasters, and I’m not sure at this point what one might even look like, or how I would recognize it.

So let’s hear from you. What will the world be like in six months, next year, in five years, in twenty? What are the most important gathering historical forces? What is the big picture? Which political figure, if any, has shown a sign that he — or she — has the ability to master them? If none of them do, and if the task by some accident fell to you, how would you approach it?

Published in Foreign Policy, History
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  1. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch

    It seems to me that the principle sign of our time is the collapse of essential institutions which bear the light of truth, goodness, and beauty. The Judeo-Christian church is near collapse. Academia is less and less a quest for truth and knowledge. The arts are nothing but kitsch. The press is largely unconcerned with truth. Marriage and population is no longer the ideal relationship. It goes on and on. We once believed that of the churches and temples collapse we would still maintain the underlying truths these institutions offered. Not so, I now think. Institutions are essential and once they are gone we can soon expect to see the culture begin to die.Historically institutions were ontologically prior to freedom. We now elevate our immediate desires above the objective truths protected by institutions which so confounds us that we lose sight of the foundation which anchors society in the storms.

    • #1
  2. iWe Coolidge

    If I had the power, the solutions look pretty simple: set up cities of refuge throughout the Middle East, as ably and beautifully described here, here and here on Ricochet, and explained here.

    I would air drop millions of small arms into Iran. It would give the people there the ability to fix their own regime – an ability a disarmed populace lacks today.

    Between those two key moves, the non-Israeli Middle East would have real opportunities for a beautiful future.

    Will it happen? History only “happens” for those who do not play an active role. But if you help spread and advocate good ideas, then you can play an active role – and be among those who create the future, instead of merely annotating it as it rolls by.

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  3. Richard Harvester Inactive
    Richard Harvester

    I of course agree with iWe’s prescriptions – I wrote underlying pieces related to them :) But hopes for policy are not the same thing as expectations for reality.

    We seem to be in a period of expansion of violent polarizers who are overwhelming various weak middles. I live in Israel, and I experience this in perhaps one of the ‘hottest’ places around.

    This is the trend I see continuing – violent anti-immigration/anti-Islamists becoming increasing powerful in the face of violent Islamists. And the jelly-kneed middle disappearing in the face of it – either converting to one of the extremist camps or crying out helplessly for the madness to stop.

    Who will win? Who knows – but tolerant liberal (as in free) societies will certainly suffer the most. They will be ripped apart from outside and from within.

    The refugee response in Europe will accelerate this trend.

    I keep coming back to World War Z – the Zombies are everywhere and Israel’s wall is looking prescient.

    Nonetheless, I am deeply saddened every time I see that wall.

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  4. Xennady Member

    I don’t see anyone in the political leadership of the United States- or even the potential leadership- who seems to have the faintest idea about what needs to be done, how to do it, how to make a political case for it and how to win elections based upon it.

    The closest I see is Donald Trump, which should be taken as a sign of just how screwed I think we are.

    The rest of the potential presidents are merely a bucket of losers.

    My advice for the United States is this: 1) back away 2) rearm.

    For example, we currently have a government which has by its policies has greatly enriched and empowered China, yet also has been treating that nation like a quasi enemy. Pick one. Either meekly accept that China will use armed force to secure the South China Sea, or stop giving them free access to the US market, in an attempt to convince them not to do so. But neither option will be chosen, because as Glen Reynolds has repeatedly noted we have the worse political class in our history.

    What will happen, I expect, is that the US will continue to let the US military rot away, while continuing to poke at other nations with the same feckless ineptitude that has made the US feeble as an enemy and worthless as an ally.

    Sooner or later someone is going to poke back.

    • #4
  5. iWe Coolidge

    Richard Harvester: And the jelly-kneed middle disappearing in the face of it – either converting to one of the extremist camps or crying out helplessly for the madness to stop.

    This is a critical point. In times of crisis, there is no place for moderation. Moderates are the people who stand by and watch the radicals on both sides seize the microphone, the streets, and the governments. It does not matter that the moderates outnumber the radicals, because only the radicals are passionate enough to put their lives on the line. So the Bolsheviks and the Nazis never achieved 50% in the polls – or even close. It did not matter. They were the people who seized the initiative.

    And whether we like it or not, Osama Bin Laden was right: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” Squishes end up joining the strong horse. Like fair weather fans, formerly enlightened liberals in places like Rotterdam and Malmo don burkhas and convert to Islam.

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  6. Richard Harvester Inactive
    Richard Harvester

    Moderates can thrive. They just have to believe in something beyond moderation itself. In Pakistan moderate Muslims have taken up arms (in Karachi, I think) to fend off the crazies. Part of that example is ethnic, but they did it and Karachi isn’t Peshawar. But moderates most often don’t believe in anything but not disturbing the boat. And in an extreme world that isn’t a recipe for success.

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  7. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans

    US: still number one, by far.

    China: fading due to aging population.

    Russia: working hard at avoiding breakup.

    Europe: moving to the right, though not the far right. Muddling through.

    India: rising if reforms accelerate. Otherwise, problems.

    Other Asia, Africa: new rising economies, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Nigeria.

    Middle East: Pass.

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  8. Arahant Member

    iWe: History only “happens” for those who do not play an active role. But if you help spread and advocate good ideas, then you can play an active role – and be among those who create the future, instead of merely annotating it as it rolls by.

    This, a thousand times this. That is the reality of Thatcher, Spencer Churchill, Reagan, and others. They got off their duffs and moved their feet. It did not matter that the tide was against them when they started. They knew that tides turn. Reagan was working to inform the public for more than twenty years before he became president. Churchill was working on spreading the word for a decade. One doesn’t make history sitting on the couch.

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  9. Arahant Member

    So, my geopolitical predictions: what the people want and are moved to work for, they will get. It has always been thus.

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  10. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds

    I predict that there will be nuclear attack in the Middle East and it WON’T involve Israel. I also predict that this will be the catalyst for the divide between the Sunni and Shia to come together forming an entirely different Muslim World.

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  11. philo Member

    Arahant: what the people want and are moved to work for, they will get.

    I’m currently reading The Rape of the Mind (Joost Meerloo)…you don’t want me making any predictions in this state of mind. However, the “and are moved to” part of the above and all the darkness it implies (intentional or not) pretty much covers it.

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  12. James Madison Member
    James Madison

    First, history may not be so dark.

    “If you had told me then that in 2015, the better part of the Islamic world would be consumed in anarchy and savagery; that hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees would be streaming across Europe’s borders, threatening its unity and stability”

    Samuel Huntington clearly saw this coming and the subject was broadly discussed at the time – around 25 years ago. We chose the path of benign neglect, ignorance, then force, massive force, and retrenchment to limited intervention. Like Vietnam, at each step the choice may have made sense but the trend was not clear.

    If truth be known, our leadership is as stumped as we are about what is a clear course of action to many of the problems because no one quite knows what will solve these problems (Syria, Kurds, Turkey, Quds, ISIS, al Qaeda, etc.) in the short and long run. They have realized that we have to parry until something emerges.

    Sometimes there is not a strategy for “mastering these disasters.” We must also keep in mind, that while they are serious and cause human suffering, they often have little lasting impact. The middle east today certainly exceeds this threshold, but its impact on America is less clear.

    So, we may not need a strategy to meet all the dragons. We might only need a strategy to meet the ones that matter. That might be the cornerstone of a Neo-neo-conservative foreign policy or a paleo-conservative foreign policy. Conservatives need to change too.

    Listing things is fine. But, determining which “disasters” are threats and what kind of threats they pose is what counts.

    And it is not soley a matter of leadership (Churchill, etc.). Bush I inherited problems and left Somalia and the aftermath of Tiananmen to Clinton. Clinton and Bush I left Afghanistan to Bush II. They were part of a continuum. They were acting in the nation’s interests, but they failed to intercede properly early — which is only clear in hindsight. Leadership cannot always anticipate and get it right. Nor can we. In fact, leadership often gets it wrong or over-reacts, as do we.

    Which means foreign policy anxiety must be relieved by a process. The leadership that so often gets its wrong can succeed (FDR) because the general staff (Plan Orange), intelligence apparatus and state department have been monitoring and thinking about reactions and plans for years before the problem emerges. The process more often than not picks up the broad trends. It is tempered by competing ideas. Even then, it often fails to grasp the schwerpunkt. But, the process is what counts. It is the safety net.

    There is an endless list of things to worry about, we may not help ourselves by diffusing our focus. Which is why it might be useful to form a more disciplined process before listing the world forces. As for the leaders, history has created myths about the weakness of some and the strengths of others. Churchill was better at oratory than insight. His strategy was often unhinged. MacArthur was brilliant at avoiding casualties (a fact most never focus on), but rather silly in larger battlefield tactics (bombers clustered in Manila, Chosin Resevoir). While Bush II kept us safe, he botched a few steps along the way. The list of iconic leaders whose legendary leadership was flawed and whose reputations were created and protected by their lieutenants is endless.

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  13. Tenacious D Inactive
    Tenacious D

    I predict a ton of religious conversion over the next decade or two, as people reach out in new directions for ultimate meaning. Besides continued growth of Christianity in Asia and conversions to Islam in the West, I wouldn’t be surprised to see revivals of old religions–beyond hippies dancing in oak groves–such as Zoroastrian, Norse/Germanic paganism, and pre-contact Mesoamerican religions.

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  14. Tenacious D Inactive
    Tenacious D

    I also think that some countries in Africa and Latin America will reach the point where they can be influential players on the global stage.

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  15. BrentB67 Inactive

    Six Months: What is left of Europe’s borders are disappearing under the deluge of refugees. Refugees from the first wave are nearing the end of gestation and the leading edge of the Islamic baby boom is evident. The strain fractures Germany’s government reducing the continent’s financial wherewithal and driving a wedge between the U.K. and EU increasing the likelihood of Brexit, not that there will be anything left to exit from. The Euro Currency trades below par to the DX.

    One Year: The right wing media and blogosphere continue their exponential increase in influence and begin to overtake conventional media. Exposing lone wolf muslim attacks in the U.S. combined with highlighting the EU plight and lack of border enforcement immigration becomes the most visible divisive issue of the 2016 campaign. The republican nominee struggles to reconcile previous positions and minces words balancing voter outrage with donor demands. The republican base is further fractured, discouraged, and low turnout hands the presidency to HRC.

    3 Years: The U.S. experiences larger urban civil unrest as progressive policies extended under HRC and acquiesced by Speaker Ryan institutionalize poverty. U.S. borders effectively disappear and lax voting requirements and corrupt democrat GOTV efforts hand Congress back to the democrats, their endless majority sealed through illegal immigration. Whites flee urban and suburban areas that begin to look like black/latino/muslim war zones.

    The Dollar loses its reserve currency status.

    Have a nice weekend.

    • #15
  16. Kevin Creighton Contributor
    Kevin Creighton

    I agree pretty much 100% with Walter Russell Mead: We’re seeing the end of the “blue state model” of corporate taxation to pay for social welfare, and we’re transitioning to something else. What that “something else” is, I don’t rightly know, but one that is happening is an enormous growth in personal empowerment, thanks to the Internet.

    Why are the radical left and right becoming so vociferous as of late? Because they’re the ones who have been left out of traditional media and are naturally attracted to new means of communication. The Internet has enabled a tribalization of  society that is still going on: We are self-sorting into Red State forums and Facebook groups and Blue State forums and socialist communes Facebook groups. ;) We can communicate instantly with like-minded individuals across the country to create political change, an idea completely foreign to the men who used similar methods (but on a local scale) to overthrow the British and found this country.

    Our enemies also understand this new world, and use it to their advantage. Social media and online forums are a big, big means for ISIS and others to spread their message of hate, and we are losing that information war, badly. The last time our means communications changed as much as they are changing now was when Guttenberg made movable type easy and cheap, and all that did was change the world.

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  17. Nick Stuart Inactive
    Nick Stuart

    Sometime in the next 20 years a terrorist group blows up a US city by smuggling a nuke in via a shipping container; or a rogue state detonates a nuke somewhere over the eastern or western seaboard frying our power grid.

    From his moated redoubt in Hawaii protected by Secret Service and the military stationed there Obama will lecture us on how we had it coming.

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  18. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane

    Nice idea for a thread, Ms. B.  But large questions like these require expertise outside Ricochet’s ken.  However, our Spengler knows another Spengler (aka, David Goldman) with the second sight:

    A sample prediction:

    “Putin might for example offer a compromise solution that I first heard suggested by Erik Prince, the counterterrorism expert and entrepreneur: force Syrian president Basher Assad out of power, but let Moscow pick his successor. At that point Turkey and Saudi Arabia could claim victory and withdraw their support from Sunni extremists (or be compelled to do so by the United States), and Iran could be compelled to withdraw its Revolutionary Guards from the theater and cut off support for Hezbollah. The efforts of the international community then could turn to destroying ISIS. There would be no glorious era of Arab democracy, no Arab spring, no happy ending, just a less murderous sort of despotism and an armistice rather than a real peace between Shia and Sunni. That is as good as ever it will get in that miserable region.”

    Another prediction:

    “I have long believed that the most likely outcome of Islam’s civilizational crisis is a body count that would beggar the last century’s world wars.”


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  19. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane


    His lead:

    “The great task of diplomacy in the 21st century is a sad and dreary one, namely managing the decline of Muslim civilization. There is a parallel to the great diplomatic problem of the late 19th and early 20th century, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, which the diplomats bungled horribly.”

    It is totally edifying if you have the time.  He is a expert on these matters if you ask me.

    • #19
  20. Zafar Member

    20 years from now the only borders in the Middle East that will be the same are those of the little Gulf states, Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Israel (still ambiguous).

    • #20
  21. Copperfield Inactive

    The U.S. willfully withdrawing from leadership and abdicating its role as superpower seems to be creating a 19th-Century-like great power competition. Robert Kagan wrote presciently about it in his 2009 book.

    That competition took two World Wars to sort out and transferred Western leadership from the Brits to the Americans. The competition today, though, is different because the Western powers are willfully disarming by spending (borrowing & spending) on butter vs. guns, and have a younger generation with little national pride, no proper sense of history or the role that military force can play for the good, little knowledge of economics, and focused on social issues like abortion and gay marriage to the point that they cannot recognize real evil when it is staring them in the face (ISIS… which, I was told by a 20-something recently, is Ronald Reagan’s fault) and cannot fathom war of any real scale because they believe the relative peace and opulence in which they grew up is the historical norm, not the wonderful aberration that had and has to be fought for.

    Into the vacuum of leadership have and will rush the strong horses. But, since no single horse has the military reach to be a true superpower, alliances will form. Kagan wrote of alliances that should be formed among the democracies to counterbalance those that will form among the autocracies. Unfortunately, that requires foresight and leadership, and the only true statesman at the helm of a country today (Netanyahu) lacks the scale and influence to do much more than protect his own country. So the autocratic alliances begin to form (Russia, Iran, etc.) while the democratic alliances (NATO, etc.) atrophy to the point of debilitating sclerosis.

    What will happen? Specifics are hard to predict, but trends may be: a decline in the rush to democracy that we witnessed post-Cold War; continued decline of democratic institutions and alliances; possibly a series of capitulations in the West due to over-indebtedness (the capitulations will be gleefully undertaken by the Obamas of the world under the guise that they are saving the world from economic collapse and devastating wars… they’re smarter than Churchill, Thatcher, Reagan and the like, after all, the pity being that they actually believe it).

    This perhaps discounts the probability of a singular event with the potential to change the world in an instant, which may become more probable as the institutions & order decline and the chaos grows. What might be the effect of Israel bombing Iran as an act of existential defense? Or of another large-scale terrorist attack in the U.S.? Or an armed exchange in the South China Sea? Or a desperate North Korean attack on the South? Who knows, but Western fecklessness and autocratic regime opportunism seems ever more probable.

    On a side note, Is it odd to observe that few people talk of the BRIC’s anymore? This may be because the B is reverting to Marxist Latin American form, a reversion that may drag on for years, enabled by newly discovered natural resource wealth, or it may be because opportunities in the “developing economies” are not “developing” at previously forecasted rates (the importance of institutions perhaps having been discounted).

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  22. civil westman Inactive
    civil westman

    As to predicting the future see Yogi Berra.

    As to the past, it was previously said: “In the Soviet Union the past……… is very hard to predict.” We now have the same status in our academies.

    Perhaps worst of all, how certain are we of the present, given how much the perceptions of so many are shaped by the “mainstream media and the academy?” -whose combined ideology is inimical to individual liberty (but supportive of hedonic license, thus opposed to Judeo-Christian beliefs) and blindly dedicated to the overweening power of the state.

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  23. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane

    PS. Goldman has made a strong case that Muslim society is doomed demographically in his book:

    How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying Too)

    It is a great read.

    • #23
  24. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju

    Robert McReynolds:I predict that there will be nuclear attack in the Middle East and it WON’T involve Israel. I also predict that this will be the catalyst for the divide between the Sunni and Shia to come together forming an entirely different Muslim World.

    From your lips to God’s ears . . .

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  25. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat

    I agree with Mike Rapkoch and Arahant, and yes, Claire, you have the gift. It’s obvious from Menace in Europe in 2006- when you wrote about:

    Militant Nazi thinking among youth in Germany – Rammstein = seeds planted, now sprouting – Nazism on full display

    Decline of the family and seeing less children = aging populations with fewer younger to take the place in workforce

    Resurgence of the “green movement” (in a cultish way – the Bove’s) = climate change the #1 topic with income redistribution, fines and a select world body called UN to implement – Agenda 2030)

    Inability for immigrants to assimilate – no explanation needed here.

    That’s just a few of what you saw in 2006. Mike mentioned decline in Judaeo-Christian values – you can’t ignore what is in front of you – evil rises in a vacuum void of God – we’re offered free choice.

    Open a Bible – read the prophets – Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah, rise of Christian persecution, rise of the King of the North (Russia), unlikely enemies teaming up (Russia, Syria, Iran) even Hillary said we have to change our “religious thinking”, I even read with the wave of immigrants, they are looking at biometric ID’s for everyone.

    I think things will become so dire that people will long for peace and stability at any cost, and that is when the diabolical will take control. This is not fanaticism – it has been preached from every church and synagogue since the beginning. Fight back (with information), pray and have courage. God wins.

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  26. civil westman Inactive
    civil westman

    Lots of “death of civilizations” talk. I would like to see a plot of the number of deaths from warfare over time, both absolute and relative to world population. I also suspect a relationship between improvement in material wellbeing and birth rate.

    Are we “hard-wired” to reduce the number of our species, through warfare and/or birth control?

    The astounding number of deaths resulting from organized governmental activity both from warfare and by killing vast numbers of their own citizens in the 20th century, is enough to give one pause. These are the same states which hold themselves out as the salvation of their people, regulating everything “for their own good.” Given the fundamental nature of conflicts both between and within nations today, the sheer number of existing weapons with massive destructive power, and belligerent expressions from various quarters, I cannot foresee a good outcome. The timeline is anyone’s guess, but I believe we will see at least sporadic detonations of nuclear devices if not large exchanges.

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  27. I Walton Member
    I Walton

    So what are obvious trends?  China is spreading everywhere, sort of like we did, that will continue.  The middle east is disintegrating, that won’t, someone comes out on top.  Not us. At home we’re coming apart because of the conceit that we can manage complexity centrally. But because we can’t, frustration causes the centralizers to try to clear away the organic under brush where life and culture happens, this is totalitarian but it won’t work out that way, not 1984 or a brave new world, but in entropy, dysfunction and corruption.   The dysfunction still  serves the short term financial and political interests of the centralizers.  They may feel that attacking foreign devils will help with their project and they’ll become newly adventuresome.   The world won’t have a hegemonic power and will be dangerous, we’ll be inept and clumsy.  We can’t see how all this plays out, but there are things we can control and effect and they are right here at home.  We can change them if we elect leaders and foster a culture that understands  that we cannot control events here or abroad, but can allow people to flourish if we just get some basics right.  Then we can exert positive influence.    How likely is  the latter?

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  28. Ontheleftcoast Inactive

    China’s overseas drive for resources will result in neocolonialism that makes the Belgians in Africa look like Mother Teresa.

    Hezbollah in South America will be a serious problem for the US.

    Once Obama is out of office, sea level will rise rapidly, producing global catastrophe.

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  29. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat

    One more thing, to get the “big picture”, you cannot separate the spiritual from the geopolitical – if you do, then you only see through a partial lens. The horizon includes all of it.

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  30. BrentB67 Inactive

    Zafar:20 years from now the only borders in the Middle East that will be the same are those of the little Gulf states, Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Israel (still ambiguous).

    This is a fascinating prediction Zafar and I would like to read more about your reasoning. I note Saudi Arabia not on your list.

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