- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE FUTURE: A BRAVE AND CONTROVERSIAL LOOK AT THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

By Jacques Attali Arcade

$25, 312 pages

Is it possible for a book to be ridiculously confident about predicting the trends of the future and yet, probably, actually be right? Yes, it is, and in “A Brief History of the Future,” Jacques Attali proves it.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the business of being a false prophet is usually extraordinarily lucrative. Unless a false prophet has the misfortune to cross the path of a real one with full biblical credentials, he or she is unlikely to be burned alive, torn apart by a crazed mob, pelted with rotten fruit in the stocks or even audited by the Internal Revenue Service. Instead, he will make a good living lecturing at endless academic conferences, writing lots of op-eds for The Washington Post and the New York Times and getting fat consultancy contracts for the Pentagon teaching nonsense that never comes to pass.

This book, however, is vastly superior to the usual examples of the genre from Alvin Toffler to Thomas Friedman: The first 164 pages alone are a tour de force overview of the history of capitalism and of the crises converging on the United States and its role as global hegemon. They far surpass entire libraries of books that have been written on these subjects. Mr. Attali is a world-class analytical historian and he proves it here with panache.

I anticipated that when Mr. Attali moved from past perfect tense to future presumptive, he would come pretentiously and even ridiculously to grief. But he did not. His assessments of the colliding pressures, tensions and interactions between the forces of the free market, democratic globalization and openness on the one hand, and the countertrends of tradition, fear and reaction - roughly what Thomas Friedman has labeled the Lexis and the Olive Tree - are masterful. Mr. Attali’s assessments, however, are vastly more detailed and thought out with infinitely more rigor than Mr. Friedman’s. Mr. Attali’s analyses on the causes and motivations of the world-encompassing reaction against and rejection of democracy, the free market and globalization should, indeed, be read in conjunction with the work of the British political philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin and the great Irish intellectual and historian Conor Cruise O’Brien, who died in December.

Mr. Attali’s past record is consistent with his latest achievement. He predicted the emergence of “nomadic technologies” like cell phones and iPods, not to mention the rise of Asia and the financial crisis assailing the United States over the last decade or two.

One should certainly draw a caveat at the very precise timetable of global trends up to the year 2050 that Mr. Attali predicts: If his book is open anywhere to skepticism, it is there. The reasons he gives for this timetable are in fact highly credible and even convincing ones. But the prospects of alternative outcomes - many of them far more chaotic and dark than the ones he predicts - have to be taken into account, too

Is it, therefore, really so certain that precisely between 2025 and 2035 “a masterless world, tenuously coordinated by a handful of powers” will emerge? Is it truly inevitable that “around 2050, harried by the pressure of market demands, and thanks to new technological means, the world order will coalesce around a market that has become planetary - and stateless”?

However, it certainly does seem plausible that between now and 2025 “new regional powers will burst forth, all of them wanting access to the same riches” and that “they will create the military means to match their ambitions.” Nations as diverse as India, China, Iran and Venezuela have already been working hard to do that for years. Indeed, Mr. Attali’s discussion of “regional ambitions” is one of the best things in the volume.

Mr. Attali’s book is already selling like hotcakes across Europe and deservedly so. It is a finely balanced corrective to the prophets of cataclysm who see no hope for the future and the Panglossian idiots who still imagine we have achieved “the end of history” and nothing can go wrong with the inevitable triumphs of democracy and free markets.

Every member of the U.S. Congress and all senior policymakers in the new Obama administration should read this indispensable book.

Martin Sieff is defense industry editor for United Press International. He has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting. His most recent book is “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East,” 2008.

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