[This book review was published in the Winter 2015 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 458-468.]


Book Review


Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe

George Friedman

Doubleday, 2015 


          George Friedman is the founder and CEO of Stratfor, “the world’s leading private intelligence company.”   As a man of extensive travel and learning, his background enables him to write a book that the general reader will find both informative and stimulating.  The more discriminating reader is likely, however, to find the book limited.  It is regrettable to say it, but Flashpoints comes across as an extended essay that features some awfully good writing by a man who knows quite a lot and is highly accomplished, but who relies too exclusively on his own wisdom and knowledge.  The book has unquestionable strengths, but these are mixed with contradictions, a scattering of emphases, overstated aphorisms, unquestioned premises, and crucial omissions.  There are no endnotes, index or bibliography, and their absence makes it clear that Friedman thinks of the book as one for a general audience and not as a scholarly work.  Where Friedman is best is in his ability to relate his intimate knowledge of geography to an account of a region or country’s history.

It is surprising, in light of the book’s subtitle pointing to an “emerging crisis in Europe,” that Friedman has only the most limited grasp of the implications of the long-continuing and accelerating demographic invasion of Europe from the Third World.  The influx threatens so drastic a recasting of the European population that it has caused the many writers who do see the cultural and demographic implications to warn of an impending “death of the West.”  To Friedman, however, the problem lies not the obliteration of Europe as we have known it, but in the prospect that “the Right will exploit anti-immigrant feelings.”  The damage, to him, comes from those who want to retain Europe’s identity.

  We will start by recapping Friedman’s main themes, and will go from there into a discussion of several issues suggested by the text. The book’s first two parts provide historical context that lays a foundation for the third part, which discusses Europe’s current plight, which Friedman sees as consisting mainly of its reverting, at least potentially, to the contentious cauldron that Europe has been for much of its history.  He says this about that plight:

Europe’s history of conflict is far from over.  Europe’s basic architecture remains the same, a small continent, fragmented into many parts and crowded with many nation-states.  Some of these have put their history of resentment and bitterness behind them, but it has not been abolished.  In some places it dominates, in some places it hides, but in many places Europe’s anger against other Europeans is still there.

But we have jumped ahead.  Before he discusses this, which is the core of his book, he reviews the “Age of Expansion” (or “of Discovery”) that led to Europe’s world domination.  He then examines how “Europe squandered it all with an unprecedented savagery lasting thirty-one years” between the start of World War I in 1914 and the end of the Second World War in 1945. 

From that, he moves on to his concern about Europe’s future.  Will it be constructive or will Europe “return to its historical ways”?  The passage just quoted expresses trepidation about this, but a  reader finds that Friedman is actually inconsistent and inconclusive about his fear.  Although this is unavoidable, given the ambiguities of the future, the title Flashpoints: the Emerging Crisis in Europe suggests something stronger than a mere possibility.   This gives the impression that Friedman has taken a legitimate concern and sensationalized it.  By “emerging crisis,” he creates a show of urgency even though he is not convinced of it himself.  It was the subtitle that gave us the impression the book would sound an important alarm.  The same sensationalizing occurs when Friedman speaks of “flashpoints,” which he relates to “borderlands.”  These are “unique geopolitical hot spots where tensions have erupted throughout history.”  Instead of containing chapters about significant points of friction, the book’s Part Three on “Flashpoints” has eight chapters that essentially ignore the “hot spot” aspect and contain, instead, a series of thoughtful essays about the different parts of Europe, discussing their history, culture and geography.  The book has substance, to be sure, but not a substance that supports the “emerging crisis,” “flashpoints” or “borderlands” thesis.

In Part I, the simultaneous exuberance and “incredible hubris” behind Europe’s global expansion are illustrated by a remarkable bit of history: “In the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, Pope Alexander VI divided the world between Spain and Portugal.”  It was, Friedman says, a “claim to universal political authority over humanity.”  Most specifically, the Pope’s treaty “divided Latin America between Spanish and Portuguese zones.”  Friedman gives a brief but captivating account of the expansion, taking him from Henry the Navigator’s rather cerebral impulse for discovery and knowledge into an account of the enormous vitality of conquistadors such as Cortes and Pizarro.  Surprisingly, however, his review of the European conquests finds him preoccupied with the weaknesses and contentions that eventually brought it to smash.  Even in the chapters about the expansion, “my story is not about the conquest, but about how it all finally collapsed.”  “Ultimately the ability of Europeans to conquer the world but their inability to conquer themselves would prove part of their fatal flaw.” 

Europe’s global expansion ran concurrently with the shattering of its intellectual and spiritual unity.  In a chapter on “The Fragmentation of the European Mind,” Friedman points to how Europeans came to doubt their earlier convictions that “the world was the center of the universe; Europe was the center of the world; and the Church was the center of Europe.”  Copernicus, the Protestant Reformation, the printing press, the awakening of science, the Enlightenment, the burgeoning of populations, the rise of economic and military behemoths  -- all of these and more shattered the medieval consensus.  Friedman might well have referred to the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset’s essay on “Concord and Liberty” in which Ortega said “a society obviously relies for its existence upon common consent in certain ultimate matters.  Such unanimity Cicero calls Concordia….”  Ortega said that “if dissent affects the basic layers of common belief on which the solidarity of the social body lastly rests, then the state becomes a house divided, society dis-sociates….”  This occurred in Rome two millennia ago, and Ortega asked “are not we now staggering under the impact of this same experience?”  This may be why Friedman says there was “a civil war inside Europe that culminated in World War I” – which, we should notice, was even before the actual slaughter began in 1914.  It isn’t clear whether, in so saying, he has something more specific in mind than Ortega did, but we might reach a similar conclusion when we  recall the fevered mentalities within nineteenth century Europe that were described by Julien Benda in The Treason of the Intellectuals. 

Friedman moves on to a brief essay about the two world wars, which in common with so many others he rightly sees as linked, with the Second being “simply the continuation, expansion, and intensification of World War I.”   Whereas in 1912 Europe “ruled the world” and “had colonies totaling 40 million square kilometers,” it soon “turned into a slaughterhouse,” so that “by 1945, 100 million were dead.”  The pre-war greatness, he says, was a mere veneer: “As with all great tragedies, the virtues responsible for Europe’s greatness were precisely those that destroyed it.  The principle of nationhood and the right to national self-determination… evolved into rage at the stranger.”  Friedman’s chapters on the two wars and their interim are not a narrative of the battles and strategies, but amount instead to extended essays on the social, political and ideological context.  As with the book as a whole, they are worth reading, if that is done with a discriminating eye.  Later, we will see why the qualification is necessary.

After the decades of slaughter were over, an exhausted Europe sought a solution to its historic rivalries in the “European integration [that] formally began in 1957 with the signing of the Treaty of Rome.”  This led to the European Community and European Union.  “In 1991… the Maastricht Treaty” provided “the structure of the modern European Union.”  Friedman tells us the aspiration was to eventually “make a person’s European identity at least as important as his or her national identity.”  Friedman says there were two fundamentals: First, “the basic social contract of the European Union” has been “the promise of prosperity.”  Second was a “notion of shared fates.”  [We can immediately see that if the EU was in fact premised upon an expectation of unbroken prosperity, it was based on something that no society has ever been able to guarantee.]  

This has run into problems.  There was, Friedman argues, “reckless optimism” in extending the Euro zone to the south and east.  “Germany and Greece, for example, needed different monetary policies.”  Distrust, not harmony, has set in.  “From the German point of view, the problems in the rest of Europe were the result of laziness and self-indulgence.”  To others, though, “the problem originated in Germany rigging the system in its favor.”  He says the financial discord has deep implications because the two fundamentals are shattered. There has been an “inexplicable fall” of the middle classes into widespread unemployment, something about which “the technocrats could not grasp the significance.”   A reversion to the nation-state took the place of an integrated Europe.  Friedman poses the question of what would “hold men together in brotherhood… if either peace or prosperity evaporated?”  Nothing much, it would seem: “The European Union is in shambles, with no promise of regaining its prosperity.”  This is why he expresses the fear we quoted earlier.


Points for discussion:

Flashpoints brings to mind a number of items interesting to discuss.  We will take them at random.

1.  Friedman observes the incongruity between the Enlightenment’s stress on “reason” and the tribalism (loyalty to one’s own group) inherent in the idea of “nation.”  This is a tension we see in many areas of life.  Plotlines of the TV series “Blue Bloods” often dwell on the conflict between a police detective’s expected adherence to the norms of criminal law and of police regulations, on the one hand, and the detective’s feeling that he needs to violate the rules if he is to be effective or to be “loyal” to a fellow officer who is in trouble.  In an academic setting, there is tension between objectively applying the criteria for promotion or tenure and being loyal to a good friend and faculty colleague.  A vote based on a conscientious application of the criteria can easily lead to bitterness and lost collegiality.  We see the same type of conflict in Europe today as the governing elite insists that each country accept a flood of Islamic refugees and in doing so runs counter to what Hungary, say, sees as its national interest.

It would be a mistake to think that a “tribal” concern for one’s own, as in a nation, is necessarily lacking in “reason.”  The type of “reason” that national concerns lack is “reason” as embodied in a set of norms that seek to transcend them and that apply more broadly than to a nation’s own interests.  It was the Enlightenment’s claim to universality that found it at odds with the nationalism and ethnic claims that were so much on the rise in nineteenth century Europe. 

2.  After Friedman reviews Cortes’ actions in overthrowing the Aztec empire, he says “it is easy to see this as a condemnation of the Spaniards or of Christianity.”  Certainly, condemnation would be the wont of “politically correct” thinking today, which takes delight in declaring the “victimization” of non-Western peoples.  But Friedman goes refreshingly contrary to this: “The Spaniards were not morally inferior to their victims,” pointing out that the Aztecs had themselves been the “victimizers” a generation earlier.  He observes that in 1440 Montezuma executed five hundred prisoners taken in the final battle of his victory over the principal towns in the Mexican valley.  Much more, of course, could be said about the blood-thirstiness of the Aztecs.

3.  We said earlier we would tell how Flashpoints is weakened by contradictions, superlatives, overstated aphorisms, and shallow explanations.  We will point to only a few, picking those that most lend themselves to meaningful discussion:

a.  There is an odd contradiction between what Friedman says, in the book and separately from it, about the present-day conflict in Ukraine.  The book reports the two side’s positions: the West seeing “a popular uprising against a corrupt and repressive president [Yanukovych],” while to the Russians “a legitimately elected president was ousted by a mob underwritten by the United States and Europe.”  He says “the truth of either position really doesn’t matter,” pointing instead to the overriding geopolitical reality that Ukraine is important to Russia.   In contrast, Conn Hallinan, in “Ukraine: Close to the Edge,”[1] quotes Friedman as saying that the overthrow of Yanukovych was “the most blatant coup in history.”  If Hallinan has correctly quoted Friedman, it would have served readers of Flashpoints for Friedman openly to have expressed his assessment.  Surely, instead of “not mattering,” it is of monumental importance if the United States and Europe are engaged in conquest by subversion.  This is an issue that applies to many places other than just to Ukraine.

b.  As to aphorisms, it would seem nothing more than catchy wordplay when Friedman says about Hitler that “Hitler believed nothing, so he was free to believe anything.”  This tells us more about Friedman, who apparently thinks someone “believes nothing” if he doesn’t hold to a particular religion or worldview that Friedman holds but doesn’t disclose, than it does about Hitler. 

Friedman generalizes that “as you get older you realize that the most elegant solution is likely to be wrong.”   He may well be right, but we are led to reflect on how much it runs counter to Occam’s Razor, the scientific preference for the simpler solution.   

We are puzzled by the generalization that “nations do not choose to engage in an assertive foreign policy.  Circumstances force them to do so.”  This ignores quite a lot of history, including some that is very current.  Have circumstances forced the United States into intervening in Somalia, Kosovo, Libya, Iraq, Ukraine, or Syria? 

Friedman’s statement that “the Russo-Georgian war revealed the impotence of NATO” seems oddly disproportionate for two reasons.  NATO intervention there would have been so quixotic that no one could reasonably have expected it.  (The idea of such intervention reminds us of England’s empty 1939 guarantee to Poland as against Hitler.)  Moreover, NATO’s failure to intervene in Georgia tells us nothing about whether it is impotent for the defense of Europe. 

Friedman strives for an aphorism when he writes, about the slaughter in World War I, that “death ceased to be tragic.  When tens of thousands die in a day, it becomes banal.”  This sounds good, but soars far above reality.  Are we to believe that the death of each individual soldier was not felt by his loved ones, regardless of how many other families suffered?   

c.  Several matters are treated with surprising shallowness, and sometimes with an evident lack of knowledge. 

He tells us that “Marxist philosophy was the summation of the Enlightenment.”  As with the comment about Hitler’s “knowing nothing,” this informs us more about Friedman’s own anti-Enlightenment views than it does about the Enlightenment.  It is as though much of modern thought, such as modern science and the classical liberalism that has served as the underlay for so much of American history, have scarcely counted.[2] 

He mentions the Ukrainian famine of 1932-3 (now called the Holodomor) and explains it by saying that it occurred when Stalin “raised funds from the export of their grain.”  It would hardly be possible to give a more frivolous account of a famine in which millions died and Stalin sent in thousands of cadres to probe people’s yards to find any food they’d hidden in an effort to stay alive. 

Speaking of Hitler again, Friedman says Hitler knew he had the tools “to conquer the world.”  To ascribe that aspiration to him contradicts what is known about Hitler’s desire to ally with Britain and preserve the British empire.  (In contrast, Friedman doesn’t join the fashion of caricaturing Hitler.  He says “Hitler was an intellectual… in the sense that he lived within his own mind, a self-taught man,” albeit “with idiosyncratic observations of the world.”) 

Friedman does adhere to fashion, however, when he argues that the Holocaust was “unique.”  “What made [it] unique was that it had no plausible military purpose….”  This doesn’t hold up under examination.  We need merely think of Mao’s deliberate starvation of thirty million people in his Great Leap Forward, of Stalin’s atrocities, of Pol Pot’s.  None of those would seem to have had a military purpose.

One of the most important strategic issues during World War II was whether the western Allies should attack Germany by going up through the Balkans, as Churchill wanted to, to get to eastern Europe before the Red Army, or should attack Normandy, as Stalin and Roosevelt wanted to.  The reality “on the ground” was that if the Red Army got to eastern Europe first, Stalin would have it under his power (no matter what promises he would be making at Yalta).  Friedman shows his awareness of this when he says “Who controlled Europe’s fate depended on where the armies on each side had stopped.”  Just the same, he doesn’t see how this applies to the Balkans strategy when he says “Britain preferred an indirect attack, through Italy and Yugoslavia, both to preserve their forces and guarantee control of the Mediterranean.”  The reason he gives for Stalin’s wanting control over eastern Europe was that Stalin wanted “a massive forward deployment”  because he “could not be sure of American intentions.”  These explanations of Churchill and Stalin’s motives  leave out entirely the existence of a struggle for and against Communism as an expansionist totalitarian ideology.[3]

4.  An important thing to notice about any book is what it leaves out.  We have noted that, despite the book’s title, Friedman hardly deals with “flashpoints” and “borderlands.”  If he had done so as he looks ahead to Europe’s future, he might well have mentioned an issue that is now buried but that has explosive potential: that of Germany’s eastern border, which at the end of World War II was moved west almost to Berlin (as well as of Poland’s eastern border, which was also moved west).  This issue will remain buried only so long as Germany remains acquiescent.  Another flashpoint he omits is the Arab/Israeli standoff.  Since this is arguably “outside Europe,” Friedman may have thought it outside the scope of his book.  That seems ill-advised, however, because Europe is, and will be, greatly affected by what happens there.


Such praise as we have given to Flashpoints has been seriously conditioned.   If readers will gain from its strengths and not be affected by its flaws, they will find it good reading.


Dwight D. Murphey

[1]   Conn Hallinan, “Ukraine: Close to the Edge,” on Counterpunch.com, July 30, 2015.

[2]   Rather than being the apex of the Enlightenment, the Left and Right wing branches of Hegelianism (left-wing class-struggle theory of which Marxism was the leading proponent, and right-wing racial-struggle theory) were parts of the alienated revolt against the “bourgeois” society that rose out of the Enlightenment.  It should be noted that in the analysis of modern history, those who identify with the medievalist “old regime” (as championed in the eighteenth century by Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson, and more recently by others such as Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk) see a two-way division, consisting of the “old regime” on the one hand and everything modern on the other.  This causes them to see Marxism and classical liberalism as sharing the same origins.  In contrast to this, it makes sense to see, instead, a tripartite division: (1) the exponents of the old regime; (2) the main modern society, with its many characteristics that included commercial culture, science, industry, the “bourgeoisie,” and the institutions of a “liberal” social order; and (3) the “alienation of the intellectual” that has set so much of the tone of modern life and that saw, among other things, the rise of the Left as the intelligentsia (so to speak) sought allies first with the “proletariat” and after World War II with all unassimilated or disaffected minorities.  This way of seeing things perceives Marxism and classical liberalism as enemies, not as extensions from the same roots.

[3]   This is characteristic of the thinking of “foreign affairs realists,” to whom the struggle of nation-states in asserting their interests is central and who minimize the role of ideology.  Friedman’s observations as quoted in the text give us an excellent example of that school of thought.