by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis (Penguin Press, 320 pp., $27)
How does a society get to dystopia? Do Stalinists take over through force and doublespeak, as in George Orwell’s 1984? Does conscienceless science drug people into pseudo-happiness, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? Does digital technology manage to plug everyone into the “metaverse” of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash?
Farther afield from the mainstream high school reading list, does mankind’s sperm count inexplicably drop to zero, producing the hopeless childlessness of P. D. James’ Children of Men (set, forebodingly, in 2021)? Or does dystopia come about simply because America does nothing, and just lets the tides of history erode its foundations while its rivals grow stronger?
2034: A Novel of the Next World War by James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, and Elliot Ackerman is not marketed as a contribution to the dystopian canon. It is described on the book jacket as a “chillingly authentic geopolitical thriller,” and that’s exactly how it reads. The authors have analogized war in 2034 as a kind of modern-day Dr. Strangelove, and they portray an apocalyptic conflict between two 21st-century superpowers—the United States and the People’s Republic of China.
But Stavridis, who has previously served as NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and Ackerman, a bestselling author and former Marine, are exceptionally qualified to forecast such a conflict. They have delivered a futurist vision of dystopia and a warning about how we could well get there. Without corrective American action, they warn, the road to a truly awful future is shorter than we’d like to think.
The book contains hints as to what could happen in the next thirteen years. America has had a one-term President. The current Commander-in-Chief, a woman—unnamed—is the first American President “unaffiliated with a political party in modern history.” Those wondering why the qualifier “modern” is needed might remember 1841, when American President John Tyler was similarly unaffiliated—because the Whigs had expelled him. But this time it’s different. The problem is that both major parties have collapsed: America’s political system has been crippled by Vladimir Putin, now in his eighties and still ruling Russia.
Meanwhile, India has won a decisive ten-day war against Pakistan. In Afghanistan, the Kabul-based government—the last one—has fallen. Iran has joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative; in 2030 it led the successful assault that took the Golan Heights back from Israel.
In short, there have been plenty of events in global affairs on which the pundits can pontificate. But what role has America played in the action?
One proactive step the United States has taken, in addition to playing an undefined military role in the “liberation of Venezuela,” is to build a 10G cable network through the diminishingly icy Arctic Ocean. The system is vulnerable and of little use. And while politicians vacillate, the U.S. Navy continues to conduct freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea thousands of miles away.
U.S. foreign policy, riven by internal politics, has been rudderless and unable to commit to a long-term strategy, but Beijing’s plans have taken shape. China’s claims on one of the world’s most important waterways have become broader and more militant, putting the U.S. Navy’s patrols in danger; and the regional balance of power has tilted decidedly in China’s favor, in good part because the rules of the game have changed. China’s offensive cyber weapons now allow it to shut down communications, disable GPS systems, and override the controls on far-distant F-35s. While China was developing these offensive cyber capabilities, the United States was investing in increasingly sophisticated technologies—all of which are fragile and serve little purpose in the actual combat of the 2030s.
Even India, whose rise and role are among the book’s fascinating aspects, seems to have gained a cyber edge over the hapless America. Worse yet, America has no idea that it has lost its advantage and, therefore, has no plan to respond if challenged. When confronted by a larger and more capable Chinese navy on the high seas, a crippled American fleet can hardly get off a shot.
The near-retired U.S. Navy officer who leads her nation’s frontline forces knows she is outmatched in these new domains. She realizes that the “way to defeat technology isn’t with more technology. It’s with no technology.” So, her pilots strip the latest instruments off their planes. They relearn how to navigate by the stars.
Hostilities quickly escalate, and events spiral out of control.
The book is a hard read because the real-world stakes are high and the unfolding dystopia it presents is plausible, even if the bipartisan awakening to the China challenge makes it unlikely that the United States of the next thirteen years will be as feckless as the one hypothesized in 2034. But the quality and thrilling style of the writing make the read quick, and a few moments are even uplifting. Major Chris Mitchell’s story as a fourth-generation U.S. pilot–he’s nicknamed “Wedge,” after the world’s oldest and simplest tool, because he’s so old-fashioned—is a throwback to an older patriotic heroism, and he’s one of the best developed characters.
More, the authors’ own old-fashioned commitment to the American idea gives the book a thin ray of hope. That American idea attracts friends and even enemies to its way of life and the freedom and equality it promises. The idea is a powerful one; and, as one of the book’s characters reflects, “Ideas very seldom vanish.” The future the book presents, debated by two of the characters, isn’t inevitable; it’s tragic.
How, then, did we get to a dystopia of a world that’s missing America as we know it? Ackerman and Stavridis’ final answer returns to Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum address: “If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”
Because we are a nation of free men and women, the events of the thirteen years until America reaches 2034 are not written in stone. They need not be tragic. Whether they will be is very much still within America’s power, if its people have the will to continue striving to make good on its promise for a new generation.
Wilson Shirley served as a speechwriter to the secretary of state in the Office of Policy Planning from 2020 to 2021 and is a former U.S. Senate staffer.
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