Review: Disunited Nations
Review Article: Disunited Nations, The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World by Peter Zeihan, Harper Business, 2020
As an idealist and a liberal, this is the world I would like to see:
The countries of the world unite to combat Global Warming. We address global and regional health challenges. We continue the upward path in combating hunger and pull our fellow humans out of poverty. We avoid war. We strengthen democracy and the rule of law throughout the world. We successfully end racism and dampen the violence born of ethnic and national rivalries. Women everywhere achieve full legal and social equality. We all think of ourselves as “World Citizens.” Our goals for the future can be summarized as liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. “Happiness” not meaning jollity, but as a translation of the Greek concept of eudemonia, meaning human flourishing or prosperity.
This is not the world that Peter Zeihan predicts. Instead of eudemonia he foresees pandemonia.
The world we know is collapsing. …[The global future will be] a disastrous combination of the battle royales and displacements of the 1870s against the economic backdrop of the 1930s. It. Will. Suck.
Unfortunately, I agree with him. He has convinced me.
Here is his thesis: In the aftermath of World War II, Europe was in ruins; the British and French Empires were self-destructing; the Japanese Empire (dubbed the “Co-Prosperity Sphere”) was abandoned and Japan was occupied; China was mired in Civil War. Only two great powers remained — the United States and the Soviet Union. Even before the dust had settled, these two military powers began a globe-spanning competition that we soon dubbed “The Cold War.”
The US-Soviet competition was economic, it was military, and it was geographic. In a way, you could think of it as a global border war. Wherever Soviet influence surfaced, the Americans made every effort to push it back. The Soviets countered by encouraging populist insurgencies in countries under American sway. The “battlefields” included Greece, Italy, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iran, Chile, Korea, and on and on. Milestones included the rapid acquisition of the Atom Bomb by the USSR, the embarrassment of Sputnik, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the triumph of landing a man on the moon, the bloody American defeat in Vietnam, the bloody Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. And, finally, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the break-away of Eastern European States, and the utter collapse of the Soviet Union itself.
Turning my notion of history on its head, Peter Zeihan says that the period between 1945 and today has been the most stable, least bloody, and most economically and socially advanced eras of world history — because of the Cold War.
This is because the United States decided not to retreat to Fortress America, as it had after WWI. Instead, we embarked upon a global campaign of gaining allies through economic and military support. We built our alliances and built-up our allies; we broke down trade barriers and guaranteed the freedom of the seas to all nations — including the USSR and China. We exported food and agricultural technology, and imported finished goods, providing a market for developing and reconstructing nations. We encouraged global health initiatives and backed global institutions (The UN, World Bank, IMF, WHO, UNICEF, UNHCR, etc.). Within a short span of time we succeeded in creating a Global Order, the first in all history.
You could call it the Pax Americana. Zeihan calls it simply The Order. He very persuasively argues that this Order was good for our enemies as well as our allies. And now it is ending. Hence the title of his new book, Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World.
Why is the Global Order disintegrating? Because the Cold War is over and US policymakers no longer care to keep it going. We have been a benign hegemon, offering economic incentives to our friends, and military protections for the status quo throughout the world. This isn’t because we were altruistic, it’s because we didn’t want to fight a huge war, just to have Stalin replace Hitler. In fact, we were scared of Stalin and the global communist movement of which he was the head. But that has all changed. Russian is a hollow adversary. We don’t need to bribe other countries to be on our side. This may sound like a Trump thing, but it represents the new foreign policy consensus. It is simply realpolitik.
This book is full of surprises, partially because Zeihan brings the fresh perspectives of geography and demography to a discussion that has been almost entirely focused on economics, ideology, trade, and technology.
For geography, think about the flat plain that defines central Europe. There are no natural borders to invasion, and European history is replete with stories of conquest and counter-conquest. Compare that to Afghanistan, whose rugged mountains make a successful conquest virtually impossible. Hence its reputation as “the graveyard of empires.”
For demography, think of Japan. With 25% of its population over age 60, Japan is the “oldest” society on the planet. Its birth-per-woman rate is 1.4, far below the population replacement rate of 2.1. It’s population hit a high 0f 128 million in 2010, is projected to hit 100 million in 2050, and 83 million in 2100. From Zeihan: “Japan can now look forward to an ever-rising bill for pensions and health care, an ever-shrinking tax base, and a deepening shortage of workers in every field.” This is a formula for economic disaster.
Switch over to Russia, where the birthrate is 1.6 and that’s just the beginning of the story. From Zeihan:
In addition to Russia’s shrinking demography and loss of the former Soviet territories, rising disease and drug addiction rates mean that the number of bodies available for Russia’s defense is already down to less than one-fifth of what it was in 1989. By 2022, the Russian army will likely have shrunk to half of its 2016 size, making it incapable of defending the old Soviet borders, much less the longer, more vulnerable borders Russia now has.
For me, this is where the big surprises begin. Russia is not a threat or a major competitor to the United States, it is a society in economic and demographic decline. A Paper Bear.
And China is a Paper Tiger. Thanks to the two-child and then one-child policy, China has created a massive imbalance in its male-to-female ratio, and its young worker to senior citizen ratio. Its current birthrate is 1.6. But China’s biggest problem is that it cannot feed its population without vast imports of food. It has less farmland per person than Saudi Arabia! And China does not have enough oil and natural gas to fuel its industrial and residential sectors. China is not the economic powerhouse it paints itself to be. Its books are cooked. Indeed, Zeihan claims that “…the entire Chinese economy [is] a grotesque approximation of Enron in nation-state form.”
As the Order further dissolves, China will find itself unprotected, its access to middle-east oil threatened or cut off, and unable to control the inherent centrifugal forces that have traditionally broken it into pieces.
Demographics and geographics, and the waning of the Order, also portend a very troubling future for Europe. Brexit is just the beginning of its dissolution.
Are there are winners in the twenty-first century? The answer is yes, and some of the potential winners will surprise you.
The big winner is the United States, and with it Canada and Mexico. North America can easily feed itself, it can produce pretty much everything it needs, it has plenty of carbon-based fuel and good potential for renewable energy. It has natural defenses against land invasion — in particular the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. And the US has the world’s most powerful Navy.
Mexico is the largest trading partner for the United States; Canada is second. When you put the three countries together you have the most stable, well-integrated manufacturing system in the world. And it is one that requires almost nothing from the rest of the world.
The one weak point in this system is demography. Like all developed countries, the United States (1.8 births per woman) and Canada (1.6) are on the depopulation path. Mexico, however, is at 2.2 births per woman. The immediate answer to this problem is to rely on immigration — from Mexico, of course, but also from Africa, India and the Middle East. The United States is a nation of immigrants, and so is Canada. Both countries have welcomed or at least allowed very significant numbers to enter their borders year after year, decade after decade. And they have been remarkably successful at integrating these immigrants into the larger society. This is not true for most of the countries in the world.
The United States is not the only potential winner in the post-Order world. There are other countries that combine defensible borders, a strong military, and a population still youthful. These countries could become regional powers as the US military withdraws.
Withdraws? The United States? Most of us on the left think that the US military is permanently embedded in vast areas of the world. Not so:
In the seventh year of George W. Bush’s presidency, the United States initiated a broad global drawdown of its troop levels. That disengagement continued both under Barak Obama and Donald Trump. …the Americans now have fewer troops stationed abroad than at any time since the Great Depression. …The Americans have lost interest in being the global policeman, security guarantor, referee, financier, and market of first and last resort.
If the global referee is off the field, then Turkey is in a very strong position to become a regional hegemon. So is Iran. So is Argentina. And so is France. Zeihan takes these countries one by one, and reviews their geographic, demographic, economic, and military advantages — should they decide to become expansionist.
Consider the US response to Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria in the fall of 2019. The US stood back and allowed our Kurdish allies to be run over by Turkish tanks. How far will Turkey be allowed to proceed in dominating the Eastern Mediterranean? Only time will tell.
Consider our lack of response to France’s military interventions in its former African colonies. Consider our troop withdrawals from Germany. Consider our lack of a protective response to the surprise attack on Saudi Arabia’s huge oil-processing facilities in Abqaiq (September 2019). And consider that the US has allowed supposedly demilitarized Japan to develop the second best navy in the world — far more powerful than China’s — because as we retreat, we expect Japan to ally with South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and other traditional enemies — including India — to keep Chinese ambitions in check (think South China Sea dispute).
So. Peter Zeihan’s new book is strong medicine. His arguments smash my idealism — or what’s been left of it — and foretell a very rough future for most of the nations on earth. It’s realpolitik, straight up, no ice, no chaser.
Current readers may be thinking, well, this sounds like Donald Trump’s foreign policy. And Trump has certainly pursued a “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” line in his relationship with other nations. The “Me” in this phrase could be The Donald personally, or it could be a form of hard-nosed deal-making, or both. I think Zeihan thinks that when Trump’s venality falls away, “What’s in it for us?” will still be the hallmark of US international relations.
My biggest argument with his thesis is demography. He sees population decline as a bad thing, using terms like “humanity’s charge into demographic oblivion.” With the world’s population at 7.8 billion, is a major decline in the world’s primary predators a bad thing? Is it bad for other living species? Is it bad for nature’s balance? Is it bad for the oceans and the Amazon rain-forest? Is it bad for us — us humans — the ones who are choking on our own waste? I don’t think so.
Read it. Or if you don’t want to read it, you can listen to Zeihan himself on YouTube, going country by country, and summarizing his thesis. Zeihan is a terrific writer, truly pithy and pungent. He is an even more powerful speaker.
By Adam Corson-Finnerty
The author and his wife live in Bucks County, PA, where they are hiding from the virus along with their four cats.