In the 1990s, William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted a “Fourth Turning” around 2020, meaning the final reordering of a once-in-a-generation global order. Their thesis is not necessarily pessimistic, although a “positive” resolution is not guaranteed. Either way, their thesis is inconvenient to progressives, who promise linear progress, not generational cycles.
By 2022, given the pandemic, inflation, civil disorder, Russian aggression, Iranian covert actions, Chinese imperialism, and the “woke” assault on Western Civilization itself, Western readers are surely more receptive to cyclical theories.
Peter Zeihan’s new book focuses on the decline of “the American-led order.” America’s relative military power (particularly naval) fails to keep up with challenges, so global trade declines. Meanwhile, aging populations make more demands on government revenues, while low fertility produces fewer workers to generate those revenues.
It’s a familiar warning. Zeihan’s appeal lies in his promise to tell you what comes next.
Zeihan describes himself in this book as “a sort of hybrid public speaker/consultant (the fancy marketing term is geopolitical strategist).” Zeihan is a great public speaker. He came to my attention when he was debating Ian Bremmer on Sam Harris’ podcast. (This was before Harris’ unhinged description of Trump as more evil than Osama bin Laden, when I unsubscribed.)
In response to Bremmer’s pseudo-academic and partisan optimism and incrementalism, Zeihan came across as evidentiary and measured. By contrast, the book is anecdotal and egocentric in substance, and sensationalist and colloquial in style. Sometimes Zeihan is foul-mouthed. Sometimes he is so grammatically creative as to become indecipherable.
Zeihan’s cardinal data are unreliable, such as his estimate of 40 million dead during Mao’s cultural revolution. The book on Maoism that I reviewed last week gave an upper bound of 8 million.
Zeihan’s qualitative observations are also unreliable. For instance, he traces the cultural revolution back to “China’s process centraliz[ing] power so firmly in so few hands.” In fact, Mao urged Chinese everywhere to take matters into their own hands. Mao centralized afterwards, to restore order.
The latter half of Zeihan’s book is less anecdotal. It becomes an encyclopedia of information on currencies, fossil fuels, metals, and ships.
The graphs and tables increase in frequency. Inexplicably, the typesetter squeezed most graphs into a third of a page each, so that legends and lines (in grayscale) become indistinguishable (although you can access them in color on Zeihan’s website). In any case, Zeihan hardly refers to the graphics, leaving them meaningless to the layperson.
The book often reminds me of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. It was a best seller in 2005, thanks to Friedman’s friends in journalism and progressive politics. Oh, how we suffered in the foreign policy community, while well-meaning know-nothings threw this book around as if it were profound! Yes, communications are faster. Well noted, Thomas, but spare us another hundred anecdotes of “evidence.” Friedman’s promise that globalization would deliver ever more peace and prosperity looks preposterous now. It should have looked preposterous then, but it was politically convenient.
Thus, you should appreciate the irony of Zeihan choosing Friedman’s preposterous style to forecast the decline of globalization. Both books are long-winded and overbearing. Each asserts an obvious trend. Each is sensationalist. Take this sentence, on Zeihan’s third page:
In order to cement their new [Cold War] coalition, the Americans also fostered an environment of global security so that any partner could go anywhere, anytime, interface with anyone, in any economic manner, participate in any supply chain and access any material inputs—all without needing a military escort.
Really? Anyone, anytime, anywhere, without military escort?
I know that Zeihan knows this isn’t true, because, hundreds of pages later, Zeihan describes maritime piracy.
Zeihan’s ill-discipline, flamboyance, repetitiveness, and airiness explain why this book goes beyond 500 pages (despite no citations). I can’t imagine the median reader finishing it. If the chapters on finance don’t finish them off, the chapters on industrial materials will—long before the chapters on agricultural products.
To his credit, Zeihan is emphatic on broad changes, albeit within tedious, ungrammatical hyperbole.
Since 1945, the world has been the best it has ever been. The best it will ever be. Which is a poetic way of saying this era, this world—our world—is doomed. The 2020s will see a collapse of consumption and production and investment and trade almost everywhere.
Zeihan should be credited, too, for challenging a few progressive tropes. For instance, he estimates that green technologies won’t “shave more than a dozen or so percentage points off fossil fuel demand,” even where geography and climate are most conducive. Zeihan also predicts the end of the Euro and thence the European Union.
Otherwise, the book dissatisfies. From the start, Zeihan promises insight into “the geographies of success.” However, his “geographies of success” reduce to natural barriers and big rivers. As a generalization about the ancient world, this sounds fair, but his applications don’t work. For instance, he dismisses Ireland’s chances, and champions England’s, because of Ireland’s “rugged interior.” In fact, both interiors are lush, fertile, free of mountains, and no more than 60 miles from coastal communications. England is more exposed to invasion than is Ireland.
Zeihan admits none of these facts. He just moves on from water power to wind power, as if wind power made England. His history of technologies is as simplistic as his history of geography.
Thus, we don’t have confidence in Zeihan’s forecasts of America’s geopolitical security. He expects America to “escape the carnage to come,” largely because it always has. I agree that America is difficult to invade, but Zeihan doesn’t admit that adversaries could terrorize its citizens abroad, launch missiles from other continents, engineer pandemics, interdict its communications, and stoke its revolutionaries.
In economics, Zeihan’s expertise is patchy. His chapters on shipping and fossil fuels are enlightening, but he fails at macroeconomics. He explains the British Empire’s decline in terms of “product dumping” alone. “Product dumping” later becomes one of his reasons for dismissing China’s empire.
On military issues, Zeihan is embarrassingly misinformed. For instance, he writes that “only Japan [other than America] has the technical capacity to act in force” in the Persian Gulf and China’s waters. He expects France to take over the Northern Atlantic and North Sea, while America withdraws into the Western Hemisphere. In fact, Britain has always led NATO’s defense of the northern flank. I cannot imagine Britain and America giving up their cooperation in the Atlantic or Asia.
You don’t need to take my word for it, but I don’t have 500 pages to persuade you. Zeihan does have 500 pages, but gives no argument, evidence, or references to back up his military opinions.
Europe is the region that Zeihan understands least. For instance, take this forecast of how Europe will handle its energy crisis:
The Italians fear they must occupy Libya. The French want to force a deal on Algeria. The Brits are eyeing West Africa. Everyone is right. Everyone is wrong.
Zeihan’s explanation for Brexit is even worse: “the 2007-9 financial crisis emboldened economic and ethnic nationalists to push for separating the kingdom from the European Union.” Hasn’t Zeihan heard of the migrant crisis, the democratic deficit, the unelected executive, the EU’s role in the financial crisis, the EU’s policy of ever-closer integration and expansion?
Zeihan largely ignores politics and society. Nevertheless, he forecasts a period of “deglobalization” and “decivilization,” meaning “a cascade of reinforcing breakdowns that do not simply damage, but destroy, the bedrock of what makes the modern world function.” He expects the non-Western global south to suffer this decivilization, because it lacks “the bits that make advancement stick: increased education levels, a modernized state, a value-added economic system, social progress, industrial development, or technological achievement.”
Zeihan expects America to avoid decivilization. But he doesn’t apply the above criteria to America. By some of the same criteria, America is decivilizing: decreased education attainment; and social regression (e.g., racial and political segregation; and the withdrawal of liberties).
His assumption of American “technological achievement” looks naïve given that most Chinese students choose STEM, while most American teachers treat STEM as racist. His other criteria are maddeningly undefined. What is “a value-added economic system”?
Zeihan refers to “humanity’s demographic turning,” but alas limits it to workers aging into retirement. He does not discuss Strauss’ and Howe’s “Fourth Turning,” which is about intergenerational tensions and ideological shifts. In fact, he doesn’t discuss any ideologies or institutions. For Zeihan, Americans are blessed by their geography and population incline. Chinese are doomed by their geography and population decline. And these factors are so powerful, politics and society needn’t be discussed.
On one page, he warns of “social explosions” resulting from “capitalism without growth.” Yet he doesn’t discuss America’s social explosion of 2020.
Zeihan’s faith in America’s capacity to avoid “social explosions” assumes that America has land and energy to accommodate a growing population, while other societies are shrinking. Again, he looks hundreds of years back for evidence, but does not deal with the disquieting evidence today. He ignores tribulations in the largest and most populous states (California and Texas), where growth is highly localized in a few cities, with all the inevitable urban problems. Their growth is unsustainable. Growth cannot distribute equally, because of shortages of water and energy. Zeihan’s image of an America rich in untapped resources is anachronistic and dangerous.
Zeihan sometimes writes like a progressive propagandist. His promise of American growth relies on unskilled immigrants, particularly from Mexico. He doesn’t balance this promise with any admission of the social, cultural, and fiscal downsides.
I think the root cause is not his politics but his faith in left-leaning weekly magazines. For instance, he describes “the rise of Donald Trump in the Rust Belt as a reaction to the region’s deindustrialization.” Hasn’t Zeihan heard that Trump won 30 states in 2016?
Zeihan dances around American politics, despite making America his core country. Only in the epilogue does he offer a political theory, which is inadequate:
When the Cold War ended, the Americans had the opportunity to do nearly anything. Instead, both on the Left and the Right, we started a lazy descent into narcissistic populism. The presidential election record that brought us Clinton and W. Bush and Obama and Trump and Biden isn’t an aberration, but instead a pattern of active disinterest in the wider world.
I like Zeihan as a speaker. I wanted to like this book. I agree with its pessimism about globalization. Alas, that forecast doesn’t justify 500 pages of hyperbole and misinformation.