Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World

Peter Zeihan writes in this 2020 book:

* The United States’ Report Card
BORDERS: Lakes, mountains, forests, deserts, and vast ocean moats surrounding the best agricultural lands and largest waterway network on the planet. Nowhere else on Earth does a territory have such a beneficial balance of good lands with great standoff distance. Americans spend little on territorial defense, freeing their military to project out .
RESOURCES: Nearly two centuries of industrialization have heavily tapped out a continent of bounty, but new technological breakthroughs continue to surprise. The most recent surprise—the shale revolution—has made the country a net oil and natural gas exporter.
DEMOGRAPHY: The American Baby Boomers—the country’s largest generation ever—are nearing mass retirement, generating a painful financial crunch. But American Boomers had kids. Lots of them. America’s Millennials may be a pain, but their numbers may just save us all. *gulp*
MILITARY MIGHT: The most powerful projection-based military in world history. With the Order ending, it has . . . nothing to do.
ECONOMY: The American economy isn’t simply the world’s largest and most diversified economic system; it is the least dependent upon the outside world for its health. The world needs the American economy to survive, not vice versa.
OUTLOOK: The Americans excel at missing opportunities due to domestic squabbling, but there is nothing in what’s left of the international system that will threaten the American heartland either militarily or economically before 2050.
IN A WORD: Detached.

* China’s Report Card
BORDERS: Vast emptiness to the west, jungles to the south, nuclear powers to the north and southwest, and superior maritime powers to the east. China doesn’t so much secure its borders as manage them the best it can.
RESOURCES: China didn’t get really serious about industrializing until the 1970s, so its local resources were all tapped more or less at once. That served China well . . . until now. China is on the verge of running out—of everything.
DEMOGRAPHY: Oy! Breakneck urbanization combined with Maoist population controls gutted the Chinese birthrate for decades. The one bright spot is that China’s demographics are not the worst in the world. Yet.
MILITARY MIGHT: China is BIG and its military is modernizing quickly, but that doesn’t mean its military is well suited to the challenges of today. Or tomorrow.
ECONOMY: The Chinese system is both highly leveraged and highly dependent upon international trends it cannot shape or preserve. Every system that has followed China’s path has crashed. So too will China.
OUTLOOK: Only Russia has worse relations with its neighbors. When the Order ends, everything that has made China successful will end with it and no one will reach out with a helping hand.
IN A WORD: Overhyped.

* Japan’s Report Card
BORDERS: Japan’s island geography provides covetable standoff distance from the region’s major land power, China. But the archipelagic nature of Japan has made intraregional connectivity costly and difficult.
RESOURCES: The most resource-poor of the world’s major powers, Japan is also located at the very end of several major supply lines. The Japanese import nearly all their energy. No potent navy, no modernized Japan.
DEMOGRAPHY: It’s not just the monarchy of Japan that’s the world’s oldest. Japan’s population is also aging, with 28 percent over age sixty-five.
MILITARY MIGHT: On paper, Japan doesn’t have a military. In reality, they are close training partners with the United States military and possess the most capable indigenous navy in Asia, arguably the second best in the world.
ECONOMY: Japan was once one of the most globally exposed industrial economies, but Japan has been in the rare position of having the capital to face its challenges head-on. The Japanese have invested heavily in automation to offset a shrinking labor pool, and have moved much of their supply chains offshore.
OUTLOOK: The Japanese have the capital, navy, technological know-how, and geographic insulation to step into the space left by a retreating United States better than any other regional power. They also don’t have a choice.
IN A WORD: Jefe.

* Russia’s Report Card
BORDERS: Russia’s borders are long and impossible to defend, prompting the Russians to endlessly expand outward until they hit significant geographic or military resistance.
RESOURCES: Russia is a huge producer of oil and natural gas, and its vast geographies sustain massive mining and even more massive grain production. Much of this activity is seasonal; most Russian territory vacillates between frozen and swampy.
DEMOGRAPHY: The horrific Soviet legacy and the post-Soviet birthrate collapse have fused with skyrocketing mortality fueled by alcoholism, heart disease, violence, tuberculosis, and HIV. Russia is suffering through a complete, multivector, unstoppable demographic collapse.
MILITARY MIGHT: Russia still invests heavily in defense, though much of the hardware is showing its age. Thirty-plus-year-old submarines and an aircraft carrier that habitually catches fire, but impressive tanks and aircraft and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal—Russia’s kit may be old, but it still packs a punch.
ECONOMY: Sanctions and an overreliance on commodity exports have made Russia struggle since the Soviet fall, but Russian geography never supported a successful, industrialized economy.
OUTLOOK: Russia is an aging, insecure, former power determined to make a last stand before it is incapable of doing so. American disengagement from the global scene couldn’t have come at a better time, but the reactivation of Russia’s traditional local foes couldn’t have come at a worse one.
IN A WORD: Panicked.

* Germany’s Report Card
BORDERS: There are few significant buffers between Germany and its western, eastern, and northern neighbors.
RESOURCES: The greatest concentration of wealth-generating navigable internal waterways in the world, the most efficient manufacturing and production systems in the world, and the best trained labor force in the world. But jack for actual physical resources.
DEMOGRAPHY: Old! So very ooooold! One of the grayest and fastest-graying populations in the world, Germany’s population is too old to consume the goods its industrial sector produces, creating a dependency on exports.
MILITARY MIGHT: Germany makes excellent tanks, diesel submarines, and electronic surveillance equipment. Unfortunately for Germany (but not Poland or Belgium or anyone else), decades of reliance on NATO and being hamstrung by the Second World War and the Cold War have left it a paper panzer.
ECONOMY: The entire German economy is predicated on leveraging its manufacturing sector to push high-quality exported goods to a globalized consumer base. In a post-Order world this will not work. At all.
OUTLOOK: Few countries are more dependent on the American-led global Order. Germany’s best backup plan—the European Union—is already falling apart. Germany needs a new way of doing things. Or an old one.
IN A WORD: Outdated.

* From a geopolitical point of view, nationalism’s defining characteristic is its capacity to better harness national power. Medieval feudalism splits capacity among the royals, the nobles, and the peasantry, with loyalty within and among the three largely determined by a system of bribes and threats. It works, but is wildly inefficient. In contrast, nationalism fuses ethnic identity directly to a centralized governing system, both eliminating the middleman and making loyalty part of the governing rationale. Such organizational slimming funnels more resources—financial and labor, in particular—to the one government that rules it all.
Nationalism took root quickly, in no small part because France’s rivers enabled the quick transmission of ideas. A single horrific bloodbath to annihilate the economic and political classes of the medieval order and France was off to the races.
The question quickly became what to do with all those newly concentrated resources. Nationalism suggests the answer. Because the nation-state is rooted in ethnicity, not everyone qualifies as “people.” Sitting not-so-comfortably on the other side of the twentieth century, you probably see where this is going. Nationalism might make for a much more powerful, capable, inclusive, and accountable state than feudalism, but it also makes it excruciatingly easy to march to war.
Empowered by the social technology of nationalism, France was the most consolidated, stable, mobilized, and potent country of the early 1800s. In contrast, the rest of Europe was politically shattered, emotionally demoralized, and in many cases militarily incompetent. Napoléon Bonaparte wielded the merger of ethnic and government interests against his unsuspecting foes like a flamethrower against soccer hooligans. In a few short years, France’s citizen armies had either conquered or forced alliance upon every country on the North European Plain, as well as Italy and Iberia, and stood at the gates of Moscow itself.
Yet the French bid didn’t simply fail, it failed catastrophically . Which brings us to the first lesson of French power: even when France has its ducks rowed up and everyone else has gone fishing, the geography of Europe—the endless Northern European Plain, the variety of highlands and peninsulas and islands—means France can never win.

* While only about 13 percent of the US economy is dependent upon imports and 8 percent on exports, the total trade flow in and out of the United States still amounts to about $4.3 trillion in commercial involvement. Total Latin American non -commodity trade is another $2.3 trillion.

* In a world of Disorder, the power balance in the Canadians’ disfavor is extreme. Working purely on population and economic strength and completely leaving aside issues of military capacity and reach, the United States outweighs Canada by a ratio of roughly ten to one. Other similarly lopsided power balances around the world include India v. Bangladesh, Japan v. Taiwan, China v. Vietnam, Brazil v. Bolivia, and Germany v. Denmark.

* Brazil’s choice is a direct, brutal one. Encourage those American business interests—the sole source of the capital that Brazil so desperately needs—and risk the country spinning apart as local oligarchs seize operational control. Or bar the Americans, and descend into such poverty that the country becomes a riotous mass. Such options feel almost . . . Chinese.

* straightforward. The nature of the Israeli state will determine future American-Israeli relations. Ever since occupying the Palestinian territories after wars in 1967 and 1973, the Israelis have wrestled with an internal, existential debate: Is Israel a democracy, a Jewish state, or should it directly control all occupied lands? So far, Israel has mostly managed all three, but demographics are swinging the argument. Higher birthrates among both the occupied Palestinians and deeply conservative Orthodox Jews means that by 2030 an enlarged Israel will be a Jewish-minority state that will not even want to converse with the Palestinians, much less grant political or territorial concessions.
The only possible outcome is a social and security management system that makes Apartheid look progressive. Apartheid South Africa enabled the country’s black population to hold jobs in white-run zones but refused integration or political rights. In contrast, in Israel the Palestinians are kept permanently in what have become massive open-air prisons.
For Americans with a sense of history or ethics or national security, this is, at best, problematic for bilateral relations. Add that Americans under age fifty have no memory of Israel battling for its life in the wars of the 1950s to 1970s, and it’s easy for the American polity to view Israel as aggressor and occupier rather than plucky upstart.
Even before economics, distance, and time suck some of the venom out of American-Iranian relations, Israel’s coming evolution means there is no way forward for Israel in which US-Israeli relations strengthen. The increasingly racial and religious diversification of the American political scene will only hasten this evolution in perceptions. The rise of American populism, particularly on the political left, has brought the questioning of the ethics of Israeli security policy into the American political mainstream, and there it will stay.
Such shifts in American perceptions do not present Israel with an imminent threat. The Israeli military is among the world’s most competent, and the threats to Israel are manageable. Jordan already is a satellite state. Egypt and Saudi Arabia already are de facto allies. Lebanon and Syria already are teetering on the edge of failed-state status. The Palestinians are already boxed up. Post-Order Turkey already has a cool, businesslike partnership with Israel that soon will likely include joint management of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The only country with the capacity to take military action against a worse-than-Apartheid Israel for moral reasons would be the United States, and the Americans need to work from their current attachment to Israel to neutrality before they might even theoretically flip to hostility. That mental evolution would take at least a decade or two. Israel may become defined by attributes that are normally associated with pariah states, but without American leadership, international institutions like the United Nations are not likely to continue anyway. Being a pariah doesn’t mean what it used to.
For the duration of the Disorder, Israel will be left alone—even if supporters of liberal democracy don’t necessarily like what they see.

* The “America First” of the hard right is reflexively hostile to the world. The “America First” of the hard left is reflexively hostile to American involvement in the world. The “America First” of the middle just finds the world exhausting.
In all three versions, however, Americans believe that the world is not their problem and that America’s military strength will keep the world from hurting them.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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