I will start with Zeihan’s method and professional bias, and then move to his observations.
Zeihan is an American geographer, who used to be a chief researcher at Stratfor, the geo-political analysis firm. The geographer’s deformation professionelle is that material factors of mountain range, rivers, plains, and harbours explain nearly everything about a how a society develops in the long term, and demography explains nearly everything else. Thus you can read books by Zeihan or George Friedman ( The Next Decade, the Next 100 Years) and never read about culture or religion.
This leaves me somewhat at a loss to sympathize with their world view. After all, speaking as a culturalist and a sky-hooker, this approach devalues what I think are the primary drivers of society. On the other hand, the emphasis on material factors which shape a culture, and the opportunities a culture is able to find for itself as a result, is bracing.
Zeihan’s argument proceeds as follows.
- America has been endowed with enormous natural advantages in terms of climate, available harbours, enormous riverine transport abilities, several thousand miles of isolation from potential enemies, huge areas contiguous to rivers that allow easy agriculture, and as much energy as it needs.
- The Bretton Woods agreements at the end of World War 2 said, in essence, that the US Navy would protect all maritime transport, thus obviating the need for nations to build navies to protect shipping, and opened the United States as a market to the signatories to the Agreements. At the end of WW2, the US was by far the most significant market. Thus countries were allowed to export their way out of the calamitous ruin of war. These agreements have been maintained by the US and its navy. Since 1945, says Zeihan, much of the world has been spared the need to fear their neighbours.
- The stability of these arrangements has been threatened by the baby-bust that started around 1965. Industrialized countries are experiencing aging as never before. What hit Japan a decade ago will hit us all soon enough, with the significant exception of the United States. Consumer market expansion in Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, Belgium, Canada, Italy, Russia, Spain, Korea, the Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa, Norway, Denmark, Portugal and Finland will have ceased.
- According to Zeihan, if these societies are no longer consuming en masse, “then much of what limited economic rationale exists for Bretton Woods disappears from the American point of view”.
- Capital, which is now abundant and therefore cheap, will become much more scarce and expensive.
- At the same time the United States is approaching energy self-sufficiency through the exploitation of shale oil technologies. This development will further insulate the United States from the world and increase its lack of interest in managing the world’s conflicts. Zeihan foresees that sooner or later, gradually or suddenly, the United States will shift into an isolationist political period. The relatively stable world created by the Bretton Woods framework will disappear and history will resume in its violent and chaotic ways.
- China will fall apart. Conflicts will resume within Europe. The European Union will dissolve. Russia in in ireversible economic decline. Naval competition will resume. Wars, famines, pestilence, state failure: he predicts it all for the period 2015-2030. At the end of which, the United States will emerge more pre-eminent than ever.
You do not have to believe a word of it to benefit from Zeihan’s bracing and fact-based analysis.
I think Zeihan underestimates the interest that Americans have in a stable world order. I think he underestimates the connectedness of the US to the rest of the world, by any and all means: disease, drugs, the damage of wars, trade, ideologies, immigration, and sympathy for the afflicted.
Nevertheless, Zeihan’s emphasis on demographics and energy is productive. Demographics affords a powerful insight into the near future. Enormous changes are being inflicted upon the world by changed reproductive patterns, by the decisions taken by billions of women not to have as many children. There is no population boom; that stopped around 1965, before most of the readers of this column were born, I venture to say. World population decline is the largest fact affecting the world in the 21st century. “Gaia’s Revenge” ought to be its title – but that would be my book, not Zeihan’s.