Saturday, November 16, 2019

Book Review: 'Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World' by Peter Zeihan

Disunited Nations is a remarkable attempt summarize every major nation’s future, determined by its location, geography, its past and present. Peter Zeihan of Strafor has laid it all out in a straightforward and shocking manner. It is scathing, brutal, honest, and to at least some extent, correct.

Underlying everything in Disunited Nations is the Order. The Order is what the United States imposed following World War II. It was meant to ally everyone against the Soviets, but it imposes peaceful transport by sea and air all over the world. The US could do this because it represented half the production of the world at that point, when most of the industrialized nations were in ruins. It did it without knowing or understanding the side effects it would produce. It allowed Europe to unite for the first time – without war. It allowed Japan to look outward for the first time peacefully, and become a world power without bloodshed. Most importantly, it allowed goods to be traded, which multiplied economies and standards of living worldwide, taking billions out of poverty and making the comfortable unprecedentedly wealthy. It even allowed rogue nations to build themselves up through world trade. No more, Zeihan says.

The United States is tiring of maintaining the Order. It is pulling back from being the world’s policeman. It’s navy, down by about 40%, is no longer capable of maintaining open oceans globally. NATO is brain-dead, according President Macron. The USA itself doesn’t really need the rest of the world, having everything it (thinks it) needs at home. As the Order dissipates, what will replace it? Zeihan thinks he knows. But even if he doesn’t, it is tremendous food for thought.

First, there is a terrific exploration of all the contradictions and hypocrisy in America’s foreign policy. The messages it sends confuse not only the rest of the world, but its own citizens, businesspeople and corporations. Without detailing all Zeihan’s endless (valid) examples, let me just point out that Mort Sahl said “Anyone who holds a consistent foreign policy stance in this country must eventually be tried for treason,” in 1964. It has only gotten far worse.

Zeihan has a breezy style, with all kinds of snide remarks and asides to brighten a grim future. In writing about an alternative to the US dollar as the global reserve currency, he says: “If there’s one thing the whole world agrees on, it is that the British should never be in charge of anything ever again.”  On the importance of food security: “Anyone sufficiently arrogant to think the poor will simply starve in silence has a particularly weak grasp of not only biology, but history.”  And he loves to break up a miserable description with the line: ”It is worse than it sounds.” And then expand on the true ugliness of it. He also likes to turn maps on their sides, giving a totally different perspective to positioning, neighbors, and access. Not everything is straight up and down.

The closest thing to a common denominator in what will take nations down is their demographics. Too few younger people supporting too many older ones. The extreme is China where they did it on purpose, but Japan, Germany and the USA are already suffering its consequences today. For many countries, it will be fatal, he thinks.

Zeihan believes China is not only going nowhere, it will break up, and sooner than later. “The country has less farmland per person than Saudi Arabia,” he says in one of his many clear and shocking examples. Its energy demand is off the charts. So is its financial health, but in the other direction. Its navy is not capable of straying from its shore, let alone protecting sea lanes outside India, Indonesia and Vietnam, among others it has annoyed with its arrogance and demands. Looking at China’s history, he says it will simply revert to the mean. And that’s not pretty. As he puts it: “China will suffer a cataclysmic flameout every bit as impressive as its rise to power.”

Saudi Arabia is a much bigger threat than China. It doesn’t care who it offends, and seeks to create chaos all around itself to keep itself secure. Chaos in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are examples where the Saudis want nothing to do with peace breaking out. They are also trying it in Qatar and of course Iran. As a medieval monarchy, it is totally paranoid. It won’t even let citizens be in its military, hiring mercenaries instead. And lest anyone forget, it loves sending terrorists out to say, take down the World Trade Center.

It is around this time you begin to wonder how right Zeihan is. Saudi Arabia is projected to consume as much energy in air conditioning as it sells in oil by 2030. This will cripple its economy, which is already phony. The country relies almost entirely on near slavery for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to keep its infrastructure going. No one with a future stays there. Its human rights record is atrocious, and the only allies it has aren’t even in the middle east. They’re petroleum customers. Is it really going to thrive going forward?

Zeihan sees Russia ending as badly and as soon as China. Too many fronts, too long a border, and too little internal investment augur very badly if the (dis)Order makes trade difficult.

He thinks Argentina is beautifully placed and endowed to dominate South America as Brazil implodes due to complications in its geography and endemic corruption. But Argentina is a basket case facing bankruptcy once again. In the new disOrder, how will it rise, thrive and take over?

He thinks Germany is toast – right now. It has doomed itself, while France is on the rise, on the way to becoming the sole and dominant power in Europe. It has the biggest and best armed forces, natural endowments to keep food supplies secure, and can team up with the USA better than anyone in the world. But will the EU survive France?

Canada, on the other hand, is now irrelevant to the US, and is being set adrift. It has been replaced by Mexico as the America’s biggest trading partner, and is no longer key to a missile defense system the US doesn’t believe it will ever need. He says the US spent a century leaning on Canada for intelligence and support against their common allies and enemies. Now the US doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, so Canada’s assistance is of no value.

Turkey will rise as a regional power, taking over the Black Sea area and at least all of Cyprus and maybe Lebanon, as Russia retreats in advance of its total collapse. In the new disOrder, Turkey will escort all shipping (for a huge fee) as it transits from the Mediterranean, something it cannot do in the Order.

But despite all the truly fascinating research and analysis, the predictions of his models miss the biggest threat to everyone – climate change. It is not until page 329 (in reference to models of the Sahara) that he makes its one mention. Incredibly to me, he doesn’t take into account the inevitable wars and mass migration as whole nations go under water. He doesn’t account for Canada’s unbeatable stocks of fresh clean water that a parched desert in the USA will be desperate for when the Ogallala Reservoir is totally drained. France is already suffering double digit declines in food production from drought and severe weather. Nor does Zeihan account for the diversion of trillions of dollars as every nation tries to fend off the effects of climate change, if only in disaster relief following ever more severe weather events. Instead, he posits the importance of Caribbean islands to the US in its much-reduced sphere of influence to protect itself without consideration for the rest of the world. But will those island nations even be there? This is a huge and fatal omission in all his modeling.

And yet. What it all means is that even if Trump is removed or replaced, the world will not revert to a saved restore point. Things will continue to deteriorate, as per the second law of thermodynamics, and the claims Zeihan makes are what they will revolve about. It’s complicated, and Disunited Nations presents it in an accessible and compelling, if incomplete survey.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. He is the author of The Straight Dope or What I learned from my first thousand nonfiction reviewsLike what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.