CLAIRE BERLINSKI, PARIS
The Absent Superpower: The Shale Revolution and a World Without America, by Peter Zeihan, Ed. Zeihan on Geopolitics, January 1, 2017.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that the world beyond Washington has completely disappeared from American consciousness. The New York Times recently published two genuinely extraordinary stories. In the first, an anonymous Chinese source provided the Times with more than 400 pages of internal documents about the brutal and merciless destruction of the Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang province. In the next, an anonymous Iranian source provided 700 pages of internal intelligence reports about the Iranian takeover of Iraq to The Intercept, which worked with The New York Times to vet and publish them.
Both stories are astonishing, and both were, if briefly, on the front page of The New York Times. But they were not there because—in response to urgent reader demand—American newspapers sent well-funded teams of dogged correspondents overseas to uncover these stories. They were there because informants thrust them upon journalists in a desperate bid to get America’s attention.
We’re not eager to oblige. The US media is so consumed with the impeachment drama that the Chinese leak, which is of genuinely historic significance, dropped off the front page immediately and led to no public debate. The Iran leak sank just as quickly.
Yet the world keeps turning. All of the stories below, only a few decades ago, would have been the center of American attention. It is notable that they aren’t now.
THE END OF THE PAX AMERICANA?
Before the tour d’horizon to come, consider the larger geopolitical context. I’ve argued in these pages that the disappearance of foreign news from the US media is best explained by technological changes that have transformed in the media market, above all the advent of the Internet.
Here’s another hypothesis: American inattention to the world beyond its borders reflects an underlying geopolitical reality; to wit, the United States has no reason to care. It is now, for the first time, in a position to build enormous walls around its territory, withdraw from the world, and establish autarky. Economically and politically, it makes more sense for America to replace foreign-supplied capital, resources, energy, and expertise with domestic ones than it does to be a global superpower.
This is a simplified version of Peter Zeihan’s argument. Zeihan, a popular geopolitical forecaster, once worked for the George Friedman’s analysis shop, STRATFOR. He has obviously been influenced by Friedman. Although they both earn their living on the TED-talk circuit, they are both serious about the way they approach these questions. Their views are worth considering if only because many policy makers take them seriously and think the way they do.
Zeihan and Friedman focus on what my grandfather would have called potentiel de guerre—the underlying physical assets, such as natural resources, geography and demographics, that permit countries to thrive or perish, to wage war or suffer defeat. And both have declared the Pax Americana kaput.
Both believe the world to be entering a new period of chaos. “War is normal,” Friedman explains to his audiences, smiling in a strangely bitter way. It was the Pax Americana that was abnormal.
These views, roughly, are shared by Ian Bremmer, Charles Kupchan, and a wide range of international relations theorists. They are not all in agreement about whether the end of the Pax Americana will be good or bad for the United States, but they agree that it is over. The global center of gravity is rapidly shifting. The next century will not be an American century. The United States will no longer possess the world’s dominant currency nor the world’s dominant military. The global norms we have established will not survive.
THE ZEIHAN THESIS
Zeihan holds that the United States built the Bretton-Woods order to serve a specific strategic purpose—countering the Soviet Union. The global trade regime served American strategic needs, not its economic needs. Now, he holds, having won the Cold War, the United States no longer needs to think strategically; thus, naturally, it is reevaluating its trade relationships:
If the American government no longer views trade as a means to an end but instead an end in its own right, it can and will begin using issues such as trade access, maritime security, and political positions … to cut different deals. That changes the global strategic picture radically.
This is how he explains Donald Trump’s belief that our allies are “ripping us off.” It is why Trump is baffled by the terms of our trade agreements: Trump genuinely has no idea that we built this system, or why. This in turn is why his platform was widely appealing: Americans either have no idea that we built the world this way, or genuinely believe the US security system and the Pax Americana are obsolete.
THE COMING CHAOS
Here is Zeihan predicting the imminent collapse of global order:
At Bretton Woods, he argues, the United States offered its allies two enticements: access to the world’s largest consumer market and American security guarantees. In exchange, they had but to subordinate their security policy—and thus, to an extent, their sovereignty—to the United States.
The Pax Americana saw global GDP expand tenfold, the greatest expansion of peace and prosperity in human history. But Bretton Woods, Zeihan observes, was a security strategy, not an economic plan.
The postwar economic and security order, Zeihan argues, worked exactly as designed. We suppressed great power competition and secured the world’s trade routes. This peaceful environment allowed the rest of the world to become wealthy. The Soviet Union collapsed.
But unlike the allies whose security it guaranteed, the United States never participated fully in the world it built, and it isn’t dependent upon it. Unlike Germany and China, the American economy is not built upon exports. It has its own, massive, domestic market. As a percentage of GDP, the US benefits less from trade than any other developed country. Trade amounts to about 15 percent of the US GDP, even less if we exclude Canada and Mexico. The United States is blessed with the rich and fertile soil that makes it an agricultural powerhouse and the source of half the world’s grain. It has almost all the minerals we need.
And now it has energy.
AMERICAN RETREAT, AN OVERDETERMINED EVENT
The shale revolution, Zeihan believes, has severed American ties with the wider world. This is why, he argues, precisely as the world tips into chaos—and just as the world most needs the United States to be engaged—the United States is disappearing.
He believes this will work out well for America. It has the waterways. It has ocean moats on either side. The United States has and will always have the competitive advantage of its geography; it is alone among developed countries in having a relatively youthful population.
Zeihan concludes that the American trajectory is overdetermined. It will abandon its allies, retreat into itself, and cease protecting the global commons. It will repatriate complex global supply chains, re-industrialize, and do just fine, he predicts. But the rest of the world will devolve into war and chaos as global trade collapses following the withdrawal of our protection.
What’s notable about his view is that it not only explains Trumpism, but sees it as an inevitability. In his words, the United States was only accidentally a superpower; it has never been well-adapted to an imperial role. Now that it is no longer dependent on trade in any way, why would it seek to play a significant role overseas? Trump, he holds, has merely hastened an inevitable trajectory—a trajectory that he dates from the close of the Cold War—by about four years. Had Hillary Clinton been elected, he argues, exactly the same transition would have happened, but it would have taken place slightly more slowly, and would have been more clearly signposted. We would have retreated more responsibly, in other words, but we would have retreated all the same. Perhaps this, rather than a change in the technology and economics of journalism, explains why Americans no longer see news from abroad?
Zeihan argues that our dissociation from the world began when we ejected the competent George H. W. Bush and elected Bill Clinton in his place. “We began,” as he puts it, “down the parade of morons.” In the next seven electoral contests, we systematically chose the candidate least qualified in foreign policy and most focused on domestic politics.
In 2016, Zeihan published The Absent Superpower.
… the isolationist trickle I detected in American politics has deepened and expanded into a raging river. Of the two dozen men and women who entered the 2016 presidential race, only one—Ohio Governor John Kasich—advocated for a continuation of America’s role in maintaining the global security and trade order that the Americans installed and have maintained since 1945. The most anti-trade candidate on the right won his party’s nomination, while the most anti-trade candidate on the left finished a close second in the Democratic primaries to the Clinton political machine. …
The world has had seven decades to become inured to a world in which the Americans do the heavy lifting to maintain a system that economically benefits all. … As the Americans back away, very few players have any inkling of how to operate in a world where markets are not open, transport is not safe, and energy cannot be secured easily.
The stage is set for a global tailspin of epic proportions. Just as the global economy tips into deflation, just as global energy is becoming dangerous, just as global demographics catastrophically reduce global consumption, just as the world really needs the Americans to be engaged, the United States will be … absent. We stand on the very edge of the Disorder.
For similar reasons, he argues, Russia’s imperial reconquista is overdetermined. Why? Because it’s now or never. Russia has the worst demography in the world. Russia’s health and educational systems have fallen apart. In a few years, he holds, Russia will have no skilled labor. “If the Russians are going to use technology, money, or an army to change their neighborhood,” he observes, “they have to do it now.”
Thus Russia’s strategy: Seize Crimea, destroy Ukraine as a functional country, grab the Caucuses, absorb the rest of Ukraine after it fails. But timing is critical: If Russia moves too soon and too blatantly, Zeihan believes, a still-engaged United States will react, if only out of habit. If they’re a bit more patient—another four-odd years—the United States will be “checked out. Militarily, economically, maybe even financially.”
Zeihan’s view explains why Russia is expanding, and why the United States is now riven over the question, “Are we serious about keeping Russia out of Europe?” This is, of course, the subtext of the impeachment hearings. A significant part of the country agrees with Donald Trump that we don’t give a damn about Ukraine.
Here are Zeihan’s predictions: Iran will attack Saudi Arabia and block of the Straits of Hormuz, leading to all-out war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Russia will seek to recreate the former Soviet Union, invading eleven countries, including five NATO members. Energy shortages devolving from these wars will cripple Asia. Famine, continental in scale, will return to the world. Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon will “de-civilize,” losing the ability to maintain two-thirds of their current population. China will attack every country in the East China and South China Seas.
The United States will build a wall, trade with itself, and ignore it.
Let us assume he is right. It is inevitable. What would the world now look like if this were so?
First, we’d see our allies scrambling to make alternative arrangements—while we ignore it.
Let’s look at Asia. Trump has baffled South Korea by insisting not only that it spend more on the alliance (a reasonable request) but that it spend 500 percent more than it did last year (not reasonable). Exactly why we’ve provoked a crisis with South Korea over basing payments when we’re engaged in nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea is one of the many mysteries of the Trump Doctrine—unless you assume that there’s no brinkmanship involved at all: We’ve already decided to leave our allies in Asia to their own devices.
This is precisely what South Koreans suspect. They believe Trump is presenting South Korea with an offer it must refuse as a pretext for removing our troops entirely.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that yesterday, South Korea signed a defense agreement with China.
If Zeihan is right, we would now see the United States ignoring chaos in the Persian Gulf even though the region was once the center of American strategic planning.
This is exactly what we see. Recent protests in Iran have been large, and so violent, that the regime has shut down the Internet. Before the mobile networks went dark, videos from across the country showed protesters burning regime figures in effigy. Rouhani has said Iran is facing the “most difficult” challenge since the revolution. Dozens are reported killed. The IRGC has vowed to use “all means” to restore order.
The protests were sparked by the imposition of gas rationing and 50 percent price hikes. Clearly, maximum pressure is hurting the country. You would expect the US President to claim credit—perhaps nod, at least, in the direction of the protesters. But he is instead posting the same Fox video clips over and over again on Twitter.
If Zeihan is correct, the United States will offer the protesters no assistance. It no longer cares. What we say and do about the region is now for domestic consumption only. Zeihan’s argument would explain the strangely irrelevant US announcement that it thinks Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is perfectly legal.
The uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq have toppled two governments in the course of three days: Both Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi have agreed to resign. The Iraqi protests are especially worthy of remark: Protesters have demanded an end to sectarian government and equality for all, irrespective of ethnicity or sect. They have been calling for the end of Islamic influence on the legal system and a secular state. They have remained peaceful, even though Iranian-backed militias have killed them by the hundreds.
Only recently, the United States invaded Iraq, declaring its war aims to be those of the men and women now taking to Iraq’s streets. Surely, then, these developments would interest Americans? Wouldn’t they at least make the news?
No. Not a word to be found about any of this in the American media. As Zeihan predicted, Americans don’t care.
It’s not just the Shia world in an uproar. Algerians have been in the streets for nine months. ISIS claimed 30 attacks in the first 10 days of November—up 300 percent compared to the days before Turkey invaded northern Syria. Palestinian Islamic Jihad shut down half of Israel, firing some 400 rockets—including long-range rockets aimed at the center of the country—over the course of 50 hours. Israel in turn killed 25 PIJ operatives. A ceasefire followed an intense Egyptian mediation effort. Tthe IDF reports that Israel has conducted “wide-scale strikes” on Iranian forces in Syria.
Russia, meanwhile, has landed attack helicopters and troops at the airbase in northern Syria we precipitously vacated, and the Russian military announced the launch of a new combat helicopter and air defense base in Qamishli.
As Zeihan predicted, the United States is playing no role in any of this.
THE BRAIN-DEAD ALLIANCE
Emmanuel Macron recently declared NATO “brain dead.” The interview in which he said this is worth reading in full. Here are highlights:
I’m trying to face the facts. …Europe was basically built to be the Americans’ junior partner. That was what lay behind the Marshall Plan from the beginning. And this went hand in hand with a benevolent United States, acting as the ultimate guarantor of a system and of a balance of values, based on the preservation of world peace and the domination of Western values. There was a price to pay for that, which was NATO and support to the European Union. But their position has shifted over the past 10 years, and it hasn’t only been the Trump administration. You have to understand what is happening deep down in American policy-making.
Macron is reading his Zeihan, it seems.
[The United States], the ultimate guarantor, the umbrella which made Europe stronger, no longer has the same relationship with Europe. Which means that our defence, our security, elements of our sovereignty, must be re-thought through. …
I don’t think I’m being either pessimistic or painting an overly gloomy picture when I say this. I’m just saying that if we don’t wake up, face up to this situation and decide to do something about it, there’s a considerable risk that in the long run we will disappear geopolitically, or at least that we will no longer be in control of our destiny. …To my mind, what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO. We have to be lucid.
German foreign minister Heiko Maas responded with an interview of his own:
It can no longer be taken for granted that we in Germany live in peace and security. It has been said repeatedly over the past years that Germany must assume greater responsibility for peace and security in the world. At this historic moment we see that this duty is overshadowed by a second, even more urgent mission: we must assume responsibility if we wish to preserve our own security in Europe and in Germany at all.
… In Germany’s opinion, it would clearly be a mistake to undermine NATO. Without the United States, neither Germany nor Europe are in a position to protect themselves effectively. That was recently illustrated very clearly by the Russian violation of the INF Treaty. It would be irresponsible to pursue a foreign and security policy without Washington, and dangerous to decouple European security from American security.
Merkel, likewise, condemned Macron’s “drastic words.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg agreed. “Any attempt to distance Europe from North America will not only weaken the transatlantic alliance, it also risks dividing Europe itself,” he said.
Stoltenberg is right, but as French security analysts have been saying since Macron’s speech, it doesn’t matter whether he is right if the United States is no longer committed to Europe. “Europeans are in denial,” wrote Gérard Araud, the former French ambassador to the United States. “The don’t want the US to distance itself. So they’re killing the messenger.”
Franco-German relations are now strained. Paris is exasperated with Berlin blocking its plans to reform the Euro. Macron did not consult Merkel before announcing his initiative to reset relations with Russia. Nor did he consult Germany before announcing he would veto accession talks with Northern Macedonia.
Germany is now governed by a two-party coalition of unpopular parties that barely communicate. Macron is frustrated. Germans, in turn, are fed up with Macron’s grandstanding and his criticism. They suspect he is a France-first neo-Gaullist—or worse, a Napoléon. Germans are thus beginning to act unilaterally as well, for example with a poorly-conceived initiative to establish a safe zone in Northern Syria.
Brexit, obviously, is not helping Franco-German relations. France and Germany used to work with the UK to balance against the othere; now they’re competing directly. The rest of Europe is wary—without the UK and the US to dilute it—of Franco-German dominance. The opportunity this presents to Russia is obvious.
If Zeihan is right, this is exactly what we’d expect to see.
THE SCRAMBLE FOR AFRICA
Cairo has signed a $2 billion contract to buy more than 20 Su-35 fighter jets from Russia. There has been no reaction at all to this news. We are not interested.I wrote my doctoral dissertation about US arms transfers to the Arab-Israeli antagonists. The Czech-Egyptian arms deal of 1955 was a turning point in Cold War history. The news of it was met with … Continue reading
We have, at least, sent an ambassador to Egypt—for the first time since 2017.
Directly prior to this announcement, Putin held an unprecedented Russia–Africa Summit in Sochi. Anton Kobyakov, the Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee, put it plainly:
The historical significance of the Russia–Africa events is clear to many generations of people who lived through the USSR. Modern Russia, which already has experience of successful cooperation with African countries under its belt, is ready to make an offer to the African continent that will secure mutually beneficial partnership and the joint realization of the potential accumulated through decades of painstaking work carried out by several generations of Soviet and Russian people,”
Indeed, the historical significance is perfectly clear. For several years, Russia has been rejuvenating its Soviet-era partnerships and alliances. Russia offers arms, training, and “electioneering services” to African states in exchange for mining rights and votes at the United Nations. Russia claims that more than a trillion rubles worth of agreements were signed at the summit, “excluding agreements whose value is a trade secret.”
Wherever the United States leaves a vacuum, Russia fills the void. Russia is now the key power in the Middle East, and clearly plans to expand this role to Africa. Putin has promised to build Egypt’s Al-Dabaa nuclear power plant. Recently, the Russian military launched large-scale air defense drills in Egypt. Egypt is looking to Russia to mediate its water conflict with Ethiopia.
From Algeria to Zimbabwe, the US is losing influence. Trade between the US and Africa has dropped precipitously. American exports to Africa are down nearly a third since 2014. Other powers are signing trade agreements that leave out the United States: 41 African countries have signed trade agreements with the European Union. (We are meanwhile engaged in a trade war with the European Union.)
Africa has the world’s fastest-growing middle class; its markets are the biggest commercial opportunities in the developing world. Half of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in Africa. By 2050, half the world’s population will live there. Africa will soon be home to the better part of the world’s working-age population.
The Czech-Egyptian arms deal of 1955 was a turning point in Cold War history. The news of it was met with shock and rage in the West, where leaders correctly appreciated that this represented a massive increase in Soviet influence in the Near East. In July 1956, US News and World Report said, Nasser was a “new dictator…out to build an empire.” Time called it “startling” and a “bombshell.”In response to the deal, ninety-four congressmen attached their names to a statement deploring it. By contrast, there has been almost no American reaction to this news. Americans do not care.
Since 2014, Russia has signed military cooperation agreements with 19 African countries. China is now Africa’s leading trade partner. India and Russia are increasing their involvement. The European Union is holding steady.
The Prosper Africa initiative was an excellent idea. But President Trump doesn’t seem to be aware of it.
All of this, too, is unfolding as Zeihan predicted.
THE WAR ON DIPLOMACY
Trump’s disdain for professional diplomats is vulgar populism embodied. Our diplomats are an educated, literate, and cosmopolitan elite; this makes them, in his mind and that of his supporters, the enemy of the people. It is the same impulse that prompted the Khmer Rouge to kill everyone with eyeglasses, and depressing to see it at work.
Trump has been waging war on our diplomatic corps. Even as we increase military spending (as well we should, given this level of global instability), we’ve made massive cuts to diplomacy and development spending (which given this level of global instability is insane). We now spend a twentieth the amount on diplomacy that we do on the military. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson drove out our most capable senior and mid-level officers. Career diplomats have been sidelined to such an extent that only one of 28 assistant-secretary rank positions is now filled by a Foreign Service Officer. The practice of handing ambassadorships to unqualified political appointees has always been outrageous. More such ambassadorships have been handed out in this administration than in any other in recent history.
A fifth of our ambassadorships are unfilled—including critical posts, posts essential to our international presence. Nothing could more clearly symbolize American retreat.
Applications to join the Foreign Service have declined precipitously. Diplomats are resigning at a breathtaking rate. They face retaliation simply for having worked for the Obama Administration. The department’s leadership has failed to defend them.
Even in the best of circumstances, this kind of institutional wreckage would take years to repair. In parallel with the rest of the damage Trump has done to our global standing, it is probably irreparable. We have unilaterally disarmed, diplomatically, at the very moment we are no longer powerful enough to call the shots in the world.
Zeihan’s thesis would predict this, too.
GOOD FOR AMERICA?
But what of Zeihan’s claim that the United States will benefit from all of this?
Zeihan is, essentially, a base-determines-superstructure materialist. I am not. I don’t believe his kind of analysis fully explains the past, nor that it may reliably be used to predict the future. The roles of the intangible—of human personality and will, of tides of fate—are too great. Geopolitical forecasting always fails. But it would be senseless to dismiss the role of the material outright. The points Zeihan raises are important.
Yet something about his analysis makes no sense. It is true that the strategic imperative of fighting the Cold War no longer exists. But this does not mean there are no longer any strategic imperatives. The geopolitical landscape Americans confront is every bit as dangerous—in many ways more dangerous—than it was during the Cold War.
Still, if Americans believe they face no serious security threats, they will behave as if this is so, and this in turn will oblige the world to react. What’s more, Americans may well agree with me that the landscape is dangerous, but conclude that the best way to mitigate these threats is defensive retreat.
Will this work as well as Zeihan expects? Perhaps. If somehow the United States manages to keep the chaos away from its shores, Americans, certainly, are in a better position to establish autarky and ignore the world’s chaos than, say, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
His thesis makes sense—unless we ask ourselves, “Why did the United States establish the Pax Americana in the first place?” Those who remember the answer are dead or dying, so it isn’t surprising that memories of the First and Second World War no longer inform American thinking. But the answer, for those who remember, is that the US could not, ultimately, insulate itself from global chaos, and could not do so even when the world was significantly less connected and interdependent.
So how likely is it, really, that the chaos now unfolding will leave the United States untouched? Should Americans feel confident it won’t destroy them or force them into a catastrophic war, with immense bloodletting?
I don’t know.
But Zeihan’s predictive record isn’t half bad, is it?
Claire Berlinski is the co-founder and editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.
|↑1||I wrote my doctoral dissertation about US arms transfers to the Arab-Israeli antagonists. The Czech-Egyptian arms deal of 1955 was a turning point in Cold War history. The news of it was met with shock and rage in the West, where leaders correctly appreciated that this Russia and Egypt have been deepening and expanding their military and technical cooperation for more than a year, giving rise to speculation that Russia will soon build a military base on the ground. Their joint training exercises focus on targeting US equipment.|