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The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder

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An eye-opening assement of American power and deglobalization in the bestselling tradition of The World is Flat and The Next 100 Years.
  Near the end of the Second World War, the United States made a bold strategic gambit that rewired the international system. Empires were abolished and replaced by a global arrangement enforced by the U.S. Navy. With all the world's oceans safe for the first time in history, markets and resources were made available for everyone. Enemies became partners.   We think of this system as normal - it is not. We live in an artificial world on borrowed time.   In The Accidental Superpower, international strategist Peter Zeihan examines how the hard rules of geography are eroding the American commitment to free trade; how much of the planet is aging into a mass retirement that will enervate markets and capital supplies; and how, against all odds, it is the ever-ravenous American economy that - alone among the developed nations - is rapidly approaching energy independence. Combined, these factors are doing nothing less than overturning the global system and ushering in a new (dis)order.   For most, that is a disaster-in-waiting, but not for the Americans. The shale revolution allows Americans to sidestep an increasingly dangerous energy market. Only the United States boasts a youth population large enough to escape the sucking maw of global aging. Most important, geography will matter more than ever in a de-globalizing world, and America's geography is simply sublime.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published November 4, 2014

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About the author

Peter Zeihan

5 books744 followers
Geopolitical Strategist Peter Zeihan is a global energy, demographic and security expert.

Zeihan’s worldview marries the realities of geography and populations to a deep understanding of how global politics impact markets and economic trends, helping industry leaders navigate today’s complex mix of geopolitical risks and opportunities. With a keen eye toward what will drive tomorrow’s headlines, his irreverent approach transforms topics that are normally dense and heavy into accessible, relevant takeaways for audiences of all types.

In his career, Zeihan has ranged from working for the US State Department in Australia, to the DC think tank community, to helping develop the analytical models for Stratfor, one of the world’s premier private intelligence companies. Mr. Zeihan founded his own firm -- Zeihan on Geopolitics -- in 2012 in order to provide a select group of clients with direct, custom analytical products. Today those clients represent a vast array of sectors including energy majors, financial institutions, business associations, agricultural interests, universities and the U.S. military.

His freshman book, The Accidental Superpower, debuted in 2014. His sophomore project, The Absent Superpower, published in December 2016.

Find out more about Peter -- and your world -- at www.zeihan.com

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Profile Image for Douglas Hackney.
26 reviews17 followers
October 9, 2015
Full disclosure: Like the author, I grew up in Iowa and live in Austin. Although those close to me will recognize many recurring themes between what they have heard (endlessly) from me for the last couple of decades and the content of this book, this is not my pseudonym and I did not write this book.

TLDR: This is a good read and is recommended.

Who will profit from reading this book:
Parents, business people, policy makers, teachers, young adults.

Like many bright, observant people who are not personally involved in technology or who have never spent a lot of time on the ground in various regions of the world, the author plays fast and loose with some assertions. In this case, he attributes too much near- to mid-term impact to additive manufacturing (3D printing) and makes armchair-quarterback level assumptions about other cultures.

Secondly, he suffers the same fundamental conceit as economists: the assumption of rational actors. Here, the author assumes that nation states and the people who control them will act in a rational manner most, if not all, of the time.

Unfortunately, history does not support this contention. The variables at play here, including the ability to use nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, are completely absent from his analysis and projected outcomes.

The latter shortcoming undermines many of his projections for the general shape and outcome of the next few decades. While I am in violent, vociferous agreement with his foundational arguments related to demographics and logistics, his lack of acknowledgment of historically-proven, irrational human behavior undermines many of his primary projections.

In particular, he assumes that most of the rest of the world will spiral into decline and disarray and yet be perfectly fine with the U.S. reigning untouched as a shining tower of favorable demographics, logistics and ocean-spanning power projection.

Again, history does not support this contention. History shows us that nation states and stateless actors that are under existential threat, much less on the slippery slope of dissolution, will lash out with every tool at their disposal.

In this modern age those tools include weapons that make short order of carrier battle groups, cities and, in the case of nuclear weapons, wide areas of agricultural production.

Lastly, it requires some real perseverance to get past the "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" level of boosterism, self-promotion and fundamentalist exceptionalism in the early chapters and into the more meaty and rewarding sections. As such, this work functions perfectly as Holy Writ for those so inclined. Unfortunately, that cohort is probably the least likely to fully comprehend and understand the implications of what follows in later chapters.

The author presents an accessible, cogent and well formed argument for the society-, culture- and history-shaping power of demographics, logistics and energy.

The book includes well designed maps, graphics and illustrations to drive home the lessons in the text. In fact, it is worth buying the book simply to skim the illustrations.

The author writes clearly and in terms that non-wonks and non-policy analysts can understand.

The reader will come away with a well founded understanding of how the world, and the societies and nations that make up the world, are determined, formed, rise and fall primarily due to demographic, logistic and energy factors.

In addition, the reader will be equipped with a set of projected outcomes for the next decade or two that have at least a reasonable chance of being realized, absent the factors noted above.

For many readers this will be a revealing, perhaps transcendental, book, especially if it is their first exposure to these building-block components of societies, nations and regions.

For all readers this work should help to inform their tactical and strategic choices for the near- and mid-term future.

If you want to understand how the world got to where it is and where it is likely to go in the next few decades, you could do a lot worse than investing a few hours in this book. You will gain more from that investment than any 400 hours of watching screaming heads shout past each other on television, listening to rants on the radio or in perusing echo chambers of online "we are the intelligent ones" partisan news sources.

Many people make a lifetime out of seeking to prove hidden, secret conspiracies to explain the state of the world, what it is and how it got to be this way. The author does an excellent job of teaching the elementary components that actually drive human history, including what will cause most of the events that will shape the history of the next few decades.

Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,079 reviews712 followers
November 25, 2021
This book provides a thorough discussion of how geography and demographics have effected nations in history and the present, and where they will lead in the future. The main premise of this book is that during the cold war the United States was motivated by fear of Communism to support free global trade leading to financial prosperity among western nations, but conditions have now changed and in the future the USA will withdraw from the world stage, global trade will decrease, and nations of the world will need to seek their own best interests without the American defense umbrella. The USA is free to pursue this changed policy because it is energy independent (thanks to fracking technology) and no longer fears international Communism.

In other words this book says the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but the USA is sitting pretty and can thrive on its own. The book's discussion goes from country to country and elaborates on all the problems they will be facing in the future. It admits that the USA will have some of the same problems, but compared to other countries it is in much better shape than any of the other countries of the world.

It's interesting to note that this book was published in 2014 which predates Trump's election and that some of the book's predictions are already coming to pass through Trump's disinterest in international agreements and responsibilities.

The following is a link to an excerpt from Accidental Superpower in which the author describes the Bretton Woods system:

In the above excerpt and in the book the author gives the impression that the Bretton Woods system has been the guiding principle of world trade since World War II. In fact it ended in 1971 when the dollar was taken off the gold standard as described in this Wikipedia article. (See Message 6 under Comments below for clarification on multiple meanings attributed to "Bretton Woods System.)
The following graph is from that article.

As the book describes its predicted future global disorder, it describes many cases where border adjustments will be made. One of the book's more astounding predictions is that Russia's aggression in eastern Ukraine is an indication of more to come. The illustration below shows the preferred borders for Russia, and the book makes the case that they will need to pursue these borders in order to survive the coming future disorder.
Profile Image for Oleg.
2 reviews4 followers
December 29, 2017
I think Zeihan hits the nail on the head in some cases, but very often misses the mark.

Zeihan’s key theory- that geography plays a huge influence on a country’s development, is a great framework through which to view and analyze history. Especially interesting were his views on capital flows in an economy and the key differences between capital rich and capital poor nations. In a country with poor geography capital is required to develop the land, this means less economic opportunities and upward mobility for the working classes- you can’t simply take a piece of fertile land and try to start your own farm business, you need capital to make land suitable for farming. But I think he truly shines in the discussion of demographics, the impact that various age groups have on the economy and how the demographic situation in different countries will affect their economic and political future.

Zeihan’s theory that the equity market will see declines when baby boomers are done growing their capital and begin pulling money out of risky investments (equities) to preserve their nest eggs in bonds is an easy one to act on. The prudent thing to do would be to buy bonds now while the equity market is on fire and bonds are seen as too conservative and are trading at low values. Another prudent move would be to reduce exposure to international equities- as all risky assets will be impacted by the boomer flight to safety. A third option could be an interesting one- cryptocurrencies. If the next 10-15 years sees international and financial upheaval, alternative currencies that are easily moved across borders and potentially hidden from overzealous governments can become an attractive proposition.

The biggest problem with the book occurs when the author claims that the current economic order will collapse because the USA will exit the world free trade system and stop guaranteeing energy supplies for our allies. He gives the following scenario of how this will occur:

1. The free trade system created under the Bretton Woods agreement allowed all American allies to engage in free trade and have access to markets and energy under the American protection umbrella

2. America’s economic system isn’t designed around exports, shale makes the US energy independent, so even access to the Middle East oil supplies is irrelevant to the USA- yet the USA bears the brunt of the cost.

3. Aging baby boomers pull capital out of the markets, causing a worldwide credit crunch and economic slowdown, this will mean the USA will have to cut spending and will no longer be able to secure the existing economic order that gives it no benefits

4. Collapse of free trade and free access to markets along with aging societies will rekindle economic and military competition for resources among nations

The biggest problem with this theory is the idea that the USA gets nothing from the current economic system because we’re not an export economy, thus we will cut funding for the maintenance of this system once the full impact of the boomer retirement hits. Yes, we are not an export economy, however we benefit from the current world order in several key ways:

1. Corporate profits
2. Access to debt markets
3. Access to cheap goods
4. We can still get pulled into global affairs

Foreign markets make up a large portion of American corporate revenues- according to S&P, 44% of S&P 500 member company sales come from outside the US. Some sectors like technology and heavy equipment makers have over half their sales come from abroad (Caterpillar is at 60% for example). Since 1993 exports of cars and parts to Mexico has gone from $10 billion to $70 billion. Trade with China has grown by 200%. American companies have over $1 trillion in foreign revenues stashed abroad. These corporate interests would likely lobby hard against any American exit from the existing global system.

America’s reputation for stability gives our government privileged access to the global debt markets, that is, we can usually borrow at lower rates than the rest of the world (“usually” means in normal political circumstances, our current political upheaval has made the interest rate higher for 10 year US bonds than their German equivalents). Foreigners own about 33% of US government debt (according to the US Treasury). This cheap access to debt financing will become more important as baby boomer retirement puts a strain on our public pension obligations.

Access to cheap goods and labor has benefited the American consumer and certain types of workers. According to The Economist, clothing costs today as much as it did in 1985, home furnishings the same as they did 35 years ago- on average Americans save $250 a year on trade with China alone. High skilled and college educated workers earn as much as a 50% premium thanks to more specialization and higher productivity at home (this premium was 30% in the 1970s). Of course, this increase in wage premium means that the wage gap has grown between the winners in this system and the low skilled and uneducated, but this trend doesn’t invalidate the main point that there is a clear benefit to Americans from participation in the global order (as long as the group that’s benefiting is larger and more powerful than the group being hurt, then the system will remain in place- it is in the interest of the “winners” to make sure that the “losers” also see the same benefits).

The choice to exit or remain in the global system may not be up to the USA. Geographic isolation doesn’t mean that by removing itself from the world order, the US would automatically avoid the chaos that Zeihan predicts will be left behind. In a world of ICBMs and cyber warfare, an ocean will not protect you against threats. If the loss of previously mentioned economic benefits won’t be enough to keep the USA from maintaining the current system, there could be several things that other world actors can do to keep the USA in:
Profile Image for Andrej Karpathy.
110 reviews3,480 followers
December 21, 2021

Actual quite excellent and solid recommend to anyone interested in a framework for thinking through geopolitics, with the caveats of the same points I raised in my earlier review of Disunited Nations.
Profile Image for Clayton Hauck.
18 reviews6 followers
December 5, 2015
Peter Zeihan succeeds at providing us with a hugely enjoyable read on what he thinks will shape the world in the coming decades. While he very well might be accurate, one must consider this is a complicated world and not one ruled entirely by geopolitics. My main takeaway was to rethink the forces which made this world what it is today. Having only been alive for 32 years, it's easy for me to forget or cast aside the seemingly-infinite human energy that shaped the planet we current live on — cultivation, civilization, discovery, innovation, war, nature, etc. We live not in a static world but one of fluidity. The recent period of humanity has proven to be a more stable one, arguably thanks in part to post-WWII United States military supremacy and global trade. The US, however, seems to be slowly turning away from engagement with the rest of the world, perhaps resulting in a world with no overarching force of stability. While it’s too soon to know how this will play out, Zeihan argues it will have massive consequences.

While a few other books I’ve read recently (Ian Bremmer’s Superpower and Henry Kissinger’s World Order) expand on this topic, Accidental Superpower does more to point out the likely consequences of changing demography. Countries such as Japan, Russia and China, he thinks, will fare poorly as populations age and production declines. As an example: with far too few ethnic Russians, the state itself will face possible implosion, which Zeihan argues is a reason for recent Russian aggression into regions previously included in the Soviet Union. While it’s again impossible to know the extent of how aging and declining populations will fare in the coming decades, I fear we may be in for a reckoning much like the current global financial crisis only on a potentially much larger scale. It’s easy to be pessimistic and borderline paranoid while considering these possibilities, however, a citizen of the US may take some comfort in Zeihan’s assessment that the United States will fare immensely better than most of the rest of the planet as geographic forces once again take control of global populations; geography being the reason he thinks of the US as an “accidental” superpower to begin with. In short, the US is blessed with far more navigable rivers than anywhere else on earth along with oceans on both sides creating a vast buffer and easy navigation, this in addition to better demographic trends, natural defenses and huge amounts of arable land.

The argument against this book might be that this planet has moved beyond one controlled largely by geography and that cutting-age weapons, advanced communication and easy transportation render the globe one controlled by anyone with best access to these things. Perhaps, as humans tend to do, this thinking is over-confident and we don’t have as much control of our destinies as we’d like to think. Either way, it’s shaping up to be an interesting time to be alive — if you’re into geopolitics at least.
Profile Image for Pat Rolston.
322 reviews15 followers
May 26, 2017
This is a MUST read to enhance anyone's perspective regarding the profound effects that demographics and geography have on geopolitics. One can argue the conclusions, but that is the fun in having an author provide suppositions as to how the world will look in the next 50 years. The data and analysis is compelling and entertaining in such a way as to leave the reader wanting more of this authors insights. He is a good writer with a profoundly interesting perspective that will enrich anyone's worldview.
Profile Image for Alex.
86 reviews2 followers
August 19, 2015
10% and already the blatant platitudes and omissions of convenience are too much. This book would make Thomas Friedman's mustache blush. Bail.
Profile Image for Frank Theising.
339 reviews26 followers
September 18, 2022
Roughly six months ago, the YouTube algorithm clearly picked up on my penchant for geopolitical content and started feeding me a steady stream of Peter Zeihan. Since then, probably every other video recommended to me features his content. While it tends to be extremely repetitive, it remains a guilty pleasure to listen to his outlook on world affairs (he is very eloquent and charismatic). That said, YouTube tends to be very click-baity and Zeihan’s predictions seem to be very over-the-top (claims like “China as we know it will cease to exist in 10 years”). Wanting to assess his ideas in their full context, I picked up his first book from 2014.

And I will say, I think the first half of the book is simply excellent. There is probably no better primer on the concept of geopolitics (how geography shapes global politics and empires). He clearly explains how rivers (which enable cheap transport), deep water ports and navigation, and eventually industrialization led to rise of every major power in its day (from Egypt and Babylon, to the United Kingdom and Germany, and culminating in the country blessed with near perfect geography, the United States). Again, I cannot praise the first half of this book enough. It is entertaining, engaging, and really educational.

If I had to sum up the thesis of this work, it is that the US harnessed its privileged geography and financial standing in the wake of the destruction wrought by WWII, to grant allies and former adversaries access to American markets, as well as American defensive guarantees, in exchange for following our system and playing by our rules. In many cases, this was a better deal than they ever could have attained through military conquest. This too, I generally tend to agree with (though the author has an annoying habit of referring to this as the Bretton Woods system (which technically ended in 1971 when Nixon severed the dollar’s connection to gold). He really means the Pax Americana, but I get his larger point.

The second major theme of the book is that the world we have known our entire life (at least for me as a Gen Xer), the world brought to us by globalization and cheap consumer goods is about to abruptly end. According to Zeihan, this is a result of two key factors: 1) the world we know was enabled by the post WWII baby boom which produced excess labor and capital and 2) the US is entering a period of retrenchment where we are refusing to continue our role as the global, naval policeman (which is a prerequisite for free global trade).

From these two trends (demographic collapse and US withdrawal), the author makes some pretty wild claims for the end of the world as we know it. While it is hard to disagree with the broad trend lines, where I think he goes wrong, is that he grossly exaggerates the speed and force with which these impacts will occur. The US still has overseas bases in more than 100 countries and while our rhetoric has grown more populist, we have shown little sign of any large scale withdrawal from the world stage. Even with China’s rapid growth, our Navy is still larger, more capable, and more active than ever. And even with the reality of demographic collapse on the horizon, global trade as a whole is not going to disappear overnight. The exaggerated claims of rapid collapse and retrenchment give the author the attention grabbing headlines that accompany personal financial success in the clickbait era of advertising, but they detract from the seriousness of his arguments. He could easily have written the same book, with slower, long term projections (i.e. instead of China’s imminent collapse, he could have said something like, China is about to enter the same type of long-term stagnation that has accompanied Japan as its population aged, and it would have instantly made it much more credible).

The book also leaves out any discussion whatsoever of either culture or nuclear weapons. This is kind of a big deal as those are two huge inputs that could shape his predictions. Written in 2014, some of his predictions do seem rather prophetic (specifically Russia’s aggression in Ukraine). However, others (like Argentina’s emergence as a self-sustaining global power, seem rather overblown (again, largely as a result of neglecting the culture and history of the people who reside there).

Overall, I would still recommend this book, if for nothing else because of how well he defines and explains the influence and impact of geography on global politics. I also like many of his ideas on the future impact of demographics, though I do think he tends to grossly exaggerate the speed with which these trends will be brought to bear on global affairs. Solid 3 stars.
Profile Image for Socraticgadfly.
990 reviews330 followers
July 3, 2016
Crap for nonsense from a Stratfor alumnus

We have a new Tom "Teapot Tommy"/"My Head Is Flat" Friedman here, and that's not a complement.

I started repeatedly rolling my eyeballs before the end of the first chapter at the number of huge overgeneralizations plus outright inaccuracies.

Speaking of, I stopped reading by page 60 over this:

1. Claims that Phoenix, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City were near passes in the Rockies; and
2. The claims that Monterey and Chihuahua (City) were the only two "meaningful" Mexican populations near the US border. I guess Tijuana isn't "meaningful" and El Chapo Guzman stole Juarez.

But, per my semi-rhyming title, the author is a Stratfor alum, so this level of inaccurate dreck isn't really a surprise.
64 reviews15 followers
March 10, 2022
Russia, by contrast, faces no political or alliance constraints on its ability to pursue a strategic policy to its west. However, unlike Turkey, it does face a time pressure; Russia's demographics are so horrid that if it fails to act before 2022, it will lose the capacity to act both militarily and economically. This puts Russia on a collision course with the eight EU members on the edge of what the Russians see as their preferred border zone: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. It would seem that the Russian challenge to Europe's future is rather obvious.

He doesn't miss
130 reviews
May 18, 2016
Do not waste time reading this book. Many episodes of Star Trek are more thoughtful and plausible.

To summarize: All is determined by geography, demographics and energy. America is uniquely positioned by excelling in all three and thus becomes the accidental superpower. America withdraws from everyone else and the world dissolves into a Hobbesian nightmare of wars and instability.

Vast oversimplification already being proven wrong by events. Author indulges himself with simplistic crystal ball readings for most of the developed world.

Profile Image for Robert Morris.
205 reviews36 followers
August 6, 2021
I was prepared to be embarrassed by this book. I run a YouTube channel, and on the strength of some rapturous comments from my audience, I listened to maybe 4 or 5 podcast interviews with the author Peter Zeihan. Because people kept asking me about him, earlier this year I published a video where I critiqued what I understood to be his positions. When a bargain priced version of the book jumped out at me at the Strand last week, I was nervous. Would Zeihan's written work make me feel like a chump? Would I have to retract my polite but scathing video?

I'm happy to report that, if anything, my video was way too lenient. This is not a worthless book. Zeihan is an engaging writer, and I got a lot of valuable information from this read. As one example, I think every US declinist should be required to read his passages on the US's almost infinite advantages. Zeihan is a geographer, and his descriptions and maps on that topic are uniformly illuminating. But he shares the weakness of his profession, going back to Halford Mackinder. As a class, these folks are absolutely right that geography is vitally important. But it's not everything, and, as with Mackinder, it's the extrapolations that Zeihan puts on top of his solid geographic knowledge that get him in to trouble.

In my video, I advanced three critiques about Zeihan from his podcasts. 1) He's too close to the oil & gas industry and therefore refuses to recognize the decarbonization juggernaut that's about to eviscerate petroleum producers. 2) His world history knowledge prior to WW2 seems nonexistent and 3) His complete contempt for most political actors, and the assumption that they are guaranteed to be helpless without big daddy America. All three of these faults were very much on display in this book.

On the first front, this book seems to not even acknowledge that renewable energy exists. It's unfair to hold Zeihan accountable for this, however, as the book was published in 2014. For decades renewable energy has been the revolution that never happened. Back in 2014, I too was convinced it was doomed to be a joke forever. That's no longer true.

Zeihan's contempt for a lot of the world's peoples comes through in every chapter. I wouldn't call it racism, just a sort of glib snarkiness, that makes him a very engaging speaker and writer, but I think leads him to underestimate a lot of countries. Africa seems doomed to fail and barely worth mentioning in his eyes, which doesn't match my current sense of all of that continent's 54 countries. His view on China in particular, one of his most famous positions, also seems rooted in a deep sense of contempt.

I don't think Zeihan's descriptions of Chinese history as unending chaos make much sense. Sure, there are periods of great disarray, but many of the "Brief moments" of Chinese unification outlasted all of US history, especially when you consider that we had a civil war just a little over 150 years ago. Zeihan's description of the way that US influence in East Asia has made unprecedented Chinese consolidation possible was very on point, but he seems to leave out industrialization entirely. Yes, China was always limited by its river systems... but now it has trains and highways. Everywhere.

The most glaring issue in this book is its treatment of history. Many commenters argued that I was being unfair to Zeihan, in complaining about the historical ignorance he demonstrated on podcasts. His writing, they assured me, was much better. It is not. Some of these chapters are gobsmackingly ignorant. His description of the pre-American world system is frankly nonsense. There absolutely were nasty mercantilist fights between European empires. But those were largely over by the 1750s, if not the late 1600s, and the British won those fights prettily handily. So handily that after some early failures, even Napoleon had to give up on the world outside Europe. Victorian British statesmen would be appalled by Zeihan's suggestion in this book that the US invented the very idea of "free trade". The world absolutely had a hegemon before the United States, one whose world leadership and failings we should be doing more to learn from. Zeihan seems unaware that the British Empire's world leadership, from 1815 through 1914( or at least the 1880s), even existed.

And Zeihan plays fast and loose with 20th century history as well. I've often been intimidated by Bretton Woods, the gold-based system of fixed exchange rates that governed the world from the 1944 until Nixon ditched the gold standard in 1971. I know it's massive, but I can't quite grasp the significance. Zeihan gets around this entirely by pretending that Bretton Woods is merely the still existing (if shaky) free trade regime set up by the 1947 General Agreement on Tarrifs and Trade (GATT) which later evolved into the WTO. Put politely, this is ahistorical nonsense. GATT was an outgrowth of the Bretton Woods System, that survived it, but blithely referring to GATT/WTO as Bretton Woods for half the book is a staggering distortion of history and economics. My understanding from every other work of history I have ever read is that the Bretton Woods system ended in the 1970s. This Bretton Woods thing strikes me as a grave distortion, one so sweeping that I don't just think less of the author, I think less of the publisher and everybody involved in the process who let it get to print.

Prior to reading this book, I had assumed that Zeihan might be more reliable than me when it came to finance and economics. That assumption was wrong. There is a lot in this book about demographics. The fact that most countries in the world are aging rapidly is tremendously important. There are some good suggestions in this book about what the impacts are likely to be. In many cases, I think things may be as dire as Zeihan suggests. But I think Zeihan goes further than pointing out that demographics are important, into a sort of demographics millenarianism.

For Zeihan, Baby boomer retirements don't just mean a shift in investment funds and priorities, they mean an automatic investment apocalypse in every country, taking place in specific years that are perfectly knowable due to each country's demographic structure. This... is not how money works. Yes, if wealth was divided equally among all US baby boomers, who were switching from growth stocks to US treasuries in lockstep on their retirement days, then maybe (probably not) something like what Zeihan describes may be possible. But that's not how wealth works.

Wealth is not evenly distributed. I don't have the figures in front of me, but it's safe to assume that a comfortable majority of the money owned by baby boomers is owned by the top 1-5% of investors who will never want to put large amounts of their money into boring investments. Most wealth is owned by the wealthy. The largest portion of baby boomer wealth, which will become (unless estate tax laws change dramatically) inherited wealth for later generations, is always going to be chasing growth. Again, I don't want to suggest that demographics are not important, or that the baby boomer retail investor's switch to safety might not be important. These are worthwhile dynamics to think about. But they don't guarantee the serial apocalypses (apocalypsi?) that Zeihan predicts.

Honestly I feel kind of bad about this two star review. But the history sections, and the Bretton Woods thing specifically, require it. Zeihan's faulty assumptions about how the world worked before the United States are at the heart of his grand pronouncements about how it might work without our direct involvement. I think Zeihan is a very positive influence generally. His point that the United States is in vastly better shape than the catastrophists of Washington, DC want us to believe is valid, and he makes it with style and verve. But I think he sometimes lets that style and verve take him to places that serve his audience very poorly.
Profile Image for Brian.
Author 14 books100 followers
July 14, 2021
Whoa! This was a wild ride to say the least. In this book, author Peter Zeihan gives probably the most reasonable version of an astrologer looking into the future. He points out that as human beings, a lot of what we take for granted economically due to globalism is going to go kaput with predictable results.

This is the short version of the argument of the book:
1. After WW2, America did not have the desire to become a global empire by actually sending armies to keep nations under their thumbs. They couldn't let the Soviets take over the world either, so instead in a conference called Bretton-Woods, they said they would patrol the seas in exchange for free global trade. This led to untold prosperity for the world, including China, Europe, Africa, and everyone.
2. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have gained economically from global free trade, but due to simple numbers (a high number of boomers and a low number of Gen Xers), we will come under heavy financial stress because of a high number of retirees and a low number of people to pay for them. So we won't find it profitable to continue to patrol the waters for free. However, when the boomers die, the stress will fall away, and additionally a larger number of millennials will rise to take their place and so America is going to recover fairly well and maintain their position.
3. America is pretty much impregnable. We have two oceans, a desert to our south and a wasteland to our north. Nobody could ever invade us without great cost; even megalomaniac Hitler couldn't. We also are pretty much self-sufficient and even oil is something that we'll be able to replace. We will have no reason to pursue Empire at a certain point.
4. The rest of the world has none of the natural geographic advantages that America has and supposedly great powers like Russia and China and even Europe are hosed if America were to pull out. In addition, while America's child reduction is truly terrible, the rest of the world is even worse. They too will have a heavy burden from their retirees but no spike, and no geographical advantages. Zeihan makes the powerful point that the countries that have done well have had geographical cushioning (such as Britain). Technology changed it and gave Germany an extra boost, but Germany's geography always made it vulnerable; hence losing both world wars.
5. Therefore, since American global involvement is going to rapidly decline, the rest of the world is hosed, to put it mildly. Chaos will reign again. Russia's vast inhospitable geography and lowering population makes it prime for chaos. China is in even worse shape, since their geography is absolutely crazy. Africa already is a mess and will continue to be so. Europe could have a few big players like France and Germany, but it's still not pretty.

Like I said, Zeihan plays the role of the astrologer, and he goes into great detail about exactly who will and will not be the major players, and he also sets his sights high by predicting that this will all happen before 2030. His strongest points, it seems to me, are geography and depopulation. He gives detailed explanations about why historically certain nations have done well and others have done poorly. Too long, we thinkee people have assumed that civilization can be built pretty much everywhere, depending on ideology. Ideology and culture are important (more on that in a sec), but Zeihan gives a helpful reminder that, just as our bodies are super important in determining our lives more than we would care to admit, so too geography influences politics more than we thought. Technology has not made us gods. Similarly, not having kids is going to have consequences, some of which are surprisingly predictable. God made people to have kids, and when a culture does not have them, it is weaker. Period.

I can't speak for or against whether Zeihan's predictions will happen the ways he lays out. I can honestly say all of them could happen, but here's a few questions: will America's social chaos have an effect? Zeihan assumes that the machine will just keep going and will meet needs of survival. I am not so sure. Same with other potential nations. I don't think China or Islam have a chance (except for Turkey), given what Zeihan documents. I also am skeptical that anybody has the resources to "save" globalism. But if nations behave differently, is there any chance of different outcomes? I am not saying that Zeihan would deny this, but I just wonder if that will change some equations. But I do agree the future is bleak for the world, and it will be very interesting and instructive to watch chaos reassert itself while possibly sitting on the sidelines in relative comfort.
Profile Image for Jen.
46 reviews4 followers
September 13, 2020
The motive of reading this book was a speech by Peter Zeihan at the 2020 CFA annual conference. I was so impressed by Peter's dynamic and high-energy style delivering brilliant comments about geopolitics.

This book started with how geography shapes international interactions, primarily focusing on what makes some countries more powerful than other and how US became the most powerful among all modern economies. The author had a particular emphasis on how Bretton Woods, demographic time bombs and emergence of the shale industry shaped the world. The author also made predictions until 2030 - pretty accurate as we are approaching the future.

In the old world, easy transport is the magic ingredient of success. Cheap transportation means you can send your goods farther away in search of more profitable markets. This has been a method of making money wholly independent of government policy or whatever the new economic fad happens to be.
- England was successful at leading the industrial revolution with large volumes of capital to build the industrial base and educate the labor but failed at keeping the capital and supply chains imperially sourced.
- While England and the rest of Europe were enjoying an economic boom from the expansion in reach that deep water navigation provided, the Germans remained dependent upon expensive roads for transport, keeping them locked into pre-deepwater levels of economic development. However, the industrialization of Germany was carried out in less than 40 years while England took over 150 years.
- Among all, the United States has the better part of a continent to draw upon. Self-sufficient in everything that matters from energy to markets, they ventured out as a peer power without peer exposures. The balance of transport determines wealth and security. Deepwater navigation determines reach. Industrialization determines economic muscle tone. And the three combined shape everything from exposure to durability to economic cycles to outlook. The success in Free Trade and Cold War further reinforced American's power.

Everything that makes the global economy tick—from reliable access to global energy supplies to the ability to sell into the American market to the free movement of capital—is a direct outcome of the ongoing American commitment to Bretton Woods. But the Americans are no longer gaining a strategic benefit from that network, even as the economic cost continues. At some point, the Americans are going to reprioritize, and the tenets of Bretton Woods, the foundation of the free trade order, will simply end. That will hit hard enough, but it is only the first of three imminent convulsions that will tear the global order asunder.
- The timing is disruptive. The Americans are backing away from Bretton Woods, the global
demographic is inverting, and shale is paring back the single most energetic American connection to the wider world all at the same time. Any of these factors alone would shake the global system to its core. Together they will upend it completely.
- The near future will not be a hegemonic world. Hegemons are defined less by their power than by their needs. In a hegemony, the superpower has a goal in mind and so takes an interest in managing events, imposing an order upon the system. The Cold War was between two hegemonies.

The author predicted that the global financial wave will crest at some point between 2020 and 2024, during which 13 of the world's top 35 economies will be in ranks of the financial distressed. With over 90 percent of the developed world in that unfortunate basket, the availability of capital and credit for all will plummet.
- The kicker is that this—all of this: the dissolution of the free trade order, the global demographic inversion, the collapse of Europe and China—is all just a fleeting transition. The period of 2015 through 2030 will be about the final washing away of the old Cold War order. It isn’t the end of history. It is simply clearing the decks for what is next.
Profile Image for Ryan.
1,155 reviews150 followers
December 14, 2018
Book very clearly presents the author's concept, so it's a 4-5 star on that basis. The real question is: does this concept reflect reality and have any predictive value? Undecided, but it's certainly interesting.

Essentially Zeihan's whole thing is "geography determines destiny" (via demographics and other factors). On the basis of geography alone, the US is clearly great, and a lot of other places are in trouble, and this gap will expand. Coupled with the aftereffects of WW2: 1) the baby boom and bust and then Gen Y in the US, and the baby boom and bust and lack of recovery everywhere else 2) the Bretton Woods/Cold War arrangement and its decreasing utility to the US, he makes the case that the US will retreat from global engagement and remain strong, while most of the rest of the world is essentially doomed to varying degrees. As well, there's a massive energy boom in the US due to shale which is mentioned in this book and expanded on in his sequel.

On a purely demographic and age-based demographics basis, he seems correct. However, he neglects two powerful forces entirely: technology and technological progress, and the character/value/culture/qualities of individual humans, and groups of humans, distinct from just their ages.

It's great that ports and river systems matter, but while they provide a big cost advantage, given enough other advantages you can overcome this through technology. If a certain geographic territory had the best laws but bad geography, it would still be a winner.

I'd argue you could the right entrepreneurs in the middle of Afghanistan with a starting supply of food and weapons, come back, and there would be something great. If you took a random Afghan village (not self-selected entrepreneurs) in the other direction, you'd get shitholeistan-by-the-sea. His arguments for the US's long-term dominance come down to population numbers and ages, rather than taking into account cultural and quality changes.

Overall, it's an interesting theory. He's great at presenting it (it's fun watching a few of his talks and seeing how various things evolve over time.) . Certainly worth the time to read, just not 100% convincing without additional evidence.
125 reviews2 followers
July 13, 2017
A better title for this would be The Destined Superpower as Zeihan claims that there is really nothing accidental about the United States' preeminence in the world -- it seems to come down to geographic advantages (navigable rivers), shale (who needs oil anymore?) and its navy. And the rest of the world is doomed already or soon will be. Zeihan asserts that the US policy of protecting free trade everywhere has been the underlining of post WWII economies to this day but that the US is giving up that role and letting the rest of the world duke it out over trade policies, artificial indefensible borders and governments that soon will all turn on each other. And that's the good news. Russia is a doomed state as is Germany, England, Saudi Arabia, China and about a dozen more and that we're in for several decades of instability and militarism. And.....because the US will retrench from everywhere around the world, and we've got shale, we'll be fine. His thesis on the role of geography and demography raise some fascinating points, but I just can't deal with the doomsday scenario that he portrays. And with no mention of nuclear threats, I feel he left unanswered the big question of whether rivers or oceans or mountains are enough to ensure peace and prosperity.
Profile Image for Michael Douglas.
2 reviews5 followers
June 24, 2017
3.5 stars - This made for a thought provoking, very entertaining and often alarming read. I tend to have the feeling with books about geopolitics that the author suffers from "man with a hammer" syndrome and this was no exception. Bretton Woods, population pyramids and whether a country has a dense network of navigable rivers will seemingly seal its fate over the coming decades. To sum it up, if you're outside of North America you're in for a bumpy ride. I would have liked for it to take more into account technological advances and global warming (an afterthought, in the appendix). If any of the wide-ranging and detailed predictions about the future leading to 2030 come true, then I will revert and increase my rating (if I've survived the predicted chaos).
Profile Image for Bartosz Majewski.
292 reviews217 followers
November 15, 2020
Eye-opening and bold forecast of the future embedded in the past and filled with a lot of economic data. Coherent and disturbing. I've started to listen to Zeihan's Disunited nations 20 days ago and I'm in the middle of his 3rd book - I think that is a sufficient recommendation.
Profile Image for Alexandru.
239 reviews17 followers
April 15, 2023
I actually liked the geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan's first book The Accidental Superpower a lot more than his latest book The End of the World Is Just the Beginning. There are two major things that factor into this. The first is that Zeihan's tone is a lot less condescending and less childish and a lot more serious and appropriate for this type of book. The second is that the book was released in 2014 and I read it in 2023. In these 9 years several of the things that Zeihan predicted in 2014 have actually already happened.

The main premise of the book is that America will continue to be a great global superpower in the coming decades but it will retreat from the international order it created and focus more on internal matters. This is due to several factors: the shale revolution removed the US dependence on importing oil and turned it into an energy exporter, the demography of the US is the healthiest out of all the developed nations, the river system in the US means that the internal trade actually is more important then external trade. As such, the US no longer needs to maintain the current global order and it will step back from protecting all of the global shipping lanes and providing defense for all of its allies.

At the same time the rest of the world will be facing a major demographic crisis, economic collapse, the breakdown of trade and supply chains and massive chaos and conflict.

The major predictions that Zeihan made back in 2014 which actually became true include:

- The US will retreat from the Middle East leaving Saudi Arabia to defend for itself. As of 2023 Saudi Arabia is starting to forge closer ties with Russia and has signed a Chinese-brokered deal with Iran which sidelined the US.
- Russia will launch a full scale invasion of Ukraine by 2020 as it can not exist as a world power without Ukraine, in addition it cannot hope to hold the Caucasus without Ukraine. He was literally 2 months off in his prediction as the invasion happened in February 2021. It is likely the Covid crisis delayed the invasion date.
- France will start moving away from the EU and NATO and attempt to build its own power base. As of 2023 France is now attempting to forge closer ties with China and in 2019 President Macron has declared NATO brain dead.

The major predictions that have yet to come true include the collapse of China, Russia and the EU. However, there are signs coming from the EU and Russia which might point in that direction too.

There are also some predictions which sound incredibly outlandish such as the potential break-up of Canada with parts of it becoming independent and other parts joining the US or countries like Greece ceasing to become viable states.

Zeihan is also very bullish on the US success but does not talk about any of the risks and potential failures. For example, he does not touch at all on the potential for internal conflict and civil strife which was still brewing in 2014 but is in full sight in 2023. He also puts too much faith in 3D printing which he envisaged would replace a lot of manufacturing but hasn't come to fruition just yet.

All in all this was still a very interesting book. You have to take Zeihan's predictions with a good deal skepticism, especially his ridiculous American exceptionalism. But you can't deny the man does make some good points.
62 reviews1 follower
August 17, 2021
Om varför USA sedan 1944 och Bretton Woods har bestämt och kommer fortsätta bestämma vad som händer i världen. När de bryr sig tillräckligt iaf, vilket de inte längre gör i exempelvis Afghanistan. Den här författaren är magiskt bra på att göra komplexa frågor lättbegripliga och koka ner gigantiska koncept till enkla minnesregler. Huvudtesen är att USA har överlägsna förutsättningar att lyckas som land, även över tid. USA är sen nåt decennium tillbaka självförsörjande i energi, har en fördelaktig demografisk utveckling och en enorm inhemsk matproduktion. Kina har inget av det där, varför de måste importera olja och bränna kol och skicka ut enorma fiskeflottor som tömmer världshaven. Och i en värld där USA inte längre garanterar säkra farvatten för handel (de har kontrollerat alla världshav sedan WWII) kommer de länder som inte är självförsörjande bli mer sårbara och aggressiva. Författaren är glödhet på stora slutsatser och slarvar lite med sin antaganden om kärnvapen. Men det inspirerar till tänkande snarare än att sänka honom. Han delar också ekonomernas generalsynd i antagandet att stater/aktörer är fullt rationella och upplysta aktörer. Men man kan inte täcka allt. En av de mest givande böckerna jag nånsin läst om politik och då har jag ändå läst rätt många såna. Köp eller låna av mig!
Profile Image for Jacek Bartczak.
196 reviews60 followers
June 10, 2021
Peter Zeihan analyses countries like consultants analyze company's business models. Resources, advantages, efficiency, value chains and (mostly hostile) acquisitions - I don't know whether he did so consciously or business and geopolitics have so much in common.

Geography matters more than I thought. China will matter less than I thought.

Pure geopolitics with a little bit of history provided in an easy-to-digest form. Eye-opening. Despite the fact, it is mostly (?) about predictions.

If you're from Poland and like Jacek Bartosiak, you will like Peter Zeihan as well.
Profile Image for Rudyard L..
113 reviews345 followers
July 30, 2020
Very good and bad parts of this book.

The good-His analysis of demographics is incredible. Some of his predictions on things like the Tatars, Alberta, the rise of Turkey etc..., seem brilliant.

The bad-His theories have no space for culture or government, which is likely the dominant factor in history. Some of his predictions just end up feeling stupid due to this. Yes, Mexico and Angola could geographically become great powers but both oligopolistic social systems that would prevent that from happening. Why does Uzbekistan’s desertification result in its growth rather than simply collapsing into civil war? He ignores internal factors within the United States. Why would the US be ok with a permanent state of high immigration? Why would the US be ok with their cousins in Western Europe collapsing into war and death?

He comes from the Stratfor school of geopolitics prediction and so shares some bizarre predictions with George Friedman. One of these is that China is on the verge of collapse. The demographics behind his judgment are reasonable but he seems to cherry pick evidence to support it. He says China has always been weak and divided, something that is simply foolish to claim since China has spent 800 of the last 1000 years unified and has consistently been one of the wealthiest and most powerful states on the planet. Similarly, he bucks his own argument by saying Japan will be a great power even though they are in worst shape in the soon coming demographic crisis.

Another thing that annoyed me even though it really didn’t matter inside the book itself was that as a history buff, I found around 20 different historical errors in the start of the book. It starts to even undermine his theory when he’ll say stuff like “Germany could never unify before industrialization”, but that did occur in the 10th-13th centuries.
Profile Image for Sammer.
7 reviews1 follower
September 28, 2015
A thought provoking and interesting geopolitical analysis on the world’s history. Covers how the powers that be got to where they are today and takes a look at what the future may hold. You may not agree with everything he states, but his predictions are fascinating. The book overall is a great read.
Profile Image for Brahm.
468 reviews55 followers
September 4, 2020
Here's why America is the greatest country in the world: the most navigable rivers & shorelines in the world (by a huge factor), geographic isolation from everyone else, and shale gas.

I'd never read anything on geopolitics (nor had I planned on it; this was recommended by a colleague) so I found this book very interesting. The premise being countries and territories are the way they are due to their geography & resources. Much of it makes sense, like navigable rivers = capital = industrial powers like Germany & the USA.

Then the main theme of the book was the Bretton Woods agreement post-WW2. The US dominated and protected the oceans which subsidized free trade for every participating country, and indirectly (and sometimes directly) made everyone play nice in the same sandbox. So, fewer major conflicts between Bretton Woods members. But now, thanks to shale gas, the US doesn't need to subsidize global ocean defense, so what happens to the world when we lose Team America, World Police? (read book to find out). Lots of demography on aging populations and how that impacts a country's ability to actually do stuff (like raise taxes, advance in industry, sustain energy needs, etc).

I think this was a 3.5 star book, I'll round up because it was new and interesting for me. What holds me back from REALLY liking it is the last 5 chapters. Yes, full of interesting stuff but also full of long term predictions which I'm pretty skeptical of, especially because the book was published in 2014. My experience is prediction books don't age well. Here's an example. There's a chapter on Canada and how fragile we are, geopolitically. I think there's some validity to the argument - see the Wexit movement, Quebec separatists, etc. Canada is basically 5 zones separated by huge geographic barriers (Rockies, Canadian Shield, St. Lawrence River, etc). Zeihan makes a prediction that Alberta will separate and join the United States, and that Saskatchewan would probably follow. I'm not suggesting this is or isn't likely (what do I know?) but I found it interesting he didn't once consider the US fragmenting or a state leaving the Union. I suppose it was implied that wouldn't happen because why would anyone leave the greatest country (geographically) on earth?

Highly readable, I finished fast. I bought a copy as one wasn't available in SPL, so can lend out in Saskatoon. I will probably check out Zeihan's 2020 book to see what's changed.
37 reviews1 follower
February 10, 2023
Super fascinating, but I think there’s some big holes in his method of analysis. He goes into great depth of the geopolitics not only of the US, but of the the whole globe (most major nations). I learned a lot about how the US was able to rise to such dominance as it did, and also about the international predicaments of most areas of the world. If you’re into Thucydidean realpolitik type stuff, read this book. I think he goes off in
1) overconfidence predicting future events. He predict the Ukraine invasion which is impressive, but the sheer amount of things he prophesies with little to no caveats is excessive.
2) lack of recognition of other spheres of influence besides geopolitics. He can’t really account for the effect of, say, Christendom on the international scene.
Profile Image for Bill Powers.
Author 3 books86 followers
August 19, 2020
If you love a good analysis of geopolitical history, economics, geography and demographics, then this book is for you. This is one of the best non-fiction books I have read in years and I highly recommend.

“the Americans will return to the role that they played before World War II: a global power without global interests. No more guarding the Korean DMZ. No bases in Qatar. No Checkpoint Charlie. No patrolling the sea lanes. When it comes to the wider world, the Americans will just not care.”

“The United States won’t just lose interest in global energy security; it will lose interest in global energy altogether. The United States won’t just lose interest in global trade supply-chain security, it will lose interest in global trade in its entirety. The only pressing need for the Americans to go beyond their shores will be to guarantee their own shipping, and with evolving technologies like shale and 3-D printing, shipping is already accounting for a shrinking, not growing, percentage of American GDP.”

At the end of WWII, many global governments thought that the US would impose a Pax-Americana ala historical global empires. However, they were surprised when at the Bretton Woods conference of 1946, the US recommended (imposed) a new order under which the US guaranteed open trade, free sea lanes protected by the only global navy remaining – the US Navy and a military umbrella for those allied with the US.

Zeihan frames the current geopolitical situation as the drawdown of the global economic system that the United States imposed upon the free world at Bretton Woods after its victory in World War II. Zeihan argues that the United States used its overwhelming naval superiority to build a global trade network as a means towards the end of soviet containment, but is belatedly realizing that the Soviets are gone, that the rest of the world’s markets don’t have much to offer because they are entering dire economic straits due to aging demographies, and that America is insulated both geographically and, thanks to shale oil, energy independent[14].
With that in mind Zeihan predicts an American disengagement from the world, which in turn would leave the other nations of the globe to fend for themselves in securing access to food and energy commodities. Zeihan predicts an immanent period of international disorder:
American disinterest in the world means that American security guarantees are unlikely to be honored. Competitions held in check for the better part of a century will return. Wars of opportunism will come back into fashion. History will restart. Areas that we have come to think of as calm will seethe as countries struggle for resources, capital, and markets. For countries unable to secure supplies (regardless of means), there is a more than minor possibility that they will simply fall out of the modern world altogether.

“This transformation was—and remains—utterly dependent upon the current global setup. In the Bretton Woods world, the Americans guarantee Saudi security in order to protect energy flows, guarantee energy flows in order to enable trade, and guarantee trade in order to maintain their security alliances. But in a post–Bretton Woods shale era, the Americans have no need for the security alliances or the trade or the energy flows, which means they have no need for the Saudis. The no-questions-asked protection that the Americans have extended to Riyadh is about to be lifted wholesale. Dealing with the aftermath will require admitting Saudi Arabia’s fundamental weakness: It doesn’t have an indigenous workforce. Since the discovery of oil, the Saudis have been able to end their nomadic existence, hire outsiders to do all their work for them, massively expand their population under the aegis of a generous welfare state, and in general become impressively lazy and gloriously fat. The tendency to import labor has become so omnipresent that roughly one-third of their entire population—some 8 million people—are expatriates and guest workers. There are so many foreigners working in the kingdom that the twenty-and thirty-something bulge in the Saudi population pyramid is actually entirely made up of temporary foreign workers, particularly men.”

As much as I enjoyed, there are a couple of aspects that I think the author failed to address:
1. The willingness and ability of America’s enemies, today primarily China and to a lesser extent, Russia to attack US interest without resorting to traditional military force on the US homeland.
2. Our unique American ability to be our own worst enemy. Our greatest enemy today may be those who wish to destroy the unique American history, experience and existence from within; with a new form of socialism/Marxism. In other words, there are many in America who want to “kill the golden goose” and eat it.

Again, a great read and I highly recommend; now on to Mr. Zeihan’s latest book “Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World”.
184 reviews9 followers
July 20, 2022
If you are an American worried about international affairs, this is a book to ease your concerns. Written in 2014 in a very direct and engaging style (probably with Bobby McFerrin singing Don't Worry, Be Happy in the background), this book explains how the US has been carrying the world on its back since 1945 and will soon tire of the effort and let the rest of the world look after itself. Because North America can meet all of its food and energy (thanks to shale oil) needs internally, the US won't care what happens elsewhere, and the scenarios Zeihan foresees for the rest of the world are not pleasant.

Zeihan is a student of geopolitics and sees countries as acting in certain ways because of geography and demography, regardless of who is in charge. For instance, he writes a whole section on Russia without ever mentioning Putin. He clearly predicts that Russia would seek to dominate Ukraine, not because Putin is evil, but because Russia must in order to slightly delay its ultimate demographic collapse, regardless of whether Putin or Leo Tolstoy was in charge.

Although he obviously got the Ukraine thing right, some of his other geopolitical insights like Angola becoming a regional power or the breakup of Canada because of the secession of (surprise) Alberta, remain more questionable.

Americans should find this book refreshing in that the author seems to have no partisan axes to grind. He rarely mentions individuals or interest groups and sees politics as subsidiary to geopolitical mandates. He had the advantage of writing this book at a time when the idea of Donald Trump being president made people laugh (instead of cry), but sees the end of free trade, at which Trump made a tentative stab, as inevitable. On the other hand, he sees illegal immigration as a positive for the US as it increases the working age population.

Whether or not you buy in to Zeihan's conclusions on the direction of the world over the next decade, you will probably find his thoughts interesting.

Profile Image for Felix.
34 reviews1 follower
January 6, 2023
Very interesting, informative, and entertaining. It seems to be a great introduction to geopolitics, especially with its awesome maps. The first half of the book is brilliant, describing the geographical advantages that led to America's rise. As he describes in the book, most of his talks cover that material before delving into specific details pertinent to the audience. As such, the second half is understandably more fragmented, although still very readable.

Of course, the book is all about prediction, and so the accuracy of those must be evaluated. As Nate Silver describes in the excellent The Signal and the Noise , there are two classes of predictors, foxes and hedgehogs. As Greek philosopher Archilochus puts it (via Isaiah Berlin): "The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

Zeihan is most definitely of the hedgehog mold, and his one big thing is geopolitics, with his expertise gained from his days at Stratfor. Indeed, that's how I heard of him, as I recall seeing long e-mails back in the 90s of Stratfor's excellent detailed analysis, and also being a very satisfied subscriber of Stratfor founder George Friedman's Geopolitical Futures. Zeihan doesn't attempt to imitate the academic gravitas of Friedman (and indeed, you won't find very many citations to back his assertions), but his wittiness (particularly in some silly and memorable footnotes) provides a great deal of the book's charm.

While a Nate Silver fox may provide rather measured forecasts with conditional probabilities and forecast intervals, Zeihan goes full hedgehog with big and bold pronouncements like Russia and China being destined for demographic decline, Alberta leaving Canada to join the U.S., Turkey rising again in prominence, numerous countries becoming failed states with the end of Bretton Woods, and the U.S. continuing to rein supreme for the foreseeable future.

And although his arguments seem to make sense, it doesn't seem like many of these things are likely to happen (although I do have the unfair advantage of reading this six years after the book was published). His coverage of Russia seems most accurate, as the desperation he paints does seem to explain Putin's actions of the past few years. He also seems spot on in regards to Europe (although most anybody who studied introductory macroeconomics probably could have guessed that very different countries sharing a single central bank was a very bad idea). But both China and the Bretton Woods framework seem to be both doing just fine for the moment (although the jury is still out).

That being said, I am very glad to have read the book, as it's a lively romp through history, geography, and demographics around the world. And I am very likely to read more from him. And I think both Zeihan's free newsletter and his Twitter feed are also well worth following. Quite refreshingly, the only spam you will get are requests to donate to Feeding America.
Profile Image for Michael Huang.
830 reviews37 followers
February 8, 2023
When US summoned allies to the Bretton Woods conference to discuss post-WWII world order, plenty expected a Pax Americana. Instead, US wanted no territories for itself. Instead it offered protection of free trade and a completely open US market to those who opt in. This was a shock to the allies but in fact was a shrewd bribe to keep the Soviet Union in check. That system is the reason for the subsequent decades’ general prosperity epitomized by the fast rise of Korea and (post-war) Japan. Now we are going to enter a post-Bretton Woods era where US will no longer patrol the world’s oceans to protect free trade. The world will go back to geopolitics as before. The US will be in a unique and enviable position with great geography and relatively fortunate demographics while most countries around the world aren’t so lucky. He explains the reasoning step by step.

In terms of writing, Zeihan’s book can teach on so many levels. First, his thesis is abundantly clear. Everything is simplified. Oversimplified. And I say that as a compliment. Many authors seem to write to their intellectual peers in their shared narrow area in a sub-field. But most of us readers just want to learn a little bit of other subjects without getting bogged down by the technicalities. Can you imagine a book without a single citation? Zeihan just claims everything. And you know that and know to take it with whatever grain of salt you deem appropriate.

Second, the writing is clear too. No jargon. Quite witty. You get entertained. And who’s going to shoot the messenger of good news — that’s business savvy.

Third, there are lots of interesting facts to back his oversimplified framework. It could be luck, but he did say (in this 2014 book) that Russia will turn its eyes on Ukraine. And time is running out. They need to act before 2022. It makes you think that he might have a point after all.

Would his predictions pan out? That’s entirely another issue. But I suspect he’ll have a good ratio.
Profile Image for Fraser Kinnear.
774 reviews38 followers
June 7, 2020
The looming crisis of the contemporary [global economic] system is actually pretty straightforward. Everything that makes the global economy tick – from reliable access to global energy supplies to the ability to sell into the American market to the free movement of capital – is a direct outcome of the ongoing American commitment to Bretton Woods. But the Americans are no longer gaining a strategic benefit from that network, even as the economic cost continues. At some point – maybe next week, maybe ten years from now - the Americans are going to reprioritize, and the tenets of Bretton Woods, the foundation of the free trade order, will simply end.

Pretty scary! How astonishing that Zeihan published this book in November 2014, a just before anti-globalist sentiments found a national voice with Sanders and Trump. However, I would characterize those circa-2016 voices (against the TPP, against NATO, against existing free trade agreements) as arguing that America has been taken advantage of, while Zeihan strikes a more ambivalent posture:

In the world to come, Americans won’t have much need for the rest of the world. And what needs they do have will be largely divorced from what they perceived as important in the period of 1946-2014. Without global needs or global interests, there is no need to impose a global order.

Is he right? Zeihan relies on two enormous impending changes to the global economy as driving this isolationist pivot: global demographic aging and American energy independence. But global trade isn’t limited to fossil fuels. In fact, my naïve understanding is energy doesn’t even make up the plurality of trade dollars. As for one other major object of trade – manufactured goods – Zeihan seems satisfied to say that 3D printing will have a marked reduction to global supply chains. Having worked in 3D printing for a little while now, I’m optimistic that it will have *some* impact, but I’d temper my expectations. Zeihan also seems to ignore the other side of the ledger - American interest in exporting our economic surpluses in foodstuffs and energy.

Maybe Zeihan will be right in spite of himself? Does the anti-free trade sentiment that erupted soon after this book was published, combined with COVID today, mean we’re headed on this track regardless? What about the environmental implications from global warming? Zeihan includes an epilogue where he skims the subject, but it seems he isn’t terribly interested in it.

One can ignore his conclusions and still derive value from his thought provoking questions. For example, what happens to capital markets when the baby boomers retire? When one includes boomers across all developed western countries, this generation’s retirement savings constitute “the largest single class of financial assets the world has ever seen”. Global capital markets are only now transitioning from the principal balance of this class of assets growing to it shrinking, as boomers draw on their retirement accounts for their living.

What I most enjoyed was how Zeihan contextualized the economic circumstances of so many countries around the world. I won’t try to formulate them in any cohesive order or message, but just mark down some facts I found interesting:

United States
Today, our consumer market is triple the size of the next biggest country, and bigger than the next 6 countries combined. But we’ve actually been the largest consumer market since shortly after the Civil War. Zeihan argues that this is in large part due to our geography. Shipping is by far the cheapest method of transporting goods for commerce, and the United States happens to have “a greater length of internal waterways than the rest of the world combined.” We also happen to have the world’s largest continuous stretch of arable land (the Mid-West) situated right on top of these waterways, as well as more port potential than the rest of the world combined. Compare this to the entire continent of Africa, for example, which doesn’t have any rivers adequate for modern commercial shipping south of the Sahara, and only 10 bays with sufficient protective capacity to justify turning them into a port (with 3 of them in South Africa). Compare that to Texas, which has 13 world class ports, but only uses half of them.

Zeihan argues that Canada can be better understood as an assemblage of city-states. It turns out Canada’s major urban centers trade more with their US neighbors than with each other, due to the difficulty of traversing the country. He goes so far as to theorize how Canada might break up and be subsumed into the US, one region at time.

Zeihan is slightly more optimistic about Mexico. Zeihan relies on geography to explain Mexico’s poor economic performance to date. Mexico has no rivers large and deep enough for commercial trade navigation, and no large cohesive pieces of arable land like the US Midwest. However, like Canada, Mexico benefits enormously from proximity to the United States, and its cheap labor will continue to give it opportunity for foreign direct investment and trade with its northern neighbor.

Venezuelan crude oil is very difficult to refine, and the number of industrial centers capable and willing to do so is shrinking, as they retool for the coming wave of US shale fossil fuels. It’s entirely possible that this country loses the ability to sell the lodestone commodity that their economy is based on.

Kazakstan is nearly as large as the continental US, but with a population less than Florida.

Uzbekistan is broadly self-sufficient in oil, natural gas, and grain production, which are Zeihan’s three most important measures of economic sturdiness, after water trade resources and safe borders. This is balanced by Uzbekistan’s oppressive government and dangerous neighbors to make for an uncertain future.

Nearly ½ Iran identify as not Persian (16% is Azerbaijani)

Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has always risked losing its oil resources, as the vast majority of oil production is in the far east of the country (near Iran), with most of its population living in Riad or the far West of the country. Zeihan’s position on Saudi’s future isn’t clear to me, as he both points out that US energy independence reduces our need for a relationship with the country, but also that the majority of Saudi oil actually goes to South and East Asia.

Labor costs in China have increased by a factor of 6 in between 2004 and 2014, and, as of 2014, is more expensive on average than Mexican domestic labor.

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