[Peter Zeihan, Desunited Nations. The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World (New York: Harper Collins, 2020) 453 pgs]
review / Emili J. Blasco
The world seems to be heading towards what Peter Zeihan calls "the great disorder". His is not a doomsday vision of the international order for the mere pleasure of wallowing in pessimism, but a fully reasoned one. The retreat of the United States is leaving the world without the ubiquitous presence that secured the global structure we have known since the Second World War, forcing other countries into more insecure intercontinental trade and to seek their livelihoods in an environment of "disunited nations".
Zeihan has long been drawing consequences from his seminal idea, set out in his first book, The Accidental Superpower (2014): the success of fracking has given the US energy independence, so it no longer needs Middle Eastern oil and will progressively withdraw from much of the world. In his next book, The Absent Superpower (2016), he detailed how US withdrawal will leave other countries unable to secure important maritime trade routes and reduce the proliferation of developed contacts in this era of globalisation. The latter has now been accelerated by the Covid pandemic, which came as a third volume, Desunited Nations (2020), was about to be published. Zeihan did not have time to include a reference letter to the ravages of the virus, but there was no need because his text went in the same direction in any case.
Zeihan, a geopolitical analyst who worked with George Friedman at Stratfor and now has his own signature, looks this time at how the different powers will adapt to the 'great disorder' and which of them have the best prospects. The book is "about what happens when the global order is not only crumbling, but when many leaders feel that their countries will be better off tearing it down". And it's not just about the Trump administration: "the push for American retreat did not start with Trump, nor will it end with him," says Zeihan.
The author believes that, in the new outline, the United States will remain a superpower, China will not achieve a hegemonic position and Russia will continue its decline. Among other minor powers, France will lead the new Europe (not Germany; while the British are "doomed to a multi-year depression"), Saudi Arabia will give more concern to the world than Iran and Argentina will have a better future than Brazil.
To focus on the US-China rivalry, it would be good to pick up on some of Zeihan's arguments for his scepticism about the consolidation of China's rise.
To be an effective superpower, China needs greater control of the seas. The problem is not to build a large, outward-facing navy, but, since it is already difficult to sustain such a huge effort over time, it must also simultaneously have "a huge defensive navy and a huge air force and a huge internal security force and a huge army and a huge intelligence system and a huge special forces system and a global deployment capability".
For Zeihan, the question is not whether China will be the next hegemon, which "it cannot be", but "whether China can even hold together as a country". The impossibility of feeding its entire population on its own, the lack of sufficient energy sources of its own, strong territorial imbalances and demographic constraints, such as the fact that there are 41 million Chinese men under the age of 40 who will never be able to marry, are all factors that work against China's ability to remain united.
It is not uncommon for American authors to predict a future collapse of China. However, episodes such as the coronavirus, initially seen as a serious stumbling block for Beijing, have never really cut short the forward march of the Asian colossus, even though China's economic growth figures have naturally been moderating over the years. This is why many people's bad omens can sometimes be interpreted more as wishful thinking than realistic analysis. Zeihan certainly writes in a somewhat "loose" manner, with blunt assertions that seek to shake the reader, but his geopolitical axioms seem to be generally endorsed: if you boil down what he says in his three books, you have a clear notice of where the world is supposed to be going; and that is where it is indeed going.