These highlights are from the Kindle version of Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Governed World by Peter Zeihan.
Disunited Nations is about what happens when major powers decide they are better off competing instead of cooperating. It is a book about what happens when the global Order isn’t just falling apart but when many leaders feel their country will be better off tearing it down.
Geography might not be destiny, but it is damn close. It is the biggest factor in determining how we act and how we live and fundamentally who we are. Live in a desert and bam! you’re going to fight to protect what little you have. Live on a coast and bam! you’re going to eat a lot of foreign food. Live in a dense urban area and bam! you’re probably not going to have an issue with Tongans, Thais, Tunisians, or transvestites. Live in the mountains and bam! you’re going to be a bit… persnickety when folks from other regions roll through.
We stand at the end of the era that began with the Cold War. It’ll be less like the messiness of the early 2000s or the raw potential of the 1950s, and more a disastrous combination of the battle royales and displacements of the 1870s against the economic backdrop of the 1930s. It. Will. Suck. A mad scramble for the scraps of the era just ending. Compared with the safety and wealth of the past several decades, it may seem like the literal end of the world. But the end of an era isn’t the same as the end of history. Something new is coming. Something that, historically speaking, is far more “normal” than anything the Americans created. Just keep in mind that “normal” is far from synonymous with “comfortable,” much less “favorable.” Disunited Nations is my effort to sketch out that “normal” future.
Time erodes everything. Countries included. Surviving history requires a delicate balance of factors that most of the world lacks: border zones that are difficult to cross and an interior zone where it is easy to move people and goods and ideas around. Such a mix of crunchy and gooey is rare. Most locations are either so crunchy throughout that the locals don’t get along, or so gooey on the edges that the neighbors’ armies like to host block parties on your lawn.
Economies of scale are ultimately about specialization. Instead of you learning and carrying out every individual task, you need to learn only one—say, scoring the silicon wafer with acid. Other people take charge of all the other tasks, one each. Different people are better at different things, and matching people with their niche makes the entire system more productive and efficient.
If you side with the Americans against the Soviets, the Americans will use their military might to protect you, their economic might to subsidize your existence, and for free provide you with everything every empire throughout history had ever fought for. For the former empires, it meant more than having access to sea lanes and markets and resources; it meant having access to all sea lanes and all markets and all resources all the time as if they had decisively won a global war.
What we think of as “free trade” is much more than “just” the regular exchange of goods and services. It is much more than getting the latest doodad via Amazon Prime. It is much more than globalism. It is a global management system. A global network. A global alliance. A global order. The first global Order. It worked… amazingly well!
The Order provided the economic grounding for the entire American grand strategy throughout the Cold War. Without the Order, there would have been no NATO. With the Order, the defeated Axis powers were transformed from implacable foes to pliable allies.
The Americans were in many ways champions of stability. By enforcing America’s own brand of global peace with some Tiffany-size karats and Teddy Roosevelt–size sticks, the Americans banished from memory the old imperial boxing matches that tended to leave no room for weaker states. Instead of the vicious circle of imperial clashes, the Order created a virtuous circle of political stability, security, and economic development.
The core of US President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972 was to bring the Chinese into the anti-Soviet alliance network. The normalization process was a monumental success, the Chinese turned monumentally against the Soviets, and that shift exposed the Soviets’ entire southern flank to monumental pressure, which probably accelerated the Soviet collapse by more than a decade. It also ushered China into the global network of resources and trade, launching the Panda Boom.
While much has been said and written about the wisdom, effectiveness, and/or execution of the Global War on Terror, the thing is that from the American point of view, the United States was still providing the economic and strategic largesse of the Order, but most of the allies were no longer providing the strategic deference that was supposed to balance the equation. And so the thinking went in Washington, if no one else is upholding their end of the bargain, why should we?
Saudi Arabia’s idea of social policy is to hype up their disaffected youth with radical Islam, give them some firearms and explosives, and export them to war zones to fight for Saudi interests. Should some of those groups self-radicalize, give themselves a new name—like, say, al Qaeda—and start selecting their own targets, such as matching skyscrapers in New York City, the Saudi reaction was typically to shrug, disavow, and form a new group. Saudi Arabia’s resistance—to taking responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, to ceasing their radical-export strategy, to allowing the Americans to hunt for radicals on Saudi soil—fundamentally changed the way many Americans view their “allies.”
Speaking of NATO, the allies’ financial contribution to their national defense was weak during the Cold War. After the Cold War, their defense spending dropped so much that the French cannot move troops without renting tourist ferries, while the bulk of Germany’s submarines, surface ships, tanks, and jets cannot even deploy.
Americans have lost interest in being the global policeman, security guarantor, referee, financier, and market of first and last resort. The people who remember the world wars personally are almost gone, and the oldest of those born after the age of the Soviet nuclear threat have already voted in three presidential elections. It is difficult to justify an Order when the people doing the justifying weren’t even alive when the circumstances that necessitated its creation occurred.
By forcing order upon a disorderly world, the American alliance system inadvertently—if happily—improved nearly every aspect of human existence. It wasn’t so much a rising tide that raised all boats as a fundamental transformation of the human condition.
This Order forced peace upon Europe. This Order dismantled the empires, freeing colonies the world over. This Order enabled the formation of the European Economic Community during the Cold War, and the European Union after. This Order’s extension into the post–Cold War world is what enabled the rise of Brazil and India and China.
The benefits of global stability and continuity have manifested as deep-rooted improvements in the lives of the entire global population:
This Order has increased education levels to their highest ever.
This Order has so increased economic opportunities that the proportion of the global population living in absolute poverty has plunged from 60 percent to less than 9 percent.
This Order has improved security and health and education enough to reduce the chances of children dying before age five from over 24 percent to less than 4 percent, while reducing illiteracy from 58 percent of the population to less than 15 percent.
This Order has so improved global health that child immunizations have shifted from being the province of the rich to the global norm, with over 99 percent of children getting immunized at least once, eliminating smallpox, nearly eliminating polio, and even putting malaria on the run.
This Order has massively expanded human connectivity, and not simply due to the development of the Internet—the number of people with phone connections increased by an order of magnitude.
The Order has so fostered democracy that the governing system has spread from less than one-tenth of the world’s countries to over half. This Order has put human rights on the human agenda.
There are any number of ways to bottom-line just how critical the Order has been to the human condition. Here’s the one that hits me like a two-by-four to the forehead. For more than half the world’s population—in countries as disconnected as Korea and China and India and Iran and Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Algeria and Mali and Peru—life expectancy has increased by three decades or more since 1950. For just about everyone else, the figure is at least a decade.
It all leads to more or less the same place: the beginning of the fourth age, a global Disorder in a world without American overwatch.
A would-be hegemon must prove it is willing to bleed to protect the interests of every member of its new Order. The reason the Americans became entangled in wars in Korea and Vietnam was less to stop the march of Communism than to convince America’s allies that the country would never step away from a fight to protect their interests.
The Kazakhs—knowing the Chinese think of them as uncouth, horse-riding barbarians—moved their capital from the near-border city of Almaty to the former Soviet gulag of Astana while also getting buddy-buddy with the Russians to achieve a degree of insulation and protection from Beijing. That’s worth underlining: the Kazakhs would rather be beholden to their former Soviet masters than integrated with China.
Japan has been the traditional regional bugaboo of the Chinese for the past handful of centuries, and Japan’s at-times brutal raiding and/or occupation of much of the Chinese coast and northern interior regions leaves the Chinese itching for revenge. That’s hardly the sort of thinking that earns one friends in Tokyo. India still smarts over territory lost to China under Mao, an experience that prompted New Delhi to develop its nuclear forces… and point them at China.
The best example of the difficulty the Chinese face in establishing trust is the country that provided the Americans with their most memory-searing war: Vietnam. Agent Orange. Napalm. The Christmas bombing of Hanoi. America’s war in Vietnam was messy and angry and lasted for two decades. In contrast, the Han Chinese fought the Vietnamese for two millennia. In 2020 the Vietnamese are eager to welcome American businesspeople and carriers because they don’t think the war with the United States lasted long enough to qualify Americans as epic foes. In contrast, the Vietnamese view of China borders on the pathological.
Aside from the Americans, no one floats even a single fully functional supercarrier, much less a supercarrier battle group, much less a global naval force.
Much is made of China’s Liaoning. It shouldn’t be. On paper the Liaoning has perhaps one-seventh the combat capacity of a Nimitz… and the Chinese didn’t build it. The Soviets did. In the 1980s. Sort of. This first-of-type vessel was never completed. After the Soviet breakup, the Ukrainians stripped it for parts. The ship then languished, rusting at dock for a decade until the Chinese purchased it. Today it is used purely as a training platform.
While China has become more market oriented since the death of Mao, it is still far from a market economy. The Chinese government is willing to put a hand (and all their friends’ hands) on the scale, particularly to support state-sector companies or Party goals—triply so in times of crisis.
Charlene Chu of Autonomous Research, probably the smartest person on the planet looking at this issue, puts the figure for Chinese loans that have gone completely bad at $8.5 trillion, to say nothing of general dysfunction throughout the broader system. For the point of First World comparison, the total value of subprime loans that went into foreclosure during America’s 2007–9 financial crisis came out to approximately $600 billion.
Traditional Chinese agriculture isn’t farming (in which workers tend to fields), but instead gardening (in which workers care for individual plants by hand, like literally, each individual stalk of corn). It has to be. China has less than one-third the arable land per capita compared with the global average.
Best guesstimate? One-fourth of all urban housing in the country are unoccupied investment properties.
Cheap financing paired with global access enabled the Chinese to undercut almost everyone. A significant amount of the world’s industrial hollowing-out can be laid at the feet of China’s hyper-subsidization model, most notably the struggles of American manufacturing in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s.
China cannot offer its internal market to anyone because it needs everyone else’s markets to make its own system work—and not simply on the economic front. Part and parcel of Beijing’s (master) plan isn’t simply corporate expansion, but maximum employment.
Around 2010 the Chinese began a piecemeal currency opening, the goal being the internationalization of the yuan. Much ballyhoo was made about the Chinese being on the verge of global domination. The reality proved different. As soon as Beijing allowed thin financial connections between China and the outside world, so many Chinese attempted to move their life savings beyond the reach of the Chinese Communist Party that Beijing quickly reversed the internationalization effort.
The scale of the US dollar’s penetration into the global system is truly Herculean. Some 70 percent of global currencies by volume are linked in some way to the US dollar, in many cases being more dependent upon the US Federal Reserve for their macroeconomic stability than their own central banks. The dollar is the connective tissue between over 90 percent of global trade exchanges (nobody wants Polish zloty or Vietnamese dong or Argentine pesos, so the dollar plays middleman in lubricating all global trade save that which occurs exclusively within the eurozone). And the dollar is the sole currency for all commodity trade—even in trades that don’t touch the Western Hemisphere.
The temperamental English Channel, a mere twenty-five miles across at the narrowest point, is one of those funny quirks of geography that has literally shaped the history of the world. It was a barrier equal to the Alps in blocking armies but lacking limits for the seafaring English. Unlike everyone else in Europe, the English never needed to worry about an army getting bored and leisurely passing through, and so were freed from the burden of needing to field one of their own. Between cost savings and strategic insulation, the English were able to maintain a millennium-long continuity unmatched in world history, which allowed them to experiment with little things like capitalism and the sort of political devolution of power that would in time give rise to democracy.
China has no such insulation. Across its northern border lies Russia, a country that admittedly has had a rough time since the Soviet collapse, but which still boasts military technology that is nothing short of world class and a nearly million-man military and internal security system to boot.* To China’s southwest lies India, a country with just as many people to throw into the meat grinder of infantry combat as China.
China isn’t simply a constrained land power; it is in a box. And that’s just the start of its strategic problems.
China is an inveterate land power that has fought major land wars with each and every one of the powers it borders. It simply cannot afford the sort of resource focus that made the British navy possible. Technically, the Chinese navy is known as the People’s Liberation Army Navy, which should tell you everything you need to know about the pecking order of the navy in terms of prestige, political power, and skill sets.
China has indeed made impressive strides by any measure during the past generation in infrastructure, education, industrialization, and modernization. Between 1980 and 2020, the Chinese have quintupled their share of global economic output. But global technological leaders they are not. China’s position in the global import market is made possible not by technological edges, but by subsidized production and risk-free transport, all made possible by the American Order.
What technologies the Chinese command often have a theft component to them. Deep, pervasive hacking of foreign systems is a key component to Chinese success. It follows three basic forms: establishment of joint ventures abroad where the tech is stolen (Germany, Brazil), establishment of joint ventures within China in exchange for market access where tech is stolen (the United States, Japan), and the remote hacking of systems to steal technical advances (pretty much everywhere with an Internet connection).
Narrow AI, sometimes called applied AI, is exactly what it sounds like. An artificial system laboriously trained for one specific task so that a computer system can take a thin bit of the load from an otherwise human-labor-intensive system. Applied AI can do things better than humans, but only within the confines of strict rules, and so long as everything goes according to plan. It’s great for assembly lines and spreadsheets, but is most definitely not ready for most real-world situations.
Which means that, while applied AI can prove impressive in industries as varied as agriculture, finance, transport, manufacturing, security, and military affairs, this is not the sort of technological breakthrough—such as deepwater navigation or industrialization—that fundamentally alters how humans interact with their environment. Put another way, even if China does master applied AI before the rest of the world and somehow can maintain that edge, it doesn’t help China break out of its strategic box.
The problem isn’t that China cannot build and maintain a huge, outward-looking navy (although it probably cannot sustain the effort). The real problem is that China cannot build and maintain a large, outward-looking navy and 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 global deployment capability at the same time. For China to be a global power, it would need all of these.
Because it is far easier and cheaper to float items from A to B than to drag or cart them, water transport is roughly one-twelfth the cost of road transport. Countries with naturally navigable rivers tend to have an easier time than those without.
Plains are the key building block for successful countries. Easy to build on and easy to move across, low-development-cost land frees capital for other things, like roads and education, which in turn lead to more advanced societies. But it’s about a lot more than money. With no internal barriers to movement and communication, countries with open interiors find it far easier to achieve political unification.
Climate is key. Deserts lack the water required for broad-based civilizations, and the level of organization required to control said water often turns desert cities into isolated tyrannies. The tropics are great for vacations but are also great for bugs of both the insectoid and microbial sort, enervating human health and agriculture alike.
America’s Midwest is a place apart: The Greater Mississippi system includes over thirteen thousand miles of naturally navigable, interconnected waterways—more than the combined total of all the world’s non-American internal river systems—and it almost perfectly overlaps the largest contiguous piece of arable, flat, temperate-zone land under a single political authority in the world. The overlap enables American farmers to export their high-bulk products to global markets at lower costs than most countries can shuffle grains about within their own countries. And the ability of Americans to move easily around their own internal systems led to cultural unification with a speed and ease largely unknown in human history.
In contrast, the outer crust of the American system is world-class thick. Hundreds of miles of desert and mountain separate the Americans from populated Mexico, while scores of miles of lakes, forests, and mountains keep most of Canada at arm’s length. To the west and east, thousands of miles of nearly trackless ocean separates the United States from both the Asian and European landmasses.
Africa’s topography is wildly hostile to development, both in terms of climate (desert or tropical) and terrain (jungle and mountain). Even worse, most of the continent’s population lives atop a stack of plateaus, making trade among the African nations more difficult than trade with the outside world. That same rugged terrain makes it next to impossible for the local countries to unify their political identities. The outcome is a sad mix of external exploitation and internal conflict.
Just to the south of the North China Plain, a series of broken, densely forested peaks hive off the Yangtze Valley. Bedeviled by floods and drought, the Yellow River is a silt-laden mess, but the Yangtze is one of humanity’s great rivers, boasting nearly two thousand miles of navigability. The Yangtze has been the economic centerpiece of every successful Chinese iteration. That’s a problem. It’s an issue of continuity, but also of unity. The Yangtze’s physical remove from the North China Plain enables it to thrive in wealthy isolation while northern China is busy devouring its own tail.
Demographically, urban Shanghai alone boasts a population nearly as large as Texas. Strategically, the region’s plethora of foreign connections come in handy when the arrows start flying. Tactically, Shanghai sits on the Yangtze’s south bank, and because the Lower Yangtze is over a mile wide by the time it reaches Shanghai, attacking it from the north requires at least a modicum of a navy.
Northern China’s beef with Sichuan is threefold. First, Sichuan is by far the most culturally distinct of China’s Han-majority regions, sporting its own (awesome) cuisine and a dialect so dissimilar from Mandarin that anywhere but in centrally controlled, propaganda-heavy China it would be called a language in its own right. Second, Sichuan is big. So big that more people speak Sichuan as their first language than speak French or German. Third, the Sichuanese realize just how distinct and big and economically viable and remote they are from Beijing—a realization that often curses them with delusions of independence. Throughout most of Chinese history Sichuan has existed beyond imperial control, contributing to its long and fruitful reputation as a land of troublemakers. Sichuan has played host to this or that rebel leader or force right up until modern times. In the Chinese Civil War of the twentieth century, Sichuan was one of the last spots on the mainland to stand against Mao.
To the southeast are tangles of forested and jungle mountains about twice the size of California, jam-packed with minority groups. Managing them generates a sort of low-grade headache that never goes away. The lands west of the northern Chinese core are more of a migraine. Centralish China contains enormous empty stretches. Beyond those vast swathes of nothing live ethnicities almost pathologically hostile to the Han—most notably the Tibetans on their namesake plateau, and the Uighurs of Xinjiang. These peoples command the gateway territories between the wider world and the Han’s core territories—the Indian subcontinent and the former Soviet Union, respectively.
What we think of as “China” is in reality less a political entity and more a culture that has a damned hard time keeping itself together. Periods in which the territories of China are both politically unified and under centralized Han control are painfully thin, amounting to less than three centuries of the Han ethnicity’s multi-millennia history. It doesn’t take a lot of reading between the lines to get the gist. China’s historical periods include labels like Ten Kingdoms or Five Dynasties or the bleedingly obvious Warlords Era. It’s no wonder that the contemporary Chinese government—the Communist Party—expends so much effort on nationalist propaganda.
The Han don’t think twice about whatever flavor of repression or genocide they think might work on any given day: outlawing Tibetan Buddhism, burning down Tibetan cultural infrastructure, using tanks to run down protesting students in downtown Beijing, crushing any hint of political dissidence in Hong Kong, forcing Uighur families to house government informants in their homes, placing a million Uighur in concentration camps. It’s all a day at the office.
Far more cultures and governments and dynasties and countries and empires have collapsed throughout history from famine and failures in food distribution than have been wiped out by war or disease or revolution or terrorism.
The American Midwest is the largest chunk of high-quality, temperate-zone, arable agriculture on the planet, giving it solid baseline production potential. The jet stream carries moisture west to east across the North American continent fairly reliably, and on the odd year that it fails, the Greater Midwest still has a solid chance of getting moisture from tropical systems that spin up from the south off the Gulf of Mexico. Toss in a hard winter reset that kills off bugs and replenishes soil nutrients, and no agricultural basin anywhere else is as reliable.
Between 2010 and 2020, the Chinese demographic sported a bulge of citizens in their mid-twenties—people at the peak of their consumption experience. Everyone came to think of China as a boom state, but this was just a one-off.
Industrial and digital technologies concentrate people into urban environments. Services—whether private or governmental—work best in similar circumstances. Consider education: a single facility with a thousand students is far more efficient than a hundred schools with only ten each. Greentech likewise needs economies of scale: huge utility-level facilities in calm, sunny deserts or windswept plains—zones not well-known for hosting large populations.
All those greentech investments in China you’ve heard about? All that talk about China being the world’s green leader? Most of those installed solar panels and wind turbines are there only due to the same overinvested, highly leveraged, expansion-at-all-costs development model that has made the entire Chinese economy a grotesque approximation of Enron in nation-state form.
If you’ve been wondering why navies keep coming up over and over, in part it’s because over four-fifths of the world’s internationally traded crude oil is waterborne. Under the Order, should this or that supplier get in a snit, it isn’t all that complicated for an importer to source imports from a different party. Countries that import their crude by water have most of their energy-processing facilities in ports, so switching supplier partners doesn’t require starting over.
It was not the Chinese who created the environment that made all of contemporary China possible. That was the Americans. By putting the imperial era firmly in the grave, the Americans eliminated the powers who had been preying upon China for centuries.
Under the Order, the Chinese have kicked some serious ass, experiencing some of the fastest economic and military growth in history. In 1996, 42 percent of Chinese lived in extreme poverty. Two decades later, the figure was 0.7 percent.
Breakneck urbanization combined with Maoist population controls gutted the Chinese birthrate for decades. The one bright spot is that China’s demographics are not the worst in the world. Yet.
Only Russia has worse relations with its neighbors. When the Order ends, everything that has made China successful will end with it and no one will reach out with a helping hand.
Rugged and volcanic in origin, none of the Japanese archipelago is what you’d call a breadbasket. Ranging from subarctic Hokkaido in the north to subtropical Okinawa in the south, the territory of the nearly seven thousand islands that make up Japan is about the size of Montana, but of Japan’s 127 million people, 125 million of them live on scraps of land that are collectively smaller than West Virginia, only one-sixth of the total.
Industrialization is traumatic. Any large-scale shift in a society’s technological suite upends old patterns—in employment, labor relations, social hierarchies, and governance. Few countries manage the process gracefully. Most have the odd riot. Some face revolutions. For a point of reference, the whole Karl Marx and world wars thing was part and parcel of the German industrialization experience.
Japan doesn’t have any big swathes of flatland. Japanese cities are crammed onto tiny footprints. They can neither easily expand nor easily integrate to achieve economies of scale. If they want to get bigger, they most go up, not out. High development costs forced Japan to move up the value-added scale as quickly as possible. It wasn’t enough for the country to import and use the new technologies; its cities were too crammed to be competitive with the lower capital costs of other centers in the Industrial Age. Japan had to not only master the technologies, but also advance them.
Strategically and militarily, Japan’s newfound and rapidly advancing technical prowess combined with its appreciation for the geography of long-range naval warfare pushed Japanese engineers to construct the world’s longest-range, hardest-hitting ships. Japan floated its first fully indigenous steel battleships in the mid-1890s and its first aircraft carrier in 1922.
Attention turned to Manchuria in 1931, a Chinese region replete with fertile farmland, coal, and minerals—nearly everything Japan lacked. With these new resources and their preexisting military presence in Formosa, the Japanese could easily project power up and down the entire Chinese coast.
Japanese forces in World War II stretched from the Aleutians to the edge of India. Its navy vied with the Americans for control of the Pacific Ocean. It all occurred against the cultural backdrop that allowed for events as horrific as the Rape of Nanking, the impressment of Korean “comfort” women, and the Bataan Death March.
Assessing Japan’s rapid technological improvements, lightning military advances, apparent lack of moral center, and the logistical restraints of maritime warfare a Pacific Ocean away from home ports, the Americans chose not to do battle with Japan’s armies at all. Rather than duke it out island by island, the Americans seized only sufficient islands so that their naval and air power could wreck the shipping routes upon which Imperial Japan depended. Then, with the Japanese economy and military complex on its knees, the Americans declined ground combat one last time, opting instead for nuclear obliteration.
America’s defeat of Japan in 1945 wasn’t simply the Japanese losing a war; it should have been the end of Japan altogether. In many ways, industrialization is a straitjacket. The suite of industrial technologies improves literacy and mobility and reach and wealth and health, but without the inputs of oil, natural gas, iron ore, phosphates, bauxite, lead, copper, and so on, the whole process collapses in upon itself.
No navy, no empire. No empire, no resources. No resources, no industry. No industry, and Japan returns to preindustrial standards of living, complete with famine, disease, and centralized political breakdown. There is good reason Japan had to be nuked to be forced into surrender. The Japanese knew full well that military defeat meant the end of Japan as a country. There could be no middle ground between a Greater Japan that was industrialized and the fractured nonentity of the Shogunates.
But the Americans surprised them, in large part because the Americans needed their defeated Pacific foe. The Order’s core rationale was for America’s new allies to stand between the Soviet Union and the United States—and to do so willingly. The United States achieved this by imposing security globally, crafting an international economic system, and granting unilateral access to the American market. In one fell swoop, the Americans provided the Japanese with everything Japan had fought for—and ultimately lost—between 1870 and 1945.
In a single generation, Japan recovered from the destruction and despair of its World War II defeat to become the second-largest economy in the world. That achievement was notable from any angle: the unexpected preservation of the Japanese way of life, the ongoing success of the Japanese technocratic experience, the anchoring of Japan in the American alliance structure, and the prevention of a large-scale Soviet expansion in the Pacific theater.
One of Japanese leaders’ favorite Order-era tools to maximize their economic strength was currency manipulation. The central bank would print lots of yen and use them to buy dollars on international markets, driving the yen down in value versus the dollar, making Japanese goods relatively cheaper, and thus encouraging Americans to purchase them. Japanese exports to the United States—and from them the Japanese employment, economic, and political systems—would enjoy a nice little kick.
Subsidizing an ally to make them strong against a common enemy makes sense. Subsidizing an ally to the point that the ally becomes wealthier than you makes somewhat less. The Japan question quickly boiled up into a headline American political issue, featuring loudly in the 1988 presidential election among both the Republican and Democratic candidates, as well as attracting the ire of a New York property mogul by the name of Donald Trump. It was the first true crack in the edifice that was the global Order.
The Communist Party’s authority is predicated on improving economic conditions, and for a mix of reasons China now faces interlocking crises in finance, consumption, housing, energy, materials import, merchandise export, pensions, and manufacturing. Each of the eight will hit the Chinese harder than the Americans got hit during the 2007–9 financial crisis, and all will hit more or less simultaneously. One of the downsides of single-party rule is, when recession hits, there’s no one else to scream at.
Oil supertankers with the pedal to the metal (operating above safe design speed) still need nineteen days to make the trip from the Persian Gulf to Shanghai. China needs six two-million-barrel supertankers every day to keep its system running. But the Chinese have only about seventy surface combat vessels very roughly suited to the task that could even theoretically make the trip in the first place. Along the entire route, they will be operating in or near potentially hostile powers—such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and India—and doing so without a smidgeon of air support. Defending a string of—at a bare minimum—eighty-four slow, fat, supertankers sailing through moderately to extremely dangerous waters at any given time is simply impossible with the navy China has.
Japan doesn’t only build but also designs its own naval vessels and has since the 1880s. Japan’s navy is easily the second-most powerful expeditionary force in the world. China’s first designs date back only two decades, and most of its advanced designs are little more than clones of foreign ships. But most of all, the issue is range: the entire Japanese fleet is blue-water capable.
And never forget those all-important aircraft carriers. Japan’s larger pair—the Izumo and the Kaga—will soon be carrying the aforementioned F-35s and so will pack more punch than nearly any ship in history save the American supercarriers. These mobile air bases enable the Japanese to engage in offense or defense wherever they want and, for the most part, out of range of Chinese anti-ship defenses.
China’s situation vis-à-vis Japan is more than a bit like Japan’s position vis-à-vis the United States at the dawn of World War II. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 failed to sink the most powerful units of the American navy—its carriers—which were out to sea. Japan’s navy is fully blue-water and doesn’t spend a lot of time in port, a habit likely to intensify if geopolitical tensions are running high. Hitting Japan not only wouldn’t remove Japan’s navy from the board, but it would also give the Japanese full justification to treat all Chinese merchant shipping anywhere in the Pacific and Indian Oceans as prey. In less than a month, China’s entire global position would dissolve into dust. That time frame assumes that the Chinese do not fall prey to a Japanese first strike, and that the Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Americans, and others remain neutral.
It really wouldn’t matter how an assault on Taiwan would end, because even an outright Chinese occupation of Taiwan doesn’t solve China’s problem of being far from its resource needs and end markets. It all still ends with Japanese regional primacy: a war-wrecked Taiwan would be formally folded into Japan’s military sphere of influence, while an intact Taiwan would be formally folded into Japan’s economic sphere of influence.
If the Americans choose to venture out of their continent at all, Southeast Asia will undoubtedly be a stop. It is one of the few locations on the planet with demographic stability and industrial potential unconstrained by security complications.
Stalin saw the output of the newer, more modern farms as no longer the bounty of the peasant class, but instead the property of the Soviet state. The Soviet government confiscated their agricultural output to support the factory workers living in antlike conditions. With no hope of prosperity, the farmers quit trying to grow surpluses at all, using their new equipment to grow just enough for their own families. Annoyed by such “traitorous” peasants, the Soviet government took every single grain of output. The result is known by different names in different parts of the former Soviet Union, but one word everyone can agree on is famine. Depending on whose numbers you use, somewhere between six million and thirteen million people died during the Soviet Union’s collectivization crisis in the early 1930s. Most of those who perished lived in the countryside, where birthrates were highest.
A quirk of the Soviets’ Russocentric, top-down, statist, information-controlled system was that the only people who had a full picture of what was going on were those in the top tier of the intelligence services. By the late 1970s, the leader of this group, Yuri Andropov, had privately come to the quiet conclusion that the Soviet Union had lost the Cold War. Ascending to national leadership in 1982, he and his disciples, Konstantin Chernenko and Mikhail Gorbachev, began an internal debate about how to manage defeat with honor. The Soviet collapse occurred without solving the problem, and the pipeline for new leadership recruits—never particularly robust—shut down completely.
Keep the gains of Putin’s Russia in perspective: they are improvements from abysmally low levels. Death rates for Russian males between fifteen and twenty-nine were over six times those of Iraqi men during the American occupation and subsequent civil war—which overlaps the period of “stability” Putin generated.
The superior organization and technology of German forces had overwhelmed Russian forces time and time again throughout history. It wasn’t exactly a hard fight. In the opening days of World War I, in some battles the Russians had only enough firearms for about one-third of their conscripts. Russian battle strategy was for the unarmed two-thirds of the troops to rush into combat along with those lucky enough to have weapons, pick up the guns of those who fell, and keep fighting. Needless to say, it was a stupid plan that didn’t work. The Russian defeat at German hands in World War I was so complete that it initially cost the Russians all their Ukrainian and Belorussian territories. Only allied victory a year later restored these lands to now-Soviet Moscow.
Russia won the Battle of Stalingrad not based on tactics or technology, but on numbers. The same proved true for follow-on battles at Kursk and the Mius and Belgorod and Kharkov and Smolensk and the Dnieper and Kiev and the Crimea and Narva and Debrecen. In each fight, the Russians brought wave after wave of disposable troops. Most of these Soviet wins took a second attempt. Some took four. In some battles, the casualty ratios were five to one against the Soviets, but they… just… kept… coming. Never forget the first rule of life in the Hordelands: fight with a horde.
In addition to Russia’s shrinking demography and loss of the former Soviet territories, rising disease and drug-addiction rates mean that the number of bodies available for Russia’s defense is already down to less than one-fifth of what it was in 1989. By 2022 the Russian army will likely have shrunk to half of its 2016 size, making it incapable of defending the old Soviet borders, much less the longer, more vulnerable borders Russia has now.
Russia’s future is bleak. Demographically the country faces inevitable collapse. While that collapse is in slow motion, it has already progressed far enough that, if Russia faces a large-scale invasion from any quarter, its only viable defense option would be its nuclear arsenal.
Germany’s World War II defeat wasn’t simply economically, culturally, and militarily jarring; it physically reduced the size of postwar Germany by roughly a quarter. The postwar governments of Germany’s neighbors forcibly ejected the Germans living in the formerly German lands. Postwar German authorities almost universally settled these expellees—who accounted for about 18 percent of the population of the combined West Germany and East Germany—in urban apartments with little space for living, much less procreating.
In Europe, the institution that operationalizes the American-led Order is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The NATO alliance shoehorned all European militaries—Germany included—into a single command and logistical structure under American strategic and operational authority. NATO’s twin goals were to force an internal Western European peace while also securing Western Europe against Soviet aggression. As Hastings Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, so famously put it, the alliance’s raison d’être was “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.”
Europe now faces simultaneous, interlocking crises: currency, finance, banking, monetary policy, supply chains, inequality, migration, oil, natural gas, electricity, demographics, consumption, exports, imports, Libya, Syria, Turkey, Russia. (Perhaps even America?) It gets worse: Any response requires that all European states agree on how to prioritize and address each problem.
The French Revolution didn’t simply behead the royal family. Its subsequent Terror introduced Western Civilization to populism of the ugliest sort—mobs large and small literally burning down the Ancien Régime, complete with impromptu execution tribunals so prolific that there were occasional basket shortages because so many heads needed to be caught. Things like this happen when ossified cultural, military, and economic norms melt away in a few short months.* What emerged from the detritus in the French Terror’s aftermath, however, wasn’t simply a reborn France, but something fundamentally new. Nationalist France.
The most positive feature of Germany’s geography is its dense webwork of navigable rivers, granting it the best topography on the planet for economic development. The most negative feature is that those same rivers are on Germany’s outer edges rather than in its middle, making it easy for Germany’s neighbors to hamstring German unity. The Order magnified the benefits of the former while eliminating the weaknesses of the latter.
The European Union faces any number of internal challenges: demography, exports, currency, migration, banking, financial, consumption—any one of which is sufficient to end it. Hit with all more or less at once in a time of international turbulence, the EU lacks the capacity to cope.
France’s governing system at the time of this writing is the fifth constitutional iteration since the Revolution in 1789, ergo the country’s formal name: the Fifth Republic of France. In contrast, Britain has suffered only two continuity breaks since the penning of the Magna Carta in 1215: the War of the Roses and the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell.
There are more people in France than just the French, and you cannot just invite yourself to join a family. You must be invited. Outsiders are rarely welcomed. There’s some truly ugly stuff under this overturned rock.
The Persians have had their highs and lows just like everyone else, but most notable is the fact that the lack of local competition meant that the Persian empires of the past didn’t so much rise and fall as expand and contract. Only on rare occasions did the Persian core itself fall. Today the Persians are under only their seventh governing system since the rise of the Achaemenid Empire. Americans—who are still on their first governing system—might feel a bit smug at that, but that Achaemenid Empire first rose twenty-six centuries ago. These folks have some serious staying power.
The early Persians were the original multiculturalists in that they maintained a relatively loose definition of what “Persian” meant, making it possible for neighboring groups to be admitted into the Persian whole.* The relative success of Persian lands compared with the desert communities around them added to the attraction.
Successful industrialization requires a lot of capital—typically generated by navigable waterways—to fund industrial development, and flatlands to keep the costs down. Persia has neither. What Persia had was a loose, fractured, valley-by-valley economic system based heavily upon local craftspeople and on-again, off-again internal trade. It was spectacularly advanced compared with everyone else in the preindustrial Middle East, but it couldn’t hope to keep up with the endless flood of high-quality, cheap goods out of capital- and river-rich industrialized Europe.
Right from the start, the American-Iranian relationship under the Order was a frustrating one. Iran’s political, business, and religious elite were not fused into a single family or city or region. Iran was a complex, cosmopolitan tableau of competing power centers and ideologies.
In 1953 this manifested as an American-sponsored coup. In 1979 it took the form of a popular revolution against the American-sponsored Iranian leadership. The shah was out, the ayatollahs were in, and the American embassy staff was held hostage for 444 days.
Within months of the shah’s fall, Iran began deploying intelligence assets throughout the Middle East to play the divide-and-conquer game—no wheel invention required. The game has worked well nearly everywhere the Iranians have played it.
Modern Saudi Arabia emerged from the Ottoman Empire’s wreckage in 1932… and six years later some Americans poking around in the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia discovered oil.* The result was a country that hasn’t exactly restored anyone’s faith in humanity.
The state of Saudi Arabia is first and foremost a medieval-style monarchy—a tyrant-king, multi-wife, family-murdering, crush-the-peasants, rich-get-richer, poor-get-poorer, off-with-her-head monarchy. Power is concentrated wholly within the ruling family. Political dissent is routinely punished by torture and execution.
With social stability a fragile thing, the last thing the ruling family wants is a bunch of college graduates. Anyone with a technical degree would have no reason to remain in the country.
Rather than go through the effort, expense, and risk of educating the Saudi population, Riyadh imports millions of guest workers as needed—Americans and Europeans for highly skilled work, and South Asians, Filipinos, and Indonesians for mid-skilled and unskilled labor. The country’s manufacturing base is miniscule outside of oil-related stuff such as refining and petrochemicals.
The Saudis are hesitant to build an actual, functional army. Giving a large, organized group of men competence with firearms in a state ruled by a family that’s a cross between Game of Thrones and The Beverly Hillbillies would guarantee coups.
Social management follows a simple process: use free food and housing to keep the population quiet, and beat the crap out of anyone who steps out of line. None of the population hold actual economic value to the ruling family, and so all the population is utterly expendable.
Saudi income comes from oil—the material at the heart of the modern economy. Oil is the source of some 95 percent of the world’s transport fuels and 85 percent of the world’s various petrochemical products—a list that includes everything from wallpaper to tires to asphalt to safety glass to nylons to insulation to herbicide. Getting their wealth through this vector grants the Saudis far more influence than if they had a printing press that could churn out a bottomless supply of American twenties. Oil doesn’t simply make them rich; it makes them essential. To everyone.
Saudi Arabia is a very odd cat. It cannot risk having a normal military or a professional class for fear of overthrow. It must import vast amounts of labor on temporary contracts to run its economy, applying liberal doses of violence to the unskilled and a steady stream of bribes to the skilled to keep its foreign workers in line.
In the 1990s, the Taliban loved to display Sunni dominance by publicly executing Afghan Shia. Sometimes dozens at a time. Sometimes in stadiums. Iran utterly lacked the military capacity to stop such atrocities, yet didn’t want to accept Afghan Shia as refugees because they weren’t Persian.* So Tehran had to sit and quietly seethe until the Americans pushed the Taliban out in 2001–2. The Saudis, for their part, helped form the Taliban and retain strong religious, intelligence, and military links throughout Afghanistan’s underbelly despite their nominal alliance with the Americans.
Tehran has been so obsessed with opposing American interests in the Middle East for so long that it views the American withdrawal from the region as an unmitigated win. In reality, it is an unmitigated disaster. Every drop of crude oil the Iranians export travels by tanker ship through the Strait of Hormuz. Historically, the same has been true of crude originating in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
Things have changed. The Iraqis now have a pipe that runs north into Turkey and out to the Mediterranean, while the Saudis and Emiratis have built a Hormuz bypass line. The Arab states of the Persian Gulf still use Hormuz because—in a time of Order—it is cheaper, but they are no longer wholly dependent upon it. Of the 12.3 million bpd of crude the Arab states of the Gulf exported in 2018, fully 6.6 million could be transferred via pipe bypass options. The Iranian volumes that could similarly avoid Hormuz? Zero.
The Turks are ancient, dating back to at least the sixth century, making them one of the oldest consolidated identities of the Middle East and Europe.
The Turks failed. What went wrong? In a word, technology. About the same time the Turks were laying the groundwork for their first attack on Vienna, the technical limitations that blocked everyone from sailing the ocean blue evaporated. Sailors and scholars and tinkerers in far Western Europe learned to construct bigger, stronger ships that could survive on the high seas. They developed the means to sail not just with the winds, but also against them. They figured out how to discern their location, day or night—enabling them to navigate and sail at night. The deepwater era began. For the Turks, this was an unmitigated disaster.
The new Turkey combines the cultural grandeur, muscle tone, and arrogance of the Ottoman Empire with the religious leanings, disdain for secularism, and distrust of the Western world of the Islamists, and with the authoritarian, chauvinistic, and ethnic parameters of the secularists. If the goal is a peaceful, multicultural, globalist society, it’s not quite the worst of all worlds, but it isn’t far off.
The only outcome of the brewing contest between Russia and Europe that extends the life of the Russian state is one in which Russian forces consolidate control of the Baltic Coast and the Polish Gap as well as the Bessarabian Gap, all of Ukraine, Moldova, and the Caucasus republics. Failure to achieve all these goals leaves the Russians unanchored and engaged in a war of numbers and/or movement that they cannot possibly win.
Turkey is still figuring out not only what it wants, but who it is. In 1995 Turkey was a hard-core authoritarian military regime with a healthy civil society but accountants who might as well have been Italian. In 2005 Turkey was a mildly Islamic democracy run by economic technocrats who might as well have been German. In 2020 Turkey’s democracy is dead, and the country is on a rapid slide into authoritarian, ethnic-based populism that looks practically Russian.
Turkey itself is a mountainous peninsula that typifies an ugly house in a gorgeous neighborhood: Turkey bridges Europe and Asia, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, Russia and the West.
Brazil isn’t flat. Think of populated Brazil as a table that’s lost two legs, with the missing legs in the interior of the country. The bulk of populated Brazil’s coastal zones is a series of cliffs known as the Grand Escarpment. Ever tried to run a train up a cliff?
Brazil’s roads are poor. In part, it is a materials issue: concrete doesn’t set properly under high humidity, introducing warps into the finished road, while asphalt often re-liquifies under high heat and normal traffic tends to squeeze the road material to the shoulders.
Today 1 percent of the Brazilian population owns half the country’s real estate, with the six wealthiest Brazilians having as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of the Brazilian population. In contrast, in America, the pioneers became freeholders became the middle class. Democracy developed in parallel, being reinforced by economic trends. In comparison, Brazilian democracy is weak and recent, truly putting down roots only in the 1990s after the military handed power to civilian authorities.
Brazil has one of the world’s highest rates of urban assaults, with a murder rate five times that of gun-happy America.
The culture of crime isn’t simply endemic; it’s structural. The favelas do not benefit from traditional city services—not even utilities—so local mafia groups serve as the de facto providers of power and water, muscling the inhabitants out of whatever they can manage. As if that were not bad enough, these mafia groups tend to be run by the police.
Colonial Brazil hosted the highest proportion of slaves of any of the New World colonies. After Brazil broke away from the empire in 1822, independent Brazil did not simply continue the practice; Brazil expanded it. Best guess is some 4.9 million Africans were sold into Brazilian slavery—more than half of the global total. So dependent was Brazil that it did not criminalize slavery until 1888, making it the last country in the hemisphere to do so.
Of Brazil’s seven former presidents since democratization in 1985, two have been impeached, two have been imprisoned, and two more (as of February 2020) remain under investigation.
The Brazilian military walked away from power in 1985 and is totally gun-shy about returning to politics. That rehabilitation is not only a topic of discussion within Brazilian political circles but also that the Brazilian military is already gaining hands-on expertise running some aspects of city services at those cities’ request is a sign of just how desperate the situation has already become. And this is before the Disorder rolls in.
The Order’s improvement of global security and distribution capacity put famine on the run, but it was Brazil’s surge in output in the post–Cold War era that started the entire world on its march to better nourishment. Remove Brazil and the Order, and fifty years of nutrition gains collapse all at once, with the worst impacts falling on countries early in their industrial modernization and at the lower end of the income scale. Central Europe, Southeast Asia, and the northern third of South America top the first list. Central America and South Asia top the second. Sub-Saharan Africa is unfortunately on both. China too is a big casualty, primarily due to its size: there aren’t many places that can even hope to take the edge off China’s appetite.
The already “terraformed” status of much of the cerrado also argues for some economic dynamism. Cerrado soils are functionally infertile; they support the sort of plant life people can eat only if the land is fertilized. If the fertilizer disappears, it isn’t as though it instantly reverts to jungle. It turns barren. For a few years at least, an untended cleared cerrado will look more like Tatooine than Dagobah. If the money becomes available, the land won’t take too much prep work to bring it back into production.
Brazil owes its modern existence to globalization and the Order. Without the foreign capital to fuel its infrastructure and agricultural sector, without safe transport to send its beef and soy to customers around the world, Brazil will struggle to maintain its economy on its own.
Argentina’s defining geographic feature is also the bedrock of its success. A series of South American rivers meet and empty into the Atlantic Ocean one-third of the way down Argentina’s Atlantic coastline. This confluence of rivers, named the Rio de la Plata, is one of the largest estuaries in the world and is a massive commercial hub.
Buenos Aires serves as the central node for all the country’s agricultural processing and export, all its financial and import activity, most of its industrial base, and its population core, cultural heart, and political center. It is New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Detroit, Minneapolis, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington DC all in one.
The eastern coast of North America boasts barrier island chains and the Chesapeake, features that provide a plethora of coastal purchase and shielding for communities while still enabling direct sea access for all. Even inland urban zones like Philadelphia could reach the ocean via the Delaware River, while even the poorest farmer could access the maritime network to sell grain downriver.
Brazilian independence arrived in 1822. Now the Portuguese were not only trying to supplant the Spanish, but also fighting their own colonials. In the chaos of that transition, many Spanish caudillos saw an opportunity to take it all. In 1825 a broad caudillo alliance launched the Cisplatine War, crossing the Uruguay River and wreaking so much havoc that Brazil was forced to abandon the southern Cisplatine. At the war’s conclusion, in 1828, Uruguay was carved out of Brazilian territory to become an independent nation.
Argentina already boasts the world’s third-largest shale oil and natural gas production, behind only the United States and Canada. As an additional kicker, Argentina is coolly in the top five countries globally for solar and wind potential. Every electron green power can generate locally is another bit of petroleum available for export.
Argentina has a near-perfect demographic profile, which is rare. It has resource wealth, which is rare. It has dreamy geography, exceedingly rare.
Way back in the War of the Pacific of 1879–84 the Bolivians and Chileans crossed swords. As part of the postwar settlements, the Bolivians had to surrender to Chile all their ocean frontage as well as much of the Atacama Desert—the same desert that is home to most of contemporary Chile’s copper and lithium production. Bolivia remains just as pissed off at Chile now as it was when it lost the war over a century ago.
If Argentina succeeds in reconsolidating its own nation and achieving primacy in Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, then Argentina will command the world’s fourth-largest chunk of temperate-zone arable land via the world’s second-largest naturally connected, naturally navigable waterway network in a regional geography where it has no competition. As Argentina recovers, it will quickly become a sandbox superpower, but in facing no local threats whatsoever, in time the Argentines will find it really easy to project out. It is precisely this combination of factors that in time created the American superpower.
In most cases, a country’s geography hardwires certain strategic needs into its DNA: Russia must expand to more defensible boundaries; Japan must secure its supply lines; Germany must act first or risk being overwhelmed; Brazil must seek external financing. Such perennial demands limit options, focus minds, and make it less relevant which political ideology dominates on any given day. Not so for the United States. American power is both huge and insulated. Until the rise of the Soviet threat forced the bipartisan unity of the Order, American policy varied with the political passions of the day. Now, with the Order’s end, the United States returns to a more “normal” strategically unfettered state.
The Republican Party is broadly an alliance of six groups: the business community, national-security conservatives, fiscal-primacy supporters, evangelicals, pro-life voters, and populists.
The country’s most politically liberal region, the Northeast, is strongly majority-white and will remain so for the rest of the twenty-first century. It is also the country’s most rapidly aging area. Retirees tend to be far more strongly socially conservative than liberal, retirement being the milepost in life when the “get off my lawn” mentality tends to kick in. As the Northeast eases into mass retirement in the 2020s and 2030s, a growing slice of the country’s “liberal” base that the Democrats depend upon will naturally age into something more populist and more conservative.
Americans ultimately did achieve their goal of destroying the people responsible for the 9/11 attacks, but the way they did so critically degraded their global alliance structure along with the functionality of many countries in the Islamic world. They guaranteed that the region would be fertile ground for groups that thrive in areas of weak central control—groups like al Qaeda.
Lacking the political and strategic bandwidth to both fight the Global War on Terror and confront a rising China, the Americans left the China relationship on cruise control. The Chinese seized the opportunity with both hands and gradually but ever-more forcefully pushed their economic reach and in time their military reach to every corner of East Asia. Between 2000 and 2020, the Chinese economy nearly quintupled in size.
Is it American foreign policy to oppose terrorism or to oppose Iran? Because the countries that do the most to generate transnational Islamic terrorism are the countries that do the most to oppose Iran.* Is it America’s goal to pursue human rights or expand trade? Because many of the countries who most excel at dehumanizing humans are among the most lucrative trading partners.* Without an overarching goal, America’s priorities change not year by year, but often hour by hour, with diplomatic, military, and intelligence efforts often working at cross-purposes.
While inequality is a big issue in the country, even people laboring full-time at minimum wage pull down about $15,000 annually. That might not sound like much, but it is five times the median annual household income globally.
Disorder-era China will lack reliable supplies of almost everything. Many Chinese coastal cities—especially those in the south—will eagerly embrace anyone who can provide them with imported goods, especially in the fuels and foods categories. Especially after China’s central government proves unable to continue the policies of bottomless credit that have defined Chinese economic growth since the death of Mao.
Of late very little of America’s war fighting has involved, well, fighting a war. Instead of clashes with other organized militaries, American forces have alternatively been doing a lot of patrolling and sweeping and hunting and drone warfare.
The NAFTA network is the only manufacturing system on the planet that does not require global maritime access. A small degradation in maritime safety not only destroys most manufacturing supply chains, but also forces many of them to relocate to the only place where inputs and production and consumption are co-located: North America.
Oil is processed into fertilizer that helps grow foodstuffs, which are transported by ocean the world over. Any interruption along that chain of events means food does not make it to mouths. Few countries have their entire supply system internally; fully 75 percent of global oil is wrapped up in transnational trade, and the United States’ internal supply-chain system for all the various inputs is by far the world’s largest.
London’s post-EU plan was to shift its trade from the eurozone to the rest of the world with a heavy emphasis on the former empire. That strategy has a severe problem: extracontinental trade requires global stability that will soon no longer exist, and the United Kingdom’s post–Cold War military downsizing means the UK lacks the ships to protect its own long-haul shipping.
Even at the Order’s height, the Northeast Asians regularly fumed at one another. The Koreas, along with China and Taiwan, still cling to a military standoff so entrenched they remain technically at war. Japan’s relations with China are beyond adversarial, while even Japan and South Korea—supposedly core American allies—regularly have deeply personal fallouts over history, trade, tech, textbooks, and uninhabited islets.
Driven by feelings of technological, economic, racial, and historical superiority and grievance, there are powerful factions within all these countries itching for a fight. And this time the Americans will not be there to stand in the way.
The way the Americans are departing increases the scope and depth of the coming conflict, for they have unofficially anointed Japan to be their successor as regional hegemon. They have officially urged the Japanese to reinterpret the constitutional clauses that limit military action—clauses the Americans wrote—so the Japanese can take on the Chinese directly. And the Americans have used a mix of intelligence sharing and military-technology transfer to make the Japanese as formidable as possible.
The United States has always held proprietary views about the Americas, first laid down in the Monroe Doctrine: Eastern Hemisphere powers are not welcome in the Western Hemisphere, and the United States will not only resist their intrusions, but will take action to dissuade them from intruding in the first place. Under Teddy Roosevelt, that policy advanced to the point of sponsoring or stopping coups in Latin American countries to deny European powers potential footholds.
Nearly all of the Canadian population lives in the line of widely separated urban regions near the American border: Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City. It’s ironic that the one farthest from the US border—at about two hundred miles, Calgary is more than twice as far away as the others—is the one culturally closest to America. Every mainland Canadian province trades more with the United States than the rest of its own country and also is constantly exposed to the full array of American power.
American-Saudi relations will not be the normal state-to-state type, but instead more like the relationship of a rich tycoon with the goon squad he occasionally hires. If you want to build something or manage a relationship, you call Tehran. If you want to break some legs or burn down a building, you dial up Riyadh.
The American economy isn’t simply the world’s largest and most diversified economic system; it is the least dependent upon the outside world for its health. The world needs the American economy to survive, not vice versa.
Few recognize just how beneficial and transformative the global Order has been to the world writ large, much less their personal lives. Globalized food supplies and manufacturing supply chains often seem too complicated or distant to feel like part of day-to-day life. Here’s something a bit more tangible, and probably more than a bit more terrifying. The fact that most people now consider the Germans and the Japanese to be nothing more problematic than rude tourists as opposed to crazy-eyed armies committed to eating the horizon is a testament to the Order’s profound success. Wars of expansion haven’t been fully eliminated, but since 1946 they have been rare.