Review: The Disunited Nations by Peter Zeihan

“Disunited Nations” is a forecast of the world’s geopolitical layout twenty to fifty years from now. The “global order” set up in 1946 (see review included below) is unwinding, but it is not unwound. Peter Zeihan doesn’t fix dates, but it is reasonable to suppose that, as he sees it, the complete unwinding will take another ten-to-fifteen years. Following that, it will be another fifteen-to-twenty-five more years for the dust to settle into some new version of normal. Forty years (to ~2060) and the geopolitical world will stand transformed. Alas Zeihan’s analysis, the status of nations in that future, implicitly takes climate to be a constant. He mentions “climate change” only once, doesn’t discuss it, and misses its implications for the same time-frame. 

“The Uninhabitable Earth” (2018 by David Wallace-Wells) makes climatological projections for roughly the same time-frame, twenty-five to fifty years from 2020. Wallace-Wells goes beyond that, but the near to medium-term climate future contains enough change to alter not merely the geopolitics of the world but the geography and geophysics of it! According to Wallace-Wells, a further two to three-degree centigrade rise in average temperature is now “baked into the system”. If we cease all industrial carbon output now, we will reach two degrees over the 1900 base (we are at one degree and change now) in thirty or so years, three degrees in seventy-five. But we are not “stopping all industrial carbon output now”, nor does it appear that we will even slow it appreciably over the next twenty-five years. As a result, we will hit two degrees in fifteen years and three degrees twenty or twenty-five years later, all of this well within Zeihan’s geopolitical time-frame.

The most direct climatological impact has to do with a weather-related concept called “wet-bulb temperature”, a measurement of the temperature if relative humidity was one-hundred percent. Human beings cannot survive the heat (in the absence of some mitigating technology) if bodies cannot sweat their way to cooling down. At 35C, you will die if the humidity is near one-hundred percent. At 45C, fifty-percent humidity is enough to kill you. A few dozen cities around the world reach lethal temperature and humidity levels on multiple days during their summers. In Wallace-Wells’ view, this condition will prevail over virtually all the tropical and much of the temperate Earth by 2075, possibly by 2050! In between now and then, the next five or ten years, the number of places and the number of days on which people (always the elderly and other vulnerable groups first) die because it is too hot will continue to expand. 

How much difference does a degree or two celsius make? In 2020, Phoenix had a record 50 days hitting 110F (44C), shattering the old record (33 days) set only 9 years earlier. The hottest it got was over 120F! When the climate hits 2C degrees warming, Phoenix will experience one-hundred or more days a year of such high temperatures, and on some days, temperatures will reach 130F (54C)! Phoenix is already pretty hot. In 2030 the outside will be very uncomfortable for a third of the year and, simply put, not survivable on the worst days. The city will require more electricity and water to cool buildings and sustain life. Electricity may, perhaps, be forthcoming. As for water, the Colorado river will by then be a fraction of the present volume (already below levels when the river’s physical connection to Phoenix was made). At three degrees celsius, no one will be able to afford to protect themselves from the heat in Phoenix! 

When does a city, even one well above sea level, become unlivable thanks to heat and humidity? Does it happen when the temperature exceeds lethal levels ten days a year, fifty, or a hundred? In Zeihan’s terms, some of the impacts may be perversely beneficial! Hot weather that kills mostly the elderly might help correct a nation’s demographic decline by rebalancing the age distribution! 

The people of Phoenix, and for that matter, much of the globe, will have no place to go. By 2075 coastlines the world over will be transformed; their megapolises, presently the locus of most economies, will be gone. The rough triangle between Houston TX, Mobile AL, and St. Louis MO, will be a permanent part of the Gulf of Mexico. Large-scale permanent “oceanification” will happen to low-lying places the world over. Bangladesh will be underwater, as will South Florida and a good deal of North-Western Europe.  Today’s productive farmlands in temperate zones will be too hot and too wet (the central U.S.) or too dry (California) to grow many of the crops produced in those regions today. In California, people might retreat to the mountains’ relative coolness, but those places are burning down! A leading wildland fire expert said that every burnable [wildland] acre in California would burn at least once in the next ten to twenty years!   

Zeihan projects a future based on fixed (geographic) and fluid but forecastable (demographics, present requirements for food and energy, resources) data. Like his data, some climate impacts (rising sea levels) are pretty much a sure thing, though exactly how fast this happens remains unknown. The physical geography of the world’s coastal plains (some extending inland hundreds of miles) will be very different. Food and the availability of freshwater will impact demographic trends. Zeihan makes it clear that the world of 2050 will not produce and transport as much food as it now does. He projects famine. Climate considerations suggest that famine will be global and not merely a regional problem. What will Indo-Pakistani populations do when all the Himalayan glaciers melt away, and the Indus and Ganges rivers are a tiny fraction of their present volume? In poorer food-producing (and especially water-scarce) regions, there will be mass starvation.   

Rising water will not cover the Earth. There will always be coasts somewhere. Rivers will empty into the new coastlines; new port opportunities will arise. But some of those places will merge into the regions where it is too hot or dry or wet to survive without expensive infrastructure. Will even a rich country like the United States be able to afford any of this? Longer than others, perhaps, but not by all that much. There is more woe to be had. Will cropland problems (heat, drought, floods, crop-destroying winds)  be as severe as the sea level problem twenty years from now, or will that take fifty years? Either way, the question becomes tangled with Zeihan’s projections for the relative worth of national economies, and American cropland will not alone be negatively affected by climate.   

The answers to how this works out in the near term, say the next ten to fifteen years, lie in the economic intersection between Zeihan’s analysis and climatological effects (see the link to the Wallace-Wells book, and also “The Geography of Risk” for other discussions of it). Coastal populations will fight rising waters; others will wrestle with drought, fire, or floods from storms. All will battle the rising temperature, and at some point, varying in each part of the world, it will become too expensive to do so. We cannot predict exactly when the cost of climate-mitigation will first exhaust a national economy (in the U.S., the barrier islands of the Eastern Seaboard, Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico), or when New York City begins abandoning large sections of itself.  Still, that time is but a few decades away at most. Bangladesh has less time than that! The bottom line is this: Zeihan projects a specific global distribution of wealth and resources fifty years from now. He projects massive refugee migrations because the “global order” that presently sustains many populations by trade will be gone. Thanks to climate change, that wealth (broadly and with possible partial-exceptions in places like Canada, Siberia, and the Nordic nations) will be one-tenth (the money [energy, resources] spent on early climate-mitigation efforts) and the refugee populations ten or a hundred-times what Zeihan projects. 

I haven’t the grasp of details I need to juggle Zeihan’s country-by-country analysis of the world after “the order” has collapsed plus the impact of climate change. I can make two generalizations with reasonable certainty. (1) While climate change will not alter the distribution of resources in the Earth’s crust, it will impact every other parameter Zeihan considers. (2) Everyone will come out much worse off than Zeihan predicts. I can only hope he will read this, and it will give him an idea for a follow-on book.

Dis-United Nations By Peter Zeihan (2020)

This book looks at the future of the Earth’s various nations and their relations over roughly the next 50-75 years. If you read other authors on international relations, you will recognize many of the same notes struck. But Zeihan is less interested in the relations between governments compared to that between physical countries (and regions) situated in specific geopolitical settings, with their particular demographics and economic requirements both on the selling side (outputs), and resources (inputs) needed to produce goods and feed its population. 

Zeihan opens in 1946 when the U.S. economy was half the world’s economy. The way Zeihan sees it, unlike the empires of the past whose conquests were mostly military, the U.S. offered the world a bribe. First, the U.S. would patrol the seas and guarantee freedom of navigation everywhere to all. Second, the U.S. would fight and bleed for any ally when necessary. Third, the U.S. would open its markets to its partners even if they partly protected their own. Fourth, the U.S. would provide financial liquidity to grease all the wheels and make this work. 

This four-part bribe has worked for the most part to grow the economy of the planet, feed expanding populations, and in general, keep any tendency to militaristic conquest to a minimum. The trade relationships and supply chains developed over the last half of the 20th Century, and the first decades of the 21st, are a testimony to its success. It hasn’t been perfect. Not everyone wanted to be on board. But as it happened, the great majority of the world’s economies did get on board (even China since 1972) and have benefitted, over-all (not without hiccups) as a result.

The problem is, the bribe has run its course. The U.S. economy is now about twenty-five percent of the world economy, not half. The five-hundred-fifty ship navy the U.S. had in 1946 is now down to about three-hundred ships, and one-hundred of those dedicated to supporting nine super-carriers. The U.S. can no longer afford to be the guarantor of the sea lanes, nor be an open market to any import. The same is becoming true of standing military commitments around the world. The American people are tired of bleeding, or the threat of bleeding, for others whose interests are not often aligned with our own, and there are not enough dollars to float all economic boats. 

Not only is the “great order” unwinding, but scatter-shot American foreign policy, a policy without any clear direction, is helping dissolve it even faster than it otherwise needs to go (not that other governments are much help). The question is, what happens when all of those U.S. guarantees are gone (the U.S. is, for now, still patrolling the seas). That future is what this book is about. 

Zeihan takes us on a tour of the world by country and region, describing what each will experience when the order is gone. His dominant considerations revolve around internal geography, location in the world, and population demographics over the next fifty years. The parents of that generation, the youth of fifty-years from now, already born. The economics of resources come next. What does a country (or region) produce? What inputs does it need to make whatever it is? How does it feed its population, where do its energy and materials come from, and so on? As it turns out, by Zeihan’s analysis some nations and regions will do better than others. Most end up very badly, and the mix won’t be what you expect. To be clear about one thing though, “better” and “worse” are relative terms as he makes clear at the end of his analysis. No one will be as well off in absolute terms as they are right now!

As refreshing and unexpected as it is, Zeihan’s analysis has a blind spot. It is strange that except in the context of Japan, China, and the Middle East, he never focuses on India and the Indo-Pakistani region. Not sure how he missed that one, but he did. Meanwhile, his projections have a broader problem. He mentions climate change literally one time and says nothing about it. The impact of climate change is noticeable even now, and within the fifty-plus-year timespan covered in the book climatic effects will be much more dramatic. The book Zeihan should factor into his analysis is not geopolitical but geophysical: “The Uninhabitable Earth” (2018 by David Wallace-Wells). Nothing in that book augers against any of Zeihan’s analysis except to make the outcomes for everyone even worse than his broad brush paints them. I will address this intersection in my blog.    

Review: Why Nations Fail

Picture of me blowing smoke

I’m developing something of a sub-section on social, political, and economic philosophy…

I said in the review (reproduced below) that the theory of this book very much compliments that of Francis Fukuyama also reviewed here. There are other books in this arena as well, one by Phillip Bobbitt and one by Henry Kissenger. Each of these books has something to contribute to the same subject, roughly the history of nations on Earth. What I didn’t say in the review is reflected in an early marginal note that appears in this book. I wrote that this theory of Acemoglu and Robinson, given their introduction of it, seemed “trivially true”. What I meant was that given equality of other things, a nation whose political and economic institutions were more pluralistic would, on the whole, do better economically than one whose institutions were less pluralistic. I think the authors mount a powerful argument for the theory. I think they are right. But I still think that on the whole the theory is but trivially true.

To begin, the authors examine and reject a few other theories purporting to explain why some nations are wealthy and others not so wealthy. In particular the “cultural” and the “geographic” theories are of interest here. The authors very much emphasize that the institutions of which they speak emerge through history. The process can and has taken hundreds of years in some cases and the results have always been contingent meaning that only a small difference here or there might have blocked such evolution (as it has in much of the world) or reversed it even once begun (something that has also happened). The authors emphasize that small differences between institutions in different states are magnified by “critical junctures”, events like the Black Death, the discovery of the Americas, or the invention of movable-type printing.

The authors trace these differences and how different nations (in 1600 all “extractive” as the authors term it) responded politically and economically. These responses are all broadly social, and the social fault lines are reflected by culture and in turn rest on geography. In England the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. It gave the nobility a little say over what the King did, but it was hardly inclusive politically as we would understand that today. The plague followed in 1348, 133 years later and shifted things a bit more by pure chance. A greater percentage of English nobility was wiped out than was the case for example in France, Spain, or Eastern Europe.

Four hundred and seventy three years intervened between the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution (1688), almost nineteen human generations. The book covers much more of the intervening details for example the War of the Roses, the Cromwell experience, and the installation of William of Orange. This history is what set the culture of England and insured that the English response to events would be different from that of France or Spain.

Cultural differences are social and subject to contingent social forces. The only thing contingent about geography (used broadly and into which I am folding climate and mineral resources) is which nation ends up with which territory.  Rwanda, Burundi, and Ethiopia grow delicious coffee, among the world’s best. Their coffee growing potential has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with where they are situated in the world. But none of the three have any coast. To ship their coffee to world markets each must pay transit fees to other nations in order to reach some port. If Ethiopian coffee farmers are to reap the same economic benefit as say producers in Guatemala who also grow superb coffee and do have access to a coast, Ethiopian coffee must sell for a higher price than Guatemalan coffee. Even if Ethiopian and Guatemalan economic institutions were equally inclusive (or extractive) Ethiopian farmers cannot get the same price for their coffee if they (or their elites) want to compete (and so sell for the same price) with Guatemalan farmers.

To wrap it up, nations with pluralistic institutions generally become wealthier than those without and the historical path from extractive to inclusive institutions is contingent. But among the contingencies are the culture as it evolved through many generations, and the location of the nation on Earth which limits, magnifies, or otherwise impacts the cultural contingencies and the possible wealth that might be generated under different institutions.

In my Amazon review (below) I bring up the “other end” of the whole process, something that is not the author’s concern. They are interested in why nations are wealthy (or not) now, and not what happens when even inclusive institutions go on too long. They do note that when new groups become wealthy under inclusive institutions, these become “new elites” and begin to work, politically, to constrain future inclusiveness so as to lock in their new privilege.

In the present day, such behavior in the Western and more inclusive nations has resulted in something of an equilibrium between forces, but at any given time one or the other can be ascendant. It is clear from the flattening of U.S. wages and the increase in wealth inequality since the 1970s that since that time, the push back towards exclusivity is gaining ground; an observation the authors seem to deliberately avoid making.

Why Nations Fail By Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson 2012

When I stumbled on this book I wondered how it would compare to the work of Francis Fukuyama in “Political Order and Political Decay” also reviewed. As it turns out the two works are entirely complimentary, the work of Acemoglu and Robinson riding on top of Fukuyama’s. Like Fukuyama, the author’s here recognize that a prerequisite to the political and economic orders that evolve in modern rich nations as compared to poor ones is a State, with writ over its whole territory, capable of enforcing property rights (whether they do so initially or not) and a relatively broad base of economic interests not tied solely to the land. Another prerequisite for both is the eventual evolution of a polity supporting “rule of law” which is not the same as “rule by law”. The difference is that in the former, everyone (in theory) comes under the law while in the latter the elite typically do not. This prerequisite is, in general, a consequence of the broad based economic coalition.

What begins to drive such nations is a feedback the authors call inclusive institutions, a “virtuous circle” leading to yet broader, more pluralistic political institutions and economic institutions characterized by lowered economic barriers, technological innovation, and competition that drives a broad-based increase in wealth. The authors emphasize that a virtuous evolution is not foreordained. There are always forces working to try and coerce political and economic institutions into an extractive mode in which both political and economic institutions are organized for the benefit of a few. This is, in fact, what was the case over the whole world in 1600 and has remained the case in most of the world. Though specific institutions in these countries (Russia, most of South America) have changed many times, they remain extractive and this tendency, the tendency of elites to preserve their status at the expense of everyone else the authors call a “viscous circle”.

Many nations today labor without even the prerequisite of a State writ. Such nations cannot possibly develop inclusive institutions of any kind. But even extractive institutions can grow an economy if the State writ is present and there are resources in demand by the rest of the world. Extractive societies can grow relative wealth, for example Saudi Arabia, but the authors argue (citing case after case, exploring many individual national histories) that there are severe limits to that sort of growth. Like Fukuyama these authors also recognize that even among the most inclusive nations today (mainly Western Europe, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and a few others with but one, Botswana, in Africa) are not immune from sliding backwards, particularly as concerns economics, into more extractive forms. Fukuyama, explores how this backsliding happens at the political level, while in this book, aside from the recognition that this can happen, such backsliding in the present is not specifically addressed.

This is well written and richly detailed exploration of political and economic institutions throughout the world. No continent (save Antarctica) is ignored. Acemoglu and Robinson make a fine case, and because the actual history of nations sets these outcomes much depends on how small initial differences are magnified by events out of anyone’s control (the Plague in Europe, the discovery of the Americas, the colonial grab for Africa) they recognize the limitations of their theory as well. The historical path taken by every nation or quasi-nation is unique. Emerging into the modern period there are endless variations. China is unusual in that economic institutions appear to be liberalizing while political institutions remain purely extractive. The difference, also the case in Russia, is that the State is compelled to find some solution to competition on the world stage. Chinese and Russian economic institutions remain broadly extractive and their growth will not continue for long.

The author’s point here is well made and well established. They do not, alas, address the gorilla in the room. Even if all the world’s nations were as inclusive as the wealthiest of today’s States, there are limits to growth. One problem with open-ended competition on a level playing field is that greater wealth ultimately comes down to greater resource utilization. There is only so much to go around. But this is not their problem. The goal here is to argue the case for wealth associated with both political and economic inclusiveness. I cannot find any weakness in that argument broadly conceived as the authors portray it.