THE BIG IDEA: American will retreat to the safety of its borders while other countries struggle to find their place behind America is this new global order. Without the American-led global order, the world will face turbulence not seen in a hundred years.
0. Introduction: Moments of Transition
Geography might not be destiny, but it is damn close.
The Order will come crashing down.
In creating their anti-Soviet Cold War alliance, the Americans by hook, crook, carrot, and stick brought every significant power of the past five centuries together under a single banner.
The Americans have changed their mind about their alliance and have turned sharply more insular.
In a world without America, the questions become: Who will still benefit from some lingering connection to the Americans? And who can go it alone?
Without the global security the Americans guaranteed, global trade and global energy flows cannot continue.
France will lead the new Europe, not Germany. We should be worried about Saudi Arabia, not Iran. We should be thinking about how to remedy mass starvation in China, not counter its economic and military clout.
1. The Road So Far
1.1. The First Age: Empire
It all comes down to a pair of concepts we all instinctually grasp but spend little time pondering. The first is continuity. The second concept is economies of scale.
National success requires achieving both continuity and economies of scale.
For over four thousand years, empire was the norm.
1.2. The Second Age: Order
When the dust settled, only two powers remained — the United States and the Soviet Union.
Combine American shared identity with fantastically crunchy borders and a truly wonderful gooey center, and post-Reconstruction America isn’t simply a fundamentally different sort of political beast; it is the most powerful country on Earth.
The United States floated what was indisputably the most powerful navy in history.
The Americans pledged total physical security for anyone who joined their alliance, protecting them with tanks, troops, ships, and the still-under-development nuclear umbrella.
1.3. The Third Age: Order Without Borders
None of the four subsequent presidents picked up the challenge of George HW Bush to reform the Order and build a better world.
With no clear grand strategy, the Americans lurched from crisis to crisis.
The American system continued to enable all the nuts and bolts of global energy and finance and agriculture and manufacturing. The only change was, the Americans stopped asking for anything in exchange.
American involvement in the Order isn’t about — was never about — free trade.
Today the United States remains the least integrated major economy in the world.
The Americans forged, operated, and subsidized the free trade Order so that they would have allies to help face down the Soviets.
Many condemn Donald Trump for destroying the global Order. Let’s be real here. If there is one thing that Americans on both the Left and Right agree on, it is that the United States should pursue a more modest role in foreign affairs. The push for an American retrenchment did not begin with Trump, nor will it end with him.
Despite Donald Trump’s trademark brashness, American policy trajectory hasn’t changed much. In the seventh year of George W Bush’s presidency, the United States initiated a broad global drawdown of its troop levels. That disengagement continued both under Barack Obama and Donald Trump. At the time of this writing, the Americans now have fewer troops stationed abroad than at any time since the Great Depression.
The Americans have lost interest in being the global policeman, security guarantor, referee, financier, and market of first and last resort.
Throughout history, food supply has repeatedly proven to be the most significant limiting factor. If a government couldn’t feed its people reliably, well, let’s just say that famine is the ultimate continuity-ending event. The Order’s safety and openness enabled such massive agricultural investment and expansion that famine was banished from not only the imperial centers, but most of the world.
Not to be outdone, most of the world’s raw materials — whether iron ore or bauxite or lithium or copper — are produced on one continent, processed on another, and consumed yet somewhere else. Even minor interruptions to global shipping will collapse the availably of the base materials upon which modern life has been built.
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. This Order ended imperial predation in Africa and China. This Order enabled Brazil and Kazakhstan to grow row crops en masse. This Order allowed South Korea and Slovakia to industrialize. This Order enabled oil to flow from Saudi Arabia and Australia and Libya to France and Argentina and Singapore. This Order transformed Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan into democratic pacifists. This Order provides hope for a world beyond coal. This Order makes London and Hong Kong and Singapore financial centers. This Order makes container ships possible. This Order provides global markets for South African ore and Thai electronics and Ecuadorian bananas.
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.
The beginning of the fourth age is a global Disorder in a world without American overwatch. That is what the rest of this book is all about.
2. How to Rule the World, Part I The American Model
Most casual — hell , most professional — observers of international affairs fear a third is on the rise: China.
The Chinese are doing it wrong.
The American system of global management can be summed up as: entice everyone to be on your team.
2.1. Carrot 1: Ensure Physical Security For All
Such distance means any historical bad blood between the Americans and others is fairly thin; few countries have ever faced an American occupation.
Such is most certainly not the case for the Chinese.
It isn’t just that the Chinese can’t displace the Americans as global security guarantor; it’s that no one can.
2.2. Carrot 2: Ensure Maritime Security For All
They could and would guarantee absolute protection of all allies’ merchant shipping. These promises required the Americans to patrol all seas at all times.
The United States was now not only the sole, undisputed global naval power.
That leaves the Chinese with only one fully fledged foreign base: Djibouti.
2.3. Carrot 3: Offer Unfettered Market Access
The Americans used their naval power to create a global market, but just as important, they allowed all the Order’s various members to access the American market.
For their post-American “Order” to be suitably attractive to induce willing cooperation, the Chinese would need to replicate such open access. That’s flat-out impossible.
The Chinese development model has its downsides: risky corporate behavior brought on by a lack of consequences, bloating of expenses, and, of course, a mountain of debt that will never be repaid.
When China’s financial system cracks, Beijing will face a stark choice: watch its modern food production collapse, or empty the cities and force industrial workers back into peasant gardening.
In a time of recession or financial rectification, the entire Ponzi scheme of financing that led to the residence purchases collapses.
In the 2010s China overproduction became so extreme that it surpassed global demand. Part of the rationale behind projects like One Belt, One Road is to dispose of this excess supply by building infrastructure to and in places that would never justify investment in the first place.
Without its capital-flooded finance model and the outlet the Order provides, China’s social fabric would burn.
2.4. Carrot 4: Float a Global Currency
On top of ensuring security, enabling global shipping, and creating a global marketplace, the United States also provides an irreplaceable service by providing the sole global currency.
The yuan has been one of the world’s most manipulated currencies.
While the Europeans have a currency union, banks are still managed and regulated at the national level.
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.
- How to Rule the World, Part II The British Model
The British model was far less complicated than the American system. There is no global set of rules. No paying swathes of countries to be on your side. No trade among nations to facilitate. No chronic need to militarily protect other countries. No guaranteed independence for weak states. There is only flat-out conquering of the world.
3.1. Stick 1: An Unassailable Strategic Position
China has no such insulation.
3.2. Stick 2: A Potent, Flexible Navy
China has nothing like this.
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.
3.3. A Massive Technological Advantage
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.
The mass application of stolen tech throughout the immense spread of the Chinese population fuels Chinese advances in production and market size and economic bulk, but do not confuse that with a technological edge that gives them a leg up in the British style of global strategic competition.
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.
As the world falls into Disorder and American strategic commitments wither, the United States’ strategic toolkit can be smaller. Defending the American homeland is pretty straightforward — float a sizable navy and back it up with some domestically stationed air force assets.
China’s strategic regional geography means it cannot downsize in that way — under any circumstances. The question is not whether China can be the next global hegemon. It cannot. The real question is whether China can even hold itself together as a country.
4. How to Be a Successful Country
Historically speaking, most countries don’t last long.
Remove the Order and what has enabled many of these countries to form, survive — even thrive — will fade away.
Dozens of assets contribute to national survival and power, but these are the big four: 1) viable home territories, with usable lands and defensible borders, 2) a reliable food supply, 3) a sustainable population structure, and 4) access to a stable mix of energy inputs to participate in modern life.
4.1. Territorial Viability
Internal water transport
Temperate climate zones
Rivers + plains + a temperate climate help guarantee a sharp upward technological and economic trajectory.
Rivers + plains + a temperate climate + an accessible coastline all but dictate that a region will become a significant economic and military player.
Hills and swamps limit contact, but determined invaders can still push through them, and both are just habitable enough to house groups that might resist central rule. Mountains are better. But the best by far are wide, wild oceans.
Flat-out, the Americans have both the richest territories in the world as well as the most securable.
The Chinese core territories of the North China Plain are decidedly mediocre.
The only way to maintain reliable agricultural output in the North China Plain is to apply bottomless supplies of labor to manage water supplies.
Cultural unification in the North China Plain is easy. Political unification in northen China is nearly impossible.
Anyone who can reach northern China has had a fairly easy time of dominating whatever chunks of it they find interesting: Mongols, Russians, Japanese, Koreans, Americans, British, French — even Australians. But they have just as much trouble holding that territory as any local authority. The result is a nearly complete lack of political and economic continuity in the Han core.
The Yangtze is one of humanity’s great rivers, boasting nearly two thousand miles of navigability. The most important spot lies at the river’s mouth: Shanghai.
Every bit of this makes Beijing perennially suspicious of Shanghai, and whenever the north manages to unify, Shanghai tends to be the first target of any wider imperial expansion.
Sichuan’s access to the Yangtze enables it to trade with downriver and oceanic partners, making it nearly as wealthy as mighty Shanghai.
Northern China’s beef with Sichuan is threefold. First, Sichuan is by far the most culturally distinct of China’s Han-majority regions.
Second, Sichuan is big.
Third, the Sichuanese realize just how distinct and big and economically viable and remote they are from Beijing.
In the Chinese Civil War of the twentieth century, Sichuan was one of the last spots on the mainland to stand against Mao.
Move south of the Yangtze and the land changes again, edging into the subtropics and becoming incredibly rugged.
Hong Kong, the quintessential southern Chinese city, is the crowning example of how a separate economic life easily leads to a separate political destiny.
To the southeast are tangles of forested and jungle mountains.
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.
In times of Han weakness, the Tibetans and Uighurs are effectively independent.
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.
Contemporary Chinese government — the Communist Party — expends so much effort on nationalist propaganda.
4.2. Agricultural Capacity
Anyone sufficiently arrogant to think the poor will simply starve in silence has a particularly weak grasp of not only biology, but history. 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.
Food grows best on flatlands in temperate climates.
The American Midwest is the largest chunk of high-quality, temperate-zone, arable agriculture on the planet.
Without the American Order, a billion people are going to starve.
One downside of China’s massive population is that the country has less farmland per person than Saudi Arabia.
As China’s population urbanized under the Order, much of the country’s good-ish farmland was paved over.
In any sort of constrained import environment — such as problems in the explosion-heavy Middle East — the Chinese will have to choose what they will let go of. Electricity? Motor fuels? Fertilizers?
China is the world’s largest importer of rice, barley, dairy, beef, pork, fresh berries, and frozen fish by tonnage.
4.3. Demographic Structure
Young workers are the big consumers in society.
Mature workers are the big producers.
Upon retiring, mature workers shift from being massive suppliers of capital to massive consumers of state spending via pensions and health care.
The Koreans are hardly alone. The demographics are similar in nearly all the advanced countries, especially Russia, Ukraine, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Japan (the farthest down this path, by far). In those places and more, demographic twilight before 2030 is both inevitable and imminent.
No mature workers means no capital. No young workers means no consumption. No children means no future.
The short list of First World states that managed to keep their birthrates higher: United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland.
The countries whose Baby Boomer generation had kids, and so may face aging, but it will be a graceful process: France, New Zealand, the United States, Argentina, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Mexico.
China has a demographic that is the worst of all possible worlds. By 2050, one-third of the Chinese population will be over 60.
Chinese population has an extra 41 million men under age forty who will never marry.
4.4. Energy Access
Only about 10 percent of the world’s population is lucky enough to live within a thousand miles of the wells and mines that provide them with their energy.
For the most part, the oil is not where the people are, and it is only the Order that has enabled the oil to reach the people.
Most of the major wars in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had an oil component to them.
Coal reserves remain throughout the former Soviet Union, Western Europe, the Indian subcontinent, Australia, and the Americas.
Americans have become a net exporter of crude oil, courtesy of their shale boom.
That still leaves several significant spots where wind and/or solar look fairly promising. The United States comes in a hard first.
Between the shale revolution increasing American energy output and the ongoing efficiency gains reducing American energy demand, the Americans are no longer the world’s top importer of crude oil. They haven’t been since 2014. That title now falls to China.
China’s primary pipe import source is Russia, a country that, since the Cold War’s end, has repeatedly interrupted shipments to consumers to achieve geopolitical goals.
Four-fifths of the world’s internationally traded crude oil is waterborne.
China — as the world’s largest importer of every energy product — has a vested interest in keeping Persian Gulf oil flowing. What it lacks is the capacity to guarantee its vulnerable import routes.
It was not the Chinese who created the environment that made all of contemporary China possible. That was the Americans.
There are parts of China that can be successful statelets: the Pearl River Delta, Shanghai, Sichuan — maybe even Tibet or Xinjiang.
The future of China is that of a people literally fighting to the death to continue to exist as a unified country.
14. The Misshape of Things to Come The Future of American Foreign Policy
This is the seventh reshuffling. Before the last reshuffling in the 1930s and 1940s, the Republican Party included African Americans while the Democrats were home to both the business community and the populists of the right.
Given time, the United States will settle into a new groove, adopting an outcomes-based foreign policy based on a mix of concerns strategic, economic, and moral.
14.1. Unwinding the Global War on Terror
Without the strategic distraction of the Middle East, the Americans will at a minimum put more effort into weapons systems that emphasize power projection over distance rather than those that help with manhunts.
14.2. The Order Hangover
After the Cold War, however, the allies are confused because Americans are confused.
Without an overarching goal, America’s priorities change not year by year, but often hour by hour.
14.3. Strategic Retrenchment
Americans aren’t just tired of global engagement; they’re confused by it. They don’t understand how everything fits together — because it doesn’t any longer.
The United States now has fewer troops stationed abroad than at any time since the Great Depression.
If the United States is going to do anything in the Middle East that involves real power, America must have a military footprint in the Gulf: Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar, and so that’s where the United States maintains its military facilities.
Downsizing in the 1990s reduced the personnel roster of the American armed forces by over half, with the biggest drawdowns within the army.
14.4. Profits Without Borders
Few countries have both wealth and productivity. The marriage of a high-value-added workforce to a high-value commodity system generates scads of economic opportunity. The United States sits at the very top of this very short list.
American business community — in and of itself a thin slice of the American electorate — will largely determine what American interests are.
This fusion of corporate interests with otherwise listless American power is called dollar diplomacy.
The breakdown of East Asian manufacturing supply chains will spawn huge interest in the United States in re-forming those chains with more of an American emphasis. American businesspeople will be particularly interested in integrating with pieces of the old system that can be salvaged. That suggests a heavy American hand in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
Brazil, Cuba, and Mexico in particular are likely to see an influx of American corporate interest.
14.5. Desperately Seeking Instability
Drone and Special Operations require only a single small footprint that doesn’t even need to be in-country.
The United States will begin to view disruption in and of itself as a tool, perhaps even a goal.
Targeted disruptions, even broad disruptions, make would-be trading nations strategically dependent upon American goodwill.
Chaos, war, and depression encourage capital flows to the American system.
Today most global trade is denominated in US dollars, and any significant global degradation will reduce the stability of nearly every currency to the point that nearly all future trade will be USD denominated.
Marry an American strategic, willing disregard for global security to a public that has become more comfortable with low-level, disavowable military activity to a military with global reach to a more mercantile approach to the world, and it is Anaki -falling-to-the-Dark-Side eeeeasy to envision a United States that seeks disruption rather than stability as both a tool and a desired end of foreign policy.
15. The United States The Distant Superpower
15.1 Group 1: Allies
United Kingdom, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Japan, a number of states in Africa, France
15.2. Group 2: Friendly Neighbors
Should benefit: Mexico, Argentina
Mixed: SE Asia, Australia, New Zealand
15.3. Group 3: Transactional Allies, It’s Complicated
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel
16. Present at the Destruction The Dawning of the Fourth Age
If I had to select a single word that will define the ongoing historical turning, it would be overwhelming.
Few recognize just how beneficial and transformative the global Order has been to the world writ large, much less their personal lives.
But in the Disorder the sense of achievements lost will be palpable. People will remember a degree of security and wealth that they will never be able to achieve on their own.
The Americans are not so much passing the torch as dropping it. It will start quite a few fires before someone picks it up.
For the four new regional powers — Turkey, Iran, Japan, and Argentina — allaying American concerns and courting American goodwill will be essential to long-term success.
For the short list of countries likely to remain in the Americans’ inner circle of allies, the whole situation is actually pretty good. For the short list of countries likely to seek American alliance as a hedge against the new crop of regional powers, life isn’t so clear-cut. For everyone else, waking the eagle is something to be avoided.
The “America First” of the hard right is reflexively hostile to the world. The “America First” of the hard left is reflexively hostile to American involvement in the world. The “America First” of the middle just finds the world exhausting.
In all three versions, however, Americans believe that the world is not their problem and that America’s military strength will keep the world from hurting them.
The Americans face more opportunities than challenges.
China’s Report Card: 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.
Japan’s Report Card: The Japanese have the capital, navy, technological know-how, and geographic insulation to step into the space left by a retreating United States better than any other regional power.
Russia’s Report Card: Russia is an aging, insecure, former power determined to make a last stand before it is incapable of doing so. American disengagement from the global scene couldn’t have come at a better time, but the reactivation of Russia’s traditional local foes couldn’t have come at a worse one.
Germany’s Report Card: Few countries are more dependent on the American-led global Order. Germany’s best backup plan — the European Union — is already falling apart.
France’s Report Card: France is rarely number one, but it is almost always in the top five. When France’s neighbors struggle — as they are now — French power naturally rises.
Iran’s Report Card: The Iranians have won the Middle East in large part because of American security commitments there. Cast in the role of troublemaker for four decades, Iran has recently experienced mammoth success in disrupting its foes. Now that Iran has more or less won regional leadership, it is woefully ill prepared to protect its gains.
Saudi Arabia’s Report Card: 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. Oil doesn’t simply make them rich; it makes them essential. Saudi Arabia wholly lacks the sort of geography that would provide them with any natural shielding from out-of-region powers. The Americans had no choice but to ally with one of the world’s least functional and most repressive regimes. Saudi Arabia is in the rare position of having the money, military equipment, and the will to position itself as a legitimate counterweight to Iran in a region long defined by American (mis) management.
Turkey’s Report Card: The Turks are about to come roaring back. Well-positioned locations that could also offer some semblance of security and shelter became crossroads. And Istanbul was the ultimate example of a secure crossroads. Remove the Order, and there is no longer an integrated system of global trade. Instead, the world devolves into a series of national and, in some lucky areas, regional systems. Turkey is among the few countries that have already adapted to the new reality. Turkey will always be smack dab in the middle of everything. It’s relationships with outside powers may wax and wane, but it will always be the economic and military heavyweight of its region.
Brazil’s Report Card: Brazil’s extreme geopolitical weaknesses comes from difficult transport combined with Brazil’s omnipresent tropics. 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 Report Card: Once a political ideology more conducive to…sanity takes hold, Argentina has everything it needs to dominate its neighborhood.
United States Report Card
USA > BORDERS: Lakes, mountains, forests, deserts, and vast ocean moats surrounding the best agricultural lands and largest waterway network on the planet. Nowhere else on Earth does a territory have such a beneficial balance of good lands with great standoff distance. Americans spend little on territorial defense, freeing their military to project out.
USA > RESOURCES: Nearly two centuries of industrialization have heavily tapped out a continent of bounty, but new technological breakthroughs continue to surprise. The most recent surprise — the shale revolution — has made the country a net oil and natural gas exporter.
USA > DEMOGRAPHY: The American Baby Boomers — the country’s largest generation ever — are nearing mass retirement, generating a painful financial crunch. But American Boomers had kids. Lots of them. America’s Millennials may be a pain, but their numbers may just save us all.
USA > MILITARY MIGHT: The most powerful projection-based military in world history. With the Order ending, it has…nothing to do.
USA > ECONOMY: 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.
USA > OUTLOOK: The Americans excel at missing opportunities due to domestic squabbling, but there is nothing in what’s left of the international system that will threaten the American heartland either militarily or economically before 2050