Peter Zeihan Doesn’t Understand America…

Geopolitics Entrepreneur Peter Zeihan has been one of the most requested topics on this channel for the past couple years. I’ve put together a couple less formal videos dealing with his ideas, but this is the first produced effort. I decided I had to do it after Zeihan’s Joe Rogan appearance at the beginning of this year. A very amateurish, years old, clip critiquing Zeihan quickly became one of my channel’s most viewed videos. Here’s hoping this much more carefully crafted video does well!

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Video Transcript after the jump…

So, I think the biggest problem with Peter Zeihan is that he doesn’t understand the United States. His main thesis, and the majority of the stories he tells, are reliant on the US doing something that it hasn’t done, isn’t doing now, and is very unlikely to do this century. The United States is not withdrawing. And that undermines almost everything Peter Zeihan says.

For those who don’t know, Peter Zeihan is a very successful public speaker and consultant in the field of geopolitics. Since I became aware of him about three years ago, I have jealously watched him conquer YouTube as well. Zeihan reached a new level of ubiquity in January of 2022 with his appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast. He’s now made the jump from infrequent mentions in the comments of my own geopolitics videos to being discussed in my normie college buddy group chats. A produced critique is long overdue.

There is a lot that Peter Zeihan does better than most analysts of world politics. I love how he doesn’t pussyfoot around the fact that the United States has run the world for the past 78 years. That’s surprisingly rare. Zeihan is more coy about this in his interviews and YouTube videos, but in his writing, he doesn’t pretend that Iran, Russia, or the Islamic State are anything other than minor doomed inconveniences for the United States, which is really refreshing. Most excitingly, and devastatingly, he punctures the laughable idea that China is anything more than the biggest and most vulnerable part of an informal empire owned and operated by the United States.

Zeihan gets a lot right, But his central thesis is just wrong. Zeihan’s claim that the world is inevitably heading towards chaos because of US absence, is not backed up by history, it’s not backed up by his own data, and it’s certainly not backed up by recent developments.

Zeihan’s fundamental thesis is that the world is falling apart because the United States isn’t doing enough. Because The Accidental Superpower, is becoming the Absent Super Power and is turning away from the Disunited Nations of the world, the End of the World is on its way. Or maybe it’s already here. I find Zeihan’s analysis particularly frustrating, because he gets like halfway to the truth, which is further than the US Congress or Harvard or the New York Times ever gets.

Zeihan isn’t wrong about how fragile the world system is. Ziehan isn’t wrong to point out that American choices are the most important factor in any geopolitical question. And he isn’t wrong to point out that the world has had a rough decade or two. But he entirely misdiagnoses the reasons why this is. What Peter Zeihan is doing isn’t providing an explanation, he’s providing an excuse. His version of events may seem new and unsettling, but it’s part of a long heritage. And its purpose is to cover up the fact that the US world order is being heavily damaged… by the United States.

Zeihan won’t describe the real reason why the world is falling apart in any of his speeches or interviews. As he brags in the beginning of his new book, he likes getting invited to make speeches at the CIA headquarters, and everywhere else, and being too honest about US responsibility would be bad for business. But he does admit it in writing. On p. 152 of his new book about the end of the world, at the end of a list of plausible future threats to world shipping he concedes the point that should be at the center of any honest analysis of world chaos, before quickly moving on and never mentioning it again. “Perhaps the most jarring issue all countries must adapt to is the Americans not simply giving up their role as the global guarantor of order, but transforming into global agents of disorder” That’s the most true and most useful piece of analysis Zeihan has ever written. But he pitches it as some kind of future risk, instead of the main problem the world has been dealing with since at least 2003.

Peter Zeihan produces a high volume of content. He’s a big YouTuber now, and he provides attractive explanations for whatever the news cycle throws up, on his channel and in an endless cycle of podcast interviews. But he almost never brings it back to the US chaos-making he concedes in his book. He most often brings everything back to the very real problem of demographics, or the completely mythical problem of US withdrawal.

I think it’s worth pointing out a bit of intellectual lineage here. Peter Zeihan may be the most entertaining exponent of the idea that the world will go to hell without the US, but he’s nowhere near the first. Since the end of the Cold War the Pentagon has been desperate to tell the world that it is useful, so the military industrial complex has been rewarding thinkers who prophesize chaos since at least the 1990s. Robert Kaplan’s 1994 Atlantic article, the Coming Anarchy, which he later turned into a book, was once ranked with Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and Fukiyama’s End of History as one the most formative foreign policy theories of the post Cold War era.

Kaplan’s idea hasn’t stood the test of time as well as Huntington and Fukiyama’s work because it was very quickly proved to be ridiculously wrong. Kaplan suggested that without the organizing influence of the cold war, the world would fall into a chaos of crime, ethnic conflict and state failure. Instead the exact opposite happened. The end of the Cold War allowed a wide spread of peace and prosperity. Even Africa finally began to make massive strides in the first decade of this century, with multiple country’s economies growing by 5-10% a year. The truth was that US military action wasn’t the necessary solution to the world’s natural chaos, it was the main remaining problem. Now the existence of the US military is most likely necessary to guarantee global order, but it’s not a contradiction to say that the incessant use of that military is also the greatest threat to global order.

Vladimir Putin shocked the world by invading a country in 2022, but what was most surprising about it was that somebody other than the United States was doing an invasion. It’s the United States that killed the idea that the post Cold War era was going to be an invasion free Utopia, and we did that back in 2003. In 2011 We derailed Africa’s long overdue rise by destroying Libya, North Africa’s richest country. Europe definitely has serious demographic issues, as Zeihan says, but Brexit and Europe’s nationalist problems didn’t come from gray hair, they came from the US’s refugee generating Syria and Libya policies. Mexico’s horrific escalation of the drug war in 2007, which has quadrupled its murder rate, was a result of US pressure and funding. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are ugly thugs, but their careers are a reaction to very real US efforts to encircle Russia and China. Even the September 11th attacks on the United States were blowback from the successful US & Saudi effort to crush the Soviets in Afghanistan. Hilariously, Kaplan did a 25th anniversary follow up to his Coming Anarchy article, where he admitted that he was mostly wrong, but pointed out that some very bad things had happened. He of course left out that it was US actions, not US inaction, that were responsible for almost all of those bad things.

Peter Zeihan is doing a modern version of the exact same cover up. He has got much more clever explanations than Kaplan does, but they are all about hiding the ball. Take Russia for example.

“When Russia invaded Ukraine you were not surprised”

“Not even a little, no”

“You expected this, and you felt like this is inevitable, and this is just something that was always going to happen, and it’s not just going to stop at Ukraine”

“No not even remotely… The Russian space is among the worst farmland in the world, and so they’ve never been able to generate enough income to have a road network, everything has to be moved by rail, and their frontiers are just huge and they are open, and if you’ve got a force that can’t manuever itself your only reasonable defense strategy is to be forward positioned, and use geography to help you out. So you expand until you reach mountains or oceans or deserts and then you anchor on either side of those and plug the access points, unfortunately for Ukraine there are two of those access points on the other side of Ukraine, so the Russians were always, always, always going to try to push through and retake that territory. Territory that they had controlled for most of the past 350 years”

So you got that, the Russians were always always always always going to invade, because of some warmed over Halford Mackinder geography Bullshit.”he who controls the world island controls the world”. I have a whole video talking about how wrong Halford Mackinder was by the way. Mackinder’s work is at the heart of way too much geopolitics discussion. Zeihan has spent 5-10 minutes talking about the inevitability of Russian aggression in almost every interview he’s given over the past year. But if it’s true that these geopolitical gaps in their defenses are so important to Russia, then why did they give up the territory without a fight in the 1990s? And more on point, why didn’t they take the territory back in 2014, when everybody, including Zeihan, agrees that they could have defeated Ukraine easily? The answer of course is the decline in US-Russia relations generated by US fantasies about the Russian role in the 2016 election. Russia foolishly gambled on atrocity, because it became clear they would never get anything but aggression from the country that runs the world. But Zeihan never talks about this, because like Robert Kaplan, he’s in the blame anything other than the United States business.

“One of the big disappointments the Chinese have had with the Ukraine war is that everything they thought was true for the last 40 years has been proven wrong. They’ve always known that taking Taiwan would be harder than Russia taking Ukraine because you know there’s not a land border, it’s not flat, there’s moat. They thought the world would do nothing. And if you take the sanctions that the world has put on Russia and put them on China, then oh my god”

Peter Zeihan loves to talk about how surprised Russia and especially China were by the US and Europe’s response to the Ukraine invasion. What he usually leaves out is how surprised Peter Zeihan must have been. Zeihan won’t stop bragging about getting the date of the invasion right, but he never mentions that the US reaction to Russia’s colossal fuck up kind of undermines his whole thesis. Shouldn’t the Absent Superpower have used this as an excuse to leave Europe in the lurch, and happily focus on developing our shale industry or whatever? Well, that’s the exact opposite of what actually happened in 2022.

The US military has deployed to Europe in force, jacking up our presence there to the highest levels since the Iraq and Afghanistan surges. Keep in mind that we are doing this while also maintaining around 50,000 troops in the Middle East. We are also providing far more military equipment, training and intelligence support than any European country, if not all of them combined. The US media has recently been agonizing over the fact that not all Republicans support this continued level of financial commitment, but there were people who were against Bush’s wars too. That didn’t stop them from happening, or really even slow down the US garrisoning of the Middle East in any meaningful way.

The past year must have been pretty interesting for Zeihan. On the one hand he’s more successful than ever, with internet ubiquity and a book that appears to be selling really well. But the US’s doubling down on military primacy, essentially everywhere, makes him more wrong than ever. Kind of a best of times worst of times thing for old Peter.

Zeihan has been misunderstanding the United States for over a decade now. A great source for Zeihan haters is this 2010 Business Insider interview, where he makes a number of predictions that didn’t come true. It’s common to laugh at the fact that China has not in fact collapsed in the 20tens as Zeihan promised. But honestly… reading what he actually says, instead of the headline, I think Zeihan’s China predictions from 2010 are pretty damn impressive. China has not collapsed, and it’s not going to, but Back then, most everybody, including myself, assumed China was the inevitable future of everything. Zeihan was very against conventional wisdom, and very right to predict that China’s victorious image would fall apart in the 2010s. That happened. It’s the United States that Peter Zeihan got completely wrong in this 2010 interview.

In 2010, Zeihan thought he saw a United States that was sensibly pulling back from its Middle East and Central Asian catastrophes. Because of this he cautiously predicted a happy decade for the Middle East, with Iran normalizing its ties with the world, Turkey emerging as a peaceful, prosperous giant, and even Egypt making great strides. Well none of that ever happened. And it never happened because the United States refused to do the obvious, smart thing and leave the region. We didn’t leave Afghanistan for another decade, we started new wars in Iraq, Syria, and Libya and we have dug in in all the surrounding countries.

We had a great deal that improved relations with Iran and we threw it out to keep the war option in 2018. We supported the rise of a vicious new dictator in Egypt in 2013, and now the country is talked about as more of a source of potential starvation than business opportunities. Turkey has sort of risen, but thanks to new US wars in Syria and Libya, Turkiye has risen as a neo-Ottoman economic basket case instead of anything the world can feel good about. And most importantly the United States has not withdrawn from the Middle East, or anywhere else.

Peter Zeihan just doesn’t seem to be aware of this. The most egregious error in his new book comes on page 138, where he asserts that “By the end of 2021, the Americans had removed all regular ground troops from the region as a whole.” Now I guess that some of the thousands of troops we have in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are special forces, so they don’t count as regular. But what about the tens of thousands of troops we have Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait? Does Zeihan just not know that they exist?

Here’s a still from a December 2022 video of mine, where I collected the most recent public estimates of US troop levels. These numbers are lower than 2021, because we have shifted troops to Europe, but we have not left the Middle East, nor is there any sort of sign that we will leave anytime soon. We completely withdrew regular troops from Afghanistan, and absolutely nowhere else.

The United States is definitely shifting away from its ca. 1995 free trade fundamentalist position. But that’s a very different thing from a military withdrawal. Actually, maintaining our worldwide military threat is a depressingly big part of successfully pulling off the trade shifts we want.

The big move, talked about by Trump, and actually implemented by Biden, is forcing foreign companies that want to sell to the US to do so from factories they build in the United States and Mexico. This process is intensifying, but it is by no means new. It dates back to at least the 1970s, when the US began to get angry about Japanese and German automotive success. In the late 1980s our policies derailed Japan so seriously that it cost them a couple lost economic decades, but it’s not like we stopped working with or trading with Japan all together. What we’re doing to China is definitely more aggressive than what we did to Japan, but if China is smart enough to not take the Taiwan bait, they are likely to be able to figure out a new arrangement with their US bosses.

By this point, I hope you can see that Zeihan’s US Withdrawal thesis is nonsense, but there’s a final point that should prove it to you. And Ironically it comes from an arena where Zeihan is infinitely more knowledgeable than I am, the US oil and gas industry.

The fact that the US has gone from the biggest petroleum importer to one of its biggest exporters is maybe the most significant geopolitical factor of the century so far. The shale revolution is a big enough topic for Zeihan that he put it into the subtitle of his second book back in 2016. Zeihan’s claim is that this self-sufficiency will make the US give up on the world, and stop protecting the shipping lanes. But it’s actually the complete opposite. We’re a big exporter pnow. Why would we stop protecting the sea lanes that bring us billions? The Shale Revolution isn’t fuelling US isolation, it’s providing the rationale, and some of the money for the consolidation of a more rigorous and demanding US world empire. I mean, do you think it’s just a coincidence that the US’s two biggest targets over the past 10 years have been major oil and gas export competitors?

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading Zeihan’s new book. He doesn’t know any history, or have any understanding of contemporary politics, but he has a vast knowledge of industry and supply chains that I mostly lack. He’s a fun writer, and the stories he tells have prompted a lot of thinking on my part. But there are two huge problems.

First off, he doesn’t show his work. There are some footnotes in this book, but they don’t refer to outside information sources, they’re mostly just jokes. The acknowledgements section has effusive praise for the government agencies that supposedly collected all his data, but if you want to directly check one of his many, many controversial claims, you’re out of luck. Zeihan’s books are fun food for thought, but they are essentially useless for research purposes. The second problem is more devastating.

Much of this book is organized around commodities, or industrial sectors, and the story about that thing or process that Zeihan thinks is going to be important going forward. The problem is that it’s the same story for every item, good and country. X is going to lead to Y, because the United States is leaving, and the world is falling into anarchy. But as I’ve just exhaustively shown, the US isn’t going anywhere. So every story and every prediction in this book ranges from deeply flawed to just wrong.

Zeihan brings attention to a lot of serious issues, but his predictions around them are just as warped by his faulty US withdrawal thesis as everything else he says. My sense is that Zeihan is probably right that the energy transition is going to take longer and be less complete than most environmentalists want. But the situation is nowhere near as bad as he claims, because the world is not, in fact falling apart, and none of these commodities are going to be as difficult to access as he claims. 100% green energy isn’t going to happen anytime soon, but 80% by the 2050s could be possible. The same dynamic applies to Zeihan’s demographic concerns. Demographics are a big deal, and potentially disastrous for many countries, but not as big a deal as they would be if world shipping lanes were heading to Mad Max territory the way Zeihan claims.

There is so much more I could say about Peter Zeihan. His abuse of history, and apparent ignorance of the entire 19th century is probably the thing about his work that I personally find most annoying. But for now, I think it’s enough to simply point out that the United States isn’t going anywhere. And the world isn’t getting any less connected. Don’t listen to Zeihan’s excuses. If the world ends anytime soon, it won’t be because the US did too little, it will be because we did too much.