What Peter Zeihan Gets Wrong About China

I will confess that I found this one to be a bit of a chore. I used to find Peter Zeihan’s over-the-top jingoism amusing as I poked holes in it, but after October 7th, it’s gotten a lot harder for me to watch his smug pro-American shtick. But you have to give the people what they want! And whoo boy do the people want Peter Zeihan analysis from me. This video’s predecessor, uploaded in March of 2023, is now my second most watched video ever, and my most watched video in five years. Here’s hoping that today’s video performs well. Very happy to move to other things after struggling with this video script for almost six months. Zeihan’s flaws afforded me the opportunity for some big picture rumination on the world order and the industrial revolution. I hope you enjoy the video!

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Video Transcript after the jump…

So, the second biggest problem with Peter Zeihan is that he doesn’t understand history which makes his China analysis pretty worthless. I agree with Zeihan that US power, now and in the future is vastly underestimated. But he goes a lot further, claiming that everything about our modern world is determined by US empire, and nothing would function without it. Zeihan is missing a little thing called the industrial revolution, and often seems to have no idea what was going on during the 19th century. These oversights are the reason why Zeihan keeps getting the future, and China in particular so terribly wrong. But Before we get to that, who is Peter Zeihan, why am I so jealous of him, and why do I feel the need to make a second produced video on his work?

Peter Zeihan came up through Stratfor, George Friedman’s not quite respectable geopolitics consulting firm, before setting out on his own in 2012. His dynamic presentations and charismatic delivery brought him success on the corporate/government consulting and speaking circuit. Since becoming aware of him three years ago or so, I’ve jealously watched his conquest of the internet. His supremely confident presentation of some compelling data on a range of topics is always entertaining, and frequently very interesting.

Commenters think I am a hater, but it’s quite the opposite. I love the guy. Especially now that he has resurrected my YouTube channel. Zeihan’s charisma, cleverness, and prolific posting has smashed through a YouTube algorithm that would be happier if we were all talking about video games instead of international politics.

I have been on YouTube for over a decade now. For years I labored in almost complete obscurity, until 2017, when I found a profitable niche by diving in on the US’s obscene relationship with Saudi Arabia. My channel rocketed along happily until 2019, with multiple videos viewed tens of even hundreds of thousands of times.

Then, in 2019, YouTube’s policy changed. They cracked down on misinformation, which I am enough of a lib to think is a good thing. Unfortunately, I discovered that talking honestly about Saudi Arabia and US foreign policy in the Middle East definitely counts as misinformation in YouTube’s books.

By 2021, my videos had fallen from hundreds of thousands of views to 1 to 2 thousand views per video. For a couple years now I have been looking into TikTok, podcasts, or just giving up and getting a real job. The one thing that still worked was YouTube drama videos. Critiquing other YouTube channels doesn’t strike me as the best use of my time, but it does allow me to get a few more eyeballs. But only tens of thousands of views, not the hundreds of thousands I had been used to getting five years ago.

And Then Peter Zeihan came along! For years now he has been throwing on a backpack, hiking into the woods, and bludgeoning the algorithm with multiple geopolitical takes a week. And it’s worked, marvelously. A year ago I did a critique of one of his videos, it did OK, and I moved on.

Then last fall, that Peter Zeihan video caught fire. It became my first video in five years to cross 100,000 views and now it’s my second most viewed video ever. That success has spilled over to the rest of my content, and I have temporarily stopped filling out job applications. I owe Peter Zeihan a lot.

But I also owe Zeihan, and his vast public an honest critique. His skill at explaining geopolitics has resurrected a whole segment of YouTube, but his success means that his mistakes are reaching a very wide audience. Last time I talked about how all his predictions rely on a US withdrawal that just isn’t happening.

Today I want to talk about how badly Zeihan misrepresents the history of the world, and how that leads to him providing bad China predictions. Those who only know Zeihan through his recent videos and interviews may be a bit confused by my critiques. Folks accuse me of misconstruing his arguments, and accusing him of making stronger claims than he actually does. But my videos aren’t based on his videos, they are based on his books.

Specifically two of his books that I have read over the past year, Disunited Nations, published in 2020, and the End of the World Is Just the Beginning, published in 2022. The predictions he makes in these books have already begun to look pretty shaky, due to recent events. The United States that has built a new Ukrainian South Korea in the middle of the old Soviet Union, and is helping Israel slaughter tens of thousands is obviously not withdrawing from anything. So in recent videos, I think he’s been distancing himself from the wild claims he makes in his books a little bit.

My last video pointed out how every prediction in The End of the World Is Just the Beginning relies on a vision of American withdrawal that just isn’t happening. But even if the US were to withdraw, Zeihan overstates the chaos that would ensue. Because he doesn’t really understand the way the world changed around the beginning of the 1800s.

Regular viewers will find this surprising, but my disagreement with Zeihan here comes from the fact that I think the United States is, wait for it, less powerful and historically significant than he thinks it is. That’s an indication of just how much Peter Zeihan centers the US, because I typically blame the United States for everything.

The way Zeihan tells it, the world changed dramatically in 1945. The United States supposedly built a historically unique world in the aftermath of 1945 to combat the Soviet Union. The deal was that if you got on board with American capitalism, then the United States would not only defend your country from all potential predators, it would also open the US’s uniquely geographically gifted home markets to all of our allies. The past 80 years of prosperity have been entirely due to US generosity. But now US generosity is being withdrawn.

According to Zeihan The US isn’t just going to get a little punchier and stingier with trade deals as it has under Trump and Biden. According to Zeihan we’re going to stop garrisoning Europe and Asia after eight decades. We’re also going to stop defending the world’s sea lanes. This, combined with the demographic crunch brought on by decades of below replacement fertility are going to plunge the world into a nightmarish existence.

Zeihan speaks frequently about the “end” of countries like China and Germany, and suggests that billions of people will be lost to starvation over the coming decade. According to Zeihan , millions should have starved to death last winter. He’s quite literally talking about the end of the world as we know it.

So we established in the last video, that the US wasn’t going anywhere, but if it did, is the world truly doomed to chaos? Well no. Because Zeihan’s assumptions about the novelty of the world the US built after 1945 are incorrect. It’s like he edits out 150 years of history.

On page 52 of his 2022 book, Zeihan asserts that we created the world’s first truly global security and economic architecture. This is just wrong, that was the British, in the 1800s. There have been breaks for world wars, and tariffs used to be higher, but we have had a largely stable and freeish world trading system for the great powers for around 200 years now. His 2022 book, the most recent one, does acknowledge this basic fact occasionally, but it hasn’t been incorporated into his system of predictions, and the book contradicts itself on this issue.

The pre-American world of battling empires that Zeihan describes definitely existed. It’s known as the age of Mercantilism. But it ended 130 years earlier than he says it did. In the 1600s and 1700s the world really was a brutal battle space for European and non-European empires. The Portuguese Spanish and Dutch, followed by the British and the French, battled for ports and trade access everywhere, and the shipping of rival empires was usually fair game. This is the savage world of Hobbesian competition that Zeihan thinks the world is destined to go back to.

But that world ended in 1815 with British hegemony, not in 1945 with US hegemony. And 200+ years of industrialization have given the world a lot more than a couple of English speaking hegemons. Zeihan refuses to believe that the technologies and cultural innovations that made modernity possible have been internalized all over the world, and in every country. Things like computers, mass literacy and nationalism aren’t going to just disappear if Anglo hegemony pulls back. Zeihan doesn’t appear to understand that.

In his 2020 book, he provides a picture of the British Empire that is flat out fantasy.
“The British Model is 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 guarantees independence for weak states. There is only flat out conquering the world,”

So every sentence in this paragraph is wrong, to differing degrees. It’s a cartoonish misunderstanding of the pre-American world that sits at the foundation of all Zeihan’s analysis. Britain’s complex informal empire of financial dominance, that it used to manage most of its supposed imperial rivals, was much more important than the uncomplicated red bits on the map. Britain was weaker than the US, so it was more violent in enforcing the global set of rules, but those rules very much existed.

Britain maintained a trade deficit throughout its time on top, so the British were very much paying swathes of countries to be on their side, through the same mechanism Zeihan identified the US as using to pay other countries. This statement on trade is so absurdly wrong that one of Zeihan’s research assistants must have corrected him, because his 2022 book is filled with passages that demolish it, talking about the trade bonanzas Russia and the US experienced under the British system. Peter Zeihan has apparently never heard of the Crimean war, or the rest of British 19th century policy, which was all about protecting the independence of the much weaker Ottoman Empire.

By his 2022 book, Zeihan or his research assistants managed to document just how much trade was going on in the 19th century under British hegemony. But this book still makes absurd claims about what the US did in 1945 when it rebuilt and expanded the trade architecture the British had already been running between the 1840s and 1914.

The US “break with the traditions of international relations… extended to the nature of human existence itself, resulting in a fundamental rewiring of the human condition”

That wasn’t the United States, that was the industrial revolution, and the technologies, mass literacy and nationalism that it brought.

Now I am not saying that the American era we are living in today is exactly the same as British era of the 1800s. The world is massively richer and more complex, just as the US is almost infinitely more powerful than the British were. But the fundamental rewiring of the human condition came in the early 1800s, not the mid 1900s. The industrial British and American eras are more different from everything that came before than they are from eachother.

Zeihan’s great error is that he credits the United States for all of m the very real rewriting of the human condition that two centuries of industrialization has brought us. US hegemony has been very important, but not that important.

Zeihan believes that all of modernity, technology, and the basic functioning of most economies comes from the United States, not from distributed development. You can see this mistake everywhere. Especially in his Russia coverage. He spent the first year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, talking about how most of their oil production was going to break down without US and European engineers.

Russia clips

That is not what happened. The most recent news I could find about Sakhalin oil, from january 2024, indicates that Russia is actually producing more from those wells than it can sell.

In retrospect, assuming that Russians couldn’t figure out how to pump oil is pretty stupid, but it’s emblematic of the contempt Zeihan has for the world without America. This contempt absolutely suffuses his China coverage.

There is no recognition that China has its own history of consolidation, and that it might have been massively changed by the same forces of industrialization, mass literacy and nationalism that have rewired the human condition everywhere else.

First off, he’s got a really dubious read on Chinese history before industrialization, that may not be technically wrong, but strikes me as pretty misleading. He portrays Chinese history as thousands of years of discunity and chaos.

“Periods in which the territories of China are both politically unified AND under centralized HAN control are painfully thin, amounting to less than a third of the Han ethnicity’s multi-millennia history”

This is technically correct, but is a read that requires you to ignore vast periods of great Chinese success. That strong AND there is key. The Ming dynasty from the 1300s to the 1600s seems to be the only one that meets Zeihan’s criteria, I guess because the earlier Han dynasties hadn’t conquered as much of modern Northern China from the barbarians yet. The 400 years of the Yuan and Qing dynasties saw massive expansion of China’s borders, and long periods of peace and prosperity. The Qing in particular, ruling from the 1600s to 1911, defined what China was in a globalizing world.. Zeihan is not technically wrong. Looked at more seriously, however, China has spent the majority of the past 800 years as a unified, if not expanding entity, making Zeihan’s repeated historical claims of chaos look quite silly.

Zeihan is 100% correct to say that China’s long history is interrupted over and over by brief periods of chaos & rebellion. This defines every pre-industrial entity on the planet. I also think Zeihan is right to point to the many, many weaknesses in China’s model, first and foremost demographics.

I agree entirely that China has a crisis coming. The deep contradictions between the country’s capitalist success and its communist ideology are likely to come to a head in our lifetimes. Deep political disruption, and maybe even a brief civil war are possible. In the absolute worst case scenario, I do think it’s conceivable, not likely but conceivable that China could lose control of Tibet and Xinjiang again.

But how many people live in Tibet and Xinjiang again? Estimates are controversial, but all told it’s probably less than 50 million people out of China’s population of over a billion. Losing these areas, which again, I think is very unlikely, would save China a lot of money and hassle. Zeihan’s other predictions, of long term division of the Chinese heartland between Shanghai and Beijing, are nonsense based on his historical ignorance.

Zeihan is right that the US world system has played a role in China’s unprecedented stability over the past 75 years. But it’s industrialization’s rewiring of the human condition that has made the most difference. When the Commies took over in 1949, China’s literacy rate was somewhere between 5 and 13%. China’s past 800 years of mostly unity have been built on the backs of illiterate peasants who didn’t particularly care which set of thugs was oppressing them. China’s literacy rate today is now 99%. Like the rest of the world, that literate, majority urban population has been indoctrinated with an ideology of independence, unity and nationalism, that makes China infinitely stronger than it was 75 years ago.

As a quick side note, The United States is the most powerful entity in human history by far, but it’s these basic dynamics of growing literacy and nationalism that made it impossible for us to conquer impoverished countries like Vietnam and Afghanistan. China is a lot richer than those countries, and nobody is even contemplating a physical invasion.

These dynamics are a double edged sword for China. Vietnam, Mongolia, India and the rest of China’s neighbors have all gone through the same process. The Millennia long Chinese expansion into new territory is probably over. The difficulty China has experienced in hanging on to thinly populated Tibet and Xinjiang over the past 75 years illustrates how difficult conquest has become. But the flip side of that is that the Chinese heartland has now become impossible to conquer as well.

Post industrialization and post-literacy warring elites don’t get the only vote. The Chinese people now exist in a way that they didn’t 75 years ago. China’s certainly got a crisis coming, but assuming that the country will just disintegrate like it did in the 1930s or the 900s is absurd.

Peter Zeihan doesn’t acknowledge the significance of the industrial revolution, or the fact that we have been living in a globalized world for two centuries. According to him, US hegemony is the only thing that matters. So he’s going to keep getting China wrong, and he’s going to keep calling for a collapse that just isn’t coming.

Just as a general note, well beyond Zeihan most of the China prediction game is pretty ridiculous. You can find dozens of think tankers telling you the exact date that a hyper aggressive China will invade Taiwan. You can also find a flock of academics who will tell you that China’s wisdom and non-European serenity means that it has no aggressive intentions, and is certain to risee peacefully. Both of these camps are completely full of shit. We are about five, maybe ten years into China’s career as a great power in the era of industrialization. Nobody has any idea what they are going to do. Xi Jinping has no idea what China is going to do. We just don’t have enough data to make any kind of serious predictions. Which is why I don’t try.

As I mentioned last time, Zeihan is in a weird place. He’s reaching a wider and wider audience, but those passages in his 2022 book show that he’s beginning to realize that his main “America is all that matters” ideas are just wrong. He’s not going to stop talking, he’s doing too well, but what’s informing his recent content?

Quote about how his employers create his views.

Quote about how he’s doing a lot of work for the military.

Zeihan is totally right that his work for business and government gives him a unique window on the world, and reams of useful data. Unfortunately that also means that as his own ideas fail, he has begun to see the the world more and more through the eyes of the US foreign policy establishment, who are some of the dumbest people on the planet.

Zeihan also appears to do a ton of work for oil and gas companies. I have a hunch that his vendetta against the green transition and electric vehicles comes from the fact that he has completely internalized the priorities of Texas oil companies. But I am not 100% sure about that, it’s just a guess. Conclusively debunking Zeihan’s energy takes would require a lot more research than I am willing to do for a YouTube dramavideo. Thankfully I happen to know more about US foreign policy than most of the people actively making that policy, and am quite confident in saying that many of the stories Zeihan is currently selling in that arena are nonsense.

Sea Lanes clip

This flat assertion by US Navy lobbyists, that we need hundreds more ships patrolling the world’s sea lanes like Spiderman watching over New York City is nonsense that nobody ever challenges.

That’s not how any of this works. The United States absolutely keeps the sea lanes safe, through the threat of overwhelming violence. We have hundreds of bases to fire missiles from, all over the world. We don’t need another 300 half billion dollar ships that can be taken out by 1,000 dollar drones.

If you look at the US Navy’s own ship numbers, they fell in the 1990s. In the entire world, over the 30 years since then, a single leg of international travel, the red sea, has been a problem. Think about that for a second. If fewer US ships automatically equal more piracy & danger everywhere, why is there only one problem area. And what’s actually going on in that one problem area?

Well defending the sea lanes with the threat of overwhelming violence requires a United national government that we can threaten. And over the past two decades the United States military has made it it’s business to undermine and destroy the central governments of two countries on the Red Sea.

In 2006, the Bush Administration decided to crush the newly reunited government of Somalia, igniting the wave of piracy that gave us that Tom Hanks Movie. In 2009 the Obama administration started bombing Yemen regularly. This wasn’t the only reason the country fell apart, but it certainly didn’t help. In 2015 Obama greenlit the Saudi invasion of Yemen, supercharging Yemeni nationalism, which made the Houthis into the threat they are today.

US military expansion isn’t the solution to worldwide piracy, it’s the cause of the only two serious examples of piracy you can point to this century.

I could complain about this US Navy fantasy for an hour. In fact, I already have. We’ve got a whole episode on this topic up at the podcast, available now on Spotify, Apple and a wide range of other podcast options.

The Navy thing is indicative of another annoying recent Zeihan tic, much like the US government he vastly overestimates the utility of the military power no matter who is using it.

Like almost every foreign policy analyst other than myself, Zeihan assumed that Russia’s military would steam roll Ukraine once it invaded. Zeihan, like the Pentagon, continues to have no understanding of the power of industrialized nationalism. He spent most of 2022 talking about the massive threat to Moldova, and is still trying to convince everybody he talks to that Russia has a serious chance of invading Poland. It’s a horrific artillery battle of inches that he believes will somehow end up as a battle of thousands of miles again. And not just in one direction.

So after assuming that Ukraine was incapable of defending itself for years, he has now switched to believing Russia is on the cusp of drying up and blowing away as well. Zeihan’s complete ignorance of the Middle East was also on display in that conversation.

Gaza election

There was never an election to control Gaza. You can look it up, not that anybody in US media ever does. The political details matter, especially in the Middle East, but Zeihan isn’t interested in learning about them. I hope to expand on this bit of anti-Palestinian propaganda in a future video, but why don’t we look at Zeihan’s assessment of the Red Sea conflict from three months ago.

Yemen Over quick clip

Well three months later, it’s not over, all of our impressive military force has proved meaningless, against a country we have been bombing for a decade and a half, and the US is trying to get the Houthis to negotiate. This actually doesn’t matter much, because the world shipping industry is infinitely more durable than Zeihan imagines. Egypt is in serious trouble without those Suez Canal revenues, but the rest of the world is muddling through just fine.

Over and over again in recent years, Zeihan has predicted doom. The insurance companies are all constantly on the edge of rebelling, ending world wide shipping. Well the oil is still flowing, it’s just that many fewer ships are now insured. The world was going to starve last winter without Russian gas and Ukrainian phosphates. That didn’t happen either.

All of these systems and trade routes are much more durable than Zeihan expects. Because they are much older than he allows himself to understand. The world system is not just an American system. The US isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but when it inevitably does the world will not be anywhere near as hopeless and helpless as Zeihan imagines.