The Absent Superpower
Peter Zeihan and the Pax Americana
Note: I wrote this in September 2020. I’ve changed the headline to link it to a new essay about Peter Zeihan. I’ve changed nothing substantive.—Claire, September 17, 2022
It wouldn’t be fair to say that the world beyond Washington has completely disappeared from American consciousness. The New York Times recently published two genuinely extraordinary stories. In the first, an anonymous Chinese source provided the Times with more than 400 pages of internal documents about the brutal and merciless destruction of the Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang province. In the next, an anonymous Iranian source provided 700 pages of internal intelligence reports about the Iranian takeover of Iraq to The Intercept, which worked with The New York Times to vet and publish them.
Both stories are astonishing, and both were, if briefly, on the front page of The New York Times. But they were not there because—in response to urgent reader demand—American newspapers sent well-funded teams of dogged correspondents overseas to uncover these stories. They were there because informants thrust them upon journalists in a desperate bid to get America’s attention.
We’re not eager to oblige. The US media is so consumed with the impeachment drama that the Chinese leak, which is of genuinely historic significance, dropped off the front page immediately and led to no public debate. The Iran leak sank just as quickly.
But the world keeps turning. All of the stories below, only a few decades ago, would have been the center of American attention. Why aren’t they now?
Peter Zeihan’s thesis
Before this tour d’horizon, consider the larger geopolitical context. I’ve argued here that the disappearance of foreign news from the US media is best explained by technological changes that have transformed in the media market, above all the advent of the Internet.
Here’s another hypothesis: Our inattention to the world beyond our borders reflects the underlying geopolitical reality. To wit, the United States has no reason to care. We are now, genuinely, in a position to build enormous walls around our territory, withdraw from the world, and establish autarky. It now makes more sense for us, economically and politically, to replace foreign-supplied capital, resources, energy, and expertise with domestic sources than it does to be a global superpower.
This is a simplified version of Peter Zeihan’s argument. Zeihan, a popular geopolitical forecaster, used to work for STRATFOR, and has obviously been influenced by George Friedman. Although they both earn their living on the TED-talk circuit, they’re also both serious about the way they approach these questions, and worth considering if only because many policy makers do take them seriously and think the way they do.
Zeihan and Friedman both focus on what my grandfather would have called potentiel de guerre—the underlying physical assets, such as natural resources, geography and demographics, that permit countries to thrive or perish, to wage war or suffer defeat. Both have declared the Pax Americana kaput. Both believe the world to be entering a new period of chaos. “War is normal,” Friedman explains to his audiences, smiling in a strangely bitter way. It was the Pax Americana that was abnormal.
These views, roughly, are shared by Ian Bremmer, Charles Kupchan, and a wide range of international relations theorists. They are not all in agreement about whether the end of the Pax Americana will be good or bad for the United States, but they agree it is over. The global center of gravity is rapidly shifting. The next century will not be an American century. We will no longer have the dominant currency nor the obviously dominant military. The global norms we have established will not survive.
Zeihan holds that the United States built the Bretton-Woods order to serve a specific strategic purpose—countering the Soviet Union. The global trade regime served American strategic needs, not its economic needs. Now, he holds, having won the Cold War, the United States no longer needs to think strategically; thus, naturally, it is reevaluating its trade relationships:
If the American government no longer views trade as a means to an end but instead an end in its own right, it can and will begin using issues such as trade access, maritime security, and political positions … to cut different deals. That changes the global strategic picture radically.
This is why Donald Trump believes our allies are “ripping us off,” and why the terms of our trade agreements baffle him. He genuinely has no idea that we built this system, or why. This is why his platform was widely appealing: Americans, too, either have no idea that we built the world this way, or genuinely believe the US security system and the Pax Americana are obsolete.
It is a simplistic view of US foreign policy, but it isn’t entirely wrong. What’s more, if the majority of Americans believe it, we will elect politicians who believe it, and we will behave as if it is so, even if it isn’t.
Zeihan is, essentially, a base-determines-superstructure materialist. I’m not. I don’t believe this kind of analysis fully explains the past, nor that it may reliably be used to predict the future. The roles of the intangible—of human personality and will, of tides of fate—are too great. Geopolitical forecasting always fails. But it would be senseless to dismiss the role of the material outright. The points Zeihan raises are important.
Here’s Zeihan on the coming global chaos:
At Bretton Woods, he argues, the United States offered its allies two enticements: access to the world’s largest consumer market and American security guarantees. In exchange, they had but to subordinate their security policy—and thus to an extent their sovereignty—to the United States.
The Pax Americana saw global GDP expanded tenfold. It was the greatest expansion of peace and prosperity in human history. But Bretton Woods, Zeihan observes, was a security strategy, not an economic plan.
Here I would interject to say that the geopolitical landscape is every bit as dangerous—in fact ways more dangerous—than it was during the Cold War. But if Americans believe they face no serious security threats, they will behave as if this is so, and this in turn will oblige the world to react. What’s more, Americans may well agree with me that the landscape is dangerous, but conclude that the best way to mitigate these threats is defensive retreat.
The postwar economic and security order, Zeihan argues, worked exactly as designed: We suppressed great power competition and secured the world’s trade routes. This peaceful environment allowed the rest of the world to become wealthy. The Soviet Union collapsed.
But unlike the allies whose security we guaranteed, we never fully participated in the world we built, and we aren’t dependent upon it. Unlike Germany and China, our economy is not built upon exports. The United States has its own, massive, domestic market. As a percentage of GDP, the US benefits less from trade than any other developed country: Trade amounts to about 15 percent of our GDP, and even less if we exclude Canada and Mexico. We’re blessed with the rich and fertile soil that makes us an agricultural powerhouse and the source of half the world’s grain. We have almost all the minerals we need.
And now we have energy.
The shale revolution, Zeihan claims, has severed American ties with the wider world. Thus, precisely as the world tips into chaos, Zeihan observes—and just as the world most needs the United States to be engaged—the United States is disappearing.
He believes this will work out well for America. We have the waterways. We have ocean moats on either side. The United States has and will always have the competitive advantage of its geography; it is alone among developed countries in having a relatively youthful population.
Thus Zeihan concludes that our trajectory is over-determined. We will abandon our allies, retreat into ourselves, and cease protecting the global commons. We will repatriate complex global supply chains, re-industrialize, and do just fine, he predicts. But the rest of the world will devolve into war and chaos as global trade collapses following the withdrawal of our protection.
What’s interesting about his view is that it not only explains Trumpism, but sees it as an inevitability. In his view, the United States was only accidentally a superpower; it has never been well-adapted to an imperial role. Now that it is no longer dependent upon trade, why would it seek to play a significant role overseas? Trump, he hold, has merely hastened this this inevitable trajectory—a trajectory that he dates from the close of the Cold War—by about four years. Had Hillary Clinton been elected, he believes, exactly the same transition would have happened, but it would have taken place slightly more slowly, and would have been more clearly signposted. We would have retreated more responsibly, in other words, but we would have retreated all the same.
Perhaps this, rather than a change in the technology and economics of journalism, can explain why we no longer see news from abroad? Zeihan would argue that our dissociation from the world began when we ejected the competent George H. W. Bush and elected Bill Clinton, instead. “We began,” as he puts it, “down the parade of morons.” In the next seven electoral contests, we systematically chose the candidate least qualified in foreign policy and most focused on domestic politics.
In 2016, Zeihan published The Absent Superpower.
… the isolationist trickle I detected in American politics has deepened and expanded into a raging river. Of the two dozen men and women who entered the 2016 presidential race, only one—Ohio Governor John Kasich—advocated for a continuation of America’s role in maintaining the global security and trade order that the Americans installed and have maintained since 1945. The most anti-trade candidate on the right won his party’s nomination, while the most anti-trade candidate on the left finished a close second in the Democratic primaries to the Clinton political machine. Last night (now President) Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton met in New York to debate economic policy. … their core disagreement on trade issues wasn’t whether trade was good or bad for the United States, but how much to pare it back and which reasons for paring cut it the most with the electorate ...
The world has had seven decades to become inured to a world in which the Americans do the heavy lifting to maintain a system that economically benefits all. … As the Americans back away, very few players have any inkling of how to operate in a world where markets are not open, transport is not safe, and energy cannot be secured easily.
The stage is set for a global tailspin of epic proportions. Just as the global economy tips into deflation, just as global energy is becoming dangerous, just as global demographics catastrophically reduce global consumption, just as the world really needs the Americans to be engaged, the United States will be … absent. We stand on the very edge of the Disorder.
For similar reasons, he argues, Russia’s imperial reconquista is over-determined. Why? Because it’s now or never. Russia has the worst demography in the world. Russia’s health and educational systems have fallen apart. In a few years, he believes, Russia will have no skilled labor. “If the Russians are going to use technology, money, or an army to change their neighborhood,” he observes, “they have to do it now.”
Thus Russia’s strategy: Seize Crimea, destroy Ukraine as a functional country, grab the Caucuses, absorb the rest of Ukraine after it fails. But timing is critical: If Russia moves too soon and too blatantly, Zeihan believes, a still-engaged United States will react, if only out of habit. If they’re a bit more patient—another four-odd years—the United States will be “checked out. Militarily, economically, maybe even financially.”
Zeihan’s view explains why Russia is expanding, and why the United States is now riven over the question, “Are we serious about keeping Russia out of Europe?” This is, of course, the subtext of the impeachment hearings. A significant part of the country agrees with Donald Trump that we don’t give a shit about Ukraine.
Here are Zeihan’s geopolitical predictions: Iran will attack Saudi Arabia and block of the Straits of Hormuz, leading to all-out war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Russia will seek to recreate the former Soviet Union, invading eleven countries, including five NATO members. Energy shortages devolving from these wars will cripple Asia. Famine, continental in scale, will return to the world. Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon will “de-civilize,” losing the ability to maintain two-thirds of their current population. China will attack every country in the East China and South China Seas.
We’ll build a wall, trade with ourselves, and ignore it.
So let’s assume he is right. It is inevitable. What would the world now look like if this were so?
First, we’d see our allies scrambling to make alternative arrangements—while we ignore it.
Even though Washington and Seoul announced they would indefinitely call off a joint military exercise as an “act of good will” toward Pyongyang, Kim told us to piss right off.
Trump has baffled South Korea by insisting not only that it spend more on the alliance (a reasonable request) but that it spend 500 percent more than it did last year (not reasonable). Exactly why we’ve provoked a crisis with South Korea over basing payments when we’re engaged in nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea is another one of the many mysteries of the Trump Doctrine—unless you assume that there’s no brinkmanship involved at all: We’ve already decided to leave our allies in Asia to their own devices.
This is precisely what South Koreans suspect. They believe Trump is presenting South Korea with an offer it must refuse as a pretext for removing our troops entirely.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that yesterday, South Korea signed a defense agreement with China.
Nor should it be a surprise that you didn’t hear about this.
Uproar in the Shia Crescent
The protests in the Shia Crescent, likewise, are receiving no attention in the US. They seem to be as significant as the Arab spring. Most notably, there have been protests in Iran so large, and so violent, that the regime has shut down the Internet. Before the mobile networks went dark last Saturday night, videos from across the country showed protesters across Iran burning regime figures in effigy. Rouhani has said Iran is facing the “most difficult” challenge since the revolution. Dozens are reported killed—probably many more. The IRGC has vowed to use “all means” to restore order.
The protests were sparked by the imposition of gas rationing and 50 percent price hikes. Clearly, maximum pressure is hurting the country gravely, and you would expect the President to claim credit—and perhaps nod, at least, in the direction of the protesters. But he is too busy posting the same Fox video clips over and over again on Twitter. (Indeed, I wonder if he’s still alive? Has anyone actually seen him since his unscheduled trip to Walter Reed?) If Zeihan is correct, we will offer them no assistance: We no longer care. What we say and do about the region is now for domestic consumption only—thus the strangely irrelevant announcement that we think Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is perfectly legal.
The uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq have toppled two governments in the course of three days: Both Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi have agreed to resign. The Iraqi protests are particularly worthy of remark: The protesters have demanded an end to sectarian government and equality for all, irrespective of ethnicity or sect. They have been calling for the end of Islamic influence on the legal system and a secular state. They have remained peaceful, even though Iranian-backed militias have killed them by the hundreds. Surely this should interest Americans enough to make the news just a little bit, no?
No. We don’t care.
It’s not just the Shia world, by the way. Algerians have been in the streets for nine months. ISIS claimed 30 attacks in the first 10 days of November—up 300 percent compared to the days before Turkey invaded northern Syria.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad shut down half of Israel, firing some 400 rockets—including long-range rockets aimed at the center of the country—over the course of 50 hours. Israel in turn killed 25 PIJ operatives. A ceasefire followed an intense Egyptian mediation effort. Yesterday, the IDF reported that Israel had conducted “wide-scale strikes” on Iranian forces in Syria.
Russia, meanwhile, has landed attack helicopters and troops at the airbase in northern Syria we precipitously vacated. And the Russian military has announced the launch of a new combat helicopter and air defense base in Qamishli.
If Zeihan is right, it should not be a surprise that the United States is playing no role in any of this.
The braindead alliance
Emmanuel Macron recently declared NATO “brain dead.” The interview in which he said this is worth reading in full. Here are highlights:
I don’t believe I’m over-dramatising things, I’m trying to be lucid. But just look at what is happening in the world. Things that were unthinkable five years ago. To be wearing ourselves out over Brexit, to have Europe finding it so difficult to move forward, to have an American ally turning its back on us so quickly on strategic issues; nobody would have believed this possible. How did Europe come into existence? I’m trying to face the facts. …
Europe was basically built to be the Americans’ junior partner. That was what lay behind the Marshall Plan from the beginning. And this went hand in hand with a benevolent United States, acting as the ultimate guarantor of a system and of a balance of values, based on the preservation of world peace and the domination of Western values. There was a price to pay for that, which was NATO and support to the European Union. But their position has shifted over the past 10 years, and it hasn’t only been the Trump administration. You have to understand what is happening deep down in American policy-making. It’s the idea put forward by President Obama: “I am a Pacific president”.
Macron is reading his Zeihan, it seems.
But that then created a problem and a weakness: the 2013-2014 crisis, the failure to intervene in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, which was already the first stage in the collapse of the Western bloc. Because at that point, the major regional powers said to themselves: “the West is weak”. Things that had already begun implicitly became apparent in recent years.
… We need to draw conclusions from the consequences. The consequences, we can see them in Syria at the moment: the ultimate guarantor, the umbrella which made Europe stronger, no longer has the same relationship with Europe. Which means that our defence, our security, elements of our sovereignty, must be re-thought through. …
So, given all these factors, I don’t think I’m being either pessimistic or painting an overly gloomy picture when I say this. I’m just saying that if we don’t wake up, face up to this situation and decide to do something about it, there’s a considerable risk that in the long run we will disappear geopolitically, or at least that we will no longer be in control of our destiny. I believe that very deeply. …
So I think the first thing to do is to regain military sovereignty. I pushed European defence issues to the forefront as soon as I took office, at the European level, at the Franco-German level. … The instability of our American partner and rising tensions have meant that the idea of European defence is gradually taking hold. It’s the aggiornamento for a powerful and strategic Europe. I would add that we will at some stage have to take stock of NATO. To my mind, what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO. We have to be lucid.
Interviewer: “The brain death of NATO?”
Just look at what’s happening. You have partners together in the same part of the world, and you have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies. None. You have an uncoordinated aggressive action by another NATO ally, Turkey, in an area where our interests are at stake. There has been no NATO planning, nor any coordination. There hasn’t even been any NATO deconfliction. A meeting is coming up in December. This situation, in my opinion, doesn’t call into question the interoperability of NATO which is efficient between our armies, it works well in commanding operations. But strategically and politically, we need to recognise that we have a problem.
Interviewer: Do you now believe that Article Five doesn’t work either, is that what you suspect?
EM: I don’t know, but what will Article Five mean tomorrow? If the Bashar al-Assad regime decides to retaliate against Turkey, will we commit ourselves under it? It’s a crucial question. We entered the conflict to fight against Daesh [Islamic State]. The paradox is that both the American decision and the Turkish offensive have had the same result: sacrificing our partners who fought against Daesh on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces [a militia dominated by Syrian Kurds] That’s the crucial issue. From a strategic and political standpoint, what’s happened is a huge problem for NATO. It makes two things all the more essential on the military and strategic level. Firstly, European defence—Europe must become autonomous in terms of military strategy and capability. And secondly, we need to reopen a strategic dialogue, without being naive and which will take time, with Russia. Because what all this shows is that we need to reappropriate our neighbourhood policy, we cannot let it be managed by third parties who do not share the same interests. …
Interviewer: The gap between Europe’s defence, which doesn’t have an Article Five equivalent, and NATO is very hard to bridge though, isn’t it? It’s very hard to guarantee each other’s security with the same credibility that NATO has, even allowing for the weakening of NATO that you’ve just spoken of. So how do you get from an idea of collaboration to the guarantee of security, that NATO perhaps can’t provide anymore? How do you cross that gap, and project power too if necessary?
First of all, NATO is only as strong as its member states, so it only works if the guarantor of last resort functions as such. I’d argue that we should reassess the reality of what NATO is in the light of the commitment of the United States. Secondly, in my opinion, Europe has the capacity to defend itself. European countries have strong armies, in particular France. We are committed to ensuring the safety of our own soil as well as to many external operations. I think that the interoperability of NATO works well. But we now need to clarify what the strategic goals we want to pursue within NATO are. …
France knows how to protect itself. After Brexit, it will become the last remaining nuclear power in the European Union. And so it’s also essential to think about this in relation to others.
It’s an aggiornamento for this subject. NATO was designed in response to an enemy: the Warsaw Pact. In 1990 we didn’t reassess this geopolitical project in the slightest when our initial enemy vanished. The unarticulated assumption is that the enemy is still Russia. It’s also true that when we intervene in Syria against terrorism, it’s not actually NATO that intervenes. We use NATO's interoperability mechanisms, but it’s an ad hoc coalition. So, the question about the present purpose of NATO is a real question that needs to be asked. Particularly by the United States. In the eyes of President Trump, and I completely respect that, NATO is seen as a commercial project. He sees it as a project in which the United States acts as a sort of geopolitical umbrella, but the trade-off is that there has to be commercial exclusivity, it’s an arrangement for buying American products. France didn’t sign up for that …
In my discussions with President Trump when he says, “It’s your neighbourhood, not mine”; when he states publicly, “The terrorists, the jihadists that are over there, they’re European, they’re not American”; when he says, “It’s their problem, not mine”—we must hear what he’s saying. He’s stating a fact. It simply means what was only implicit under NATO until now: I am no longer prepared to pay for and guarantee a security system for them, and so just “wake up”. The NATO we’ve known since the beginning is changing its underlying philosophy. When you have a United States president who says that, we cannot, even if we don’t want to hear it, we cannot in all responsibility fail to draw the conclusions, or at least begin to think about them. Will he be prepared to activate solidarity? If something happens at our borders? It’s a real question. ….
Interviewer: From what you're saying, it sounds as if you think your European partners are somewhat naive!
I think Europe’s agenda was imposed on it for years and years. We were too slow on many issues. We did discuss these issues. But it wasn’t really a question we wanted to ask ourselves, because we lived in a trade-maximising world with secure alliances. The dominant ideology had a flavour of the end of history. So there will be no more great wars, tragedy has left the stage, all is wonderful. The overriding agenda is economic, no longer strategic or political. In short, the underlying idea is that if we're all linked by business, all will be fine, we won't hurt each other. In a way, that the indefinite opening of world trade is an element of making peace.
Except that, within a few years, it became clear that the world was breaking up again, that tragedy had come back on stage, that the alliances we believed to be unbreakable could be upended, that people could decide to turn their backs, that we could have diverging interests. And that at a time of globalisation, the ultimate guarantor of world trade could become protectionist. Major players in world trade could have an agenda that was more an agenda of political sovereignty, or of adjusting the domestic to the international, than of trade.
We have to be clear-sighted. I’m trying to understand the world as it is, I’m not lecturing anyone. …
When we interviewed you in July 2017, you already seemed quite frustrated by Europe’s slow pace and especially by the Franco-German relationship and the Germans’ ability to work alongside you, and keep pace with you. Who will you build this Europe with, if it’s not the Germans?
EM: I’ve always said we must have the Germans alongside us, and that the British must be a partner on European defence. We’re keeping the bilateral treaties we upheld at Sandhurst. I believe that the UK has an essential role to play. Actually, the UK will be faced with the same question because the UK will be even more affected than us if the nature of NATO changes. …
… no one can really describe China’s budgetary state. We assume that they’re going for it, they’re investing massively. The United States has increased its deficit in order to invest in strategic issues and boost the middle-income brackets. As Europe is alone in consolidating, what is Europe’s situation today? I’ve said this to other bosses in rather brutal terms, but it is a macroeconomic and financial reality. Europe is one of the continents with the highest levels of savings. A large part of those savings is used to buy American Treasury bonds. So with our savings, we’re paying for America’s future, and what’s more we’re exposing ourselves to vulnerability. It’s absurd.
On the subject of authoritarian regimes, you have called for a rapprochement with Russia, evoking in a way Obama’s reset policy, which in the end was not a great success. What gives you reason to think that this time it will be different?
EM: I look at Russia and I ask myself what strategic choices it has. We’re talking about a country that is the size of a continent, with a vast land mass. With a declining and ageing population. A country whose GDP is the same size as Spain’s. Which is rearming at the double, more than any other European country. Which was legitimately the subject of sanctions over the Ukrainian crisis. And in my view this model is not sustainable. Russia is engaged in over-militarisation, in conflict multiplication, but has its own internal issues: demography, economy, etc. So what are its strategic options?
Amazingly, the end of NATO has barely caused a raised eyebrow in the United States. When I say, “The end of NATO,” I mean it. NATO is a confidence game. The moment its members cast doubt on Article V, it’s over. By saying it’s over, he has made it so.
The truth about NATO is that it doesn’t matter how many troops we’ve deployed to Poland or Romania. The truth about NATO is that we don’t have the ability to ward off a conventional assault from Russia. NATO works by convincing Moscow that there is a non-zero chance we’re insane enough to swap Boston for Bonn.
It is very unclear to me why Macron has said these things. They are true, and everyone in Europe knows it. But it seems to me simply stupid to say it. Many in France are defending his comments by saying, “We have to face reality.” But the reality is that there’s no alternative to NATO, and there never will be. Perhaps the comments were a test balloon, meant to gauge European reaction to a scenario Macron thinks within imagination—a European military alliance led by France. If so, he has found out what Europe, and Germany in particular, thinks of this. He has caused panic. Europe will never accept this.
Europe is not and will never be more united than it is now. The European Union, and a military alliance dominated by a benevolent external power, was the best possible solution to Europe’s fratricidal impulses. Impefect, obviously. But for all its faults, a universe better than anything Europe had ever experienced before.
German foreign minister Heiko Maas responded by giving an interview of his own:
The President of the United States withdraws his troops from north-east Syria without consulting his closest partners. Turkey intervenes, paying no heed to warnings from Europe and the USA. The President of France declares NATO brain-dead. All this within just a few days, as if world history is unfolding in fast motion. This raises fundamental questions – as regards the reliability of our partners, the strength of our alliances, the security of our country and the right way forward into the future. …
What is at issue now? It can no longer be taken for granted that we in Germany live in peace and security. It has been said repeatedly over the past years that Germany must assume greater responsibility for peace and security in the world. At this historic moment we see that this duty is overshadowed by a second, even more urgent mission: we must assume responsibility if we wish to preserve our own security in Europe and in Germany at all.
Therefore, centre stage must be given to the political question of what international framework we need to establish in order to safeguard peace and security for Europe and for our country, now and in the future. Three points are crucial:
First, we must have a strong and sovereign Europe at the heart of his considerations. In the future, we Europeans will have to assume far greater responsibility for our security. We are therefore working at full speed with France on a Europe that cooperates far more closely on security policy. The Treaty of Aachen, the ever closer cooperation on capacity development, the European Intervention Initiative, and the strengthening of civilian crisis management are milestones ...
Second, we have to agree with our French friends on the way to best achieve the goal of a strong and sovereign Europe. In Germany’s opinion, it would clearly be a mistake to undermine NATO. Without the United States, neither Germany nor Europe are in a position to protect themselves effectively. That was recently illustrated very clearly by the Russian violation of the INF Treaty. It would be irresponsible to pursue a foreign and security policy without Washington, and dangerous to decouple European security from American security. We will need NATO for many years to come. It represents burden sharing, it stands for international cooperation and multilateralism. And when Europe is one day able to defend its own security, we should still want NATO. We do want a strong and sovereign Europe. But we need it as part of a strong NATO, and not as a substitute.
Third, we must not divide the Europeans on security matters. Germany will not tolerate any special arrangements, not vis-à-vis Moscow and not on any other matters. Our neighbours in Poland and the Baltic can trust us to take their security needs as seriously as we take our own. The Europe that we need cannot successfully take shape if they are not consulted. On the contrary, our eastern neighbours would then seek to ensure their future by enhancing their bilateral relations with Washington. So yes, a strong and sovereign Europe is a project that Germany and France are committed to. However, it is a project on which nobody may be left behind. [my emphasis]
He is reassuring Central Europe and the Baltics that Berlin shares their concerns about Russia and won’t cut a deal with Moscow at their expense. This cannot, however, be entirely reassuring.
Merkel, likewise, condemned Macron’s “drastic words.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg agreed. “Any attempt to distance Europe from North America will not only weaken the transatlantic alliance, it also risks dividing Europe itself,” he said.
He is right. But as French security analysts have been saying since Macron’s speech: It doesn’t matter whether he is right if the United States is no longer committed to Europe. “Europeans are in denial,” wrote Gérard Araud, the former French ambassador to the United States. “The don’t want the US to distance itself. So they’re killing the messenger.”
Franco-German relations are now strained, even rivalrous. Paris is exasperated with Berlin blocking its plans, for example, to reform the Euro, and beginning to act unilaterally. Macron did not consult Merkel before announcing his initiative to reset relations with Russia—Germany learned about it from Russia. Nor did he consult Germany before announcing he would veto accession talks with Northern Macedonia.
Even under the best of circumstances, Germany makes decisions slowly compared to centralized France. Germany is now governed by a two-party coalition of unpopular parties that barely communicate. Macron is frustrated. Germans, in turn, are fed up with Macron’s grandstanding and his criticism: They suspect he is a France-first neo-Gaullist—or worse, a Napoleon. Germans are thus beginning to act unilaterally as well, for example with a poorly-conceived initiative to establish a safe zone in Northern Syria.
In essence, Germany thinks the European Union and the Eurozone work—as they do, very well, for Germany. France thinks both need radical reform. Both believe Europe must spend more on defense. Germany thinks the spending should take place in the context of NATO and the full EU; France doubts NATO’s reliability, and thinks the EU is too large and unwieldy. Germany fears French policies will divide the EU and abandon Central Europe.
Brexit obviously is not helping Franco-German relations. France and Germany used to work with the UK to balance against the other. Now they’re competing directly. And the rest of Europe is wary—without the UK and the US to dilute it—of Franco-German dominance.
This, too, is what Zeihan would predict.
The opportunity this presents to Russia is obvious.
Meanwhile, Cairo has signed a $2 billion contract to buy more than 20 Su-35 fighter jets from Russia.
I wrote my doctoral dissertation about US arms transfers to the Arab-Israeli antagonists. The Czech-Egyptian arms deal of 1955 was a turning point in Cold War history. The news of it was met with shock and rage in the West, where leaders correctly appreciated that this represented a massive increase in Soviet influence in the Near East. In July 1956, US News and World Report said, Nasser was a “new dictator...out to build an empire.” Time called it “startling” and a “bombshell.”In response to the deal, ninety-four congressmen attached their names to a statement deploring it.
There has been no reaction at all to this news. We are not interested.
Russia and Egypt have been deepening and expanding their military and technical cooperation for more than a year now, giving rise to speculation that Russia will soon build a military base on the ground. As you can see, the joint training exercises focus on targeting US equipment:
We have, at least, sent an ambassador to Egypt—for the first time since 2017.
The scramble for Africa
Directly prior to this announcement, Putin held an unprecedented Russia–Africa Summit in Sochi. Anton Kobyakov, the Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee, put it plainly:
The historical significance of the Russia–Africa events is clear to many generations of people who lived through the USSR. Modern Russia, which already has experience of successful cooperation with African countries under its belt, is ready to make an offer to the African continent that will secure mutually beneficial partnership and the joint realization of the potential accumulated through decades of painstaking work carried out by several generations of Soviet and Russian people,”
Indeed, the historical significance is perfectly clear. For several years, Russia has been rejuvenating its Soviet-era partnerships and alliances. Russia offers arms, training, and “electioneering services” to African states in exchange for mining rights and votes at the United Nations. Russia claims that more than a trillion rubles worth of agreements were signed at the summit, “excluding agreements whose value is a trade secret.”
Wherever the United States leaves a vacuum, Russia fills the void. Russia is now the key power in the Middle East, and clearly plans to expand this role to Africa. Putin has promised to build Egypt’s Al-Dabaa nuclear power plant. Recently, the Russian military launched large-scale air defense drills in Egypt. Egypt is looking to Russia to mediate its water conflict with Ethiopia.
From Algeria to Zimbabwe, the US is losing influence. Trade between the US and Africa has dropped precipitously. American exports to Africa are down nearly a third since 2014. Other powers are signing trade agreements that leave out the United States: 41 African countries have signed trade agreements with the European Union. (We are meanwhile engaged in a trade war with the European Union.)
Africa has the world’s fastest-growing middle class; its markets are the biggest commercial opportunities in the developing world. Half of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in Africa. By 2050, half the world’s population will live there. Africa will soon be home to the better part of the world’s working-age population.
Since 2014, Russia has signed military cooperation agreements with 19 African countries. China is now Africa’s leading trade partner. India and Russia are increasing their involvement. The European Union is holding steady.
The Prosper Africa initiative was an excellent idea. But it isn’t even clear that President Trump is aware of the initiative.
This too confirms Zeihan’s view.
The war on diplomacy
Trump’s disdain for professional diplomats is vulgar populism embodied. Our diplomats are an educated, literate, and cosmopolitan elite; this makes them, in his mind and that of his supporters, the enemy of the people. It’s the same impulse that prompted the Khmer Rouge to kill everyone with eyeglasses. It is depressing to see this impulse at work.
Trump has been waging war on our diplomat corps for years. Even as we increase military spending (as well we should, given the level of global instability and the serious threats we face), we’ve made massive cuts to diplomacy and development spending (which is insane, given this context). We now spend a twentieth the amount on diplomacy that we do on the military. Tillerson drove out our most capable senior and mid-level officers. Career diplomats have been sidelined to such an extent that only one of 28 assistant-secretary rank positions is now filled by a Foreign Service officer. The practice of handing ambassadorships to unqualified political appointees has always been outrageous. More such ambassadorships have been handed out in this administration than in any other in recent history.
A fifth of our ambassadorships are unfilled—including critical posts, posts essential to our international presence. Nothing could more clearly symbolize American retreat.
Applications to join the Foreign Service have declined precipitously. Diplomats are resigning at an alarming rate. They face retaliation simply for having worked for the last administration. The department’s leadership, of course, has failed to defend them.
Even in the best of circumstances, this kind of institutional wreckage would take years to repair. In parallel with the rest of the damage Trump has done to our global standing, it is probably irreparable. We have unilaterally disarmed, diplomatically, at the very moment we are no longer powerful enough to call the shots in the world.
This, too, is consistent with Zeihan’s thesis.
But what of Zeihan’s claim that the United States will benefit from all of this?
It’s possible. If somehow we manage to keep this chaos away from us, we could perhaps thrive.
It all makes sense, unless we ask ourselves, “Why did we create an American-led world in the first place?”
The people who remember the answer are dead or dying. It wouldn’t be surprising if memories of the First and Second World War no longer inform our thinking.
We created this world because we had discovered we couldn’t keep the chaos away from us. How likely is it, really, that the the global chaos now unfolding will not reach American shores? Are we quite sure it won’t destroy us—or force us into a catastrophic war, with immense bloodletting, to re-implement the Pax Americana?
I don’t know. But Zeihan’s predictive record isn’t half bad, is it?