Books demography economics free trade

Impressions of “The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization,” by Peter Zeihan

A generation ago Thomas P.M Barnett wrote The Pentagon’s New Map, a “brief” or powerpoint deck, magazine article, and book that helped shape my career. In PNM, Barnett emphasized the role of globalization (including “connectivity” and “rule sets”) in driving economic growth, bringing peace, and (as an aside) lowering the birth rate. Zeihan now writes in the wake of the world that Barnett described.

I first encountered The End of the World is Just the Beginning on a podcast episode titled “Decivilization.” That term is from the book, and after listening to the episode, I could not sleep. Zeihan’s analysis appeared so careful, and his predictions so specific; was there any hope?

Well, yes. Kind of. Because Zeihan does not describe the most likely future from now, but the future that will exist without (a) a massive baby boom, (b) a generalized rejection of isolation in favor of renewed globalization, and (c) sustained US military presence throughout the world. The third variable, US military presence, is the only easy lever for policymakers and the implied focus of the book.

End of the World is very light on military strategy of plans. Indeed, the forecasts it makes appear to assume greatly reduced US military spending leading to more multipolarity – or chaos – in the world. Zeihan’s implication is that the chaos could be made more localized or rolled back entirely by not reducing the scope of military operations that maintain the freedom of the seas. From Barnett’s idea of rolling back the Non-Integrating Gap,” Zeihan frames as more likely a selective roll-back of what Barnett called the “Functioning Core” of the globalized world.

Instead, Zeihan adds a detailed discussion of demographics. Economic growth accelerates during globalization with young workforces. China’s rise in the 1980s through the 2000s is an example of this. Economic growth declines during periods of greater isolation with older workforces. Zeihan believes we are seeing that now across the world, with some of the transition accelerated by Covid-19.

In Barnett’s work, the demographic decline was primarily seen in more stability – less need for additional food sources, less need for additional jobs, less desire for war. Sometime around 2020, Barnett predicted a generation ago, China would get old before it got rich.

According to Zeihan, that time is now. The average Chinese is now older, with fewer kids than the average American. The average age in China is increasing faster than in America. The size of the Chinese workforce has now begun to decline. The aging population also reduces China’s ability to increase its force projection, leading to more vulnerable supply lines.

In Barnettian terms, Zeihan’s implied approach is to roll back the functioning core and spread the Gap. China, according to Zeihan, is tremendously more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions across a wide range of industries, from microchips to oil, to food. Zeihan implicitly presents a foreign policy based on isolation (ideally of the western hemisphere, potentially just NAFTA, and even feasibly the fifty United States) as superior to the national interest than a globalized order that includes China.

Unfortunately, Zeihan advocates policy only indirectly. On the face of it, he sees a general pullback of American force projection as inevitable and impossible to moderate. The projections in the book assume an extreme form of isolation from the United States as a given. This is effective rhetoric – it inspires either a “we can’t let this happen” or “how can we use this to our advantage?”, allowing the audience to “sell” the implications to themselves – but also means Zeihan is not as easy to hold to account for incorrect predictions as Barnett was. In the early days of this blog I noted events that appeared to either confirm or disconfirm Barnett’s theories, but it is harder to do so with Zeihan’s work.

When I read Pentagon’s New Map my takeaway was that it was essential to attack the most destabilizing regimes in the world (Iran, Iraq, North Korea, etc) and engage in nation-building. This certainly was the vibe of the Bush administration, and this general approach is now discredited. Now, after I read The End of the World is Just the Beginning, my takeaway is that the US can selectively withdraw security and trade links to inflict more chaos on China than we would experience ourselves. I suspect this strategy will be increasingly used over the next several years.

A specific example of predictions in this book seeming to play out is Biden’s chip embargo against China.  While China is a high-volume, low-quality manufacturer, it has only 2% of the global market of high-value chips. Its own economy is dependent on importing western-made chips. And its total workforce, skilled workforce, and consumer population are all declining.  Now is a time of maximum vulnerability for the Chinese chip industry. And Biden used that opportunity to act.

Pentagon’s New Map was originally a brief – presentation Barnett later expanded into a book series. The End of the World had a similar history because it had a similar audience. Fortunately, reading End as an audiobook gives you the best of both worlds as the author narrates the book. That means that pauses, emphasis, and ironic asides are all presented as intended, and it’s clear throughout the 16 hours of material that the author is a terrific speaker.

End of the World also follows on from Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World. In my review of that book I said it should have been called The Rise of a World Dominated by India, China, and especially the United States or The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Results Section. In that case, End is the Results of the Results Section. Enough time has passed for major players to adjust their behavior based on the first four decades of the globalization since Thatcher, Reagan, and Deng took office. China’s attempt to explicitly translate its globalized prosperity into a rival source of geopolitical power (a tactic markedly different from Germany, Japan, Britain, and France) may dramatically change the course of economic history.

I strongly recommend The End of the World is Just the Beginning to anyone curious about supply chains, babies and fertility rates, US foreign policy, or China. It succeeds, rivals, and complements Barnett’s Pentagon’s New Map, and will change how you think of (de)globalization.

I read The End of the World is Just the Beginning by Peter Zeihan in the Audible edition.

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