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The Peter Zeihan Lens (part 1/n)

Almost two years ago I started scribbling for a project mapping out LeftTube, but now those guys are basically mainstreaming and I lost steam. Internet archaeology is a capricious art.

I want to record some more on geopolitical forecasting and futurism, and if I don’t start immediately the muse might leave me, so here we are. This project fits thematically with my recent notes on “How to be futuristic“.

Peter Zeihan is a former Stratfor guy who started his own geopolitics advisory shop. I’ve been following his semi-annual talks for a few years. He’s easy to track because lecture-to-lecture there’s only going to be about 10 minutes of unique content (Q&A aside), his thesis and even his jokes have been mostly fixed for several years now. This actually makes a lot of sense, because he’s focused on geography and demographics, neither of which change very quickly, although details of the board (or of public attention) might drive tweaks in the slides. His narrow focus is I think part of what makes him good- he follows the Sterling line that a good futurist has a dedicated slice of the PACE layer. I have not read his books yet, but I’m back in reading marathon-training mode so this may update by EOY.

Not only is he consistent, but Zeihan’s batting record is good. Check out this talk from 2014, where for example he makes the claim (which he is more explicit about in 2015-2016) that whoever would become president in 2016 would pursue the process of withdrawal from the cold war international order out of necessity. His audience is often US agriculture and energy, and he has great news for them. (By contrast, he spent energy ribbing his UK audience at a recent talk in London). His videos are widely available on Youtube, so due to their fixedness across the years I won’t link a variety of them here. Here is a recent one.

I think his domestic political predictions are more suspect than the rest of his predictions. His assumptions are broadly thoughtworthy but his true strength is drawing out the Stratfor-level game board between states. The geopolitics frame can only present snapshots of the present opportunities/threats at a nation-state level, but history isn’t all default options and forced moves, people’s choices actually matter. Zeihan is offering a broad SWOT to a narrow set of people (energy & agri folks) for them to factor into their own decisions and policy preferences.

He is extremely bearish on almost the entire world beyond the US for purely demographic reasons (with some exceptions- topic of his latest book, I’m told).

Zeihan in a nutshell

  • The security threat that motivated the US-led post-WW2 order is no longer existential, and after Bush I (-1992) we have been on auto-pilot in terms of foreign policy. The US is not as economically integrated globally as we have preached in our gospel of free minds and free markets, and the reality is that
    • We are the only ones capable of sustaining global hegemony and
    • It is not a tremendous economic benefit to do this, and never was (again, it was the price of security during the Cold War).
  • On demography: The Millenial boom is a US-only demographic phenomenon, who have a high consumptive power (young adults are serious spenders). The large Baby Boomer demographic have massive investment power. The inverted demographic pyramid of much of the rest of the world spells doom for them in the medium term.
  • On geography: the United States has the largest continuous high-quality arable land & navigable rivers that decimate cargo costs vs land trade. We have two friendly neighbors that we can effectively subjugate through economic force, and can use our military to project force internationally instead of purely defensively. We own our seas, so we can access both European and East Asian markets easily, making it hard to ‘catch’ regional recessions from them.
  • For the above two reasons, we are always uniquely suited to negotiate economic relationships with our partners with a higher BATNA on our side. Many of the cards in our hand are semi-permanently good, “despite a bipartisan effort to ruin it”, as he often jokes.
  • This understanding of ourselves suggest a handful of good moves that become likely for our near-future: We can sport a model of flexible, permanent offense anywhere in the world to suit our immediate needs, with fewer defensive commitments. The good hand we have will enable us to separate our economic and our defensive pacts with partner nations, which will be strictly worse for them. We are needed more than we need any individual partner, especially now that we have comparative energy independence (through shale and alternative energy). Our absence will likely enable brushfire conflicts in a wide arc around Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, and not strictly to the benefit of our general ‘geopolitical adversaries’. “What is Russia without international energy markets? What is China without trade access?”
  • Those conflicts will make energy and food trade even more difficult, alongside climate change. Bad news for much of the world, but potentially lucrative for US energy and agribusiness.

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