The Accidental Superpower
The Bretton Woods system, which materialized what was also called Pax Americana, still guides us to what we know as the international system today, a legacy of the post-World War II order, but it may be on the verge of collapse. The United States have entered an isolationist trend that puts them on the brink of abandoning its position as world leaders, raising many questions regarding the future of the international system.
Peter Zeihan, a geopolitical strategist, presents us in “Accidental Superpower”, through geographic, demographic, energetic, political, technological and security analysis, the reason why the US are distancing themselves from the international system and opting for isolationism. At first, we’ll be inclined to think its just another book with a US-centric view, telling us how amazing the USA are. But we gradually realise that isn’t the case.
The book’s structure is divided into two parts, starting with the explanation of key points such as how geography and the technological paradigm give rise to nation formation and the creation of identities, becoming the starting point to what we know today, focusing initially on the ancient Egyptian civilization and its internal river-based system, and how the Ottoman Empire almost became a global empire, if not for the introduction of deepwater navigation revolutionizing geostrategy and causing globalization and colonial empires. It’s in the second part that the focus changes to the USA and the importance that the American navy has in global trade.
The argument is based on the geographic, demographic and energetic conditions of the USA, and how these are the main causes that led to US hegemony on the world sphere. With baby-boomers closing on retirement, many states will enter a phase of demographic collapse, by effectively reducing the proportion of working taxpayers, something which, the author states, will not happen in the US, since the demographic structure still has a large young population block. The same can’t be said about Europe, China, Russia or Japan. Energy issues are also fundamental, seeing as US interest in the Middle East starts to decline as it closes on energy independence, a result of the ongoing shale revolution, which has already taken place since the book’s publishing, something that the author himself prophesized. But fundamentally, the fall of the Soviet Union eliminated the US need to “purchase” an alliance based on democratic values and free trade, and to guarantee safe oceanwide navigation by taking on its respective costs (the US military budged numbers speak for themselves).
The liberal world order may be coming to an end, and as International Relations students we may have the opportunity to “see” up close, possibly one of the most profound changes in the international system.
Starting from the premise he had left off in Accidental Superpower, Peter Zeihan presents us Disunited Nations, with the change in the world order wherein states take on a more Realist modus operandi, or “when powers decide that they are better off competing than cooperating”. Following the terror attacks on September 11 in 2001, transnational terrorism led the US to face a new enemy, for which it hoped to rely on the alliance which takes form under NATO. In the years thereafter, the alliance did not mobilize, and the US gradually took on a position of disinterest in the order which they created, a trend which was already on course in the Obama administration, but which Trump, with his own particular style, verbalized more vehemently.
Disunited Nations is an exercise in futurology, following a similar structure to the first book and updating it, with the benefit of the developments which we are aware of today. The first part of the book is based on how the USA achieved global hegemony and how the building of the Bretton Woods system was a sort of “bribe” to fight the USSR; in the second part, the book does an in-depth analysis of who will be the winners and losers of the new world order, what would they need and what arguments they have to be successful in the new context. Some of the names that come up may surprise us, and others have already started work on taking what they see as their rightful place. Zeihan states that the US will stay in a privileged position, even if with some obstacles on the way, and without assuming a leadership role.
Many processes are unfolding and, most likely this decade or the next, we may see the fall of the legacy of the Bretton Woods system, without forgetting that events may take place that will speed up this process – when questioned about his predictions, Zeihan states he is himself surprised at the pace at which so many of them came to materialize. Curiously, one of the possible accelerators that this book indicates is the occurrence of a pandemic. Zeihan’s prescient analysis gives us food for thought.