Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Coming Hobbesian World. By Liam Denning.

The Coming Hobbesian World. By Liam Denning. Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2014. Review of The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder. By Peter Zeihan. New York: Twelve, 2014. 371 pp. Also here.


The North American shale energy boom raises the question of whether it is worthwhile for the U.S. to continue to protect everyone’s trade.

Peter Zeihan begins “The Accidental Superpower” by declaring that he has “always loved maps.” From this unremarkable claim springs a lively, readable thesis on how the success or failure of nations may rest on the very ground beneath their feet. Rather than focusing on charismatic leaders or lofty ideals, Mr. Zeihan stresses the more prosaic forces that shape world events: topography, soil quality, access to water. Water especially, he says, sorts winners from the rest. It can be a highway, a barrier, a larder and a battery. Rivers make it cheap to transport goods and people, enabling the efficient mixing of ideas and markets. The capital that might otherwise be spent on, say, building a road may be used for other purposes.

It happens that the United States—the “superpower” of Mr. Zeihan’s title—is blessed with 12 major navigable rivers, including the Mississippi. Much else flows from this happy accident. A less pressing need for grand, land-based infrastructure projects, for example, may lessen the need for centralized coordination, encouraging small government.

Other great powers, or former ones, have enjoyed one or two geographical advantages—think of Egypt’s mighty Nile or Britain’s status as an island nation, from which its great naval tradition comes. But no nation combines America’s easy navigability, abundant cropland and a moat the size of two oceans. The geographical underpinning of America’s global role makes it likely that U.S. supremacy will endure for some time to come. Just don’t expect it to be easy, Mr. Zeihan says, at least not for the next couple of decades.

The bulk of “The Accidental Superpower” peers into the future as Mr. Zeihan, a former analyst at the geopolitical security firm Stratfor, tries to imagine where the world, and particularly America, is headed. Conjecture is de rigueur in the geopolitics genre—sometimes to its peril. Take “The Next 100 Years” by George Friedman, Mr. Zeihan’s former boss at Stratfor. Mr. Friedman’s 2009 book got some things right, notably a renewed standoff between the West and Russia. Eventually, though, it veered into Tom Clancy territory by imagining orbiting “Battle Stars” and a midcentury Thanksgiving Day sneak attack starting a world war.

“The Accidental Superpower” does its fair share of futurology. There is a Russian collapse, a Swedish-Polish alliance and even a secession crisis—in Canada, of all places, where the residents of Alberta (not Quebec) are restless. Most fascinating of all is the notion that, while armchair generals have their binoculars trained on the Middle East, the most pressing threat to U.S. homeland security could be a spillover of Mexico’s drug war.

Even if you don’t buy the specifics of these scenarios, they don’t lapse into a geopolitical version of science fiction. Their overarching theme is that we are moving into an ever more chaotic world—an idea that may sound familiar. (Think of two much-discussed articles from the 1990s: Robert Kaplan ’s “The Coming Anarchy” and Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations?”) Mr. Zeihan’s prediction, though, derives from a startling proposition: that the U.S., during the Cold War, “turned geopolitics off,” if only temporarily.

Mr. Zeihan is referring to the 1944 Bretton Woods settlement. By establishing a monetary and trading system underpinned by U.S. military and economic might, the settlement effectively bribed Western Europe’s tribes to set aside their blood feuds and band together to help hold off the Soviet Union. In return, the allies got access to the American market—the only functioning one amid the ruins of 1945—as well as the protection of the only global navy still afloat and, what’s more, a nuclear umbrella.

Mr. Zeihan says that the Bretton Woods settlement is now unraveling—largely because it is no longer essential to the country that underwrote it. Protecting everyone’s trade by means of the U.S. Navy made sense when it strengthened allies in the face of a Cold War adversary and guarded tankers feeding America’s growing appetite for foreign oil. Now the North American shale energy boom—not to mention the recent financial crisis—raises the question of whether it is worthwhile for the U.S. to bear such burdens to the same extent.

The obvious rejoinder to this skepticism is that the U.S. can’t simply lift itself off a planet with terrorist networks and nuclear weapons. But Mr. Zeihan’s point isn’t that America is about to isolate itself; it is rather that America may see the logic of retrenching, and retrenchment will destabilize a world built on U.S. commitments. Risk-free shipping lanes, for instance, are critical to major exporters such as China and Germany. Without American power, the fate of globalized supply chains is called into question. Signs of disruption can be seen in China’s push to directly control mines and oil fields overseas and in widespread doubts about whether an American president would send troops to defend NATO allies in the Baltic states. The assumptions underlying the postwar order have loosened already.

Mr. Zeihan’s grim conclusion: The world may be headed toward a “Hobbesian period” of rivalry over resources lasting 15 years or so. Economic pressures will be intensified in many regions by aging populations that make demands on overburdened, unreplenished economies. The U.S. doesn’t escape entirely, in Mr. Zeihan’s telling, but it does better in relative terms—aided by its geographical advantages and also, for instance, by its ability to assimilate immigrants.

Only in the conclusion to “The Accidental Superpower” does the author overreach, declaring that “the world is indeed going to hell, but the Americans are going to sit this one out.” After his having done such a good job of explaining the nature of U.S. power and the threats to global order, the triumphalist tone of the final pages is jarring. Still, anyone seeking a cogent, and provocative, take on where the world is heading should start here. Even if you don’t fall in love with maps, you’ll never look at them the same way again.

Putin’s Rules of Attraction. By Joseph S. Nye.

Putin’s Rules of Attraction. By Joseph S. Nye. Project Syndicate, December 12, 2014.


CAMBRIDGE – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s covert aggression in Ukraine continues – and so do Western sanctions against his country. But the economy is not all that is under threat; Russia’s soft power is dwindling, with potentially devastating results.

A country can compel others to advance its interests in three main ways: through coercion, payment, or attraction. Putin has tried coercion – and been met with increasingly tough sanctions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin’s main European interlocutor, has been expressing her frustration with Russian policy toward Ukraine in increasingly harsh terms. Whatever short-term gains Putin’s actions in Ukraine provide will be more than offset in the long term, as Russia loses access to the Western technology it needs to modernize its industry and extend energy exploration into frontier Arctic regions.

With Russia’s economy faltering, Putin is finding it increasingly difficult to employ the second tool of power: payment. Not even oil and gas, Russia’s most valuable resources, can save the economy, as Putin’s recent agreement to supply gas to China for 30 years at knockdown prices demonstrates.

This leaves attraction – a more potent source of power than one might expect. China, for example, has been attempting to use soft power to cultivate a less threatening image – one that it hopes will undermine, and even discourage, the coalitions that have been emerging to counterbalance its rising economic and military might.

A country’s soft power rests on three main resources: an appealing culture, political values that it reliably upholds, and foreign policy that is imbued with moral authority. The challenge lies in combining these resources with hard-power assets like economic and military power so that they reinforce one another.

The United States failed to strike this balance with respect to its 2003 invasion of Iraq. While America’s military power was sufficient to defeat Saddam Hussein’s forces quickly, it did so at the expense of its attractiveness in many countries. Likewise, though establishing a Confucius Institute in Manila to teach Filipino people about Chinese culture may help to cultivate China’s soft power, its impact will be severely constrained if China is simultaneously using its hard power to bully the Philippines in the territorial dispute over the Scarborough Shoal.

The problem for Russia is that it already has very little soft power with which to work. Indeed, as the political analyst Sergei Karaganov noted in 2009, Russia’s lack of soft power is precisely what is driving it to behave aggressively – such as in its war with Georgia the previous year.

To be sure, Russia has historically enjoyed considerable soft power, with its culture having made major contributions to art, music, and literature. Moreover, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Soviet Union was attractive to many Western Europeans, owing largely to its leadership in the fight against fascism.

But the Soviets squandered these soft-power gains by invading Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. By 1989, they had little soft power left. The Berlin Wall did not collapse under a barrage of NATO artillery, but under the impact of hammers and bulldozers wielded by people who had changed their minds about Soviet ideology.

Putin is now making the same mistake as his Soviet forebears. Despite his 2013 declaration that Russia should be focusing on the “literate use” of soft power, he failed to capitalize on the soft-power boost afforded to Russia by hosting the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

Instead, even as the Games were proceeding, Putin launched a semi-covert military intervention in Ukraine, which, together with his talk of Russian nationalism, has induced severe anxiety, particularly among ex-Soviet countries. This has undermined Putin’s own stated objective of establishing a Russia-led Eurasian Union to compete with the European Union.

With few foreigners watching Russian films, and only one Russian university ranked in the global top 100, Russia has few options for regaining its appeal. So Putin has turned to propaganda.

Last year, Putin reorganized the RIA Novosti news agency, firing 40% of its staff, including its relatively independent management. The agency’s new leader, Dmitry Kiselyov, announced in November the creation of “Sputnik,” a government-funded network of news hubs in 34 countries, with 1,000 staff members producing radio, social media, and news-wire content in local languages.

But one of the paradoxes of soft power is that propaganda is often counterproductive, owing to its lack of credibility. During the Cold War, open cultural exchanges – such as the Salzburg Seminar, which enabled young people to engage with one another – demonstrated that contact among populations is far more meaningful.

Today, much of America’s soft power is produced not by the government, but by civil society – including universities, foundations, and pop culture. Indeed, America’s uncensored civil society, and its willingness to criticize its political leaders, enables the country to preserve soft power even when other countries disagree with its government’s actions.

Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the BBC retains its credibility because it can bite the government hand that feeds it. Yet Putin remains bent on curtailing the role of non-governmental organizations and civil society.

Putin may understand that hard and soft power reinforce each other, but he remains seemingly incapable of applying that understanding to policy. As a result, Russia’s capacity to attract others, if not to coerce and pay them, will continue to decline.

Immigration and the New Class Divide. By Ian Buruma.

Immigration and the New Class Divide. By Ian Buruma. Project Syndicate, December 9, 2014.


SINGAPORE – The British shadow minister for Europe, Pat McFadden, recently warned members of his Labour Party that they should try to make the most of the global economy and not treat immigration like a disease. As he put it, “You can feed on people’s grievances or you can give people a chance. And I think our policies should be around giving people a chance.”

In a world increasingly dominated by grievances – against immigrants, bankers, Muslims, “liberal elites,” “Eurocrats,” cosmopolitans, or anything else that seems vaguely alien – such wise words are rare. Leaders worldwide should take note.

In the United States, Republicans – backed by their Tea Party activists – are threatening to close the government down just because President Barack Obama has offered undocumented immigrants who have lived and worked in the US for many years a chance to gain citizenship. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) wants to introduce a five-year ban on immigration for permanent settlement. Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, once released a video promising to “clean the rubbish” – meaning migrant workers, mostly from former Soviet republics – “away from Moscow.”

Even the once famously tolerant Dutch and Danes are increasingly voting for parties that fulminate against the scourge of immigration. Always keen to assert the freedom to insult Muslims, the Dutch Freedom Party wants to ban all mosques. And the tiny and much-harassed opposition parties in Singapore – a country where almost everyone is descended from immigrants – are gaining traction by appealing to popular gripes about immigrants (mostly from India and China) who are supposedly taking jobs from “natives.”

What can American Tea Party enthusiasts, Russian chauvinists, fearful Dutch and Danes, and Singaporean leftists possibly have in common that is driving this anti-immigrant sentiment?

Retaining one’s job in a tightening economy is undoubtedly a serious concern. But the livelihoods of most of the middle-aged rural white Americans who support the Tea Party are hardly threatened by poor Mexican migrants. UKIP is popular in some parts of England where immigrants are rarely seen. And many of the Dutch Freedom Party’s voters live nowhere near a mosque.

Anti-immigrant sentiment cuts across the old left-right divide. One thing Tea Party or UKIP supporters share with working-class voters who genuinely fear losing their jobs to low-paid foreigners is anxiety about being left behind in a world of easy mobility, supranational organizations, and global networking.

On the right, support for conservative parties is split between business interests that benefit from immigration or supranational institutions, and groups that feel threatened by them. That is why the British Tories are so afraid of UKIP. Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, is less concerned with economic growth than with pursuing his extreme conception of national independence.

On the left, opinion is split between those who oppose racism and intolerance above all and those who want to protect employment and preserve “solidarity” for what is left of the native-born working class.

It would be a mistake to dismiss anxiety about immigration as mere bigotry or apprehension about the globalized economy as simply reactionary. National, religious, and cultural identities (for lack of a better word) are being transformed, though less by immigration than by the development of globalized capitalism.

In the new global economy, there are clear winners and losers. Educated men and women who can communicate effectively in varied international contexts are benefiting. People who lack the needed education or experience – and there are many of them – are struggling.

In other words, the new class divisions run less between the rich and the poor than between educated metropolitan elites and less sophisticated, less flexible, and, in every sense, less connected provincials. It is irrelevant that the provincials’ political leaders (and their backers) are sometimes wealthier than the resented metropolitan elites. They still feel looked down upon. And so they share the bitterness of those who feel alienated in a world they find bewildering and hateful.

Populist rabble-rousers like to stir up such resentments by ranting about foreigners who work for a pittance or not at all. But it is the relative success of ethnic minorities and immigrants that is more upsetting to indigenous populations.

This explains the popular hostility toward Obama. Americans know that, before too long, whites will be just another minority, and people of color will increasingly be in positions of power. At this point, all Tea Partiers and others like them can do is declare, “We want our country back!”

Of course, this is an impossible demand. Short of unleashing massive and bloody ethnic cleansing – Bosnia, on a continental scale – Americans and others have no choice but to get used to living in increasingly diverse societies.

Likewise, economic globalization cannot be undone. But regulation can and should be improved. After all, some things are still worth protecting. There are good reasons not to leave culture, education, lifestyles, or jobs completely exposed to the creative destruction of market forces.

McFadden has pinpointed the central solution to globalization’s challenges: giving people “the tools to reap the benefits” of the globalized world, thereby making the “connected world work better for people.” The problem is that this call is more likely to appeal to the highly educated, already privileged classes than to those who feel disenfranchised in today’s global economy.

This is a serious problem for political parties on the left, which increasingly seem to be speaking for the metropolitan elites, while provincial populists are pushing traditional conservatives further to the right by fishing in the dark waters of popular resentment.

America Continues to Thrive. By Victor Davis Hanson.

America Continues to Thrive. By Victor Davis Hanson. National Review Online, December 11, 2014.


Even in its current malaise, the U.S. still soars above the global competition.

Germany’s first chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, supposedly once said that there was “a special providence for drunkards, fools, and the United States of America.”

Apparently, late 19th-century observers could not quite explain how the U.S. thrived when by logic it should not. That paradox has never been more true than today.

The U.S. government now owes more than $18 trillion in long-term debt. Even after recent income-tax hikes for the very wealthy and huge cuts in the defense budget, the Obama administration will still run an annual budget deficit of nearly $500 billion.

No government official dares to trim Social Security or Medicare. Everyone knows that both programs are fiscally unsustainable.

More than 11 million undocumented immigrants are residing in the U.S. as federal immigration law is reduced to a bothersome irritant. A record 92 million American citizens 16 and older are not working.

Red-state and blue-state animosities reveal a nation more divided than at any time since the 1960s — or perhaps the pre–Civil War 1850s.

The permanent bureaucracy is awash in serial scandals. The IRS, VA, GSA, NSA, ICE, and Secret Service have all deservedly lost the public trust.

Congress suffers from overwhelming public disapproval. President Obama’s approval rating hovers just above 40 percent.

Our new foreign policy could be characterized as managed decline. Three defense secretaries have retired or resigned under Obama. Two of them, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, wrote memoirs in which they blasted the administration. From Russia to the Pacific to the Middle East, the world seems to be descending into the law of the jungle as the U.S. withdraws from its traditional role as a global overseer of the postwar order.

The Michael Brown shooting illustrates seemingly irreconcilable racial divides not seen in 50 years. Al Sharpton once was seen as a social arsonist and tax delinquent. Now he appears to be the White House’s most influential advisor on racial matters.

Student-loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion. Six years of college has become the new normal. Even then, more than a third of the students who enter college never graduate.

In such a depressing American landscape, why is the United States doing pretty well?

Put simply, millions of quiet, determined Americans get up every morning and tune out the incompetence and corruption of their government. They simply ignore destructive fads of popular culture. They have no time for the demagoguery of their politicians and the divisive rhetoric of social activists. Instead, these quiet Americans simply go to work, pursue their own talents, excel at what they do, and seek to take care of their families.

The result of their singular expertise is that even in America’s current illness, the nation still soars above the global competition.

Only in America can you find the sort of innovation, talent, legal framework, and can-do attitude needed to invent and refine hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling. Just a few hundred thousand scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, oil riggers, and skilled craftsman have revived the once-ossified oil industry for 320 million Americans.

The United States is not running out of fuels — as was predicted over the last 20 years. It instead has become the largest gas-and-oil producer in the world.

The epitaph for Silicon Valley is written each year. Its tech industry is copied the world over. Yet seemingly each year a new American technical innovation — the laptop, Google, Facebook, the iPad, the iPhone — sweeps the world. Apparently, American informality, meritocracy, and top-flight engineering still draw global talent into Northern California, which sends back out the latest gadgets to be gobbled up by billions.

Neither drought, nor needlessly cumbersome regulations, nor unfair trade practices have stalled American agriculture. The farms of the United States — where less than 2 percent of the population resides — have never turned out so much safe, nutritious, and cheap food that is feeding the world and earning America hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign exchange.

The U.S. military — in which fewer than 1 in 100 Americans serve — is facing record cuts. The Navy will have fewer ships than the American fleet of World War I. The Air Force and the Marine Corps are shrinking. Yet superb American forces continue to ensure that the United States and its allies remain safe. Neither Vladimir Putin’s Russia, nor the Communist Chinese hierarchy, nor the Iranian theocrats are quite ready to take the on the U.S. military. All are rightly worried that to do so would be suicidal.

America is not saved by our elected officials, bureaucrats, celebrities, and partisan activists. Instead, just a few million hardworking Americans in key areas — a natural meritocracy of all races, classes, and backgrounds — ignore the daily hype and chaos, remain innovative and productive, and dazzle the world.

The silent few of a forgotten America have given the entire country an astonishing standard of living that is quite inexplicable.