Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Zeihan’s Global Prognostics and Sustainable Development, Part I

Posted on | October 11, 2022 | Comments Off on Zeihan’s Global Prognostics and Sustainable Development, Part I

Peter Zeihan has become a popular author and media celebrity for his ideas on declining demographic patterns, the shale oil revolution, and the end of globalization. He formerly worked for Stratfor, a private geopolitical forecasting company in Austin, Texas, started by noted geopolitical futurist George Friedman.[1] His new firm Zeihan on Geopolitics provides custom analytical products and briefings on global trends and how they might impact his corporate and government clients.

This post looks at Zeihan’s hypotheses and their implications for sustainable development, roughly defined by the United Nations Brundtland Commission as meeting the needs of the present without compromising future generations. While one might say that all countries in the world are undergoing a transition to sustainable development, countries have different circumstances and need to develop unique economic policies and solutions. In any case, they must maintain situational awareness regarding their financial, geographical, and military affairs. They should also consider the relevance of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) that plot a trajectory based on economic, social, and environmental objectives.[1] Zeihan’s model, which is not beyond critique, is a helpful point of departure for assessing the development needs in each and every country and the possibilities of the SDGs to help identify and meet those needs.

Zeihan has written four books, The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder (2016), The Absent Superpower (2017), Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World(2020), and just recently, The End of the World Is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization (2022). But YouTube has probably been his most significant outlet. You can view the below and follow the recommended videos or search directly.

Zeihan’s approach is primarily focused on demographic trends, geographic constraints, military concerns, and legacy energy availability. For example, he discusses the Russian Federation’s situation primarily in terms of its declining population, reliance on metals, natural gas, and oil exports, and a history of being invaded by foreign armies through several geographical vulnerabilities (particularly the plains of Ukraine). His major concern is that Russia’s younger population is significantly declining, which means fewer workers, fewer consumers, and less capital investment capability from savings. He considers the war in Ukraine one last chance to start barricading the 11 potential invasion points that have haunted Russia in the past. Otherwise, Russia is likely to be invaded or break up in the next few decades.

He also weaves agriculture, finance, maritime shipping, rare materials, manufacturing, and military activities into his prognostications. His general conclusion is that globalization is ending, and countries will have problems dealing with their populations getting older and with fewer younger generations. And all this will mean clear winners and losers as globalization comes to an end. And why is it ending?

The starting point for his major arguments is that the US-led world order that provided financial stability and military protection for global trade is ending due to a lack of interest and political will. Since 1945, the US has provided the primary currency for international reserves and transactions. They also orchestrated maritime and military protection for a worldwide system of trade. However, he argues the United States has been stepping down from its role as the global bank and policeman, and it will leave many countries vulnerable to drastic changes in international commerce and military affairs.

The Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire during World War II designed a new financial and trading order. Replacing the old gold standard, economists and policymakers from around the world created a new financial system. It was based on connecting the US dollar to gold at $35 an ounce. At the same time, other countries were required to tie the value of their currencies to the dollar at fixed rates. They also created the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to help countries maintain their prescribed currency exchange rate and develop economically.

But just as crucial for Zeihan’s thesis is the US creation of a global security system to protect any country’s maritime exports and imports. The US Navy has over 200 ships that patrol the world’s waterways, including 11 “super” aircraft carriers and 9 “helo” carriers. Using nuclear power, the supercarriers can operate for over 20 years without refueling. Aircraft carriers usually carry dozens of fighter jets and project tremendous power and national prestige. While China has an overall numerical advantage, its ships have a limited range that restricts the area they can patrol. China has two aircraft carriers and one helo carrier. Russia has a powerful navy, but it is divided into four areas with limited access to the world’s oceans. The United Kingdom, France, and Japan are considered other powerful global navies.

Caveat: A country gets protection providing it sides with the US against Communism (and later “terrorism). He calls this “the bribe.”

The main problem with this global protection system, Zeihan argues, is that it died in the early 1990s with the fall of the USSR. The US populace has subsequently not been particularly interested in its continuance. Although it got renewed emphasis after 9/11 and the war on “terror.” The US has steadily turned inward and away from the world’s problems. The end of this protection will leave much of the world’s shipping at the mercy of hostile states and pirates.

Global shipping has several choke points, particularly the Straits of Malacca, between Singapore and Indonesia, as well as the Gulf of Hormuz between Iran and the UAE. These routes are vulnerable to naval attacks and blockades. China’s energy imports, for example, are quite vulnerable, as are its exports to the world. For example, a naval blockade near Sri Lanka could seriously hamper China’s industries and shut down much of the country. Zeihan argues that US protection keeps China from falling into chaos. Without the US, essential trade routes will require convoy protection capabilities that China has yet to achieve and will require new forms of shipping insurance that could be very expensive.

Likewise, the US dollar is the mediating global currency, which is not likely to change soon, despite US neglect. Recurrent dollar shortages have created havoc in world markets. These shortages are due to declining US purchases of foreign oil, diminished military presence overseas, and smaller trade deficits that have made the dollar much more scarce and, thus, more expensive. The upward trend in dollar strength has recently been accelerated by rising US interest rates and global capital flight into US dollar assets due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s potential attack on Taiwan.

His second major concern is the rapidly aging populations in the developed and newly industrialized worlds that will soon send many economies into free fall. These countries are facing severe demographic problems with increased older generations and smaller new generations, primarily due to urbanization. Populations provide workers, consumers, and investors. Industrialization and scientific advances have meant a population boom worldwide, but that trend is ending. As a result, consumer spending and tax revenues dry up, while pension payments and medical care consume much of what is left. Japan has been leading the way, but China is Zeihan’s primary concern. Add in the one-child policy, and Zeihan believes China is on the verge of a significant collapse. Europe is also vulnerable, as is Russia. He argues that Russia needed to have its war with Ukraine now to expand its empire and plug the geographical holes in its defenses or lapse into a slow, unrecoverable decline.

Energy is extremely important. The US is now energy-independent primarily based on the “Shale Revolution,” which refers to the combination of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and horizontal drilling that significantly increases the acquisition of natural gas and oil. Overproduction in 2017 caused price declines culminating in the tragic 2020 negative prices, but the market recovered as Covid-19 subsided and “revenge travel” ensued. Middle East countries are big producers of energy. Russia was important but is quickly going offline due to sanctions and a lack of technical expertise and may see many oil wells freeze up indefinitely. Venezuela has tremendous quantities but of a quality that is more expensive to refine.

Almost as important for his global analysis, is what countries are heavily dependent on gas and oil imports. China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan are all severely dependent on foreign energy that must travel significant distances. These countries rely on large oil tankers (and paying in US dollars) to ship in their energy. Primarily built by France, Japan, and Sweden, and more recently South Korea. Zeihan says that a couple of destroyers in the Indian Ocean stopping oil tankers going to China could bring down the country within a year. For him, China is the most vulnerable country in the world.

Zeihan is not the biggest fan of renewable energies, although he claims to have solar panels on his home. He doesn’t think they will significantly scale in the quantities to replace oil and argues that many places are not suitable locations for wind or solar. He also points out that many of the rare elements and materials needed for the green revolution require inputs from many countries. If globalization continues to stall, Net Zero carbon pledges will be nearly meaningless.

In conclusion, Zeihan has a model of the world with several key variables that he uses to analyze the prospects for individual countries. Most are based on material conditions: geography, populations, oil, metals, etc. They produce a significant hypothesis: that globalization based on US protection is falling apart and that individual countries will have to assess their situations and decide whether to find partners or go it alone.

His model does not seem to highly value collective action, education, and innovation. These include cultural movements (including markets) and governmental momentum and policy that can assess and adapt to situations. It was, after all, the unlikely US mobilization for WWII that led to success in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters and the technological innovations of radar, code decryption, and the atomic bomb, among other successes, that propelled the US to the global power it became and continued to sustain over nearly 80 years. He didn’t believe Ukraine would last long against Russia. (Who did?) Zeihan also downplays political influence in foreign policy and the tendency of the “military industrial complex” to shape US action.

However, the model he presents is a useful starting point for country assessments on the relevance of sustainable development goals. Every country has to evaluate its situation within the context of the world’s trading and financial arrangements. It needs to understand its demographic status to assess labor opportunities, investment trends, and consumption projections. It also needs to understand its topographical characteristics and limitations that determine the logistical capabilities of its navigable waterways, seaports, highways, and passable railways. These will help to realize what means it has available to mobilize resources and products for export as well as the access it has to world markets for the imports such as energy, plastics, steel, etc., that its producers need for everything from manufacturing to home building.

In Part II, I will go into more detail about how this model can serve the analysis of sustainable development in various countries.


[1] I’m testing this analytical approach in my undergraduate EST 230 ICT and Sustainable Development course. It’s important for the students to comprehend the context for sustainable development and understand the different challenges that different countries will face.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2022, Oct 11). Zeihan’s Global Prognostics and Sustainable Development, Part I.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University where he taught comparative political economy, digital economics and traditional macroeconomics. He also taught in Digital Media MBA atSt. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, where he lives when not in the Republic of Korea.


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