Book Review: The Absent Superpower by Peter Zeihan

The title of Peter Zeihan’s latest book, The Absent Superpower: The Shale Revolution and a World Without America, does an excellent job of summing up the two main themes running through the text. In Zeihan’s mind, the growth of the shale industry in North America, and an American Foreign Policy that is slowly shifting away from its post-World War Two/Cold War footing, mean that the world is about to change in profound ways.

The book, published in late 2016, is a natural progression from Zeihan’s earlier work. The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder, was published in early 2014, and set out Zeihan’s geopolitical vision. From his perspective, America’s resource rich geography and healthy demography mean that the prosperity of the United States is all but guaranteed. In Accidental, the primary goal was to examine historical factors and geography, both of which have shaped the modern geopolitical landscape. He focused especially on Russia, in an effort to explain why they will not be able to compete with United States in 21st century. Overall, his 2014 effort gave me a deeper understanding of geopolitics and inspired me to learn more about it as a discipline and field of study.

His latest book, The Absent Superpower, revisits the core ideas contained in Zeihan’s previous work. Again, we are presented with charts outlining the demographic trends which could hinder future economic growth in the developed world, and maps explaining why some countries have historically prospered while others struggled.

The main difference is that on this occasion, Zeihan focuses a large section of the book on examining the recent growth of the oil shale industry, and the global energy industry in general. Zeihan’s core thesis boils down to two main ideas:

  1. The United States, due to the development the shale oil industry, will soon achieve energy independence, meaning that it will no longer be reliant on other countries for its energy needs.
  2. This shift in the energy market, together with an American public no longer interested in policing the world, will result in a much more isolationist American foreign policy.

From these two ideas, Zeihan outlines his geopolitical vision for the next couple of decades. It is one filled with war, financial crises, and energy shortages. Three regions will be particularly fraught with risk and danger: Eastern Europe, the Persian Gulf, and East Asia.  Zeihan foresees war in all three of these regions, primarily fought over energy supplies and geopolitical necessity. Iran invading Saudi Arabia, Russia invading Poland, and Japan and China getting into a naval conflict are all conflicts that Zeihan meticulously outlines and discusses over many chapters.

While this section of the book, titled ‘The Disorder’, may be the most entertaining and easy to read part of the book, it is also where I felt it was, at times, difficult to take completely seriously. While Zeihan’s examination of the current geopolitical situation, and the numerous factors that lead to it, are accurate and insightful, his predictions of the future feel like they could have been ripped from a Tom Clancy novel.

Zeihan, like many other geopolitical thinkers, seems stuck in a view of the world that fundamentally deterministic. Geography and demography have definitely shaped the world, but human populations also have the power to fundamentally change the trajectory of a country. Zeihan, throughout the entire book, never once refers to public opinion or public sentiment when it comes to these future wars. According to Zeihan, the future of a country is seemingly set in stone, due to historical, geographic and demographic factors. Despite Zeihan focusing on demographic trends, there is a lack of consideration when it comes to the how the people of these countries may react to the events laid out. For instance, I can’t imagine the people of Sweden or Germany being particularly in favour of massive remilitarisation, or war against Russia. I also struggle to imagine an American public sitting back and letting Russia invade the Baltic States and Poland without calling for some kind of retaliation.

With all that said, The Absent Superpower is definitely worth a read if you are interested in understanding geopolitics in the 21st century. Zeihan’s core analysis of geography and demography is insightful and relatively easy to understand, and his writing style is engaging and often humorous. And while I may have found some of his predictions rather outlandish, it’s not as though I can say with 100% confidence that none of what he has written about won’t happen. I may agree with Zeihan’s core ideas, I just don’t foresee the same outcomes arising from them in the next couple of decades.

In conclusion, the knowledge one may gain from this book in terms of demography and energy make it a worthwhile read. Just don’t take the predictions of war and crisis too seriously. Treat them as potential scenarios for the future in a rapidly changing world.

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