I recommend this book to anyone interested in geopolitics. Zeihan is a capable writer who methodically lays out his view of history and sets the stage for some intriguing predictions. Ultimately, this work should, be judged by the accuracy of Zeihan's predictions. Instead of waiting 10-30 years for that review, I'll share a few observations on his likelihood of being proven correct.
Zeihan's book is an attempt at expert political judgment. He certainly has the credentials. Unfortunately, the record of political prognosticators is notoriously poor, even for highly trained analysts. As Phillip Tetlock's research has shown, "forecasters were often only slightly more accurate than chance, and usually lost to simple extrapolation algorithms". Tetlock did note some experts are more accurate than others. He uses Isaiah Berlin's paradigm of the fox and hedgehog to classify how experts think. Berlin's article quotes a Greek proverb, "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog, one important thing". Tetlock found experts with a singular idea driving their worldview (hedgehogs) were less accurate than those more open to various philosophies (foxes). On this scale, Zeihan is a mixed bag. He begins his introduction in pure hedgehog mode: "Geopolitics is the study of how place impacts...everything." However, as the book progresses, Zeihan expands his influences from geography to demography, technology, and economics. As he expands his worldview, Zeihan shows as much mastery of demographics and technology as he does geography. His one weakness is his understanding of economics.
Zeihan refers to the importance of capital throughout the book, yet he never explicitly defines the term. He implies capital is simply money. In the early portions of his book, where he describes how geography impacts everything, he links capital formation to quality river networks. The assumption is, capital is where people gather, and historically, that was near quality rivers. But is that the only place capital gathers? Is his thesis still true today? For example, what of the migration of capital from San Francisco, California to Austin, Texas? Capital in all forms (human, physical, intellectual, financial) flows to where it is treated well. Technology exists today that enables people (and their capital) to live and thrive far from riverine cities and ocean ports. Zeihan's book discusses human migration among nations, but is mostly silent on the migration within large nations such as the United States. A second example of Zeihan's conventional economics is his insistence on equating consumption with economic growth. In classical economics, production is the key to growth (because none of us can consume until we first produce). Production is still linked with demographics, but in a less dire way. In Zeihan's future, as societies age, they save more and spend less, limiting growth and forcing taxes higher. In a classical model, this higher savings, if treated well, flows to innovation, so that fewer young people can produce more. In short, a capital friendly environment can overcome the negative consumption patterns Zeihan predicts will be driven by demographics.
The biggest reason to question Zeihan's work, is his total omission of any reference to the primary reason the Bretton Woods accords took place: a global monetary standard. Zeihan's central tenet (and his entire first chapter) focus on the accords of Bretton Woods, the world they created since 1944, and how that world is about to quickly unwind. Zeihan describes Bretton Woods as a pact for global free trade, subsidized by America's promise to make the global waters safe for transport. Yet there is no global trade without a global currency. As other books have detailed, discussion of the new monetary standard was the key issue of the Bretton Woods talks. Zeihan does speak to the importance of currency, most notably in his predictions on China. He predicts in the coming years there will be no major competition for the U.S. dollar. In that discussion he dismisses gold as a viable currency, noting that there is far too little gold relative to the value of global economic activity (a common critique of those who do not understand gold based money). What Zeihan misses or ignores, is that the world was on a gold based monetary standard prior to WWII and that the Bretton Woods world he otherwise describes perfectly, was a gold based system. At least until 1971. Bretton Woods established the U.S. dollar as a global currency, subject to the constraint that the dollar would be held steady at a value of $35 per ounce of gold (because stable money is best for economic growth). This system allowed globalization to flourish, until mercantilism came back in vogue. In 1971, President Nixon floated the dollar (removed the stable tie to gold) and ended the Bretton Woods system. Zeihan's premise is that the end of Bretton Woods will usher in his predictions in the near future. Yet, the fundamental arrangement of Bretton Woods ended 45 years ago.
Zeihan's predictions may still come to pass, but it seems odd for him to omit discussion of these monetary issues, from an otherwise educational, detailed, and worthwhile book.
FURTHER READING: For those who are interested in this topic, but not willing to commit to Zeihan's lengthy book, here is a nice interview Zeihan gave to the Gavekal Capital. Here is part one, part two, and part three.