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Beyond the Optimistic Thought Experiment

The 2020s will perhaps go down in memory as the decade of deglobalization. What happens next is up to our national leaders.

By now, even the biggest beneficiaries of globalization, like the head of Blackrock, Larry Fink, do not know if it can be sustained. Its expansion has already halted, as “the free flow of trade, capital and people, has stalled since the global financial crisis in 2008.” The 2020s will perhaps go down in memory as the decade in which this deglobalization accelerated.

What form might deglobalization take? Geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan, who imagines the end of globalization in every single one of his books, offers here some invaluable guidance. It will be a dangerous process. Whether we enter a multipolar deglobalization or a bipolar one, where “the U.S. and China are establishing themselves as the two separate suns that all other nations orbit,” the path lying ahead is fraught with pitfalls.

The conflict in Ukraine means that “the world breadbasket is at war,” as the two warring countries together account for a quarter of global wheat production. This crisis will be further exacerbated by fertilizer shortages from Russia, Belarus, and China (which banned fertilizer exports in the last quarter of 2021). Alongside food price inflation, we face the specter of famine in Africa and the consequent wave of immigration towards Europe. Add to this rising energy prices, further Covid outbreaks in China and the resulting disruption of supply chains, and it is clear that globalization may not be able to hold up under such continuous pressure.

The war in Ukraine and the synergy of shocks it has unleashed onto the global economy will surely contribute to deglobalization. Issues such as food protectionism or energy independence have become pressing again. However, two years ago, when the pandemic hit, one might have hoped that it represented a moment of clarity. We had a glimpse into a world without globalization, where each country would have to rely purely on itself. But that clarity disappeared quickly. In Europe, no country has substantially boosted its self-sufficiency since then. A good example would be Germany. It continued to depend on Russian gas until the war exposed—to everyone’s outrage—the extent of that dependence. This did not cause them to change their decision on closing nuclear power plants. They are going to shut them down anyway.

Deglobalization scenarios can be divided into sudden and gradual ones. The rapid ones include nuclear conflict, the probability of which has increased due to tensions between Russia and the West over the war in Ukraine. Dominic Cummings has put together a helpful list of instances when the world was on the brink of nuclear annihilation. The most emblematic example of them all comes from USSR. In September of 1983, when Soviet satellites signaled that the United States had launched nuclear missiles, the officer on duty, Stanislav Petrov, decided to report it to his superiors as a false alarm without knowing if that was true. It turned out to be an odd effect of sun glinting off clouds that fooled the system. To think that we will always be able to count on some Petrov in the future would be naive.

The bursting of the China bubble is another possibility of an abrupt ending to globalization. If the sell-off in Chinese stocks is a proxy for confidence in China, that confidence has not been this low since 2008. Zeihan reminds us of the alarming fact that “Chinese GDP has expanded by a factor of 4.5 since 2000, but Chinese credit has expanded by a factor of 24. Total debt in China has ballooned to more than triple the size of the entire economy.” Beijing keeps expanding debt to artificially pump up GDP growth, which, as Michael Pettis notes, no longer measures the health of the economy, but rather the political will of the CCP. Debt has enveloped many areas of the economy and in such a way that it is difficult to predict where the avalanche will begin. Zeihan compares China’s situation to a drunken game of Jenga: “There may be lots of oohing and aaahing about this or that block or player, but you know it’s all going to come down – in a fury of force and noise.”

Another version of a China-prompted breakdown of globalization concerns an invasion of Taiwan. A region that is responsible for half of global manufacturing and half of global finance and a huge market for goods and commodities would be ripped out of the global system. As Zeihan writes, “most players in most sectors will lose their biggest markets, their biggest suppliers, or both.”

The Chinese know that they are running out of time. They are, as Peter Thiel put it in Zero to One, “definite pessimists.” They know exactly what awaits them. Zeihan describes what the CCP expects from the future: demographic collapse, massive debt, and dependence on waning globalization, the free trade order that America has built and is retreating from. These factors make China’s future hopeless. (Some disagree with this vision, notably Kai-Fu Lee or Balaji Srinivasan, who believes that Chinese innovations will be able to offset these problems. That remains to be seen.)

Recently, A.E. Clark has outlined the motivations that could lead Xi to a historic decision to invade. Before turning to Clark’s arguments, one thing is worth considering. Xi, like Putin, is not young, he is no longer fighting solely for position. His legacy is at stake. When the cost and loss analysis includes concern for glory and the judgment of history, its outcome may not be particularly rational.

Xi, as Clark explains, distinguishes himself primarily by his ability to “resort to extreme solutions.” He wanted to keep power in his own hand, so he changed the constitution. The CCP had a problem with Uighurs, he suggested forced labor camps. As Hong Kong began to westernize, he quickly curbed its freedom by imposing the National Security Law. He breaks from the beaten path, feeling the constant pressure to continue taking exceptional steps to uphold the China Dream. According to Clark, surprise strike constitutes a part of Chinese war doctrine when it comes to defeating America in Asia. He cites a document that argues “that a preemptive or surprise assault against enemy forces is a logical, perhaps even necessary, military option for China when confronting an adversary like the United States.”

Moreover, 2022 is an important anniversary of two significant events in Chinese history. The first is the victory of a Chinese pirate over the garrison of the Dutch East India Company in 1622. The second is the Chinese defeat in the First Opium War in 1842. If one cares to make his mark on history, he will find no better setting.

One of the scenarios of gradual deglobalization concerns demographics. Even if a war with China doesn’t drag us into ruin, the West is aging fast. Boomers’ capital will melt away. There will be more and more old people to support, but fewer and fewer people to pay taxes. In America this situation, thanks to the millennials, does not look so dire. In Europe and elsewhere, the outlook is bleak: “There isn’t a sector large or small, at home or abroad, that hasn’t benefited from the wash of Boomer money,” Zeihan explains. “And so there won’t be a sector large or small,” he continues, “at home or abroad, that will not be hurt when that money retreats.” In his forecast, this ultimately means that we are approaching a time when economic growth will remain a dream of the past, incomes will decline, living costs will rise, and purchasing power will diminish.

In his “The Optimistic Thought Experiment,” Thiel writes that we are in an era unlike any other. Never have so many bubbles followed one another so quickly. After the dot-com boom, Americans fell into another bubble “of even worse stupidity.” In his eyes, our era of bubbles constitutes, in fact, one big bubble, which he calls “The Great Boom.” As “financial bubbles and exaggerated stories about globalization are nearly synonymous,” the faith in globalization is subject to neither discussion nor reflection. This attitude means that instead of a reasonably deliberate process, deglobalization will be abrupt and take by surprise those who refused to acknowledge it. Nations are in peril when defending illusions becomes the raison d’état. That illusion is the belief that The Great Boom has no end.

In an era of deglobalization, many countries will realize that there will not be enough raw materials or energy for them to keep what they have. The world will once again become an unforgiving, Hobbesian environment. Zeihan believes that in America, the push for retrenchment did not start with Trump and will not stop anytime soon. The U.S. has a stable energy and food base, it is largely self-reliant, wealthy, and not as old as most Western countries. The U.S. will survive no matter the seriousness of the events to unfold. But many countries will “simply fall out of the modern world altogether,” he says. In the process, to avoid falling out, they will fight back. What about countries like my own Poland? Thiel suggests in “The Optimistic Thought Experiment” that we are doomed to a mixture of hope and despair, as in Israel, where “entrepreneurs are racing to build the world’s next great technology companies, against a background in which everything might be destroyed overnight.”

Judging by their actions, Western elites remain unshaken in their belief that globalization will recover. They treat all shocks as temporary disruptions and avoid drawing conclusions. In his essay, Thiel wonders if anyone even envisions the end of the globalized world and a narrow path that could take us through the coming turmoil. He urges us to carry out the “optimistic thought experiment” and ask ourselves: “What must happen for there to be no secular apocalypse—for what one might call the ‘optimistic’ version of the future to unfold?” In the 2020s we will see which countries have elites with the will to imagine and respond to a deglobalizing world. From there, we will see against the backdrop of history how exceptional were the last decades.

Krzysztof Tyszka-Drozdowski is a writer and an analyst in one of the Polish governmental agencies overseeing industrial policy. He can be followed on Twitter at @ktdrozdowski.