We just had the second-biggest oil price drop on record as Asian markets opened March 8.
For the past couple of weeks the Saudis have been attempting to cobble together an oil production cut of about 1.5 million barrels per day. As of last Friday, they had been sufficiently successful to get buy-in from the bulk of both OPEC and non-OPEC members, but there was one niggling hold out: Russia. On March 7 any pretense of a deal collapsed and the Saudis committed to flooding the market. First, they lowered their asking prices for crude being shipped to Europe and Asia. Second, they announced plans to quickly ramp up output from some of their spare capacity.
There was a hilarious day-long window where the Russian propaganda machine seized control of the narrative and fooled a host of financial reporters into proclaiming that Russia was going to war with the U.S. shale industry. It is difficult to delineate just how incredulous such a claim is since U.S. shale output has a lower production cost than Russian crude, but hey, people fall for propaganda allll the time.
The primary reason I laughed when I read those breathless headlines is that the Russians couldn’t launch a price war even if they wanted to do so. The problem is all about location. Much of Russian production happens on difficult land that can turn swampy in the summer and freeze solid during the winter. If those wells are shut-in, particularly during the winter, the risk of well damage (up to and including explosions!) is high. In the truly frozen sections of Russia, when the time comes to restart production, you can’t just turn them back on. You must re-drill them. In winter. Likely the following winter.
Russia has never cut production on purpose. Its “cuts” in 2019 were nothing more than some seasonal maintenance. The last time the Russians actually reduced output it was the Soviet collapse. It then took Russia nearly two decades to get back to where they had been.
Much of Russia’s power in the world, triply so in Europe, has to do with energy politics. The Continent counts Russia as one of its top three energy suppliers in any given year, and with the Brits now out of the EU that dependency will increase. Moscow (rightly) sees the American shale patch as a threat to that influence and so has sought to use propaganda to thwart the sector where possible, up to and including bankrolling some American environmental groups to lambast shale (ask Michael Moore and Jill Stein for details).
And at least to a degree, some of the Russian scuttlebutt on all things oil and shale are correct. The Russians supposedly have been ranting of late that the last round of Russian/OPEC oil output cuts in 2019 simply provided more market share for American shale to fill. That’s totally what happened.
Anywho, the Saudis made the reason for their moves crystal clear late March 8, saying they would compete for market share at every point they can reach where the Russians currently sell their oil, with the intent of underbidding any Russian offers. Saudi Arabia is nearly unique in that it can turn production on and off on a three-month time scale. Most other countries can’t, and certainly not the Russians. In fact, the only oil production zone in the world that can adjust faster than Saudi Arabia is…the American shale patch, where new wells can come online in under six weeks, and where depletion rates are measured in months rather than years.
We’re already scraping the $30 a barrel level. That’s the number where about two-thirds of U.S. shale operators find themselves crying themselves to sleep at night. Even worse (or better based on your point of view), oil prices are likely to remain lower for longer.
The first reason is the most obvious:
Courtesy of the spreading coronavirus epidemic, best guess is nearly half of the Chinese workforce is still off-line this week, and much of China’s industrial plant remains shut-down due to quarantine efforts – most notably in the industrial heartlands of the Yangtze Valley and the Pearl River Delta. China is undoubtedly going to suffer a real recession this year, which will absolutely impact manufacturing supply chains as well as the supply of consumer products globally in the second and third quarters. Chinese oil demand has probably dropped about 2 million barrels per day.
Avoiding additional widespread infections throughout the rest of China is probably statistically impossible at this point, and it is spreading globally like, well, a virus. Iran, Italy, Switzerland and South Korea have robust epidemics that have erupted in just the past two weeks. Follow-on epidemics are all but certain in France, Germany, the United States, Canada and, well, nearly everywhere else later this month and into April. The virus tends to hit less harshly than a cold in 6 out of 7 cases and is not particularly lethal if you are under age 70 and otherwise healthy, so CALM DOWN, but for everyone’s sake follow normal sanity about exposure and hygiene. Following sanity means less movement and travel and interaction and since oil is the fuel of transport, that means less oil gets used. Everywhere.
The second reason is more…colorful. Riyadh and Moscow have rarely gotten along, with their biggest big blow-up occurring at the instigation of none other than Ronald Reagan. In the mid-1980s the Saudis expanded oil output in order to wreck the overextended finances of the Soviet Union. It was part of a collage of factors which heralded the Soviet collapse. With the Russians increasingly active in Iran and Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan, the Saudis have plenty of reasons to dust off an old tool and whap the Russians on the face.
The third reason is more…personal. With the Americans stepping back from the world, the Saudis are finding themselves facing off against the Iranians without the American buffer between them. The Trump administration’s anti-Iranian sanctions are strangling the Iranian economy, an economy that survives on oil exports. Shrinking what little income Iran is still getting via a price war isn’t a dumb move.
The fourth reason is simple economics. Saudi Arabia is annoyed not simply by Iran and Russia, but other oil producers which range from Venezuela to Ecuador to Libya to Nigeria to Angola to Norway to Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan to…American shale. Saudi Arabia has lower production costs than them all. Anything that takes the snuff out of the competition is something that’ll make the Saudis smile. Of all of these, U.S. shale will bounce back fastest, but there will be a lot of bankruptcies and consolidation between here and there. Other countries will face outcomes far more painful.
The final reason is less about economics and local strategy and more about resetting Saudi Arabia’s position in the world. The Syrian Civil War is in its final chapter. The Iranians and Russians are on the winning side…while the Saudis are on the losing side. If Russian-Saudi relations are already deteriorating, it doesn’t take much of a push for the Saudis to remind the Russians (and everyone else) that there is another field of competition – one in which the Saudis excel and the Russians (and everyone else) do not.
In the middle of the night January 3-4 an American air strike in Baghdad killed Qassem Soleimani, senior General of Iran’s Qud’s Force, arguably the second most important man in the Iranian state. The Americans blame Soleimani for masterminding hundreds of attacks on American forces.
December 16 and 17 all the international news that was fit to print showcased announcements in both China and the United States that after some 18 months of talks, tariffs and recriminations, a Phase1 trade deal had been reached.
So we’re out of the woods? Right? The threat to the global trading system is now addressed?
Trade deals can come in all shapes and sizes but roughly put there are those that restructure industries, those that restructure countries, and those that restructure the world. When it comes to China, Trump is going for the latter. The problem is that you don’t restructure the world without restructuring the Chinese economy and you can’t restructure the Chinese economy without restructuring the political system all the way up to the very tippy top. The people at the tippy top have some say in how that all goes down… the question is how much.
To figure out just how much say they have, let’s revisit what the Trump administration is demanding:
An end to industrial subsidies including the end to the Chinese practice of flooding its market with cheap capital. Favored companies today can expect those loans to be rolled over indefinitely. Given that kind of leeway, these companies went after market share rather than profits. In other words: China brims with overcapacity, a factoid which drives product prices down, commodity prices up, forces the Chinese to dump their products into other markets, and drives competitors in other countries out of business.
An end to all state-run cybertheft and an end to the systematic practice of joint ventures which require technology transfer. The Americans claim, reasonably, that this harms American companies that go through the effort of research and development. It adds to the cost of securing information and just generally sucks.
The immediate opening of nearly all sectors of the Chinese economy to fully-foreign owned firms. In other words: competition from the outside in all sectors. Since Chinese firms are for the most part competitive due to price, and that price competitiveness is due to heavy subsidies, remove those subsidies and allow more efficient foreigners to enter China’s home market and mass bankruptcies are the logical outcome.
From the American perspective, this sounds like a decidedly easy problem to fix.
Step one, simply stop massively subsidizing industries and infrastructure that the economy can’t meaningfully absorb. Step two, stop taking intellectual property that isn’t yours. Step three, become a true capitalist society with competition from the outside… ok, that last one sounds like a lot no matter how you say it.
But the point is: sure, maybe that means a recession, but such adjustments are part and parcel of being a modern economy. Cultures as diverse as France and Turkey and Korea and Thailand and South Africa and Brazil have mostly managed such transitions ok. Certainly the “mighty” and “eternal” Chinese can pull it off.
Yet from the Chinese perspective – that is, from Chinese President Xi Jingping’s and the Chinese Communist Party’s perspectives – this is utterly unfathomable. Giving in to any of these demands wouldn’t simply be perceived in China as an unforgivable loss of face, but each and every one would shatter the Chinese economic model, the Chinese political system, and China as a country. Easy money is, after all, the only way the Party can keep up its end of the bargain with its citizenry: a better life than your recent ancestors in exchange for trust in and power to the Party. It does this by offering widescale employment and keeping the doors open at inefficient companies. For the wealthiest, the tradeoff is even more straightforward. Anytime you have a fire hydrant of money blasting, you can expect interests to become entrenched, corruption to spread. Even dictatorial, statist regimes need a political base.
The Party knows this is an unsustainable system and has been racing against the clock, trying to steer an un-steerable, careening behemoth. It aims to transition the Chinese economy from the wobbly foundations of a heavily subsidized economy that relies on other economies buying their goods to something rarified, something more like what the Americans have: a stable, self-sustaining market where goods are produced and consumed domestically. To do so, it needs to cut back overcapacity in a controlled fashion and boost consumption by the Chinese consumer. Until that goal is achieved, the Chinese remain dependent upon imported technology, energy and raw materials, and upon exported goods to more stable markets. China’s real problem is that this entire sequence requires a global system that is open and safe as guaranteed by the Americans.
So far the Party has failed in transitioning the country onto more stable macroeconomic footing, fearing at each step that it will lose one or more of its most important constituencies. Put another way, the Party finds itself unable to transform its economy away from dependence on the Americans. It finds itself at the end of its economy’s ability to take on debt.
Which brings us back to the Phase1 deal:
The trade talks have followed an almost disturbingly predictable pattern: The Americans make demands the Chinese cannot possibly meet. The Chinese promise to comply. A few weeks later Chinese actions make it clear they have no intention of complying. The Americans levy more trade restrictions. Repeat.
All the Phase1 deal is is a bribe to the Trump administration: a promise to purchase a few tens of billions of dollars of American agricultural products and to start implementing protections for intellectual property (some of which were agreed to twenty years ago), in exchange for a slight rollback of the tariffs already in place and a promise to delay a new planned batch for the time being.
The next step in the drama is obvious: sometime in late January or February, the Americans will again say the Chinese are not complying, and that new batch of pre-prepared tariffs will slam into place. And incidentally, geopolitics aside, I can’t think of a better international backdrop for a populist president than to run against China in an election year.
So it’s time to call it. There isn’t going to be a meaningful trade deal with the United States because agreeing to the Americans’ demands would be the end of the Party. The Americans can afford, if they must, to cut China out. It isn’t “easy,” but it’s more akin to a cold than leukemia. In fact, a combination of cheaper resources like natural gas, advanced technology, highly educated labor, and geopolitical disruption all make relocation to North America easier at the same time that East Asia’s costs – from labor to risk – are going up. Some companies and industries have already moved into the NAFTA marketplace and we’re still in the early stages of all these trends. If the world’s largest, most important consumer market, and the physical guarantor of all Chinese supply chains simply walks away, the Chinese are simply out of options.
More likely, it will be (far) worse than that for the Chinese. If the Americans, instead of merely cutting out the Chinese instead get aggressive, things could quickly cascade. Even with a naval deployment policy that’s one-quarter of what it is currently, the Americans could easily – almost lazily – interrupt any trade flow on the planet. In comparison, the Chinese cannot even guarantee their maritime safety within a thousand miles of their own coast, and most of their oil comes from five times that distance along a path littered with threats and rivals. And the size of those oil inflows? Edging up to 12 million barrels a day – greater than what American total imports were at the height of American energy dependency in the early mid-2000s.
China’s crash will be much like its rise. Big, bold, brash, loud, all-consuming, and, in hindsight, completely inevitable.
For more on what the future holds for China, and the entirety of the East Asian rim, take a look at my new project, Disunited Nations: The Struggle for Power in an Ungoverned World, now available for pre-order.
I’m not going to more than obliquely address the UK elections coming this Thursday (December 12). Polls at this time point to a strong Conservative showing, largely because British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is a sexist, anti-Semitic, anti-Western, authoritarian, unrepentant Stalinesque bigot whose main message to lifelong Labor members is “vote for me because I’m not a Conservative.” Not exactly a winning program, and that’s before you take a look at his economic proposals. Corbyn is also personally for Brexit even if his party is semi-officially opposed.
I’m far more concerned with what will happen in the United Kingdom in the weeks and months to follow. Barring some truly impressive political gymnastics, the UK’s divorce from the European Union has been baked in for some time. And while it has been dizzily entertaining to watch British politics contort in its attempt to alternatively operationalize or deny that basic fact, this particular chapter is almost over and Brexit is about to happen.
As seems to be the case with me these days, looking forward first requires a look back.
Only a century ago, the British Royal Navy was the greatest the world had yet seen. The Brits used that incredible navy and their capable (if small) contingent of land forces to maintain an empire where the sun never set. That isn’t a metaphor, but instead quite literal.
But the ravages of the World Wars shattered the world’s navies and shattered right along with them the British Empire. The British were so desperate at times for war materiel that they signed away to the Americans the rights to many of the bases that made their empire.
What did they get in exchange? Fifty destroyers that were far shy of substandard when they had been built a quarter-century previous, along with a fistful of loans on terms that could best be described as usurious. This was Lend-Lease, the policy discussed in American history textbooks as a gesture of “goodwill.” The near-eradication of British power from the Western Hemisphere and the welding of British fortunes to American strategic desires was the first step in the creation of the American-led international system. Britain didn’t claw its way out from under the debts until the 2000s, and it still hasn’t gotten most of its bases back.
The issue with London from the American perspective is harsh in its simplicity. Only three countries have ever threatened the U.S. mainland directly. The Soviet Union aimed nukes at the United States, and so Washington will typically take steps overt and covert to whittle away at Russian power. Mexico and the United States fought a land war, that ended with the Americans taking half of Mexico’s territory.
The third country to threaten the American mainland is the Americans’ former colonial master, the United Kingdom, and Washington will always – at a minimum – keep an eye open for opportunities to ensure that the balance of power in the bilateral relationship never again tips against the United States. Are the two countries allies and family? Certainly. But as we all know, family drama trumps pretty much everything else.
Which brings us to the current day: Brexit is providing Americans with the biggest opportunity to lock the Brits into strategic enslavement since Lend-Lease.
The first aspect of the opportunity is institutional:
Big decisions in the European Union require unanimity, and there is no version of a British divorce from the EU that would have satisfied the Irish on border issues and France on nationalist issues and Spain on Gibraltar and the Netherlands on EU rules and Germany on market access and Luxembourg on financial issues and still be able to make it through the British Parliament.
There was never going to be a divorce deal, and in prolonging the Brexit talks from a few weeks to now over three years the Brits have had to sacrifice nearly every bit of financial, political, economic and strategic leverage they could have used to chart an independent path. Strategically and economically, the British are now weak and vulnerable, and their eventual post-EU membership trading partner will be able to pick them clean.
The second aspect of the opportunity is about economic centers of gravity:
Half the UK’s trade portfolio today is with the EU. In perfect conditions it takes the EU over a decade to negotiate a trade deal with countries they like (think Canada). Add in some Brexit-related bad-blood, the never-far-below-the-surface geopolitical competition with the French, the Dutch insistence that anyone who gains access to EU markets also follow EU rules in full, an Irish penchant for knife-twisting, Germany’s iron-clad demand that the UK pay Europe in cash for EU market access, and Spain’s never-ending bitching about Gibraltar, and ten years will barely be enough time to decide the shape of the negotiating table. That flat-out rules out meaningful re-integration with the Continent on the sort of time frame the EU likely has left (which in and of itself will be a topic for later in this series of newsletters).
Turkey is often mooted in the British press as a replacement, but its current imports from the UK are less than 1/30th the amount they would need to be to replace the UK’s exports to the EU. In fact, to replace EU trade, Turkey would have to import from the UK exclusively. And the country has dropped into narcissistic nationalism. So let’s just stop pretending anyone is interested in that deal, shall we?
China is simply too far away to be the Brits dominant trading partner, even if you buy into the “rising China” propaganda. (Incidentally, much China-UK trade today is gateway trade to the EU. Post-Brexit that’ll go pbbbbbt.) The combined Commonwealth is both too scattered and insufficiently wealthy. Even worse, the most significant piece of the Commonwealth – India – is notoriously opposed to free trade deals on principle. Canada is willing, but just isn’t big enough. Nor does Canada boast enough young people to serve as a meaningful sink for British goods.
The only market with the proximity, size, institutional capacity, and complementary needs and capabilities to be a meaningful trade partner is the United States itself.
The third aspect is political:
Like the United States, the UK is experiencing one of its once-a-generation political reshufflings with both the Conservatives and Labour shattering along economic and populist fault lines. Neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn are the sorts of blokes you would introduce to your mom, and the pair are now deliberately, hilariously, tragically mis-running Parliament. Makes it difficult to have a meaningful conversation about the future, much less build consensus, much less get anything done. Post-EU domestic economic regeneration was always a near-impossibility, but with this sort of political chaos the post-Brexit Brits will be desperate for any sort of lifeline. Only an American lifeline will be on offer, but that comes with conditions. Many conditions.
The fourth aspect of the opportunity is strategic:
Post-Order America won’t be in the business of supporting allies that cannot support themselves. To that end Britain has location and hardware arguing for it. Great Britain’s position just off the European mainland has made London the European arbiter for the bulk of the past four centuries. Britain’s geography couldn’t be better designed to drive the French mad. It acts as both effective barrier to large-scale attack while also giving the English a redoubt from which to interfere on the mainland. Close enough to participate in Eurovision, separate enough that armies marching across Europe isn’t reason enough to leave tea early. That’s useful to America.
Just as important, the Brits are in the process of floating two of the four biggest aircraft carriers in history that are not U.S. flagged. That’s useful to America. But in the post-Cold War era the British tried to do three things simultaneously: downsize their military while also building those supercarriers while also increasing the size of their ground forces to assist the Americans in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. As such the British navy was forced to decommission a huge swathe of their ships. As venturing out with a supercarrier that doesn’t have an escort ring is a great way to lose a supercarrier, the only way the British navy can now function is hand-in-hand with the American Navy. Moreover, carriers are crap for defending trade. That takes a lot of smaller ships – smaller ships the Brits currently do not float…but the Americans do.
The Americans are certainly willing to de facto merge navies for Britain’s strategic and economic benefit, but only in exchange for considerations on other things. Lots of other things. Most notably in the bilateral trade deal the Brits so desperately need.
Which brings us to the nitty gritty.
Within British politics there has always been a small but vocal group – most notably but hardly exclusively within Labour – who is annoyed that the United States plays such a loud role in internal British…everything. Of late most of the British political spectrum has come to the conclusion that if there is a future for the UK in the wider world, it will involve a trade deal with Washington. Which means we’re starting to see some linkage between some latent anti-Americanism and some raw-nerve British political issues. This was unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean it is pleasant, much less focused on the right things.
The item that’s getting the most press at present are Jeremy Corbyn’s recent comments on the National Health Service. Most in Europe and Anglo-America look at the NHS as…a bit of a disaster. Middling-quality, high-cost health care permeates the British system, but the Brits adore the NHS and really that’s all that matters. Corbyn has postulated that a trade deal with the Americans will force American-style prices for prescription drugs onto the NHS (apparently the American inclination for pill-popping is something else we got from our cultural parents).
Honestly, it is a perfectly reasonable concern, but it is also almost comically small fry. If one wants to be afraid of getting in bed with the American elephant, one needs to think bigger than drug prices.
It probably comes as no surprise that British food isn’t…good. A big piece of the explanation is geographic. The UK is a short-summer, cool-temperature, low-sun country with mediocre soil quality. Those aren’t the sorts of conditions that generate a wild diversity of high-quality foodstuffs. What improvements to British agriculture and rural prosperity that have occurred during the past four decades are largely due to EU exposure.
On the production side, the few things the Brits do well – certain types of meat, dairy and especially fish – are exported to the EU market, a market that soon will be largely closed. On the financial side, the EU’s agricultural subsidy program is among the world’s most lavish. It has slowed technological uptake and consolidation that has defined global agriculture since the 1970s. With Brexit those subsidies will vanish in a day.
Like it or not, low-cost, high-quality American agriculture is about to swamp the British market, and American trade negotiators will blast away whatever protectionist measures the Brits will want to erect to protect their own farmers. Phytosanitary requirements, hormones, tariffs, quotas, you name it. It will all vanish and 66 million UK consumers will soon be American fed.
Even after seven decades of integration, most European countries take great pains to protect their manufacturing networks from foreign involvement. The UK included. For the Americans, who have already integrated with Canada and (to a greater extent) Mexico, that won’t fly. The Brits will have to join the American manufacturing supply chain system based on the NAFTA model.
If the Brits thought that tussling with the French over aerospace or the Germans over automotive was a frustrating experience, its nothing compared to dealing with the colossal, tangled networks of North America where mammoth economies of scale can drown the Brits out. What will likely hurt the most is sudden exposure to Mexican manufacturers. US and Canadian manufacturers have had decades to adjust to the ever-more-skilled but always-less-expensive Mexican work force. UK manufacturers will have to do so nearly overnight.
London has been the world’s second-most important financial center for decades, a position it solidified with its membership in the EU. Put simply, the Brits penchant for low taxes and lower regulations has long encouraged many Europeans to handle their finances in London rather than at home. This is doubly true for any pass-through monies that sought to escape the bloc for greener pastures.
The agony of endless Brextensions has taken the shine off that system. With the specifics of the UK’s future in doubt, the UK is no longer the holder of value it once was, and pass-through money is more likely to skip London altogether. The wildly gyrating pound only underlines both weakenings. U.S. trade talks will end both roles altogether. The Americans will demand the relocation of the bulk of the London financial district to New York City.
(Don’t think for a moment that the Europeans will get more than one-quarter of London. Every time the Continental Europeans float the idea that all euro-clearing must be handled in the eurozone, the Americans remind them that should that occur the U.S. will require that all dollar-clearing would then need to be handled in the United States. As the USD is more important to European trade than the euro, such reminders tend to convince the Europeans to pipe down for a bit.)
Most of the pro-Brexit crowd voted the way they did because they don’t like faceless European bureaucrats deciding issues for Britain. The reality is that Britain’s only way forward post-Brexit is to assign even greater levels of authority to American bureaucrats.
The Brits could always say no. They could try to fly solo against a more insular and prickly America, an unleashed France, a rapidly rearming Germany, a resurgent Turkey, and a desperate Russia in an environment of wildly higher energy prices and food prices. (Spoiler alert: There’s a full chapter in Disunited Nations on each of these countries’ pasts and futures.) The Brits could choose to slip into permanent military irrelevance and strategic vulnerability. They could choose to suffer an economic disconnect as bad as the Great Depression that would include dramatic reductions in standards of living and employment and energy availability and health care. Some countries, when faced with the choice between pride in poverty vs relative wealth and security, go with the former.
But I doubt it. The Brits tend to be pretty pragmatic. Stiff upper lip and all that.
Early in the Order era, the Brits attempted to restart their empire by seizing the Suez Canal from the Egyptians. The Americans gave them a hard f**k-no, started to cut the British economy out of global finance, and made some not-very-veiled threats that they’d eject British troops from Egypt by force of arms. The Brits – shocked and chagrined – made the conscious decision to never again be on the Americans’ bad side. In the 2020s that means strategic subjugation, by doing a deal on America’s terms.
While this forecast may seem as cheery as a London winter morning, it could be a lot worse.
In a post-Order world, these British economic sectors are going crash anyway. At least a deal with the United States holds out the hope for something better down the line. Even more importantly, the Brits have something few others could hope for: the Americans have saved them a seat at the table.
The Americans spent the last seven decades paying the world to be on their side. Those days are over. The only countries that will be able to enjoy U.S. market access and strategic cover are those who either pay the U.S. a lot of money, or bring something exceedingly shiny to trade. Supercarriers, being the gold standard of strategic assets, count. Islands off major continents, being the gold standard of strategic positions, count.
Simply put, the United Kingdom has an in so long as it cow-tows appropriately. Japan is in a strikingly similar position for similar reasons. Mexico gets an invitation because it is an entangled neighbor with a dynamic economy. Canada (barely) squeaks over the threshold largely out of habit. South Korea(so far) is paying its way.
Those five countries are the only five major countries likely to make the final cut before the end of 2020. They collectively account for nearly half of the American trade portfolio, and they will comprise nearly the entire American Friends & Family plan. With the exception of the UK, everyone else’s deals are already in the can. Whoever wins the election on Thursday will need to seal a deal with the Americans before the Americans lose interest in…everything. Beyond these five countries, everyone else will have to defend their own territory and trade, and there are less than a handful of states that have the strategic and economic capacity to even attempt such a feat.
Dark? Dreary? Even depressing? Sure. But in a world of full American disengagement, having any relationship with the Americans at all is about as good as it gets.
This piece is part of the Cutting Room Files, portions of the upcoming Disunited Nations text that were cut for length. Disunited Nations is available for pre-Order now onAmazon.com, Harper Collins, and IndieBound.
Japan is … odd.
Most countries have a very clear chunk of reasonably good land that serves as home to a specific ethnicity. That group forms a government to serve the needs of those people in that place, and then that government steadily expands its writ over more territory and peoples. The valleys Nile, Thames, Ganges and Argun for the Egyptians, English, Indians and Chechens; Muscovy for the Russians; the Beauce for French, the Zagros Mountains for Persians, the Tibetans on their namesake plateau, and so on.
Japan doesn’t really have something like that. The Japanese islands are so steep and arable land so hard to come by that even as late as early 1800s, well over a millennium after after of the emergence of the Japanese ethnicity, the Japanese still lacked a common government.
So…what made Japan matter?
First, isolation. In the imperial age Japan was beyond the back of beyond. Between its island nature and its position on the northeastern corner of the Afro-Eurasian continent system, no one simply happened by. Anyone who wanted to reach the Japanese really had to want to reach the Japanese. If the Japanese’s geography wasn’t as good at isolating them from the rest of the world as one another, they would have been conquered ages ago and never emerged as a people of consequence.
Second, industrialization. What Japan could not do with muscle and wood and arrows and horses and manure they could do with steam and gunpowder and rifles and electricity and chemical fertilizers. The industrial suite of technologies enabled the late-19th century Japanese to overcome their horrid internal geography and forge the truly unified economic and political space we know today as Japan.
But that was hardly the end of the story. More the beginning. Because aside from its people, Japan has nothing that enables industrialization. Steel foundries require high quality iron ore, and Japan has none. Power lines require copper ore or bauxite, and Japan has none. Electricity requires coal or uranium or natural gas, and Japan has none. (Japan’s solar and wind potential for greentech energy is similarly pathetic.) Name an industrial input. Japan doesn’t have it.
And so, the only way Japan could industrialize – the only way Japan could reliably unify – was to raise an empire that could funnel the various inputs of the modern world to the Home Islands. To exist in the modern age, Japan had no choice but to expand into empire.
The Japanese know this in their bones, and they know the converse is true as well. The Japanese fought so hard in World War II less out of nationalism or because their emperor ordered them to, and more because they knew failure would mean a return to mutually-warring Balkanized medievalism.
The modern Japanese also know something else in their bones. No matter how powerful they become, no matter how well they anticipate and administer and execute, no matter how potent their navy, they will never be able to challenge the United States. Attempting to do so pisses the Americans off, and that has consequences. Dire, horrific, searing consequences.
With their WWII defeat, the Japanese prepared themselves to vanish from history. Unity required industry required empire, and their attempts at empire had failed.
But the Americans had other ideas. They needed a worldful of allies to contain and beat back the Soviets, and with 1940s-China in the fourth decade of a particularly messy civil war, Beijing was off the menu. So, in Asia, that left Japan. And so, the Americans folded the Japanese into their new global Order.
That meant unrestricted access to the global commodity supply and the ravenous American market, all guaranteed by the American Navy that had just so completely wrecked Imperial Japan. Economically, it was as if the Japanese had won the war. The decades since have been the richest and most secure in Japanese history.
Fast forward to today.
The Americans are leaving. The Order is ending. The happy period of growth and development and security and expansion without needing to invade anyone is nearly over.
Managing the American departure, or even better yet, preventing it, is paramount. Ergo the Japanese Prime Minister was the first world leader to visit the new U.S. president after Trump’s election, and the second to visit after his inauguration. Abe did everything right. He brought his host a set of golden golf clubs. He lost to him (hideously) in 18 holes. Egos were stroked. Groveling was on the menu. Abe went home satisfied that he had bonded with the new guy and the bilateral relationship was firm.
And a few months later the Trump administration slapped steel and aluminum sanctions on the Japanese economy.
Like many leaders Abe had believed some version of a cake-and-eat-it-too deal was on the menu, and if he could forge a personal connection with the new American leader, then Japan could continue on as before. Abe was convinced the tariffs were a negotiating tactic, and that he just needed to hold out and let Trump’s deal-art run its course.
But a few months later, the United States had inked trade deals with theSouth Koreans, theMexicans, and theCanadians. Four of Japan’s largest trading partners had already organized themselves into a post-Order system. The remaining really big one was a country the Japanese really didn’t want to be left with: China. So, Abe did the only thing he could do. He followed the example of the Koreans and Canadians and caved. On everything. U.S.-Japan trade talks wrapped up in September.
Awkwardness aside, this transition to a world of Disorder is a transition the Japanese can manage. In the aftermath of Japan’s 1990s financial collapse, the Japanese corporate world relocated much of their industrial capacity to serve markets far more dynamic than their own. Build and employ where you sell. This doesn’t simply put Japan on the safer side of every political, currency and supply chain risk question, it makes their hosts as interested in protecting Japanese investments as the Japanese themselves.
The strategy hasn’t simply worked, it has transformed the Japanese economy from one of the most dependent upon international interconnectivity to one of the least. Add in the world’s second most powerful blue-water navy, and Japan today is the most flexible and insulated country in their region.
There’s more on this topic to be unfurled and explored. A lot more. But unlike South Korea or Mexico or Canada – the countries covered so far in the Cutting Room Files – Japan is a country exceedingly well set up not simply survive in a world without America, but to dominate its neighborhood. What’s above is a light trim from one core chapters of Disunited Nations. Which means that if you want to truly understand Japan’s future, you’re going to have to wait a bit.
This piece is part of the Cutting Room Files, portions of the upcoming Disunited Nations text that were cut for length. Disunited Nations is available for pre-Order now on Amazon.com, Harper Collins, and IndieBound.
Canada is… not a normal place.
Everything from its settlement patterns to its defense strategy to its national politics to its economic structure is wildly different not just from the United States, but from every other country on the globe. Until now that has not had an overly negative impact upon Canadian-American relations, but times are changing (and from the Canadian point of view, not for the better). To really understand recent shifts, we need to start not in Canada, but in Mexico.
It comes down to demography.
Mexico has a more-or-less standard demographic profile. Lots of children, a good number of young workers, fewer mature workers and very few retirees. Chart it out, children on the bottom and retirees on the top, and courtesy of simple mortality you get a pyramid.
For purposes of the North American market, there are two big takeaways here. First, Mexico is hungry. All those young workers having lots of kids means the country is a never-ending festive parade of spending on education and food and diapers and homes and cars. Second, Mexico isn’t all that skilled. This is less an indictment of Mexico’s educational system, and simply that people below age 40 don’t have all that much experience in their chosen professions. It makes Mexico excel at relatively low-value-added manufacturing and assembly, but the Mexicans are forced to leave the high-value-added stuff and design to others.
For the Americans, this makes Mexico the perfect complement. Its people are ravenous for American exports, the Mexican work force meshes nicely America’s more high-value-added workers, and for the most part the two countries do not compete head-to head. No wonder that Trump’s rhetoric on Mexico has evolved so strongly over the course of the past two years from issues of trade to issues of identity and migration.
Simply put, from American point of view, the Mexican demography is the demography of the perfect partner.
Canada’s is not.
Canada’s population bulge isn’t among the young workers who complement the American economic structure, but instead among the mature-worker demographic who compete. A demographic bulge in the 40-65 bracket means Canada is super-saturated with high-skill workers. This extra supply depresses the cost of skilled labor within the Canadian system, which has a similar impact upon the price of the goods the country’s skilled labor force produces.
Even worse, the lack of 20- and 30-something Canadians means Canada cannot even consume its own production. It must dump that production on foreign markets, and proximity alone means that some 75% of it goes to the United States. Economically, Canada isn’t a partner. It is a competitor, and that’s before one considers the Canadian tendency to subsidize industries as unrelated as dairy and aerospace and timber and electricity.
In a time when the Americans are pulling back from the global system and rewriting all their trade relationships, this alone would be cause for great concern in the Great White North. But the Canadian-American economic mismatch is only the first problem.
The second problem in Canadian-American relations is the Americans are having a change of heart about their northern neighbor not simply in economic terms, but overall.
When the Trump administration started its whole the-world-is-screwing-us-and-we’re-going-to-forcibly-renegotiate-all-trade-deals campaign, the Canadians took it as an opportunity to make demands of the United States. That clearly didn’t fit with TeamTrump’s understanding of what was supposed to be going on. Why in the world would the Canadians believe they have leverage over the government who controls the only market that matters to Canada, and global finance, energy and sea lanes to boot?
Canada’s confidence dates back to the Cold War. The flight path for the feared Soviet nuclear missile strike on the United States would have been over Canada. There was no version of American security that would not by default also guarantee Canadian security. The Canadians could have been security free-riders if they had chosen to, but to their credit they have fought and died alongside American soldiers in nearly every overseas endeavor the U.S. military has undertaken.
That does not mean the Canadians did not use their leverage, they just used it on issues of trade rather than security, leveraging their strategic position to gain concessions on market access for their products. The Canadians had a strong hand and they played it well. Repeatedly. Those trade victories were all folded into the original NAFTA accord back in the early 1990s.
It all fit with the times. The whole concept of the American-led global Order was that the Americans would create and subsidize a security and trade rubric to induce countries to join them in the fight against the Soviets. Guns-for-butter was the rule of the era. Canada’s position meant it had more to offer, and granting Ottawa some extra trade concessions for its cooperation was a price the Americans were eager to pay.
Canadian negotiators resisted the Trump administration’s trade goals, thinking Canada’s leverage still existed. But with the Cold War over, the Americans no longer fear Russian attack. Canada is now just another country. Once the Americans had finalized NAFTA2 with Mexico, they turned to Canada and issued a simple ultimatum:
Mexico’s market is growing. Yours is not. Your market is protected. Mexico’s is not. The Mexican labor force is complementary to ours. Yours is not. We have a deal with the country that matters, and that isn’t you. We are leaving NAFTA. You know our terms. Take them or leave them. We are moving on.
In a single searing moment of revelation, everything that had guaranteed Canada leverage over America, everything that granted Canada a place in the world, everything that had generated any meaningful international influence, had evaporated. Canada capitulated within days and signed on for NAFTA2.
All things considered, as emotionally crushing and economically damaging as a forced rejiggering of Canadian-American relations will be, it could be (a lot) worse. Canada is very close to the top of a very short list of countries that the Americans have positive feelings for. Will the Canadian ego and economy suffer under NAFTA2? You betcha. But Canada will still enjoy privileged, security-risk-free access to the American market. In a post-Order world precious few countries can claim the same. Canada may limp, but it will still be able to walk.
Unless the third issue completely overturns the Canadian system from the inside.
Again, Canada is not a normal place. Unlike the United States where the states and federal government exercise roughly equal amounts of power, in Canada the provinces are preeminent and often have the ability to block federal policies they do not like. The country didn’t even get its first comprehensive internal free trade agreement until 2017.
As such, the provinces of Canada function less like components of a common country, and more like a loose clutch of independent countries which compete – oftentimes furiously. That would be problematic enough if the provinces shared a common demographic base. That, they do not.
Quebec is as vitriolically Francophone as the Maritimes are Anglophone. A huge chunk of the population of Toronto is South Asian, while East Asians tend to be overrepresented in Vancouver. The Prairies are as white bread as America’s upper-Midwest. These splits at least partially explain the seemingly never-ending drama of Quebecois separatism, but it is the intersection of demography and economics where the real problems erupt:
The Maritimes’ economies crashed decades ago and its subsequent “recovery” has been anemic at best. Now those provinces have all aged into mass retirement making them de facto wards of the national government. Mighty Quebec is only a few years behind, and is making the transition to demographic basket case right now. Both British Colombia and Ontario are no more than five years behind Quebec. A big piece of the BC economy is serving as the gateway to Asia, and the Trump administration’s trade war is likely to enervate those links. Even worse, the NAFTA-integrated manufacturing and agriculture that makes Ontario and Quebec hum were sectors that specifically benefited from NAFTA1, and which now face far steeper competition from the United States and Mexico under NAFTA2. More specifically, Quebec’s aerospace company, Bombardier, is both one of the most heavily subsidized in the world and is linked into Airbus – a firm that is both the target of extensive American tariffs and one whose fate is locked up in the Brexit drama.
Functionally, that restricts economic dynamism to the demographically young provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, a pair of entities whose economies depend upon old-school oil and natural gas production. For years now, funds transfers from the pair – quintuply so from Alberta – to the center is what has enabled Canada to enjoy its much-lauded social welfare state.
That’s not the end of the story, but instead just the beginning.
Canada’s leader is one Justin Trudeau, a scion of a powerful family. Justin’s father, Pierre, was a force of nature. Love him or hate him, everyone acknowledged that Trudeau the Senior was a commensurate politician. Dude could work a room, and it isn’t much of a surprise that he served as Canada’s prime minister for 16 years.
Justin, in comparison, isn’t a particularly smooth operator. His rise to the prime minister’s chair five years ago largely occurred because of circumstance. Many Canadians had tired of a decade of conservative minority rule under the somewhat curmudgeonly Stephen Harper. A coalition of liberal players banded together around the Trudeau name and managed to carry an election.
In that environment, Trudeau the Younger fit the bill. He isn’t very bright, his French is on the weak side, his past work experience was at best mediocre, but he is young and so very very pretty. In a world of social media and an increasing split between modern liberal values and traditional economic sectors, that proved enough.
Under Justin Trudeau’s rule Canada has… gotten by. There have been no disasters, but few serious new policies. Really, Justin Trudeau’s administration has only shifted two things.
First, it has steadily centralized power in Ottawa, making it easier to drain cash from Alberta and Saskatchewan both to balance out the slipping economic performance of the rest of the country, and to push this or that pet policy. Second, the pet policy of the moment is a fairly aggressive environmental program that has proven popular with Justin Trudeau’s base. That program has put ever-more-stringent restrictions on the economies of Alberta and Saskatchewan – specifically on the sectors that make the Canadian national budget possible.
Justin Trudeau’s lackluster performance has cost him. His Liberal Party has been ejected from parliaments in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and some of the Maritimes in favor of the conservatives; in BC in favor of the left-leaning NDP and Greens; and in Quebec in favor of more nationalist sentiments who are furious with his capitulation to the Americans in NAFTA2.
Within the Liberals, the future isn’t all that bright either. Aside from the Trudeau name, the one characteristic that Justin inherited from his father is the charisma necessary to suck all the air out of the room. Justin is such a big presence that there is no next-generation of young leaders working their way up through the Liberal Party ranks. When Justin falls, so too will the party.
Fast forward to this week.
The Canadians voted in national elections October 21. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were not exactly gutted, but they lost a lot of seats ending up with just 157, thirteen shy of what’s necessary to form a majority government. That will force the Liberals to rely upon support from the Greens (whose primary concerns are climate change policies) and the NDP (who are like a more math-challenged version of the Greens).
For Canada as a whole, this courts disaster.
Political sentiment in Alberta and Saskatchewan turned sharply anti-Green and anti-Trudeau years ago. The Albertans and Saskatchewanians assert the Greens, the NDP and the Trudeau government are actively conspiring to stymie any and all efforts to get Albertan and Saskatchewan energy exports to the wider world. The Greens and NDP openly say they do, with anti-Albertan policies in the one province they control – British Colombia – having reached the point that BC and Alberta have a hot little inter-provincial trade war going. The Trudeau government attempts to be at least a bit circumspect on the issue, but under Justin Trudeau’s rule construction has yet to begin on a single cross-province pipeline.
Legally, there is an excruciatingly painful route forward. Quebec’s on-again, off-again independence spasms firmly established that Canadian provinces have the right to leave Canada. Paths to secession have been approved – at least in theory – by both the Canadian parliament and the Canadian Supreme Court. We are approaching the witching hour.
There is no modern Canada without Albertan and Saskatchewan financial strength, and there is no Albertan and Saskatchewan financial strength without the two provinces’ energy sectors. Now, with the Liberals needing Green/NDP support to rule, the already-deep political split is taking on more ideological, more hostile overtones.
The vote breakdown is not encouraging. In Monday’s elections the Liberals lost every seat they previously held in both Alberta and Saskatchewan. In an echo of America’s 2016 presidential elections, the opposition Conservatives actually won the popular vote, but because of Canada’s equivalent of America’s electoral college they earned 25 fewer seats than the Liberals. Further mirroring America’s more recent political evolutions, Justin Trudeau claimed a “clear mandate” for stricter climate-change-related policies – an assertion positively Trumpian in its ability to creatively reinterpret the facts on the ground.
We are likely to see two things over the course of 2020.
First, the new federal political alignments are the absolute worst-case scenario for Alberta and Saskatchewan. They have already tried and failed – horribly – to renegotiate their financial relationship with Ottawa, and now they can look forward to ever harsher restrictions on their economic capacity paired with ever more robust siphoning of their wealth to the Canadian center. The formal, open, public debate on secession begins now.
Second, the Americans are likely to take both notice and action.
In the War of 1812 Canadian colonials burned down the American capital. In the war’s aftermath, realizing the Americans would be jonesing for revenge, the Canadians carried out what has arguably been the most successful rebranding effort in history, from trigger-happy arsonists to polite, cuddly socialists.
That effort enabled Canada to avoid American wrath. Later, Canada maintained a bit of protection due to its status as part of the British Empire. In the interwar period the U.S. had bigger fish to fry at home, what with the Great Depression and all. Post-World War II the Americans’ need to maintain the global Order meant that Canada, for all its inconsistencies, was under American protection – which included protection from America.
The Canadian system is splitting along provincial, economic, demographic and ideological lines, and there is no one in the Trump administration who likes Justin Trudeau personally, ideologically or politically. Add in a now-unrestrained America, an America who sees Canada as a competitor, an America who sees the Canadian government as a mix of annoying and ungrateful and self-righteous, and a complete role-reversal is fully in play. Unless the Canadians can get their shit together, it will be eeeeeeasy for Washington to start cutting deals with individual Canadian provinces to hammer preexisting wedges ever-deeper into the Canadian system.
Alberta has the means and motive to destroy Canada. Washington has the means and motive to destroy Canada. And the likely format of the new Trudeau government is providing the opportunity.
This piece is part of the Cutting Room Files, portions of the upcoming Disunited Nations text that were cut for length. Disunited Nations is available for pre-Order now on Amazon.com, Harper Collins, and IndieBound.
American-Mexican relations have been…colorful of late. American President Donald Trump has threatened Mexico with a rising tariff system that would constitute the greatest tariff effort in dollar terms by Americans in their history. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) is pushing a change to tax law that would more or less treat businesspeople like money launderers which would throw trade relations into the freezer. Threats and counterthreats on migration and trade and law enforcement and energy and water rights have ratcheted up to near-crisis levels.
This is actually… really good. Ever since Mexican independence in the early 19th century, American-Mexican relations have oscillated between cold-shoulders and American invasions. Today, really for the first time in both countries’ histories, the Americans and Mexicans are not talking past one another, but instead speaking with each other. The process is loud and messy, yes, but it is actually a conversation. The United States and Mexico are working out deals, making functional compromises, and finding common ground. What’s been happening the past two years are the sorts of interactions one would expect between two countries who find themselves increasingly intermingled both economically and demographically. We all fight most vociferously with our families.
That hardly means it is all well thought out. One of the most frustrating things about working in the geopolitical forecasting space is that sometimes luck plays a role, and that has most certainly been the case of late.
Consider the individuals helming both countries.
In the United States, Donald Trump rose to power on a wave unapologetic nativism, which expressly included a harsh campaign against Mexico on economic, political, security and racist grounds. On the other side of the border is AMLO, a guy who combined Trump’s disdain of foreigners, Elizabeth Warren’s enthusiasm for dressing down corporate interests, Ted Cruz’s penchant for blind obedience to ideological dogma, a Clinton-esque love-affair with political corruption, and Bernie Sanders’ pathological refusal to engage in basic mathematics. It’s difficult to imagine a set-up that would be less constructive to functional bilateral relations.
And yet, here we are, with the Americans and Mexicans enjoying the most positive bilateral relationship ever.
The unexpected outcome largely has to do with an olive branch from AMLO. After his election in mid-2018, but before his inauguration in late-2018, AMLO apparently had an epiphany. He realized that if he and Trump engaged in a binational pissing contest over who was more populist, the bad blood would consume his entire presidency. As he had put together a laundry list of tasks to remake Mexico in his own image, that simply would not do. So he reached out to both his predecessor and Trump, and indicated that if they could complete the renegotiation of NAFTA2 before he took office, he would not seek to reopen talks and would ensure the new deal would be ratified in a timely manner.
AMLO has since proven to be a man of his word. Mexican ratification occurred on June 19 of this year.
While there are obviously portions of NAFTA2 the Mexicans are less than enthused about and the new deal will disrupt a great many industrial patterns across the length and breadth of Mexico, for the most part the new deal is as much a win for Mexico as it is for the United States.
Among the Trump administration’s biggest goals in the NAFTA renegotiations was to make sure goods that benefitted from the low tariffs of the NAFTA system were mostly produced inside of it. These “rules of origin” quotas were increased and ensure that a certain percentage of the product’s value was produced within Mexico, Canada, and the United States rather than outside of it. As Mexican manufacturing capacity is both less expensive and more efficient than most manufacturing in both China and Canada, Mexico will certainly pick up a disproportionate share of whatever relocates to the North American market. Add in the general breakdown of the global Order, and Mexico’s now-even-more-privileged access to the American market, and Mexico’s economic future looks brighter and brighter.
Merchandise trade is only one of several aspects of a tightening, more constructive, relationship between the two North American powers.
One of the many aspects of America’s shale revolution is an accidental, incidental oversupply of natural gas prices in the U.S. market. American natural gas prices are now the lowest (unsubsidized) in the world, and a dozen major pipeline networks have been laid down to connect that supply to Mexican demand. All the pipes are now completed and soon about half of the electricity consumed in Mexico will be sourced from American natural gas.
One of AMLO’s less-functional plans is an overhaul of Mexico’s state energy monopoly Pemex, a company so badly run and a process so ill-conceived that it would probably be better for Mexico to burn the entire company to the ground, shoot everyone involved, and start over from scratch. The more dysfunctional Pemex is, the less able Pemex will be able to meet Mexico’s growing energy needs… and so the more reliable a customer Mexico is for American energy product exports.
Mexico has rapidly developed since the implementation of the first NAFTA accords back in the early 1990s. That has shifted millions of Mexicans off subsistence farms and into urban environments, even as the standard of living of the average Mexican has surged. Less agricultural production plus more disposable income makes Mexico a premier destination for American agricultural products. In particular, when Mexicans get a bit of extra scratch, the first food product they reach for is beef – American beef.
Higher living standards within Mexico have gutted immigration from Mexico to the United States – it has been negative for ten straight years. That gives both countries a vested political interest in regulating Central American migration through Mexico to the United States. One of the dirty secrets of the immigration debate in North America is that Mexicans are even more opposed to Central American migration than Americans. Trump has provided the Mexicans with the perfect excuse to crack down on the through-migration, while enabling the Mexican government to rack up a public relations win.
While Mexican migration to the United States peaked years ago, past migration has made Americans of Mexican extraction the second-largest minority in the United States. Even if the economic mingling were not occurring – and it has already surpassed that of any other American co-mingling in history – the demographic co-mingling easily puts Mexican cultural influences in third place behind German and British culture.
Taken together, Mexico is now America’s second-largest partner in energy, trade, agriculture and security, and is on the cusp of taking the top spot in all categories.
So… that’s the good news.
Understanding the bad news requires a bit of a step back.
Roughly a decade ago Mexican and American authorities were tracking hundreds of small groups involved in moving cocaine and marijuana through Mexico to America’s southern border. Just as mountainous regions help fracture regions among several competing countries, Mexico’s mountainous geography meant no single drug trafficking organization (DTO) could command all that much territory. A small DTO might control a single stretch of highway, or a single city or a local shake-down racket. Violence between these groups and Mexican law enforcement was horrific, but that carnage was nothing compared the violence among the various drug trafficking groups as they battled to expand their role in the drug trade or defend their patches from one another. In that environment, Mexico’s murder rate soared.
But even then, not all DTOs were created equal because not all DTO leaders were created equal. Today’s story involves a 5’ 6” dude by the name of Joaquín Guzmán, aka El Chapo (which roughly translates as “shorty”), who ran his drug group less like the Sopranos or a street gang, and more like a Korean chaebol.
Under his hand, the Sinaloa alliance focused on three general themes:
First, the bread and butter of drug smuggling to the United States. Violence within the alliance was snuffed out, while the sort of petty violence – assaults, rapes and robberies – that characterized other DTOs was frowned upon. Regular Mexican citizens living in Sinaloa territory were not terrorized by the cartel, so they tended to not resist its efforts.
Second, experimentation with new business lines that would enable the Sinaloa to deepen and expand its business. Cocaine never went out of fashion, but the cartel also commercialized heroin and methamphetamines. Selling counterfeit pills to profit from Americans’ opiate addition was an easy add. Cash-heavy businesses found favor as a means of assisting in the drug-money-laundering effort: limes, beef, avocados, real estate, tourism. More business lines mean more and more stable profits.
Third, oblique cooperation with the Mexican government to help weaken the competition. Officially, the Sinaloa would provide the Mexican government with scads of intel on their competitors’ operations. Unofficially, the Mexican government would turn a blind eye to the Sinaloa’s operations because Mexico City could only prosecute raids on so many targets at a time. The Gulf and Zeta cartels tended to suffer the most from this de facto alliance.
El Chapo’s strategies were so successful the Sinaloa grew to become the most powerful organized crime group not simply in Mexico, but the world. As the Sinaloa alliance expanded and deepened, violence among its constituent components plummeted. After all, they were all on the same side, and El Chapo did not tolerate infighting. Mexico’s murder rate fell.
But nothing happens in a vacuum. Sinaloa’s success meant it also became the most powerful organized crime group in the United States, which earned El Chapo a spot at the top of the Obama administration’s most-wanted list. A joint American-Mexican effort resulted in his arrest in 2014. El Chapo promptly escaped… and was re-arrested in 2015. Mexico extradited him to the United States in 2017, where following his conviction on… lots of charges he is now serving multiple life sentences in an American prison.
Without the business-minded El Chapo to ride herd on the Sinaloa alliance, the relative peace of the Sinaloa era quickly collapsed as the DTO’s various factions fought for control. The biggest and baddest of those factions is known as the Jalisco Cartel Nuevo Generacion, a group run by the Sinaloa’s former enforcers. Whereas the Sinaloa expanded by collaboration and diversification, the Jalisco expands by brute violence.
Four things come from this.
First, the Jalisco is not the Sinaloa v2.0. The Jalisco’s leader – Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes aka El Mencho – first instinct is to kill everyone in every room he enters. He absolutely lacks El Chapo’s charisma and management skills. The Jalisco is expanding, particularly in challenging its former patron, the Sinaloa, but it is most certainly not on course to dominate the drug trade.
Second, between the Sinaloa’s fall and the Jalisco’s rise, Mexico’s murder rate is once against setting record after record. El Mencho has also – repeatedly – broken the cartels’ unwritten rule that one does not engage in open violence in tourist areas.
Third, the Sinaloa is not dead and still supplies the majority of drugs that enter the United States. After a year of chaos and breakdown, elements of El Chapo’s family – most notably his sons – have seized control over what was left of the alliance and thrown up substantial roadblocks to El Mencho’s bloody expansion. Los Chapitos may not be the leaders their father was, but they have proven far from incompetent.
To give an idea of just how potent the Sinaloa remains, consider the events of last week. A government raid October 17 on a suspected sniper in the city of Culiacán accidentally captured one of los Chapitos. Shocked by their unexpected haul, the government stammered a bit. Shocked by the loss of one of their own, the entire Sinaloa alliance descended upon the city in a tsunami of carnage, forcing the unprepared government to release El Chapo’s son. In northwest Mexico, the Sinaloa remains the de facto government. The old man would undoubtedly be proud.
Which brings us to the fourth and arguably most important outcome. El Chapo’s business diversification efforts combined with the breakdown in the “peaceful” nature of the Sinaloa’s management strategy combined with the rapidly deepening economic integration between the American and Mexican markets means that the cartels are now becoming part of the North American economic picture and they are bringing their violence levels with them.
At present this expansion has not penetrated manufacturing – that’s an industry that’s simply too high value-add and too finance-heavy for easy links with DTOs. But nearly everything else is game: transport, trucking, energy, agriculture, construction, tourism, real estate. All these sectors and more now have DTO threads woven throughout, particularly in the Sinaloa heartland of northwest Mexico. And it doesn’t take a big leap to link these Mexican sectors with their American peers. First landfall of Mexican DTOs in these veins will be U.S. regions just across the border from Sinaloa strongholds: Tucson, Phoenix, El Paso, San Diego, Los Angeles and the California Central Valley.
It is worth remembering that while the collapse of the global Order has consequences for everyone, and in many cases those consequences will be the determining factor in a country’s future, regional and local factors don’t simple fade away. Countries’ local geographies and local economic trends and local histories remain relevant. Global shifts are likely to favor Mexico more than any other country, but it can still get tripped up on issues closer to home.
This piece is part of the Cutting Room Files, portions of the upcoming Disunited Nations text that were cut for length. Disunited Nations is available for pre-Order now on Amazon.com, Harper Collins, and IndieBound.
When Donald Trump became president, world leaders fell into two broad buckets. The first thought that if the Americans were going to drop the global mantle of leadership, then perhaps there is some space for us. Russia’s Vladimir Putin became more aggressive throughout the Russian near abroad. France’s Emmanuel Macron tried to become the voice of the West. Canada’s Justin Trudeau became a liberal supermodel.
The second were those leaders who weren’t sure the Americans knew what they were doing in electing an isolationist, and thought the best bet was to not rock the boat. This club included Germany’s Angela Merkel, Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, and Britain’s Theresa May. All and more bet/hoped that Trump would be little more than a hiccup in normal relations. They kept quiet and aimed to not do anything that might annoy the Americans as a whole, so that when Trump left the stage their relations with America could get back to normal.
There was one exception: South Korean President Moon Jae In. Rather than strike out or hunker down, Moon bluntly asked for the terms of a revised trade deal that Trump would approve of.
Moon’s logic was unassailable. Put simply, Moon recognized that he completely lacked leverage, (correctly) calculating that being an eager first volunteer might allow South Korea to walk away without undue sacrifice as the Trump administration looked for an early win. The revised deal’s technical talks took but a few weeks, and the revised KORUS is already implemented.
Good thing too. “Logic” was about all Moon had going for him. Everything about Korea’s success is exclusively because of the Order.
South Korea imports all its oil and natural gas, and its import/export flows are so large that it is the world’s 5th-largest trading power by value despite having a population of only 51 million. As with many of the world’s developed economies, South Korea cannot look internally for greater economic growth; The country’s population has all but peaked and, again like much the rest of the world, faces a rapidly aging demography supported by an ever-smaller working age population.
South Korea’s largest trading partner today is actually China, but that is the beauty of the Order. South Korea can trade with whomever is willing to buy their goods. For now. It all relies on American guarantees that seem to be crumbling.
That’s the numbers and dollars argument. In strategic terms things are far more complicated.
South Korea sits among Japan, China and North Korea and has adversarial relationships with all of them. The only reason South Korea even exists is because American troops ward off the most salient threat to the north, while preventing Japanese and Chinese imperialism. That security guarantee is not easy to maintain:
North Korea believes the best way to beat a Grand Master at chess is to never let them make a first move. Infamously, North Korea has aimed an untold number of pieces of artillery at Seoul, just across the border and home to nearly half the country’s population. In a real war, by the time the first shell lands in Seoul, tens of thousands of others would already be airborne. But this is only one of its many preparations. Turns out that if you dedicate a country’s entire attention span for 70 years to a seething hatred of what’s on the other side, you can accomplish some pretty impressive things, up to and including an effective nuclear deterrent.
South Korea decided to focus instead on ships and trains and petrochemicals and white goods and electronics and computers and cellular tech. South Korea may be able to prevail against North Korea in a knock-down, drag-out fight, but there is no way the South Koreans can K-Pop themselves out of hideous infrastructure damage and mass civilian casualties. Only American forces – massed in and near Seoul and the DMZ – can provide the hitting power to at least partially preempt and mitigate such carnage.
That’s just North Korea. The South Koreans, accurately reading their history and geography, view China and Japan as even more significant security threats. Japan outpopulates South Korea by well over 2:1, China by over 20:1. The navies of either country could wipe the Korean navy from the seas in days. To the south, east, and west, South Korea is surrounded by waters that either Japan or China could dominate given the right push. South Korea’s second city, Busan, is in a particularly vulnerable spot separated from mainland Japan via the Korea Strait, barely more than 100 miles across. Inchon, the western extremity of the Seoul metro region, isn’t much further away from China. And of course, Korean trade links to the wider world are impossible to maintain without both Japanese and Chinese quiescence.
For decades this has all been moot. South Korea, Japan and China were all members of the U.S.-led global Order. The U.S. Navy has ensured peaceful seas and ample trade. Oil, LNG and raw materials flow in, finished goods flow out, and Korea is one of the world’s largest transshipment and manufacturing nodes. So long as the Americans remain involved, Korea’s economic and security problems remain purely theoretical.
But the Americans – left, right and center – want to slim down America’s global position. The Korean deployment is America’s third-largest (after Japan and Germany), and the one that is by far in the trickiest and riskiest strategic position. And that is what keeps Moon’s administration up at night. The Americans are losing interest, and there is no version of a post-Order world where South Korea continues to survive at all – much less as a wealthy, trading nation – unless Seoul can obtain a powerful, dedicated ally.
So it was all Moon could to do cave in trade talks with the American administration on everything. And not just in trade negotiations. The Trump administration is insisting that South Korea compensate the United States for ongoing troop commitments to the tune of at least $5 billion annually. That’s a lot for a country Korea’s size, but honestly it’s a bargain considering what 26,000 American troops can do when they are suitably motivated.
Is caving to the U.S. on trade and defense reimbursement enough to keep the American troops in-country in this post-Order world? No clue. But Moon, correctly, concluded that without conceding to American terms there was no chance whatsoever.
That’s hardly the end of the story.
First, in the post-Order world, getting a deal with the Americans on trade or troops or whatever is not the end of the negotiations. It is the beginning. Because the Americans no longer have a global strategy or see a national interest in play aside from getting some better market access, keeping the Americans interested requires giving in not once, but every single time they ask for anything.
If the Yanks are displeased with the Koreans’ response, they will leave and there is no guarantee they can be induced to come back. It’s bad business to allow a homeowner that refused to pay for fire insurance to do so after the house catches fire. The Americans can – and will – watch the neighborhood burn. They won’t feel good about it, but they won’t feel all that bad about it either.
Second, the one item in the neighborhood the Americans really do care about – the North Korean nuclear program – is one that they may have found a way to muddle through. The handshake deal Donald Trump appears to have reached with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un is that the reclusive country can keep their nuclear program so long as they abandon their ICBM program. The Trump administration seems to think it can live with a localized NorK nuclear threat so long as Pyongyang cannot nuke Seattle and beyond. What North Korea “projectiles” that have been launched since the first Trump-Kim summit are of the decidedly short-range sort, and there are at least some indications that North Korea dismantled a significant portion of their long-range missile testing facilities.
In a world where the Americans are blasé about South Korean issues, in a world where Americans no longer consider North Korea a direct threat, the Americans need a lot fewer forces in-theater. That’s great for the Americans…and the ultimate statement of no-interest in South Korea. The Trump administration appears to have handed off the entire North Korean issue to the local powers. And since North Korea already has the capacity to drop a nuke anywhere in South Korea or Japan or in the parts of China that are home to over 80% of the population, the entire region now has to deal with something that has stymied ten American administrations.
Finally, the Koreans have a hideously distasteful choice to make. They must prepare for a world without the Americans and that means they must find a new security guarantor. The menu of options are not encouraging.
While China is currently Korea’s largest trading partner, China is just as dependent upon the Americans as the Koreans for maintaining its economy and security. With the Americans checked out, China’s future will likely mirror its past; that of a broken, impoverished nation completely unable to maintain its own security or even feed its own people. Culturally, China might be Korea’s closest relation, but a long-term partnership will only bring Korea destitution.
In comparison, the future of Japan is bright. It already maintains the world’s second-most-powerful expeditionary navy and is one of the very few countries that has a chance to maintain its supply lines without active American assistance. The “smart” play for the Koreans would be to find a means of inserting themselves into the Japanese sphere of influence. Unfortunately, the politics of such insertion are wretched. The Koreans charge the Japanese with carrying out a cultural genocide during Japan’s 1905-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula and, so far, have been unwilling to let the past go. Even then, letting that past go would only be the first step to entering Tokyo’s world. Much kowtowing by the proud Koreans would be required.
The third option is for South Korea to become its own defender. That is impossible with conventional weapons, but it just might work if the Koreans build a few dozen nukes to hold everyone at bay. Technically, the obstacles to South Korea becoming a nuclear power are minimal; it could be done in a few months at most. Operationally, however, it would turn South Korea into a regional pariah of the North Korean type and cut the country off from not just global trade, but regional trade (although post-Order that is unlikely to cause the same problems, as much as it is frowned upon today).
Partnership with China might be somewhat comfortable, but it would end with a starvation diet. Partnership with Japan might preserve the Koreans’ standard of living, but it would be politically toxic. Going nuclear might preserve independence, but it would force mass deindustrialization.
For the South Koreans, the future is a land of fear and want.
The final text of my next book, Disunited Nations, is through copy edit and deep into proofing. Within a few weeks advance copies will be heading out for media review. Full publication is scheduled for the first week in March.
I’d like to thank everyone for their support, assistance and endless needling about when the damn thing will be finished. The world is a dynamic, ever-changing place, and nothing that I do happens in a vacuum. Everyone’s questions and comments and threats help shape what I know and what I look at. Please keep it up.
My goal with Disunited is less to sketch out the world as it is or as I would like to see it, and instead as it is about to be. Today’s world is dizzying in its complexity, but at its core it is a single integrated system underpinned by the Americans. This era is ending. Soon the world will fracture into a host of competing systems. Some purely national. Some regional.
My book contract said I would explain this world in 80,000 words. Heh. That didn’t happen. My first draft was 180,000. I was firmly, if politely, informed that wouldn’t happen either. We compromised with about 120,000. The rest ended up on the cutting room floor.
Anywho, as a partial thank you to all you who have directly and indirectly supported my efforts, and to perhaps keep some of those of you who are more intellectually ravenous at least partially sated, I’m happy to announce the launch of the Cutting Room Files. During the next couple of months we’ll be releasing an open-ended series of newsletters cobbled together from various bits that didn’t make it into the final version of Disunited Nations, as well as some embargoed not-quite-pieces of my previous books – The Accidental Superpower and The Absent Superpower – that have been waiting for release for some time.
Should you feel so inclined, you can click the following links to pre-order Disunited Nations on Amazon.com, Harper Collins, and IndieBound. Link options for Accidental and Absent can be found here and here, respectively.