Book Thoughts : The Accidental Superpower by Peter Zeihan

Partial summary and musings around :

The Accidental Superpower : the Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder by Peter Zeihan

In The Accidental Superpower, Peter Zeihan uses geography and its political implications to predict the future of economics and livelihoods. America is the accidental superpower not by merit of wise choices, deft political maneuvers and effective government, but because our abundant natural resources enable it. More so than any other country on the planet, our cup run-eth over.

Our easily developed, bountiful crop producing lands (less labor intensive and competitive than anywhere else on the planet) gave the ability to produce excess food and people in the pre-industrialized era, which with the turn of industrialization allowed us to produce more capital.  As if the biggest, most easily cultivated breadbasket in the world wasn't enough, "the world's greatest river network - that of the Mississippi and it's 6,000 miles of navigable tributaries - directly overlies the world's largest piece of arable land, the American Midwest".  The vast riverine network not only makes land productive, but connects producers in prosperous ways to their neighbors. Abundance of land and water leads to abundance of people and trade, bolstering economic activity without ever having to leave the country.  Combine this with the security of being an essentially island nation (the Canadian Rockies and deserts of northern Mexico complimenting the USA's impenetrability), and its common sense that Americans are the dominating power of the economic, agricultural, and technological world today.

Zeihan uses geography too to explain national cultures - and with regards to America there's a lot I can say.  How the abundance of land and resources made possible the entrepreneurship we now associate with American spirit, or the generosity we have towards neighbors and allies.  Privileged geography also highlights how sensitive we are to even the slightest broaches in security, how used to getting our way, how change adverse, and volatile our tempers can be when national (or personal) ire is provoked.  The increasingly isolationist policies of the US government at present now have historical context - at least for me and my globalist, lefty-leaning sensibilities! A quote from Dr. Martin Luther King echoes in my head : "it's all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps."  Americans hit the bootstrap jackpot. No where else on the planet even comes close (read the book for numbers; it's a LOT of compelling information).

So Americans that could get land, harvest in peace, or in the Industrial Era make their way via simple transport networks to cities for employment prospered. A peaceful country largely untouched by domestic war (completely untouched for the last 153 years, a global anomaly), was able to build its already incomparable infrastructure, enrich itself with carbon-based fuels, and expand ever westward to include more agriculturally useful property (I know the Rockies aren't great, but how about California?). The last two centuries were a pretty great time to be an American, regardless of our internal conflicts. We were strong, with a young population and growing economy, but perhaps not yet the international hegemon that we are today. What changed?

After World War II, the devastation of the developed world was complete (with the exception of the United States). European landscape torn to pieces, armies and civilian populations gutted, and not a single country with a navy that could even begin to rival the United States' complete forces. We were the only game in town, and everyone was invited to play.

The Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944 is the reason we know a globalized economy today.  The imperial/colonial competitions of European-style world conquest ruled oceans and so ruled trade for hundreds of years. Zeihan goes into naval advancements and old trading routes that made these advancements possible, but the competitive nature of trade has been the same over the course of history. Find a way to trade faster, cheaper, safer, and your rivals will eventually either catch up or outdo you. Zeihan's argument is that the competition for trade routes, partners, and resources meant constant naval warring among larger economic (re : more capital to build maritime) powers. 

Bretton Woods changed all that.  The Americans with their ground forces and navies made up most of the remaining Allied war effort; by imperialist standards they should have simply continued to occupy their allies, do the same with their enemies at war's end and establish a huge Pax Americana - an American empire of peace by occupation.  The Americans thought that would be a huge drain on time and resources, and didn't play to their naval strength. They made an unexpected (and essentially mandatory) offer : "the Americans said they would open their markets…(and) offered to use their navy to protect all maritime trade…even trade that had nothing to do with the United States would by guaranteed by the overwhelming strength of the American navy."  Over the years Bretton Woods grew to include not only Europe, but some South American, African and Southeast Asian countries too, essentially providing an economic block against red Russia.  All of this was to the USA's benefit, especially as its international energy import and Cold War security needs grew.  But that is now changing. The Cold War ended in earnest over 25 years ago, and Americans are growing more energy independent by the day.

Chapter 7 is titled "The Rise of Shale".  Basically, fracking technology, though people like me profess to hate it, is the backbone of continued and growing American economic independence.  Energy is one of the reasons Americans have continued to protect global free trade, and that need is going to evaporate. Fracking is only getting safer, cheaper, and faster. It is growing exponentially within America, as we are the only country that has the deep pockets for investment, costly transport infrastructure, skilled work force, and oh yea - natural resource deposits to make this happen.  We can't keep it up forever, but for an least the next 15 years the US is going to continue to withdraw from the global energy market.

Eventually we will retreat into ourselves almost entirely, taking the protection and guarantee of our navies with us.  Countries that have export-based economies such as China or Saudi Arabia are about to see one of their primary customers vanish. Smaller export-based countries, who have had no need to build up their security forces, are about to see their goods pillaged if not their country occupied by those militarily stronger looking for advantages over their neighbors. New alliances will be made, but only when it is advantageous to the US - and again, we will be nearly the only game in town with a stable economy 3x the size of the rest of global markets.

The second half of The Accidental Superpower is focused on the non-American players.  The author makes many predictions, but one thing seems certain : scarce resources will produce conflict just as they have throughout history. The Americans, while not completely invulnerable, will be able to isolate themselves with their abundant resources, young population, and insulated economy.

Overall, this book rocked my world. The notion that "free trade" as we know it has not always been around is mind-boggling - the fact that it could so easily with a couple American pen strokes be destroyed, sending open-market modernity back to imperialist struggles is even crazier.  I'm glad to be an American and to be naturally blessed. The hopelessness painted of rapidly aging, resource-poor countries like Japan and China and the inevitable demise of ethnic Russians doesn't instill schadenfreude exactly, but its very ugly cousin of better-you-than-me.  It's a reminder to me that while this self-preservation instinct is natural, and the world is separate countries, we are all one.  Americans were simply dealt a lucky hand. Economic or governmental policies that would have crippled other countries barely rock the boat here, and our resource richness has granted us the prosperity to defend the world's waters and the entirety of the world's free market. Do we abandon it?

The prosperity and security of the American way of life will only go so far. We're still a part of this planet, not alienated from global changes and challenges. For me, this book is a fascinating historical and modern political lesson, but it begs a more philosophical question. If the world burns, what will we do?

For my fellow Tolkein nerds : "Do we leave Middle-earth to its fate? Do we let them stand alone?"


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