Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Accidental Superpower. Peter Zeihan

   Thought provoking book.  Zeihan is into geopolitics (influence of geography upon history) and demographics (population growth or shrinkage).  His book explores history in the light of geopolitics and demographics, and then ventures into a bit of future predicting. 
   Zeihan’s geopolitics emphasizes the importance of good land, fertile, well watered, decent climate.  Much of earth’s land is uninhabitable, arctic tundra, deep desert, serious mountains.  Zeihan makes the obvious point that important powers need to control a large stretch of good land.  He also makes the less well known point that North America, in the US Midwest and the Canadian prairies has more good land than any where else on earth.  Compare to Russia, which looks enormous on a Mercator projection map, but much of Russian land is worthless arctic tundra. 
   The second point Zeihan makes is the importance of rivers, especially long and navigable rivers.  Prior to the railroads in the 1830’s, everything moved by water.  Only extremely high value cargo like spices could afford land transport.  Compare a caravan with cargo on pack back.  Maybe 100 pounds of cargo per animal, and speed of twenty miles a day at best.  No wagons or carts.  Wagons and carts need roads which are very expensive.  Only the Romans had the money to put in a good road network.  No one else since the Romans could afford them.   Whereas an ordinary Indian style canoe (ancient water craft design still in mass production) can take a load of 1000 pounds, same as ten pack animals and two guys can paddle it 40 miles a day.   Bigger water craft, with sail and oar, can haul much more.
   In short, you need rivers crossing the land to move anything, foodstuffs, timber, cut stone, troops, metal ores, and textiles.  And, another not so obvious point, the United States has more, longer, navigable rivers than any place else.  The Mississippi- Missouri system allows cities as far inland as St Louis and Pittsburg and Chicago to be seaports.
   Given the geopolitics, and a large and loyal population, it’s no wonder than America became the superpower. 
    Groundwork laid, Zeihan goes on to speculate about the future.  He sees Canada as likely to come unglued, not the Quebecois of the 1990s, but Alberta, oil rich and over taxed wanting out.  He sees Russia needing to control Ukraine and the Baltic states, and needing to do so before demographic disaster makes it impossible to enlist enough young men of fighting age into the Russian army.  Russian birthrate is so low that the Russian population will shrink by HALF by 2040. 
   Zeihan talks a lot about the Bretton Woods system set up by the Americans in 1944, at a summer resort hotel in New Hampshire, only a short drive from my place.  According to conventional history Bretton Woods was a bankers meeting to establish international exchange rates and the role of gold in the post war world.  Zeihan expands this into an American deal.  We Americans, in order to get all you WWII blasted countries back on your feet, offer you tariff free entrance to the American market.  The US Navy will enforce freedom of the seas so your cargoes will get thru.  In return, we Americans don’t want to see any aggression, land grabs, invasions, or “wars of national liberation”.  And we want you on our side in the Cold War, not the Soviet side.  
   Zeihan sees the Bretton Woods system breaking down now that the Soviets are gone and American frackers have made us much less reliant on Middle East oil.  We don’t need the Bretton Woods system as much as we used to, and it’s expensive to keep running it.    
   Zeihan skips a few things, like all of politics, religion, or ideology, the growth of railroads in the 19th century,  importance of coastwise shipping to the original 13 colonies, and others.  But it's interesting and a fine starting point for all sorts of discussions.   He wrote in 2014, so it's pretty up to date. 

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