The Accidental Superpower

Feb 5th, 2015 by Riaan Nel in News


Accidental Superpower

I’m currently reading Zeihan’s book.  It is pretty compelling.  Although I am always skeptical of peering too far into the future and making bold conjectures.  However, it is something that is essentially human – our ability to think forward.  The future is where we’re going to spend the rest of our lives.  Although I, like most people, worry too much about the future, I believe it is indispensable to think about the future in a rational way.  Zeihan’s book so far is compelling and thought provoking.  I agree that North American energy independence and dominance are probably inevitable.  I also agree that we are probably many decades away from the United States’ decline.  However, are we entering an Hobbesian world?

Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher writing his famous Leviathan in 1651.  In Leviathan Hobbes postulates what life was before governments.  He calls this a “state of nature” – basically a world where each person pursues his own survival and interest.  Over time humans formed groups, tribes and eventually nation-states.  Individuals ceded power to an authority for protection and other utilities of organizing as societies.  Hobbes, though saw the international order as in a “state of nature” where states/countries all vie for their own interest.

After World War II an international order came into being protected by the United States.  Zeihan sees a fracturing of this world order.  I do think there is merit to this argument.  But I believe it is in the US’s interest to continue to protect and guarantee the current world order of relative free markets, free trade, and in integrated global capitalist system.  I’m skeptical to the disintegration predicted.

Below I’ve pasted an excerpt of a  review from The Wall Street Journal by Liam Denning.  The entire review can be read here:


Peter Zeihan begins “The Accidental Superpower” by declaring that he has “always loved maps.” From this unremarkable claim springs a lively, readable thesis on how the success or failure of nations may rest on the very ground beneath their feet. Rather than focusing on charismatic leaders or lofty ideals, Mr. Zeihan stresses the more prosaic forces that shape world events: topography, soil quality, access to water. Water especially, he says, sorts winners from the rest. It can be a highway, a barrier, a larder and a battery. Rivers make it cheap to transport goods and people, enabling the efficient mixing of ideas and markets. The capital that might otherwise be spent on, say, building a road may be used for other purposes.

It happens that the United States—the “superpower” of Mr. Zeihan’s title—is blessed with 12 major navigable rivers, including the Mississippi. Much else flows from this happy accident. A less pressing need for grand, land-based infrastructure projects, for example, may lessen the need for centralized coordination, encouraging small government.

Other great powers, or former ones, have enjoyed one or two geographical advantages—think of Egypt’s mighty Nile or Britain’s status as an island nation, from which its great naval tradition comes. But no nation combines America’s easy navigability, abundant cropland and a moat the size of two oceans. The geographical underpinning of America’s global role makes it likely that U.S. supremacy will endure for some time to come. Just don’t expect it to be easy, Mr. Zeihan says, at least not for the next couple of decades.

The bulk of “The Accidental Superpower” peers into the future as Mr. Zeihan, a former analyst at the geopolitical security firm Stratfor, tries to imagine where the world, and particularly America, is headed. Conjecture is de rigueur in the geopolitics genre—sometimes to its peril. Take “The Next 100 Years” by George Friedman, Mr. Zeihan’s former boss at Stratfor. Mr. Friedman’s 2009 book got some things right, notably a renewed standoff between the West and Russia. Eventually, though, it veered into Tom Clancy territory by imagining orbiting “Battle Stars” and a midcentury Thanksgiving Day sneak attack starting a world war.

“The Accidental Superpower” does its fair share of futurology. There is a Russian collapse, a Swedish-Polish alliance and even a secession crisis—in Canada, of all places, where the residents of Alberta (not Quebec) are restless. Most fascinating of all is the notion that, while armchair generals have their binoculars trained on the Middle East, the most pressing threat to U.S. homeland security could be a spillover of Mexico’s drug war.

Even if you don’t buy the specifics of these scenarios, they don’t lapse into a geopolitical version of science fiction. Their overarching theme is that we are moving into an ever more chaotic world—an idea that may sound familiar. (Think of two much-discussed articles from the 1990s: Robert Kaplan ’s “The Coming Anarchy” and Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations?”) Mr. Zeihan’s prediction, though, derives from a startling proposition: that the U.S., during the Cold War, “turned geopolitics off,” if only temporarily.

Mr. Zeihan is referring to the 1944 Bretton Woods settlement. By establishing a monetary and trading system underpinned by U.S. military and economic might, the settlement effectively bribed Western Europe’s tribes to set aside their blood feuds and band together to help hold off the Soviet Union. In return, the allies got access to the American market—the only functioning one amid the ruins of 1945—as well as the protection of the only global navy still afloat and, what’s more, a nuclear umbrella.

Mr. Zeihan says that the Bretton Woods settlement is now unraveling—largely because it is no longer essential to the country that underwrote it. Protecting everyone’s trade by means of the U.S. Navy made sense when it strengthened allies in the face of a Cold War adversary and guarded tankers feeding America’s growing appetite for foreign oil. Now the North American shale energy boom—not to mention the recent financial crisis—raises the question of whether it is worthwhile for the U.S. to bear such burdens to the same extent.

The obvious rejoinder to this skepticism is that the U.S. can’t simply lift itself off a planet with terrorist networks and nuclear weapons. But Mr. Zeihan’s point isn’t that America is about to isolate itself; it is rather that America may see the logic of retrenching, and retrenchment will destabilize a world built on U.S. commitments. Risk-free shipping lanes, for instance, are critical to major exporters such as China and Germany. Without American power, the fate of globalized supply chains is called into question. Signs of disruption can be seen in China’s push to directly control mines and oil fields overseas and in widespread doubts about whether an American president would send troops to defend NATO allies in the Baltic states. The assumptions underlying the postwar order have loosened already.


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