Review of 'Accidental Superpower' by Peter Zeihan

The Accidental Superpower (2014) attempts to explain why the United States has been the global superpower, and will continue to be for at least the next 30 years. The three elements he identified that successful countries have are:

  1. Balance of transport: The balance here is between ease of moving around within a territory, and difficulty of getting to that territory.
  2. Deepwater navigation: The ability to float a navy and project power beyond it’s territory.
  3. Industrialization: Enhances deepwater navigation, as well as economic output

Before industrialization and deepwater navigation, the biggest factor was balance of transport. The example he starts with is ancient Egypt, the Nile river made it very easy to move around within Egypt, but the deserts on either side were large enough to make it nearly impossible to invade Egypt, at least until domesticated camels and boats were invented.

Spain and Portugal pioneered deepwater navigation in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, allowing them to dominate western hemisphere, mostly South America. Soon after that the English developed deepwater navigation and took over the territory that was left, mostly North America.

There is an interesting conflict between this origin story and that of “Why Nations Fail” by Acemoglu and Robinson, in Why Nations Fail, the explanation for England becoming the global superpower in the 18th and 19th centuries had to do with “inclusive economic and political instiutions”, which for England started after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Zeihan’s argument is that the technological improvements of the Royal Navy over the Iberian equivalents lead to England being able to out-compete Spain & Portugal. While Acemoglu and Robinson agree that this is a pre-condition for England becoming richer and more powerful than Spain & Portugal, they point out that this created a merchant class that was not loyal the the English Crown, which lead to the creation of more inclusive institutions to support their interests. England from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy. Spain & Portugal remained absolute monarchies for much longer than England.

The third factor, industrialization, started in England during the period commonly called the Industrial Revolution. Zeihan doesn’t try to say why it happened first with England, that’s something Acemoglu and Robinson attempt. After 1688, there was a way for people to “petition Parliament”. It wasn’t quite voting, but it did allow for a larger group of British people to make personal use of the power of the government. In particular, patents. Acemoglu and Robinson call patents an example of an inclusive economic institution. It’s inclusive because anyone can obtain one and get a temporary monopoly on their new invention. This creates the incentive to invent new things, by letting the inventor reap all the rewards first, and then eventually let competition take over, and which drives prices down as others try to find ways of undercutting their competitors. An example of this is James Watt’s patent for his steam engine, granted in 1781.

As a point of criticism, I think Zeihan under-emphasizes institutions (defined as formal rules). That said, I got quite a lot out of reading these two books, Why Nations Fail focused on failure modes, namely, how “extractive institutions” can lead a nation to economic ruin. The Accidental Superpower focuses on why nations succeed, and why one, the United States, just sort of lucked out on all three of the above listed factors (balance of transport, deepwater navigation and industrialization).

Enough about Acemoglu & Robinson, this was supposed to be about Zeihan. The reason the United States became the global superpower, according to the book, is that the lower 48 states just happened to have good balance of transport (> 17,000 miles of navigable rivers, but oceans on either side of the continent). This makes it very easy and cheap to secure, but also makes it internally productive. Early settlers could travel west and grow grain, and then ship it in large quantities by river. This is one of the major insights I got from the book, the importance of rivers in economic growth. Even today, with rails, roads and aircraft, the existence of those rivers in the U.S. keeps the costs of moving stuff low, since they all have to compete with riverine transport.

The network of navigable rivers in the U.S. is the largest on the planet by far, this enables all of the states to specialize and trade with each other without having to spend much on artificial infrastructure. Take the temperate climate of the lower 48 states, the large chunk of arable land that is the midwest, and overlay on top of it the large navigable river network, and you have a system that grows immensely, both in population and wealth. The geographic factors that lead to this wealth-generating system are the “accidental” part. The Americans just inherited a safe, productive chunk of land.

As for why the U.S. has such an advantage with deepwater navigation, Zeihan compares and contrasts it to Britain and Japan. Britain and Japan are both islands, so they need to master the seas if they are to trade with others and protect themselves. The U.S. is not an island, but Canada and Mexico are the only nations on the border, and neither are a threat, in fact, they are both tightly integrated economic parters and allies. This means you can think of the lower 48 states as a “continent sized island”. Also, the east and west coasts just happen to be very well suited for building ports. Zeihan claims that the U.S. has “more port potential than the rest of the world combined”. Also the U.S. is positioned so that it can:

Let it’s atlantic citizens trade with Europe when Asia is in recession and let it’s pacific citizens trade with Asia when Europe is in recession.

Finally, with industrialization, the U.S. had a much easier time industrializing than countries like Britain and Germany. Part of that ease had to do with the river network that the U.S. was blessed with. The other part had to do with the lack of nearby hostile nations to defend against, attention and other resources could be focused on investing in industry for peaceful purposes, instead of wasting blood and capital on fighting it’s neighbors.

This is Zeihan’s “origin story” of the U.S. as a superpower, the rest of the book talks about how the U.S. used that at the end of World War 2. The short version is that at the Bretton Woods Conference, the U.S. set up a global economic and financial arrangement where it would open up it’s markets, use it’s navy to protect trade between countries, and essentially end all geopolitical conflicts. This was very expensive for the U.S., but what it got in return was the freedom to fight the Cold War on it’s terms. In World War 2, the Germans and Japanese lost, and the U.S. and USSR were at a stalemate.

The global trade network created at Bretton Woods was part of an Amercian strategy to create a large buffer of friendly countries that could contain the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, the commitment to securing global shipping lanes for other countries started to weaken, and the trend toward free trade (low tariffs, etc.) appears to be reversing. For example, in the 2016 election, both on the Left and the Right, almost every candidate either critized our existing or our pending trade deals (e.g. NAFTA, Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China, and the TPP). Bernie Sanders railed against the TPP and Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China as unfair competition for working Americans, Hillary Clinton switched sides on NAFTA and the TPP because of popular sentiment, and Trump, well, you know. Zeihan saw this coming in 2014, it’s even more pronounced now in 2018. After reading this book, I’ve revised my stance on presidential and candidate rhetoric, politicians are responding to current sentiment and conditions, not the other way around. For the most part, politicians do not cause most geopolitical events, they respond to them, and those events are constrained by geography, resources and demographics.

The book also points out a parallel trend that will accelerate the U.S. withdrawl from the world, that’s the shale oil boom. The Absent Superpower, his next book, goes into detail about how the American shale boom will influence geopolitics over the next two decades.

U.S. oil production

To summarize, the U.S. no longer has another superpower to compete with, so it’s committment to global trade is going to collapse, since the U.S. doesn’t really need it. The U.S. is in the bottom 4 in terms of imports as a % of GDP, and the bottom 10 in terms of exports. In addition, it is almost completely energy independent, meaning it no longer has an interest in protecting Saudi Arabia, or being involved in the Middle East at all.

One final thread in this book is demographics, specifically, the age distribution. Below are the population pyramids showing the age distributions of the U.S., Russia, Germany, Japan, India and China. Notice the relative size of the youth population. As a general rule, countries with more old people than young people will struggle economically more than those that don’t, since the younger population works and the older population goes into retirement and draws on pensions. A demography that allows for healthy economic growth is one where the ratio of young to old is 1 or higher. The U.S. is in a good position because the Millenial generation is now a bit biger than the same size of the Baby Boomers, which you can see if you look at the American chart below, the area above 25-29 (Millenials) is the largest these folks were born at the end of the Cold War, they are now the majority. Next look at 55-59, these are the Millenials’ parents, born after World War 2, as the Boomers go into retirement, the Millenials and the Boomers will be a supermajority, and so they are likely to continue politically supporting Social Security and Medicare. Once Generation X goes into retirement, there will be an even smaller pool of retirees to support, so the U.S. will be in an even better economic position.

US
Russia
Germany
Japan
India
China

When you put all these trends together, you get a pretty clear picture, the U.S. will remain the global economic and military superpower for the foreseeable future, but it won’t have many global interests, so it will have tremendous strategic freedom. Given that this position is mostly accidental, it’s not clear that this tremendous wealth and power will be used wisely, but the book is not about how things should be.

I think Zeihan has a few blindspots, in particular, nuclear weapons and cyberattacks. It’s pretty clear that the U.S. is not going to be invaded by soliders on foot, or by another navy or air force. However, even North Korea now has nuclear-tipped ICBMs. His book barely mentions nukes, so I doubt the completeness of his analysis. Cyberattacks are getting more sophsticated and aggressive, and nation states are even posing as others, this makes the threat harder to analyze, and again, it’s absent from the book.

Aside from these blindspots, I think the book makes some very probable predictions about the shape of global events over the next 20 years, and I would recommend you read the book if you are interested in geopolitics.