Did America’s Rivers Make It A Superpower?

(Review of The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and The Coming Global Disorder, by Pater Zeihan. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2014. )

The Waterways Journal
16 December 2015
By David Murray

Napoleon Bonaparte is reported to have said. “The policies of all powers are inherent in their geography.”

This focus on geography was a quite common part of historical and political analysis in the 19th century, but in the 20th century, the study of geography as a driver of history and politics gradually gave way to other approaches even as it developed into its own subfield called geopolitics.

Stratfor, a geopolitical consulting firm founded in 1996, has been a leading force in the revival of geopolitical analysis. The Stratfor “method” uses the floods of data provided by the Internet to analyze the hard physical facts of geography, transport, finance and demographics that both empower and limit each region and country.
Whatever Stratfor is doing must be worth a lot of money to a lot of folks, because the company makes a very good living selling its analyses to high-level clients around the globe, from government agencies like the CIA to multinational corporations.

Peter Zeihan, author of The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and The Coming Global Disorder, spent 12 years as a top Stratfor analyst, ending as vice president of analysis before leaving in 2012 and opening his own firm, Zeihan on Geopolitics.

For readers new to this perspective, Zeihan’s book will be an original and refreshing introduction to geopolitics. It will be of special interest to maritime readers, however, because of the great importance Zeihan gives to water networks.

Rivers and the Balance of Transport

One of Zeihan’s key terms pops up early when he says, “The balance of transport determines wealth and security.” Better transport systems make a lot of money for a lot of people, and also generate excess capital for investment and development. And throughout history, the best transportation corridors have been rivers and river systems. Zeihan credits them with creating cultural unity as well as wealth.

“Cheap riverine transport grants loads of personal exposure to ensure that everyone on the waterway network sees themselves as all in the same boat (often literally). That constant interaction helps a country solidify its identity and political unity in a way that no other geographic feature can.”

That’s why it is no surprise that the first urban civilizations developed along river systems: the Nile in Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates in the Middle East, the Yellow River in China, and the Indus and Ganges rivers in India.

In fact, Zeihan thinks water transport is so important in creating the modern world and the current balance of power among nations and regions that he credits America’s superpower role largely to its water transport features.

River System Most Important

Among these, the Mississippi-Ohio river system is the most important. Zeihan recites figures many Waterways Journal readers have probably either heard or perhaps presented themselves at waterway conferences:

“All told, this Mississippi and Intracoastal system accounts for 15,500 of the United States’ 17,600 miles of internal waterways. Even leaving out the United States’ (and North America’s) other waterways, this is still a greater length of internal waterways than the rest of the planet combined.”

It’s also important, says Zeihan, that America’s wealth of rivers drain much of the most productive and fertile agricultural land in the world. “America’s rivers transform cities deep in the interior such as Pittsburgh, St. Paul, Sioux City and Tulsa into ocean ports. Having more internal waterways than everyone else combined has certainly got to make the United States the premier maritime power, right?”

America’s “invulnerable” continental position of being protected from external foes by two oceans and non-threatening neighbors also makes it “functionally” an island like Britain, although on a much larger scale.

Port Potential

As if its river networks were not enough of an advantage, says Zeihan, the United States also enjoys more “port potential” along its coast than the rest of the world combined. Ports need sheltered bays and proper “hinterland” areas to support them. Zeihan explains that most coastlines around the world do not have suitable port areas.  
But the “Chesapeake Bay alone boasts longer stretches of prime port property than the entire continental coast of Asia from Vladivostok to Lahore….Texas alone has thirteen world-class deepwater ports, only half of which see significant use, and room for at least three times more. Why not expand port capacity? Because the United States has more port possibilities than it has ever needed, despite the fact that it has been the world’s largest producer, importer and exporter of agricultural and manufactured goods for most of its history.”

Three Benefits of Rivers / Water Transport

According to Zeihan, America’s river and water transport systems did (and do) several things.

1) They generated enormous amounts of capital. “’[A]ny culture based upon those waterways will be ridiculously capital-rich.”

2) They knit the country together culturally. “Rivers promote unity, and an integrated maritime network promotes unity over a far larger swath of territory …With the most robust, naturally-occurring infrastructure, it should come as little surprise that the United States enjoys one of the strongest national identities of the major powers.”

3) They saved America from having to make the kinds of expensive infrastructure and military investments early in its history that other countries were forced to make. (We know about today’s locks and dams and what it costs to build and maintain them, but most of our rivers were commercially usable to some extent before those projects.)
Zeihan compares the American situation with that that of Germany, which--although it did have  some navigable rivers--had to unify itself logistically out of a patchwork of German-speaking states by launching its own very expensive railroad-building program beginning in the 1830s and 1840s, jumping ahead of the Americans and everyone else.

Germany’s centrally-directed railroad-building program, says Zeihan, required an authoritarian state that “coordinated” with the banks that provided the necessary unprecedented sums. This close cooperation turned even private banking in Germany into a quasi-state enterprise devoted to the needs of government before those of consumers. That relationship holds to the present day.

In America, according to Zeihan, the story was quite different. “In most countries the geopolitical necessity of infrastructure is a core motivator for government formation and expansion, with Germany being the quintessential example. Not so in the United States. The rivers directly and indirectly eliminate many barriers to economic entry and keep development costs low….it’s a recipe for small government and high levels of entrepreneurship.”

Even after railroad and road networks supplemented rivers in the U.S., says Zeihan, “the constant competition that river transport provides for other modes keeps a lid on transport costs regardless of method.”

Coming Global Disorder

Although Zeihan lays great emphasis on rivers, his book is about many other things as well, including population trends. It might not be quite accurate to say he believes that geography is destiny, but he would probably agree that geography plus demography is destiny.

Most Western countries are suffering from unprecedented “population winters” or overhangs of older people with fewer younger people replacing them. America has a younger average population than most other Western countries (thanks in large part to immigration), and its abundant reserves of shale oil and natural gas due to fracking have made it energy independent and more self-sufficient than ever.

Because of these factors, Zeihan believes America is beginning to withdraw from the security arrangements it set up at the Bretton Woods conferences in 1944 that have defined the post-World War II world ever since. In that series of agreements, America took over policing the world’s trade routes from Britain, allowing its allies to grow rich under America’s security umbrella while shrinking defense spending to a miniscule part of their national budgets.

America’s maintenance of the Bretton Woods system always benefited its allies more than itself, but America is now at a stage where it does not need it at all, according to Zeihan.  That withdrawal by America will allow many regional conflicts and rivalries, including some with the potential to cause disorder and conflict in various parts of the world, to re-erupt. 

Not all geopolitical analysts share Zeihan’s sunny view that the U.S. will become even more dominant in this period of global disorder than it is now. 

But we are moving away from rivers now, and I hope readers have read enough to be convinced that The Accidental Superpower is well worth their time.