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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.