Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Accidental Superpower: A Book Report

The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence And the Coming Global Disorder, by Peter Zeihan

Archaeologists and paleontologists see fossils in a field where everyone else sees dirt and rocks.

I would think the same applies to a geographer looking at a topographic map.

Peter Ziehan investigates geopolitics through the venue of geography. Not an unwise evaluation, considering that, if the Earth were an apple, with us teeny tiny human bugs living on the apple skin, it makes sense to take into account all the folds and wrinkles of that apple skin.

Zeihan does a good job of relating political entities and their behaviors to the contingency of geography. Take, for example, Iran. It's a natural castle keep. Ringed by mountains, with limited access points, lots of fallback fastnesses to retreat into, Iran is a nightmare place to attack. Warmongers are either ignorant or willfully stupid in not acknowledging this.

Take Africa. Africa is a mineralogical treasure house. Called by the Belgian explorer Jules Cornet "un scandale géologique" (a geological scandal), Africa would seem ripe for crust rape. But most of it sits on a plateau, and as such, it is hard to get into the interior, what with very few navigable rivers.

Or take China, encompassing practically every terrain and climate that exists, China can in no way be considered one single country.

Or how about the US of A, which is the subject of the book? It has so many geographical advantages. Separated from the world by two vast oceans, possessed of some of the finest and most extensive farmland in the world, with a unparalleled riverine transport system, and a plenitude of both minerals and petrochemicals to exploit, it is hard to see how a nation could NOT succeed with  so many contingent advantages. Not that Americans haven't tried. Many of these favorable factors are not quite what they were. The US is still fortunate to have two friendly, or at least compliant neighbors to the north and south. True, ever since Sputnik and ICBMs, and before that Pearl harbor, the oceans are not quite the barriers they used to be, but still formidable. All the more reason to have a large maritime and aerospace force to augment this natural advantage. The US of A has, for two hundred years been a massive food power as well. (We easily forget that, don't we? Why?)

The other variable in Zeihan's equation is demographics. Which, given how the teeny tiny human bugs have overrun this particular petri dish, the composition, distribution and disbursements of said bugs is also critical in the corporate behaviors of our collective AIs.

Demographically speaking, places like Russia, for example, are fucked. A shrinking and elderly population Zeihan gives Russia not much more than 2020 to get their shit together before they become irrelevant. Japan, likewise, with no human replacements, really better get the robot revolution going before they become a footnote. As such, I think Zeihan does a good job of explaining a lot behind the scenes of the rugby scrim that passes for foreign affairs.

Oh, but then he has to go and screw it all up with predictions. Zeihan makes a number of rather embarrassing predictions, and is not afraid or ashamed to admit that some of them are wrong, or way out there, but will be confirmed or found wanting within the next twenty years. Hey, at least he gives it a whirl, and manages to flesh out what would normally be a rather safe, useless, broadbased list of trends and generalities which is of no help to anyone who thinks about living in the future. (Zeihan also, I should note, worked for Stratfor, a joke of a private intelligence firm, once called "The Economist, but a week late and excessively overpriced").

It is Zeihan's contention that despite the current gloom and anxiety about the declining role of the US and the West within world affairs, the US of A will come out smelling like a rose this century.

Fact of the matter is, Zeihan is probably right, but for all the wrong reasons (or mostly the wrong reasons). Things won't be good for the US of A this century. It's just that things are really, really gonna suck a lot worse for practically everyone else.

But first, he explicates what has gone right. H e provides a synopsis of the Long Boom and the Bretton Woods accord, and in this I think he is fairly right on. So, consider, Bretton Woods, which everyone always assumed was about currency and the hegemonic effort of the US of A to insure the dollar was the global medium of exchange. Zeihan correctly points out that the Bretton Woods accord was a different and novel type of empire building. Rather than a partially genocidal land dominating strategy which dates back to the neolithic, the US of A, being England v 2.0, the supreme postwar maritime power, and the last market standing intact in the world, took advantage of geography to impose their own two-part plan of peculiar global order:
"The first part alone likely stunned the (participants of the international Bretton Woods) conference into baffled silence: the Americans had no intention of imposing a Pax. They didn't plan to occupy key transshipment or distribution nodes. There would be no imperial tariff on incomes or trade or property. There would be no governors-general stationed in each of America's new imperial outposts. No clearinghouses. No customs restrictions. No quotas. Instead, the Americans said that they would open their markets. Anyone who wanted to export goods to the United States could do so... As startling and unexpected as part one of the plan was, part two must have rolled the Europeans in particular back on their heels. The Americans offered to use their navy to protect all maritime trade, regardless of who was buying or selling the cargoes... Far from imposing a Pax that would fill their coffers to overflowing with trade duties, levies, and tariffs, the Americans were instituting the opposite, a global trading system in which they would provide full security for all maritime traded at their own cost, full access to the largest consumer market in human history, and at most a limited and hedged expectation that participants might open their markets to American goods."
Now, say what you will about the efficacy or ethics of this arrangement, you have to admit it was pretty fucking brilliant.

(Brilliant in the same way that Madison's Copernican model of sovereign state planets orbiting a strong federal sun was brilliant. True, the idea was to prolong the Republic for as long as possible, when in fact it barely made it fourscore and seven years. But what the hey, Communism looks great on paper as well).

So, why the heck would America do that? Why not? Without question the supreme naval power, it was child's play to keep the sea lanes free and open. (Not safe for trade, that would require an investment and commitment several orders of magnitude larger than any reasonable force projection of the US Navy). The only fly in the ointment was that formidable land and food power, the Sovyetsky Soyuz. The US, as a land force, was strictly outmanned and outclassed in Eurasia. The desire for global dominance ran headlong into the pesky impediments of geography and demographics.

Bretton Woods has changed and mutated over time, but still is fairly functional. It helps that we've added former enemies (Germany, Japan, China) to the trade mix. But Zeihan says we are entering a multipolar world where Bretton Woods is gone. The US becomes, if not isolationist, then impotently non-interventionist, but still comes out somehow on top.

Why? Technology and education (although the conservatards are doing their best to wipe out that advantage). Demographics, with the US still a good destination for immigrants, and with the Baby Boomer's kids picking up what slack remains, keeping the population full of workers instead of retirees. And geography, with Zeihan's contention that the fracking boom giving us energy and food security well through the end of the century. There are other arguments, and I suppose you'd best read the book for that.

My objections? I find it extremely unlikely that the US will give up it's global superpower status so readily. If anything, the trends would suggest we double down on both defense and trade, and engagement (for better or worse) with the world.

Also, fracking ain't quite what it is cracked up to be, what with proven reserves not quite being up to snuff, and difficulties in processing that ultralight oil we pull out of the ground.

(An aside here. One thing usually omitted from oil accounts is that extraction is only part of the equation. Refinement and distribution is the other part. When Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville back in 1859, he wasn't drilling for oil. He was drilling for the useful products made from oil. Without Abraham Gesner to develop a practical method of distilling kerosene, and investor James Townsend to notice this, Drake would have been drilling nothing. So it is that the oil in the ground is useless without refinement. And it costs to refine specific types of oil. I once reported on how BP spent billions to refit their refineries for the toxic sludge out of Venezuela and Alberta. The same investment had to be made to handle the fricking fracker's fluffy stuff).

My main objection to Zeihan's analysis is that he waves off as almost inconsequential global warming. He devotes a three page appendix to climate change, and most of the that concerns sea level rise. He brushes off US food security and disruptions from mass population migration in two paragraphs. He doesn't even mention extinction events, or what we shall do with nine billion people in a few decades. He doesn't seem to worry about megadroughts, or increased storm frequencies, or storm intensities, or any of that stuff. That, I think, is a fatal flaw in the analysis.

Global CO2 counts are pretty much permanently at or above 400ppm now. The last time that happened was the Pliocene, some one million years ago, back when our venerable H. erectus ancestors domesticated fire. The fact that we have changed the conditions to that of a different geological epoch in a mere one hundred years should be fucking something to take note of. But he doesn't. Zeihan is realistic enough to realize that we are going to go through a Hobbesian period over the next twenty years, but I don't think he really has a clue.

True, what actually happens with our climate may actually be beneficial for the US of A (high unlikely, but still plausible). If, as many believe, things heat up to intolerable, then I envision a rump US of A occupying the only arable land left up north - Alberta. The Canadian shield - the stripped down tortured slab of granite that sits between the US border and the arctic circle - simply cannot sustain the kind of industrial agriculture the US favors. Of course, things could end up like the Pliocine. Back then, the tropics and mid latitudes really didn't warm up all that much. It was the arctic  that doubled in temperature. The poles were predominantly ice free in the summer, so expect sea levels to go up some eighty feet at least. Think of that what you may. It could be we see a lot of high latitude refugees wending their way south. Regardless, I don't think Zeihan did a very good job anticipating the consequences of climate change.

In any case, it was an enjoyable book and I would give it a read.

1 comment:

  1. Russia, Japan etc. aren't going away. They'll just have to find a different way to prosper. Japan, in its third "lost decade" is still immensely rich, and well invested in NBT prospects. Russia still has lots of money and talent.