The North American shale energy boom raises the question of whether it is worthwhile for the U.S. to continue to protect everyone’s trade.
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.
Mr. Zeihan’s grim conclusion: The world may be headed toward a “Hobbesian period” of rivalry over resources lasting 15 years or so. Economic pressures will be intensified in many regions by aging populations that make demands on overburdened, unreplenished economies. The U.S. doesn’t escape entirely, in Mr. Zeihan’s telling, but it does better in relative terms—aided by its geographical advantages and also, for instance, by its ability to assimilate immigrants.
Only in the conclusion to “The Accidental Superpower” does the author overreach, declaring that “the world is indeed going to hell, but the Americans are going to sit this one out.” After his having done such a good job of explaining the nature of U.S. power and the threats to global order, the triumphalist tone of the final pages is jarring. Still, anyone seeking a cogent, and provocative, take on where the world is heading should start here. Even if you don’t fall in love with maps, you’ll never look at them the same way again.