Finalist #11 of the Book Review Contest
If Zeihan’s predictions about 2030 are accurate, we should be starting to see them by now, 8 years into the 17 that he predicted. Frankly I’m not sure that I see them, and what I do see seem to be for reasons that aren’t what Zeihan predicted. The US is withdrawing somewhat militarily (particularly out of specific wars in the Middle East), but still only to a quite limited degree, with its overseas military bases still in full operation. Free trade too is basically operating the same as it was when the book came out, even if some groups in the US and other countries are against it.
I could give him more leniency if he were predicting further into the future, but his predictions expect this state of decay only 9 years from now. Perhaps there will be a rapid change, but we do not seem to be trending that way globally.
Any chance the footnote links can be made to work?
He talks up US internal maritime trade a lot, but isn't that not much of a thing anymore? I thought due to the Jones Act and the decline of the US merchant marine it is very limited these days. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabotage
Here's another in-depth review of the book: https://www.militantfuturist.com/the-accidental-superpower-and-my-volcanic-epiphany/
'The author predicts that, once the U.S. becomes a net energy exporter, the infamous trade deficit with countries like China and Japan will shrink to the point that the U.S. could cut itself off from them at minimal economic cost. Advances in 3D printing (particularly metal printing) will also allow the U.S. to make its own goods instead of relying on foreign factories. Lacking any interest in affairs outside North America, the U.S. will withdraw from its military and trade alliances, bring all of its troops and ships home, and let high-seas pirates and undemocratic regional powers like Iran fill the vacuum.
Problematically, trends over the last five years since The Accidental Superpower‘s publishing haven’t gone the way the author predicted, which suggests the U.S. isn’t on track to being able to economically detach itself from the rest of the world. For example, even though the U.S. became the world’s #1 natural gas producer in 2013 and its #1 oil producer in 2018 and is now breaking all-time export records for both, the country's trade deficit has gotten WORSE over that period.
Moreover, 3D printers have not improved to the extent that the author seems to have predicted, nor are they starting to replace traditional manufacturing machines (e.g. – looms, presses, lathes) in factories that mass produce goods. Furthermore, there’s no indication that this will change anytime soon. Looking back, it’s clear now that the author wrote the book during a period of hype about 3D printers, and that rosy predictions in pop-sci articles and financial magazines about how the machines were poised to revolutionize the manufacturing industry probably influenced his thinking.'
I think he would do well to go further down the chain of the effects here. If US protection is holding world trade together, and everyone else is positively screwed without it:
>As of 2019, the total value of the annual world shipping trade had reached more than 14 trillion US Dollars.
How does 5% sound? 700 billion to continue US protection of global shipping. We could probably cover the direct expenses with a 1% fee, seems like a logical solution versus energy/food crisis
The reviewer contends that demand is infinite everywhere, and that it is the abundant supply present in the US that makes it a successful consumer economy. I’d like to add that infinite demand is not a universal phenomenon, and is primarily a cultural thing. For instance, excessive spending or consumption is frowned upon in most South Asian countries as unseemly, and people are mostly expected to save their earnings after taking care of their families or education. Hence, abundant consumption is indeed an American phenomenon, and has perhaps led to accelerated economic growth.
In Scott's recent book review on neoliberalism, some of the comments said that part of the explanation for the book's response to neoliberalism is that the benefits of neoliberalism really started around 2000, when the book was published. Could that instead be, at least somewhat, explained by "the 1990-2005 period of high growth and easy capital"?
Let’s take one simple point about his geography claim. He says that the US is blessed by geography but it wasn’t a world power until Europeans conquered it.
The shale Revolution is no more likely to save the US than green energy, which is potentially abundant and not just in the US. (If green energy were not considered left wing it would be fetishised as the greatest technological marvel in the last decade).
And why, even without a US driven free trade agreement, would oil producers stop selling oil?
The supposed demographic crises in China has been talked about for years. I don’t buy it. Firstly the demographics are not that bad, the official tfr is the same as the US. Secondly China has a large reserve of rural workers who can add to the gdp as they move up the value chain , and the rural areas don’t have a population decline. Secondly the demographic “crisis” is man made and can be reversed. Thirdly they can import workers as guests, the Chinese won’t accept permanent immigration but plenty of countries allow in migrants without citizenship rights.
As for US immigration, Europe has dried up, China will dry up, which leaves relatively lower productive workers from Central America. If even that.
And the whole thing was written prior to the recent rise of wokeness which is tearing the US apart. Ending white supremacy in the US is a bit like the Chinese ending Han supremacism, it’s clearly something divisive. Ideologies matter. Successful nations have a story which glue them, CRT and anti white ideologies can only tear the US apart.
(As an aside, footnote 10 is baloney, sure investment immediately creates jobs and those jobs create demand, but the investment isn’t made to begin with without prior demand. A company that is losing sales doesn’t invest in production lines, it shuts them down).
Krikey! I thought I was going to have to take Modafinal just to finish the review. [Joke]
A very good review IMO. I could pick a few nits with the book author but the review was AOne.
I’m going to need to read this book. It is in my reading queue now and I am looking forward to the experience.
I just watched a talk from Zeihan this year about how America is declining. He seems worried about it and I can only assume it's because he *wants* America to win, not that he thinks it's inevitable. Seems like there's some bias going on here.
>>While China’s plummet in birth rates is heavily influenced by its tyrannical one-child policy, Zeihan attributes declining birth rates generally to the move away from farming and toward industrialization and urbanization. <<
When ever you hear anything about China's one-child policy, you need to keep this fact mind:
TAIWAN'S BIRTH RATE (WITH NO ONE-CHILD POLICY) HAS DECLINED FASTER THAN CHINA'S.
This does not conflict with the statement above; in fact it reinforces it.
Zeihan's reputation tends to be polarizing; and he comes off as overly focused on demographics. Some consider him a hack. This is a good introduction to some basic ideas of geopolitics in general - it should be readily apparent that Britain and America's free political systems and empire-building stem from them being rich islands with virtually no risk of being invaded.
...Look, I'm pretty optimistic about America's geopolitical future, but this book sounds like standard pundit BS, and frankly the review should do a better job pointing it out.
The Ottoman empire "beginning its decline" in the 14th century, which is literally when it was founded? The Ayyubids and Mamluks apparently not qualifying as independent? (Neither was ruled by an Egyptian dynasty, but neither were the Ptolemys.) The assumption that the agricultural revolution made life "not suck"? (Industrialization was legitimately a massive rise in living standards; agriculture was... debatable, at best.)
River systems are very important historically, but my general impression has been that their importance has greatly declined in fractional terms. The first graphic I found shows multiple large interstates *each* transporting freight volumes comparable to the Mississippi. Certainly, Tulsa is not a seaport. The US does have defensible borders against any medium-term plausible rivals, but so does China; anyway, defensible borders and naval power may be somewhat less important in the age of ICBMs and space travel, though the textbooks of warfare are by their nature in a constant state of revision. And energy concerns are kind of massively diminished by renewable energy being economically favorable now.
The demographic problems faced by many developed countries, and the relative strength of the US there, are real. But "demographics is destiny" is bunk; demographics is the starting point of destiny, which policy then seeks to modify. Existential risk and/or singularity aside, European and East Asian leaders are fully aware of their demographic problems. Even Russia doesn't actually seem like it's collapsing next year, though I guess we'll see. Anyway, the American fertility advantage is due to immigration. Saying that the American housing market is somehow good for fertility is just ludicrously backwards.
My understanding is that children have always "failed" to pay for themselves, consuming more calories than they provide to their parents. Old people reduce the number of calories they consume as they get less productive. People had children for Darwinian reasons.
Geopolitical ambitions do not arise from need, they arise from ability. The US didn't start meddling in other countries at the turn of the 20th century because it suddenly needed to, it did because it could. As long as the US has the ability to be active abroad, it will be. This is true of most countries, but it is ESPECIALLY true of the US because of the moralistic strain that always runs through our conduct of foreign affairs.
Did I miss the part where he explained why America would have no interest in maintaining free trade anymore? Sure maintaining a military does have significant costs, and the need to oppose the Soviets is no longer there, but the benefits of free trade are overwhelming. Free trade being good is one of the most commonly agreed on issues by economists as far as I know. America might do fine enough without free trade, but they do even better with free trade.
My other issue is that I feel like it ignores replacing rivers with trains as transportation. I don't know the exact cost comparison, but trains are a lot better than trucks for costs, and China and Europe love building trains. Surely that could alleviate their lack of rivers.
It would be interesting to see if Zeihan pushes for more us immigration. That's a definite advantage, our nationalism is explicitly built on the idea that anyone can come choose to be an American in a way ethnonationalist countries like Slovakia or Thailand can't match.
We can take 10 million Bangladeshis and turn them into Americans in 1-2 generations.
However, advocating for immigration would probably alienate the conservatives who he wants to read and buy his books.
Hmm. Total fertility rate in 2018 was 1.69 children/woman/lifetime in China -- and 1.73 in the United States. If any shocking reversal in the relative economic first derivatives of China and the US is going to happen, based on demographics, it better happen quick, because in the second half of this century US demographics aren't going to be super different from China's or Japan's or Italy's -- we're on the same path, just a decade or so behind.
"I’m probably an outlier in mocking the consumption-led model as a route to growth."
You're right; all fast-growing countries have high investment rates (though not all countries with high investment rates have fast growth):
I liked this one a lot! It's a really engaging topic and the reviewer went beyond just discussing the book to actually analyzing the claims and how they purportedly have borne out in the world post-publication. I suspect that it could have been more critical, based on what I'm seeing in other comments, but a great jumping off point for a good discussion is laudable in itself.
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Really enjoyed this one.
Quick typo correction: This is labeled as #11, but in the intro bracket part it says that this is the tenth entry.
I guess it's not really relevant to his point, but I am highly skeptical about the defensive value of Egypt's deserts. Egypt has been conquered over and over again. I think their early success in that regard was just because they were a state with an army in a world that didn't have many of those yet.
I am also highly skeptical that natural defenses are what's keeping out marauding Canadians.
Could it be that demand-side stimulus works better at times when there's a ton of accumulated capital but a shortage of good investment opportunities, like the U.S. right now or the U.S. in the 1930s/40s, but supply side stimulus works better the rest of the time? Seems obvious, but I feel like I've never heard this view articulated before. Or am I missing something?
The same aging of societies that Zeihan thinks will cause economic problems will also likely prevent new wars from breaking out; wars are a young man's game.
I had trouble finding academic papers to back this up; the correlation between modern peace and people living into old age seems obvious, although usually people explain the modern decline of wars, particularly in advanced/long living societies, other ways. (Nuclear peace, richer societies are more peaceful, democratic societies are more peaceful, trading ties lead to fewer wars, etc.)
In the United States, I couldn't find data on the Korean War, but older people were more likely to oppose the Vietnam, Gulf, and Iraq wars: https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2002/10/17/generations-divide-over-military-action-in-iraq/
This has been studied more regarding terrorism and civil wars, where there is strong evidence that more youth is correlated with more likelihood of both: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4092795?seq=1
I find his predictions that China and Russia dissolve risible. Both have been states for very long times, though not under present governments. For example, how could Russia split? All the wealth and power is in the west, and there aren't any strong internal tensions. Even in the 90s when going through desovietization, the country stayed essentially solvent.
Many of the things here are relevant to my interests, and I even have some expertise on a few of them. I will say that I think his thoughts on freedom of the seas haven't faired very well, because China has been building a Navy that is almost exactly what they'd need in case Zeihan's theories came to pass. They've built a bunch of frigates, and a significant blue-water capability, including aircraft carriers. But this was already well underway by 2014, with Liaoning commissioning in 2012. I talk more about what's going on here: https://www.navalgazing.net/A-Brief-Overview-of-the-Chinese-Fleet
More broadly, I don't think he's using Bretton Woods correctly, as I've always heard that used to refer to the specific dollar-gold peg that lasted until the 70s when Nixon got rid of it. There's definitely a broader western alliance system that the US has backed since WWII, but Bretton Woods isn't really the right term for it.
I'm also less certain it's going away. This thesis brings to mind Halford Mackinder's thesis that the railroad would end sea power and shift geopolitics towards continental powers, which didn't really happen either. I'm definitely in agreement with him on the importance of maritime power and such (and the thing about why there are so few naval powers is spot-on) but I think that US interests will at least run to keeping the seas open. It's too deep in our institutions to easily stop.
> While China’s plummet in birth rates is heavily influenced by its tyrannical one-child policy
Is it? How different are China's birth rates from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan? The policy looks very different, but... where's the influence?
Does the author of the book really neglect the importance of nuclear weapons? (Both in terms of nuclear peace/mutually assured destruction as a cause of peace, and also in terms of nuclear countries being effectively guaranteed by the rest of the world against too-significant instability so as to avoid the possibility of rebels of any nation getting their hands on nuclear weapons?)
The book - or the review - seem to completely neglect the significance of other ressources - lithium, rare earths, uranium and copper comes to mind : are the US a significant producer for any of those ressources ? Because they are just as necessary as oil...
the US shale oil bubble seems to finally be coming to an end, at least when looked at through a financial markets lens. given shale wells have much higher rates of decline if rate of new capex into the space declines production will follow not long after. So not totally sold on the whole america will be energy independent forever thesis. Separately though, i saw Zeihan speak at a conference once and he also had some interesting ideas about where american politics was going. talked about increasing divisiveness, and how trump would be just the first (and relatively moderate by comparison) in a long line of more and more extremist leaders from both left and right. That was probably 3-3.5 years ago so have to say looking at how Biden presidency is starting off and general tone of politics today that he seems to be well on his way to getting this one right.
Interesting review of what appears to be a highly uneven book.
Let me offer a supplementary prediction about the US: What we have been witnessing for more than three decades is the gradual americanization of the US.
By that I mean that the US is gradually becoming more similar, both in social structure and in party-political culture, to other large, mainly immigrant, american countries; in particular Brazil (but also Argentina).
Gradual americanization is sort-of what you would expect in the longue durée, if geographical position in the world is destiny. Across time, the effects of different colonial legacies and other national peculiarities (such as the unique US combination of a devastating civil war coinciding with the abolition of slavery) are likely to become less salient.
You see the tendency toward americanization in the changing US social structure, with very large income inequalities (and parts of the interior looking like the third world), growth in gated communities (micro-welfare states), inner cities ruled partly by gangs (I lived in Berkeley for a year and a half during the 1990s, including during the Rodney King riots), etc. etc.
Cf. Bill Leiter's (Leiter Reports) recent observation that the high level of police violence in the US to some extent can be explained by the police working in an urban environment resembling Latin America more than Europe.
With regard to politics, you find loose-coalition-type parties with a strong presence of established families (the Bushes, the Clintons); their dominance once in a while being interrupted by populist caudillo-types (Trump resembles a light version of Peron more than European populists).
It fits, once you start to think of the US as "just another big american country" rather than a separate planet (which US people sometimes do).
This is not meant as a dystopian observation, by the way. Brazil and Argentina are great countries, but like that other big american country, they have their american problems....
> “three routes a country can take to economic growth: consumption-led, export-led, and investment-led.”
Assuming investment means foreign direct investment then these are all really the same source: a rich market somewhere. The first is relatively rich domestic consumers, the second is relatively rich foreign consumers, the third is the first again but they are looking for a return.
If investment led means investing in your country's infrastructure, education, etc, then, yeah, that's actually actively doing something to improve productivity.
I'll also say that Zeihan makes a pretty strong prediction here that money for investment (capital) is going to dry up. In fact the exact opposite has happened: there is a huge glut of money now floating around desperately seeking any home that will give it a return. That's why interest rates are so low.
I've become increasingly convinced over the years that demographic pyramids no longer matter much. Technology doing away with the need to have people work; increasingly the larger problem is finding jobs for prime age workers.
I feel like there's an implicit prediction here of "no WWIII" since I'm pretty sure a nuclear exchange would mess with things. Is this accurate, or are there disclaimers about this?
I think my review of this book is better--or at least it's a whole lot shorter.
"I’ve never understood why people find this idea persuasive. Most of us would consume all the things if we could. Economists’ models often start from the idea that we have unlimited demand for goods and services."
"If the desire to consume actually gave us growth, one supposes that the richest places would be those that wished for it the most. If you say no, it’s the ability to consume that gives the growth, then you’re almost there; the ability to consume is another way of saying that you have already produced value for the world (i.e., you’re a supply-sider too)."
This misunderstands the Keynes' position. The economy has a certain capacity, based around available labour, resources, fixed capital etc. But there is no automatic mechanism that ensures that this capacity is always utilised to its maximum amount. You can have amazing transport links, factories, and enterprises; but if unemployment is high, and business managers don't want to invest, then all this *potential* consumption simply won't happen.
Keynesianism, properly understood, is about overcoming the collective-action problems inherent in a complex, free-market economy. Non-Keynesian economics ignores this problem by assuming it cannot exist.
"Why did stock prices increase/decrease on any random day? Intelligent people don’t think like this, but there is demand for “analysis” of such questions."
because marginal demand was greater/less than marginal supply :P
also, I appreciate the shout-out, anonymous Astral Codex Ten contributor :)
I did a review of the Accidental Superpower as well. (https://wearenotsaved.com/2020/07/04/books-i-finished-in-june/#sp) I was similarly impressed though I think Zeihan has some big blind spots. In particular he imagines that Russia will go down without ever using it's nukes. For example this quote from the book:
[Japan’s] first military target is likely to be Russia’s Sakhalin Island. It is just off the coast of Japan’s northernmost Hokkaido Island, putting it well within Japan’s naval and air force power projection range. It’s infrastructure was largely built by Japanese firms, that infrastructure terminates on the island’s southern tip, the Japanese have the technical skill to keep all of Sakhalin’s offshore energy production running, the Russians do not, and Japanese nationalists still fume that the Russians seized it from Japan in the wars of the first half of the twentieth century. Securing Sakhalin would place just under 300,000 bpd of crude production and 3 Bcf/d (billion cubic feet per day) of natural gas production into Japan’s output column. Seizing Sakhalin will also permanently sever any chance of having positive relations with Moscow, but to be blunt, Moscow is five thousand miles away, so the consequences of breaking that relationship aren’t very high.
My response in my review: "Wait… what? The consequences for pissing off Moscow aren’t very high?! As I said I loved this book, but Zeihan has either completely ruled out the use of nukes, which is something he never even mentions, let alone explains. Or he has a major blind spot on that issue. Certainly no reference to nuclear weapons appears in the index."
> Zeihan puts a lot of emphasis on the value of river systems. He argues that America’s waterway network alone should be sufficient for “global dominance.” The numbers he provides in support of this point are impressive. For example, “the Mississippi is only one of twelve major navigable American rivers. Collectively, all of America’s temperate-zone rivers are 14,650 miles long. China and Germany each have about 2,000 miles, France about 1,000. The entirety of the Arab world has but 120.”
The numbers may be impressive, but mostly in their implausibility. Who writes that China's and Germany's waterway networks have the same total length without having an alarm bell going off in their head?
According to the German Federal Waterway and Shipping Administration, there are roughly 7,300 kilometers of navigable waterways. Even if you grant that the 2,000 miles (≈3,200 kilometers) are only intended to refer to the ≈75% of waterways that are rivers, that's still off by a lot. https://www.gdws.wsv.bund.de/DE/wasserstrassen/01_bundeswasserstrassen/bundeswasserstrassen-node.html
The Chinese governments transportation statistics list total network length for various modes of transportation: http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2021-05/19/content_5608523.htm
- 146,000 kilometers rail (including 38,000 kilometers high-speed rail)
- 5,198,100 kilometers road (including 161,000 kilometers highways)
- 127,700 kilometers waterways
That seems more realistic to me. It also checks out with Wikipedia's list of countries by waterways length which also gives different numbers for the US (40,230 kilometers) and France (8,501 kilometers). The Arab world is not a country, but I'd expect Iraq's 4,600 kilometers to be included. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_waterways_length
Read charitably, maybe Zeihan's figures were limited to some special category of waterway (maybe those suitable for very large ships?). But considering other weird claims (like southern China having "ports, but no rivers"—the Pearl River Delta would like to have a word) I'm more inclined to believe Zeihan just didn't put much effort into verifying the geographic facts he uses in his grand narrative.
"“the Mississippi is only one of twelve major navigable American rivers. Collectively, all of America’s temperate-zone rivers are 14,650 miles long. China and Germany each have about 2,000 miles, France about 1,000. The entirety of the Arab world has but 120.”
That is a statement that makes you think. Specifically, it make you think that the Nile alone stretches more than 500 miles from the Delta to the Aswan Dam, and I'm pretty sure boats have navigated their way up and down it for the last five thousand years. Does Egypt not count as part of the Arab world? What does the writer mean by "navigable"?
I haven't read all the comments so sorry if someone else addressed it but the demographic argument bugs me. Especially as its supposed interplay with savings/interest rates.
Japan is ahead of us (Europe and USA) in its aging and, granted, Europe will get older faster than the USA. Are Japan interest rates rocketing upwards as its elderly population start de-saving?
Nope. Their interest rates are still sub zero, significantly below US ones. And so is Europe for that matter.
Is this a nitpick? Maybe but it shows that its demographic/economic model is wrong.
The reviewer is clearly a supply sider and I'm a post-Keynesian/institutional economist so we're unlikely to see eye to eye on the most important motors of growth, past and present, but the failed prediction of rising Japanese interest rates should be enough to make us all cautious about Zeihan's sweeping predictions.
That said, as a non-US professional investor, I focus almost exclusively on investing in the US out of choice. And that's partly because of generational safety concerns (and rates of return available). So, you know, that ought to be some kind of Taleb-like support for Zeihan on my side... :)
There are more valuable commodities other than oil. Like rare earths.
I am very skeptical of these type of predictions. So many moving parts. Just looking purely at oil, that is already brutally difficult to predict in the long run. Almost nobody predicted the enormous shale oil production in North America, and how low they could bring costs. Full cycle break even costs of $25-45 per barrel! That stuff was unthinkable 10 years ago!
Although a lot of these oil fields are in decline. Only major field that has yet to peak is the Permian. This is a good source to play around with it, lots of data:
Based on this review and not having read the book, I'll cut it some slack in that it comes from 2014.
But oh dear, this reminds *so* much of Francis Fukayama's "The End of History", where nothing more was ever going to happen again because now we were all fat and happy and Western Liberal Democracy was the all-conquering model that was changing all of the nations of the earth.
There is a lot here that makes me go "He got it *nearly* right". I have to choke a bit reading such nuggets as blaming the fall of Egypt on "stagnation as the increasingly centralized government devoted more labor to monument building rather than technological progress, eventually being conquered by seafaring people seeking to rule the Mediterranean".
Uhhhhh... the entire Sea Peoples thing is something still argued over, initial presentation of them on Egyptian records were as a band of pirates rather than a united, unified population; they seem to have been comprised of several nations or origins; and as for "seeking to rule the Mediterranean", it's hard to say that they had that sort of end-goal in sight, rather than reacting to things like environmental pressure - think in the later Roman Empire, the waves of migrations by barbarian tribes that encroached on Roman territory, which were driven by those tribes being displaced themselves by others and forced out of their own territories. The Bronze Age Collapse is a complex matter https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late_Bronze_Age_collapse
As for "America doesn’t have to spend on artificial infrastructure, like German roads and rails, but when it does, the competition from the rivers keeps transport costs low", well colour me surprised. America is the one that has the romantic notion of the open road, of the endless highways, of possibility because of the ease of packing up and moving elsewhere to follow dreams and find your fortune. Route 66 from East to West https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLUYf6cekMA - America is the car civilisation, the one that developed highways and brought the advanced concept to the rest of us.
Water transport is easy and reliable but slow, and could be tricky - see Mark Twain's accounts of learning to be a pilot on the Mississippi, which because it changed course of often, could be a different route from one trip to the other. Road and air travel took over from it - who is going to travel by boat from the East Coast to the West if they need to get there fast?
As to the idea that America will do fine because it can pull up the drawbridge and fend for itself, I think the recent pandemic and the disruption of supply chains showed how that works out.
I agree that the various competitors set up in past analyses as replacements for the USA have fallen (see the hysteria at times during the 80s about the threat of Japan, which is ironic in the face of this book's claim that "better technology makes you a winner" - Japan's lead in technology was what was going to make it the replacement superpower over the sclerotic US) and I don't think American hegemony is going to topple soon.
But on the other hand, I am sure the various empires also, at the height of their power and influence, also thought they could never fall because of all the advantages they possessed. 19th century Britain, at the height of its Empire, often looked at the USA without realising that it was looking upon not alone its competitor but its replacement; even post the Second World War Britain was still claiming a place in the world it no longer owned - see the above mentioned "The Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, which concluded with the Americans intentionally and publicly humiliating the English and French".
As to the claims that America never bothered empire-building because it didn't need to, well, ask Hawaii and the Philippines about that.
I would expect that Mr. Zeihan moderated his opinions in the later books; the "look inside" on Amazon for his 2020 book shows that he still believes Geography Is King and still seems, on that glimpse, to imagine a USA withdrawn from the world behind its own borders but still the biggest, strongest, and safest. I don't know if he takes into account that the USA is also a consumer: https://www.bea.gov/index.php/news/2021/us-international-trade-goods-and-services-march-2021
The 2020 foreword mentions that we should be thinking about mass starvation in China; what about the USA food supply? California is a huge agricultural producer, but it depends on two things - water and cheap labour - either or both of which may dry up https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/04/droughts-exposed-california-s-thirst-groundwater-now-state-hopes-refill-its-aquifers
His most recent book is about what will the rest of the world do, scrambling around for a new order when the USA pulls away. Well, this has happened before - the US became the big dog as a successor to previous collapses - and there's no reason it shouldn't happen again, with things smoothing out eventually. Granted, it will be a very bumpy period until that happens.
But already he has modified his opinions, it would seem, from 2014 "America will continue to be the boss of everywhere" to 2020 "Insular America will leave the rest of the world to its own devices". Has he considered "America itself will one day be replaced by a successor empire, and we should think about what that will mean"?
I once amused myself, inspired by an episode of ST:TNG, with starting a story about the publication of a book by a very third-rate historian that was a summation of "the glory of our empire" and a justification of why it had panned out the way it did that this particular rule was the inevitable outcome of history. The irony of the story would be that literally the day after this book, which forecast that "our glorious empire will continue like this forever and ever", First Contact with an alien civilisation, more advanced, would be made - and the old certainties would be turned on their heads due to the completely different cultural and social assumptions of the aliens (as well as their advanced tech).
I never got anywhere with the story, getting side-tracked by the worldbuilding to back it up (I now understand why the Romans had a goddess of hinges because once you start, you can't just stop at the great numinous cosmic forces, you can descend down through the levels to the most nit-picky level of details) but I am being reminded here of my over-confident historian by this review.
Then again, on the other hand, if he's right about the primacy of deepwater navigation - ah, so that's why Jeff Bezos and the other ultra-rich are building even bigger superyachts! 😁https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2021-05-07/jeff-bezos-s-new-superyacht-heralds-roaring-market-for-big-boats
Zeihan claims that « the only successful across-ocean/continental-scope invasion in world history was pulled off by America, not against it. »
If you count "before it was America" there was a *devastatingly* successful trans-Atlantic invasion going the other direction, but that one was helped along quite dramatically by a quirk of epidemiology.
One of the things that surprised the author was Zeihan's description of America's role in WW2, but as far as I can tell, that belief - that once the US entered the war, the Allied victory was inevitable, absent some truly amazing screwups - was pretty common, especially among the better-educated elites. According to his history of the war, Churchill's first reaction to Pearl Harbor was to send a message of support and sympathy to FDR; his second reaction was to get a good night's sleep, since things were finally going his way, and he thought Germany's decision to declare war on the US was the worst it ever made.
Similarly, Isoroku Yamamoto, one of the Japanese navy's leading lights, repeatedly and consistently argued against the war; he was the architect of Pearl Harbor (as "the only way we might be able to win this"); his famous quote, in the form given on Wikipedia, was "I shall run wild considerably for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years." America's industrial power was so overwhelming compared to its rivals that the main Axis hope was for a short war, gotten either by knocking Russia out swiftly or by destroying American sea power so decisively it was forced to make peace, but though both prospects were *possible*, neither was all that likely.
This is an interesting book, albeit a controversial one, and definitely one of my favorite reviews so far.
To make a *very* tenuous connection between this post and what is happening tonight (Eurovision grand final), one of the best comments I've seen on Tumblr:
"To quote my housemate's work chat: I am all over Malta like an Ottoman armada" 😁
Haven't read the book, but there seem to be two striking issues with the argument.
1. China was often the preeminent power in the world before 1500. How is this possible if their geography is not advantageous?
2. The whole thing depends on the US not fragmenting, which might be unlikely, but not as unlikely as it used to be.
The importance of navigable waterways surprises me, as I was under the impression they had become much less important. Why are the cities founded on the Mississippi River, such as St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans, in such decline if this waterway is so important to the economy? The same can be said about Mid-West cities placed along Great Lakes. And as (I think) someone below was getting at, The Jones Act demonstrates we don't value the potential of the coasts to serve as internal waterways. For instance, when the Colonial Pipeline was shut down recently, the alternative for shipping oil to the East Coast was by truck, not because shipping by water wouldn't be theoretically cheaper, but because the US doesn't legally allow it.
I don't understand the following: "(Due to extensive waterways) we get cheap transportation for 'Nebraska corn or Tennessee whiskey or Texas oil or New Jersey steel or Georgia peaches or Michigan cars.'" The US ships Texas oil cheaply around its interior through man-made pipelines not waterways. I know less about shipping steel, peaches and cars, but it would be interesting to know the breakdown of how much is shipped by river vs rail or truck.
I don't doubt that a lot of commerce is still done by riverway, but as a percentage of internal shipping, how important is it?
I really hate to be the first one to bring something like this up, and I truly apologize if this is not a site where this sort of thing is allowed, but demographics? The US is not in such a fantastic position.
It is true that we have more young people per capita than some other first world and near-first nations. But they are, um, well, not traditional first world workers.
Something like half of Americans will be Hispanic or black. The working-age population will be even more than the population overall. These are not people who occupy the upper reaches of the world economy in power, prestige, or importance. Nor are nations that are gifted in these populations exceptional performers in either current production or growth. Within the US, some regions that are heavily Hispanic are doing well, but it is not the Hispanics who occupy these highly productive positions. Blacks and Hispanics are not heavily represented in the lower echelons of exceptionally profitable companies, so it is unlikely that they are the exploited workforce upon whom highly paid whites and Asians depend.
It is likely, though technically uncertain, that increasing blacks and Hispanics in STEM jobs will improve output, though there will be considerable ‘demand’ for capable ones. The American low tax, low regulation system may not be exceptionally stable when a sizable majority of the workforce cannot benefit from high-end jobs, and when the majority of eligible voters do not understand laissez faire arguments.
Politically, we have saw the instability of populace and elite disagreeing strenuously with the election of Trump and his attempt at governing. Currently, the new administration has been a boon to political-class blacks, it will likely continue to disappoint lower-wage workers. Is America not only more stable, but obviously and indisputably more stable than China? We have more experience with democracy and (small ‘r’) Republican government than China, but around half of Americans will not be from first world populations.
I’ll leave off with the fact that our meritocratic system is not under assault in our most non-Hawaiian diverse state, the meritocracy in California colleges is dead. Without the SAT, or a functionally identical test, we will not be able to funnel the brightest to positions where their intelligence has the most social utility. In a diverse society, where the majority cannot directly benefit from meritocracy, does it have much chance of returning?
> I’ll ask you to vote for your favorite - SA
Please don't: first-past-the-post is the worst system.
Or do, but ask people to then fill out a ballot using a near-ideal voting system* and let's see how the result of that compares with the FPTP result. (* my idea of near-ideal is score voting on a scale of 0 to 10 with an option to abstain on a per-candidate basis; you then compute the average of these scores, and the variance could help detect 'near ties'—candidates that are not clearly distinguishable statistically.)
Comparing to my own models, I think Zeihan focuses on the right things (i.e. demographics and geography), and gets the big picture largely right as a result. But a lot of the specific analysis seems wrong.
Probably the biggest issue is in overweighting the importance of geography in the economics of developed countries. Large capital investments in infrastructure (i.e. rail and road) can make most river transport obsolete; I'm pretty sure the Mississippi river system doesn't actually carry that large a fraction of US inland freight these days. However, the capital investment required for that infrastructure is *big*: the list of largest capital investment areas in the US these days is roughly (1) real estate (i.e. buildings), (2) power grid, (3) shale oil wells, (4) rail and roads, (5) data infrastructure, so rail and road is definitely on the short list of major capital sinks. For e.g. Africa, this poses a big problem: the transportation infrastructure needed to modernize would be extremely expensive, and they don't have the rivers to modernize without it. So inland geography is definitely important as a determinant of industrialization and connection to global trade *for poor countries*, but it matters less once a country has made the developmental jump. This is especially relevant to the predictions for China - I doubt that their inland geography will be that large a factor, since infrastructure investments will substitute for navigable rivers.
Ocean access remains a big deal even for developed countries - the post correctly points out the order-of-magnitude difference in transportation cost for ocean vs overland. But ports are another place where capital investment can largely substitute for natural geography, so long as a country borders an ocean at all. In fact these days, in the container-shipping era, large capital outlays are needed for efficient ports anyway; I doubt that dredging is enough of a relative cost increase to block most such projects.
The review also complains about Zeihan's invocations of demand-side reasoning, and I basically endorse those complaints. Demand-side problems, to the extent that they make sense to worry about at all, are short-term; the topic here is decidedly long-term. The loss of savings/investment as demographics invert is the right problem to focus on; that will turn into a relatively higher cost of capital. (And for political purposes, the increase in elderly people dependent on entitlements and the relative decrease of working people to pay for them is the right problem to focus on.)
Interestingly, I came across echoes of this book in the years following its release but never the book itself. For example, this article by the private security firm Stratfor covers much of the geopolitical arguments about why the US became as strong as it is, and even has a similar title ("The Inevitable Empire"):
I feel like these geopolitical tools + basic demographics + reading Guns Germs and Steel just about covers all the knowledge in The Accidental Superpower (or at least what's mentioned here in the review), albeit very chaotically. Zeihan does seem to organize it all in a "tell it like it is" manner and presents a general toolkit for long-term analysis of global politics. Kudos for the great review.
> Some will merely decline, as they have some capacity to address challenges (Brazil, India, Canada). Some will cope (UK, France, Peru, Philippines). A few will join the US as “masters of the chaos,” as they have favorable geographies and other advantages (Australia, Argentina, Angola, Turkey, Indonesia, Uzbekistan).
This is in nitpick territory, but why would Zeihan think Canada will merely decline? Off the top of my head, it seems to have many of the traits that Zeihan's model favours - most of Canada's key population centers are on navigable rivers (either the St. Lawrence or Frasier River) with a number of ports on either rivers, plus one in Prince George (connected via railroad to the rest of the continent). It also borders 3 oceans, and has large reserves of fresh water and minerals. Demographics are aging for sure but heavily propped up by immigration with less political backlash than the US.
"Then there’s something like the CNBC effect. Why did stock prices increase/decrease on any random day? Intelligent people don’t think like this, but there is demand for “analysis” of such questions. Some people go so far as to say that it’s the same reason that Wall Street provides market research; the demand is there, so someone will sell it."
Because markets are anti-inductive, isn't it possible that these analyses would be meaningful if no one had published them?
I enjoy the fact that I'm reading this piece in the same year that Singapore granted the first regulatory approval for the sale of lab-grown meat (cellular agriculture), to be manufactured domestically. Just because we're nowhere near Drexler territory doesn't mean countries can't find a way to reduce the need to ship stuff from place to place. 2030 is close, but there is a *lot* of work going into developing more flexible and distributed manufacturing and recycling infrastructure over the next 20 years to improve sustainability, enable adaptation to a more diverse mix of chemical feedstocks and changing regulatory demands, and allow more frequent changing to the mix of products produced. Between synbio/fermentation, chemical recycling, electrification of transportation, movement towards renewable fuels, plant- and cell-based meats, and so on, countries by 2050 could, if they want, have much less dependence on the import of physical goods. Zeihan's transportation argument mostly relates to materials and consumable goods. I doubt the difference in transportation cost matters much for long-lasting capital goods, or at all for digital goods.
I suspect we're going to see a lot more local toll manufacturing and licensing/royalty business models where the people developing the IP still make as much as they do now, but the physical production happens much closer to the end use point. Not for everything, by any means. Lots of high-value goods really do require highly specialized production tools/infrastructure/materials/etc. But much more than ever before.
The summary part of this review seemed good, but the critical analysis part was rather lacking.
"I’ve never understood why people find this idea persuasive. Most of us would consume all the things if we could."... would we? Once our basic needs are fulfilled, additional things don't really increase our happiness; incentives for wanting (and working for) additional things need to come from culture - e.g. having a new car every year will make people admire you in some cultures, and will make people think you're tacky and foolish in others.
Trying to do long term geopolitical projections without any concept of HBD is a bit like trying to do long term astrophysical projections without any concept of atoms and fusion. He predictably exaggerates geography's direct effects to pick up the slack. I'll push back on some of those.
>"the only successful across-ocean/continental-scope invasion in world history was pulled off by America, not against it."
Only if you ignore the conquistadors, the colonization of Australia, and the scramble for Africa. Advantages in technological/human capital overcome geographical defense bonuses as often in real history as in Civ4.
>"all of America’s temperate-zone rivers are 14,650 miles long. China and Germany each have about 2,000 miles, France about 1,000."
Quoting Encyclopedia Britannica: "China's water transport potential is great, but it is still far from being fully developed. Nonetheless, China has more than 75,000 miles (some 125,000 km) of navigable inland waterways, the most extensive system of any country in the world."
It is not explained why he counted only "temperate-zone rivers". Half of china is south of the temperate zone, and the southern half has more rivers. Seems like he arbitrarily excluded the most river-y part of China.
>Blaming Africa's underdevelopment on its lack of harbors
A cursory glance at satellite photos on google maps shows an abundance of natural harbors in the 1200km stretch of west africa between Dakar and Monrovia -- a much higher density of harbors than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, and many of them connect to rivers that go inland. Yet all these countries have GDP per capita below $1000 versus the subsaharan africa average of $1600. And anyway, harbors are not hard to construct artificially by piling up rocks to block the waves.
>"Almost all of the countries along China’s oil import route are also oil importers. All already have more than enough naval power necessary to interdict supertankers that go somewhere they don’t wish them to."
None of the countries along the route from the Persian gulf to China have anywhere near the economic might of China at present. China could probably build a large navy quickly if needed, just like how the US 20x'd its navy in a few years during WWII.
>predicting that economic interdependence for resources will lead to wars
I think this is exactly backwards. Economic interdependence and trade means playing a lots of positive-sum games with lots of other countries and having a lot more to lose in the event that you piss off those countries. See Robert Wright's Nonzero etc. (OTOH maybe the dependence gives politicians some levers to pull if they want to provoke a war that they wouldn't otherwise have the popular support to initiate, such as the US blockade of Japanese oil imports forcing Japan to attack pearl harbor, flipping US public opinion overnight. But I think this sort of thing is probably far outweighed by the positive-sum games.)
> Predicting China will balkanize because of mumble mumble geography.
China is fortunate to be 92% ethnically han chinese. Thus any attempted breakaway along ethnic lines would be far too weak to succeed. If not along ethnic lines, it's not clear what rallying flag would unify the rebels. Most breakaways in the last 100 years have been along ethnic lines.
> Predicting that Angola and Uzbekistan will prosper more than China and Russia due to mumble mumble geography.
If Angola and Uzbekistan end up richer than Russia and China despite the huge IQ gaps, I will donate half my net worth to malaria prevention.
All the right pieces are here-- the argument of the book presented cogently, the case made for the author having it right, and the skepticism noted that people who make these kinds of claims tend to be hacks. A solid review; unfortunately I just don't find the topic to be that interesting and I have strong priors against analysis of this kind being useful (to me at least). Still, it was easy and enjoyable reading.
If rivers are so important, can't China just terraform itself to have better rivers? They surely have the industry, the huge workforce and the command economy to do it.
> compare his comment on Africa, which has 16,000 miles of coast, “but in reality it has only ten locations with bays of sufficient protective capacity to justify port construction” with one on Texas, which “alone has thirteen world-class deepwater ports, only half of which see significant use, and room for at least three times more”
I'm confused by this. South Africa alone looks to have at least six ports. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ports_and_harbours_in_South_Africa
Is he saying there are only four around the rest of Africa? Or that there are more than 10 ports around Africa, but only 10 are justified? Or are there multiple ports per "location" (and this doesn't apply to Texas)? Or...?
I can well believe the general point here is accurate - South Africa's coastline is in the region of 5x Texas' - but it feels like it's probably overselling it?
(This isn't necessarily a fault of the book, which may have included more detail, or of the review, which can't include everything.)
-Predictions of both Russian and Chinese demographic collapse are widly off the mark. Neither society will see such a thing; the decline will happen, though. I understand this may be a bit more hobby-horse ish than knowing about Boot and other Iraq war cheerleaders, but the story is fundamentally similar. Particularly with Russia, many foreign policy types have again and again predicted a desintegration, as if the country isn’t more ethnically cohesive than 90%+ of the world. China credit crunch anxieties have also been a recurrent theme. It is a, frankly, extremely patronizing attitude. Like the Chinese are inherently unable of being rich or something.
-Bit on Chinese geography is actually quite terrible. China isn’t exactly the Garden of Eden but everyone with at least a cursory knowledge of Chinese history knows it’s not bad at all. This guy acts like rivers are the only thing that could possibly matter when this ‘riverless’ country has been united for literally most of its history. The Chinese interior isnt incredibly poor, that’s just straight up wrong; it’s not as rich as the coast but it’s GDP per capita compares favourably with everything outside rich Western societies. China also isnt as hopeless w r t natural resources. Outside of oil it’s usually one of the dominant players (rare earths, ore, coal, food, etc). Even with oil its production is nothing to scoff at, while it also has good sources of the stuff in the relatively secure -stans and Russia. Also its navy is an increasingly powerful force that keeps growing and the fact that China could more or less claim and build airstrips in the South China Sea without much consequence should at least give you some pause.
-More on Russia. Presumably, the disorder implies increasing commodity prices as sea lanes become less secure. It is well known commodity rents are a key ingredient in the Russian political formula, although that has a diminishing importance as the Russian economy diversifies. How does a rising oil price loosen the Kremlin’s grip exactly? Especially when Russia has been consolidating a fiscal fortress for quite a while and has shown a surprising degree of resilience in the face of sanctions. Agriculture has been booming and manufacturing has also done well. Also seems pretty stupid to leave unmentioned that serious climate forecasts have Russia being a significant winner from climate change, arable land increasing and the Northern Trade Route becoming more and more important (traffic has doubled or tripled [cant remember exact number] in the last ten years).
-More on climate. Not saying anything about it in general seems quite dumb in general.
-Europe reverting to the eighteenth century simply because America ceases to give a shit is also incredibly patronizing and very ignorant of the enormous political capital invested in the European project. While no Spaniard is willing to die for the pan European dream, there are solid majorities in pretty much the entire continent for the Union. The Union has advanced enormously since the sovereign debt crises (“Whatever it takes” should be taken at face value; the progress on integration since 2010 is simply undeniable). Banking union, bonds backed by the entire union, the unprecendented fiscal stimulus delivered straight from Brussels, Brexit making the Union more compact, refugee tide controlled, ‘populists’ having lost momentum. Even the vaccination drive hasnt been as bad. Europe underperformed relative to our expectations of how a rich western country should manage, but it still outperforms pretty much everywhere else that matters.
- How exactly does trade simply fucking collapse if the US stops giving a shit, by the way? I am sure some spots benefit significantly from US navy presence, but havent we all agreed that piracy is basically impossible outside of a few very specific historical contexts? I distinctly recall reading an actual US navy officer explaining this in a link posted in this blog. Couldnt the other 191 countries that do benefit from trade come to an agreement? Maybe volumes could decline but would that be enough to trigger desintegration in literally the entire world?
-How exactly does American idelogy factor into all of this, exactly? Was it in America’s self interest to intervene in Afghanistan and Iraq? Was there a significant benefit from sponsoring several billion third world dictators that were usually good for nothing in the name of crusading against communism? Is there a real reason for keeping troops in Germany when Russia’s GDP PPP per capita is that of Poland and her population is smaller than Bangladesh’s? Why exactly would a foreign policy elite that marinates in interventionism or exceptionalism of one stripe or another would suddenly become clear headed and decide to wind down huge commitments that are upheld with a religious zeal (*nothing* enraged beltway types as much as Trump’s attempted isolationism and dove ish tendencies).