The Accidental Super Power

March 5, 2015  - By 2 Comments

Geography Paints Both Rosy and Grim Picture of the World

In the late ’80s, as a graduate student at UNC Charlotte, I was learning about “New Geography” using a cutting-edge technology called GIS (Geographic Information Systems). One of our professors coined a perfect definition of what made this New Geography different from traditional cataloging of locations and attributes. Quoting Dr. Gerald Ingalls, “Old geography dealt with the simple question: What is where? New geography, using analytical tools such as GIS, is now able to answer: Why what is where.” So knowing the quantifiable “why” hopefully gives us insight into ways to shape and mitigate geography-related problems.

bookIt’s easy to focus on the technology aspects of GIS and forget the reason for our tradecraft. I was reminded of that reason when I recently read a book that took me back to our geospatial roots and demonstrates New Geography exceptionally well. The book, The Accidental Superpower by Peter Zeihan, effectively uses geography and analytics to explain how the world has been shaped and is evolving. In his book, Mr. Zeihan links many current geopolitical events to geography, demographics and the 1944 Bretton Woods settlement which to me is one of the clearest examples of American exceptionalism.

Bretton Woods

For those of you not familiar with Bretton Woods, it was pretty much the United States telling the rest of the world how things will be after the pending end of WWII. The U.S. had turned the tide of war, built up its own industrial power while not suffering home-front damage, and had fashioned the world’s strongest Navy. You can imagine the shock of world leaders when they learned that the U.S. was not looking for reparations or even new land other than enough to bury their dead. Instead, the U.S. was going to open its markets to the world, use its Navy to protect free trade, and even help rebuild devastated countries with programs like the Marshall Plan. All has been pretty good for the past 70 years as Bretton Woods created a global holiday from instability. However, according to Mr. Zeihan, the forces of geography, demographics and new technology will unravel Bretton Woods and slowly change the world.

The Bretton Woods Conference, 1944.

The Bretton Woods Conference, 1944.

Geographic Factors in the Analysis

We all learned in high school geography that severe climates such as frigid or oppressive tropical climates stifle civilizations, while more temperate climates help civilizations advance. Those are very broad generalizations, but the world is more complex than that, and Peter Zeihan has woven detailed geography into a complex picture of the world. He cites many factors that uniquely and collectively benefit the United States but are shortcomings to a greater or lesser extent in other countries. Key factors included farmable land, rivers and coastal ports for economic trade, oil, industrial capacity, education, demographics and others. In the lottery of world geography, the U.S. has been blessed. I would add that the character of its citizens also plays a key role.

MS "E.R. Shanghai"

Although there are critics of some of Zeihan’s conclusions and predictions, there is no doubt that his book is an exceptionally detailed compendium of countries and the geopolitical pressures that affect them. He focuses strongly on the presence of rivers, since they provide very cheap transportation of commodities thus reducing the need for many transportation infrastructure projects. The book gets into great detail about countries that most of us can’t even point to on a world map such as Kazakhstan, Turkistan, Uzbekistan and other stans. He explains why many factors bode well for Uzbekistan, but not so much for Russia and China. He shows why Russia considers keeping Ukraine in its camp absolutely vital to its own survival.

One surprise was the case he built that Alberta, Canada, may be motivated to leave its non-supportive national government to join a more like-minded and geographically connected United States. This would completely open the U.S. market for Alberta grain and oil while providing seamless transportation throughout the U.S. Additionally, as a state, the Keystone pipeline would not fall under State Department or executive review.

Demographics

Mr. Zeihan addresses the importance of demographics using a well-known example, Japan. Low birth rates and limited immigration have placed Japan into the difficult position of supporting an increasingly older population with fewer and fewer young citizens. This inverted population pyramid is a pure numbers issue that cannot be solved quickly. He shows how many European countries are trending in the same direction on a slightly later schedule. Russia is suffering from both lower birth rates and decreased education of its population. By contrast, better birth rates and better educated immigrants are preventing an inverted pyramid here in the U.S.

Technology

Mr. Zeihan highlights technology as playing an important role in raising or lowering the importance of some geographic factors. Two in particular have snuck up on the radar: fracking and 3D printing. Who would have thought that the U.S. would be on a path to becoming the world’s largest energy producer thanks to fracking? This will obviously diminish our need for Mideast oil and have a very serious effect on small unfriendly oil producers such as Venezuela, who is already seeing a drop in sales of its relatively hard-to-refine black oil. (Note the political unrest there this week as oil revenues decline.)

I wrote about the potential impact on industry of 3D printing last year, and Peter Zeihan seems to share that opinion. As manufacturing moves closer to the consumer, jobs in China will decline, as will the need of transoceanic shipment of finished goods. The result: the U.S. will see a rebirth of local manufacturing.

Rings containing superconducting magnets will confine the plasma inside the reaction chamber. (Credit: Eric Schulzinger/Lockheed  Martin)

Rings containing superconducting magnets will confine the plasma inside the reaction chamber. (Credit: Eric Schulzinger/Lockheed Martin)

If fracking and 3D printing are going to be significant factors, imagine what will happen to the world order if the recent announcement by Lockheed Martin that its researchers have cracked compact fusion comes to fruition. This was announced too late for inclusion in Mr. Zeihan’s book, but my guess is that he would consider it to be the quintessential game changer. It would affect many geographic factors — lower the cost of all transportation, expand industry, desalinate water cheaply, make marginal land farmable, negate the limitations of oil/gas access and do all of this while reducing pollution, increasing safety and eliminating the ability to militarize this form of nuclear power.

Conclusion

I was only able to touch on a few key points in Peter Zeihan’s book. The total picture is very complex. It was clearly well researched and logically thought through. I have only two criticisms. First, Mr. Zeihan stated that he has “always loved maps,” but this book has mediocre black-and-white maps that are less than ideal to display complex geography. It screams for decent color maps, if not in print at least as supplemental website PDFs.

Second, the book delves into significant predictions that I believe should be read with a very critical eye. There are many wild cards and personalities that can steer geopolitics. As a former analyst for the geopolitical security firm Stratfor, Mr. Zeihan worked for George Friedman, the co-author of the 1991 book The Coming War with Japan. I’m glad that didn’t come true.

I know that for many of you working in the intel community this will be very basic information and analysis that is your daily bread and butter. For the rest of us, it’s a good overview and I recommend getting this book. It will be a handy reference, if for no other reason than to sound knowledgeable at water cooler debates. However, I believe that its value is more serious than that and will prove repeatedly useful as an overarching insight as history unfolds.

Art Kalinski

About the Author:

A career Naval Officer, Art Kalinski established the Navy’s first geographic information system (GIS) in the mid-1980s. Completing a post-graduate degree in GIS at the University of North Carolina, he was the Atlanta Regional Commission GIS Manager from 1993 to 2007. He pioneered the use of oblique imagery for public safety and participated in numerous disaster-response actions including GIS/imagery support of the National Guard during Hurricane Katrina; the Urban Area Security Initiative; a NIMS-based field exercise in Atlanta; and a fully manned hardware-equipped joint disaster response exercise in New York City. Kalinski retired early from ARC to join Pictometry International to direct military projects using oblique imagery, which led to him joining SPGlobal Inc. He has written articles for numerous geospatial publications, and authors a monthly column for the GeoIntelligence Insider e-newsletter aimed at federal GIS users.

2 Comments on "The Accidental Super Power"

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  1. Bob Jacobson says:

    Zeihan’s comments are not outlandish for their scale, but rather for the particulars he uses as examples of geographical flux. Really, Alberta leave Canada and become a state? Scandalously sensational, about as likely as Florida leaving to join Cuba. More threatening is Florida’s likely sinking into the Atlantic. Alberta is best left to Canada to deal with. Its money sickness needs curing. No nation takes pride in its ecological predations, not even Canada. So much for geographical surprises.

  2. diy says:

    I do trust all the ideas you’ve offered on your post.
    They’re very convincing and will definitely work.
    Nonetheless, the posts are very short for starters.
    May you please prolong them a bit from next time? Thanks for the post.

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