Description

The Accidental Superpower was written by Peter Zeihan (born January 18, 1973), a geopolitical strategist who specializes in global energy, demographics and security. He analyzes the realities of geography and populations to deepen the understanding of how global politics impact markets and economic trends.


Review

January 29, 2015 by Patrick Shrier

I picked up Peter Zeihan’s The Accidental Superpower because I thought the title was interesting. I did not expect it to be as excellent a book as it is. I actually expected a dry dissertation on geopolitics. It is a dissertation on geopolitics but it is anything but dry.

The book itself is 354 pages of text including appendices and includes an introduction, epilogue, and index. It is separated into 15 thematic chapters. The first eight chapters describe the impact of geography on the human settlement and political organization. They also go over how that impact has determined which modern countries and peoples are winners and which are losers. The last seven chapters look at the present and to the future in light of energy developments in the US.

The basic premise of the book is that because of the oil shale boom in the US, America will shortly abandon the Bretton Woods international trade and monetary system that has been the international order since the end of World War II. America can do that because they no longer require a secure Middle East for strategic reasons of energy supply. He does not predict, in fact he specifically refuses to predict, whether that turn will be rapid or gradual. He just claims that the turn away from Bretton Woods is inevitable for a whole host of reasons. The contention is that since America has no strategic need to maintain Bretton Woods, they will abandon it. The consequences for the rest of the world will be many, and almost all will be significant.

The main predictions are that the EU is unsustainable in the long-term because of inherent inequalities and difference between the northern and southern tier of EU countries. Europe, China, Japan, and Russia have doomed themselves to demographic suicide because of low birth rates. China better enjoy the boom while it lasts because their current prosperity is built on an economic house of cards that must collapse sooner or later. Russia is an unstable power that must wage aggressive wars for security sooner rather than later or face national and ethnic oblivion.

All of these predictions are made within a framework composed of the unalterable facts of demography, available resources, and geography. It is an interesting argument, to say the least, and one that has much going for it. As to whether the predictions for what is coming are true, only time will tell. One of the best lines from the book is that “history is about to start up again” and that the abandonment of Bretton Woods will expose much of the present international order for the artificially forced construct that it is. Based on my own thinking I would guess that Zeihan will be at least 50% accurate in his reading of the tea leaves if not more so. I would actually guess he is closer to 75% right. We are entering interesting times indeed and the next 15-20 years are going to be a bumpy ride.

The Accidental Superpower is one of the most interesting books I have read dealing with geopolitics in a long time and even if it turns out entirely wrong provides plenty of food for thought. I recommend this book for anyone interested in geopolitics or the way in which geography and population has shaped history and the forms and identities of nations. An excellent book.


Study Questions

1. What was the most interesting new thing you learned reading The Accidental Super Power?
2. How did the Bretton Woods International Trade and Monetary System affect our world?
3. Were the effects of Bretton Woods lasting?
4. Is the author overly optimistic about the influence of energy on the future of the U.S. ?
5. How different would our country be without the Louisiana Purchase and the treaty of 1848 with Mexico?
6. Can you think of another country with the geographic advantages of the U.S.? For example; India has a long border and has oceans on three sides. Why aren’t they a superpower?
7. Which of the author’s predictions is most likely to come true?
8. Which of the author’s predictions do you disagree with most?
9. Does a book like this become “out of date” as world events progress or does it have lasting value even if the predictions are wrong?


Discussion

Today’s book club meeting was the best yet! This is partly so because I arrived with a world globe and a misapprehension that this month’s selection, which I had touted highly, would be a bust. Several people said they had a hard time keeping the smaller countries, like the ‘stans’ straight when it came to the second half of the book where the author offered predictions. That worried me. Then just before going to the meeting I received the following email message:

The 70% completed of this geopolitical and demographic analysis of our modern world leaves me better informed of global interactions – past, present and perhaps into the future. When the author delved into third world and fourth world, (if there is such a thing), prognostications it made me a little confused – a bit more than I could absorb.

Since its publication, Russia HAS reinvaded the Ukraine, and I read of a much more aggressive Iran and Turkey as the author predicted.
It does appear that the U.S. is departing from Breton Woods guarantees, as recently witnessed last week when Iran destroyed two foreign oil tankers, and no immediate action was taken. Although I am happy if we and our present allies take more peaceful solutions.

Concerns imbedded from those school drills, when we practiced taking shelter under our desks against A-Bomb attacks, linger. For instance, what if North Korea, China, Russia, Iran {pick any two or three} decide it’s in their best interest to just disable the North American Continent, not to conquer or occupy, but just to keep us distracted in recovery while they go about securing domination in their part of the world. I did glean
that they are not so well endowed and blessed as we are, [but] desperate leaders take desperate actions.

I did recommend this book to two sons who deal in international business.

Thanks for another very worthwhile read!

After this was read aloud to the group a spirited discussion began. It started with the Bretton Woods agreement. “Why have I never heard anything about this but the name and at that only from the distant past”, was the exclamation of one and with this, heads around the table nodded in agreement. All said that this was a generous act by the United States leading to the restoration of the conquered countries of WWII. It created a pathway for economic and social growth in the world that was largely guaranteed by U.S trade policies favoring recovering countries and the U.S. Navy maintaining peace on the high seas. All agreed that macroeconomics and money policy related to the international Monetary Fund, The World Bank, and the gold standard was above our “pay grade”. Absence of any mention of the Marshall Plan was a surprise to all. The book stated, and we agreed, that economic guarantees of the Bretton Woods agreement resulted in important political benefits for the United States and all the countries involved.

Most of us were amazed at the statistics describing the U.S and none was more astounding than the statement that the U.S. has more navigable rivers than the rest of the world combined. We all concluded that it must be right.

Three people who had not completed the book kept their books and said they would finish. A fourth said, “My Christmas shopping list is now complete, I’ll send copies of this book.”

“The writing was clear and enjoyable”, was the comment of one member and all agreed that the occasional informality was a welcome writing style. That same person said she read a sentence that contained not a single word she understood. “Unfortunately, I didn’t underline it,” she said with a smile.

Everyone expressed satisfaction with what they had read. For myself I believed this book should be read by anyone who votes and takes an interest in the well-being of our great country.

The popularity, or more likely importance, of this subject is confirmed by two contemporary books, “The Revenge of Geography” by Robert Kaplan and “Prisoner of Geography” by Tim Marshall.