The author tries to convince us that the geopolitical advantage is a deciding factor for the United States to rise to the global superpower, in another word, by accident. The Bretton Woods system established after the World War II secured the United States’ leadership, and transformed the world to prosperity with globalization. Even when the Bretton Woods system showed its age, challenged by the emerging power, such as China; the American people should weather the storm thanks to shale drilling and geopolitical advantage.
The driving force for the human society in my opinion is productivity. There were two turning points in the human history significantly increasing the productivity:
Agriculture Revolution(circa 10,000 BC), the prehistoric transitioned from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture. The food surplus made it possible for specialized occupations and commerce.
Industrialization (circa mid-18th century), the society transitioned from agrarian society to industrial society. The steam power and invention of machine tools significantly boosted the productivity and generated massive wealth than earlier centuries combined.
The geopolitics played important roles in these two resolutions, either accelerated or tampered the progress.
Balance of transport
The author coined the term, Balance of transport, — easy transport within, difficult transport beyond, to evaluate the impact of rivers and waterways to economics. The rivers not only provide reliable water source for irrigation, enrich soil with fertility in the flooding season; but also decrease the obstacle to move human and goods around. Cheap riverine transportation would increase the internal economic interactions and encouraged the specialization for improved productivity.
Egypt is a great example: the lower Nile delta had fertile soil with navigable waterways; also secured by the endless desert to the west and east. The ancient Egyptian nurtured a glory civilization demonstrated by writing, papyrus sheets, and pyramids. However, the barrier to defend invaders also hampered the ancient Egyptian to expand beyond its core Nile valley. Combined the year-round labor- intensive irrigation maintenance, the ancient Egypt was destined with massive slavery. The food surpluses were dedicated to build monuments instead of social welfare or technology innovation.
This principal also explains why few civilizations originated from Africa. The rivers flew from plateaus with waterfalls and rapids, only small portions of the waterways are navigable.
The deepwater navigation will further extend the local economics to the global level. The cost to transport a container by sea can go as low as 17 cents per mile, while the semi-trailer costs $2.40. The US interstate highway costs $160 billion for annual maintenance, while the Army Corps of Engineer’s budget for US waterway was mere $2.7 billion in 2014.
Historically, Portugal, and Spain made a fortune in the sea trade in spices. They grew to the global power in the Age of Discovery, and undermined the Ottoman Empire which contributed to its collapse.
God Blessed the United States
The Mississippi river is probably the world’s longest navigable river(2100 miles). With the artificial waterway, Cumberland Narrows, two thirds of lower 48 states can be reached via waterway within 150 miles with 90% chances, so it is with the American agricultural regions. This allows farmers to reach remote markets easily, and encourage specialization.
Furthermore, the United States has more port potential than the reset of the world combined, which is equivalent a bonus of 3000-mile long river.
It is more obvious if we compare the United States with neighbors:
Mexico is crossed from Sierra Madre Oriental and Sierra Madre Occidental, the extensions of Rocky Mountains.
The geography splits Canada into five pieces. For example, the Rocky Mountains blocks British Columbia from the Prairies; the Canadian Shield splits the Prairies from Ontario, Ontario from Quebec. The Canadian economy is more united with the United States than the domestic market.
The United States also has abundant shale reserve to be energy independent.
The post-war world order
After the Word War II, the United States’ navy dwarfed the other navies of the world, combined. But an Europe in rubbles could not defend the eminent threat from the Soviet Union. The collapse of Japan Empire also left the vacuum of power in the pacific. It is infeasible for US to fight two battles in Europe and Asia economically. They needed allies, lots of them. US offered an irresistible offer to the world, free trade:
- US would open the domestic market, the only market worth seeking at that time.
- US would utilize its supreme navy to protect all shipping.
- US promised to protect all members of network from the Soviets.
In return, US established most comprehensive coalition against the Soviets, and eventually won the cold war. It had shaped the global order drastically:
- The tension between European rivals, France and German was eased as the market, energy, trade routes are secured.
- The gulf countries made a fortune by exporting oil to the global market.
- China joined WTO and became the world factory, the developed countries also benefited from the low cost production for their well beings.
- The deeply connected economies also reduce the risk of wars. We had a Long Peace with prosperity.
The free trade is a political strategy for cold war, not an economical strategy for the United States though. Maintaining a navy with global power projection is not cheap: $155B USD in 2014 growing to $255B in 2024. without common enemy, are United States still willing to foot the bill?
The author categorized the world into six buckets circa 2020-30:
|State failure||Syria, Greece, Libya, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Yemen|
|Decentralization||Russia, China, Bolivia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Sudan, Ethiopia|
|Degraded||Brazil, India, Canada, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Algeria|
|Steady||United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Sweden, Peru, Philippines|
|Rising stars||United States, Australia, Argentina, Angola, Turkey, Indonesia, Uzbekistan|
|Aggressive powers||Germany, Japan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, Angola|
Let’s checkout some countries in the table.
Russia is a place of insecurity, no physical barrier to guard its core area:
- The Baltic coast, close to its second largest cit, St. Petersburg. That is why Soviet launched the Winter War against Finland.
- The Polish Gap
- The Bessarabian Gap
- The Black Sea. The strategic access to the mediterranean, which motivated annexation of Crimea by the Russian federation.
- The coastal strips of Caucasus, see Insurgency in the North Caucasus.
- The Central Asian corridor
- The Tian-Altay Gap
Russia also lacks the non-freezing ports to access Atlantic and Pacific.
Uzbekistan is one of few countries in the Eastern Hemisphere which is self-sufficient in oil, natural gas, and grains. Though they faced some ugly problems: Russia, the incapable government, and the water supply conflicts with neighbors. See Aral Sea.
The Africa continent is also called plateau continent as almost the entire continent is raised above the sea level and drops sharply off at the coast, thus most waterways are not navigable to the sea.
The author inspected the world from lens of geography, population breakdown, and energy safety secured by shale fracking. It provides a different perspectives other than the economic, and political institution proposed by Why Nations Fail.