The idea of American exceptionalism traditionally focuses on the assumed industriousness and intelligence of the American people. However, this time on FS Insider, Peter Zeihan, author of The Accidental Superpower, argues that America's economic prowess is strongly rooted in its geography.
Geography Is Destiny
There are many reasons geography has been by far the greatest contributor to the current state of American dominance, Zeihan stated. Everything from our excellent port system, the quantity of arable land in the greater Midwest, and the strategic isolation the United States enjoys has contributed to this country’s success.
“Having an ocean moat, it’s hard to beat that one,” he said. “But the single most important factor is the greater Mississippi system. It perfectly overlays some of the densest economic territory that we have directly over the Midwest, and it has some extensions in other river systems and the intercoastal (system) that go right up into our population core on the east coast.”
Water transport has given U.S. commerce a huge advantage over other economies. Around 90 percent of international trade is transported via water, and in the United States over half of internal trade has been via water, Zeihan stated.
“The United States has more miles of navigable waterways then the rest of the planet put together,” he added.
When it comes to products that have relatively low value per weight, transport is the most important factor determining success, Zeihan said. Coupled with the vast arable land available in the U.S., the combo is unbeatable. The greater Midwest out produces the next two agricultural zones put together, Zeihan pointed out, and the country’s river system keeps costs down, ensuring U.S. dominance worldwide.
Strategic Isolation and the Source of American Exceptionalism
The United State’s strategic isolation means the country has been able to develop without serious threats from outside power. No other country has ever been able to develop in isolation anywhere at anytime, Zeihan said.
“At any time in world history, that isolation allowed the United States to exit every decade in a better economic and strategic position than it entered it ever since Reconstruction,” he said. “That is by a factor of three the longest (such period) in world history.”
In Zeihan’s view, the United States isn’t in decline, and its economy is stable. There’s very little at home or abroad that can threaten it in a systemic way, he said.
In general, by most metrics the U.S. is in good shape, Zeihan argued. We have the smallest state intrusion into the economy of any country in the world and we actually are the youngest of the major countries in the world in terms of demographics, he said.
“We’ve had the fastest economic and cultural expansion in human history,” he said. “We were blessed for five generations with just a brief interruption during the Civil War, and we became convinced, as a people, that this is normal.”
This is the source of U.S. mania and what created our can-do attitude, Zeihan said. However, periodically events beyond our control hit and disrupt the system, and Americans tend to overreact. Events such as the launch of Sputnik, the Vietnam War and 9/11 have put the United States in a collective panic attack, Zeihan said, which causes us to reinvent ourselves.
“The thing to remember about Americans is, they’re not happy just with growing,” he said. “They’re not happy with just being better than everyone else. They’re only truly at peace with themselves when its both of those—growing better than everyone else and doing better than last year. If those factors don’t happen at the same time, we’re convinced we’re in decline.”
American Strategic Interests Laid the Foundation for Global Order
There are pros and cons to this manic state, Zeihan argued.
“Having a panic attack can be constructive because it forces you to ditch the old ways of doing things,” he said.
For example, the launch of Sputnik led to an overhaul of the American system, united us technically, and led to our winning the Cold War, Zeihan noted.
The problem Zeihan sees is, with the potential for a new panic attack to coincide with a global U.S. strategic retrenchment, the world could experience a massive shock.
Global trade isn’t a normal state of affairs, Zeihan pointed out. The United States created the current global trade order at the end of World War II, partly to help fight the Cold War.
Now, with the United States shifting inward, we’re seeing the American political center try to come to grips with strategic policy that is 30 years out of date, he stated.
“When the United States pulls back this time, it’s going to tear down the global order with it,” he said. “The only question in my mind is, will it fall apart next year, or will it take a decade?”
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