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The Geopolitics of the United States, Part 1: The Inevitable Empire (2011) (stratfor.com)
57 points by ern on Oct 17, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments

Part Deux is here:


It occurs to me that what Strat4 is doing here is forecasting. Extrapolating from historic bases of power to predict the emergence of future hegemons. But wouldn't it be possible to achieve a more data-driven, empirical analysis? Might make a sweet Kaggle crowd prediction problem ;)

Here if you're asked to register after reading part 1.


These guys are jokers. A security firm that gets pwned by Anonymous...


Stratfor is flattering the sensibilities of the military industrial complex that pays its bills.

> The greatest threat to the United States is its own tendency to retreat from international events.

Stratfor would embroil the US in more foreign wars, because the best thing that happened to US foreign policy in the last 15 years was Iraq...

These are the same people pushing for a Syrian intervention now. Peace time doesn't make anyone money, doesn't get any one promoted...

Their reading of China is laughable. While has China has debt issues, it is not analogous to Japan. With 1.3 billion people, it is more than an order of magnitude larger, for one thing.

China is actively colonizing the waters off the coasts of Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as expanding its space program. It is a rising, regional power attempting to revise the international order, much like Germany in the late 19th century. The US will need to strike a new balance of power with them. That rarely happens without war, sadly.

The fetishism of Russia plays to the fears of the Kremlinologists in the old guard. But Russia has a declining population, a declining GDP, and a second-rate military. Hard to imagine them as a challenger on anything more than a regional basis. This is not the Cold War anymore.

Did you notice there is not one mention of climate-driven migrations and disasters, which will hit the US and others with increasing violence? The Arab Spring and Syria were at least partially prompted by a drought-caused disastrous wheat harvest. Stratfor's failure to make valuable predictions about the future has a lot to do with its poor analysis of the present (even in 2011 when this was written.)

Lastly, because this is HN, I'll just say that these arm-chair analyses do not take into account the mutually reinforcing, exponential technological changes that will remake the world as we know it. The costs of solar energy are approaching zero; the capacities of narrow AI are increasingly superhuman; our ability to edit new life forms in to being, old diseases out of it, and generally augment ourselves, will make make these linear, ceteris paribus forecasts seem quaint.

I think at least this first part reads like an explanation of the events of the last two centuries and based on my very light arm-chair historians knowledge I failed to see any obvious lapses in their analysis.

Like any analysis, though, it should be read as interesting postulation based on known facts, rather than a complete explanatory model in itself.

I fail to see how cheap solar or new life forms would provide more arable land. Sure, we can invent - I don't know - an edible nutritious city kudzu that grows everywhere and provides nutrition for everyone but until that happens I think the american farmlands do provide a considerable asset like the article stated.

I see no obvious reason why at least a partial singularity nirvana could not come to being but until it does - no one really has a clue what it would look like and analyses like these must stick to understood reality and politics.

We can engineer yeast to produce almost any molecule. We can synthesize meat. We can do that with nearly free electricity from solar, among other ingredients. These things are happening now. Arable land is an archaic fetish, like much of Stratfor's thinking.

Calling events inevitable in hindsight has zero value. Predicting the inevitability of a future event, and then seeing that prediction confirmed, has immense value. Stratfor's predictions, however, are much weaker than their analysis of the past.

What are the theoretical economics of yeast based or synthetic food based nutrition on a global scale? The chemicals need to come from somewhere. The synthesis equipment needs to come from somwhere. As I understand it growing things in dirt is pretty efficient? Where is the cut-off point when test tube grown food is economically more viable than dirt based alimenation?

I am not saying these things wont happen. But we are not there yet. How soon? It took a few hundreds of years of tweaking for steam engines to actually make an economic difference. It took a hundred years for the offspring of babbages difference engine to become the instruments of the cultural and economic transformation they are today.

Today, we are locked to dirt. In five years, most food is dirt based. Probably still a decade or two from now.

Most analysts predicitions turn out to be pretty bad - but it's their 'editorial view' of current events that I find most educating if done well.

According to Wikipedia the inland waterways of the US carry cargo worth $73 billion each year - which is about 4% of US GDP. In that context the fascination with inland waterways seems a bit odd.

Given the context, you'd also want to look at the historical importance. The rust belt wouldn't be where it is except for those inland waterways.

Wikipedia probably doesn't include the downstream (no pun intended) value of that cargo. Grain becomes bread. Coal becomes energy and steel.

Agriculture has become a much smaller part of our economy over time. Imagine you own a farm in Missouri; you can ship your many tons of goods down the Mississippi and sell them to billions of people worldwide. Now imagine there is no river. You can sell to people in your immediate region, which being a farming region, is already innundated by similar products.

The tyranny of distance and logistics might be hard for people making Internet services to imagine.

As always with Stratfor this analysis is not about security of North America but about global dominance. My opinion on stratfor is not really profound. But half a year ago I was so shocked about this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QeLu_yyz3tc&feature=youtu.be... I had to write something then against this horrible propaganda: http://hashsign.co.uk/contemporary/by/thoughts/futurism-and-... My English is too poor to take part in further discussions here. I'm sure most will not agree with my opinions. In a manner my writing is propaganda too. But perhaps it's anyway interesting to read what (some) Europeans think.

Well, I don't think it takes an evil genious to divide europe. It already is divided. There is no common will nor true common foreign policy of the european states. USA simply takes the few simple actions at a time it wants to enforce it's position while european statesmen do nothing.

As I see it, war in the Ukrane is mostly due to Kremlins need to destabilize all slavic regions that are in danger of becoming well to do modern democracies - they need a buffer zone of emergencies to maintain an internal stability of their kleptocratic political system.

The idea that Russia wants chaos on its borders, and a ring of fire around it, is insane. Its entire economy is based on selling energy to all the regions around it. It does not need to destabilize anyone to do that. It just needs them to do better, so they buy more.

There is only one party in the world that would benefit from this type of destruction and chaos in Europe (and all over the middle east). And it is not Russia.

> war in the Ukrane is mostly due to Kremlins need to destabilize all slavic regions that are in danger of becoming well to do modern democracies

The destabilization in Ukraine happened the moment when its democratically twice-elected government was overthrown in a violent coup. Consider that millions of people have already fled from Eastern Ukraine, into Russia, and almost zero into the western regions, to get an idea of what the real situation is on the ground.

As per logic of the foreign policy of russia I have not found analysis that would persuade me to abandon Kennan's view presented in his long telegram[1] (although the political structure has shifted I doubt the psychological aspects have not that much):

'Soviet power... is neither schematic nor adventunstic. It does not work by fixed plans. It does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to logic of force.'

If there is a better author to read about understanding russia I would be glad to recieve any references.

[1] http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/coldwar/documents/episode-1/kennan....

Inside Europe there was war at all time. But it was One economic and cultural zone. Especially from 1100 to 1800. What happend after that time ("no common will" etc.) is not a native European quality but the result of British and US policy. Think of the UK efforts in the 19th century that almost ruined Britain just to fight Napoleone Idea of a united Europe. - "No common will" -to repeat this again and again is simply a wish (that unfortunately came true). - Ukraine topic: watch how the borders shift over time. It tells enough about intentions behind it.

As usual, Yes, Minister explains it in an entertaining way:

    Sir Humphrey: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for 
    at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In
    that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the
    Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans,
    and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule,
    you see. Why should we change now, when it's worked so well?

    Hacker: That's all ancient history, surely?

    Sir Humphrey: Yes, and current policy. We 'had' to break the whole thing
    [the EEC] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the
    outside, but that wouldn't work. Now that we're inside we can make a
    complete pig's breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against
    the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against
    the Dutch. The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it's just like old times.

    Hacker: But surely we're all committed to the European ideal?

    Sir Humphrey: [chuckles] Really, Minister.

    Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?

    Sir Humphrey: Well, for the same reason. It's just like the United Nations,
    in fact; the more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up, the
    more futile and impotent it becomes.

    Hacker: What appalling cynicism.

    Sir Humphrey: Yes... We call it diplomacy, Minister.

"Inside Europe there was war at all time. But it was One economic and cultural zone. Especially from 1100 to 1800. "

This is a new notion for me. This would imply there was a single cultural entity that would encompass all of europe and a single economic system that encompasses the geographic area for this period. What would they be called?

I am sorry I brought current affairs to the discussion - it's a bit offtopic for HN and I was about to delete my first response until I found replies and felt it would be more rude at this point to remove it than not.

Discussing europe circa 19th century is ok I suppose.

This is a lot more fun than debating which browser-based MVC framework is better. ;-)

Those who are secure but open minded in their political identity and their political understanding, would greatly benefit from reading both this and its Part 2.

Summarizing such a complex situation without sugarcoating or incoherency is no small task, and this article does it exceedingly well.

Well done.

> coastal plain of the Pacific Northwest

Where's that?


I don't read topos very well, but it looks like most of the coast on that map is greenish and plainish.

It's pretty striking. In northern Washington you mostly drive at least an hour between ocean and mountains (e.g. Bellingham to the Cascades). In southern coastal Canada the mountains rise straight from the ocean (e.g. driving between Vancouver and Squamish).

The linked map is not very detailed. This one lets you zoom in:


Significant portions of the Oregon coast look like this:


The Willamette Valley is a plain, but no one would consider it coastal.

And so the final imperative of the dominant power of North America is to ensure that this never happens - to keep Eurasia divided among as many different (preferably mutually hostile) powers as possible.

What a disturbing view of the world.

Surely this isn't the first time you've encountered this idea? Britain explicitly held this policy for hundreds of years with regards to continental Europe (make sure neither France nor Germany could take over the whole continent).

Divide an conquer is the oldest trick in the book (except maybe knock them on the head with a bigger rock than they can hit you on the head with).

Imperial China repeatedly followed the same policy of trying to keep the outlying nomadic peoples fractured and prevented from uniting under a single leader. The results for the Chinese state were not good when Turkish, Mongol, or Manchu leaders were able to unite the disparate clans under a single banner, to give another example.

So we should go back to slavery because slavery was thought of as a good idea for a couple thousand years?

Woah! Massive logical jump there!

Where is the jump? Something was done in the past, why shouldn't we continue doing so? I of course assumed that the initial comment expressed some degree of endorsement and did not just state facts.

I read no form of endorsement in the comment, but rather a sense that this is a very common tactic in realpolitik throughout history and should not be surprising.

So because slavery was common in the past I should not be surprised if someone thinks about slavery today? This makes absolutely no sense. My point doesn't really depend on the endorsement.

Armisael's comment is not optative; he is not saying that we should be doing something because it has been done in the past, but providing an example of when something was done in the past.

Um, how do you precisely think the rational of the american leadership actually goes then? No country as large as USA operates without holding it's own power as the main goal. What else would the main goal of the foreign policy of USA be then?

Power becomes increasingly ambiguous when discussing large social groupings and divide and conquer is only a tactic. The explicit ideal of American foreign policy is the Jeffersonian idea of an Empire of Liberty:


Disturbing that Stratfor thinks this, or disturbing to you that they might be right?

People thinking this way, people in relevant positions thinking this way, people trying to implement this and people successfully implementing this in order of increasing unease.

Disturbing that this is what the US foreign policy does for over half a century, Stratfor aside.

Realpolitik 101. Which is the only kind of politik proven to work with a track record.

Considering how many millions of people have suffered due to the enforcement and enlargement of interests of hegemonies through realpolitik, I'd think your assertion at face value is abhorrent.

The track is littered with bodies in the wake of imperialists. That's the reality of realpolitik: institutions of power crushing as many people as they need to in order to persist.

An alternate view, which is well supported by history, is that while empires are created by war, they are very good at bringing peace and prosperity for long periods of time.

The Roman Empire delivered peace and prosperity to most of the Mediterranean basin for hundreds of years. The British Empire had a similar track record for a much larger area.

So now I'm rooting for the American Empire and the Pax Americana. I would most certainly rather be living in the West (or Westernized parts of Asia), under the aegis of the US military, instead of some third world shithole that does not enjoy security treaties with the Americans.

> while empires are created by war, they are very good at bringing peace and prosperity for long periods of time.

For the people /within that empire/. As the NSA and general US foreign policy have made abundantly clear, the US does not consider anyone outside of their national borders "part of the empire".

Your last paragraph sums it up nicely. Is "enjoying security treaties with the US" really a prerequisite for a prosperous life? Since no treaty with the US is purely military in nature, that sounds a lot like racketeering.

List of mutual defense treaties. This may be a good working definition of "part of the empire." They don't enjoy the same rights as US citizens but their security is guaranteed by the US military. http://www.state.gov/s/l/treaty/collectivedefense/

I'm not sure that treaties with the US is a prerequisite for prosperity. On the other hand, I can't think of any rich country that is not good friends with the US?

Which countries do you think actually depend on security guarantees by the USA? Do you really think Europe or Australia would fall when the USA disappeared tomorrow?

Europe would become part of Greater Russia and Australia would become part of Greater China.

What is your evidence for this this? Why do you think countries can not coexist? Why will countries always conquer everything they can?

My evidence is 5000 years of human history. What is yours?

Simply pointing to history seems a pretty weak argument because it totally ignores advances of human society. By that reasoning I should expect to live in a cave, to be a slave building monuments for my king or something like that.

I argue essentially nobody wants to fight wars, everybody just wants to have a reasonable good life. In the past we fought wars because we had kings and dictators that could force their people to fight wars for them for whatever dumb reasons they pleased and without incurring high personal costs.

But in a democracy, why would people send themselves to the battlefield? There are just no good reasons to fight wars. The most rational one is probably for resources, but simply trading them is increasingly often the more economic solution. What else? Religion, ideology, status? Why should I care? You want an Islamic state or a Communist society? Go ahead, try it, I don't care as long as you let me continue doing my thing in my country.

Sure, there are still people around that feel the need to impose their religious and ideological believes onto others but that is a declining group. Or do you seriously believe China would go to war because they want to spread their political or religious views?

> For the people /within that empire/.

Nope, for the "citizens" of the empire. Almost everybody else suffers, inside or outside.

And don't expect the meaning of "citizen" to agree with the one we are used to (although, the next meaning should be clear enough by now).

> I'd think your assertion at face value is abhorrent.

Doesn't make it less true though. Reaison d'Etat and Realpolitik are at the base of anything we hold dear in the modern world. Otherwise we would have had Hapsburg theocracy in Europe and the modern world would have been impossible.

It was Richelieu going against his god, to service his country and Disraeli and Bismark that made the modern world possible.

So Russia occupying Crimea is just politics, just drawing borders in a way favorable to you?

If Russia was "occupying" Crimea, there would be gunfire and bombs going off every day and night in that region. Kind of like what happened/is-happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and so on and on.

> So Russia occupying Crimea is just politics...

The politics of it is this -

When the government of Ukraine was violently overthrown, and an un-elected regime was brought in that did not represent a significant portion of the people of Ukraine, Crimea had every right to join Russia - as it had been part of Russia for the majority of the last 200 years, Russians were the largest part of its population, and a turnout of 80%+ at the polls voted 90%+ yes.

> just drawing borders in a way favorable to you?

Why is it that people who do not live in Crimea want to decide the fates of the the people who do live in Crimea?

Yep. The same as Texas.

You are disturbed by peace and prosperity?

Many here seem to misunderstand the article as an expression of what is best, of some normative preference. Stratfor is describing what they think is the long-term (i.e., over generations) fate, in a way, of nations, based on a framework they embrace, geopolitics. I'm no expert, but here is my amateur understanding, undoubtedly flawed, from many years of reading this kind of material:

Humans long have tried to develop theories that predict the behavior of nations and its outcomes. It's perhaps the most important question to ask, with the survival, prosperity, and freedom of billions at stake. But it's a very difficult model to build, based on billions of human decisions and many other factors, including geography.

One well-established theory (though I don't know how popular among experts currently) is that geography, including climate, ultimately is a powerful factor determining the fate of nations. For example, a nation without arable land inevitably will have a small population and everything that follows from that: A small economy, a weak military, etc. Some real-world examples: Probably the biggest factor in Britain's survival in WWII was that they had a body of water between them and the German army; if they had switched geographies with the French, the results would have been much different. The U.S.'s WWII success and eventual post-war primacy was mostly because oceans separated the country from its enemies, providing an unmolested homeland, economy and manufacturing of war goods. The geography of Ukraine is easily traversed by large armies, leading to Russia being invaded through Ukraine many times over history (Napoleon and the Nazis come to mind); that is a big reason they want to control Ukraine. Russia's lack of access to the Mediterranean and Atlantic has greatly limited their naval power and thus their influence in Europe; that's why they care so much about Crimea and Syria, where they have naval bases with access to the Mediterranean. China's land borders are the Himalayas, other mountains and deserts, and poor areas such as Central Asia and Siberia; thus their trade is highly dependent on sea routes, resulting in their current actions to control the South China Sea. Overall, the regions of influence China tries to claim now is the same as when the Qing dynasty was ascendant in the 17th and 18th centuries - everything else changes, but geography stays the same.

Wrote one historian: If time is the locomotion of history, place could be the gradient against which it is pitted. Dynamic, the one hurtles forward; inert, the other holds it back.[1]

How these issues play out is another matter. China could resolve it's South China Sea concerns via multilateral agreements, or through military aggression. Also, there are other theories, including realism and constructivism.


[1] John Keay, in India: A History. Keay is not a credentialed academic historian but has written respected surveys of history; I don't know how well his theory ultimately holds water, but it's the best expression of the issue I've seen.

Power is probably one of the worst things in human society. Power is the ability to shift matters away from equality, from equilibriums, the ability to fuck others over for ones selfish benefits. Power is worth nothing except you use it in inherently unethical ways. It's the same everywhere, internationally, nationally or within companies. No country should have more power than the power to defend its borders. Everything else can be solved in a better way without resorting to power.

I'm not sure that we should feel the need for this kind of imperialism in the 21st century. We can certainly "defend our borders" militarily, but wouldn't it be wise to make sure our economy can be sustained regardless of the actions of other countries?

I think another take-away is that we should be transporting more goods by rail and water. The decline of our railways has helped the oil companies but has resulted in a huge number of truck-car deaths at the same time it's increased transportation costs. We should move more towards using trucking only for local deliveries.

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