I found Peter Zeihan’s The Accidental Superpower to be a very interesting, informative, and entertaining book. It seems to be a great introduction to geopolitics, especially with its awesome maps. The first half of the book is brilliant, describing the geographical advantages that led to America’s rise. As he describes in the book, most of his talks cover that material before delving into specific details pertinent to the audience. As such, the second half is understandably more fragmented, although still very readable.
Of course, the book is all about prediction, and so the accuracy of those must be evaluated. As Nate Silver describes in the excellent The Signal and the Noise , there are two classes of predictors, foxes and hedgehogs. As Greek philosopher Archilochus puts it (via Isaiah Berlin): “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Zeihan is most definitely of the hedgehog mold, and his one big thing is geopolitics, with his expertise gained from his days at Stratfor. Indeed, that’s how I heard of him, as I recall seeing long e-mails back in the 90s of Stratfor’s excellent detailed analysis, and also being a very satisfied subscriber of Stratfor founder George Friedman’s Geopolitical Futures. Zeihan doesn’t attempt to imitate the academic gravitas of Friedman (and indeed, you won’t find very many citations to back his assertions), but his wittiness (particularly in some silly and memorable footnotes) provides a great deal of the book’s charm.
While a Nate Silver fox may provide rather measured forecasts with conditional probabilities and forecast intervals, Zeihan goes full hedgehog with big and bold pronouncements like Russia and China being destined for demographic decline, Alberta leaving Canada to join the U.S., numerous countries becoming failed states with the end of Bretton Woods, and the U.S. continuing to rein supreme for the foreseeable future.
And although his arguments seem to make sense, it doesn’t seem like many of these things are likely to happen (although I do have the unfair advantage of reading this six years after the book was published). His coverage of Russia seems most accurate, as the desperation he paints does seem to explain Putin’s actions of the past few years. He also seems spot on in regards to Europe (although most anybody who studied introductory macroeconomics probably could have guessed that very different countries sharing a single central bank was a very bad idea). But both China and the Bretton Woods framework seem to be both doing just fine for the moment (although the jury is still out).
That being said, I am very glad to have read the book, as it’s a lively romp through history, geography, and demographics around the world. And I am very likely to read more from him. And I think both Zeihan’s free newsletter and his Twitter feed are also well worth following. Quite refreshingly, the only spam you will get are requests to donate to Feeding America.
Slightly edited from my original review at goodreads.com.