Skip to content

The source of America’s Power

September 11, 2011


Sometimes you come across a concept, an explanation that illumes. Lightbulb goes on. Aha moments roll.

I had one such, when I read an article that Vee posted in comments. Brilliant. Incisive and completely plausible.

It explains Katrina and the importance of New Orleans. It explains why the Army Core of Engineers manage the great waterways in the US, the masters of the levee.

And the current situation in the areas mentioned becomes ever clearer.

Please share your own insights after reading… from Stratfor:


The Geopolitics of the United States

Take a good look at the image below. You’ll see how a picture is not only worth a thousand words, but can explain the success of an entire nation. Crops to rivers, rivers to ports – the trade foundation of a country can be summarized in a single image. Sure, it stirs up memories of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and the Mighty Mississippi, but this image is the foundation of the U.S. as a global power and a fascinating look at the backbone of the American economy.

Part 1: The Inevitable Empire

Like nearly all of the peoples of North and South America, most Americans are not originally from the territory that became the United States. They are a diverse collection of peoples primarily from a dozen different Western European states, mixed in with smaller groups from a hundred more. All of the New World entities struggled to carve a modern nation and state out of the American continents. Brazil is an excellent case of how that struggle can be a difficult one. The United States falls on the opposite end of the spectrum.

The American geography is an impressive one. The Greater Mississippi Basin together with the Intracoastal Waterway has more kilometers of navigable internal waterways than the rest of the world combined. The American Midwest is both overlaid by this waterway, and is the world’s largest contiguous piece of farmland. The U.S. Atlantic Coast possesses more major ports than the rest of the Western Hemisphere combined. Two vast oceans insulated the United States from Asian and European powers, deserts separate the United States from Mexico to the south, while lakes and forests separate the population centers in Canada from those in the United States. The United States has capital, food surpluses and physical insulation in excess of every other country in the world by an exceedingly large margin. So like the Turks, the Americans are not important because of who they are, but because of where they live.

The North American Core

North America is a triangle-shaped continent centered in the temperate portions of the Northern Hemisphere. It is of sufficient size that its northern reaches are fully Arctic and its southern reaches are fully tropical. Predominant wind currents carry moisture from west to east across the continent.

Climatically, the continent consists of a series of wide north-south precipitation bands largely shaped by the landmass’ longitudinal topography. The Rocky Mountains dominate the Western third of the northern and central parts of North America, generating a rain-shadow effect just east of the mountain range — an area known colloquially as the Great Plains. Farther east of this semiarid region are the well-watered plains of the prairie provinces of Canada and the American Midwest. This zone comprises both the most productive and the largest contiguous acreage of arable land on the planet.

East of this premier arable zone lies a second mountain chain known as the Appalachians. While this chain is far lower and thinner than the Rockies, it still constitutes a notable barrier to movement and economic development. However, the lower elevation of the mountains combined with the wide coastal plain of the East Coast does not result in the rain-shadow effect of the Great Plains. Consequently, the coastal plain of the East Coast is well-watered throughout.

In the continent’s northern and southern reaches this longitudinal pattern is not quite so clear-cut. North of the Great Lakes region lies the Canadian Shield, an area where repeated glaciation has scraped off most of the topsoil. That, combined with the area’s colder climate, means that these lands are not nearly as productive as regions farther south or west and, as such, remain largely unpopulated to the modern day. In the south — Mexico — the North American landmass narrows drastically from more than 5,000 kilometers (about 3,100 miles) wide to, at most, 2,000 kilometers, and in most locations less than 1,000 kilometers. The Mexican extension also occurs in the Rocky Mountain/Great Plains longitudinal zone, generating a wide, dry, irregular uplift that lacks the agricultural promise of the Canadian prairie provinces or American Midwest.

The continent’s final geographic piece is an isthmus of varying width, known as Central America, that is too wet and rugged to develop into anything more than a series of isolated city-states, much less a single country that would have an impact on continental affairs. Due to a series of swamps and mountains where the two American continents join, there still is no road network linking them, and the two Americas only indirectly affect each other’s development.

The most distinctive and important feature of North America is the river network in the middle third of the continent. While its components are larger in both volume and length than most of the world’s rivers, this is not what sets the network apart. Very few of its tributaries begin at high elevations, making vast tracts of these rivers easily navigable. In the case of the Mississippi, the head of navigation — just north of Minneapolis — is 3,000 kilometers inland.

The network consists of six distinct river systems: the Missouri, Arkansas, Red, Ohio, Tennessee and, of course, the Mississippi. The unified nature of this system greatly enhances the region’s usefulness and potential economic and political power. First, shipping goods via water is an order of magnitude cheaper than shipping them via land. The specific ratio varies greatly based on technological era and local topography, but in the petroleum age in the United States, the cost of transport via water is roughly 10 to 30 times cheaper than overland. This simple fact makes countries with robust maritime transport options extremely capital-rich when compared to countries limited to land-only options. This factor is the primary reason why the major economic powers of the past half-millennia have been Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Second, the watershed of the Greater Mississippi Basin largely overlays North America’s arable lands. Normally, agricultural areas as large as the American Midwest are underutilized as the cost of shipping their output to more densely populated regions cuts deeply into the economics of agriculture. The Eurasian steppe is an excellent example. Even in modern times Russian and Kazakh crops occasionally rot before they can reach market. Massive artificial transport networks must be constructed and maintained in order for the land to reach its full potential. Not so in the case of the Greater Mississippi Basin. The vast bulk of the prime agricultural lands are within 200 kilometers of a stretch of navigable river. Road and rail are still used for collection, but nearly omnipresent river ports allow for the entirety of the basin’s farmers to easily and cheaply ship their products to markets not just in North America but all over the world.

Third, the river network’s unity greatly eases the issue of political integration. All of the peoples of the basin are part of the same economic system, ensuring constant contact and common interests. Regional proclivities obviously still arise, but this is not Northern Europe, where a variety of separate river systems have given rise to multiple national identities.

It is worth briefly explaining why STRATFOR fixates on navigable rivers as opposed to coastlines. First, navigable rivers by definition service twice the land area of a coastline (rivers have two banks, coasts only one). Second, rivers are not subject to tidal forces, greatly easing the construction and maintenance of supporting infrastructure. Third, storm surges often accompany oceanic storms, which force the evacuation of oceanic ports. None of this eliminates the usefulness of coastal ports, but in terms of the capacity to generate capital, coastal regions are a poor second compared to lands with navigable rivers.

There are three other features — all maritime in nature — that further leverage the raw power that the Greater Mississippi Basin provides. First are the severe indentations of North America’s coastline, granting the region a wealth of sheltered bays and natural, deep-water ports. The more obvious examples include the Gulf of St. Lawrence, San Francisco Bay, Chesapeake Bay, Galveston Bay and Long Island Sound/New York Bay.

Second, there are the Great Lakes. Unlike the Greater Mississippi Basin, the Great Lakes are not naturally navigable due to winter freezes and obstacles such as Niagara Falls. However, over the past 200 years extensive hydrological engineering has been completed — mostly by Canada — to allow for full navigation on the lakes. Since 1960, penetrating halfway through the continent, the Great Lakes have provided a secondary water transport system that has opened up even more lands for productive use and provided even greater capacity for North American capital generation. The benefits of this system are reaped mainly by the warmer lands of the United States rather than the colder lands of Canada, but since the Great Lakes constitute Canada’s only maritime transport option for reaching the interior, most of the engineering was paid for by Canadians rather than Americans.

Third and most important are the lines of barrier islands that parallel the continent’s East and Gulf coasts. These islands allow riverine Mississippi traffic to travel in a protected intracoastal waterway all the way south to the Rio Grande and all the way north to the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to serving as a sort of oceanic river, the island chain’s proximity to the Mississippi delta creates an extension of sorts for all Mississippi shipping, in essence extending the political and economic unifying tendencies of the Mississippi Basin to the eastern coastal plain.

Thus, the Greater Mississippi Basin is the continent’s core, and whoever controls that core not only is certain to dominate the East Coast and Great Lakes regions but will also have the agricultural, transport, trade and political unification capacity to be a world power — even without having to interact with the rest of the global system.


Please read the rest of the article if called. It is brilliant.


Happy reading and good days. It’s time to savour what we have.



16 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2011 12:04 am

    The abundance of agricultural land and water is indeed a big reason America became a super power. In fact, it was through the Great Mississippi that first settlers eventually ventured to sell their crops/merchandise down to the South. All of the main U.S. cities in the first colonies were built near water. Moving merchandise picked up speed with the invention of the steam boat and the eventual link of New York (port of international shipping) with the Midwest through the construction of the Erie Canal.

    Another thing I’d add to why America has been so successful is the human capital. Not only is this country big in population, but in diversity. The hungry immigrant labor of people for whom failure is not an option has been the engine that built this nation, mined the gold, the coal, built the houses and the dams. Let us not forget the black slaves who provided cotton picking labor when America – not China – was the no. 1 cotton producer in the world.

    I do believe this country is blessed with abundance: beauty, people, resources. Not many others can say the same.

    • September 14, 2011 5:31 am

      Good observations Tuttysan.
      But when it comes to human capital, it’s a dark dark history in America. America was built on the back of slavery. Plain and simple.
      Black slavery and Chinese rail gangs. Plain and simple. The hungry immigrant labour is a relatively new phenomenon and they are from a country whose land was taken from them, they’re only coming home. Any romanticism attached to that story I reject outright. It’s dying because it was built on the back of abject cruelty. What say? And it’s true around the world. Lots of oppression in every mega development,. Here in India, there in Africa…..China of course…..

      • September 14, 2011 2:05 pm

        I’m aware of the dark history. Reread my comment and notice I did not leave out slaves. If not willing (slaves) or kind (European settlers), people who came to this country were hungry and did what it took to make it in this land. Nothing romantic about it. I see no need to single out America for its dark past when no civilization (past or present) can claim to have been cruelty-free. Even before the arrival of European settlers, the Aztecs and other native cultures were using their own slaves to do the tough jobs. It was African tribes who captured and subsequently sold the slaves meant for the Americas. Nobody is guilt-free here. A dark past (and for many present) is the painful reality of the “fight” for survival (real or imagined). Because of the convergence of many bodies (willing and unwilling), cultures, brains and ways to see the world in a land of riches, America got to be a super power. I am weary of all the America-bashing when frankly I don’t see any country in the world that can be a refuge from human misery. It’s not the country Vivek; it’s the people. No matter where you look, you will find kindness and you will find cruelty. If you must know, the only piece of land I get romantic about is Hispaniola and there’s plenty of dark in the history there too. America is a beautiful, bountiful land and its people have contributed to its rise. The fact that some don’t like what this country stands for doesn’t make my previous statement any less true.

        • September 14, 2011 3:21 pm

          Tuttysan, let us just agree to differ on this issue.
          Just remember that the rest of the world does not see america’s lovely people. It sees it’s bombs and predator drones and ugly corporations and crappy culture exports.
          So this thing called America is one thing to a person inside it and completely another to the rest of the world.

  2. September 12, 2011 12:35 am

    Notice also that places like Iowa, as well as many other states in the Mid West, have laws in place that prevent foreigners and foreign companies from buying farm land, since it is understood that land ownership and that of food source is a matter of national security.

    • Rodrigo permalink
      September 12, 2011 12:13 pm

      Many in Uruguay are raising alarm bells regarding the turnover of national farmland to foreigners. In fact, recent studies show that Uruguay has one of the highest concentrations of foreign land ownership in the world. This is a crucial issue for Uruguay, as its national territory is carpeted by productive land and sits over the Guaraní water reserve, one of the largest aquifers in the world.

      A secret agreement has recently been unearthed that sets a legal precedent for the usurpation of republican sovereignty by the granting of contractual fiefdom to a foreign corporation involved in forestry. You can imagine the political corruption that led to this instance, especially indignating considering the president in power, José Mujica, is a former armed rebel leader currently presiding a leftist constellation of political forces.

      The River Plate parallels the US river system in many ways. However, Artigas was never able to materialize his dream of unifying the lands in the system into a federal republic, and today this productive stretch is parceled out among four separate republics. He was always a great admirer of what the North Americans were doing, and I think this may be why.

      • September 14, 2011 5:43 am

        Holy smoke Rodrigo, that is some development. And the rest of us are unaware.

        “the usurpation of republican sovereignty by the granting of contractual fiefdom to a foreign corporation”……… that sounds nightmarish. And I had to go look up Artigas and was fascinated by his story. And how inter-woven Argentina and Uruguay’s histories are. Makes perfect sense though. And yes, the river systems.

        They give and they give and then we DAM them!

        Thanks for sharing.

  3. JustSaying permalink
    September 12, 2011 6:45 pm

    “Sometimes you come across a concept, an explanation that illumes. Lightbulb goes on. Aha moments roll.”

    Those references to the “bread basket of the world” you heard all through highschool finally kicked in, huh?

    • September 14, 2011 5:56 am

      Breadbaskets yes Just, but it’s those river systems.

      Yangtze, Indus, Nile, Tigris/Euphrates………. Mississippi, Tennessee,
      They are the key. And they’re all Dammed and dying and so are we. Fair enough eh?
      But yes, such power they bring, literally and figuratively..

  4. Joseph Jones permalink
    September 12, 2011 9:21 pm

    I suppose the author of this tripe thinks he knows better than G. Washington: our trouble in the world is mostly caused by our relationship supporting the “Synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9 and 3:9) state of Israel. Washington forbade such relationships in his “Farewell Address”. Per Bin Laden’s own words (read his 1996 Declaration of War), he declared war only as punishment because we’d not leave what they consider sacred ground, our relentless support for Israel and against Palestine. Yes, contrary to the BS heard 24/7 on MSM, Islam does not hate the west and/or non-Muslim world, but they hate what we DO in the mideast.

    Papists have their jesus (lower case because it’s not the Jesus defined in Scripture) and Mary. “Protestants” (they protest nothing) have jesus (again, lower case because it’s the Jesus defined in Scripture) and country.

    If Stratfor supports the term “mid east peace process” (a most pathetic and obvious oxymoron, similar to endless war for perpetual peace, and up is down) then they are just another in a long line of liars. Ditto if they believe Israel or any other nation has a “right to exist”, as if God doesn’t build and destroy nations on his whim, just as He gives life and takes it.

    • September 14, 2011 5:47 am

      Joseph, I’ll grant that Stratfor may be off on the mid-east.
      But give them their due, this piece is an incisive look into the geo-politics of geo-graphy, ne?

  5. September 16, 2011 11:40 am

    hope but rather instill your best existence

    what a lovely person you are

  6. Peter Travolis permalink
    September 20, 2011 6:20 pm

    STRATFOR definitely has some interesting insights. But clearly there is more to American power than just geography, otherwise the people and cultures that originally inhabited this land would have successfully resisted the European invasion. If power is derived from the land, and agricultural bounty supports sophisticated and powerful civilizations (such as the Pharonic dynasties along the Nile, the rise of Greece’s Golden Age, or Chinese civilization along the Yellow River), why did it take Europeans to bring writing, the wheel, smelting metal, and other basic innovations of civilization to the Indians and not the other way around? Or at least, why didn’t Europeans encounter a peer civilization that could successfully resist them?

    • September 20, 2011 6:35 pm

      Peter, perhaps because essentially nomadic people, with broad tribal boundaries differ greatly in their definitions of what “life” is with regards to those of white eurpoean “settlers”.

      Plus, the west has been at the bleeding edge of weaponry development in the last 400-500 years, without a doubt, so it would never be an equal battle. Mastering of the ocean implied a high degree of technical sophistication…. I hope you see my logic?

      Thanks for sharing…

  7. Stephen Baze permalink
    September 25, 2011 6:03 pm

    Vivek and Tutty . I think you both make valid points. It is becoming quite obvious the USSA is suffering from a case of “reality catch up” in social/economic and political events as the old paradigms have run their course and come to their natural conclusions/end . Our system morphed into a nightmare of political cronyisms and corruptions that we are now seeing play out right in front of us for all to see and experience. It is all unsustainable and so we descend into the next phase of morphing into ? Interesting times indeed, but I supsect the best times are past and much suffering is ahead for all of us , not just USSA . It is all simply people and their failings of thought and healthy boundaries. I suspect we were actually smarter and happier in times far past so I want to KISS. And observe from a distant shore .

    Good luck to all


  1. International Trade and the Cost of Transport | professorruml

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: