Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Ruminations on the US and USSR recessions, armies, etc


The above article is by Peter Zeihan and entitled “The Geography of Recession.” It was published on “Stratfor Global Intelligence” June 2, 2009.

Statistics are apparently in for the 12 months prior to April 2009. The above article attempts to account for the interesting results. The percent GDP change for the US was -2.9. France was -3.2, the UK was -4.1, the EU-27 was -4.4, Italy was -5.9, Germany -6.9, Japan -9.1, and Russia -9.5.

Ziehan argues that the reason that the US has done comparatively better was primarily geography: “The most important aspect of the United States is not simply its sheer size, but the size of its usable land. Russia and China may both be similar-sized in absolute terms, but the vast majority of Russian and Chinese land is useless for agriculture, habitation or development. In contrast, courtesy of the Midwest, the United States boasts the world’s largest contiguous mass of arable land — and that mass does not include the hardly inconsequential chunks of usable territory on both the West and East coasts.”

He mentions the navigable U.S. waterways and natural harbors as well as the well-established roads and rail-lines. He also describes the US borders in an interesting way. Neither Canada to the north Mexico to the south have the US’s geographic advantages which means “United States does not need to maintain a large standing military force to counter either. The Canadian border is almost completely unguarded, and the Mexican border is no more than a fence in most locations — a far cry from the sort of military standoffs that have marked more adversarial borders in human history.”

There has been so much political fuss over the American “border problem,” that we forget it isn’t a problem, say, in the Russian sense. Russia has to maintain a very large expensive standing army for very good reason: “It sits on the eastern end of the North European Plain, which stretches all the way to Normandy, France, and Russia’s connections to the Asian steppe flow deep into China. Because Russia lacks a decent internal transport network that can rapidly move armies from place to place, geography forces Russia to defend itself following two strategies. First, it requires massive standing armies on all of its borders. Second, it dictates that Russia continually push its boundaries outward to buffer its core against external threats.

“Both strategies compromise Russian economic development even further. The large standing armies are a continual drain on state coffers and the country’s labor pool; their cost was a critical economic factor in the Soviet fall. The expansionist strategy not only absorbs large populations that do not wish to be part of the Russian state and so must constantly be policed — the core rationale for Russia’s robust security services — but also inflates Russia’s infrastructure development costs by increasing the amount of relatively useless territory Moscow is responsible for.”


I haven’t gotten caught up on the “sky is falling” interpretation of the American economic recession primarily because I have noticed that the Obama administration is enthusiastically moving ahead with its expensive Social agenda as though we aren’t really in a recession at all. Either Obama and his administration have fallen victims to mass madness or the perspective we are being presented by our alarmist media isn’t accurate. The Ziehan article suggests the latter. Ziehan’s discussion of China is also interesting: “ . . . the central government has chosen to keep its $2 trillion of currency reserves in dollar-based assets; the rate of return is greater, the value holds over a long period, and Beijing doesn’t have to worry about the United States seceding.”

As to the economic drain of a standing army, the actual sizes of the world’s largest armies (per http://www.mapsofworld.com/world-top-ten/world-top-ten-countries-with-largest-armies-map.html ) show that the US has an army of 477,000 and the USSR an army of 323,000. This wouldn’t contradict the statements in Ziehan’s article because the 477,000 don’t comprise a “standing army.” A large number are presently employed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Also, one should consider that the population of the US is about 300,000,000 and Russia 140,000,000. So even fighting two wars it has a smaller per-capita-army than Russia.

Ziehan emphasizes that China has internal problems. The South and North don’t get along, and there are other minority and border problems. These problems may account for the fact that China has the largest army in the world at 1,700,000. Interestingly, India, bordering both China and Pakistan feels a need for an army of 1,200,000. Third is North Korea’s army of 900,000. South Korea, not depending entirely upon the 30,000 US troops stationed on the 38th parallel has an army of 560,000. Pakistan with internal and external problems has an army of 520,000.

Iran has an army of 320,000; which is smaller than Saddam’s army (360,000) prior to the US invasion of 2003.

Getting back to Russia, when we consider the ten largest Air Forces in the world, Russia comes out first with 3,996 combat aircraft. China is second with 3,520 and the US third with 2,598. However, in terms of drains upon the respective economies, I suspect that the US, preferring technologically sophisticated and therefore expensive aircraft probably has the most expensive air force.

In regard to navies, compared by number of personnel, the US is first with 369,800, China second with 230,000 and Russia third with 171,500.

To be fair, if we add the army and navy personnel, the US has a total of 846,800 and Russia 494,500 which is close to an equivalent drain on the respective economies – in terms of personnel cost. The US probably pays much more for equipment; so I’m not sure that Ziehan’s argument is supported entirely by this information. Yes, Russia needs an army to defend all its explosive borders, but the US has taken its army abroad to deal with problems over elsewhere. I don’t see why Russia’s army would be more of a drain on its economy than the US’s army.

But army size wasn’t Ziehan’s main argument. The US has geographic advantages in terms of arable land, navigable waterways and peaceful neighbors. If the bulk of the US army personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan are brought home and sent back into the civilian work force (something the Obama administration may be counting on to improve the economy in a few years), the American army will be significantly smaller; whereas Russia’s problems won’t go away. It’s army must remain large and standing.

If the US engaged in a military action in Iran to destroy its nuclear capability; then the US army would probably go up, but that doesn’t seem likely during the Obama administration. Obama is committed to fixing Afghanistan and possibly Pakistan, but that’s it. So the American economy is bound to improve more quickly than that of the other nations on the Ziehan list, but this will be at the expense of a more dangerous world with nothing on the table, militarily, to confront either North Korea’s or Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

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