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Wednesday, September 07, 2005


New Orleans: A Geopolitical Prize
By George Friedman
The American political system was founded in Philadelphia, but the American
nation was built on the vast farmlands that stretch from the Alleghenies to
the Rockies. That farmland produced the wealth that funded American
industrialization: It permitted the formation of a class of small landholders
who, amazingly, could produce more than they could consume. They could sell
their excess crops in the east and in Europe and save that money, which
eventually became the founding capital of American industry.
But it was not the extraordinary land nor the farmers and ranchers who alone
set the process in motion. Rather, it was geography -- the extraordinary
system of rivers that flowed through the Midwest and allowed them to ship
their surplus to the rest of the world. All of the rivers flowed into one --
the Mississippi -- and the Mississippi flowed to the ports in and around one
city: New Orleans. It was in New Orleans that the barges from upstream were
unloaded and their cargos stored, sold and reloaded on ocean-going vessels.
Until last Sunday, New Orleans was, in many ways, the pivot of the American
For that reason, the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815 was a key moment
in American history. Even though the battle occurred after the War of 1812
was over, had the British taken New Orleans, we suspect they wouldn't have
given it back. Without New Orleans, the entire Louisiana Purchase would have
been valueless to the United States. Or, to state it more precisely, the
British would control the region because, at the end of the day, the value of
the Purchase was the land and the rivers - which all converged on the
Mississippi and the ultimate port of New Orleans. The hero of the battle was
Andrew Jackson, and when he became president, his obsession with Texas had
much to do with keeping the Mexicans away from New Orleans.
During the Cold War, a macabre topic of discussion among bored graduate
students who studied such things was this: If the Soviets could destroy one
city with a large nuclear device, which would it be? The usual answers were
Washington or New York. For me, the answer was simple: New Orleans. If the
Mississippi River was shut to traffic, then the foundations of the economy
would be shattered. The industrial minerals needed in the factories wouldn't
come in, and the agricultural wealth wouldn't flow out. Alternative routes
really weren't available. The Germans knew it too: A U-boat campaign occurred
near the mouth of the Mississippi during World War II. Both the Germans and
Stratfor have stood with Andy Jackson: New Orleans was the prize.
Last Sunday, nature took out New Orleans almost as surely as a nuclear
strike. Hurricane Katrina's geopolitical effect was not, in many ways,
distinguishable from a mushroom cloud. The key exit from North America was
closed. The petrochemical industry, which has become an added value to the
region since Jackson's days, was at risk. The navigability of the Mississippi
south of New Orleans was a question mark. New Orleans as a city and as a port
complex had ceased to exist, and it was not clear that it could recover.
The Ports of South Louisiana and New Orleans, which run north and south of
the city, are as important today as at any point during the history of the
republic. On its own merit, POSL is the largest port in the United States by
tonnage and the fifth-largest in the world. It exports more than 52 million
tons a year, of which more than half are agricultural products -- corn,
soybeans and so on. A large proportion of U.S. agriculture flows out of the
port. Almost as much cargo, nearly 17 million tons, comes in through the port
-- including not only crude oil, but chemicals and fertilizers, coal,
concrete and so on.
A simple way to think about the New Orleans port complex is that it is where
the bulk commodities of agriculture go out to the world and the bulk
commodities of industrialism come in. The commodity chain of the global food
industry starts here, as does that of American industrialism. If these
facilities are gone, more than the price of goods shifts: The very physical
structure of the global economy would have to be reshaped. Consider the
impact to the U.S. auto industry if steel doesn't come up the river, or the
effect on global food supplies if U.S. corn and soybeans don't get to the
The problem is that there are no good shipping alternatives. River transport
is cheap, and most of the commodities we are discussing have low
value-to-weight ratios. The U.S. transport system was built on the assumption
that these commodities would travel to and from New Orleans by barge, where
they would be loaded on ships or offloaded. Apart from port capacity
elsewhere in the United States, there aren't enough trucks or rail cars to
handle the long-distance hauling of these enormous quantities -- assuming for
the moment that the economics could be managed, which they can't be.
The focus in the media has been on the oil industry in Louisiana and
Mississippi. This is not a trivial question, but in a certain sense, it is
dwarfed by the shipping issue. First, Louisiana is the source of about 15
percent of U.S.-produced petroleum, much of it from the Gulf. The local
refineries are critical to American infrastructure. Were all of these
facilities to be lost, the effect on the price of oil worldwide would be
extraordinarily painful. If the river itself became unnavigable or if the
ports are no longer functioning, however, the impact to the wider economy
would be significantly more severe. In a sense, there is more flexibility in
oil than in the physical transport of these other commodities.
There is clearly good news as information comes in. By all accounts, the
Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, which services supertankers in the Gulf, is
intact. Port Fourchon, which is the center of extraction operations in the
Gulf, has sustained damage but is recoverable. The status of the oil
platforms is unclear and it is not known what the underwater systems look
like, but on the surface, the damage - though not trivial -- is manageable.
The news on the river is also far better than would have been expected on
Sunday. The river has not changed its course. No major levees containing the
river have burst. The Mississippi apparently has not silted up to such an
extent that massive dredging would be required to render it navigable. Even
the port facilities, although apparently damaged in many places and destroyed
in few, are still there. The river, as transport corridor, has not been lost.
What has been lost is the city of New Orleans and many of the residential
suburban areas around it. The population has fled, leaving behind a
relatively small number of people in desperate straits. Some are dead, others
are dying, and the magnitude of the situation dwarfs the resources required
to ameliorate their condition. But it is not the population that is trapped
in New Orleans that is of geopolitical significance: It is the population
that has left and has nowhere to return to.
The oil fields, pipelines and ports required a skilled workforce in order to
operate. That workforce requires homes. They require stores to buy food and
other supplies. Hospitals and doctors. Schools for their children. In other
words, in order to operate the facilities critical to the United States, you
need a workforce to do it -- and that workforce is gone. Unlike in other
disasters, that workforce cannot return to the region because they have no
place to live. New Orleans is gone, and the metropolitan area surrounding New
Orleans is either gone or so badly damaged that it will not be inhabitable
for a long time.
It is possible to jury-rig around this problem for a short time. But the fact
is that those who have left the area have gone to live with relatives and
friends. Those who had the ability to leave also had networks of
relationships and resources to manage their exile. But those resources are
not infinite -- and as it becomes apparent that these people will not be
returning to New Orleans any time soon, they will be enrolling their children
in new schools, finding new jobs, finding new accommodations. If they have
any insurance money coming, they will collect it. If they have none, then --
whatever emotional connections they may have to their home -- their economic
connection to it has been severed. In a very short time, these people will be
making decisions that will start to reshape population and workforce patterns
in the region.
A city is a complex and ongoing process - one that requires physical
infrastructure to support the people who live in it and people to operate
that physical infrastructure. We don't simply mean power plants or sewage
treatment facilities, although they are critical. Someone has to be able to
sell a bottle of milk or a new shirt. Someone has to be able to repair a car
or do surgery. And the people who do those things, along with the
infrastructure that supports them, are gone -- and they are not coming back
anytime soon.
It is in this sense, then, that it seems almost as if a nuclear weapon went
off in New Orleans. The people mostly have fled rather than died, but they
are gone. Not all of the facilities are destroyed, but most are. It appears
to us that New Orleans and its environs have passed the point of
recoverability. The area can recover, to be sure, but only with the
commitment of massive resources from outside -- and those resources would
always be at risk to another Katrina.
The displacement of population is the crisis that New Orleans faces. It is
also a national crisis, because the largest port in the United States cannot
function without a city around it. The physical and business processes of a
port cannot occur in a ghost town, and right now, that is what New Orleans
is. It is not about the facilities, and it is not about the oil. It is about
the loss of a city's population and the paralysis of the largest port in the
United States.
Let's go back to the beginning. The United States historically has depended
on the Mississippi and its tributaries for transport. Barges navigate the
river. Ships go on the ocean. The barges must offload to the ships and vice
versa. There must be a facility to empower this exchange. It is also the
facility where goods are stored in transit. Without this port, the river
can't be used. Protecting that port has been, from the time of the Louisiana
Purchase, a fundamental national security issue for the United States.
Katrina has taken out the port -- not by destroying the facilities, but by
rendering the area uninhabited and potentially uninhabitable. That means that
even if the Mississippi remains navigable, the absence of a port near the
mouth of the river makes the Mississippi enormously less useful than it was.
For these reasons, the United States has lost not only its biggest port
complex, but also the utility of its river transport system -- the foundation
of the entire American transport system. There are some substitutes, but none
with sufficient capacity to solve the problem.
It follows from this that the port will have to be revived and, one would
assume, the city as well. The ports around New Orleans are located as far
north as they can be and still be accessed by ocean-going vessels. The need
for ships to be able to pass each other in the waterways, which narrow to the
north, adds to the problem. Besides, the Highway 190 bridge in Baton Rouge
blocks the river going north. New Orleans is where it is for a reason: The
United States needs a city right there.
New Orleans is not optional for the United States' commercial infrastructure.
It is a terrible place for a city to be located, but exactly the place where
a city must exist. With that as a given, a city will return there because the
alternatives are too devastating. The harvest is coming, and that means that
the port will have to be opened soon. As in Iraq, premiums will be paid to
people prepared to endure the hardships of working in New Orleans. But in the
end, the city will return because it has to.
Geopolitics is the stuff of permanent geographical realities and the way they
interact with political life. Geopolitics created New Orleans. Geopolitics
caused American presidents to obsess over its safety. And geopolitics will
force the city's resurrection, even if it is in the worst imaginable place.

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