It wasn’t meant to be like this. The end of the Cold War was supposed to usher in an era of peace and prosperity, liberalism had beaten tyranny and the shadows thrown by the two World Wars would disappear in the radiant sunlight of liberal democracy.
Instead, there’s a darkness as authoritarianism again stalks parts of the globe challenging the idea that liberal democracy is the best method to govern complex societies. In the absence of the USA and Russia trying to play “World Policeman” various nations/factions seek to police their own neighborhood.
I learned early on in my 30 years as a journalist reporting on conflict that a deep-rooted sense of place and identity, and desire for self-government, could easily be manipulated by brutish charlatans to fan the flames of ultranationalism and propel themselves to power. From Bosnia, to Kosovo and on to Iraq, Libya and Syria, the same pattern emerged.
The bipolar world of the Cold War is over, there was a brief “unipolar” moment of American hegemony, and now we are back in a multipolar world with the added complication of non-state actors such as Isis. There’s a lot of jostling for position as countries seek to gain advantage ahead of what might become a new Cold War between China and the USA which will force many of them take sides.
Major powers continue to have huge sway in global affairs: the USA, China, Russia, the EU, and the fast-growing economic power of India. But with the world order in a state of flux smaller countries have an opportunity to strategically position themselves as the kaleidoscope is being shaken.
We need to know about mountains, rivers, seas and concrete to understand geopolitical realities. The starting point of any country’s story is its location in relation to neighbors, sea routes and natural resources. From there we can layer on history and current affairs, to get the full picture. In The Power of Geography, I focus on ten regions in which events and conflicts have emerged with potential for far-reaching consequences.
The Sahel is the vast scrubland at the southern edge of the Sahara, where the vultures of al-Qaeda and Isis now prey on suffering and division. Three and a half million people have been displaced, and growing numbers are leaving behind one of the poorest and environmentally damaged places on the planet and heading to one of the richest – Europe.
It is the world’s “fastest growing insurgency”, according to the UN. French troops are down there trying to help stop fragile states from falling apart. The British military is increasingly involved, with 250 soldiers from the Light Dragoons and the Royal Anglian Regiment deployed on long-range reconnaissance missions in Mali.
The conflicts raging across several countries have been smoldering for decades. Now they are ablaze, international terror groups have hijacked local insurgencies and the violence threatens to spread instability far from the shoreline.
The Tuareg people in northern Mali have always had issues with the peoples from the south of the country. Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi signed up thousands of Tuareg men as mercenaries in his army. When he was overthrown in 2011, they headed home, taking with them heavy weapons looted from military bases. Within a year, Mali was in turmoil; within two, so was the Sahel as the violence exploded across borders, engulfing Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger. The UN Stabilization Mission, set up in 2013, has the highest UN peacekeeping mission casualty rate in the world, with well over 200 UN peacekeepers killed.
Climate change makes things worse as drought pushes more people from their land. This threatens to further destabilize countries such as Morocco and Algeria. This is on the periphery of Europe’s southern borders – and what happens in the Sahel doesn’t stay in the Sahel.
The United Kingdom
The British may not be sure of what they’re coming to, or where they’re going – but these new times are still influenced by being a group of islands at the end of the North European Plain. Previous successes are partially due to geography – notably direct access to international sea lanes and geographically the UK remains well placed. Its indented shoreline means it has excellent deep-water ports to help with global trade and a reasonable internal transport network to distribute imported goods.
It has the potential to trade with the huge consumer market on the continent, but that requires being well placed politically – a work in progress. Among the biggest challenges will be getting trade deals on favorable terms with the giant economies of India, the USA, the EU and China – the latter will require some nimble diplomatic footwork, given political tensions.
Its long history of innovation and quality education helps the UK to remain one of the top ten economies. To stay there requires making the right calls in a world where change has gathered pace and having a military which makes it useful to allies. A major asset for the UK is membership of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network, along with the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. President Biden and Prime Minister Johnson appear keen on the idea of a “League of Democracies” – a D10 or even D20. If it comes to fruition, Five Eyes will be one of its anchors.
Scottish independence would diminish what was left of the UK in many ways, not least militarily. At a stroke the rump UK would lose its submarine-based nuclear deterrent because the base is in Faslane and the SNP is wedded to being nuclear-free. Even if a suitable location for another base could be found, it would take years to build. The RAF would lose some radar and runways required to respond to Russian incursions of UK airspace and the UK would lose some standing in the world.
Once in the middle of nowhere, now a very big somewhere and center stage in the power struggles in the Indo-Pacific region. The island/continent may be the sixth largest country in the world, but most of it cannot sustain a large population and its supply lines are long. From this flow several factors.
The majority of people, about 80 percent, live along the coastline in the southeast – the location of the Murray-Darling River Basin. Climate change forecasts suggest Australia will continue to suffer heatwaves, drought and forest fires, creating a scorched, uninhabitable landscape. This means Australians are likely to continue to cling to the coastline in ever more densely packed urban areas, even as sea levels may be rising.
Australia’s population cannot sustain a navy capable of robustly defending the sea lanes around the entire continent and the country is partially dependent on oil imported from the Middle East, but vulnerable to blockade. As such, it needs to make friends and influence people.
Its best friend remains, as it has been since 1941, the USA. Canberra needs constant reassurance that it will stay that way. Any sign that the Americans are beginning a slow retreat from the Western Pacific and Australia will have to hedge its bets. So far, the American commitment looks solid. It has a US Marine base in Darwin and a ground station for satellite intelligence gathering near Alice Springs – real estate it does not want to lose. Along with Japan and India, the two countries are members of “the Quad”, an informal strategic alliance destined to grow in importance. Officially, “the Quad” promotes democracy and a free, open Indo-Pacific. Unofficially, it hopes to prevent China from dominating the region.
China is taking action to control the seas to its south and the concern is it will extend its reach further. It wants access to fishing ports which Australia worries will turn into military bases in its backyard. Beijing has already begun scoping out Papua New Guinea’s Daru Island following an agreement to build a fisheries complex. Memories of Japan’s invasion of New Guinea in the Second World War, and bombing of Darwin, are fresh in the Australian memory. But China is also Australia’s largest trading partner and so it must walk a fine line.
Its foreign policy choices are clear. Neutrality, China, or the USA. The first seems unlikely, the other two depend on how the superpowers act. The choice matters to the UK if there is to be, as mooted, a global alliance of democracies.
The Iranian leadership does not fear invasion. When the Americans wrecked Iraq, they inadvertently delivered the Persians’ 2,000-year-long dream – securing their western flank. With Saddam Hussein out of the way, once again the flat land of Mesopotamia is a buffer in front of Iran, deterring potentially hostile forces and enabling force projection.
Iran, a Shia-majority country, is now comfortable with a Shia-dominated government in Iraq. It helps to secure Iran’s “corridor” to the Mediterranean. With the Americans paying less attention to the Middle East, Tehran moved its troops into Syria to secure President Assad (who is from a Shia offshoot branch of Islam). From there it’s a short hop to Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast, where the strongest force is not the Lebanese army but the Iranian-financed Hezbollah militia.
Tehran will continue to involve itself in all the Arab states and, in the absence of the Americans, there’s no one powerful enough to stop them. The Saudis try, and the regional Cold War between them will continue. The Biden administration will attempt détente, but suspect Iran may still secretly try to build a nuclear weapon. The danger of conflict remains, as does the possibility of Iran trying to close the Strait of Hormuz to oil and gas tankers.
What Iran does fear is internal divisions which are exacerbated by the economic crisis partially brought on by US sanctions. The young population is restive, only 60 percent of people are Farsi (Persian) speakers and the rioting of recent years is likely to return.
A few years back, anti-regime demonstrators were mostly students and from the middle class. Recently, as the economy sinks ever lower, they’ve been joined by many from the working class amid chants of “No to Gaza. No to Lebanon” and “Leave Syria and think of us” – suggesting Iran’s foreign interventions are unpopular.
However, the authorities have shown willingness to slaughter their own people by the thousands – and when you’ve gone that far, compromise is difficult. Besides, they believe they are doing God’s work. The religious revolutionaries do not intend to give up their revolution.
What do you do when the oil runs out and the Americans have gone? The Saudis have read the future. They’ll spend the next decade trying to diversify an economy based on fossil fuels by using another source they have in abundance: sunshine.
But America will not defend Saudi Arabia to protect its solar panels; as it becomes more energy independent, American interest in the Middle East wanes. Without Uncle Sam, but with a hostile Iran, the Saudis will look nervously across the Persian Gulf and continue to invest in as many weapons as they can buy. If Iran becomes nuclear armed, Saudi Arabia is expected to follow suit.
Riyadh has been involved in Syria, against Assad, since 2012. In Libya it supports the rebel movement against the Turkish-backed government which it believes is dominated by Muslim Brotherhood-influenced Islamists. The House of Saud has long opposed the Brotherhood because it seeks to overthrow the royal families across the Middle East.
Saudi’s young, de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also took the country to war in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Shia Houthi movement, with devasting consequences. Civilian casualties have mounted, and the Houthis regularly fire missiles into Saudi cities. The crown prince has found that leaving Yemen is harder than getting in. He will forever be associated with the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, but money and oil still talk and there are deals to be done, not least the sale of a small percentage of the massive Saudi Aramco energy company.
The population is young, reforms are slow, and the leadership is anxious about the eastern provinces, where the Shia minority chafe against what they see as Sunni privilege. The crown prince walks a tightrope. Relax too many restrictions too quickly and risk an ultra-conservative backlash in the country which gave us Osama Bin Laden. Relax them too slowly and risk undermining economic reforms and frustrating the younger people. The House of Saud named the country after itself, but uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
Turkey sees the post-Cold War and 9/11 world as a jungle full of competitors in which it is one of the lions. President Erdogan is a “neo-Ottoman”, who believes Turkey’s destiny is to emerge as a global superpower as the West declines. He has a 360-degree vision, and within it is the “Blue Homeland” – a return to the territorial boundaries before the settlements of the 1920s in which Turkey renounced its claims on Rhodes, Cyprus, the Dodecanese and other islands.
Many supporters of Blue Homeland say membership of Nato is an American plot to prevent Turkey from rising and projecting power in all directions. Attempts to do so bring opposition from territories formerly in the Ottoman Empire, notably the Arab states and Greece.
Turkish military maps now show large part of the Aegean as being part of the Homeland, but legally most of it is Greek territory due to its control of most of the sea’s islands. The discovery of huge deposits of gas in the area has exacerbated tensions between the two Nato members, and the potential for hostilities is constant.
Turkey seeks to be militarily self-sufficient and already produces its own submarines, frigates and drones. Last year it launched its first light aircraft carrier. It has opened military bases in Qatar and Somalia, and despatched troops to Syria, Iraq and Libya. Buying the S-400 missile defense system from Russia has infuriated its Nato allies, especially the Americans. Despite being a lukewarm member of Nato, it will stay in the alliance for the foreseeable future. But its current stance has undermined confidence in the organization and weakened it. If Turkey does leave, the whole of Nato’s southern flank would need realigning, with extra responsibilities for Romania and Greece.
From Turkey’s vantage point, it still bestrides the bridge between Europe and Asia, once again pushing forward and creating outposts as it expands. There’s been a break with the past century, a reconnection further back to the days of the Ottomans, and simultaneously a call to arms for the Republic to own the future.
When you have the mountains at your back, limited land capable of sustaining a large population and 6,000 islands, geography dictates you will always look to the sea. In Greece’s case, the Aegean. Therefore, Turkey’s vision of the Blue Homeland causes concern, merging old and new conflicts and creating a volatile geopolitical front.
Greek sovereignty in most of the Aegean is because a state’s Exclusive Economic Zone extends 200 nautical miles from its coast (shared if another state is within 200 miles). But some Greek islands are just off Turkey. In 2019, President Erdogan was pictured in front of a map showing half of the sea as Turkish.
Also involved is Cyprus, which hosts a British military base garrisoned by several thousand personnel. Greece sees itself as the protector of Cyprus. Last year, when Turkey threatened to develop a naval base in the north, and to begin drilling for gas, alarm bells rang in Nicosia, Athens and London.
The Americans, disturbed by Turkey’s increasingly aggressive stance and drift from Nato, have paid lavish attention to Greece to ensure they retain their four US military bases in the country and game-plan how Greece could supplant Turkey as the main guard on Nato’s southern flank.
The refugee crisis may have temporarily reduced, but tens of thousands of migrants and refugees remain trapped on Greek islands, and may be for years to come, even as others make the short journey from Turkey. During the peak of the refugee/migrant crisis (2016) Greece was still recovering from the 2008 financial crash. It has now stabilized its economy, but it remains fragile and another similar crisis would again put it under enormous strain, in addition to the political tensions such movement of peoples often causes.
The Greeks, like the Italians, feel the EU has not helped them sufficiently as waves of the world’s hungry and poor wash up on their shores. Empires come and go, alliances shift, but the constants for Greeks remain what made them – the mountains and the seas.
Ethiopia has become the “water tower of Africa” and increasingly it has the ability to control the flow. The waters originating in its high land, including those now flowing into the recently constructed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), are a matter of national security for several countries that rely on the Nile river system, but Egypt is most vulnerable. This is one of the key sites for this century’s potential “water wars”. The dam may also create enough hydroelectric power to change Ethiopia’s fortunes.
The dam, now filling with Blue Nile waters near the border with Sudan, is expected to feed most of the country’s energy needs, as well as supply power to its neighbors. In turn this should improve prosperity and reduce rural people’s reliance on firewood and charcoal, which has depleted forests and led to soil erosion. For the Egyptians, though, the building of the dam is an existential matter. The Nile is the lifeblood of the country. No Nile – no Egypt, and Ethiopia’s hand is now on the tap. A few years ago Cairo considered air strikes, but it’s a long way to go and Ethiopia (population 110 million) is the strongest military power in the Horn of Africa.
Regional leadership brings a place at the top table of African politics and is attracting attention from countries seeking to establish an economic or military foothold. However, it sits at the center of one of the most troubled regions in the world. In this century its neighbors – Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea – have all experienced civil wars, while Kenya has been rocked by wide-scale ethnic clashes and terrorism. As has Ethiopia.
Its nine administrative regions are all based on ethnicity in a country with more than 80 languages. Ethnic tensions have always plagued the country. The most recent outbreak of violence is the ongoing war in the Tigray region. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed hopes to use the GERD to help build a better-connected country and unite it with a sense of purpose. He once said Ethiopians had to unite since “the other option is to kill each other”. The remark reinforced warnings that Ethiopia’s federation could easily go the way of Yugoslavia and disintegrate in an ethnic bloodbath.
Spain is a stable EU country, but always faces the potential of breakup as the specter of violent regional nationalism remains. It is one of Europe’s most mountainous countries. This terrain, and size (double the UK), have always hampered trade and central political control, ensuring that the regions retain strong cultural and linguistic identities. Spain is an enthusiastic member of the EU, but membership dilutes the strength of the nation-state and encourages regional nationalists who envisage a future outside Spain but inside the EU.
The main independence movements are in Catalonia and the Basque country. These territories contain the narrow, flat corridors of land each side of the Pyrenees. To defend Spain from incursion from the north requires control of the corridors. They are also major trade routes, and the regions are home to some of Spain’s biggest ports. Madrid cannot afford to lose them and, as seen in the violent crackdown of 2017, will take action to prevent such a scenario.
An independent Catalonia would embolden those campaigning for independence elsewhere. Therefore, the EU must offer no indication that Catalonia could join the Union, but in the event of independence, EU rejection of a Catalonian state could leave the door open to Russian and Chinese influence. Spain’s struggles epitomize the fragility of the nation-state, and of supranational alliances, in the 21st century.
Down south, Spain shares a land border with Morocco via the Ceuta and Melilla enclaves. Every year, thousands of migrants attempt to scale the fences separating the two countries because they are also the EU’s border with Africa. If the chaos in the Sahel worsens, the knock-on effect will hit Spain hard.
Another golden age of space exploration beckons over the limitless horizon. But who owns space? How do you decide? There’s never really a “final frontier”, but this is as close as it gets, and frontiers tend to be lawless places. If I want to place my laser-armed satellite over your country, but above your airspace, by what law do you say I can’t? Our current treaties are years behind our technology.
Space has its own geography. If a country gained dominance in the belt where most satellites are, and was able to knock out rival satellites, it would be the only power which could control all communication systems. Low orbit is also where spacecraft seeking to travel beyond the Moon could be refueled. More energy is required to get from the Earth’s surface to the Moon than from low orbit to Mars. If one powerful nation gained control of this corridor it would become the gatekeeper and could prevent rivals from traveling. This is a modern twist on the “choke points” on Earth, such as the Suez Canal.
There are also “libration points”. These are places where the gravitational effects of the Earth and Moon cancel each other out, allowing objects stationed there to remain in position without having to use fuel. These points may become areas of competition. Two in particular are in locations that allow a commanding “view” down to the belt containing satellites. Another is on the far side of the Moon. China has stationed a satellite there, allowing it to see what is happening on the “dark side”, which is where they hope one day to establish a base.
This is why the main players believe the US military mantra that “space is a war-fighting domain”. However, co-operation could deliver untold riches for all, not least from the massive asteroids which pass by containing huge quantities of minerals we currently mine on earth, despoiling the planet and adding to climate change.
Humans have always looked up, deep into the night sky, and dreamed. Now we’ve actually reached the high ground. It is manifestly our destiny to go higher, and we will get there more quickly if we do it together. The sky is not the limit.
Tim Marshall’s The Power of Geography: Ten Maps That Reveal the Future of Our World is out now from Scribner