April 12, 2016 South America is an island, connected to North America by a land bridge. We all know that. But South America is not a single entity. It is made up of smaller islands, divided not by the ocean, but by impassable jungles and mountains. The Amazon and the Andes create three islands. The eastern island consists of parts of Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, as well as Paraguay and Uruguay. The second island is Venezuela and Colombia. The third is a long, thin island in the west, running from Ecuador through Peru and Chile.
If you have ever wondered why South America was never formed into a single entity like North America, or into transcontinental countries, think about the Amazon and the Andes. South America only looks like a single landmass. It is deeply divided by these barely passable barriers. In a real sense, the center of South America is a blank. A great deal of South American history can be explained by this.
Maps can deceive. They can also reveal. It all depends how you look at it and what you see. Geopolitical Futures sees deep, and seeing deep, it will surprise you.
April 6, 2016 This week’s graphic shows the geography of the Central Asian states, as well as the distribution of various ethnic groups. Centuries of invasions and foreign rule contributed to the emergence of weak states with deep internal vulnerabilities in Central Asia. We have discussed how Europeans, through the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, created artificial borders in the Middle East, thus laying the groundwork for the disintegration of Syria and Iraq that we are seeing today. Central Asia’s modern-day borders were also drawn by outsiders, though in this case it was Soviet planners in the 1920s and 1930s. Today’s borders are thus not organic and do not strictly reflect ethnic or national divisions. About 23 percent of Kazakhstan’s population, for example, is made up of ethnic Russians. Ethnic Uzbeks make up about 14 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population and over 13 percent of Tajikistan’s. Central Asia is thus a region where ethnic and regional tensions abound and threaten the unity of the modern states.
March 29, 2016 This week’s graphic shows the lights on the Korean Peninsula that are visible from space at night, which illustrates the cost of North Korea’s strategic irrationality. Rationally speaking, North Korea couldn’t possibly launch a nuclear strike. Therefore, it is critical for North Korea to appear irrational. South Korea, China and the U.S. understand North Korea well enough to endure its assertions of power and aggression without panicking. The regime appears resilient and in control. The result is a formula for stalemate… a stalemate of the indifferent. But the cost of this stalemate is the blackness of the North Korean night. The cost of maintaining the regime is a dramatic lack of economic development. Whatever wealth exists is diverted to maintaining the bluff, which in turn requires a delicate internal balance that demands not only massive repression but also, above all, isolation.
March 22, 2016 This week’s graphic shows the location of each explosion in Brussels and where Paris attack suspect Salah Abdeslam was arrested. Attacks like those in Brussels today, especially on soft targets like large, unprotected public transportation centers, are likely the new normal for Europe. The Islamic State is largely focused on its war in Syria and Iraq, but militants have shown a willingness to further some strategic goals through terror attacks farther afield. It is in the group’s interest to strike visible Western targets because it benefits when the tide of popular opinion turns against migrants and when Muslim minorities in Europe feel that the West does not accept them. Moreover, it is impossible for authorities to fully secure all soft targets. Even if some members of a cell are arrested or killed, groups tend to have middle managers who are responsible for coordinating multiple cells.
March 15, 2016 This week’s graphic shows American perceptions about immigrants based on their region of origin. Recent studies reveal that a portion of U.S. society increasingly mistrusts immigrants. In the last year, multiple polls have shown a rising concern over immigration among Americans. While these surveys asked slightly different questions, the collective results illustrate that a notable amount of Americans are wary of immigrants in the country. Such mistrust of and opposition to immigration is nothing new in U.S. history. Groups and political movements promoting some element of nativism – a political or social preference for the established inhabitants of a country over immigrants – have existed almost as long as the country itself.
March 8, 2016 This week’s map highlights Mexico’s key trade partners. The exporters’ crisis dramatically impacts those countries where exports account for a large portion of total GDP. In Mexico, exports represent only about 32 percent of GDP. This alone means Mexico is only moderately exposed to the exporters’ crisis. There are countries with higher exposure, like Germany, where exports make up about 45 percent of GDP, and countries with lower exposure, like the United States, where exports account for only 13.5 percent of GDP. However, the nature of Mexico’s export destinations significantly reduces the country’s vulnerability to the crisis. The United States – a relatively stable market – imports 80 percent of Mexican exports, while only about 1.3 percent of exports go to China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
March 1, 2016 This week’s map shows the strategic importance of the Louisiana Purchase to the United States. New Orleans was the key to North America. Sea-going vessels could not go very far up the Mississippi. The flat-bottom barges that brought the wealth of the Midwest down the Mississippi could not venture out to sea. New Orleans developed at the point where ships and barges could each safely meet. The barges exchanged cargo with the ships, which then carried it to Europe. Of course to get to this point, the plain between the Rockies and Appalachians had to be settled and farmed. This westward expansion achieved an enormous increase in economic power and gave the U.S. strategic depth. In 1803, France was engaged in the Napoleonic Wars for domination of Europe, and Napoleon was not very interested in the Louisiana Territory. For the Americans, and particularly for President Thomas Jefferson, it was an obsession. The U.S. bought the territory for $3 million dollars, which even in today’s dollar was an absurd amount – about $230 million. That price included the entire Mississippi River and New Orleans.
Feb. 23, 2016 This week’s map highlights the various religious groups in the Middle East. Governments in the region have struggled hold their countries together in the face of deep sectarian divides, while jihadist and rebel groups have taken advantage of them. In Iraq, the Islamic State re-emerged in the Sunni areas with its seizure in June 2014 of the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and its declaration of the caliphate. It is true that since that time, Iraqi and Kurdish security forces have prevented IS from further expanding and have even taken back significant areas. However, the fact of the matter is that neither the Shia nor the Kurds are willing to make the political compromises with the Sunnis or with each other needed to ensure that IS will be defeated. The bottom line is that Iraq is a state broken along triangular fault lines and is dominated by three different entities.
Feb. 16, 2016 This week’s map highlights Saudi Arabia’s royal family. The current monarch, the ailing 80-year-old King Salman, is the last of the sons of King Abdulaziz, the founder of the modern kingdom. After him, third generation princes will most likely take the throne. But the Saudi royal family has exponentially increased in size since King Abdulaziz’s generation. There are many grandsons and thus claimants to the throne and the other top jobs in the kingdom, but no real succession system in place.
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who died in January 2015, decreed a succession law and created an Allegiance Council consisting of nine living sons of the founder and 16 grandsons who would chose the new crown prince when the incumbent would assume the throne upon the death of a monarch. This system has been over-ridden by the need to follow the informal line of succession and the practice of appointing a deputy crown prince and a second deputy prime minister. Consequently, the current king elevated his 30-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, to the position of deputy crown prince and gave him sweeping powers – ranging from defense minister to leader of a newly formed strategic council overseeing energy and economic affairs – a move that has created apprehension within the royal family.
Feb. 9, 2016 This week’s map shows the major oil and natural gas infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. With oil prices slumping to $27 a barrel, from well over $100 just a couple years ago, the Saudis have already used up as much as 15 percent of their foreign reserves within an 18-month period. This totals more than $100 billion. But despite the significant impact of low oil prices on the kingdom’s economy, the Saudis themselves are in part responsible for the decline in the price of oil. The kingdom exports over 10 million barrels a day.
The view of the Saudis and their Gulf allies has been that they would only cut output after others in OPEC and, more important, non-OPEC producers such as Russia did the same. However, Moscow pumped some 10.88 million barrels per day in December 2015 – slightly ahead of Riyadh’s 10.14 million. The result has been that revenues have declined but the Saudis have not flinched. In fact, they continue to insist that their policy is working well. The outcome, however, is that global oil supply exceeds demand by approximately 2 million barrels a day. This drives the price of oil down further, and the lower it gets, the more the Saudis have to fall back on the use of their foreign reserves.
Feb. 2, 2016 This map indicates the number of casualties the Australian military has suffered in various conflicts, mostly outside of the country’s own borders. Especially significant was Australia’s participation in World War I. This was to be a major turning point in defining Australia’s identity as a nation for two key reasons. The first is that the new Australian navy proved to be a formidable force and the country could now safely say that its first three strategic imperatives had been achieved without any doubt.
The second is that World War I marked the moment in history where the interests of Australia and the British Empire would diverge and this split would be irrevocable. Australia’s population was approximately 4.9 million during the war and over 450,000 Australians enlisted, equivalent to 38.7 percent of males between the ages of 18 and 44, according to Australian historian Ernest Scott. Of those enlisted, about 60,000 died. Moreover, the Gallipoli Campaign, a battle in 1915 in present-day Turkey that claimed 8,000 Australian lives, in hindsight was a paradigm-shifting moment for Australia. The perceived needlessness for which Australians died at Gallipoli led to the conclusion that, while Australia would choose to go to war many more times in the future, it would do so to defend Australia and not simply out of loyalty to Great Britain.
Jan. 26, 2016 Australia is the most influential and important actor in the South Pacific. It has the 12th largest economy in the world in terms of GDP and it is the sixth largest country in the world by land mass. The other countries in the South Pacific that surround Australia – New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and numerous other small island states – pose no threat to Australia by themselves. Indonesia is the largest well-populated country in the vicinity, but it is thousands of miles away from Australia’s population core and also has rarely been unified or strong enough to pose a serious security threat. In fact, Australia is the only significant power in the world that has never faced a land-based existential threat from a neighbor. No country – not even Japan in World War II – has attempted a ground invasion of Australia since British ships seeking to establish a penal colony made landfall in what is today Sydney in 1788.