May 11, 2016 This is a map of the United States at night. As you can see, the eastern part of the United States is filled with lights, and the western part is much darker, except for the Pacific Coast. The line we’ve drawn marks the point where the lights dim. And it also marks the line where annual rainfall tapers off. There is more rain to the east of the line, less rain to the west. The line marking the edge of the heavily lit area is also the point where rain declines below what is needed for high density populations. The two lines converge in the same spot and define a vital dimension of American geopolitics: the difference between the East and the West.
May 3, 2016 This map is designed to show some of the hidden fault lines underlying the states of the Middle East, and the reasons these states, which were held together by foreign powers and domestic tyrants, disintegrated.
The Ottoman Empire lasted for about six centuries before it collapsed after World War I. Towards the waning years of the 17th century, its forces had penetrated as far west as Vienna. Its power and reach were enormous and enduring. The green areas of the map show what remained of the empire in the mid-19th century, after it was long past its prime. Its power had declined, but the extent of its rule, even in decline, bound together a region reaching from the Balkans to the Arabian Peninsula and to a large part of North Africa.
April 26, 2016 There is widespread interest in the rising tensions over the waters east of China. China has become increasingly assertive in the region, and regional powers from Japan to Singapore have become alarmed at China’s behavior. The Chinese recently built an island in the South China Sea, apparently as a potential airbase. The United States sent a carrier battle group there as well. For all the activity and discussion, it is not clear that people really understand what all this is about. This week’s map will help clarify the situation.
There are two seas to the east of China – the East China Sea to the north and the South China Sea to the south, with Taiwan positioned in between. Air and naval forces based in Taiwan are, at least in theory, able to prevent movement between the two seas. The Taiwan Strait is fairly narrow and movement by the Chinese to Taiwan’s east forces China to pass near the Philippines to the south, or through the Ryukyu Islands to the north. Passage through the Ryukyu Islands could be blocked by hostile naval forces or by land-based aircraft and missiles.
In this map, we are showing the most intense areas of light to capture the areas of the world that are most developed.
The map also identifies areas with high population density. It shows us the places that have both development and high population density. In looking at this map, for example, the American heartland is still east of the Mississippi. Canada in this sense is a thin strip of land north of the American border, which is understandable given that temperatures in much of Canada are extremely cold, making the area inhospitable for human settlement. If you draw maps based on the amount of lighting, massive countries like Canada and Australia become smaller and more compact…
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.
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.