Rare Earth Elements: Global Reserves and Production

With China's recent threat to ban exports of rare earth elements to the United States, it may be time to find an alternative.

Energy Exports: A Source of Russian Power

Aug. 11, 2017 Energy sales are an important source of revenue, of course, but for Russia they are more than that: They are an instrument of geopolitical power. They give Moscow considerable influence over the countries whose energy needs are met by Russian exports.

France and Germany – the de facto, if often irreconcilable, leaders of the European Union – illustrate how Russian energy can shape foreign policy. France may rely heavily on foreign energy, but most of its oil and natural gas comes from Algeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Libya – not Russia. France can therefore afford to be more aggressive and supportive of sanctions against Russia.

Not so with Germany, which receives 57 percent of its natural gas and 35 percent of its crude oil from Russia. Berlin must therefore tread lightly between its primary security benefactor, the U.S., and its primary source of energy, Russia.

This is one reason Germany has been such an outspoken critic of the recent U.S. sanctions, which penalize businesses in any country that collaborate or participate in joint ventures with Russian energy firms. Germany supports the construction of Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that would run through the Baltic Sea, circumventing Ukraine – the transit state through which Germany currently receives much of its energy imports. The pipeline would help to safeguard German energy procurement, since it would allow Russia to punish Ukraine by withholding shipments of natural gas without punishing countries such as Germany further downstream.

How Interest Rates Affect US Discretionary Spending

May 5, 2017 The mounting debt owned by the U.S. government is as much a geopolitical question as a financial one. The federal government breaks its budget into three spending categories: mandatory, discretionary and net interest expense.

Mandatory spending includes pre-existing obligations. Discretionary spending requires passing legislation and is largely composed of defense spending. Net interest expense, which currently makes up about 6 percent of the federal budget, is expected to grow to nearly 12 percent in the next decade.

The U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the U.S. debt will have a blended average interest rate of approximately 3.4 percent in 2017. If interest rates exceed the CBO’s current projections, net interest expense would increase and discretionary spending – and therefore likely defense spending – would decline.

The Middle East at Night

June 11, 2016 This nighttime map of the Middle East, stretching from Egypt to Iran and from the Red Sea to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, was taken by a NASA satellite in 2012. It is fairly up-to-date given that electricity use and population don’t expand very quickly.

The most striking part of this map is Egypt. It has the most intense lighting in the region in an area in the north stretching from Alexandria to the Suez Canal, and then following the Nile River south to the Aswan Dam. The dam delivers much of Egypt’s electricity but also limits population growth to its south. It has become the southern limit of populated Egypt.

This area of intense light represents the real Egypt. Its political boundaries are far to the west and south, but that area is minimally populated and far from developed. In looking at this map, Egypt is actually a narrow country following the Nile because it is intensely populated in that area. The lights also indicate the degree of infrastructure development. Whatever problems Egypt has, and it has many, it has managed to bring electricity to the populated regions.

The Middle East and North Africa

Dec. 2, 2015 The Middle East today is defined by an Arab world steeped in the anarchy of dissolving secular states and proliferating Islamist armed non-state actors. These entities consist of different Muslim sects, the largest of which is composed of Sunnis. Amid the diverging interests, Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State are the main contenders for Sunni Arab leadership. Meanwhile, the three non-Arab powers – Turkey, Iran and Israel – are trying to manage the regional commotion according to their national interests.

The US Role in the Syrian Civil War

A look at the evolution of the conflict, and the United States’ involvement in it.

Major Shipping Routes for the Oil Trade

Nearly a fifth of the world’s oil shipments pass through the Strait of Hormuz.

Algeria’s Perpetual Protest

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika says he will not run for a fifth term. So why are people still protesting?

Mapping European Shipping Routes

A new trove of data helps to illustrate the shipping routes of 18th century European empires.

The United Kingdom’s Perspective

June 18, 2016 British citizens will vote on June 23 in a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain part of the European Union. As Britain grapples with the question of Brexit, understanding the strategic considerations behind the U.K.’s relationships with its partners is critical. The U.K.’s geopolitical challenges shaped its decision to join the bloc and will also shape London’s relations with Brussels should British voters opt to leave the union.

A map of the region from Britain’s perspective reveals its primary traditional threats: from the northeast across the sea are the Nordic states, where the Vikings originated; in the south across the channel is France, Britain’s traditional rival; and further to the east, Germany, which became a major player on the Continent after unification in the late 19th century.

Tracking the Central American Migrant Caravans

Three weeks ago, a caravan of thousands of migrants from various Central American countries departed on a journey to the U.S.-Mexico border. All the governments involved, including those from source countries Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – together dubbed the Northern Triangle – have different agendas here.

How Iran Can Project Power in the Middle East

May 26, 2017 Iran is more formidable on paper than perhaps it is in practice. It is the 17th-largest country in the world and the 17th-most populous. It is the sixth-largest producer of oil and the third-largest producer of natural gas. And, according to the International Monetary Fund, it boasts the world’s 29th-largest economy by gross domestic product despite decades of economic sanctions against it.

But the country is constrained by its demography. Iran has several large minority populations, including Azeris, Kurds, Arabs and Baluchis, all of which have separatist tendencies. Since its founding in 1979, when it toppled the secular monarchy, the current regime has tried to solve this problem by cultivating a national identity steeped in Shiism. (The shared use of the Persian language has also helped in that regard. In fact, historically, it has influenced the cultures and civilizations of peoples in all the surrounding regions.)

But religion can go only so far. Its efforts have not exactly endeared the government to the Sunni minorities that populate Iran’s farther reaches. And the clerics who dominate the government are often at odds with the country’s republican institutions.