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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:05 GMT
Madagascar
Madagascar
Madagascar is an island in the Indian Ocean located just off the coast of southeast Africa. Its neighbors include Mozambique to the west, the Comoros islands and France's Mayotte Department to the northwest, and Mauritius and France's Reunion Island to the east. The island is principally known for its rich biodiversity. Due to Madagascar's geographic location, its population contains a mix of cultures. Those in the largest ethnic group, known as the Merina, are actually predominantly Malayo-Indonesians who arrived in boats many centuries ago by utilizing the winds of the Indian Ocean. Following the Merina, groups from the African mainland and Arab traders eventually settled on the island. At the end of the 19th century, French colonial expansion came to the island, lasting until its independence in 1960. Since gaining independence, Madagascar has struggled to achieve political stability and economic growth. At times this struggle has taken on an ethnic dimension. The Merina control the highlands, including the capital city of Antananarivo, and have clashed with other groups on the island. There are also tensions with immigrants from the Comoros. Managing the cultural and ethnic diversity remains one of country's principal challenges. Additionally, as one of the poorest countries in the world, Madagascar suffers a dearth of infrastructure and must grapple with the devastating impact of seasonal cyclones and hurricanes. In terms of foreign relations, Madagascar has historically leaned on former colonizer, France, for support. Nevertheless, given its island status, it has also exercised an ability to balance international interest. Over the years, it has strengthened ties to North Korea, China, the United States, the Republic of South Africa and others.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:10 GMT
A horse grazes in front of Kara-Kul lake in the Chon-Ak-Suu valley, 300 kilometers southeast of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan
Located in the southeast corner of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan borders China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Kyrgyzstan is land-locked and almost entirely mountainous, making economic development difficult. The country has some mineral resources such as gold, but it does not have significant deposits of oil or natural gas. Consequently, Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest states of the former Soviet Union. Its mountainous terrain fosters significant internal political and social divisions, particularly between its northern and southern regions. Kyrgyzstan has two population and political cores distinct from each other — one in the capital of Bishkek and the other in the corridor between Osh and Jalal-Abad. This has created an unstable post-independence political environment in the country, with Kyrgyzstan experiencing two revolutions in the past seven years alone. In 1924, Josef Stalin shaped borders in Central Asia to deliberately divide the Fergana Valley region and its people into three political entities. Kyrgyzstan's large Uzbek and Tajik minority populations in the south, as well as disputes over its limited water resources, have led to tensions and frequent border disputes with its neighbors. Despite the economic, security and political difficulties created by its geography, Kyrgyzstan's strategic location makes it an area of competition between larger powers. Russia is Kyrgyzstan's largest trading partner, and the country hosts a Russian military base in Kant. The United States also has an air base in Manas, a key transit point for NATO military operations in nearby Afghanistan. Taking advantage of this external competition while trying to overcome internal weaknesses shapes Kyrgyzstan's strategy.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:06 GMT
Macedonia
Macedonia
Macedonia is a republic in the Western Balkans surrounded by Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and Kosovo. It is a landlocked and mountainous country, whose geography is defined by a central valley formed by the Vardar River. The valley is home to Macedonia's capital, Skopje, and is the most densely populated part of the country. In recent years Macedonia has shifted to a services economy, but agriculture still employs about a fifth of the labor force. The territories that make up the Republic of Macedonia today were conquered by King Philip II of Macedon in the fourth century B.C. One of his sons, Alexander the Great, built one of the greatest empires of the ancient world. But it did not last long, and in the following centuries Macedonia's fate was shaped by its more powerful neighbors. Between the second century B.C. and the early 20th century, the area of modern-day Macedonia was at various times under the control of Rome, Byzantium, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire and Serbia. This produced a unique cultural heritage, but also conflicts. While a distinct Macedonian nationalism began to emerge in the 19th century, the area continued to be under the control of bigger powers. After World War II, the Socialist Republic of Macedonia was made part of Yugoslavia. Macedonia gained independence in 1991 and was largely spared the violence that defined the Yugoslav wars. But the young country still faced challenges. In 2001, there was an armed conflict between the Macedonian government and ethnic Albanian insurgents demanding greater political rights. In addition, Greece does not recognize Macedonia's name, arguing that it could lead to claims to Greek territory. Macedonia aspires to join the European Union and NATO, but the name dispute and the demands for institutional, political and economic reforms make the process complex. Macedonia's challenges in the coming years include building a stable country, normalizing relations with its neighbors and preserving the statehood that remained elusive for so many centuries.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:09 GMT
Lebanon
Lebanon
Lebanon is a small country wedged against the Mediterranean Sea, with Syria to its east and Israel to its south. The country is divided by the western Lebanon Mountains and the eastern Anti-Lebanon Mountains, which also run through Syria. These mountains produce three geographic and climate ranges for the country: hot and dry in the east and mild and wetter in the west, with the fertile Bekaa Valley in the midlands providing much of the country's agriculture. The cluster of mountains itself is friendly to the growth of cedar trees, the country's national icon. Because of its small size, Lebanon is forced to import much of the food it needs to feed its population. Thus it has long been a center of trade, with coastal cities like Beirut acting as gateways for east-wide trade routes. It's a necessity for Lebanon to keep access to these trade routes. However, because the country is so small, outside powers have found it very easy to exert influence, especially given Lebanon's internal demographic divisions. Foreign powers can often find allies in Lebanon, though they rarely can find enough friendly forces to control the entire country, leading to frequent split governments and regular civil strife. Lebanon's greatest challenge, therefore, is to keep access to its trade routes while balancing its own divisions, which are manipulated by outside powers. It has not always succeeded, and the country's 1975-1990 civil war is only the latest major conflict that has arisen from these conditions. In the future, Lebanon will continue to struggle with precariously balancing its small size, its divided population and its ambitious neighbors.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:42 GMT
South Korea
South Korea
The Republic of Korea, also called South Korea, occupies the southern half of a peninsula that juts out of the Asian mainland toward Japan. The country shares its only land border with North Korea, which it also borders in the Yellow and East seas. It shares maritime borders with Japan to the east and China to the west. South Koreas primary geographic challenges are overcoming internal fractures to maintain cohesion, and securing its maritime sphere and its southwest lowland pockets from its more powerful neighbors. The ancient kingdoms of Baekje and Silla occupied the distinct geographic pockets of the southern peninsula, standing in contrast to a more unified space where North Korea now sits. The Taebaek mountains run along much of South Korea's eastern coast, largely protecting the country from invasion by sea from this direction. These mountain ranges provide a level of protection to the peninsula's most vulnerable feature: a north-south corridor of lowlands and hills along the west coast. This coast (as well as much of South Korea's southern coastline) is protected from easy landing by countless islands, mudflats and tidal rips. However, the Nakdong River valley at Pusan offers a point of incursion to would-be invaders. From here, they can pass over the lower elevations of the Sobaek Mountains and onward to the western core. This has been the gateway for those seeking to control the peninsula, from the failed 16th century invasions of Japanese Daimyō Toyotomi Hideyoshi to the Japanese empire's later efforts in the 19th century. A North Korean invasion in 1950 (repelled by U.N. forces defending the Pusan Perimeter) highlights another key vulnerability for South Korea: the potential for incursions from the north via the western coastal strip. To hedge against aggression from all directions, South Korea is focused on securing its maritime space, particularly in the south and west. The country has prioritized its possession of Jeju Island in the Jeju Strait and has in the past held claims to Tsushima Island. Disputes with China over the Socotra Rock in the Yellow Sea and with Japan over Dokdo in the East Sea are also important elements of South Korea's overall maritime strategy. The Korean Peninsula's historic policy of isolation was one way of remaining out of the crosshairs of its neighbors, but it has also aligned itself with rival powers throughout its history. Most recently, South Korea has used a third party — the United States — to maintain balance against neighbors that threaten it from sea and land.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:38 GMT
Syria
Syria

Modern Syria is located along the eastern Mediterranean Sea, bordering Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Syria’s main geographic challenge is uniting its diverse ethnic groups under one domestic power. This is the result of mountainous terrain and ethnic cores that contradict the state’s current borders. Syria’s population is composed of Sunni Arabs, Alawites, Kurds, Druze, and Christians, among others. The traditional core of Syria's ruling Alawite minority sits on the northern coastal plain to the west of the Jabal an Nusayriya mountains and to the north of the Anti-Lebanon mountains. Between these two ranges, the Homs Gap has often been the point of invasions from the Mediterranean Sea. The interior region is dominated by the majority Sunni Arab peoples. The Syrian Desert divides this area into two competing regions with strong local identities. The first, Damascus, is the historical capital and the modern seat of power for the Alawites. The other, Aleppo, is situated in the agricultural heartlands of the Aleppo plateau. The Euphrates river divides this plateau from the much more arid Jazirah plateau and allows for irrigation in an otherwise desert region. Syria’s modern boundaries fall short of the historical concept of Greater Syria—spanning from Lebanon to the west and Jordan and Israel to the south. Its current borders were set by the League of Nations' French Mandate, following the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Lebanon, especially Beirut, has always been important to Syria because of its trade ports and access to Mediterranean markets. Syria’s recent civil unrest is the latest example of its geographic challenge. Maintaining unity remains difficult so long as its current boundaries continue to overlap regional and ethnic fault lines.

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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:58 GMT
Nepal
Nepal
Nestled against the Himalayas, landlocked Nepal lies between India and China, south of Tibet. Nepal is divided into three geographic subregions: a mountainous northern border region, a central hilly area and the Terai, a fertile, low-lying marshy plain. The Terai is irrigated by tributaries of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers and supports over 90 percent of Nepal's 27 million people. Only 17 percent of the population lives in urban areas, the largest being the capital in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal's core. Following decades of civil strife, Nepal transformed from a monarchy into a modern republic in 2006. The territory of modern Nepal was unified under ethnic Gurkha rule in the mid-18th century. Colonial Britain relied on the military support of elite Gurkha mercenaries to maintain influence on the subcontinent. After centuries of isolation, Nepal's geographic challenge is its struggle to remain independent and maintain a distinct identity from surrounding global powers. This is complicated by Nepal's dependence on Indian ports and constant Chinese attention on its northern border with Tibet. Nepal has transitioned from an isolated agrarian society toward greater economic integration with its neighbors, especially India. While agriculture still plays a large role, it is matched by the services sector fueled by foreign tourism to religious sites and Mt. Everest. Although the geography and inhospitable climate of the northern border prevent any large-scale military posturing by outside powers, Nepal's location along the Tibetan plateau can serve as a launch pad for greater Indian influence northward or an expansion of Chinese influence, denying New Delhi inroads into Tibet. Following decades of civil strife, Nepal transformed from a monarchy into a modern republic in 2006. The territory of modern Nepal was unified under ethnic Gurkha rule in the mid-18th century. Colonial Britain relied on the military support of elite Gurkha mercenaries to maintain influence on the subcontinent. After centuries of isolation, Nepal's geographic challenge is its struggle to remain independent and maintain a distinct identity from surrounding global powers. This is complicated by Nepal's dependence on Indian ports and constant Chinese attention on its northern border with Tibet. Nepal has transitioned from an isolated agrarian society toward greater economic integration with its neighbors, especially India. While agriculture still plays a large role, it is matched by the services sector fueled by foreign tourism to religious sites and Mt. Everest. Although the geography and inhospitable climate of the northern border prevent any large-scale military posturing by outside powers, Nepal's location along the Tibetan plateau can serve as a launch pad for greater Indian influence northward or an expansion of Chinese influence, denying New Delhi inroads into Tibet.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:49 GMT
Romania
Romania
Romania is located in southeastern Europe, north of the Balkan Peninsula and on the western shore of the Black Sea. The Carpathian Mountains divide Romania into three parts. To the south is the Wallachian Plain, the core of contemporary Romania where its capital, Bucharest, and its old oil center, Ploiesti, are located. East of the Carpathians is the Moldavian Plain, where the city of Iasi sits, which is an important economic and cultural center. To the northwest of the Carpathians is Transylvania, a more rugged, hilly region. None of the three parts are easy to defend. Transylvania was occupied by the Hungarians in several stages starting in the 11th century, and then fell under Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule. Wallachia and Moldavia were constant battlegrounds for the Ottomans, the Habsburgs and later the Russians. After becoming a nation-state in the late 19th century, Romania had a precarious existence, balanced between foreign powers. Romania spent most of the 20th century trying to find its balance with monarchy, authoritarianism and democracy. During the Cold War, Romania was ruled by a Communist dictatorship loosely aligned with the Soviet Union. Like most of the former Soviet satellites, after the fall of communism, Romania aligned itself with NATO and the European Union. The crisis in Ukraine has reignited Romania’s traditional fears of foreign aggression and its strategy to become more independent on energy. Bucharest is worried about events in neighboring Moldova, where the breakaway region of Transdniestria is under Russian influence, and in the Black Sea. As a country surrounded by large powers, Romania’s main geographic challenge is to remain united and limit the influence of foreigners.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:55 GMT
Norway
Norway

Located on the Scandinavian Peninsula, Norway shares land borders with Russia, Finland and Sweden and has coastline on the Barents, Norwegian and North Seas. The country’s core lies in the southeast around its capital Oslo. This lowland region is Norway’s most habitable and is closest to the more populated parts of Europe. With a rugged coastline consisting of about 50,000 islands, the Scandinavian Mountains stretching the length of the country and proximity to the Arctic, Norway is difficult to populate and, therefore, control. As a result, it has historically been dominated by regional powers such as Denmark and Sweden. After gaining independence in 1905 and maintaining neutrality throughout World War I, Norway was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940 despite, again, proclaiming neutrality. Following the war, Norway joined NATO and tightened economic relations with continental Europe to increase its national security. As member of the European Economic Area, Norway is part of several European Union institutions. However, Norwegians rejected full EU membership in referendums in 1972 and 1994. With a population of only about 5 million people, Norway has forged close ties with other Nordic countries to stifle the influence of continental Europe and Russia. Offshore oil and natural gas discoveries in the late 1960s have made the country one of the richest in the world and are vital pillars to its modern economy. But as reserves in the North Sea are depleting, the Barents Sea and Arctic are gaining importance for their natural resources and potential trade routes. Therefore, the upcoming geographic challenge for Norway, with its small population, is to secure its interests in the north through exploration and regional collaboration.

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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 16:49 GMT
India
India

India is endowed with favorable geographic barriers. Surrounded by oceans on three sides and the formidable Himalayan Mountains to the north, what is now modern India has been free of outside interference for much of its long history. Its large geographic size and population, coupled with weaker peripheral nations on much of its boundaries, have allowed India to become the dominant force in South Asia. Home to the world’s second-largest population, India’s 1.3 billion people are spread out across the peninsular nation, from the foothills of the Himalayas to the tropical south. India’s population core is settled along the Ganges river basin, a densely populated swath of fertile land that extends across the northern Himalayan border. India’s primary geographic challenge comes from a lack of strong internal boundaries. Modern-day India struggles to rectify the ambitions of a relatively weak national government that competes with the prerogatives of strong, diverse states — a legacy of a long history of domestic infighting between various dynasties uninhibited by mountains or other defining geography. A similar lack of defining geography still plagues India’s northwest border. Waves of Greek, Persian, and Mongols invaded, culminating in the Mughal Empire, which united much of the subcontinent prior to British conquest. The northwestern border still poses national security risks, due to ongoing disputes with Pakistan. But rising domestic consumption means India is increasingly dependent on imported goods from distant suppliers. Surrounded by water or impassable mountains, New Delhi now faces the additional task of developing naval capabilities to secure its critical supply routes, risking maritime tensions with China in the broader Indo-Pacific basin.

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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 16:52 GMT
Israel
Israel
Israel lives under difficult geopolitical circumstances. A small country with limited resources and surrounded by potentially hostile neighbors, Israel survives by allying with powers that do have the resources to manage the balance of power in the Middle East — namely, the United States. Its geographic position also means that Israel must manage complex relations with its Muslim neighbors by quiet collaboration, by exploiting divisions, and by parlaying its technological and economic advantages into create strategic dependencies. To navigate all the challenges presented by the Middle East, Israel will remain agile in its diplomacy and, when the situation warrants, steadfast in its pre-emptive strikes, its covert activities and its economic relationships.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 16:51 GMT
Iraq
Iraq
Iraq rests at the heart of the Middle East, wedged between large and small powers alike. The country is divided into three topographic zones: the riverlands of Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; the western and southern deserts, which reach into Saudi Arabia and Syria; and the highlands of Iraqi Kurdistan. The southern deserts shield Iraq from attack, while the northern highlands impede any attempt at conquest from Anatolia. But the open Syrian Desert provides a route into Iraq from Syria, especially along the Euphrates River, and the country’s eastern frontier has few natural barriers to prevent invasion from Iran. The flat riverlands are similarly vulnerable to incursion from any power able to land an army from the Persian Gulf. Historically, foreign forces have used these routes as a means to penetrate Iraq’s borders. In premodern times, Iraq’s wealth came from its agricultural core, which forms the heart of the Fertile Crescent and stretches to the Persian Gulf. The country’s 37 million people are still mostly concentrated in these farmlands today. But the discovery of oil in the north, east and south have shifted Iraq’s economic core from the agricultural riverlands to the northern highlands and the Iranian border, bringing prosperity to cities such as Mosul, Arbil and Kirkuk. For most of its history, Iraq has been dominated by its neighbors, which have left behind unique cultural, religious and ethnic legacies. The Sunni Ottoman Turks and the Shiite Safavid Persians helped produce the country’s modern Sunni and Shiite communities, while the sparsely inhabited western desert continues to have tribal and sectarian links to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. Some of these groups have kept their relationships with Iraq’s neighbors, which leverage those ties for their own strategic purposes. Meanwhile, in Iraq’s northern highlands, the indigenous Kurds have managed to maintain a cohesive identity throughout centuries of foreign domination. This isolation occasionally gives rise to Kurdish secessionism. As the northern highlands drift further from the central government’s control, the Sunni, Shiite, Christian and other communities of the riverlands and deserts jockey with one another for dominance of the state. Iraq’s geographic challenge is therefore to protect its vulnerable oil fields while managing a diverse population that is susceptible to external influence.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 15:18 GMT
Gambia
Gambia
Gambia is a tiny West African country on the Atlantic coast which is almost completely surrounded by Senegal. Modern-day Gambia was created by competition between the British and French empires. British explorers claimed both sides of the Gambia river that gives the country its name, carving a wedge between French positions at the Senegal and Casamance rivers to the north and south. Over time, however, British ambitions in West Africa were halted by French expansion into the hinterland, giving Gambia its unique geography. Gambia's chief geographic challenge is that it is almost entirely encircled by its much larger neighbor, Senegal. This has pushed successive Gambian leaders to make managing relations with Senegal a key focus of foreign policy, with varying degrees of success. Gambian leaders have, for example attempted to gain leverage over Senegal by supporting Casamance rebels. For many decades, insurgents in the Casamance region in the Senegal's extreme south have pushed for secession. Over the years, Gambia's ties to these secessionists have provoked interventions or reactions from Senegal. Gambia's uncomfortably cozy relationship with Senegal was most recently on display in 2016, when the former strongman of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, lost the presidential election. Jammeh tried to renege on the election but Senegal sensed an opportunity to install a more democratic, less hostile Gambian government. After a Senegalese and West African intervention force intervened, Jammeh fled the country. After years of isolation and rule from strongmen, Gambia has struggled to become a multiparty democracy.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 15:16 GMT
Ethiopia
Ethiopia
Ethiopia is an ancient African country bordered by Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya, South Sudan and Sudan. Ethiopia's relatively large population of 100 million people has helped the country establish itself as a regional heavyweight in East Africa. Its extensive mountain system, which surrounds the fertile lowland core of the country, is key to understanding Ethiopia's diverse ethnic composition and how it relates to its neighbors. Invasion is not a major concern for Ethiopia, as the northern Ethiopian Plateau and the Ahmar Mountains almost completely surround the lowlands. In the northeast, the Awash River Basin opens to the coastline, but even this area gains a certain measure of protection from its extreme desert conditions. The country's capital, Addis Ababa, sits at an elevated position overseeing the lowlands, where the majority Oromo and Amharic peoples merge with several less populous mountain cultures. Ethiopia's greatest challenge is uniting these disparate groups. Financially, Ethiopia's export and import costs are high because neighbors Djibouti and Eritrea block its sea access. North of the lowland core, the Ethiopian Plateau serves as the country's breadbasket, growing wheat, barley, corn and the staple crop teff. These highlands form an extensive drainage system that creates the most fertile land in the region. Within this region lies Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River, which is the largest tributary of the greater Nile River. Much of Ethiopia's coffee is grown at the fertile apex of the Ahmar Mountains, which are south of the lowlands. Those mountains descend into the arid Ogaden desert, which was acquired in the 19th century and remains disconnected from the core. While it provides Ethiopia with strategic depth to protect it from the issues of its unstable neighbor Somalia, the desert is also home to separatist and Somali militants, which pose a threat to the Ethiopian state.
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