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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:09 GMT
Laos
Laos
Laos stands at the crossroads of Mainland Southeast Asia. Fully landlocked, the country is isolated by mountains and surrounded by powerful neighbors, including China and Myanmar to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west. This geography has made Laos closely entangled in its region's geopolitical competitions. Since it was established as an independent entity in the 14th century, Laos has oscillated between serving as a land bridge for trade and communications and acting as a buffer between its more powerful neighbors. During its history, Laos has acted as both a vassal state and an invasion frontier for its larger neighbors. The country's primary geographic challenge is to secure its borders against threats from its powerful neighbors. The western highland means Laos has shared trade, ethnicity and religion with present day Thailand and, to lesser degree, Myanmar, but it also invited repeated invasions until the Laotian border retreated to the natural geographic barrier of the Mekong River. To the east, the Annamite Mountain Range and Annam Highlands provide a strong, albeit passable, barrier to Vietnamese expansion. Despite the protection they bring, the country's rugged mountain ranges and Mekong River tributaries also make Laos difficult to govern. Because of this, Laos has been vulnerable to external exploitation throughout its history. On the other hand, the mountains provide ample water for hydropower and numerous natural mineral and coal resources, though the terrain and climate limit agricultural activity. Because of its landlocked status, resource scarcity and powerful neighbors, Laos has limited options to secure sea access, economic lifelines or a strong defense. It has typically gained these by exploiting differences among its neighbors, accommodating them politically or by gaining the backing of an external power, as it did with France in the early 20th century. Today, enhanced road, rail and power linkages with Indochina place Laos at a crossroads for trade and communication. However, this also means China's expanded influence in the region puts considerable pressure on Laos.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:10 GMT
Kuwait
Kuwait
The emirate of Kuwait is on the northwestern edge of the Persian Gulf, nestled between Iraq and Saudi Arabia and narrowly divided by land from Iran. Iraq's border blocks Kuwait from the fertile river lands of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, leaving the country a hot, waterless desert with no natural year-round rivers or lakes. Kuwait is, however, rich in hydrocarbons beneath its largely sandy desert. Because of their country's low rainfall and poor soil, Kuwaitis used to live off pearling and trade and were usually dominated by whoever controlled Iraq to the north. That often made Kuwait a borderland of empires, as its settled population interacted with merchants and traders out of Iraq and Iran and the Bedouins who traveled up from Arabia. These interactions left Kuwait's population divided between Bedouins, Sunnis and Shiites. After World War I broke up the Ottoman Empire, Kuwait achieved independence as a British protectorate. The discovery of hydrocarbons in the 1930s allowed Kuwait to rapidly transform its economy and modernize. But it still faced the challenge of needing access to trade routes and protection from powers in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran. At various times, Kuwait leans on different neighbors to balance them against one another, as it did when it aligned with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. Most recently, Kuwait has relied on its alliance with the United States to ensure its independence and access to global trade routes via the Strait of Hormuz. To ensure its security, Kuwait must have a sponsor, whether in the region or beyond it, who sees value in its independence and can guarantee its access to trade. And it must also balance its divided population, whose divisions can pull the country towards different neighbors at different times.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:00 GMT
Morocco
Morocco
Morocco sits on the northwestern coast of Africa. To the west is the Atlantic Ocean; to the north is Europe and Spain; to the east and south is Algeria and the Sahara Desert. It is divided between three distinct geographic regions: the temperate plains and hills of the northern coast, the mountains and deserts of its south and and southeast, and the coastal deserts of its south. It is bisected by the Atlas Mountains, which shield the coastlines from the desert climate of the interior. Most of Morocco’s population lives near the coastlines of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, where the climate allows for agriculture, and where trading posts thrived off trade to and from Europe. But Morocco also has access to phosphate deposits, an important ingredient in the development of fertilizer. But several of these mines are in the disputed Western Sahara, which has declared an unrecognized independence from Morocco. Because it partially sits on the Mediterranean, Morocco is exposed to influence and attack from other, more powerful Mediterranean states, especially European ones. The Roman Empire, Spain, and France all occupied Morocco for long periods of time. Today, Morocco sees a threat from neighboring Algeria, whom it sees as a rival attempting to influence and control Moroccan affairs. It seeks to maintain security along its desert borders, while defending against Algeria. It also seeks to gain access to the prosperity of Europe, while avoiding being controlled by European powers. It also must contend with a changing climate, as the Sahara Desert moves northward. Balancing these imperatives is the geographic challenge of Morocco.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:50 GMT
Portugal
Portugal
Portugal is a country in southwestern Europe that is surrounded by Spain to the north and east and by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and south. Portugal also controls the Atlantic archipelagos of Azores and Madeira. Mountain ranges run through northern Portugal, while hills and plains mark the center and the south. Because of its long coast and many islands, Portugal possesses the third largest exclusive economic zone in the European Union. Some of the longest rivers on the Iberian Peninsula, including the Douro and the Tagus, also enter the ocean in Portugal after flowing from east to west. These rivers have traditionally contributed to the prosperity of some of Portugal’s main cities, including Lisbon (the capital) and Porto (the second largest city). Portugal’s position on the Atlantic has made the country a nation of sailors and explorers. It became a global empire starting in the late 15th century, establishing colonies and trading posts in places as diverse as South America, Africa, the Middle East, India and South Asia. While Portugal eventually lost control of all its colonies, it retains close economic and cultural ties with many of them, including Brazil and Angola. The country's rivalry with neighboring Spain, another colonial power, has ultimately fostered close ties between Lisbon and London. Portugal entered a period of political turbulence and economic decline in the early 19th century. The country languished under a military dictatorship during a significant portion of the 20th century, only transitioning to democracy in 1974. The country subsequently joined the European Economic Community, the Schengen area and the eurozone. The financial crisis of the late 2000s hit the Portuguese economy hard, forcing Lisbon to request a rescue program from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The country's main geopolitical challenge is to reconcile its competing interests as a former colonial empire, Atlantic nation and member of the European Union to secure economic prosperity and political stability for its approximately 10 million inhabitants.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:59 GMT
Myanmar
Myanmar
The core of Myanmar is the fertile Irrawaddy River valley. The region, a long, flat area that is relatively easy to consolidate, is vulnerable to invasion from the surrounding mountains, particularly the Hengduan Mountains along the northern border with China. Invading Mongols and the now-dominant ethnic Burman, for example, twice overthrew governments in the Irrawaddy valley. Though control of Myanmar's surrounding mountains provides security for the valley's core, it can also stir conflict with the various ethnic groups that inhabit the border regions. As a result, Myanmar has never completely solidified its own territory. The country borders Bangladesh and India to the west, but a mountain chain separates and protects it from those neighbors. To the northeast, likewise, high mountains and rugged jungle provide a formidable barrier against China. The Shan Plateau to the east poses less of a physical challenge, allowing various ethnic groups to move easily across political boundaries. Historically, the absence of a barrier has facilitated Myanmar's communication with Thailand and Laos, while also making for more frequent conflict with them. Myanmar's location makes it a natural bridge between the Indian Ocean basin, Southeast Asia and southern China. Coupled with the country's energy resources — including oil and natural gas — its position has made it a target for foreign intervention, whether overt, as with the United Kingdom or Japan, or less direct, as with China's recent ports, pipeline and transport infrastructure projects. Foreign interference, like internal ethnic conflict, is a perennial concern for Myanmar because of its physical geography.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:50 GMT
Qatar
Qatar
Qatar occupies the Qatar Peninsula, a thumb of land jutting into the middle of the Persian Gulf. It has one land border with Saudi Arabia, but shares waters with Bahrain, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. It has no surface rivers or lakes, and its water supply is buried beneath the sandy desert that is practically the country’s only topographical feature. It lacks forests and, prior to the modern era, could not develop an indigenous agricultural sector. This makes the country uniquely dependent on the outside world for survival. Qatar possesses proven 885.3 trillion feet of natural gas reserves just beneath the waves of the Gulf in a field it shares with Iran, and it makes Qatar the third-largest holder of light natural gas in the world and the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Since it began exporting LNG, Qatar has become the richest country on Earth per capita. The exports pass through the strategic Strait of Hormuz or are sent through an undersea pipeline to the United Arab Emirates. After Qatar ceased being a British protectorate in 1971, its royal family declined an offer to join the federation of the United Arab Emirates and chose to chart an independent course. Qatar joined the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional bloc, in 1981, and although it was officially neutral in the Iran-Iraq War, Qatar joined the coalition to evict Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. In 1996, Qatar began hosting U.S. troops at its Al Udeid air base and opened the offices of the state-sponsored Al Jazeera media outlet. In 2010, it was awarded the rights to the 2022 World Cup. Its geopolitical position makes Qatar uniquely reliant on open trade for prosperity and outside powers for security. It must have reliable trade routes to export its LNG, and it requires outside sponsors to prevent Saudi Arabia or Iran from gaining too much influence over it. For now, it relies on the United States to provide both. That alliance allows Qatar to maintain a precarious balance against geographically advantaged neighbors.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 16:52 GMT
Italy
Italy

Italy is a peninsular country in southern Europe that borders France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia. Two independent states, Vatican City and San Marino, exist within its territory. The country is mountainous, with the Apennines stretching the length of the peninsula and the Alps acting as a natural barrier between Italy and its neighbors. It also has the two largest islands in the Mediterranean, Sicily and Sardinia. Italy's core is the Po Valley, one of the most prosperous regions in Europe and the heart of the industrial north. The southern part of the country has a more agricultural profile and has traditionally been less developed. Italy's capital, Rome, was once the heart of a sprawling empire, which stretched over much of Europe, North Africa and the Levant.

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century, Italy was fragmented into small kingdoms, republics and duchies. Italy's privileged position in the heart of the Mediterranean and the wealth of its economic centers made the peninsula a territory of constant invasion, from Germanic tribes in the 5th century to the French, Austrian and Spanish empires in the 18th and 19th centuries. Moreover, Italy's rugged geography led to the development of strong regional identities. As a result, the country didn't achieve political unity until the 1860s. Italy's main geographic challenge is to preserve its territorial unity and develop a relatively stable central government while dealing with strong regional interests and fractious political forces. The eurozone crisis has intensified this challenge.

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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 16:50 GMT
Indonesia
Indonesia
The geopolitical foundation of modern Indonesia is the seas and ports that integrate the country's islands that stretch from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. Of Indonesia's more than 17,000 islands, about 6,000 are populated by more than 300 ethnolinguistic cultures. The Dutch first consolidated large parts of modern Indonesia by the 19th century, and maintaining political unity of its culturally diverse islands poses the nation's primary geographic challenge. Indonesia's main island, Java, is home to about 60 percent of the country's population, with its largest ethnic group being the Javanese. Java is also Indonesia's agricultural heartland, producing coffee, sugarcane, rubber and rice. A spine of east-west volcanic mountains runs along the southern reaches of the island. These mountains orient Java's population to the north, toward the Java Sea. The Java Sea is the core of Indonesia, with the Karimata Strait, the Makassar Strait and the Flores Sea linking the main island of Java to its outer islands, stretching from Sumatra to Sulawesi to western New Guinea. These islands have been critical sources of oil, natural gas, copper and tin. Indonesia's disconnected landmasses and vast maritime stretches present difficulties and limitations to centralized control, as seen with the independence of East Timor in the 1990s and ongoing separatist concerns in Aceh and Irian Jaya. Holding this island nation together has required a strong central authority to balance regional aspirations and national interests — although it has tried to balance tight control with empowerment of regions in recent decades. Ultimately, Indonesia is burdened by the conflicting requirements of managing the populations of each island while expending resources to control its maritime core.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 15:13 GMT
Egypt
Egypt
Located in the northeast corner of Africa, Egypt lies at the heart of the Arab World. Comprised of mostly uninhabitable desert, 99 percent of the country's 93 million people live along the banks of the Nile River. This region, from the Aswan High Dam to the Mediterranean shore is Egypt's core. The Nile, while not commercially navigable, forms the basis of Egypt's irrigation-dependent agricultural sector. The long, narrow stretch of population requires expensive infrastructure development — especially related to transportation, straining the capital-poor government's resources. The desert topography demands a great deal of investment on a national scale necessitating a strong central state, helping to explain Egypt's history of authoritarian regimes beginning with the pharaohs. Egypt's main geographic challenge has been to develop beyond the narrow Nile corridor and project power eastward. The Saharan desert has largely insulated the Nile core from its western flank and contained Egypt's westward expansion. Egypt has been able to translate its strong central government and border with Israel into developing a relationship with the United States, the key foreign backer protecting the Suez Canal and the northern coastline. This area contains the majority of Egypt's offshore hydrocarbon reserves. The Sinai Desert has traditionally been the overland route of foreign invasion, but its more manageable geography also accommodates Egyptian attempts to interact with the Levant and Arabian Peninsula and competition with Saudi Arabia for the role of regional Arab hegemon.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 15:17 GMT
Finland
Finland
Located in Northern Europe, Finland shares borders with Sweden, Russia and Norway, and the Gulf of Finland separates it from Estonia to the south. Finland's destiny has traditionally been shaped by its more powerful neighbors. During the Middle Ages, Finland progressively became part of the kingdom of Sweden. It was often a battleground between Sweden and Russia, and in the early 19th century it became an autonomous grand duchy in the Russian Empire. Finland gained independence only in 1917, and after World War II it chose a policy of neutrality, seeking a balance between Russia and the West. This became known as "Finlandization," a policy that to some extent continues to this day. Finland is mostly flat, with few hills, thousands of lakes and islands, and large forests. Its cold weather explains why most of the population lives in the south of the country, where it is warmer and conditions for agriculture are better. Helsinki is the capital, and the Greater Helsinki area is Finland's core, because 1.5 million of the roughly 5.5 million people in the country live there. The region accounts for about a third of the country's gross domestic product. Because of its distance from large European markets, Finland lagged in industrialization, traditionally relying on agriculture, forestry and the production of paper. After World War II, the country started industrialization and economic liberalization, as it focused on electronics and services. To some extent, Finland is still seeking a balance between its neighbors. While it joined the European Union in 1995 and the eurozone in the early 2000s, it is not a member of NATO. It is also interested in keeping close ties with its Nordic neighbors, and it is a founding member of the Nordic Council and of the intergovernmental bloc that was created even before the European Union. Finland's main geopolitical challenge is to preserve its independence and prevent its neighbors from dictating its future again.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 00:09 GMT
Algeria
Algeria
Algeria is located on the Mediterranean coast of Africa. The Sahara Desert rests along the country’s southern border, while the coastal plains of Tunisia and Morocco line its eastern and western edges. The Tell Atlas mountain chain splits the country between its desert interior and its temperate coast. This coastal region supports Mediterranean agriculture, including olives, citrus, vines and vegetables. The country also boasts deposits of coal, iron and phosphates. But for the most part the energy sector dominates the Algerian economy, leaving the state exposed to the rise and fall of the oil market. Algeria’s Saharan interior, bordering Libya, Mali, Mauritania and the Western Sahara, plays host to many of the country’s oil and natural gas fields, which account for about 94 percent of Algerian exports. Throughout Algeria’s history, most of its population has lived north of the Tell Atlas mountain chain. Because the nation’s power and politics center on the coastal cities of Algiers, Constantine and Oran, it has long been exposed to the influence and might of its neighbors rimming the Mediterranean Sea — especially northern powers such as ancient Rome and imperial France. But fortifying the coast comes at a price: The Algerian government’s grip is weaker in the desert interior, where the country is vulnerable to smuggling and infiltration from nearby countries. Since gaining independence from France in 1962, Algeria has navigated between competing ideological forces like pan-Arabism, communism and political Islam. All of these belief systems came from other Mediterranean powers like as Egypt and France, transiting the coastal plains or the Mediterranean sea to reach Algeria. To avoid being subsumed into these various transnational movements, successful Algerian states have focused on controlling the country’s coastal heartland, extending power south of the Tell Atlas once this critical region is secure.
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