Failed States

Actually, It’s Mountains

Sometimes the toughest obstacles are the naturally occurring ones.


Geography, it has been famously said, is the most fundamental cause behind political fortune because it is the most unchanging. The truculent personalities of Prussia and czarist Russia, to say nothing of their successor states, had much to do with their being land powers with few natural borders to protect them, whereas Britain, the United States, and Venice could each in its own way champion liberty because they have had the luxury to be protected from meddlesome neighbors by expanses of surrounding water. Precisely because geography is so overpowering and unchanging a factor in a state’s destiny, there is a danger of taking it too far. So rather than believing that geography inevitably dooms states to failure, think of it as yet another complexifying factor for the weakest of countries. Their difficult geographies should spur us to action, rather than lead us to despair.

And difficult they are. Consider Africa, where nearly half of the top 60 countries in the Failed States Index are located, in most cases south of — or at least at the southern extremity of — the Sahara. Although Africa is the world’s second-largest continent, with an area three times that of Europe, its coastline south of the Sahara is about a fifth as long and lacks many good natural harbors. Few of tropical Africa’s rivers are navigable from the ocean, dropping as they do from interior tableland to coastal plains by a series of falls and rapids. The Sahara hindered human contact with the north for too many centuries, so that Africa was little exposed to the great Mediterranean civilizations. All this has combined to afflict Africa with the burden of geographic isolation.

Unlike the most remote African countries, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia have, thanks to their proximity to the Indian Ocean, had access to global trade from the Middle East and Asia since late antiquity and the Middle Ages. But these countries have their own problems related to geography. Kenya is burdened by tribalism in its interior, Ethiopia by its mountainous and drought-prone landscape, and Somalia by the fact that it constitutes sprawling desert populated by clans that have little or nothing in common. Somalia also has the longest coastline on mainland Africa, close to major sea lines of communication. And given that piracy is the maritime ripple effect of anarchy on land, it is no surprise that Somali piracy has become an international problem.

Yemen, on the opposite shore of the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, is equally burdened. Its 22 million people are running out of groundwater, and thus its prognosis is not good. Like Ethiopia, Yemen is riven by mountains, meaning its central government has difficulty accessing vast reaches of this deeply fragmented country. The regime must keep peace through a fragile balance of tribal relations because no one tribe or sect has been able to establish an identity for the Yemeni state. The defining aspect of Yemen is the diffusion of power rather than the concentration of it. For example, since ancient times, the Wadi Hadhramaut, a 100-mile-long oasis in southeastern Yemen surrounded by great tracts of desert and stony plateau, has through caravan routes and Arabian ports maintained closer relations with India and Indonesia than with other parts of Yemen itself.

Iraq, 1,400 miles to the north, combines the Kurdish mountains with the Mesopotamian plain and desert, putting ethnic groups together that either were previously on their own or part of a multinational empire. Keeping them united in an artificially conceived state required levels of force unseen even in the Arab world, as evinced by the rules of Saddam Hussein and the previous military dictators going back to 1958.

Head east to Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose geographic woes are such that neither country’s borders have much logic. In the west, Afghanistan is an extension of the Iranian plateau. In its northeast, the Hindu Kush mountains separate the Pashtun tribal belt straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan from the demographic homelands of the Tajiks and Uzbeks; Afghanistan’s most natural borders are thus situated in the middle of the country. Pakistan is an artificial puzzle piece that, unlike India, has no logical frontiers, so different, territorially based ethnic groups exist uneasily together.

To the southeast, Burma’s geographical predicament is equally precarious. The country, though rugged and underdeveloped, is as large as France and is formed around the lush cradle of the Irrawaddy River valley, surrounded by highlands on three sides. In general, ethnic Burmans live in the valley, and the minority ethnic groups such as the Karen, Karenni, Shan, and Kachin live in the sprawling hill country. It was to control the irregular armies of some of these tribal groups, which make up a third of the population, that Burma’s military took power in the first place in 1962. So, behind Burma’s benighted, authoritarian regime lie structural problems of ethnicity and geography.

And it’s not just rivers and mountains that complicate the development of fragile states. For African countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Nigeria, and Sudan, as well as Iraq and Burma, there is the geographic factor of oil, natural gas, and strategic minerals and metals to contend with. Political elites often fight over the spoils, only adding to instability.

None of these places is doomed. Human agency can triumph over determinism. But we should not be naive either: Geography is one more strike against them.

Robert D. Kaplan holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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