Geography is Destiny: Why A Country’s Location Still Matters

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The Earth is highly imbalanced. Some countries have more resources than others. Some have natural harbors, and some are landlocked.

Some consist primarily of deserts, and others have fertile farmland. 

Some countries are islands, and some border many other countries. 

These differences between countries result in each having a unique set of interests, desires, and abilities. This results in a system we know as geopolitics.

Learn more about geopolitics and how geography has shaped the density of countries on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

This episode is going to be a bit different. 

Normally I use an episode to explain some historical event, the story of a person, or some scientific phenomenon. 

This episode isn’t going to be as clean-cut. 

I want to use this episode to introduce a way of thinking. A way of looking at maps, geology, and history, to understand how and why the world works as it does. 

While many of the facts about countries aren’t disputed, how these facts are interpreted certainly can be. So, I’m going to be providing brief overviews of some of the world’s largest countries and explain how and why their geography and geology have made the countries what they are today.

In particular, I want to focus on the general layout and location of the country, its energy resources, and its ability to produce food. 

These are very broad categories, and there is clearly a lot more to what makes up a country than just these three things. Culture, technology, history, and policies that they’ve implemented are also huge factors in the trajectory of the nation. 

So, with that, what country is generally considered by geographers to have the best geography? 

The answer is the United States

This isn’t due to any home team spirit on my part. 

Consider the following. The US is bordered by two massive oceans and two large countries. 

If anyone wanted to attack the US, they would either have to cross an entire ocean or go through two other large countries. 

The countries that border the US have no major outstanding border issues. There are none with Mexico, and there are only a few very minor ones with Canada

The United States is the world’s third-largest producer of food, the largest producer of oil and gas, and the fourth-largest producer of coal. They used to be the world’s largest coal producers but have cut back production voluntarily. 

It isn’t just a function of production. The United States has, by a wide margin, the largest internal navigable waterway system in the world. This primarily consists of the Mississippi River drainage basin, the Great Lakes, and the 3,000-mile intercoastal waterway. 

On top of that, the US has abundant mineral and timber resources as well as a productive fishery. 

What about Canada and Mexico?

Both countries share the same benefit of having two oceans and a small number of neighboring countries. Canada borders only one country (well, two if you want to get really technical), and Mexico only borders three. 

However, the geography of each country isn’t quite as good. Canada’s territory, while quite large, is mostly very cold and is not on land which is agriculturally productive. That being said, large parts of Canada are extremely agriculturally productive, especially in the middle of the country in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta

Canada is one of the world’s largest timber producers and had one of the world’s largest fisheries prior to the cod moratorium in 1992. 

It is also a significant producer of minerals, petroleum via oil sands, and natural gas. 

Coupled with the United States, it creates an enormous economic market of the world’s first and tenth largest economies. 

The only thing limiting Canada’s geography is that the vast majority of the population lives in a band about 150 kilometers from the US border due to temperature. It also doesn’t have as developed of an internal waterway system. 

Most of the rivers in Canada flow into Hudson Bay or the Arctic Ocean, and there is only one Canadian port on the Arctic, which is in Churchill, Manitoba, which isn’t connected to the rest of the world by road. The train which goes to Churchill is often out of service due to shifting ground after it thaws. 

Mexico is, in some ways, the opposite of Canada. Their problem isn’t cold, it’s deserts. Much of Mexico, especially in the north, are deserts and mountains. 

While this limits the amount of arable land, Mexico still manages to be the 12th largest food producer in the world and the 13th largest producer of oil. 

Mexico has very little in the way of internal waterways, mostly due to its arid climate. This makes the transportation of minerals and food more expensive as you have to transport them by road or rail. 

So, the geography of Canada and Mexico are both pretty good. 

Ample resources, two oceans, and stable recognized borders have resulted in no wars in North America in 175 years. 

Another major country that is defined by its geography is China. 

For the most part, China has been historically protected by its geography.

It is bound by the Pacific Ocean on the east, the Himalayan Mountains and foothills in the south and southwest, a huge desert in the west along with the Altay Mountains, and the Gobi Desert in the Northwest. 

Historically, these served as natural borders for China, and their various dynasties never strayed beyond these limits. 

Likewise, it also protected China as well. For example, despite being two of the largest and oldest civilizations on Earth, there has been very little conflict between India and China beyond some minor border skirmishes in the 20th century. 

The only real problem with their borders was a relatively flat plain with their border with Vietnam and the enormous exposure they had to the nomadic people of the steppes. 

This was why the Great Wall was built, and in the end, it didn’t stop them from being conquered by the Mongols for close to a century.

Since the Mongols, the borders of China have been relatively secure from its neighbors, and China has never really attempted to expand beyond its traditional boundaries. 

About ? of the land in China has very low agricultural productivity. It consists of various deserts and the Tibetan plateau. 

However, the other third is very productive. This part of China today has 80% of the population and traditionally has had the world’s largest population. Today, China is the largest overall producer of food in the world. 

The energy situation in China is a mixed bag. On one hand, they have the world’s largest coal deposits and the largest producer of coal by a wide margin.  Most of their energy growth over the last several decades has come from burning coal.

The problem is that China has almost no oil. 

The majority of China’s oil has to come from the Persian Gulf via supertanker. That makes China exceptionally vulnerable to oil disruptions by sea.

For this reason, it is the immediate area just off the coast of China that has been the foreign policy focus of China over the last several decades. In particular, Taiwan, which is of interest to China for a host of other reasons, and the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea.

Another country that is particularly affected by its geography is Russia.

Russia is a huge country, which is a blessing and a curse.  

It has ample natural resources in the form of timber, minerals, oil, and gas. The vast majority of its land in Siberia, however, is taiga which totally unsuited for agriculture.

Even its best agricultural land isn’t as productive as other countries, but they make up for the fact by just having a lot of it. 

A big problem that Russia has always faced is a lack of coastal access. Technically speaking, they have tons of shoreline, but almost all of it is on the Arctic Ocean, which is completely unusable for most of the year.

This lack of access to the sea was a driving force behind much of Russian history over the last three centuries. 

Peter the Great established Saint Petersburg in the 18th century, which gave Russia a port on the Baltic Sea. In the 19th century, they established the port of Vladivostok on the Pacific. 

Saint Petersburg isn’t a deep water port which limits the type of ships that can be used. Vladivostok is thousands of miles away from the Russian heartland and requires everything to be brought in via rail.

That only leaves ports on the Black Sea, which can entirely be controlled by Turkey via the Bhosperus Strait. 

Internally, there isn’t much in the way of useful navigable waterways, as many of the rivers in Russia flow north to the Arctic.

All of this has made Russia extremely dependent on rail transportation

However, this lack of sea access hasn’t been the biggest factor that has driven Russia’s foreign policy over the last several centuries. 

It has to do with where the Russian heartland is situated. To the east, there are the Asian steppes. This has allowed centuries of nomadic invaders to attack Russia. Everyone from the Tartars to the Mongols had a superhighway for horses, allowing them easy access to Russia.

In the west, they had the Northern European Plain. This extends through northern Europe across Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Northern France

This resulted in invasions from the west, including Napoleon and Hitler. 

To remedy this easy geographical access, Russia has pursued a policy of expansion to create buffer zones. 

In the east, this led to the conquest of Siberia and later Central Asia under the Soviet Union. In the west, this resulted in the invasion of the Baltic States, Finland, Ukraine, Moldova, and the creation of the Iron Curtain after World War II. 

In the Caucasus, it resulted in the absorption of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. 

So much of Russian history is directly due to its geography. I’m really just touching the surface, and it is probably worth an episode of its own at some point in the future.

The United States, China, and Russia aren’t the only countries that are affected by geography. Every country is.

Why have so many wars been fought between Germany and France, yet so few between France and Spain? Answer: The North European Plain and the Pyrenees Mountains. 

Why did Britain historically have such a powerful navy? It is an island with a lot of coal and iron ore.

The expansion of Ancient Rome mostly corresponded to the Mediterranean Sea. Many of their problems, aka the Germans and the Parthians, were when they strayed too far from the Mediterranean.

The many harbors and inlets found all over Europe facilitated the development of shipping and seafaring peoples. The same lack of natural harbors in Africa discouraged the same thing.

While geography is very important, and you can probably think of many more examples than the ones I covered, it isn’t everything. Steps can be taken to overcome bad geography or ruin advantages given by good geography. 

Singapore is located in an extremely strategic location. However, its economic success had little to do with its location and more to do with overcoming its small size and lack of natural resources.

Argentina has one of the best geographic advantages of any country in the world, and in fact, it used to be one of the richest countries at the beginning of the 20th century, but decades of poor economic policies have squandered most of that advantage.

So, while it might not be everything, geography is incredibly important. Having an in-depth knowledge of geography is important if you want to study almost any other subject, including finance, history, or politics.

It might seem like we live in a world so advanced that such things as rivers, mountains, and plains don’t matter anymore, but they do, because like it or not, geography is destiny.