Being dominant in terms of economy, political affairs and military power requires a country to have a certain geographic location and a size that would allow achieving ambitious political and economic goals. Undoubtedly, for a small country with insufficient natural resources, little population, and large neighbors nearby it is very difficult to become powerful. In the meantime, even small countries may act as very authoritative international actors if they have several reliable and strong allies and the surrounding countries cannot harm them. In this paper, the importance of geography in making a country an economic, political and military power will be addressed in detail. Several practical examples will help to understand how exactly geography can influence the country’s dominance in the region or the world in general.
First of all, the geographic location is an important factor of the long-term stability and advantage over the other countries. For example, the power of the USA may be rooted to the American control of two oceans that are actively used in the international trade. As the result, the USA receives some natural advantages and subsequent policies make the USA one of the strongest countries in the world in terms of the economic, political and military capacity (Marsh). Consequently, there are not many threats for the USA at the moment, because the country is located far from the rest of the countries and two oceans serve as the defensive barriers that would require spending the vast resources if one of the superpowers decided to attack the USA. In addition, the USA has very secure borders with its neighbors. In the north the USA and Canada have the longest demilitarized border in the world and in the South the USA and Mexico are able to effectively control the border and cooperate on the various issues such as illegal migration, drug trafficking, etc. (Marsh). As the result the economic core is well-protected in the USA and the country can focus on the proactive international policies that are targeted at maintaining the dominance at the global level.
On the contrary, there are quite many examples from around the world when a country can suffer from its geographic location. One of the most recent examples is Ukraine that is located in Eastern Europe between the European Union and Russia. Ukraine is one of the largest countries in Europe and has the population of 40 million people, however due to the inability to withstand the pressure against Russia and the neighboring EU countries Ukraine looks like a buffer zone in which the economic and political potential is very difficult to capitalize. Due to the political and military pressure from outside, Ukraine has been experiencing some profound economic problems and it seems that the country finds it very difficult to take control over the current aggressive strategy that is being applied by Russia with which Ukraine has the longest border in Europe.
Many scholars have researched the influence of the national borders on the country’s development. For example, McCallum (1995) showed that there is the “home bias” in the international trade when the economic performance of the regions within the country is more important than the interregional cooperation between the neighboring countries (Cited in Chang 8). However, at the moment Ukraine is unable to plan the development of some of its territories and benefit from the balanced regional policies, because Crimea was annexed by Russia two years ago and in two Ukrainian regions Donetsk and Luhansk, which are located next to the border with Russia, there is an ongoing military conflict with the possible involvement of the Russian military forces. Therefore Ukraine needs to rethink its development strategy taking into account the changed external environment and the permanent threat that Russia continues to represent for Ukraine’s territoriality.
It may seem that because of globalization and shrinking functional distances geography does not matter as much before. However nowadays uneven distribution of the natural resources and unequal availability of the opportunities remain the key factors of success or failure for any country. Despite some insignificant global flattening it still matters where “the point of entry is” and the power of place remains to be of great importance (De Blij 3). In the book The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization's Rough Landscape Harm De Blij states that because of the growing differences in the opportunities the people may be divided in several categories. Locals suffer the most from the globalization and they significantly outnumber the globals that benefit from the limitless world.
One of the clearest examples of the division of the people into the globals and locals is the rapid development of China starting from 1987 when the country agreed to open its borders for the foreign direct investment from the capitalist countries. In just 30 years, China became a dominant country with the largest economy in the world. Now China is trying to use the economic power for the political influence in the whole region of Asia and the world in general. However, the majority of the local population does not benefit from the economic success in China. The economic activity is concentrated in the major Chinese cities that include Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. The people that live in these cities and adjacent industrial clusters benefit the most from the economic growth, but this is only 20-30% of the Chinese population (Hinsbergh). The rest of the population continues to live in the rural areas that are not integrated into the global economy and therefore millions of people cannot overcome the poverty unless they migrate to the developed areas or other countries.
What is more, the boundaries between the rich and the poor countries are growing too. As the result, there is a prosperous global core that stretches from North America through Europe to East Asia and Australia. In the meantime, in the periphery – in Africa and large part of Asia – the global poverty is still present (De Blij 12). The differences in the level of development of the global core and periphery are really staggering. Only 15% of the global population lives in the developed countries, but approximately 75% of the global annual income is generated there. Consequently, many countries would like to protect their wealth and national interests by improving security of the borders. For example, the USA cooperates with Mexico, Israel is building the no-go zones, and there are many other cases how the countries are trying to maintain their dominance in the regions where they are located (De Blij 16). One may come to the conclusion that simplification that follows the globalization process should not underestimate the importance of geography. The location still matters and the countries have unequal opportunities that help them to be competitive on the international arena.
Additionally, there are several factors that contribute to the breakdowns in many countries. According to Diamond, they are as follows: environmental damage brought by the local population, climate change, hostile neighbors, weakening of trading partners and allies, different responses of different countries to similar problems (Cited in De Blij 20). These factors have a determining effect if they are combined together. It is important that all of the factors are geographic and they depend on the peculiarities of the natural and social environment of the countries. In the past several decades some countries became much more powerful, but most of the countries fell far behind and met many obstacles on their development path.
For example, the success story of Singapore shows that the country was able to avoid the isolation and unexpectedly became one of the most prosperous countries in the world in the second half of the XX century. Some factors that Singapore took advantage of included the favorable international environment, the Cold War and the active involvement of the government in the economic development (Siddiqui 4). Before becoming independent in 1965, Singapore used to be a colony that belonged at different times to Portugal or Great Britain – dependence on the international trade was always of great importance for Singapore. In the 1960s Singapore’s government encouraged the local businesses to cooperate with the foreign partners and created the business environment that was attractive for the international companies. Political stability, respect of the property rights, effective tax system, and presence of adequate infrastructure were some of the factors that attracted a lot of companies to Singapore even though this country is located very far from the major super powers (Siddiqui 4). Contrary to the other countries in the region of South East Asia, Singapore created a very stable macro-economic environment with low inflation and high GDP growth rates. For the long-term investment it was the most appropriate environment (Siddiqui 5).
Before the 1960s Singapore was underdeveloped with uneducated labor force, high levels of unemployment, poverty and lack of the natural resources. The country had to develop at first the manufacturing sector and later the service sector by means of the foreign direct investment that accounted approximately 14.6% of the total FDI that was destined to the developing countries at the end of the 1980s (Siddiqui 9). The transformation that took place in Singapore shows that it is not enough to have the will to become a successful country. There should be some favorable conditions on the international arena, support from the developed countries, and a lot of reforms that would let the foreign companies enter the new market. Nevertheless, the power of place still plays an important role in the case of Singapore. Now it is a vital regional hub in South East Asia in which many international companies opened their regional headquarters. Singapore succeeded as a country, because the number of factors that were mentioned above had a very limited influence. In particular, Singapore avoided the problems with hostile neighbors, the trading partners were reliable and Singapore’s government effectively implemented the economic reforms.
In addition to the economic and political power, thanks to the geography the countries may build up their military power. Nowadays, one of the strongest military blocks in the world is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that was created after the end of the World War II. There are 22 members in the Alliance that are mainly the countries in North America and Europe. Due to the military cooperation the countries created a stable and well-protected environment that is beneficial for the economic development. Referring again to the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the conflict could have been avoided if Ukraine was a member of NATO. At the same time, Russia is not interested in having a NATO member close to its western border and will be always against the military augment in Ukraine. NATO is also very careful in terms of the relationship with Ukraine in order not to provoke Russia.
In general, small and large countries have different military capacities and the large countries have an advantage. For example, in the 1990s China decided to develop its army in order to protect its territory and to have more power in the region. China borders such countries as Russia, North Korea, Afghanistan, India and Hong Kong with which it used to have a lot of disputes in the past. Since the 1990s the Chinese defense budget grew by 9% a year. Most of the funds were spent on purchasing the modern fighter aircraft, submarines, and ballistic missiles (Itzkowitz-Shifrinson 11). Moreover, China has nuclear weapons that can reach the continental USA. It is clear now that this country emerged into one of the main actors in the military sphere.
For a lot of countries China’s military activity represents a threat. Japan has to invest more resources in the ballistic missile defense. India has also been very proactive in terms of improving its military defense capacities in order to be able to respond to the international military threat (Itzkowitz-Shifrinson 12). So in the complex external environment, the countries should not forget about the costly military expenditures that are important for the national defense and without which further economic and social development may be at risk.
In conclusion despite the globalization and increased interconnectedness between the countries, geography continues to play a vital role in making the countries politically, economically and militarily strong. There are many regional trading and political blocks - for example the EU, NAFTA, BRIC, ASEAN, the Arab League – that provide opportunities for the member states. In addition, there is NATO which is a powerful military alliance that helps the member countries to feel secure at the international level. As it was written above, the countries have different opportunities and now they can be divided in two categories - affluent global core and poor periphery. At the same time, despite the unequal opportunities, the countries still have a lot of chances to become more prosperous and powerful. After the dramatic political transformations in the second half of the XX century many countries in Central Europe and South East Asia were able to integrate into the global economy and benefit from cooperation with the developed countries. Various geographical factors are of great importance for the country’s success or failure and it is up to the local people and governments to decide in which direction the country should develop, what key partners there should be and what kind of economy should be built up. Because the countries have mutual borders with the other countries, they will have to pay a lot of attention to the opportunities and threats of cooperation with the neighboring countries. Naturally, small countries that have weak military defense are less influential in comparison with their large neighbors. So it is important to find the reliable and powerful allies that could protect a small country or to cooperate with the stronger state keeping in mind that in case of the conflict it will be difficult to defend the country’s interests. To sum up, geography continues to offer a wide range of opportunities to the countries. In the globalized and wealthier world there are a lot of financial resources and potential partners. Therefore the developing countries should strive for more open foreign policies and engagement with the large number of countries and organizations that may contribute to their economic, political and military rise.
Chang, B. The power of geographical boundaries: cultural, political, and economic border
effects in a unitary nation. Iowa State University: Digital Repository. 2010. Web. 25
De Blij, H. The Power of Place. Geography, Destiny, and Globalization’s Rough Landscape.
Oxford University Press. 2008. Print.
Hinsbergh, G. An Introduction to China's Largest Cities. China Highlights. n.d. Web. 25
Itzkowitz-Shifrinson, J. Assessing China’s Rise: Power and Influence in the 21st Century.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 27-28 February 2009. Web. 25 April 2016
March, D. Why is the United States the world’s most powerful country? The Global State. 10
Siddiqui, K. The Political Economy of Development in Singapore. Research in Applied
Economics. Vol. 2, No. 2: E4. 2010. Web. 25 April 2016