Geopolitical Conflicts: Using Geography to Add Conflict to Your Setting

The first thing I do with every setting is I decide on two or three countries that I want there to be. I imagine what their economies and governments will be like, and I decide if I want them to be naval power, a steppe empire, an isolated enclave, or whatever else. Then I get to work on the map and I design the map so that themes I want for each country are complemented by its surroundings.

I benefit greatly from hindsight here. While the future of a nation is not predetermined, its geography can play a huge role in its development, and I can draw on the events of the past to design the geography and conflicts I want for my setting. So let’s look at a few examples.

A Small Country with a Big Impact

Land mass doesn’t always correlate with influence. It can help of course. Russia for example is huge and benefits from a wealth of natural resources. But Britain is smaller than some US states and yet at one time it ruled much of the world. Give a small nation a resource or circumstance that it can exploit and it can play a huge role in world events.

Waterways are one of my favorite ways to do this, and we can look to Turkey, Panama, Egypt, and Iran for real world examples. Istanbul’s location on the Bosporus allows whoever owns the city to control the sea lanes that pass through it. This brought the Ottoman Empire into conflict with the Russian Empire on multiple ocassions. Russia was denied the warm water ports it craved for as long as it lacked control of the city, and Ottoman control of the straits allowed them to cut off Russia’s connections with the allies in WWI. The other countries meanwhile control major canals or straits vital to world trade, and their ability to constrict that trade gives countries that might otherwise be only a regional power a way to exert influence on a global scale.

Technology and political convenience can also grant influence to an otherwise small country. Imagine if Google had been founded in Cuba. More likely though, in a world where superpowers are vying for influence, a small country that happens to have something that a superpower wants can extract a lot of concessions from them.

The weakness of this later approach is that the benefits a country reaps will be be greater in the short term than the long term. Sea-lanes have been vital for centuries, but technological superiority or political priorities might shift in a matter of decades. Of course this could be a conflict as well and you could choose to focus on a country that is struggling for relevancy in a changing world.

A Big Country with a Big Impact

Big countries with lots of resources and ample space have a lot of room for population growth. The hard part is their size. With such long borders and so many people inside them there bound to be lots of neighbors to pick fights with and lots of internal dissidents. The country better have a robust communication infrastructure or it’s going to be hard for orders from the center to reach the periphery.

The type of government is going to be important here. Are the leaders able to address the needs of the people? Are they able to keep the peace between all the different regional factions that are bound to be present? A large country with a lot of resources can have a big role in world affairs, but without a strong foundation and internal stability it’s bound to fall apart if enough pressure is applied from the outside.

One of the challenges with a such a large country is that there’s a lot of detail to be fleshed out, but there are also plenty of small stories that can be told. Or you could write up a few vague descriptions and leave the Big Country as a boogyman that your characters sometimes have to deal with.

The Isolationist Island

Island nations are perhaps the only nations in the world that actually have a decent chance of keeping all foreigners out. A coastline can be fortified and defended in a way that no land-based border can.

This isolation may not be complete. There may for example be designated ports where foreigners are allowed to trade, but if the island has enough natural resources they may be able to keep their isolation going for a long time.

The problem of course is that it’s easy for the world to pass them by. Sure the citizens might be happy living on their island, safe from the problems of the world, but before long the world is going to come knocking and the island might very well find itself out-matched.

There are a lot of opportunities for story and conflict here. Perhaps the island is experiencing a civil war and trying to hide that fact from outsiders. Maybe the island regularly sends agents out into the world to gather information and new technologies and your character is one of them. Or maybe the island has suddenly been thrown open to the world and its people have to adjust to a new and possibly frightening reality.

The Island Superpower

Maybe an island nation wants to isolate itself from the rest of the world, or maybe because of its small landmass it lacks the natural resources it needs to compete in the modern world. Luckily for them both goals can be achieved through a powerful navy and an aggressive foreign policy. Why buy when you can take? And why tell everyone to stay away when you could just sink every ship that drifts to close to your shores?

The sea is a natural focus for any island nation, it’s the only way for any would-be invaders to reach the island after all. With a strong seafaring culture and a little know-how it could easily grow into a naval super power. Because it’s power depends on naval supremacy however, it may sometimes get dragged into conflicts it would otherwise stay away from. Britain in the early twentieth century entered into a naval arms race with Germany thanks to their policy of always having the biggest navy. The arms race was expensive and helped to ratchet up tensions between the two countries. For Germany building a strong navy was just part of joining the international community of major powers, for Britain making sure they outpaced everyone else in naval development was a matter of survival.

You might also write this as an isolationist island nation that has decided to become a superpower, or at least a major power like Japan did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. An island superpower might grown out of a previously isolationist nation that has decided that it must grown and expand in order to be able to compete on the international scene.

Again here there are lots of opportunities for conflict. Isolationist factions might dislike the large navy and feel that it does nothing but get the country involved in foreign affairs. Traditionalists might pine for a return to the “old ways.” Some might think they country isn’t aggressive enough. Or the formerly downtrodden might see all this shipbuilding as a chance to see the world and make their fortunes…at the expense of whoever they might run into.

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