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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Twenty Questions to Ask About Your Fictional Country

  • What is the climate like?
  • Is it landlocked, coastal, or an island?
  • What resources are present?
  • What is the terrain like?
  • Are their any natural barriers that would impede movement?
  • Where are the sources of water?
  • How many languages and ethnic groups are present?
  • Have any of these people been recently displaced?
  • How is society organized?
  • What form of government is there?
  • Do the people look favorably on the government?
  • What religions are practice?
  • Is there a state religion?
  • Who are the country’s neighbors?
  • Is this country more powerful than its neighbors?
  • What are the country’s major industries?
  • Is the country dependent on its neighbors for any important resources?
  • Does the country have any colonies abroad?
  • Are any parts of the country’s territory contested by its neighbors?
  • Does this country have any historic rivalries?

What if the Church Ruled the World?

Asking “what if?” is an essential part of world building. What if Germany won the war? What if John Wilkes Booth had failed? What if bagels had never been invented? Single and sometimes insignificant events can have huge implications if you explore the lines of possibility. So the other day on reddit a user was asking for thoughts on a world where the Church dominated and it got me thinking about what such a world would look like. Before I begin I should say that this is not an especially detailed outline, you’ll notice that I also did not pick a point of divergence from our own timeline. This is because I wanted to focus more on the “big picture” concerns. Now, with that out of the way, let’s get into it.

First, could it actually have happened? Well, maybe, and that is a big maybe in my non-expert opinion. to start, the Church would had to come out of the Protestant Reformation mostly unscathed, and then it would have had to achieve at least the appearance of control over government. Then it would have had to greatly expand its influence outside of Europe which comes with its own set of challenges. Of course, in this timeline the Reformation might never had happened leaving the Catholic Church relatively unopposed in western Europe with Orthodox Christianity in the east left as the

If we take the view that world-spanning theocracy would have been possible then we will have to be a little loose in what we describe as “world spanning.”

Image medieval Europe. Do you picture devout citizens attending witch burnings and risking punishment for minor sins? Historically this was not the case and it would be unlikely to be true in our imagined theocracy. There were of course many instances of religious violence and punishment but that does not mean the church was all seeing or enjoyed universal jurisdiction. Making laws to regulate morality are one thing, enforcing them are another.

Next, let’s look at the medieval Catholic Church. In many places the Church owned a great deal of land and Bishops would rule over estates much like the rest of the aristocracy. Even up until the later half of the nineteenth century the Pope ruled a small area of Italy referred to as the Papal States. So from these examples we do have some idea of what it would look like if the Church ruled the world. It even caused some issues in 1848 when the Pope was forced to balance the popular pressure for a unified Italy with a reluctance to be seen to oppose the interests of the catholic Austrians.

Saint Peter's Basilica
The Catholic Church is still the largest Christian Church in existence with 1.7 billion members as of 2017. Source

We also see what it is like when the Church becomes a path to power. When joining the priesthood became a viable career path for younger sons of the nobility the Church found itself having to compensate for the tastes of these upper class acolytes and wound up declaring that beavers are fish so that they could be consumed on fast days. Changes like this allow the letter of Church law to be followed while forsaking the spirit of them and I think we would see a lot of this in a world-spanning theocracy.

Finally, we should look at the many smaller schisms, aberrations, and the “pagan” practices that were absorbed into Christian tradition. No matter how wide spread the Church became it was always difficult to completely erase pre-existing traditions.

From these three things we can draw a few conclusions.

  • Religion and politics rarely coincide.
  • When religious service becomes a pathway to power compromises will be made.
  • Uniformity is hard.

If we assume that it would be possible for the Church to have gained control of Europe before moving on to the rest of the world that control would be far from uniform. It is unlikely that the Church would be able to supplant all rulers and instead we might expect to see a Church-led coalition where direct Church power in strong in some places and weak in others and Church decrees are rarely carried out in full.

I think true devotees might be rare in this scenario. But I would not be surprised if a few leaders like Mozgus emerge in response to what they might see as rampant secularism. Source

Now, if we them assume that the Church expands outwards from Europe and conquers the rest of the world how will that go? We will have to assume that it occurs in piecemeal. In some cases European rulers will likely embark on wars of conquest in the name of the Church as a way to settle old scores and achieve personal goals. Especially in North Africa and the Middle East. Elsewhere, Church sponsored missionaries and trading expeditions will spread economic and religious influence to the rest of the world. The challenge here is really to figure out how long it takes and how tightly this Christianization of the world takes hold.

It should be safe to assume that the first few expeditions to the Americas will bring the same mix of old world diseases as they did in our timeline. Establishing both Catholicism and control in these lands were most of the prior inhabitants are dead or greatly weakened should not be terribly difficult, although it may take a few wars and centuries to see through to the end.

It’s the rest of the world that is the major stumbling block in my mind. Regions that have established powers, their own religions, and some measure of immunity to the diseases that follow the Europeans. Of course in our history the European powers managed to conquer or establish spheres of interest nearly everywhere they went so I think it is safe to assume that things would turn out the same way in this alternate timeline.

Remember though, in this scenario we’re not just looking at political or economic control of the region, but spiritual as well.

Religious domination will take considerably longer than other processes. In all regions there are bound to be missionaries and converts. In this scenario we are assuming that a Church-led coalition dominates Europe and the rest of the world. The Church’s claim to authority will rest on their ability to claim the majority of their allies’ subjects as members of the Church. As long as there are sizable populations of non-believers a ruler who wants to split with the Church can claim to be acting in the interest of these subjects when they do so. If this is the case then it might be in the Church’s best interest to settle for imagined rather than actual conversion. Getting subjects to play the part of good Catholics in public would give the Church the numbers it needs to keep bargaining with secular authorities.

What I think this will end up creating is a world where the Church cares more about the appearance of faith rather than actual piety. We have already established that making the Church into a political power will mean that the clergy will be split between those who joined out of faith and those who want power for themselves. We also see that mixing religion and politics will force one half to compromise at times to appease the other.

In this scenario I believe that political convenience and the inherent challenges that come with attempting to replace all native religions would lead to a world dominated by the Church and its allies where practicing one religion in public and another at home is normal and maybe even expect in some places. Even in areas where large segments of the population converts the new christians are likely to bring many of their former religious practices and customs with them.

We now have a world that began much like our own, where the Catholic Church was able to place itself at the head of a coalition of European powers before these same powers began colonizing the rest of the world in earnest. This marriage of religion and the state will force compromises on the Church.

Finally, let’s imagine what living in this world would look like.

If you live in this world, your town will either be under the direct control of the Church or controlled by a ruler who has some sort of allegiance to them. Church attendance will likely be expected and if not required by law there will certainly be a great deal of social pressure to attend. That said, how seriously the priests take their sermons may vary. Some are bound to be truly pious, but once priesthood is bound to politic authority there will be no shortage of those who join for the sake of social advancement.

The Church will claim universal authority and try to appear as if the clergy is completely unified, but there will always be areas where control is weaker than others. There might even be countries which do not fall under the Church’s direct influence and survive this way through political arrangements or simple geographic isolation. Island nations like Britain, Iceland, and Japan come to mind as ideal candidates for independent entities.

Competing factions within the Church, each with their own interpretation of scripture, are also likely. Human and civil rights, ethnic and national concerns, and alternate modes of worship might all come into play as this Church-led world advances in the modern age. Isolated Bishops may begin to run their diocese as miniature kingdoms if left alone or may start to prioritize local concerns over the greater needs and goals of the Church.

How will the Church handle dissent? The larger it grows the more likely a schism will occur. New believers and new discoveries will bring no shortage of new ideas to the Church. If the Church is willing to allow changes or accommodate different sects under the Catholic umbrella then I think the status quo could be preserved for some time in this scenario.

Feel free to reach out on twitter to talk about how you would design this world or what stories it might be filled with.

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