The Reading Room of the British Museum.

The 2020 Geopolitical Reading List

As a fascinating 2019 comes to a conclusion, we at Encyclopedia Geopolitica expect that 2020 will present us with another exciting year from the geopolitical perspective. Major world events will continue to develop, protest-barricades will be erected, lines will be redrawn across maps, and the geopolitical status quo will find itself increasingly challenged. In this annual piece – which supplements our regular geopolitical book reviews – we put forward our (rather expansive at 210 books!) list of suggestions for those seeking to better understand the coming year’s geopolitical movements, including academic textbooks, historical studies and insights from some of the world’s greatest geopolitical minds. 

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As this list contains a staggering 210 books, it is worth considering Amazon’s Kindle “Unlimited” programme as a more cost-effective way to get through the reading list. Encyclopedia Geopolitica readers have access to a 30-day free trial for Kindle Unlimited, allowing them to sample over 1 million ebooks and thousands of audiobooks.

Team favourites

While our annual reading list is divided into geographical and thematic sections (see below), the analyst team at Encyclopedia Geopolitica have also put forward a collection of their personal recommendations to start the list.

Lewis Tallon – Chief Editor and EMEA Analyst

To Dare More Boldly (John C Hulsman)

This fantastic “ten commandments of political risk analysis” examines a history of geopolitical predictions that have been wildly off the mark. Seemingly bizarre examples – the Crusades, the British Empire, the breakup of the Beatles, Charles Manson, and the founding of the United States – are explored through the lens of political risk analysis in a manner that should remain interesting for both novice readers and analysis veterans. Hulsman explores the concept that, rather than a naturally dangerous political world threatening our stability and safety, it is in fact a strange type of political self-harm that carries the greatest threat. In the current era of populism, Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, and Five-Star, this is a lesson of crucial importance.

Making Sense of the Troubles (David McKittrick & David McVea)

With Brexit bringing the never-quite-went-away spectre of violence in Northern Ireland back into focus, getting to grips with this oft-misunderstood conflict is critical. Making Sense of the Troubles is a reissue of a 12-year old piece, updated to include the (until recently collapsed) power-sharing government at Stormont. McKittrick and McVea explore the history, ideology and heartbreak of the decades-long conflict in a fair and compelling way, making this difficult history accessible to those without a significant background in Northern Irish history.

Simon Schofield – Deputy Editor and Terrorism and CBRN Analyst

Cocktails from Hell: Five Complex Wars Shaping the 21st Century (Col Austin Bay)

With the world becoming ever closer connected in ever more complex and complicated ways, conflicts are more fluid, making them both greater drivers of change and more sensitive to change in seemingly unconnected spheres. Cocktails from Hell is a tour de force that examines five of the wars which will be most influential globally, and the smorgasbord of actors and factors coming together which make them so complex. These examples are powder kegs which could not only escalate at any moment, plunging the immediate area further into conflict, but could set off chain reactions that embroil the world in war.

The Targeter: My Life in the CIA, Hunting Terrorists and Challenging the White House (Nada Bakos)

As a CIA targeting officer, Nada Bakos was one of the people tasked with hunting down the fearsome Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, the group which eventually became Islamic State. Bakos’s memoir reads like a thriller, combining break-neck action, poignant reflections, and fascinating insights, giving readers a peek behind the curtain into the world intelligence-gathering and counterterrorism. This book is recommended reading for anyone wanting to understand how terrorists think and act or how America hunts those terrorists down.

Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century (Philip Bobbitt)

As a renowned scholar in the inter-related fields of law, strategy, and history, Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent is absolutely indispensable in getting to grips with the changing world in which we live at the grand strategic level. As a sequel to his seminal ‘The Shield of Achilles‘, which sets out a comprehensive theory of the state and history, Bobbitt applies this theory to the phenomenon of terrorism, natural disasters, and the proliferation of WMD. The book is a journey through the history of terrorism and its antagonistic relationship with the state, introducing the reader to the Ghosts of Terrorism Past, Present, and Future; exploring the complex interactions between terrorism, strategy, and law, and challenging great tracts of conventional wisdom along the way. This volume will turn any reader’s understanding of terrorism on its head and give them great pause for thought and reflection.

John Rugarber – Doctrinal theory analyst

The Management of Savagery (Max Blumenthal)

A stark, well-researched, blow-by-blow account of failed US policies and wars in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and how these are responsible for the chaos currently gripping large swathes of these regions, the decline of the American Empire, as well as the rise of Donald Trump. Written with journalistic flare by an author who is not afraid to rustle feathers to get to the truth, this book should be required reading for all students of US foreign policy in the late 20th and 21st centuries.

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky)

Although published in 2002, this book is as relevant today as it was then, especially in the age of post-truth politics and deliberate manipulation of the mass media. Rather than serve as the 5th estate, mass media has become the mouthpiece of corporations and governments, in a positioning that appears to be directly opposed to its intended existence as a check-on-power. Well documented and researched, this book ensures that its reader will never look at the nightly news the same way again.

Alexander Stafford – Chinese Affairs and Defence Analyst

Haunted By Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping (Sulmaan Wasif Khan)

Drawing in part on rare access to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs archives, Khan charts the development of Grand strategy under the Communist party from before the founding of the PRC to the present day. Khan argues that it is the need to secure Party rule and safeguard the integrity of the state that, driven by the leadership’s memories of a violent or unstable past, has been the overarching narrative of Chinese grand strategy for ninety years. Beginning with Mao and the Jiangxi Soviet, when the PRC was more dream than reality, Khan gives a refreshing and balanced account of how China’s actions – confrontational and acquiescent, sometimes opaque but always pragmatic – have achieved their aim in a shifting international and domestic landscape and against a background of constant insecurity. Khan avoids laboured narratives of China’s imperial past or framing Chinese policy as the actions of an aggressive revisionist state as other popular books on the subject sometimes do. The result is a book that is not just a fascinating guide to understanding Chinese policy but a worthy read on the subject of strategy itself.

Charlie Song – Espionage and Global Security Analyst

Sua Sponte: The Forging of a Modern American Ranger (Dick Couch)

As the Global War on Terror (GWOT) continues towards its second decade, the brunt of the fighting is done by Special Operations Forces (SOF) who are being used as an all-purpose, all-weather solution. Whether this view is correct or not, the continuing use of SOF has raised their profile and, with a public driven to know more about them, have spawned a genre of books written about or even by Special Operators, with varying degrees of accuracy and quality. While the field is expansive and every growing, Sua Sponte is well-written and from a respected writer. Sua Sponte is the author’s account of what makes an Army Ranger. Couch, a former Navy SEAL and CIA Paramilitary officer has written similar books about the selection process for US Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, Marine Critical Skills Operators and now the Army Rangers.

The Mission, The Men, and Me (Pete Blaber)

Written by a former Delta Force commander, this piece is part memoir, part self-help book. While his intent may be to use his life story as anecdotes behind his simple rules to life, it is the stories that are more compelling. Blaber’s story seems unremarkable, in a positive way, he seems like any normal American child in suburban America albeit with a slight deviant streak. He explains what drew him to life in the military, and some of the influences in his life who helped him along the way. Blaber does an excellent job of sharing his personal experiences in ‘the Unit’ without disclosing operational details and blends it with one of his guiding principles he refers to multiple times in his book. He shares some personal errors and doesn’t puff up his victories but humbly highlights that he was merely there to be a connector between his men and higher headquarters, filtered through the lens of the end state of the mission. Whilst the reader may take the life lessons to heart and attempt to apply them, the real value is reading the first-hand account of some of the most daring and inventive instances in the early GWOT era.

Eamon Driscoll – Russia and Commonwealth of Independent States Analyst

Moscow Rules (Keir Giles)

Russia is its own entity in the world – neither European nor Asian, neither modern nor ancient. As such, the world looks different when viewed from the Kremlin, and what is irrational to the West is common sense in Moscow. Understanding how Russia sees the world is paramount for Western leaders whether they seek rapprochement with their long-time foe or a better perspective on a “down but not out” rival.  Keir Giles, senior expert on Russia at Chatham House, sets the landscape for this better grasp with his description of Russian political strategy and doctrine. Any readers wishing to develop their own understanding of why President Putin acts as he does and the effect of Russia’s historic and geographic legacy will enjoy Giles’ insights.

International Law and the Post-Soviet Space I: Essays on Chechnya and the Baltic States (Thomas D. Grant)
International Law and the Post-Soviet Space II: Essays on Ukraine, Intervention, and Non-Proliferation (Thomas D. Grant)

Often forgotten when discussing geopolitics is the pervasive effect of international law and how it shapes the actions of political actors. This series of essays in six parts expertly explains legal issues that have arisen in the former Soviet republics. Dr. Grant draws from history when discussing the Baltic States and Chechnya while looking to the present and future to expound on the legal ramifications of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the separatist movements in the Donbas, as well as providing the reader with a strong foundation to understand how international law operates, and how bodies such as the International Court of Justice confront transgressions of the norms of international law.

Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia(Alexander Cooley & John Hathershaw)

Central Asia remains a mysterious region to many Western observers, where clan loyalties matter more than national ones, and where despots and technocrats have made entire nations into their fiefdoms. Cooley and Heathershaw shed light on the mystery and reveal just how connected with the world this isolated region really is. Cases of bribery, money laundering, and meddling by foreign officials, including Western ones, are far more pervasive than might be openly admitted. This book discusses Central Asia not as a realm separate from the globalisation and progress of the 21st century, but as one where globalisation has planted its flag most strongly, and is beginning to antagonise the latent forces of radical Islam. Once upon a time, and once again, this region is home to the Great Game, no longer a term for the historians alone. 

The Lands in Between: Russia vs. the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War (Mitchell A. Orenstein)

In November 2016, American citizens first heard the term “hybrid warfare” in relation to Russia and the US presidential election. But hybrid warfare has been part and parcel of Russia’s relationship with the West for far longer, and has been honed through many years of covert influencing of the states between Russia and the West—the ones which used to be firmly within Moscow’s sphere of influence. These operations have been on display in Crimea, Moldova, and Montenegro, and have extended even to major democracies such as France the United Kingdom, and the United States. That nations between Russia and the West have adapted to take advantage of their unique and precarious position is a stark reminder that the expansion of political freedoms in Europe has come with an unexpected cost, and potentially significant future problems.

Ukraine and the Art of Strategy (Lawrence Freedman)

Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor at King’s College London, provides the authoritative account of the conflict that erupted after the EuroMaidan revolution in February 2014. Freedman charts the course of the conflict, from its turbulent beginnings of pressure on former President Yanukovych to turn away from Europe, to the failure of the Minsk peace process and how domestic politics developed, both in Ukraine and in Russia. Permeating throughout the book is the context of President Putin’s strategy to support the separatist movements in the Donbas while attempting to keep Ukraine’s potential allies distracted with internal issues. Freedman’s unique perspective on this conflict sheds new light on a complex and globally-significant conflict, and challenges the idea of Putin both as geopolitical poker master and international puppet-master.

John Scott – Crime and Insurgency Analyst

The Price of Paradise (Ian Overton)

At least a quarter of a million people have been killed or injured by suicide attacks since Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated in arguably the first planned suicidal explosion in 1881. Taken as a whole, this number is striking, but taken as a yearly average – around 1,800 globally – it could be described as comparatively insignificant. It is the equivalent of one third of the estimated number of people killed by lightning each year. Of course, we know this is true of all forms of terror: nobody has ever been statistically likely to be killed in a suicide blast, and yet the subject still fascinates. These attacks are, by definition, terrifying. They ruin the lives of survivors and the families of the dead. They foster inter-group hatred perhaps in ways that nothing else can; they change the course of wars. Iain Overton’s new book argues they have shaped the modern world to a surprisingly significant degree. Its narrative begins in 1881 with arguably the very first suicide bombing on the streets of St Petersburg, and ends elliptically in the bloody aftermath of the all-too-familiar strikes by Islamic State. Along its path, it provides provocative insights into the fears of would-be suicide bombers, and presents an ambitious thesis about their importance in modern history.

Archie Hicox – Levant Conflict Analyst

Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Ice Man, Captain America, and the New Face of American War (Evan Wright)

To understand where Iraq is going you must understand where it has come from. I can think of few better on-the-ground primers than Generation Kill and The Unravelling. The former (since made into an excellent HBO television series) is a visceral, often darkly funny account of the USMC entering Iraq and conducting rapid combined arms manoeuvres. However, with no end-state post-invasion it quickly becomes apparent that Iraq is in for a harsh future. Evan Wright brings the flair of Rolling Stone to his writing, painting vivid pictures of terrible scenes, difficult decisions, and the dichotomy of terrible leaders, great leaders, and an over-caffeinated driver. We see a younger General Mattis, leading his Marines into battle, and a key character in Generation Kill (Nathaniel Fick) wrote his own book: One Bullet Away, a worthy recommendation that also fleshes out Evan’s book from a more tactical perspective with a dose a of healthy cynicism.

The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (Emma Sky)

Emma Sky’s The Unravelling is perfect to follow up to Generation Kill. From the outset she is against the war, and joins from her UK-based role in the British Council with the intention of doing working in Iraq for a few short months. Instead she spends a decade as an outspoken adviser and expert, attempting to bring much needed stability to the country and outside perspective to a spiralling situation. Her clear perspective provides a mirror into Iraq as it plunges into sectarian violence. Both books show young Western actors on a fracturing stage, and provide a warning to history against the failure to consider that the hardest part of any campaign begins after you have won.

Anthony Clay – U.S. Government and Military Affairs Analyst

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead (James Mattis)

The recently departed Secretary of Defense writes his (often standard and expected for the role) memoir, with a slight twist, covering Mattis’ lengthy service as a Marine as a foil to his service as a civilian. While the expected lambasting of the Trump administration barely shows up, Mattis passes blame around for a generation of conflict. He is seen as a legend and mentor amongst the US Military’s officer and enlisted ranks, and as such this is required reading for all seeking to understand the mindset of the US war-fighting machine.

Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans (James Stavridis)

Not my first time recommending Stavridis for the end-of-year reading list from possibly the most published Admiral; this work of the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy Dean is an update on the seminal Influence of Seapower Upon History by Alfred Thayer Mahan. Showing the interplay of commerce and war-fighting at sea through history, he weaves that into prescriptive goals for seagoing nations in the near future.

Ananay Agarwal – South Asia Analyst

Values in Foreign Policy (Krishnan Srinivasan et al)

A relatively quick read for books in this genre, this book is a collection of 14 essays. Through the essays, the book looks at the age-old debate of realpolitik vs principle-based foreign policy as its main theme. It also sheds light on two other themes that are quite relevant for the so called ‘Asian Century’. The first examines the existence of ‘Asian Values’, and the second how these relate to ‘Western Values,’ i.e. how similar they are, are they converging or diverging etc. It is an excellent primer on the complex subject of foreign affairs, though it does focus more on the present and less on the past. The book lays out the current situation where the developing world is fast catching up with the developed world, and how this may affect the near and medium-term future where the West may not be the undisputed leader of the world anymore. However, the authors chose to limit their vision only to North America, Europe and Asia. Hence, if one wants to gain insights into Africa and Latin America, then this book will not be suitable. Nonetheless, the book will hopefully inspire more insights from scholars in the developing world.

India’s Spatial Imaginations of South Asia: Power, Commerce and Community (Shibashis Chatterjee)

It is an unfortunate reality that most foreign viewpoints about India and its community are dominated by the social evil of the caste system. This book presents a more holistic and complete viewpoint, the way India imagines itself and its surroundings. As the title aptly suggests, the book has three main themes. The theme of Power looks at India’s imagination of soft and hard power, and how it plays a role with its relations vis-a-vis its immediate neighbours. The theme of Commerce presents the view of Indians when the country is becoming more aware of its growing economic clout, particularly with its largest neighbour just across the Himalayas too becoming an economic powerhouse. Finally, this piece tackles India’s social traditions and how some have lost importance, but other new ones have gained traction. The entire book also has the impact of globalisation in the Indian Subcontinent woven deeply into it. In researching the book, the author has interviewed Indian policymakers to gain deeper knowledge of the complex issues at play, and hence this book represents not just the personal view of the author, but an insight into the Indian geopolitical mindset.

Edwin Tran – Levant Socio-Economics Analyst

The Yacoubian Building (Alaa al-Aswany)

The protest movements in Sudan, Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq might point to a second Arab Spring movement. Many observers are eager to point at vast trends, ideological currents, and sweeping developments as being the end-all answer as to why these movements are happening. What often is forgotten are the individuals at the heart of these protests, the men and women whose daily lives are at the forefront of why they choose to demonstrate on the street. Alaa al-Aswany’s novel The Yacoubian Building illustrates that very image. It takes an intersectional dive at various Egyptians of different social strata, while highlighting their everyday struggles with relationships, sexuality, and politics. If there’s one book that subtly demonstrates the ongoing movements in the Arab world, it’s this one.

Dr James Rogers – Drones & Military Technology Analyst

Special mention: Drone warfare: Concepts and controversies (Dr James Rogers and Professor Caroline Kennedy-Pipe)

Editor’s note: While Dr Rogers is far too humble to put forward his own work for our reading list, his latest work alongside Professor of War Studies Caroline Kennedy-Pipe is due for release in 2020 (following a nail-biting delay for those of us keen to read it!). Given Dr Rogers’ formidable grasp on the topic, “Drone Warfare” is sure to be a deeply enlightening and informative read.

Regional Reading

The following are the team’s recommendations of regionally-focused books worth reading to get ahead of the major events and geopolitical movements that we anticipate will shape 2020:

Europe & Russia

Europe in 2019 has continued to experience the increasing stresses of demographic changes and immigration; an issue that has been leveraged heavily by the continent’s political right and continues to influence elections and referendums. Despite the abrupt drop in Jihadi terrorism-related deaths in Europe in recent years, Islam and migration-related issues continue to be heavily scrutinised from a security and political perspective, and this year has seen several incidents of far-right, anti-immigrant/islamic violence. The following books are highly recommended for deepening your understanding of Islam and its interaction with the geopolitics of the West:

In many ways connected to the issue of immigration and globalisation, the region has continued to experience significant challenges surrounding the United Kingdom’s decision to depart from the European Union. Whilst the departure phase of Brexit was originally planned to be resolved by this point, little progress has made compared to our predictions in our 2018 and 2019 reading lists, and as such not much has changed in our list for Brexit-related geopolitics since 2018. 2020 should see the transition period of the UK’s departure begin, and will almost certainly be a determining watershed for the following decades of British domestic and international geopolitics, and as such the following books are worthwhile reads for understanding the factors that have driven this situation:

One of the most interesting developments of recent years has been the growing EU-US geopolitical rift, driven by myriad factors but most notably by strains placed upon the traditional closeness by a volatile US administration and scrutiny of the NATO alliance. An understanding of the foundations of this relationship is essential for those wishing to navigate the continuing impact of the rift in 2019. The post-Brexit foreign policy course of the United Kingdom is also worth closely monitoring within this context as Britain seeks to expand on the “Special Relationship”, and as such the following are worth reading:

Disintegrative tendencies have continued to be a common theme across Europe in recent years, from the recently-renewed unrest around the Catalonian independence movement in Spain, and increased calls for a second independence referendum in Scotland emerging from the Brexit debate. Brexit has also raised questions over Northern Ireland’s commitment to the United Kingdom, and as such the following are recommended reading to better understand secessionist risks across the continent:

Economic, political, and cultural stresses have also given birth to multiple disruptive protest movements across Europe in 2019. France’s Gilets Jaunes movement have paralysed much of the country on a regular basis, drawing extensive tax concessions and tempering reformist President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to radically reshape the French economy. Meanwhile, environmental concerns appear to be reaching a breaking point, with massive eco-protests taking place across the continent. Understanding the mechanics of civil unrest will be critical for geopolitics watchers in 2020.

Neither truly European nor truly Asian, neither Western nor Eastern, Russia has continued to be its own beast in 2019. 2020 has the potential to be a turbulent domestic year in Russia. Protests against Putin grew in strength this year, and if the government continues to sacrifice the economic well-being of their own people in favour of maintaining their support for the frozen conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk, 2020 may see protests against the government grow once more. As one of the more expeditionary major powers in the world at the moment, it is vital to understand how Russia sees the world and its place in it and what strategies it is deploying in pursuit of its goals.

In Ukraine, meanwhile, President Zelensky faces the prospect that even he may be unable to break Ukraine free of the oligarchs, potentially causing his support to wane. It is possible that, as people on both sides become weary of the war, a real and lasting peace can be reached between Russia and Ukraine, but this all happens under the shadow of a quietly resurgent Islamic radicalism from Central Asia. For many years the dictators and technocrats there maintained a strong hold on radicalism, but the tide may be beginning to turn.

In the West, both Ukraine and Russia will be frequently mentioned as the US presidential election draws closer, and how presidents Putin and Zelensky act and what they say will be closely monitored for any hint of undue influence going either into or out of Washington.

To Russia’s West in the Baltics, the buildup of NATO forces is ongoing, while the Kremlin has responded in kind inside the Kaliningrad oblast and Russia itself. The European Union is also continuing to push legislation on military cooperation forward in response to the combined threat of a resurgent Russia and an inwardly-focused and more volatile US administration. With the departure of the ever-resistant UK, Brussels is likely to continue towards building a more integrated European Army in 2020. The following are worth reading for an understanding of a potentially significant flashpoint for the coming year:

Middle East & North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa region has dominated headlines in 2019, as one of the most geopolitically tense theatres, and this is unlikely to change in the coming year. US military policy brings a lot of uncertainty heading in to 2020. Election Year and impeachment politics will have a significant effect on the apolitical services, and may drive some unpredictable military operations. The reduction of forces in Syria, with a more-than-offsetting deployment to Saudi Arabia, is a shift in priority that both makes it easier to slip into a war with Iran via their proxies in Yemen and regular forces in the Gulf, and allows Iran a greater level of influence amongst the pro-Assad forces in Syria. Whether the withdrawal will be turned around with a tweet, or if there is a sizeable shift after a change in President remains to be seen.

While the new “Great Game” has been played out across the Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Iran for many years now, 2019 has seen several moments where the “Cold War” seemed close to turning “Hot”. For the coming year, understanding the extent of Iranian influence across the region will be key, as will be understanding the inner workings of the Iranian state.

Across the Arabian/Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their predominantly Sunni allies seek to counter Iran’s growing influence across the region. From the stalled-but-ever-bloody war in Yemen to counter Iran-backed Houthi rebels, to their efforts to expand a presence across the Horn of Africa while building up their own military capabilities, the wealthy Gulf States appear to be scrambling to cement their own power in their near abroad. An understanding of the inner workings of the Gulf States, as well as their own foreign policy dynamics will be extremely useful in 2019:

Most interesting of the region’s recent developments has been the slow but steady sense of rapprochement between Israel and several of the Gulf states. While the UAE has long been exploring Israeli arms purchases, and the two states have cautiously seen each other as potential security partners against a resurgent Iran since at least 2009, we are now witnessing increasing levels of diplomatic openness between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv. Understanding Israel’s place in the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East will likely be highly important in 2020 as these developments continue, and the following are recommended reads:

Moving north from the Gulf, the Levant is in a period of consolidation with the ground and air campaigns in Syria, and particularly Iraq, largely over. Assad has all but won in Syria and the international community and his own people are coming to terms with it. Both Iraq and Syria are fractured and poor after years of brutal conflict, both have a high youth unemployment rate, a dissatisfied population, and poor infrastructure. Assad’s main issue now is attempting to regain normality, to heal divisions if at all possible, and maintain his sovereign borders. This situation has been complicated by the Turkish incursion. Assad’s regime will likely spend 2020 consolidating against what little resistance is left. Despite the regime’s geographical gains and the populace’s war-weariness, Syria is divided, and may simply be a powder keg awaiting a spark.

Iraq has far greater issues, in a burgeoning democracy it doesn’t play well to use lethal force against peaceful protests. Prime Minister Mahdi who has agreed to resign as soon as a successor is agreed in order to avoid a political vacuum, has felt the brunt of popular dissatisfaction having failed to solve problems of youth unemployment, corruption, and broken infrastructure. His successor will have to grapple with these issues against the backdrop of a country attempting to rebuild itself from the horrors of the Islamic State. Many problems had been left to fester in the year since Mahdi took charge, and the next Prime Minister will need to tread incredibly carefully and heed warnings that the swamp from which ISIS grew has not been drained. West Mosul is still in ruins, Sunnis are still disenfranchised, the Kurds are restive, and the collective sacrifices of the Iraqi people will not easily be forgotten.

Turkey, meanwhile, has stunned the world in 2019 with its deeper slide into hard-line politics. The country has annexed much of Northern Syria, and has in recent months begun advancing into Kurdish-held territory. The recent withdrawal of the US military from Syrian Rojava has left the Kurdish people – who long played the bloody role of the principal resistance against the Islamic State – vulnerable and betrayed. The retreat of Kurdish forces will likely lead to sporadic resurgences of Islamic State-linked violence in 2020, and Turkey’s advance will put its relationship with other NATO powers under strain.

2019 saw the final blows of the near-total territorial collapse of the would-be Islamic State Caliphate, including the targeted killing of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the hands of US Special Forces in Syria. Despite this, 2020 will almost certainly see the group and its ideological offshoots continuing to pose risks globally. The following reads are suggested in order to better understand the conditions that gave birth to the movement, the likely course of Islamic Extremism in 2020, and the strategies that will be employed to counter them:

Libya remains tattered and in a state of turmoil, with rival governments competing for legitimacy while international powers remain divided over which factions to support. Neighbouring Mali and the wider Sahel have become of increasing importance to French and U.S. counterterrorism missions as a result of the extremism and exploitation that has taken root in the region’s sovereignty vacuum. The Sahel will likely continue to pose problems in 2020 as the region remains a gateway to the EU for both migrants and terrorist groups. The following are suggested for an understanding of the region’s geopolitical situation:

Algeria, Morocco and other monarchies of the region remain relatively stable after the turbulence that sought to topple them earlier this decade. Despite this, former Algerian President Abdulaziz Bouteflika’s poor health and progressing age led to him stepping down in 2019, while King Salman of Saudi Arabia’s age and supposed dementia have led to the ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman taking the reins. Understanding the region’s precarious and often ageing monarchies will continue to prove vital in 2020, with several possible opportunities for royal successions throughout the region. Autocratic actions and political machinations also continue to be seen across the region, but beyond the palace walls other forces are beginning to take root across the region. While many regimes may continue to target seemingly bigger issues throughout 2020, this may leave them under prepared for the driving undercurrents of the Middle Eastern street, and the following is recommended for deeper insight into the nuanced perspectives one should have about the coming changes:


Asia has slipped somewhat from global focus in 2019, yet the situation remains as volatile as it did in 2018, as tensions between the United States and China have simmered on and President Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy course has placed economic relations in the region on a knife edge. The US-China trade war will likely continue to be the most visual reminder of the great power competition in the Western Pacific. While there will be continued bilateral military exercises as the US attempts to curry favour with the smaller nations, China will continue to expand throughout Southeast Asia and through the South China Sea. The territorial claims pushed in the South China Sea by Beijing have continued to agitate regional and international naval operations, and much of the past year has been dedicated to discussing a possible conflict in the theatre. For better understanding of the issue, the following are well worth reading:

Despite celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, the People’s Republic of China has been dealing with its fair share of problems, none of which seem likely to disappear in 2020. While the economy looks set to slow further in the coming year, the all-important Belt and Road Initiative continues to suffer from governance issues and allegations of debt-trap diplomacy. 

The international community also seems to be finally waking up to the situation in Xinjiang and the treatment of Muslim Uighurs, and protests in Hong Kong against mainland interference have raged since June and show no sign of stopping. Although many observers have been surprised by the level of restraint shown by Beijing in dealing with Hong Kong, the question remains as to how long the government will continue to tolerate the insurrection.

China-Taiwan relations remain tense, and many have questioned whether U.S. President Trump may seek to use the “Taiwan issue” as a dangerous button in his competition with China. With Taiwan going to the polls in January, and incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen having staged a strong comeback in the opinion polls in no small part due to her vocal support of the Hong Kong protesters, perhaps Beijing has refrained from taking action that could further perpetuate another four-year headache of DPP rule in Taipei. If this is the case and January’s election does return Tsai Ing-wen to power, China could well decide the damage has been done and take a harder line in dealing with Hong Kong’s dissenters. Concurrently, Beijing continues to slowly outmanoeuvre Taipei on the international relations stage, chipping away at the island nation’s foreign support. To better understand the history and situation of Taipei and Beijing’s relationship, the following are suggested:

China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) plan to revive the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road for the modern world continue despite economic uncertainty and debt-trap concerns amongst Beijing’s “partner” nations. Across Central & South Asia and Africa, Chinese infrastructure projects continue to develop while little by little, small contingents of Chinese security forces are deployed in force-protection roles, garnering much suspicion along the way. Understanding the ambitious OBOR project and its impact on the countries along its route will be key in 2020:

As something of a counter to China’s economic and hard-power expansion, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy was launched as a joint effort in 2017, however, despite a number of progress reports, the concept remains somewhat nebulous and has been criticised as being a thin veil for a China-containment strategy. One of the more concrete features of the strategy – the rejuvenation of security cooperation between the so-called “Quad” of the US, Japan, Australia and India – has its own issues as China’s economic influence provides plenty of reason for three of its members to feel conflicted. For its part, the United States’ regional engagement has appeared lacklustre at times, especially at the senior levels. President Trump again failed to attend the recent ASEAN summit in Thailand, where moves towards a regional free-trade agreement we discussed. With the trade war with China ongoing and an election year ahead, it looks highly unlikely that this year will see any attempts at renewed US leadership in the region. On the contrary, although most Southeast Asian nations strongly wish to avoid choosing sides between the two main powers, unless the US ups its game and applies its diplomatic weight more skilfully this coming year will see parts of Southeast Asia slowly sliding ever closer towards China.

In Southeast Asia, the collapse of the Levantine Islamic State will likely carry locally-felt ramifications. Highly conservative forms of Islam are widespread across the region, and local-issue insurgencies often intertwine themselves with the ideology of jihad. Whilst the region lacks the cultural-historical significance of the Levant for the Islamic State movement, the return of thousands of battle-hardened fighters from the Islamic State, and the aftermath of attempts at establishing regional wilayats will likely continue to place strain on local counter-extremism efforts. Understanding the extent and influence of Islamism across the region will be important for understanding the geopolitics of Southeast Asia in 2020:

In South Asia, due to Pakistan and India’s prevailing friction, and the ever-rising Chinese superpower across India’s Himalayan frontier, India this year began putting more resources into the the BIMSTEC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand , Nepal and Bhutan) organisation, of which Pakistan is not a member. As the year progresses, if more resources and attention is put into this emerging group, it could gradually gain legitimacy on the world stage, and is worth understanding.

The biggest story in South Asia for 2019 has been Kashmir, which has seen an abrupt change in the status quo, with far reaching implications. India and Pakistan – both nuclear powers – remain in a tense balance across the Line of Control. Understanding this frozen-but-deadly conflict will be critical for those wishing to understand South Asian geopolitics in 2020:

Pakistan is staring at a balance of payments crisis in the near future, and has taken out larger loans from the IMF and China. Reports suggest that Pakistan may actually be more indebted to China than the IMF, meaning that it is eroding its sovereignty for the sake of survival. How events play out in the coming year, and how far Pakistan toes the line of China will confirm or deny these reports. Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s economy has become a bright spot, and all signs point to it continuing to do so. Lastly, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have overcome their volatile political situations, it now remains to be seen how the countries fare in 2020.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Africa has continued to draw little geopolitical attention, overshadowed by issues elsewhere in the world. Despite this, the continent remains central to global geopolitics, and has proven largely stable in a way that makes it attractive to international investment in a turbulent world. Militant Islamism will remain a prominent feature of the security environment for several African countries over the next year, and certainly not just in Kenya and Nigeria, where al Shabaab and Boko Haram sustain perhaps the continent’s highest-profile insurgencies. Meanwhile, however, in Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and West Africa, lesser-known insurgencies bubble insidiously, further from the eyes of Western media.

In Mozambique, Ansar al Sunnah continue to gradually increase the frequency of attacks against civilians and security forces in the North. Despite their best efforts to self-advertise, however, they remain fully contained within the more remote parts of Cabo Delgado province, and any support from central Islamic State leadership – to which they swear allegiance – is highly unlikely to grow into genuine operational assistance. The freshly-re-elected Government in Maputo has bigger fish to fry, meanwhile, as it attempts to nip in the bud a burgeoning splinter movement from former RENAMO rebels in Sofala.

In the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo, weak Islamic State affiliates have also reared their heads. Similar to the cells operating in Mozambique, however, their capabilities are no realistic threat to central governance – even in the midst of an unpredictable Ebola outbreak in the east of the country. Vague and incoherent ideologies further limit the scope of operations for groups such as the Allied Democratic Forces, but does not discount them as a threat. While regional governments plan increased security cooperation to combat them, incessant political in-fighting in Kinshasa between camps of the President and his predecessor will constrain any meaningful response and ensure militant groups remain more dangerous than their organisational capabilities would suggest.

On the other side of the continent, in the coastal states of Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo, governments have a more dynamic Islamist threat to consider. Security forces have become increasingly concerned with spiralling jihadist attacks in Burkina Faso and the Sahel over the last twelve months, and very occasional cross-border raids indicate at least some possibility that the threat could leak onto their own soil. Al Qaeda affiliates in the Sahel already benefit from taxing the West African drug smuggling corridor, however gaining control of any territory closer to the Gulf of Guinea is highly unlikely. This will remain more of a realistic concern as the growing insurgency digs deeper into Mali, Mauritania and Chad in the coming year, where it faces embedded French, US and international special forces.

The Americas

As the modern centre of global geopolitcal power, the United States of America has continued unsurprisingly to overwhelm geopolitical discourse in 2019. Understanding the mercurial administration of President Trump in terms of both the White House’s geopolitical outlook, and those of individual cabinet members both past and present, will be crucial to anticipating US (and therefore global) geopolitical trajectories in 2020. The following are recommended for understanding the key players in the White House:

In addition to the turbulent administration, increasingly stressed internal divisions have gripped America in 2019, and will almost certainly continue to deepen in the coming year. While these divides will be largely domestic in nature, their impact will be felt around the world. An understanding of both sides of the US political divide is key, and the following are recommended:

South of the U.S., nearly three quarters of a billion people live in the twenty countries of Latin America. As a result, its geopolitical shifts in the year to come will not go unnoticed. A recent tongue-in-cheek musing by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro: “I am thinking – which government should I overthrow next?” was meant as a riposte against his nearby counterpart, Ecuadorian premier Lenin Moreno, after being accused of orchestrating swirling protests in Quito. Leaders across the continent of South America, however, will no doubt have found it more chilling. After a turbulent year of geopolitical shifts, massive social unrest and unprecedented wildfires, the governments of South America – especially those in Brasilia, Buenos Aires, Santiago and La Paz – will be anticipating continued challenges in the months ahead.

Nowhere will the continental changes ahead be tracked more closely than in the corridors of power of the largest economy in the region by far – Brazil. President Bolsonaro, who is already struggling in his attempt to tackle endemic corruption and economic strife, is particularly concerned about the loss of an economic ally in Argentina, and the increasing vulnerability of a second in Chile. In fact, Bolsonaro and his Economy Minister have persisted in holding up Chile’s market-focused policy agenda as the blueprint for reforms for Brazil – a plan that appeals less and less to the Brazilian elites after near-unprecedented protests in Santiago prompted the sacking of the entire Chilean Cabinet. While Bolsonaro himself – well known for his dislike of compromise – is unlikely to change his government’s trajectory in its privatisation push, he will likely feel forced to slow the pace of reforms. The herculean economic tasks he has set himself will only grow larger as public patience thins, and Brazil could begin to see more major protests of its own. All the while, the profiteers of the cities’ parallel and shadow economies will only watch with indifference.


2019 has proven to be another exciting year for Encyclopedia Geopolitica, which celebrated its 3rd birthday earlier this month. We would like to take this opportunity to extend our thanks to our highly-involved readership, who have followed up each of our articles with excellent discussions on platforms such as FacebookTwitter and Reddit. As the site’s editors, Simon Schofield and I would also like to extend a special thanks to our hardworking analyst team, without whom this would not be possible.

We suspect that 2020 will be an equally exciting year in the world of geopolitics, and we hope to be able to continue bringing you insightful and informative articles on those niche and under-examined geopolitical developments that we have tried to accurately capture this year.

As this list contains a staggering 210 books, it may be worth considering Amazon’s Kindle “Unlimited” programme as a more cost-effective way to get through the reading list. Encyclopedia Geopolitica readers have access to a 30-day free trial for Kindle Unlimited, allowing them to sample over 1 million ebooks and thousands of audiobooks.

Encyclopedia Geopolitica is a collaborative effort to bring you thoughtful insights on world affairs. Our contributors include Military officers, Geopolitical Intelligence analysts, Corporate Security professionals, Government officials, Academics and Journalists from around the globe. Topics cover diplomatic and foreign affairs, military developments, international relations, terrorism, armed conflict, espionage and the broader elements of statecraft.

Picture credit: The Reading Room of the British Museum, by Riccardo Cambiass