The Geopolitical World Cup: Knockout Stage Part I

In our last article in the Geopolitical World Cup series, we finished out the Group Stage and determined who would advance to the knockout rounds.

As a refresher (see Part I and Part II of Group Stage for details), the nations moving on to the Knockout Stage are: Russia & Saudi Arabia (Group A), Spain & Iran (Group B), France & Australia (Group C), Argentina & Nigeria (Group D), Switzerland & Brazil (Group E), Germany & South Korea (Group F), the United Kingdom & Belgium (Group G), and Japan & Poland (Group H). In this special edition of the World Cup, we’ll be following the same bracket structure that the actual soccer competition uses; that is to say that the winner of Group A will play the second-place team in Group B, and so on and so forth.

In this first part of the Knockout Stage breakdown, we’ll be tackling the ‘left’ side of the bracket, with 4 match-ups: Russia v. Iran (A1 v. B2), France v. Nigeria (C1 v. D2), Switzerland v. South Korea (E1 v. F2), and the UK v. Poland (G1 v. H2). We’ll deal with the other side of the bracket in our second Knockout Round article. The methodology used here to determine winners will be largely similar to that used in the Group Stage, but we also will include qualitative measures like historical power, cultural cachet, ally relationships, and more. Without further delay, here’s Part I of our Knockout Stage rundown.

The bracket for the Knockout Round of the Geopolitical World Cup.

Russia v. Iran

Here we have a match-up of two of the United States’ most irascible geopolitical foes, which turn out to be allies with each other in real life: Russia and Iran. Given the fact they are competing in this match, the ally relationship goes straight out the window. In our Geopolitics Score average, Russia leads Iran with a score of 21.675 to Iran’s 37.225 (recall that lower scores are better). Iran trails Russia in literally every category under consideration, from population size, to military prowess, to economic measures and human development. The closest Iran comes to matching the Russians are in the military and population fields, where it lags more closely than on economic measures. This does not seal the deal for the Islamic Republic, however, as we are taking into account other factors in this and future knockout games.

Iran and Russia both lord over geostrategic locations on the world map, with Iran bordering the economically critical Strait of Hormuz and straddling the transition from the Middle East to Asia proper, and Russia controlling the largest land territory of any country on Earth, stretching from the Black Sea in the West to the Bering Sea in the East. Both countries have strained relationships with Western economic powers, as each has run afoul of international rules and norms, so those relationships will not impact this match-up. Historically, Russia and Iran have had an up-and-down relationship, with Tsarist Russia (pre-Soviet Union) frequently invading Iranian territory to put down Muslim rebellions that threatened the Russian regime. As Russia expanded into the Caucasus region, much of its territorial conquests were at the expense of Persia (Iran’s precursor), but the states often worked together to combat the Ottoman Empire, a larger enemy for both Persia and Russia. Altogether, Russia has come out on top when it comes to historic enmity between Russia and Iran, although the nations are firm allies in today’s era.

Given all of these factors, Russia is the clear victor of this match against Iran, due not only to its higher Geopolitics Score (particularly in military, economy, and population) but also its historic power over Iran and geographical edge. Russia is moving on to the Quarterfinals.

Russian and Iranian flags; this ally match-up is a contentious one.       Image Credit: Financial Tribune

France v. Nigeria

This match-up isn’t as challenging to decide as our first Knockout Stage competition, as France outclasses Nigeria in all relevant categories except for total population (Nigeria is 7th, France is 22nd). France outscores Nigeria in military strength, all economic measures, and vastly outmatches the African nation in Human Development Index (21 for France, 152 for Nigeria). France’s overall Geopolitics Score is an excellent 13.5, while Nigeria is the weakest nation in the Knockout Round with a score of 70.7. This is nearly an order of magnitude worse than France’s score, and unfortunately for the Nigerians, historical, geographical, and alliance factors don’t help their case all that much.

Nigeria is a physically larger country than France is, but the difference is not massive. France also has a geostrategic advantage in terms of its overseas territories; France claims land across the planet, including territories in South America, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and even Antarctica. France also has significant power projection capacity in Nigeria’s own backyard of Western Africa. Many of Nigeria’s neighbors or nearby countries are former French colonies (Nigeria was a British one), and many have a lasting relationship with the European nation. In fact, France has been extremely active in combating terrorism and governmental instability in the region just north of Nigeria, the Sahel. Historically, the competition isn’t even close; Nigeria has long been a strong player in African history, but France is one of the greatest nations on Earth (I may be showing a bit of my pro-French bias here, but it still isn’t close) and has a long history of exerting power within and external to Europe. One of these two countries had Napoleon and I think that says it all when it comes to history.

Based on this analysis, France steamrolls Nigeria and advances to the Quarterfinals to face off against Russia in a battle that could have occurred anytime within the 19th Century (Napoleonic Wars, Crimean War, etc.), but will be an interesting one to break down in the modern era.

Switzerland v. South Korea

This match between the landlocked European nation and one of the most advanced countries in Asia is likely the most contentious we’ll be analyzing today. Both Switzerland and South Korea have good Geopolitics Scores, yet the Koreans have an advantage on that front despite their second-place finish in Group F compared to Switzerland’s first-place showing in Group E. Those relative placements have much more to do with the group composition than with any actual comparison between the two nations; South Korea was in the Group of Death alongside Germany, Mexico, and Sweden, while Switzerland had an easier time beating out Brazil, Costa Rica, and Serbia. South Korea’s Geopolitics Score is a very good 15.925, while Switzerland lags behind with a score of 28.825. South Korea surpasses Switzerland on population, military, and overall economic metrics, while Switzerland beats out the Koreans on per capita economic factors and Human Development Index. If this were based solely on scores, South Korea would advance, but in this round we are taking into account other factors.

Geographically, both Switzerland and South Korea are relatively small countries, with South Korea slightly edging Switzerland on a pure size basis. When it comes to strategic location, the two nations are quite closely matched. South Korea lies at the base of the Korean Peninsula, surrounded by seas that separate the country from its larger neighbors in Japan and China. This great location allows the country to excel in trade, as well as protect itself from outside incursion (besides from the North Koreans, which share the physical peninsula). On this measure, however, Switzerland is king. The Swiss are surrounded by steep mountains, rivers, and forests, and have been playing the powers of Europe against each other for seemingly eons without being directly involved in the fray. Not for nothing is Switzerland considered one of the hardest places to invade on the planet. In terms of history, both nations have long and storied histories of isolation, interrupted by instances of foreign influence or control. Switzerland has been a state for nearly 800 years at this point, while South Korea has evolved from a series of interlocking kingdoms to a dynastic empire to a protectorate/territory of Japan or China to its modern history as a democratic state. The historical status question is a tough one to adjudicate given these histories, but I would give the Swiss the slight edge here. Culturally, South Korea has exported its music, products, and culture to a wide variety of other Asian nations, while Switzerland has been far more isolationist (although still having cultural cachet as a chocolate and banking capital).

What puts the South Koreans over the top in this match-up, however, is its alliance relationships. The Koreans are treaty allies with the United States, are deeply involved in regional bodies and issues, and had a former foreign minister (Ban Ki-Moon) become Secretary General of the United Nations. In contrast, Switzerland has studiously inculcated a culture and policy of neutrality when it comes to foreign affairs, famously avoiding action in both World Wars (even though they raged all around it). This alliance structure (or lack thereof) dooms the Swiss to a loss to the South Koreans.

Relative locations of the United Kingdom (green) and Poland (orange).     Image Credit: Wikiwand

United Kingdom v. Poland

In this final match breakdown of Part I of our Knockout Stage review, we have two European nations battling it out for supremacy: Poland and the United Kingdom. This is a fairly lopsided match-up, as the UK handily beats out the Poles in literally every category that comprises our Geopolitics Score. The British dominate the Polish in population, military prowess, economic metrics (both total and per capita), and human development. Poland scores a solid 30.675, but the United Kingdom has the 3rd best overall Geopolitics Score at 12.45. Luckily for the Poles, these matches aren’t being entirely decided on the basis of Geopolitics Scores. Does the Eastern European country fare any better against the British on those alternate measures?

Poland does beat out the United Kingdom on at least one of our alternative metrics, having a larger land area than the UK does. Poland also has a relatively strategic location, bordering the Baltic Sea and sandwiched between Germany and the Baltic states which provide a buffer before one of Poland’s historical rivals, Russia. There’s a good reason why Poland has been consistently invaded by one group or another on and off for the last 300 years. On the other hand, the island location of the United Kingdom has kept it safe from foreign invaders for nearly a millennia at this point; not even Napoleon or the vast armies of the Nazis could break the famed British resolve (or the natural defenses of the English Channel). Given the UK’s undeniably safer geographical position, Poland happens to lose on that metric. Unfortunately for Poland, historical analyses don’t exactly vindicate its position relative to the United Kingdom. The Poles have always been a steadfast and proud people, but the dominance over its domains by its immediate neighbors has made realizing that national dream a difficult reality. Between Russian and German/Prussian control, Poland has effectively been in thrall to its rivals for quite some time, although the independent nation today (founded in 1989) is a strong one. The UK has often been the imperial power imposing its rules on others, taking the opposite side of the historical problem Poland has dealt with.

As both nations share many alliance relationships and international group memberships, those factors do not play a significant role here. In this case, the United Kingdom handily beats out the nation of Poland for a spot in the Quarterfinals against South Korea.

Check back soon to read our breakdown of the other half of the Knockout Bracket, featuring matches between Spain and Saudi Arabia, Argentina and Australia, Germany and Brazil, and Japan and Belgium. Once that’s done, we’ll be delving into the Quarterfinal match-ups, of which we have two thus far: Russia v. France and South Korea v. the United Kingdom. Enjoy the actual World Cup and we’ll be back in a few!

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