Germanic-speaking tribes in northern Europe date to antiquity, but the modern German state took shape in the 19th century. Defeats in the two world wars of the 20th century left the country divided, and reunification occurred in 1990 following the collapse of the East German communist state. Germany is a parliamentary democracy. The legacy of Nazism expresses itself today in the form of tough laws addressing hate speech and denial of the Holocaust.
Germany employs a social market economy – open-market capitalism that also carries certain social service guarantees. Its economy is one of the world’s largest and Germany is one of the globe’s leading importers and exporters. Services, which include industries such as telecommunications, health care and tourism, contribute the greatest amount to the country’s economy. Industry and agriculture are other significant economic sectors.
Germany possesses a highly skilled, affluent workforce. The country’s population is aging, however, raising questions about the high level of spending for social services. The overwhelming majority of citizens are ethnic German, with Turks and other Europeans representing significant minority populations. The country is one of the world’s most popular migration destinations, and the size of the foreign-born population in Germany has grown substantially in the 21st century.
Culturally, Germany has produced some of the world’s leading figures in the natural and social sciences, as well as the arts. The land that gave birth to the modern printing press, Ludwig van Beethoven and Immanuel Kant has strong traditions in literature, music and philosophy. Folk festivals remain popular in modern-day Germany, the most notable being the annual Oktoberfest.
Germany belongs to major international organizations, including the United Nations, the European Union, Group of 20, NATO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Canadians pride themselves in encouraging all of their citizens to honor their own cultures. In 1971, Canada adopted a national policy of multiculturalism, which celebrates the country’s diversity. Canada has a long list of accomplished writers and artists. Céline Dion, Sarah McLachlan and Joni Mitchell are just a few of the Canadians who have made an impression on modern music.
Technically, Canada is a constitutional monarchy with theU.K. monarch as the head of state. The royal leader is represented locally by a largely ceremonial governor-general appointed by the Canadian prime minister. The country follows the British style of parliamentary democracy.
Canada is a high-tech industrial society with a high standard of living. Trade agreements in the 1980s and 1990s dramatically bolstered trade with the U.S., and now the two counties are each other's largest trading partner. While the service sector is Canada’s biggest economic driver, the country is a significant exporter of energy, food and minerals. Canada ranks third in the world in proven oil reserves and is the world’s fifth-largest oil producer.
Canada faces domestic challenges related to the concerns of indigenous people and those in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec. While constitutional guarantees allow the province wide-ranging cultural and linguistic autonomy, movements for complete independence come in waves.
Canada is a member of the United Nations, through which it has participated in many peacekeeping missions. It is also a member of NATO and the Commonwealth of Nations.
The capital city, London, is a major international financial center and one of the most visited cities in the world. The banking and tourism industries are parts of a larger service sector that powers much of the nation’s economic growth. The industrial revolution began in the U.K., and manufacturing – led by the automobile and aerospace industries – is a declining though still significant part of the nation’s economy.
The United Kingdom has attracted immigrants for centuries. Beginning in the second half of the 20th century, the sources of immigration began to diversify, coming from South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean as well as from Central and Eastern Europe. Immigration has become a major focus of public debate in the 21st century.
The nation has a long history of major contributions to the arts and sciences. William Shakespeare is regarded as one of the greatest writers in the history of English literature. British scientists discovered gravity, hydrogen and penicillin and developed theories in aerodynamics and natural evolution. The nation continues to be at thescientific and technological fore. Stephen Hawking has produced groundbreaking work in cosmology and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. The United Kingdom is home to some of thetop universities in the world, including Oxford, Cambridge and the Imperial College of London.
The United Kingdom is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and is a member of major international organizations including the European Union, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, NATO and the Group of 20.
The American colonies declared independence from the British Empire in 1776 and were recognized as a new nation in 1783. The country nearly split in two during a civil war in the mid-1800s, but regained its footing in the 20th century, during which time it was on the winning side of both world wars.
The U.S. is a constitution-based federal republiccomprised of 50 states. The U.S. economy is the world’s largest in terms of gross domestic product, and also the most technologically powerful. The country’s most significant exports are computers and electrical machinery, vehicles, chemical products, food, live animals and military equipment. The U.S. also has the world’s largest coal reserves.
The U.S. is culturally and racially diverse, and was shaped by large waves of immigration from Europe and beyond. American literature, art and music reflect the richheritage of the county’s people. The U.S. is the birthplace of jazz, and Louis Armstrong, an African American, is one of the country’s most recognized and admired musicians. Prize-winning Jewish writers Saul Bellow and Philip Roth are some of the best known literary figures in the U.S. The media industry in the U.S. has a global audience, with its television shows, music videos and films distributed worldwide.
Despite being the foremost global power, the U.S. still faces domestic challenges, including racial tensions, income inequality and an increasingly polarized electorate. While national security is a concern, so too, is the debt incurred from wars meant to ensure it. The U.S. leads the developed world in deaths due to firearms.
The U.S. often takes a leading role in international organizations, and was a founding force behind institutions such as the United Nations, NATO and the World Bank.
As a parliamentary democracy, representatives elected to parliament, called the Riksdag, lead the nation with a monarch as a ceremonious head of state. Sweden joined the European Union in 1995, but declined to convert to the eurozone currency after a public vote in 2003. However, its export-dependent economy is tightly integrated with the European Union. Both took a tumble with the recent decline of the euro, but Sweden is seeing steady recovery and seeking to expand trade markets for its timber, hydropower and iron ore.
Sweden is an Enhanced Opportunities Partner of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It is also a member of the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Trade Organization, among others.
Australia has a parliamentary democracy government similar to the United Kingdom. While it separates its federal government into “three arms” – parliament, executive and judiciary – the executive answers to the parliament. In 1986 the nation ended all constitutional ties to the United Kingdom, although Queen Elizabeth II remains the ceremonial head of state.
Since the late 18th century, Australia has been influenced by British, Celtic and U.S. culture. In recent decades, however, immigration from non-English-speaking nations – primarily from Asia – has altered the nation’s demographic profile and influenced its popular culture.
Australia is considered a wealthy nation with a market-based economy that has a comparatively high gross domestic product and per capita income. Its economy is driven by the service sector and the export of commodities.
Australians remain particularly concerned about environmental issues, according to survey and government data. The country has ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations treaty that calls on nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, carbon dioxide emissions per capita are comparatively high among nations.
Australia is a member of major international and regional organizations, including the United Nations, the Group of 20, the World Trade Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Commonwealth of Nations and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
Japan is known worldwide for its traditional arts, including tea ceremonies, calligraphy and flower arranging. The country has a legacy of distinctive gardens, sculpture and poetry. Japan is home to more than a dozen UNESCO World Heritage sites and is the birthplace of sushi, one of its most famous culinary exports. The country has developed many forms of martial arts. Its most famous traditional sport is sumo wrestling, which can trace its origins to the 8th century.
Japan has ongoing territorial disputes with China, Russiaand South Korea and has strained relationships with some neighbors due to actions it took during World War II. The country also grapples with the economic consequences of having the world’s oldest population and declining birth rates.
Japan is a member of several international organizations, including the United Nations, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.
The World Bank classifies France as a wealthy, high-income nation. French citizens look to the federal government to guarantee certain social services, such aseducation, health care and pensions for retirement.
The French economy is one of the world’s largest and is a mixture of private enterprise and government involvement. Tourism is a major contributor to the economy – France generally tops lists of most visited countries. Other major economic sectors include industry, agriculture, energy and defense. The country is one of the world’s top exporters of weapons.
The French people have traditionally been a mix of Celtic, Germanic and Latin ethnicities. Waves of immigration in the 20th and 21st centuries, however, are altering the country’s population. Immigrants typically come from northern Africa and other parts of Europe.
France faces various domestic challenges, most notably how it confronts terrorism in the wake of the November 2015 attacks in Paris that claimed 130 lives and a deadly attack on a satirical newspaper earlier that year. Prior to the November attacks, polls had shown public attitudes toward Islam and immigrants worsening. The country also faces slowed economic growth and growing unemployment. Joblessness is especially hitting the country’s youth and young adults.
France has a rich cultural heritage. French literature began in the Middle Ages, and the country has a long history in fine arts, music and dance. Cinema occupies an important place in the country’s cultural life. French cuisine is popular around the world, as is the wine produced in the country.
France is a founding member of the United Nations and has a permanent seat on its Security Council. Other major groups it belongs to include the European Union, World Trade Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and NATO.
Situated along the fringes of Western Europe, the Netherlands is a coastal lowland freckled with windmills characteristic of its development around the water. Three major European rivers - the Rhine, Meuse and Schelde - run through neighbors Germany and Belgium into the nation’s busy ports.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands emerged in 1815 after years of Spanish and later French occupation. In 2010, a collection of island territories in the Caribbean known as the Dutch Antilles were disbanded, but Aruba, Curacao and Sint Maarten remain constituent countries within the Kingdom.
Known as Dutch, the people of the Netherlands have formed a tolerant society. In 2001, the country became the first to legalize same-sex marriage, and national stances on drugs, prostitution, euthanasia and abortion are liberal. Holland also boasts the highest concentration of museums in the world. It was the birthplace of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, as well as the microscope, telescope and thermometer.
More than 1,000 bridges and 20,000 miles of bike pathsconnect the densely populated nation, with most citizens concentrated in a grouping of cities along the coast, known as the Randstad. Much of the country is underwater, and the 40 million people that touch down in capital city Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport each year land more than a dozen feet below sea level.
The seat of the government is located about 40 miles southwest of the capital in The Hague. The Dutch operate under a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, within which there are two main political parties. In 2012, leaders of the two parties signed a cooperative coalition agreement, focused on improving health care, the housing market, the labor market, foreign policy and the energy sector.
Known for its tulips, this high-income, developed nation is one of the world’s leading exporters of agriculture, an industry that has become mostly mechanized. An open-market policy and prime transportation location help the Netherlands maintain a trade surplus, but the economy continues to recover from an expensive stimulus program designed to help it bounce back after the economic downturn in 2009.
The Netherlands is active in United Nations peacekeeping efforts and headquarters The International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It was a founding member of NATO and the modern-day European Union, of which it has been quite vocally supportive.
Since 1849, Denmark has operated under a constitutional monarchy. Queen Margrethe II is the current ceremonial head of state and Lars Lokke Rasmussen is prime minister. The Folketing is Denmark’s supreme legislative body; its 175 members are elected by the Danish people. The Danish government is perceived as highly stable and very transparent.
Through redistributionist and progressive taxation, Denmark employs a universal health care system in which citizens receive mostly free medical care. Higher education is also free. Notable universities in Denmarkinclude: University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University and the Technical University of Denmark. Unsurprisingly, Denmark’s highly progressive government and societal structure creates incredible social mobility.
Denmark has several leading industries including food processing, tourism and the production of iron, steel and machinery. Its main exports are processed foods, agricultural and industrial machinery, pharmaceuticals and furniture.
Denmark’s economy is based on the flexicurity model, which combines a flexible labor market with a policy for the unemployed. This flexicurity model allows forbusinesses to establish inexpensively and quickly, as there is scarce government oversight regarding matters such as terminations or work hours. The Danish corporate tax rate is 24.5 percent, but its income tax rate is among the highest in the world.
A founding member of NATO, Denmark is a member of many other international organizations including the European Union, United Nations, the Nordic Council, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
British and Polynesian influences course through picturesque New Zealand, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean southeast of Australia. Early Maori settlers ceded sovereignty to British invaders with the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, and European settlers flooded in.
Today, 70 percent of Kiwis, a common term for the people of New Zealand after a native flightless bird, are of European descent. A sense of pride has surged among the Maori, the country’s first settlers who now account for about 14 percent, as homeland grievances become more openly addressed.
Though the British monarch remains head of state, New Zealand has operated under an independentparliamentary democracy led by a prime minister since its independence in 1907. The vast majority of its 4.5 million people are concentrated in the north island, with nearly one-third living in Auckland. But low density and scattered populations make for peaceful exploration of the nation’s impressive mountains and pristine beaches of “Lord of the Rings” trilogy movie fame.
New Zealand saw impressive growth and transformation in the decades following independence. The export market, abounding with dairy, sheep, beef, poultry, fruit, vegetables and wine, was opened beyond the United Kingdom, and manufacturing and tourism were expanded. Per capita income remains high and, at 7.4 percent, education expenditures as a percent of gross domestic product are some of the highest in the world.
The Kiwi spirit and culture are personified by such notable natives as Sir Edmund Hillary who first climbed Mount Everest in 1953 and Lord Rutherford, who split the atom. The bungee jump, Hamilton Jet boat, referee’s whistle and frozen meat are also credited to New Zealanders.
Since 1980, New Zealand has been a nuclear free zone. It is a leader in peacekeeping and global security and party to key international organizations, including the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and Pacific Islands Forum.
Austria a culturally rich, high-income parliamentary democracy that hosts several key international organizations. Located in the heart of Central Europe, the modern Austrian state was shaped by the two world wars of the 20th century.
Austria’s small size today belies its past as a European power that lasted for centuries under the rule of the Hapsburg dynasty. That era ended following the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s defeat in World War I. Austria then established itself as a republic, which ended in 1938 when it was annexed by Nazi Germany. Following Germany’s World War II defeat, Austria eventually re-established itself as an independent republic, pledging in a Cold War-era treaty to maintain neutrality on the global stage.
The nation has a rich tradition of being a continentalcultural center. Vienna, the nation’s capital, became Europe’s center for classical music innovation. Famous composers such as Anton Bruckner and Franz Liszt were born in Vienna, and both Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart spent much of their lives in the city.
Austria boasts one of the highest standards of livingamong the economies of the world, ranking highly in per capita gross domestic product. Its economy is tied closely to Germany, its main trading partner. The nation’s top economic sectors are services, industry and agriculture. Austria is a major tourist destination, helped largely by the Alps mountain range to the west and south.
Austria today is a member of international and regional organizations such as the United Nations, World Trade Organization and European Union. Additionally, the country is host to several key international groups, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Italy’s history started with the Etruscans, an ancient civilization that was eventually supplanted by the Romans in the third century B.C. Italy’s city-states were the first to embrace the European renaissance. The country became unified in the 19th century.
Italy is a republic with about 61.8 million people. Its capital, Rome, is its largest city. About 80 percent of Italy’s population is Christian, with most people identifying as Roman Catholic. But about 20 percent of people claim to be atheist or agnostic – despite living in the Pope’s backyard.
In some ways Italy’s economy, the third-largest in the Eurozone, is essentially two economies: a higher growth economy in the developed industrial north and a more sluggish one in the less-developed south. Italy’s main exports are machinery and transport equipment, chemicals, apparel and wine.
From the artwork of Leonardo da Vinci to the fashion houses of Milan, Italy’s cultural influence has always been profound. Remnants of Greek, Etruscan and Roman civilization dot the peninsula. The country’s regional cuisines inspire chefs worldwide.
While Italy may make an ideal tourist destination, life in the country is more complicated. Italy is persistently plagued by organized crime and corruption. Slowing economic growth and high youth and female unemployment remain large concerns.
Leaders have also sounded alarms over Italy's birth rate – which has recently reached historic lows – and the economic ramifications of an aging population. Tensions are simmering over immigration issues, as tens of thousands of migrants from southeastern Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East try to reach Italy’s coastline.
Italy is a member of several international organizations, among them the European Union and the United Nations. It’s also a charter member of North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is a landlocked country in northern Europe with Belgium to the west, France to the south and Germany to the east. The country is one of the smallest in the world and the second-wealthiest after Qatar. Castles and churches dot its forests and rolling hills.
Luxembourg has fallen under the rule of many states and kingdoms since its emergence in the 10th century, but has always remained a distinct political unit. After years of control under the Hapsburgs, Luxembourg formed a union with the Netherlands in 1815. The country, whose boundaries have constricted over time, won independence in 1867.
Luxembourg is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy with one legislative house. While the grand duke appoints the prime minister, his powers are mainly formal. Voting is compulsory.
Luxembourg is the wealthiest country in the European Union, per capita, and its citizens enjoy a high standard of living. Luxembourg is a major center for large private banking, and its finance sector is the biggest contributor to its economy. The country’s main trading partners are Germany, France and Belgium.
Luxembourgish is the national language, while German and French are used for administration. About 45 percent of the country’s roughly 56,000 people were born outside the country and consist primarily of Portuguese, French, Italians, Belgians and Germans. The country has grappled with how to integrate foreigners while maintaining its identity, briefly considering giving them the right to vote.
In recent years Luxembourg has come under fire for its role as a global tax haven, with critics suggesting the country has offered unfair tax deals to large, multinationalcompanies.
In the 20th century Luxembourg became a founding member of several international economic organizations, including the European Economic Community, an iteration of which was eventually absorbed into the European Union. As one of the EU capitals, Luxembourg city is home to the European Court of Justice, the European Investment Bank, and several major EU administrative offices. It is also a member of NATO and the United Nations.
Founded as a British trading colony in the 19th century, Singapore is a bustling metropolis in Southeast Asia and home to one of the world’s busiest ports. The vast majority of its 5.7 million citizens live on the eponymous capital island, and dozens of surrounding islands complete the city state.
Singapore gained self governance in 1959, and in 1963 joined the Federation of Malaysia. In 1965 it left the federation and became independent as the Republic of Singapore. Today, it operates under a conservative parliamentary republic that is world-renowned for its strict laws and tight regulation. While safety and security serve as a major point of pride, residents and visitors are subject to harsh penalties for chewing gum, littering and more.
One of Asia’s four economic tigers, Singapore has seenimpressive growth in recent years as efficient manufacturing and production practices have made way for free-market innovation in the booming electronics and pharmaceutical industries. Gross domestic product per capita is high and unemployment is low, making Singapore one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
Singapore is densely populated, with most citizens living in urban high-rises. The Singaporean government has forecasted exponential population growth in the coming decades, with immigrants expected to account for more than half of the population by 2030.
Space constraints coupled with rapid population growth contribute to concerns about the rising cost of living and income inequality. Conservation, land reclamation efforts and improved environment-friendly practices amid the urbanization and industrial pollution are also a focus.
Four official languages - Mandarin, English, Malay and Tamil - cater to the diverse population of a nation that has been an important gateway for international trade. Many also speak Singlish, a slang dialect. Local cuisine blends elements of Chinese, Indian and Western traditions, among others, as do the architecture and local festivals.
Singapore headquarters the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and is a member of a number of additional international organizations, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.
Maritime strength and colonial wealth established Spain’s position as a global leader through the 16th and 17th centuries, a standing that declined as the nation lagged behind great global movements such as the industrial revolution. A civil war brought dictator Francisco Franco into power in 1939, and it was only after his death in 1975 that Spain could make strides to level itself with international progress.
Ascension into the European Union in 1986 was a jump-start to the modernization of Spain’s infrastructure, industry and economic policy. More open trade brought high demand for a diverse set of exports, including textiles, footwear, machinery, olives and wine.
Continued growth built the nation’s tourism, housing and construction industries up into bubbles that eventually burst during the global financial crisis, throwing Spain into a severe economic recession in 2009. However, a resilient export market, as well as a European Union-funded restructuring effort in 2014, have helped Spain on its way to recovery. Efforts have been made to implement labor, pension, health, tax and education reforms, but unemployment continues to beset about a quarter of the population.
Spain is a parliamentary democracy, with a popularly elected legislature led by a prime minister and a monarch as chief of state. However, each of the 17 autonomous regions within Spain has its own authority and many have their own language. A growing separatist sentiment, especially in the Basque region to the north and Catalonia in the northeast, which includes Barcelona, challenges national unity.
Cultural achievements, from the artistic mastery of Velazquez, Goya and Picasso to the globally renowned novel “Don Quixote” by Cervantes, and traditions like flamenco music and dance are a source of unity and national pride.
Spain is party to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and a member of the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the World Trade Organization, among others.
The central government recognizes dozens of ethnic groups, with Han Chinese accounting for more than 90 percent of the population. While nearly 300 languages are recognized across the country, Mandarin Chinese is the official national language.
China has been one of the world’s fastest-growing major economies since former leader Deng Xiaoping installed reforms in 1978. A single-party socialist state, China has since moved from being a centrally planned to a market-based economy. China’s economy is the world’s second- largest, trailing only the United States.
China’s rapid economic development poses several domestic challenges, including balancing population growth with its natural resources, a growing income inequality and a substantial rise in pollution across the country. The World Bank notes that while the sustained economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, China remains a developing country with many people still living below the nation’s official poverty level.
Air pollution in the nation’s major urban areas poses a major health risk, and the International Energy Agency in 2012 noted that China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. At the same time, media have reported that China is a major investor in renewable energy.
The nation’s rapid rise in global influence also has led to challenges abroad. China has come under frequent criticism – most notably from the United States – for its human rights policies. Political freedom remains tightly controlled, and China has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on Internet usage. China regularly ranks near the bottom of international rankings for media freedom.
China is recognized as possessing nuclear weapons. It has been a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council since 1971 and is a member of several international and regional organizations, including the World Trade Organization and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
The Republic of Ireland is an island nation in the Atlantic Ocean, separated from Britain on the east by the Irish Sea. Nicknamed the Emerald Isle for its well-watered grasslands, the country is known for its rich cultural traditions, lively pub scene and its struggles for independence. The country comprises five-sixths of the island of Ireland – the remaining sixth is Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom.
Irish culture has been largely influenced by the Celtic tribes who reached Ireland around the 6th century B.C. In the following centuries the country endured invasions by the Vikings, Normans and British. After a bloody fight for independence and civil war in the early 20th century, Ireland became a republic in 1949.
Today, Ireland’s government is a republic with a parliamentary democracy. English and Irish, or Gaelic, are the official languages, with the latter spoken by about 39 percent of the country’s 4.9 million residents.
Ireland has a small, trade-dependent economy. While Ireland’s rapid economic growth came to a sudden halt in 2008, today the Celtic Tiger is once again roaring, with low taxation policies in place to encourage international business development. The country’s export sector, dominated by foreign multinationals, has become an increasingly important component of Ireland's economy. Not everyone is prospering equally, however, and some experts have raised concerns about the country’s inequality.
For its small size, Ireland has a large cultural imprint, particularly in English literature. The country’s famous authors include Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde – just to name a few. Ireland has rich musical and folklore traditions and is also the creator of Guinness, perhaps its most famous export along with St. Patrick’s Day.
Long considered a traditional, even conservative society, Ireland’s social norms are evolving, causing clashes between younger generations and the Roman Catholic Church. In 2015, Ireland became the first nation to approve same-sex marriage by a popular vote.
Ireland is a member of several international organizations, including the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In the decades following independence, strict authoritarian rule took over the recovery of an embattled nation and its sinking economy. The first free national elections took place in 1987, passing control from a dictatorship to the people.
South Korea’s high-tech, service-based economy, is a foreign investment success story, becoming the first recipient of OECD Development Assistance Committee funds to later become a donor of the funds. The nation has seen steady growth and poverty reduction since the 1960s and is now the world’s sixth-largest exporter and 12th-largest economy overall.
The country’s capital, Seoul, is located near the center of the Korean Peninsula, chosen as such during theJoseon dynasty (1392-1897) for its impressive feng shui - the idea that the positioning of objects ensures health and harmony. It is home to the headquarters of Samsung, Hyundai and Kia, representing two of South Korea’s important exports: technology and cars.
It has one of the world’s largest gross national savings and reserves of foreign investment, reminiscent of a dictatorship that placed heavy emphasis on saving instead of spending. Disposable household income hasincreased in recent years, and South Korea’s large upper class is keen to spend their money on “brand name” items and products.
South Korea’s culture is based heavily in the humanist ideology of Confucianism. Today, Christianity is the prominent religion with Buddhism as a close second. South Korea faces the challenge of an aging population. Residents are afforded universal healthcare and mandatory education through middle school, with enrollment rates consistently at 100 percent.
Brazil gained independence from Portugal in the early 19th century, and its government evolved from monarchy to military dictatorship to civilian rule. Today, Brazil is a democratic federal republic.
Rich with natural resources, Brazil’s economy is active in the agricultural, manufacturing, mining and service sectors. The nation is a top producer in coffee production. Brazil’s economy grew rapidly during the first decade of the 21st century, and it now has one of the world’s largest economies in terms of gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The boom has faced a slowdown in recent years, which in turn has triggered growing public anger over long-standing issues of poverty and allegations of corruption cutting across the nation’s social, economic and political institutions. Brazilian studies estimate that corruption annually costs the country billions of dollars.
Brazil’s culture draws from Portuguese, indigenous and African influences. Its music merges European and African elements. The sports-crazy nation loves football – soccer to a North American and Australian audience – as well as volleyball.
The scale of Brazil’s landscape is massive. Its coastline with the Atlantic Ocean stretches for more than 4,600 miles. The Amazon River is the world’s second longest. It is considered to have the greatest variety of plants, mammals and fish of any nation in the world, thanks to the sprawling Amazon rainforest.
Brazil is a founding member of the United Nations, and is an active member of major international and regional organizations, including the Group of 20, BRICS and the Organization of American States.
Thailand, which translates to “land of the free,” is the only Southeast Asian nation that did not encounter European colonization. Located just above the equator, the nation is wedged into the Indochina peninsula with neighbors Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia and has an arm that extends out to Malaysia.
Originally known as Siam, the kingdom was unified in the mid-14th century and became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 after a nonviolent revolution. Recurring coups have since escalated into large-scale political turmoil spurred by party division and grievances against leaders, and in 2014, the government was throw into interim military rule.
A substantial agriculture sector and competitive manufacturing industry have kept Thailand strong and growing with low poverty and unemployment rates. It is the world’s largest exporter of rice and a leader in textiles, tin and electronics. Western education and technology have been absorbed into a devout Buddhist society.
Thailand is one of the world’s most visited countries, though tourism accounts for just 7 percent of gross domestic product. Buddha figures are ever-present in the “land of smiles,” where bustling, modern cities are juxtaposed with ancient ruins, glistening beaches and gilded temples. The nation is home to the acclaimed Thai massage and cuisine that is known to balance sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy flavors.
More than 3 million citizens make up a growing Muslim minority, largely concentrated in the south, where there have been violent separatist movements for more than a decade. Thailand also faces challenges with human trafficking and illegal immigration, especially among refugees from Myanmar.
Thailand was a founding member of the ASEAN Regional Forum and a signer of the Manila Pact, which formed the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. It is also a Partner for Cooperation with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and a member of the United Nations, APEC and the World Bank, among others.
India, the world’s largest democracy, is a federal republic with 29 relatively autonomous states and seven union territories. English is the most important language for national, political, and commercial communication, but Hindi is the most widely spoken.
India has a fast-growing, diverse economy with a large, skilled workforce. But because of its population, it’s also one of the poorest countries in the world based on income and gross national product per capita. Although agriculture employs the most workers, services are the major source of economic growth. Due to its educated, English-speaking workforce, India has become animportant center of information technology services, business outsourcing services and software workers.
India is known for its historical architectural treasures, including the Taj Mahal, Humayun’s tomb, the Sun Temple at Konarak and other vast temple complexes. But modern India has also made its fair share of cultural contributions.
The film industry based in Mumbai, nicknamed Bollywood, makes more feature-length films than any other nation in the world. The country has had three Booker Prize-winning authors since 1980, including Salman Rushdie, and produced world-famous virtuosos Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan.
India faces its fair share of international and domestic challenges. While India has an upper class that enjoys a lifestyle similar to those of Western and East Asian elites, many of its citizens live in poverty. The country is locked in a long-standing territorial dispute over Kashmir withPakistan. In 2008, terrorists originating from Pakistan conducted a series of coordinated attacks in Mumbai.
India is a member of several international organizations, including the United Nations, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
Jutting into the Atlantic Ocean on the edge of the Iberian Peninsula and flanked by Spain to the east, Portugal is a nation with its gaze turned outward. Its history is steeped in discovery and exploration, beginning with early leaders that, after ousting Celtic and Moorish settlers in the 12th century, focused on building their kingdom beyond continental borders.
The westernmost nation of continental Europe used its maritime strength to colonize and forge trade routes toIndia, China, Japan and the coasts of Africa. Such legendary explorers as Bartholomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan sailed under Portuguese masts throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, their journeys blessed by ambitious monarchs. Eighty percent of Portugal’s current population is Roman Catholic.
The Discovery Age giant was thrown into economic turmoil after an earthquake ravaged the capital, Lisbon, in 1755, a fall that Portugal has never quite recovered from. Largely dependent on the success of its colonies, the nation’s strained economy was pushed into steeper decline with the independence of Brazil, its wealthiest colony, in 1822 and the flood of emigrants returning home as other African and Asian colonies were relinquished through the next century.
Financial strife continues to haunt Portugal. The nation’s budget deficit, while decreasing, is well above the European Union’s accepted rate, and financial assistance received from the European Commission and International Monetary Fund in 2011 is still being repaid. The country’s gross domestic product per capita is one of the lowest among wealthy nations, and unemployment rates are high in this heavily service-based economy. Long stretches of beach, a mild climate and 15 UNESCO Heritage Sites make Portugal an increasingly popular place to visit.
Militaristic dictatorships that had taken advantage of a nation in crisis were finally overturned in 1974, and a democracy was established. Portugal released its last-standing colony, Macau, to China in 1999, and the once vast global empire has been reduced to a nation of about 10 million residents, heavily concentrated around Lisbon and the nearby coastal region.
Portugal is a founding member of NATO, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Free Trade Association. It is also a member of the World Bank and World Trade Organization.
Russia as a nation dates back more than a millennium and authoritarian rule has marked much of its history. It was the largest and leading republic of the Soviet Union, which formed in 1922. Following the Soviet collapse in 1991, Russia became an independent republic. Russians directly elect their president, and the federal government includes legislative and judicial branches, as well as a presidency possessing extensive authority.
Western governments and organizations have criticized the Russian government over civil liberties. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the role it has played in the conflict in Ukraine has increased tension between Moscow and the West.
Russia has one of the world’s largest economies that is powered by its extensive natural resources. Top industries include oil and natural gas production, with agriculture, forestry, fishing and manufacturing serving as other economic drivers. Oil and natural gas, in particular, represent large portions of the country’s economy. Russia also is one of the world’s largest exporters of military weapons, trailing only the United States.
The majority of people are ethnic Russian, but more than 100 ethnicities and languages exist in the country. Russia’s vast size and deep history has nurtured majorcultural contributions in science and the arts. Russians were the first to launch an artificial satellite into outer space and to perform a spacewalk. Writers such as Aleksandr Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy are synonymous with classical literature, while Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Boris Pasternak have represented independence from central authority.
Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and is a member of major international organizations, including the Group of 20, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Council of Europe and the World Trade Organization.
Israel, the only Jewish nation in the world, is a small country on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. For its relatively small size, the country has played a large role in global affairs. The country has a strong economy, landmarks of significance to several religions and strained relationships with many of its Arab neighbors.
The founding of modern Israel can be traced back to World War I, when Zionists lobbied the British for recognition of a Jewish state in Palestine. After World War II, the British withdrew from their mandate of Palestine, and the United Nations proposed dividing the area into Arab and Jewish states, an idea opposed by the Arabs. Nonetheless, Israelis declared independence in 1948 and the new country then defeated the Arabs in a series of wars. More than 65 years later, boundaries are still hotly contested.
Israel is a parliamentary democracy made up of six districts. Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, though it hasn’t received wide international recognition. Most foreign countries keep their embassies in Tel Aviv.
Israel has a technologically advanced market economy with cut diamonds, high-technology equipment and pharmaceuticals among its major exports. The country is very highly developed in terms of life expectancy,education, per capita income and other human development index indicators. But the country also has one of the most unequal economies in the Western world, with significant gaps between the rich and poor.
While the culture of Jewish Israelis and the Arab minority have remained fairly separate, the country has been influenced by Jewish immigrants from all over the world, many of whom have gone on to make significant contributions to science, politics and the arts. The country is home to some of the world’s most holy sites, including the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque.
Israel is persistently plagued by terrorism threats and the country occasionally erupts into violent conflict with the Israeli occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Human rights groups have accused Israel of abuses in its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Israel is a member of numerous international organizations, including the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Located in southeastern Europe, Greece as an independent nation is young, existing since the 19th century. Its civilization, however, is one of history’s oldest and most influential, credited with creating the concept of democracy as well as the ancient Olympic Games, and laying Western foundations in science, the arts and philosophy.
Greece occupies the southernmost part of Europe’s Balkan Peninsula, as well as a collection of islands that dot the Aegean, Ionian and Mediterranean seas. Its landscapes of mountains, hills and coastline and its rich cultural heritage make it one of the most visited countries in the world.
Greece broke away from the Ottoman Empire and declared independence in the early 19th century. A referendum in 1974 abolished the monarchy and created the parliamentary republic that exists today. The country has a free-market economy with somegovernment involvement. Fueled by the tourism industry, services comprise the largest economic sector in the country, both for employment and contribution to the Greek gross domestic product. Shipping, industrial production and agriculture are other significant sectors of the economy.
Following the global financial crisis, Greece went into recession in 2009. The global economic downturn exposed years of government deficit spending in the country, and the International Monetary Fund and eurozone governments have provided aid packages that are tied to sharp austerity programs for the Greek government.
The ongoing Greek debt crisis raises questions about the futures of the eurozone, the European Union and of the Greek people, who face years of living under austerity measures. Within the European Union, Greece has one of the highest unemployment rates – particularly for young adults – as well as an alarming risk of poverty for its citizens.
Greek culture has forged distinctive identities in science, the arts, social sciences and cuisine. Greece gave birth to drama and the theatre, as well as disciplines such as political science. Greek Orthodoxy is the dominant religion, but religious tolerance is encoded in the country’s constitution.
Greece is a member of major international and regional organizations, including the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund.
Mexico is a federal republic with 31 states and one federal district. The country has a developing market economy with strong links to the U.S., a major trading partner. Mexican workers living in the U.S. send billions of dollars back to their country each year. Most of the Mexicaneconomy relies on services - with trade, transportation, finance and government accounting for about two-thirds of gross domestic product. The country has increasingly turned toward manufacturing, and is a major exporter and producer of oil.
Mexico is home to the world’s largest population of Spanish speakers, and it has made a large cultural imprintin Latin America and beyond. The country’s famous writers include Samuel Ramos, Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes. Mexico’s best known art form is the mural, which draws from the art of the Aztec, Maya and other pre-Columbian civilizations. The country’s film industry is one of the region’s largest, and many Mexican actors and filmmakers have received international recognition for their work. As in many Latin American countries, soccer is a widely shared obsession.
Mexico faces a range of domestic challenges, including low wages, income inequality and a lack of job opportunities for its indigenous population. Violent crime is a serious concern. Mexico has one of the world’s highest kidnapping rates, and more than 35,000 people have died in drug-related violence since 2006.
Mexico is a member of several international organizations, including the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
Located in two separate regions in the South China Sea, Malaysia is a small country with a fast-growing economy. Once a British colony, the country is home to about 29 million people, many of whom live in or near the capital city of Kuala Lumpur.
Located on an ocean trade route, Malaysia came under the influence of China, India, the Middle East and eventually Great Britain in the late 18th century. The Federation of Malaysia was formed in 1948 by the unification of former British-ruled territories along the Malay Peninsula. In 1963, the former British colonies of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, joined the Federation, thereafter known simply as Malaysia. The first few years were marked by a communist uprising, confrontation with Indonesia and the withdrawal of Singapore in 1965.
Malaysia has a constitutional monarchy headed by a mostly ceremonial king, who appoints a prime minister. The country has an open, diversified, upper-middle income economy. Malaysia is a major exporter of electrical appliances, electronic parts and components, palm oil and natural gas. The country was affected by the global financial crisis in 2009 but quickly recovered, posting growth rates averaging 5.7 percent since 2010. Malaysia has gone a long way toward reducing poverty, moving the share of households living below the poverty line from more than 50 percent in the 1960s to less than 1 percent in 2015, according to the World Bank.
Contemporary Malaysian culture has indigenous, early Hindu, early modern, Islamic and Western influences. And the country’s many holidays and festivals reflect its diverse communities. About 50 percent of the population is Malaysian, a group that has the most political power. Chinese, who are economically dominant, make up a little less than a quarter. The country’s population is about 11 percent indigenous, around 7 percent Indian, with sprinklings of Europeans, Thais, and other expats. Islam is the official religion.
Malaysia has land and maritime boundary disputes with several of its neighbors. Human trafficking and forced labor are ongoing issues for the country, and there are concerns that development could harm the environment, particularly northern Borneo’s rainforests.
Malaysia is a member of several international organizations, including the United Nations, the Asian Development Bank and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is ruled by a monarch, with assistance from 12 appointed ministers. The king, officially the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in this Islamic state, has always been a direct relative of the nation’s 1932 founder. Limited democracy was extended to men in 2005, and women are just beginning their path to equal voting and other human rights.
Struggling to find a balance between their desired security and control and the pressure for increased democracy, Saudi authorities wage an ongoing internal war with both protesters and extremist groups. Political parties, along with trade unions and public gatherings, are prohibited by the government. Freedom of expression is limited, and international rights groups have criticized the government for its use of torture on detainees and carrying out public executions.
Overly restrictive policies may have given rise to dissident groups like al-Qaida that led the deadly 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States and another in 2003 in capital city Riyadh. Remnants of the Arab Spring revolts against discrimination and human rights violations continue, with social media playing an important role.
Once the center of early civilization’s Fertile Crescent, oil reserves were found in Saudi Arabia’s deserts soon after the nation was founded, quickly making it the world’s top exporter and bringing skyrocketing economic growth. Saudi Arabia is estimated to sit on a quarter of the world’s supply of oil, but is seeking ways to diversify and reduce its oil dependency due to high unemployment rates and a sizeable foreign workforce.
Saudi Arabia’s recent membership in the World Trade Organization has helped open it up to foreign investment. It is a founding member of OPEC and a member of other international organizations.
At a literal crossroads between continents, Turkey is home to a unique intersection of culture. Founded in 1923, Turkey bridges Asia to Europe and shares borders with eight countries, including Greece, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, though influences of bygone Roman and Byzantine rule pepper the streets and skyline. Extravagant mosques and cathedrals can both be found within blocks of the Grand Bazaar in capital city Istanbul, home to 14 million people.
Religious identity is an important part of Turkey’s evolution. For more than a decade, power struggles between a military-backed secular government and an increasingly popular religious movement have raised concerns about government stability. The Islamic-based Justice and Development Party, known as AKP, was recently elected to lead the parliamentary republic, temporarily curbing fears of anti-Islamic sentiments.
In 1963 Turkey became an associate member of the European Economic Community, the predecessor to the European Union. Its candidacy for full membership into the EU, ongoing since 1999, has jump-started important economic reforms. Increased privatization in finance and other sectors helped create a dynamic and resilient economy attractive to foreign investment. Though balance sheet deficits remain, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development expects Turkey to be one of its fastest growing members in coming years. Advancements also have been made in education and health, but the nation continues to lag behind EU standards on human rights issues, including the repression of a sizable Kurdish minority population.
About 80 percent of South Africa’s population is black African, whose ancestors predated the arrival ofEnglish and Dutch settlers in the 17th century. Throughout the 19th century, South African history was dominated by power struggles among the Dutch and British, the discovery of diamonds and gold and clashes caused by European expansion.
Many Afrikaner nationalists, descendants of the Dutch, pushed for race-based segregation throughout the 20th century, their efforts eventually culminating in the introduction of apartheid in the late 1940s. The policy cemented white rule by creating a race-based caste system and limited freedoms for the country’s non-white citizens.
South Africa is a multiparty republic with two legislative houses and three capitals: Cape Town, Pretoria and Bloemfontein. The country’s main industries include manufacturing as well as finance, real estate and business services. South Africa produces almost half the entire continent’s electricity output.
Some of the world’s most famous human-rights activists emerged from the anti-apartheid movement, including the late former President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, both Nobel Peace Prize winners. The country has 11 official languages and one of the world’s most progressive constitutions.
While South Africa is celebrated for its largely nonviolent transition to democracy, it still faces a host of economic, political and health challenges. The country grapples with immigration tensions, the AIDS epidemic, rising unemployment and persistent poverty. While the ruling party, the African National Congress, has increased services for the country’s poor, it has faced serious allegations of corruption throughout its ranks.
South Africa is a member of the United Nations, the African Union, the World Bank and several other international organizations.
Curving along the eastern edge of the Indochina Peninsula, Vietnam shares long stretches of its borders with Cambodia, Laos and the South China Sea. Occupied by the French until 1954, a communist state emerged in 1975 after the People’s Army of the north and Viet Cong guerilla fighters defeated the anti-communist south. The bitter war garnered international attention and participation, especially from the United States, at a critical juncture in the Cold War era in which communism was gaining ground on the global stage.
“Doi moi” economic policy reforms beginning in 1986 have helped The Socialist Republic of Vietnam transition to a more modern, competitive nation. State-owned enterprises and agriculture, which once monopolized the economy, are losing prominence as the nation works to achieve sustainable development through more open trade and industry, including food processing, garment manufacturing, machine-building and mining. The United States is now the nation’s most prominent trade partner.
Similar advancements have not been made in human rights. Political and religious expression are tightly controlled, and dissenting views are met with harsh punishments. Ethnic minorities are especially vulnerable. Though poverty levels overall have declined, stark economic disparity exists between urban and rural areas.
Vietnam is densely populated and growing quickly, with about a third of the population living in bustling cities. More than 7 million people live in Ho Chi Minh City, the southern city named after the Communist-era nationalist leader. War ravaged much of Vietnam’s landscape, but fantastic caves, imperial landmarks and emerald island coves remain. Pho, a brothy noodle soup, and a growing culinary arts scene have garnered global attention.
Vietnam’s continued efforts to lessen international isolation are evidenced by its membership in the World Trade Organization in 2007 and participation in free trade negotiations with the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2010. It is also a member of the United Nations, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, among other international organizations.
With more than 100 million citizens, the Philippines is the 13th-most populous nation in the world. Hundreds of local dialects are spoken throughout the island network, representative of its diversity. English is used in schools, and a second official language is based on that of the majority Tagalog ethnic group.
Each year, the Philippine economy is flooded with billions of dollars sent home by the large number of Filipinos living abroad. These remittances, along with a flourishingtourism industry, have helped maintain a budget surplus. But the implicit dependence on global trends has proved risky, and opportunities in electronics, petroleum and other goods are being explored.
Foreign investment in the Philippines is low, but frequent devastating tsunamis and other national disasters often draw large amounts of humanitarian aid.
The Philippines is a member of major international organizations, including the United Nations, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the World Trade Organization, among others.
Peru is a nation whose history is as diverse as the peaks and valleys of its terrain. A strip of the Andes mountains separates a stretch of coastal plains from the dense Amazon jungle that covers more than half of the country. It is the third-largest country in South America, linking Ecuador and Chile along the west coast and bordering Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia inland.
Military rule led the nation through its formative years after independence from Spain in 1821, traces of which could be found in the authoritarian rule of the transformative 1980s. Today, though recovering from human-rights abuses and tensions with radical guerrilla groups, democratic support and power is building steadily. The Republic of Peru is governed by a constitution with a president as chief of state.
The ancient empire of the Incas was centered in Peru, leaving remnants of an expansive kingdom in its wake. A bite of the indigenous coca leaf can help to settle altitude sickness for those who climb the majestic Incan citadel of Machu Picchu.
The plant is also the main component of cocaine, for which Peru rivals Colombia for the top spot in production. It draws a significant portion of its gross domestic product from the narcotics trade and other organized crime, including illegal mining. Much of the world’s copper, silver and gold come from Peru, and the country has benefited tremendously from high international prices for these goods. Recent stimulus packages have aimed to improve infrastructure, invest in education and reduce informal taxation.
While the economy grows exponentially, heavy pollution affects rain forest ecosystems and contaminates drinking water, and demand for workers brings about one-third of the nation’s children into the labor force. Poverty levels have been halved since the beginning of the century, but, at 30 percent, are still high, especially in rural areas. Peru is a middle-income country facing many of the same problems of a low-income country, without the eligibility or attention for assistance.
Peru is a member of key international organizations, including the United Nations, Organization of American States, APEC and the World Bank.
The Kingdom of Morocco is a Muslim country in western North Africa, with coastlines on the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Just an hour ferry ride from Spain, the country has a unique mix of Arab, Berber, African and European cultural influences.
Unlike many of its neighbors, Morocco remained independent for much of its history. Once part of the Roman Empire, the country was ruled by a series of kingdoms after the Arab conquest of the late seventh century. Morocco thwarted attempts at Turkish and European control until the country became aFrench protectorate from 1912 to 1956, when it gained independence.
Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with a capital in Rabat. The monarch, who serves as head of state, appoints the prime minister, who serves as head of government. The country has a bicameral parliament with indirectly elected members.
The Moroccan government has pursued privatization and economic reform since the 1980s, and now has an open, diverse market economy. Key sectors of the economy include agriculture, aerospace, phosphates, textiles and apparel. The tourism and telecommunications sectors are becoming increasingly important.
Morocco is known for its cuisine, which is admired and imitated throughout the world. The country’s cooks make heavy use of spices and local ingredients, such as saffron, mint and olives. Couscous is Morocco’s premier food, and kabobs, soups and salads are often served. Harira, a thick lamb soup served with dates, is a national specialty served during Ramadan. Bread is a big part of every meal and is often washed down with mint tea, the national drink.
In addition to its mountainous interior, sunny coastline and portions of desert, Morocco boasts cities and buildings rich in historical significance. Fez is the only complete medieval city in the Arab world, and Casablanca’s architecture blends Moroccan styles with French Art Deco to form unique designs.
Despite Morocco's economic progress, high unemployment, poverty and illiteracy continue to plague the country. Morocco is also involved in territorial disputes, over both the Western Sahara and several islands under Spanish control. Human rights groups complain of ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly.
Morocco is a member of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and a partner of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Located in the heart of Central America, Costa Rica has been one of the most politically and economically stable countries in Central America since its birth in the 19th century The nation compares favorably to its regional neighbors in areas of human development, and it has used its landscapes of jungles, forests and coastlines to develop an international reputation for ecotourism.
Costa Rica’s constitution was adopted in 1949, and has since been amended to declare the nation as multicultural and multiethnic. The overwhelming majority of Costa Rica’s population is either white or mestizo – a combination of European and Amerindian descent. The population also includes indigenous, African and mixed descent groups. Like other former Spanish colonies across the Americas, Costa Rica’s official language is Spanish and the most commonly practiced religion is Roman Catholicism. However, a significant percentage of the population identifies with other religions, such as Evangelical Christianity and Jehovah’s Witness.
The country has had a functioning democracy since the mid-20th century, and its government features executive, legislative and judicial branches. The executive branch has one president and two vice presidents. Costa Rica avoided much of the conflict that plagued its Central American neighbors in the 1970s and 1980s.
Exports of agricultural products such as bananas, coffee and sugar form the backbone of Costa Rica’s economy. Years of political stability and a relatively highly educated workforce have made the country attractive for foreign investment.
On the other hand, periods of strong economic growth have not erased persistent problems with poverty and income inequality. The World Bank notes that both social indicators began to rise in the 21st century, as well as overall crime levels.
Culturally, Costa Rica draws influences from the indigenous Americans to the north, as well as South America. While the nation’s population enjoys artistic diversions such as film and music, Costa Rica’s culture may best be exemplified in the phrase, “pura vida,” which translates as “pure life,” and can be used as both a greeting and as a response to a question.
Costa Rica is a member of several international organizations, including the Organization of American States and the United Nations.
Panama is a Central American nation that connects Costa Rica and South America by way of Colombia. Much of the country’s narrative is tied to a connector of another kind: the Panama Canal, a hub of global trade and transportation that joins the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Caribbean Sea.
Construction of the canal began immediately after Panama’s secession from Colombia at the turn of the 20th century. The two nations, along with Ecuador and Venezuela initially, claimed joint independence fromSpain in 1821. The massive project was financed and built by the United States in return for a claim to sovereignty over land on either side of it, effectively splitting Panama in half.
Exclusive control of the waterway and its perimeter was passed to Panama in 1999, the culmination of a decades-long process, and expansion of the canal was approved in 2006. The $5 billion expense, 10 to 15 percent of current gross domestic product, is nearing completion and could double economic activity.
Despite a wealth of natural resources - from copper to wood and shrimp - Panama’s U.S. dollar-based economy is largely service-driven, primarily from activities around the Panama Canal and the Colon Free Trade Zone for manufacturing. Scarce regulation on tax-exempt offshore banking has attracted large amounts of foreign investment and beautiful landscapes bring tourists.
Panama has had trouble transferring the benefits of a rapidly growing economy effectively to its people, despite substantial spending on social programs and public works projects, like the addition of a metro system in capital Panama City in 2014. About one-quarter of the population lives in poverty and access to education and clean water, while increasing, is low, especially in rural areas.
Most affected by the country’s economic inequalities is the large indigenous population who have had the hardest time improving their economic status. About 12 percent of the population is Native American, with another two-thirds identifying as mestizo, or mixed Amerindian and white.
Dictator Manuel Noriega was overthrown in 1989, but issues with money laundering and drug and human trafficking remain. Panama’s government, now a constitutional democracy, continues to be criticized for corruption.
Panama is a member of the United Nations General Assembly, as well as the Organization of American States, the Latin American Economic System and many international financial institutions.
The Czech Republic may have been born in 1993, but the nation’s history goes back more than 1,000 years. Its location in the heart of Central Europe has nurtured a rich culture yet provided its people with a reserve born from interference and invasions from larger powers. Perhaps due to the country’s history, the people are among the least religious in the world.
The Czech Republic’s modern history began at the end of World War I, when Czechs and Slovaks, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, created Czechoslovakia. Nazi Germany occupied the Czech lands during World War II, and following the war, the newly reformed Czechoslovakia fell under the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. The “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 pushed the Communist Party from power and returned democracy to the country. On Jan. 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia dissolved and two separate nations formed, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Czech Republic today is a parliamentary democracy.
The Czech Republic is considered an advanced economy with high living standards. The country compares favorably to the rest of the world for inequality-adjusted human development, according to the United Nations. Machinery, engineering, electronics, automobile manufacturing and brewing are major industries while tourism and agriculture are also industrially significant.
Czechs are the country’s largest ethnic group, and Moravians, Slovaks and Poles are other significant groups. While Czechs don't tend to be particularly religious, Roman Catholicism is the most popular faith among religious citizens. Like other developed societies, the Czech Republic has an aging population. A significant proportion of children are born outside of marriage, according to the government’s Statistical Office.
Culturally, the Czech Republic has a rich history in music, literature, visual arts and decorative glass and crystal. Notable classical composers include Antonin Dvorak and Bedrich Smetana, while notable writers have included Franz Kafka and the late Vaclav Havel – the author and political dissident who served as the country’s first president following the downfall of communism.
The Czech Republic is a member of major international organizations such as the United Nations, and regional groupings such as the European Union, NATO and the Council of Europe.
Egypt, with vast swaths of desert in its east and west and the rich Nile River Valley at its heart, is site to one of the world’s earliest and greatest civilizations. Its location at the northeast corner of Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea has made it a cultural and trading center. But its location has also made it a prize to claim by empires and put it at the center of social and religious movements.
At the beginning of 2014 voters approved a new constitution, the latest of several versions since modern-day Egypt was formed in the 1920s. The constitution’s passage was born from the upheaval that roiled the country and many other Arab nations that sought to end authoritarian rule. Egypt’s 2014 constitution upholds it as a republic with Islam as the state religion and Arabic as the nation’s official language. The country has executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government.
Most economic activity takes place along the Nile River Valley, where the tiny amount of the nation’s arable land resides. Tourism, agriculture and manufacturing are important industries. Additionally, cash remittances from Egyptians living abroad have become a significant part of the economy. Social and political uncertainties have adversely affected Egypt’s economy, slowing foreign investment and industries such as tourism.
While Egypt has made great strides improving the living conditions for its people, the country’s population still faces high levels of unemployment, poverty, income disparity and illiteracy. Crime is increasingly an issue, as well as violence carried out against women.
Egyptians are overwhelmingly the largest ethnic group in the country, and most religious Egyptians follow the Sunni branch of Islam. Sufism also is practiced and Copts are the country’s largest Christian denomination. Arab and Islamic traditions shape the country’s culture. The country is a literary center for the Arab world and art forms such as music combine Arab, African, Mediterranean and Western elements.
Egypt is an active member of international and regional organizations, including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, the Arab Monetary Fund and the African Union.
The population has a high literacy rate and the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, which assesses women’s access to resources and opportunitiescompared to men, ranks Argentina comparatively high. However, violence against women has become a top public issue in the 21st century.
Argentina ranks 107 out of 175 nations measured in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Argentina is a rich country culturally with deep traditions in literature, theater, cinema, visual arts and music – yes, the tango. The nation is the eighth-largest by land mass in the world.
The country is a member of major international organizations such as the United Nations, as well as regional groups such as Mercosur and the Union of South American Nations.
A major outpouring of Sinhalese nationalism after independence sparked conflict with the Tamil minority, who had come from India and settled in the north in the 14th century and account for more than a tenth of the population. A decades-long war erupted, settled only with the peacekeeping assistance of Norway in 2002. The conflict continued through 2009, with scattered attacks from the Liberation Tigers, or Tamil separatists. More than 70,000 people died, with many more displaced.
Human rights grievances over war crimes remain unsettled, but Sri Lanka has seen some of its steepest economic growth in the years after fighting ceased. Tea fields, cultivated by British colonists, continue to lead the predominant export industry and the large textile manufacturing industry has been rebranded as “Garments without Guilt,” with a focus on protecting workers’ rights and the environment. Cinnamon, ivory and gems are also major exports.
The nation has also tapped into the vast potential of its tourism industry, packed with ancient Buddhist ruins, lush jungles and a unique blend of traditional cuisine. Ancient irrigation systems in the sacred city of Anuradhapura and beyond provide the framework for a strong national infrastructure, which has seen recent improvements in expanded roadways and access to electricity.
Health standards and literacy rates are high, though poverty and debt remain. Remittances from Sri Lankans working overseas aid financial recovery, but drain the nation of skilled talent.
Sri Lanka remains generally unaligned in political practice, but is a member of international organizations, including the United Nations, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.
Indonesia is now the world's third most populousdemocracy, with a capital based in Jakarta. It’s made up of 31 provinces, one autonomous province, one special region and one national capital district.
Indonesia has made a relatively large dent in the global economy. It is the region’s biggest economy and part of the G20 group of the world's richest nations. Manufacturing is the largest single component of the country’s economy. Indonesia’s main exports include crude petroleum and natural gas as well as rubber, coffee, cocoa and palm oil.
Indonesia’s islands are dotted with architectural remnants of Hindu-Buddhist and other empires. Borobudur, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991, is one of the most famous Buddhist monuments. Many religious and historical tales are expressed orally and through dance. The country is known for biodiversity as well as cultural diversity. Indonesia is located in the Coral Triangle, which has more than 3,000 species of fish – about seven times as many as in the entire Caribbean.
The country faces secessionist demands in several provinces. It also struggles with militant groups, some of which have been accused of having ties to al-Qaida, including the group blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings. Poverty, inadequate infrastructure, corruption and deforestation are ongoing problems.
Indonesia is active in several international trade and security organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the United Nations.
Colonized by Spain, Chile won its independence in the early 19th century and its history with democracy is longer than many Latin American countries. However, tens of thousands of people were estimated to have been imprisoned, tortured or killed during the 1973-90 rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Chile restored democracy in the late 20th century, complete with a presidency, legislature and independent judiciary.
Chile’s open market economy focuses on its natural resources – mining, agriculture and fishing – and on trade with the world. Compared to the rest of Latin America, Chile ranks favorably in human development and income. International institutions laud Chile’s government for reducing the number of poor, but also note income inequality is still quite high, in part due to unequal access to quality education.
Reflecting its colonial past, Chileans are primarily Caucasian, indigenous or a combination of the two. A small percentage of the population traces its roots to Africa. Chile’s constitution guarantees freedom of religious expression, but like the rest of Latin America, the majority of Chileans who adhere to a religion practice Catholicism.
Literature, music and dance thrive in the country’s cultural life. Poet Gabriela Mistral was the first Latin American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, and the poet Pablo Neruda also has won a Nobel Prize.
Chile is a founding member of the United Nations, and belongs to major organizations such as the Organization of American States, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.
A former Soviet satellite state, Hungary held its first multiparty elections in 1990. The country has a parliamentary democracy with Budapest as its capital city.
The country, which draws 21 million visitors per year, is home to the biggest lake in Central Europe and an expansive thermal cave system. Much of the country’s cultural identity is tied to Budapest, which served as the second capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during its reign from 1867 to 1918. The city is bisected by the Danube River and was once called the “Queen of the Danube” for its architectural grandeur.
Hungary can claim one of the world’s highest per capita rates of Nobel laureates, though many of its winners have worked overseas in places such as the U.S. or Germanydue to lack of funding. Many Hungarian musicians and artists achieved fame at the turn of the 20th century, including composer Béla Bartók and avant-garde painters Tivadar Csontváry-Kosztka and László Moholy-Nagy.
Hungary has transitioned from a centrally planned economy to a market economy and is considered a high-income country by the World Bank. The country’s top trading partners include Germany and Austria. Hungary’s most important economic sectors are industry, wholesale and retail trade, transport, accommodation and food services.
Hungary has had a tense relationship with some global leaders in recent years as its leadership has adopted a strong anti-immigration stance and made moves to centralize political and economic power.
Some critics, such as the United States, have complained of corruption within the Hungarian government’s top ranks. Human rights groups have accused Hungarian leaders of launching smear campaigns against civil society groups and of tolerating discrimination of the Roma, the country’s largest ethnic minority.
Hungary is a member of several international organizations, including NATO, the European Union, the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The country has an open-market economy. The service sector, which includes tourism and finance, is now the Dominican Republic’s largest employer. The agriculture industry still plays a vital role, fueling the country’s exports in commodities such as sugar, coffee and tobacco. Half of the Dominican Republic’s exports go to the United States.
While noting fast economic growth in the 21st century, the World Bank finds that poverty remains high in the country. The institution also says that providing adequate public services to the Dominican Republic’s population remains a challenge. Per the World Bank, maternal and infant mortality rates in the country are higher than the regional average, and other positive social indicators for the country fall below regional averages.
The Dominican Republic is a young, urban nation, with a sizable proportion of the population 24 years of age or younger and the majority of the people living in cities. Most Dominicans are a mix of African and European descent, with smaller groups solely black and white. Spanish is the official language, and the country is heavily Roman Catholic.
Culturally, the nation reflects its Spanish colonial heritage as well as some African traditions. Music and dance play a vital role in citizens’ lives, regardless of social level, and the visual and folk arts thrive in the country. Contemporary events have influenced the Dominican Republic’s literature, with the 19th-century occupation by Haiti, early 20th-century occupation by the United States and social protests in the late 20th century inspiring Dominican writers.
The Dominican Republic is a member of major international and regional organizations, including the United Nations and Organization of American States, as well as specialized groups such as the Latin American Economic System.
Due to the early Spanish and Portuguese influences, Uruguay’s culture remains quite heavily influenced by southern Europe, and most citizens are of European descent.
Uruguay’s leading industries are the raising of livestock, the processing of animal products and tourism. Its main exports are meat, wool and animal skins and hides. As one of only two South American countries with aninvestment grade sovereign bond rating, Uruguay’s economy has been able to remain more buoyant in the face of financial crises than many of its neighbors. It was the only country in the Americas to not experience a recession between 2007 and 2009 and in 2005 was the first South American country to export software - a major boon to its economy.
A founding member of MERCOSUR, Uruguay is a member of major international organizations such as the United Nations, and regional organizations such as the Rio Group and the Latin American Integration Association. It chairs the Free Trade Area of the Americas and World Trade Organization agricultural committees.
Trade expanded greatly, reminiscent of times when the ancient seaport Carthage was one of the richest in the world. Agriculture and textile exports to the European Union fueled economic trade, along with tourism andforeign investment. Investments were made in education and infrastructure, and women’s rights were supported.
By the end of 2010, rising inflation and a lack of political freedom combined with high unemployment - particularly among college graduates - ignited public protests that would grow across the country and eventually force the government to step down. The protests in Tunisia set off the “Arab Spring” wave of demonstrations across much of the Arab World that called for greater freedoms.
A $500 million loan from the African Development Bank in 2011 has helped Tunisia stabilize and rebuild trust between key trade partners in the European Union. But a nation that once repressed Islamic fundamentalism is growing increasingly conservative, and disparities between the developed coastal region and impoverished interior remain.
A new constitution was signed in 2014, and transfer of power was smooth.
Tunisia is a member of key international organizations, including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the League of Arab States and the African Union.
Bulgaria is one of Europe’s oldest countries, founded in the seventh century. By the early 20th century it emerged from more than five centuries of rule under the Ottoman Empire and declared its independence. However, Bulgaria remained isolated for nearly half of the century while being governed by authoritarian communist rule. Free elections in 1990 signaled the country’s transition to democracy.
The country is bordered by Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Romania and the Black Sea, and its landscapes include mountains, plains and coastline.
The World Bank classifies Bulgaria as an upper-middle income nation. Its economy is powered by construction, mining, services - which include tourism - and agriculture sectors. The global economic downturn ended a run of strong economic growth for the country. Bulgaria has a well-educated workforce, but it is considered the poorest nation in the European Union. Among the challenges it faces are perceived problems of corruption and organized crime.
Bulgaria’s culture mixes East and West, reflecting the influences of Slavs, Bulgars and Turks, as well as from ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium. The country has arich heritage in folk music and the visual arts. Ethnically, the nation is overwhelmingly Bulgarian, while Turks are the country’s largest ethnic minority group.
Bulgaria defines itself as a secular state that guarantees freedom of religious expression. The majority of people who adhere to a religion practice some form of Eastern Orthodoxy. Bulgaria is also home to Muslims, Christian and Jewish communities.
Bulgaria is a member of the United Nations and is one of the newest members of the European Union. It is a member of other major organizations, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and NATO.
Beginning in the 1960s, Colombia’s governments have experienced varying degrees of conflict with leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups, most notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The illegal drug trade heavily funded that conflict. The United States has provided assistance to the government’s battle against these paramilitary groups, and the 21st century has seen substantial progress in the reduction of violence. A subsequent peace process initiation between the government and guerrillas has offered hopes of eventually reaching a peaceful political agreement.
Colombia is classified as an upper middle-income economy and is one of Latin America’s largest economies, according to the International Monetary Fund. The country’s economy is shaped by its land and like many South American nations is based in its rich natural resources. Agriculture and commodity-driven industries are a large part of the economy, with petroleum, coal, gold and coffee as the top exports. Industries such as textiles and services such as telecommunications along with tourism are also strong economic components.
Unemployment in Colombia has dropped in the 21st century, but is still high compared to other South American nations. Poverty rates remain high and income inequality is one of the highest in Latin America and the world.
Spanish is Colombia’s official language and the country’s most popular religion is Roman Catholicism. Culturally, Colombians like to boast that more poets than soldiers have occupied the president’s office. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature underscored the central role the written word plays in the country’s arts.
Colombia is a member of several international organizations, including the Organization of American States and the United Nations.
During World War II, Romania sided with the Axis powers and afterward fell under Soviet rule. Communist dictatorship took hold for decades, until 1989 when the communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown and executed. A constitution was signed in 1991, and Romania now operates as a republic under an elected president and an appointed prime minister.
Heavy folklore and superstition shroud the nation, concentrated heavily among the rural population who keep medieval beliefs alive. Romania’s tourism industry, increasingly drawing visitors to the picturesque countryside, is one of the fastest growing in Europe. Amidst the impressive peaks of the Carpathians Mountains, known as the Transylvanian Alps, sits Bran Castle, the legendary home of the vampire Dracula.
The remaining two-thirds of the country is covered with lush rolling hills and plains, proving fertile ground for a strong agriculture industry based in grains. Decreased demand for exports during the global economic crisis of 2008 dealt a tough blow to Romania’s economy. The country received a $26 billion bailout in 2010 sponsored by the International Monetary Fund.
Recovery has been slow, and unemployment and poverty continue to plague about a quarter of the population. But a renewed, steady export market, especially within the European Union, and an industry shift toward manufacturing, especially of electronic machinery and equipment, textiles and footwear, has helped increase the country’s wealth and middle-class.
Romania has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, and poor national infrastructure and social programs put its aging population at risk.
Romania joined NATO in 2004 and its bid for European Union membership was finally approved in 2007. Other international organization memberships include the United Nations, World Bank and World Trade Organization.
While Jordan’s economy is small, it’s relatively well diversified. Nearly one-third of its gross domestic product stems from trade and finance. The economy also largely hinges on services, tourism and foreign aid. Jordan boasts the best health service in the region. The country has no oil of its own, and water is also scarce.
Aside from snorkeling in the Red Sea and floating in the Dead Sea, visitors to Jordan can explore castles, forts and ancient ruins. One of Jordan’s most famous sites is Petra – a city featured in Hollywood films and known for its distinctive rock-cut architecture. The ancient city of Jerash is home to some of the world’s best-preserved Roman towns. In Wadi Rum, a valley in southern Jordan, visitors can camp, ride camels and rock climb in the home of the Zalabia Bedouins.
Despite strains on its infrastructure, Jordan continues to welcome a large number of Syrian refugees, who have been offered health and education services. Other challenges facing the government include poverty, unemployment, inflation and significant government debt. Although the country is among the safest in the region, Jordan experienced suicide bomb attacks from Iraq-based Islamic militants in 2005.
Jordan is a member of several international organizations, including the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization. The country is also a member of the United Nations, through which it has participated in numerous peacekeeping missions.
Guatemala has the largest economy in Central America, according to the World Bank, and it has grown steadily in the 21st century. Services, manufacturing and agriculture are top sectors. Remittances from Guatemalans living abroad are a major source of foreign income for the country.
Despite the size and growth of its economy, inequality persists. Poverty is widespread, with the country’s indigenous population being disproportionately affected, and the gap between rich and poor is among the highest in Latin America. Guatemala suffers from high malnutrition and infant mortality rates. Guatemala’s crime rate is among the highest in all of Latin America, and violence is negatively affecting the country’s economy, according to the World Bank.
Guatemala is an ethnically diverse nation. Major groups include Mayan and mestizo – a mix of indigenous and European peoples. People of mixed African and Caribbean descent, whites and other indigenous groups also are represented. The ethnic diversity can be heard daily on the streets; Spanish is the country’s official language, but many Mayan dialects can be heard across Guatemala.
The influence of Mayan culture is expressed in the country’s clothing, music and festivals. Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, but Guatemala has a relatively high proportion of Protestants.
Guatemala is a member of major international and regional organizations, including the United Nations, the Organization of American States, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund and the Latin American Economic System.
The overwhelming majority of the nation’s population is ethnic Azerbaijani, a group that combines Iranian, Turkic and Caucasian elements. Though the majority of citizens are Shi’a Muslim, Azerbaijan is a secular state that guarantees religious freedom.
Azerbaijan is considered a presidential republic. In the 21st century, however, the government has come under increasing criticism over its human-rights record and charges of corruption. The government has drawn criticism from Western governments and groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders for its treatment of its critics and journalists.
The nation is rich in natural resources, and its economy is heavily based on oil and other energy exports. The country is considered an upper-middle income nation possessing a high level of economic development and literacy.
Like many of the former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan has struggled to move to a market economy. Additionally, the World Bank has noted that while the rates of unemployment and poverty in the country have fallen, Azerbaijan is at risk of losing those gains. The international organization warns of a need to diversify the number of industries offering employment. The World Bank also warns of a looming “youth bulge” – a large number of young people entering the workforce who will need jobs – which will threaten to raise the national rate of poverty.
The nation’s location as a trading crossroads helped it develop as a center for craft art. It lays claim tolongstanding traditions in music and dance, and Azerbaijani literature began forming in the 13th and 14th centuries. The country claims to be one of the earliest nations to experiment with cinematography.
The nation possesses considerable natural resources, including large mineral deposits, hydrocarbons, agriculture and forestry. It is a major producer of tin and gold. An estimated 40 percent of the country’s workforce is employed in the agricultural sector, although the industry contributes a relatively small amount to Bolivia’s gross domestic product. Bolivia is one of the world’s top producers of coca, the plant used to produce cocaine, according to the United Nations.
In spite of economic gains made in the 21st century, poverty and social tensions remain fixtures in Bolivia. The World Bank labels it as one of South America’s poorest nations and also notes substantial income inequality across the country. Other social indicators such as school enrollment and life expectancy fall below Latin American and Caribbean averages.
Bolivia’s culture is shaped by its history, and while roughly only a third of the nation is in the Andes Mountains, the highland cultures of the Aymara and Quechua indigenous population influence much of the nation’s way of life. The country was once part of the Tiwanaku and Inca empires before Spanish colonization took hold in the early 16th century. As a result, food, music and the arts feature elements of native Indian and European culture.
Roughly three out of four Bolivians are Roman Catholic.
Bolivia is a member of the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the International Monetary Fund and other international organizations.
The country is technically a republic, with a prime minister and deputy prime minister appointed by the president. While in theory the president can only serve two terms, an exception has been made for the country’s current and first president, who is allowed to serve unlimited terms. Since 1997, the capital has been Astana, in the north-central part of the country, along the Ishim River. Previously it was in Almaty, the country’s largest city.
Kazakhstan has significant fossil fuel reserves and other minerals and metals such as uranium, of which it’s the world’s biggest producer. Much of the growth in the country’s economy has been tied to the oil sector. From the mid-1990s to 2010, its per capita gross domestic product is estimated to have increased more than tenfold. The country also has a large agricultural sector featuring livestock and grain.
Kazakhstan has an ethnically diverse population, with Kazakhs making up more than 60 percent of the population and Russians constituting about a quarter. The country also has smaller numbers of Uzbeks, Koreans, Chechens and others. About 70 percent of the country is Muslim – a religion that was suppressed during Communist rule.
While many of its neighbors tend to be more influenced by Islamic countries, Kazakhstan has been largely affected by Russian culture, literature and language. Much of the Kazakh intelligentsia was killed in Stalin’s purges. Today, Kazakh scholars and other intellectuals are trying to revive Kazakh traditions.
Kazakhstan faces several challenges, including creating a national identity, diversifying the economy and managing the environmental legacy of Soviet-era nuclear testing and toxic waste dumping. Rights groups have accused the country of cracking down on dissent and restricting freedoms.
Kazakhstan is a member of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other international organizations.
Power has transferred between civilian and military governments in Pakistan’s federal republic over the years, fostering an environment of instability and corruption that has stunted the nation’s growth and development. The seventh-most populous country is also one of the youngest in the world, with the majority of citizens under age 22.
Heavy in textiles, carpets and rugs, the export-driven economy has fallen short in attracting foreign investment and aiding the reduction of poverty. Advancements inhuman development like education, health care, infrastructure and more have suffered in the shadows of internal conflicts with extremist groups.
In 2011, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was confronted and killed in the hills of Pakistan’s countryside by United States forces. Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militant groups remain active within Pakistan’s borders, especially in the northern region. The government’s faltering resolve against the groups and its history of human rights offenses have strained international relations.
Pakistan is a member of international organization, including the United Nations, World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund.
Years of violent civil war and military rule plagued Nigeria until the adoption of a new constitution and the first inauguration of a civilian president in 1999. Governmentaccountability is believed to have improved, but elections continue to face scrutiny. In 2015, President Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari became the first opposition party candidate to win an election. He leads Nigeria’s 36 states and one territory under a federal republic.
Nigeria is a key member of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Oil is its primary export and has been the lifeline to the country’s economic growth. Other exports include cocoa and rubber.
Gross national income has seen incremental growth for at least 15 years, but the Nigerian people do not see much of that revenue. A majority of the country’s population lives in poverty. One-third of the nation’s children are never enrolled in school. Nigeria also has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS related deaths in the world.
About half of Nigeria’s population identifies as Muslim, and an Islamic legal system was also implemented in 1999, primarily in the northern region of the country. Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group aligned with al-Qaeda, has built up its presence in the region and harsh implementation of Islamic law has caused many Christians to flee the country. Nigeria has formed an alliance with several surrounding countries to combat separatist and terrorist threats.
Nigeria is a member of significant international organizations such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the World Trade Organization.
Iran is a theocratic republic with a supreme leader appointed for life by the Assembly of Experts and a president elected by popular vote. The vast majority of Iranians are Shiite Muslim, which is the official state religion. Persian, or Farsi, is the official language.
Iran's economy relies primarily on oil and gas exports – the country holds 9 percent of the world’s oil reserves – but it also has significant agricultural, industrial and service sectors. International sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear program, as well as the isolation of its banking system, have badly hurt the economy. Inflation and high unemployment remain large concerns.
Iranian culture has been shaped by the country’s literature. The works of Persian poets Ḥāfeẓ, Rūmī and others often have a place on Iranian shelves, inspiring the country’s modern writers. Iran has also gained international acclaim for its film industry, fine carpets and architecturally significant mosques, madrassas, shrines and palaces.
In addition to economic challenges, Iran has problems with sex trafficking, opiate addiction and corruption. Iran has difficult relationships with several neighbors over territorial disputes and has drawn the ire of many global leaders for its nuclear ambitions and involvement in state sponsored terrorism.
The country’s post-Soviet political life has been contentious, roiled by persistent charges of governmentcorruption and fraud and ensuing public protests. Large-scale protests at the end of 2013 turned violent in 2014, leading to the ouster of the government and unrest in the heavily ethnic Russian eastern regions of Ukraine. Russia annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine in early 2014, a move by Moscow that has been widely condemned by the international community.
The World Bank has said resolution of Ukraine’s political crisis is needed to improve confidence in the country’s government institutions. The International Monetary Fund also has noted violence in eastern Ukraine is adversely affecting the country’s economy.
Services, industry and agriculture are Ukraine’s three largest economic sectors. The nation substantially relies on natural gas imports from Russia to meet its energy needs. Agricultural production and energy consumption can be made more efficient, and in doing so Ukraine could play an important role in global food security, according to the World Bank.
Culturally, Ukraine is influenced by Western and Central Europe, Russia to the east and by religion - the predominant faith in the country is Eastern Orthodoxy. The country has a rich history in literature, music, architecture and folk art, including “pysanky,” Ukrainian Easter eggs. Ethnic Ukrainians form the overwhelming majority of the country’s population, with ethnic Russians serving as the largest minority group.
Ukraine is a member of major international and regional organizations, including the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Ethnically, the nation is overwhelmingly Arab-Berber, and the vast majority of citizens are Sunni Muslims. Arabic is the national language, but various Berber dialects and French also are spoken.
The World Bank classifies Algeria as an upper-middle income nation. The country is heavily reliant on energy exports in natural gas and oil. However, it faces many economic challenges, including high unemployment for women and youth and inequality among its different regions. This regional inequality has led to periodic unrest between Berbers and Arabs.
Corruption poses a significant barrier to solving some of the country’s economic problems. The organization Transparency International gives Algeria low scores overthe openness of its government budget.
Algeria is a constitutional presidential republic. However, various international organizations have criticized its government for its record on civil liberties. Human Rights Watch has noted that the government restricts free speech and the right to assemble and peacefully protest. Reporters Without Borders has frequently criticized Algeria over its record of not allowing a free media.
Additionally, the government in the early part of the 21st century faces the challenge of ongoing deadly attacks from the Islamist militant group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Algeria is a member of the United Nations, the Arab League, the African Union and OPEC.