books politics

Book review: Prisoners of Geography, by Tim Marshall

prisoners of geographyGeography has always shaped politics, determining where borders fall, where empires expand and where their ambitions stop. Perhaps it was more obvious in the past, and one might think that it is less important in an age of global connections, the internet and drone warfare. But here is journalist and author Tim Marshall to explain why it still matters, with Prisoners of Geography: Ten maps that will tell you everything you need to know about global politics.

That’s a bold claim, and of course the book doesn’t tell you everything you need to know to understand global politics. But it does lay some very good foundations. Each chapter begins with a map of a region or key country, and then shows how the geography of that country explains its political preoccupations. Often that starts with a historical perspective, the story of how those nations came to be and why their borders lie where they are. Where are the rivers and mountain ranges that suggest territorial limits? Where are the transport routes and sea lanes? What natural resources are we dealing with? What people groups have occupied this region? If an enemy were to invade, where would they attack? Out of these questions, Marshall then lays out the various international disputes in the area and why nations act the way they do.

Take China, for example. China occupies Tibet because it gives them control of all the territory up to the Himalayas. Liberating Tibet would mean ceding the high ground to the West and leaving it vulnerable. (The Himalayas, while we’re there, are also one of the main reasons why China and India have historically had so little to do with each other – they make trade very difficult between the two.) Rising tensions in the South China Seas have similar roots, says Marshall. If it came to conflict, an enemy could block shipping here, cutting off incoming resources and outgoing exports. The claims and counter-claims around seemingly unimportant islands are all about control and security.

A lot of this is well known and discussed in foreign policy circles, but it doesn’t always filter through to the mainstream media. The actions of someone like President Putin only really make sense when geopolitics are considered.

This is important in understanding the long term fortunes of various regions too. Western Europe is blessed with productive agricultural land, and navigable rivers that connect with each other. Africa’s rivers aren’t navigable and don’t connect, making trade and therefore development much more challenging. Brazil “lacks a coastal plain”, which makes it difficult to connect the country internally. Its poor transport infrastructure means it is expensive to move goods, and Marshall doubts that it will ever be a global power.

As the title suggests, the book reads too much into geography sometimes, as if it really can explain everything. Geography is not destiny, as they say. In tackling the whole of global politics, it inevitably tips over into generalization or over-simplification from time to time. Many parts of the world don’t get a look in.

It’s also beholden to security and military tactics, with other angles overlooked. The environment gets an occasional mention, but climate change isn’t really addressed until the closing pages, and the short chapter on the Arctic. That’s a shame, because climate change is already a major force in the world and it will only get more important in the coming years. But then, geopolitics doesn’t leave much room for non-state actors, whether those are corporations or movements or environmental changes. That doesn’t make it irrelevant, it just means it won’t suffice as the only way to look at the world.

Caveats aside, Prisoners of Geography is a useful overview of geopolitics. It’s very readable and Marshall has decades of reporting behind him. If you haven’t read anything like this before, it will be genuinely enlightening. You can read it through if you’re interested, dip in and out if you prefer, or use it as a reference when regional flashpoints crop up in the news.

4 comments

  1. Very good. Geography also goes most of the way to explaining the Brexit vote. Economic policy largely ignores geography, thereby creating problems in long thin countries like the UK, Italy and Sweden.

    It is unfortunate that geography and economics became separate academic disciplines.

    1. Indeed, when we talk about marginalised communities that’s usually taken as meaning economically sidelined. But it’s actually often literal – Wales, Cornwall, the East of England.

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