Business is driven to some extent by geopolitics, so in order to be successful, you need to understand what’s going on in the world. In the book Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall, the specialist in foreign affairs looks at how geography has contributed to geopolitics in today’s world.

The book is a captivating read that provides a unique perspective on the world and how topography and location has shaped the actions and decisions of countries throughout history. But reading it in the light of recent events, it’s almost eerie how prescient Marshall’s analysis of the ongoing tensions between nations and regions has proven to be. Yes, maybe I’m a map nerd but I blame my Dad!

From the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East to the rise of nationalism in Europe and the United States, the book’s insights into the influence of geographical factors on politics and international relations have been underscored in a dramatic fashion. And while it was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, the book’s exploration of the challenges and opportunities presented by disease outbreaks highlights the continued relevance of the themes addressed within the book.

About Tim Marshall

Timothy John Marshall (born 1 May 1959) is a British journalist, author, and broadcaster, specialising in foreign affairs and international diplomacy. Marshall is a guest commentator on world events for the BBC, Sky News and a guest presenter on LBC, and was formerly the diplomatic and also foreign affairs editor for Sky News. (Source Wikipedia).

During his time at Sky, Marshall covered such events as the first Gulf War, the Balkan Wars, the Arab Spring Movement, the US invasion of Afghanistan & Iraq and is viewed as a leading authority on international affairs.

What attracted me to the book?

Aside from the fact that in my case nomen really is omen and I find it hard to resist a good book, there were a number of things that drew me to break my self-imposed book purchasing ban…not only the fact that I’d resisted it for years at airports around the world.

Initially I was intrigued by the title. Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall bears the (for me at least) irresistible subtitle of “Ten Maps that tell you everything you need to know about Global politics”…and as someone working in global business it sounded like just the book for me!

My dad was a geography teacher so I grew up with the fascination of (& for) maps. How a flat piece of paper could tell me about mountains, churches, prehistoric monuments and details of the coastline. Geography is often seen as a bit of a pointless subject in schools – a bit fluffy and not of any practical use – but I was always drawn by how topography and natural resources combined with location could at least partly predict the fate of the people who lived there. Even just the simple “where was I born” question explains so much about my opportunities in life, education etc.

Belgium wouldn’t have the questionable claim to fame of being Western Europe’s battleground if it wasn’t so conveniently flat, nor would culture in Bhutan have developed in such a singular way were it not isolated by mountains. Maybe not heavyweights of the global geopolitical scene but clear examples of the influence of geography.

Still, I resisted the lure of the book until last year when Tim Marshall held the keynote at an event I attended in Vienna. He was planned to focus on the sequel (The Power of Geography), but that went out of the window a bit with the events happening close by in the Ukraine. I took this as the cue I needed to finally buy and read both books.

What are the 10 Maps?

The 10 Maps quoted in the subtitle of the book are:

  1. Russia
  2. China
  3. the USA
  4. Western Europe
  5. Africa
  6. The Middle East
  7. India and Pakistan
  8. Korea and Japan
  9. Latin America
  10. The Arctic

As you can see, that actually covers a pretty large % of the world both in terms of km² as well as population, so it’s clear from the start that this book can only scrape the surface of the complexities of global geopolitics.

Prisoners of Geography Summary

Obviously (with geography as the focus) there are some overarching themes that reoccur during the book & those are the various aspects of physical geography such as rivers, mountain ranges, post-colonial borders etc. From a military perspective these are of course vital & in past centuries (more obviously than today) military realities were often what shaped a region’s fortunes.

Rivers if navigable (such as in Europe or the USA) open up trade routes, and if too steep or unnavigable due to sudden drops (such as is the case in most of Africa) then perhaps hydroelectricity is an option. Coastline obviously is also a feature that “opens” the way for trade and international exchange, but only if there are suitable deep harbours (Hong Kong is advantaged here, but Brazil certainly isn’t).

Mountains and deserts on the other hand have historically provided barriers between nations or cultures (think about the way the Himalayas divides the Indian sub-continent from the Chinese culture, or in Africa the role of the Sahara over the centuries).

Russia

On the one hand, Russia’s size and natural resources should make it a major economic and military power, with vast reserves of oil and natural gas, as well as a highly educated and skilled population. Its long land borders with Europe and Asia have also allowed it to be a major player in global trade and commerce.

On the other hand, the vastness and complexity of Russia’s geography have also posed significant challenges for its government and society. The country’s harsh and varied terrain has made infrastructure development and maintenance difficult, and its population is concentrated mainly in the west, leaving much of the country sparsely populated. The country’s large land borders have also made it vulnerable to invasions and territorial disputes & the sheer size of the country made it over the centuries difficult to rule (except autocratically).

The book outlines how the lack of natural borders between present day Russia and the flat northern European plain (basically in the north everything from the Ukraine & Belarus through Poland to Germany & to the south of the Carpathians, Moldova) mean that Russia would have to make big diplomatic efforts to guarantee their security. As we know, Putin has chosen to lead Russia along a different path, resorting to violence to resolve his issues. It’s not as simplistic as that of course, but that is certainly a major factor.

Furthermore, Russia’s location between Europe and Asia, has placed it in a unique position in terms of its relations with the rest of the world. Its historical ties and cultural influences with Europe and its proximity to the Middle East and Asia have led to a complex relationship with its neighbours, often shifting between cooperation and conflicts. Obviously right now, those relationships are more of a balancing act than ever.

China

China’s varied topography, from its barren deserts to its lush rainforests, has influenced the country’s population distribution and development. The book also delves into the challenges that China’s vast size and complex geography have posed to its government throughout history, from the difficulties of building and maintaining infrastructure to the complications of maintaining control over remote regions.

Marshall also discusses how China’s historical relationship with its neighbouring countries, such as Russia, Japan, and India, has been shaped by its geography. He notes that the country’s land borders with these nations have often been the source of tension and conflict, but also the location of important trade and cultural exchanges.

In terms of managing its geography, China has excelled, creating a nationwide high-speed rail network, and developing a string of state-of-the-art coastal ports. Some of China’s mega-geography-altering initiatives, particularly the Three Gorges Dam and the replumbing of the country, diverting water from south to north, could have serious unforeseen environmental consequences.

Douglas Webster

We can clearly see that whilst those relationships all have their tensions today, China is open for opportunistic moves (cf. the relationship with Russia) or also searching for alternative solutions to issues (closer relations with both Pakistan and Myanmar through One Belt One Road (OBOR) infrastructure initiatives that should strengthen relationships through economic growth).

One of the most intriguing points in the chapter is Marshall’s analysis of the impact of China’s geography on its society and culture. He argues that the country’s physical isolation and its concentration of population in its fertile river valleys have led to a strong sense of national identity and a strong central government, which has helped to shape the country’s authoritarian political system. He also delves into how the rugged terrain and harsh climate has resulted in a culture that is resilient, self-sufficient and fiercely independent.

Marshall also addresses China’s vast coastline and how it has played a crucial role in the country’s economic development. He explains how the country’s strategic location on the Pacific Rim has allowed it to become a major trading hub and how its ports have provided it access to the world’s shipping lanes. (7 of the world’s top 10 busiest ports are in China) If you see my point above about the OBOR or Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) then you can see that China wants to avoid the risk of being dependent on the Malacca Strait, which could easily be closed in the case of conflict.

Economic growth is also giving China the confidence to spread their elbows in the South China Sea, leading to a powder keg of potential border disputes around the 10 dash line, but most precariously the question of Taiwan.

The USA

In the chapter on the United States in “Prisoners of Geography,” Tim Marshall delves into the ways in which geography has shaped the country’s rise to power and its current global dominance. He starts by outlining the advantages that the country’s vast size and natural resources have provided, from the fertile Midwest to the abundant oil reserves in the Southwest. He also notes the strategic importance of the country’s location, with two oceans providing protection from potential aggressors.

Marshall goes on to discuss how the country’s unique history, shaped by waves of immigration and the concept of manifest destiny, has also played a role in its rise to power. He notes that the melting pot of cultures has created a society that is open to new ideas and innovation, which has helped to drive economic growth and technological advancement.

One of the most striking observations Marshall makes is the distinction between the US Eastern and Western regions, how they’ve developed differently and how that has affected their respective relationships with the world. The East, with its long history of colonization and more developed economy, has had a more engaged relationship with the world, while the West, with its more recent history of expansion and development, has been more isolationist.

Marshall also notes the ways in which geography has shaped the country’s foreign policy, particularly in relation to its relationship with Mexico and Canada, its southern and northern neighbors. He argues that the country’s vast size and relatively small population have led to a lack of concern for the rest of the world and a tendency to act unilaterally, which has often led to conflicts with other nations.

Western Europe

For the sake of brevity, I’ll not go into this chapter in detail but the quintessence is that Europe is blessed with for the most part a fairly temperate climate with few natural disasters. An abundance of rivers and mountains meant that many small countries were able to develop, and survive (due to their natural advantages in terms of coastline and agriculture).

In previous centuries there were many wars but since the Second World War, western Europe has been lulled rather into a sense of complacency (superiority?) that they have progressed beyond such barbaric means of resolving arguments. Yes, there have been conflicts on the periphery (Balkans especially) but it wasn’t until Putin marched into the Ukraine in Spring 2022 that the spectre of war on the doorstep (with the potential of significant escalation) truly raised its ugly head again – even the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 was somehow seen as just a local affair.

It’s also the question as to whether the EU might implode post-Brexit with the additional financial strain of war close by combined with post pandemic recession.

For those who didn’t live through this themselves [WWII] and who especially now in this crisis [financial] are asking what benefits Europe’s unity brings, the answer despite the unprecedented European period of peace lasting more than 65 years and despite the problems and difficulties we must still overcome is: peace.

Helmut Kohl, 2012

Africa

If Europe was pretty much at the front of the queue when geographical assets were handed out, Africa must have been at the back. For a continent so rich in natural resources, Africa seems locked in various cycles of poverty and conflict where each time you think they will escape something new comes along, throwing them back down the “snake” of fate.

There are lots of places that are unsuccessful, but few have been as unsuccessful as Africa, and that despite having a head start as the place where Homo sapiens originated about 200,000 years ago.

Time Marshall, Prisoners of Geography

Post colonial arbitrary lines on the map creating borders that completely ignore ethnicity or tribal allegiance provided Africa with a complicated legacy of weak, divided states. Countries themselves are isolated from one another by dessert, thick jungle or simply the sheer size of the continent (despite how it’s often depicted on maps, Africa is 3x larger than the USA!). Those weaknesses often lead to internal conflict leaving their mineral wealth open to exploitation.

With booming populations, many African countries have looked around to see who would be willing to invest in infrastructure projects to help them move forward with their economic development. And at each turn, the Chinese have been willing to make the necessary loans – without asking difficult questions about corruption, labour conditions or so as the IMF or Worldbank might have done.

Africa seems to be on the brink of an economic breakthrough, but that is so fragile in the face of the social problems which many countries face that the chances seem around 50:50 as to whether this will actually happen in the way we might wish.

The Middle East

The chapter on the Middle East in “Prisoners of Geography” by Tim Marshall draws readers through the deserts, oases, and geopolitical minefields of one of the most complex regions on earth. This chapter is for those who want to understand the Middle East with all its complexity and contradictions.

Marshall starts by exploring the harsh desert landscape of the Middle East and how it has shaped the region’s nomadic culture and the intense competition for resources. He examines how the lack of rain, combined with the oil and gas reserves, has led to the rise of the “petro-sheikhs,” who control the most affluent countries in the region.

He then delves into the impact of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers on the region’s history and culture, analysing how the fertile crescent, arguably the birthplace of civilization, has now become a geopolitical battleground. He also explores the impact of the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean on the region’s economy, and how they have been used as trade routes and military chokepoints.

One of the most amusing observations in the chapter is Marshall’s analysis of the region’s political landscape, where he compares it to a game of Risk, where countries are constantly shifting alliances and territories, and where the smallest mistake can lead to war. He also describes how the country’s arbitrary borders, drawn by the colonial powers, have led to a constant struggle for power and control among the different ethnic and religious groups.

You can see now, looking at the folds of the Himalayas, just why India is so much better placed than Pakistan; or why, looking at the Middle East, anyone who says he’s going to invade Iran is a fool. And you can also understand just why China is expanding its influence across the globe, and especially Africa, at such a prodigious rate. Wait until it builds up its blue-water navy: that will change everything.

Nicholas Lezard

India and Pakistan

Since partition, it seems that the only things these two countries agree upon are cricket and the fact they’d rather the other didn’t exist at all.

The main bone of contention between them is Kashmir (which actually would prefer to be completely independent) which is divided between the two countries and provides a potential military flashpoint between these 2 nuclear powers.

Pakistan appears to define itself by its opposition to India, while India, despite obsessing about Pakistan, defines itself in many ways, including that of being a world power with a growing economy and an expanding middle class.

Tim Marshall

The subcontinent is framed by oceans along effectively 3 sides, opening up trade routes to the world, and mountains to the north. The vastness of the region means there’s huge climatic diversity, which in turn has also lead to cultural and religious diversity making it hard to keep things truly “under control”.

Post-colonial partition whilst costing up to a million lives and causing trauma, gave India better cards than their neighbour. eg the port of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is a financial centre, whose tax income would have benefited East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh.

Rather than becoming a secular democracy like their huge neighbour (India will be the most populous country in the world by the end of 2023, overtaking China) Pakistan is an Islamic state with a history of dictatorships and military coups. The population has more regional tribal loyalties than sense of national identity. Pakistan might be one state, but it’s not really a nation, just a collection of regions with their own interests at heart.

What Pakistan does have though is the strategically important deep port of Gwadar, which is part of the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative. China is investing heavily in road infrastructure to link Gwadar through to Xinjiang to allow the country to use Pakistan as a land route for the ever growing Chinese energy requirements.

Pakistan leverages the growing relationship with China, to keep the aid tap from Washington flowing (the Americans don’t want Pakistan falling into the Chinese “zone of influence”). Militarily there are always tensions with India, but Pakistan lacks options to fall back should India actually invade. Consequently Pakistan also wants to stay on the sweet side of Afghanistan with whom there are cultural and tribal ties. Difficult when you’re dependent on US aid…

India has a number of balls in the air though – not just Pakistan. There are also tensions with China, despite the protection barrier of the Himalayas, and several separatist movements within India itself.

The world should also not underestimate India’s growing economic strength. It may not have been the meteoric rise that China has made, but the country has grown considerably, also allowing it to extend relationships and influence within the region with nations such as Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Korea and Japan

The whole region (as well as much of the rest of the world) views North Korea nervously, knowing that it literally has the potential to blow up on them, dragging them in too. Compromise might be the best solution in the eyes of an objective observer but for the parties involved that’s hardly an option. North Korea is in no way willing to do what anyone else wants of them & enjoys being completely unpredictable. South Korea does little to push for reunification, being concerned about the potential military fallout but also the consequences for their recently developed prosperity and the chaos that could ensue.

All the actors in this East Asian drama know that if they try to force and answer to the question at the wrong time, they risk making things worse. A lot worse.

Tim Marshall

China doesn’t want a reunified Korea with US bases up against their border, the US doesn’t want to fight for Korea but also can’t be seen to abandon an ally in that way (what signal would that give to Japan and Taiwan amongst others). The Japanese are trying to stay out of things too but have no real interest in a united Korea as a strong competitor… In short, war is in nobody’s interest but reunification is also a complex question. In the mean time, all that remains as an option is simply to “manage” the situation.

South Korea is definitely one of Asia’s success stories having risen from one of the poorest nations in the world a generation ago, to the high tech prosperous hub it is today. The country might be poor in natural resources (most of those are concentrated in the north) but the population is highly educated and strongly centred on Seoul. Relations with Japan are still touched by the occupation of the past.

Japan on the other hand is an island nation, which has never successfully been invaded. The Japanese developed as a maritime people, trading amongst their own islands and with limited land for agriculture (due to the mountainous nature of much of the country) learned to maximise land usage.

With limited resources for industrialisation, Japan chose to seek power by military means in the first half of the 20th century, before completely rebuilding their economy post WWII.

Japan is viewed with some suspicion in the region due to their actions in WWII, however that is mostly replaced by unease about the increasing power of China. Many elements in Japanese society have never embraced blame for what happened in the 40’s (in contrast to Germany) and foreign policy is increasingly hawkish. Since around 2012, Japan has been quietly rebuilding their military, especially the navy with the acceptance of the USA as a deterrent to China.

The Japanese resent having US soldiers still based on their soil BUT they have an extremely aging population so there are questions about how to defend the islands in the future.

Latin America

In some ways the countries of South America developed along similar lines to those of Old Europe after land remained in the hands of a few large landowners. This lead to the inequality that can be seen today. On top of that the European settlers stayed close to the coasts, leaving the interior of the continent with little development. Even today, the countries tend to be separate from one another with poor inland infrastructure and coastal access being key (the colonialists had concentrated on getting resources down to the coast and back home…).

There’s a lot going on all over this vast space, but the problem is that much of it is going on a long way from anywhere other than itself.

Tim Marshall

The relationship with the huge neighbour to the north is an uneasy kind of quasi-dependence (with perhaps the exception of Panama who is closer to the US – they secure the canal). On the one hand, the US is a major investor and post-covid Mexico is a popular destination for companies looking to friendshore their productions. On the other hand though, the wars on drugs and proxy wars carried out by the US in Central America and the northern parts of South America, especially Colombia, have left many wary.

These days those countries are more stable and democratic, but the flow of drugs continues, bringing both money into the economies it touches but also violence.

As in Africa, China is a major recent investor and loan giver. The Chinese are also discussing trade deals with a number of countries and are now the largest trading partner for Brazil. The US isn’t keen on this interference in what they see as their own back yard, but there’s little they can do to prevent it.

Brazil, lauded as a BRICS nation, is caught up in the consequences of their geography. Distances are huge and the terrain is difficult so there is a lack of infrastructure. This makes transport both expensive and slow. Arable land is mostly in short supply unless primary forest, especially in the Amazon, is cleared which destroys the environment and is a short term approach.

Argentina would have the geographic potential to become a first world power (flatlands suitable for agriculture and a navigable river system) however their political decisions have mainly failed to capitalise on this.

Let’s see how it takes for Latin America to really make it big.

The Arctic

Nowhere on earth is global warming so immediately visible.

Polar ice caps are melting as global warming causes climate change. We lose Arctic sea ice at a rate of almost 13% per decade, and over the past 30 years, the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has declined by a stunning 95%.
If emissions continue to rise unchecked, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer by 2040. But what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. Sea ice loss has far-reaching effects around the world.

WWF

Melting ice caps mean rising temperatures and sea levels, affecting not only countries we think of as low lying such as the Netherlands or Bangladesh but also significant amounts of the UK. Unpredictable weather caused by the increased warming could disrupt food supplies around the world as crops are no longer able to be grown in their original locations.

Shipping and logistics could become easier in some ways due to shorter/faster routes via the Northwest or Northeast passages, saving time, fuel and costs but the risks to the environment of an accident in such remote regions are horrible to think about. Both of those routes are already partly ice-free in summer.

Will retreating ice reveal reserves of oil and gas? Of gold, iron, zinc, nickel or perhaps rare earths? If yes, who will those riches belong to?

The Arctic Council comprises the 5 states with borders on the Arctic Ocean (Canada, Russia, the US, Norway & Denmark (Greenland) as well as Iceland, Finland and Sweden. The council is supposed to coordinate international issues affecting the Arctic region with a focus on sustainable development and environmental protection.

There are at least 9 legal disputes over sovereignty in the region and at least 4 council members have started strengthening their cold-weather military capability. The Russians have the largest forces (although they are arguably otherwise occupied at the moment of writing this), but Norway, Denmark and Canada have all taken steps to increase their training and presence.

In an environment as hostile as the Arctic cooperation is essential if the aims of the Arctic Council are to be met. Issues such as environmental disasters, fishing rights, terrorism, smuggling and search & rescue can only be successfully be mastered together.

Criticism of Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

The main weakness of the book is that the promised scope is so huge (everything you need to know about global politics) that the content can only scrape the surface of the issues. You only have to look at the length of this blog post to see the breadth of material covered. This fact is hinted at in the book’s blurb as I’ve quoted below, but didn’t prevent some people disregarding the book because of this.

All leaders are constrained by geography. Their choices are limited by mountains, rivers, seas and concrete. Yes, to follow world events you need to understand people, ideas and movements – but if you don’t know geography, you’ll never have the full picture.

Tim Marshall

Tim Marshall has chosen to focus on geography from a conflict potential perspective (arbitrary colonial lines, ethnicities, river basins and mountain ranges) and perhaps in some ways those do not entirely portray the modern world as economic and social factors are not at the forefront. It could be argued that a map of the 10 Dash Line in the South China Sea, or showing the migrations of people from Africa northwards could be a more powerful depiction.

I would have liked to see more handling of modern infrastructure projects such as the freight rail routes between China and Europe, or the building of high speed rail links. These are the modern day equivalent of say Suez or the Panama Canal (whilst both of those are still essential). Indeed the role (both present and future) in overcoming the hand dealt by geography wasn’t really touch on at all. Drones, Cyberspace, the Metaverse will all present issues of their own as well as solving other problems.

Conclusion

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall, is a thought-provoking and insightful read that delves into the complexities of international politics and the ways in which geography shapes the fate of nations. Since the book was first published in 2015, a lot has happened in the world of international politics. From the rise (& fall) of Trump to Brexit, from the Syrian Civil War to the COVID-19 pandemic & most recently the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, the events of the past seven years have made the book even more relevant.

Tim Marshall’s book does not condone the behaviour of despots; what it does is try to understand them. And all governments, whether despotic or not, are always going to look to their borders.

Nicholas Lezard

Marshall’s writing is engaging and easy to follow, and he provides a wealth of information on the historical, cultural, and economic factors that have shaped the world we live in today. It may not be the deepest analysis ever made, but as a work of non-academic explanation the book is extremely accessible. I think that reading it hand in hand with Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads & The New Silk Roads would give a more rounded understanding of where we stand today.

He argues that geography plays a critical role in shaping the destinies of nations and that understanding these factors is crucial to understanding the world we live in. He also provides a sobering reminder that history has a way of repeating itself, and that the same mistakes that were made in the past are still being made today. (Obviously, the question asked in 2015 after Putin’s annexation of the Crimea about whether Western Europe and the USA have become complacent about peace in Europe has had a shocking answer in the past year).

In the light of all that has happened since the book’s publication, it is clear that many of Marshall’s predictions were spot-on. The book is a timely reminder of the importance of understanding the role of geography in shaping the world we live in, and of the need for greater cooperation between nations to address the complex challenges facing the world today. Environmental change, potential water crises or even wars, sovereignty in space – all of these need to be discussed and solved.

No of course, geography doesn’t represent the whole story or full picture – in the end, people and governments ALWAYS have choices, but this book goes quite a way to demonstrating many practical, not ideological factors that influence those decisions. However as long as humans continue to be suspicious of “the others” then the competition for resources seems likely to continue.

Overall, Prisoners of Geography is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the underlying causes of the world’s current political and economic turmoil. You’ll see the news with different understanding of why a blockage of the Suez Canal has such an impact or why control of other critical oceanic chokepoints is still of such importance today.

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1 Comment

  1. […] this hand in hand with Tim Marshall’s book Prisoners of Geography should give you a pretty good overview about geopolitics in the world today, from a historical and […]

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