In a world where journalistic skills are hard to come by, and fake news are just too ingrained in our information consumption, Tim Marshall’s book Prisoners of Geography is such a fresh breath of clean air!
I did end up pulling an all nighter on this book, but went as far as midway, with 5 maps and a wealth of information making me a better informed global citizen.
So here’s me passing it forward to you.
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know about Geopolitics
Tim Marshall starts by telling us that, inevitably, all leaders are constrained by geography. Their choices are limited by mountains, rivers, seas and sand, and this explains many of the seemingly strange political and military choices we see in present days.
Having read through 5 of the 10 maps, I will most definitely agree.
After all, we Europeans have only been in a relative peace mode for a short period of time in our history as continent. And if you look at particular national examples, even that doesn’t hold true.
So yes, geography is shaping our countries, our external policies, and the way we interact with our neighbors.
Map 1: Russia
The Big Bear on eleven time zones
This book taught me more about Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine unrest, its protectionism of Crimea and its heavy investment in military – than all news media outlets over the last 4 years.The Big Bear is the largest country in the world, which makes it all the more important to have borders which are easy to protect – and a big part of the reason why Russia’s always been passionate about Ukraine.
Russia has historically had an issue with the fact that, to the West, it lays unprotected by natural borders such as mountains, and with good reason, if you’re to look at the offensive led both by Napoleon and Hitler.
With no control over Poland anymore, Russia is left with Ukraine, a country torn between its pull towards the EU and capitalism, and its dependence on Russian natural gas.
Russia may be the largest country in the world, yet for it’s size, it’s almost landlocked between Europe, Asia and the Arctic (most of the time frozen thus not navigable). And Europe is effectively controlling Russia’s access to the Atlantic, with maritime choke points in both the Baltic sea and the Norwegian Sea.
With most of Russia’s population living along the western border, some of the moves Russia makes close to its borders are ‘justified’ so to say by a nationalistic push to protect the Russian ethnic population of civilians living in the areas.
Interestingly enough, Russia has modified its defense policy to define Russian ethnics in a much broader sense (merely Russian speaking people now) and further support its claims in the territories.
And one more reason to explain its firm grip of Georgia, and why to this day Russia is quietly moving border hundreds of yards into the Ossetia occupied region – a process which has been in progress since the Russia-Georgia 2008 war.
Business Insider’s statement that Russia can’t be Athens. It must be Sparta holds particularly true, given all the above.
Russia has also made it a priority to prove it is not just a regional power (which is what
Obama had stated in 2014: ‘..a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness’ ).
And Syria has been a key laboratory on this front – and with apparent key successes aimed at putting Russia again in the forefront of military leaders.
Map 2: China
A country with a traditionally collective over individual mindset
To get an idea of the scale of importance this collective culture has, just think about this: Today there are around 500 mostly peaceful protests a day across China over a variety of issues. Because, of course, a large country such as China requires all kinds of resources to maintain an increasing standard of living for its population.
It’s easy to see how something like mass unemployment can quickly turn things violent.
China is undoubtedly a large Asian force, but with the majority of its population concentrated in the east / south-east, it’s easy to see the importance of becoming a maritime power.
A multi-faceted interest, with one reason being that China has used up much of their own resources (more than 40% of farm land is polluted or has thinning topsoil) so they now want to secure the ocean trade routes.
Enter: The Nine Dash Line
The Nine Dash Line represents the continuous conflict between China and several Southeast Asian nations over territorial control in the South China Sea, an area home to $5 trillion in annual global trade, which includes some of the most strategically important maritime territory on earth.
Also: Oil. Such a surprise, right?
In its quest to become a global maritime power, China’s passageway would provide access to the world’s most important shipping lanes.
And Mischief Island is a screaming example of China’s unwavering attitude over its policy to control the area.
And it doesn’t look like this will end too soon, with Chinese President Xi Jinping steadily building the world’s largest military, fueled by $356 billion in military spending power.
The book also gives a geopolitical perspective on China’s interest in Tibet.
If you grab a map, you’ll notice that from the Tibetan Plateau, India would have a base from which to push into the Chinese heartland.
China does not see Tibet through a prism of human rights, but that of geopolitical security and believes Western powers are trying to undermine their security by opposing their policy in Tibet.
Map 3: USA
The Pursuit of Happiness & how all men are created “equal”
Americans have had almost an entire continent to themselves upon which to build a nation whose geopolitical foundations differ quite significantly from those of Europe, China or Africa.
The European migrants-turned Americans who built a democracy where every man is created equal, have ironically also been one of the biggest slave owners in modern history, and have almost decimated an entire indigenous population with their European diseases, their rush for land and gold.
Bordered by 2 oceans & with a mass of land well suited for various agricultural and mining endeavors, America grew quickly to become the world’s biggest economic power, then maritime power, then military force not to be reckoned with.
Americans escape to the mountains to find peace. In the real world, mountains keep the peace.
U.S. neighboring countries have been nice enough (Canada) or small enough (Mexico) to not pose a direct threat over the country’s borders; however, it’s border with Mexico does causes America problems, as it feeds the country’s appetite for illegal labor and drugs.
Tim Marshall makes a valid point when he states that, because of their entrepreneurial, can-do and can-fix attitude, Americans have routinely had this impulse to force-democratize other nations with different cultural and historical backgrounds, which more often than not was a project doomed to failure.
Map 4: Europe
The old continent – trying to hold it together.
Europe is possibly the continent where most nations were created following geographical patterns.
Europe grew organically over millennia and followed it’s natural geographical boundaries.
It’s how the continent’s western countries became economic powers, how Spain and Italy grew isolated from the rest of Europe because of their northern mountainous borders, or how the Danube provided a trade stimulus to fuel regional growth.
France was the best positioned in Europe being both a northern and southern power, having the largest expanse of fertile land in Western Europe and bordering the ocean to the west.
Yet Germany took the lead in Europe after the unification in the 19 century and kept its position through the 2 world wars and various economic difficulties.
Fast forward today, in the European Union context, and we start to better understand why Germany is determined to remain a good European and prevent history from repeating itself – should EU break. After all, the reason for both blitzkriegs into France was an attack in order to defend.
It really makes sense now that the EU was essentially created so that France and Germany could, in Tim Marshall’s inspired words, “hug each other so tight that neither would have an arm free to punch the other.”
Let’s hope we won’t have a case of revenge of geography, as it becomes more and more obvious that a lot of the 28 member countries were just not ready for the marriage.
Then there’s the UK, with an almost complete water border blanketing it, further supported by an almost complete control over the GIUK gap, that naval choke point area in the northern Atlantic Ocean between Iceland, Greenland and UK.
The more you read about the GIUK the more you can contextualize, from a different perspective, why the U.K. panicked when, for a brief moment, Scotland looked like it could actually get its independence (hint: because it would have lost its GIUK advantage and natural border)
I’ll leave the rest out of my review, hopefully this will entice you enough to grab the book and start reading.
Map 5: Africa
Or how the European colonialism created an egg without a chicken
Many Africans are now partially prisoners of the political geography the Europeans drew, in what are now 56 countries.
The ethnic conflicts between Sudan, Somalia Angola, Kenya Congo.. bear the weight of Europeans’ lack of understanding of African geography and ignorance over its cultural diversity.
The Democratic Republic of Congo being a true example of that meddling: the second largest country in Africa is neither a republic nor it is democratic , and holds close to 200 ethnic groups and several hundred languages.
In 2014, the UN human development index placed DRC the 186th of 187 countries listed.
Part of the problem is also the fact that Congo borders 9 other countries, fueling constant conflict between the ethnic groups and fight for natural resources.
You also build some more perspective on where China builds its global sphere of influence, knowing that China buys 50% of DRC exports, and routinely invests in infrastructure programs across Africa.
China now has the biggest economic influence in Africa.
Despite China ranking 9th by capital investment and 7th by project numbers, it was the second most prolific job creator in Africa in 2015.
Home of the deadliest conflict since the Second World War, Congo still requires the largest number of UN peacekeeping forces.
Burundi is another unfortunate example of Europe’s imposition, home to a civil war which killed 300.000 between 1993 and 2005.
There’s so much more the book offers perspective on! I strongly encourage you to get the book.
I’ll be dedicating a separate post to the other 5 maps, so stick around 😉
Till then: Happy Reading!