As a follow-on from our 2018 Geopolitical Reading List, in this piece we review Tim Marshall’s “Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World“; an excellent read for novice and experienced geopolitical analysts alike that explores the impact of geography on nation-states.
As a veteran, front-line journalist, Tim Marshall is extremely well placed to narrate the core concepts of geopolitics in a way that keeps the subject accessible and interesting while simultaneously avoiding the dangerous oversimplifications often found in much entry-level reading on the topic. Released in 2015, Prisoners of Geography remains outstandingly current thanks in part to a number of insightful, yet careful predictions on then-near-future developments. The better part of the book’s lasting accuracy is linked to its core focus: the largely unchanging geography shaping global geopolitics.
Having served as a reporter on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq, the Arab Spring and the Balkans (among others), Marshall demonstrates his clear understanding of the impact geography plays on war, and by extension diplomacy and destiny. His exploration of the importance of Tibet and the Himalayas as both a centre of water resources and the very literal strategic high ground for South Asia will be familiar to readers of Eric S Margolis’ excellent “War at the Top of the World“, and shines a fresh light on to the importance of the perilous glacial battlefields of Siachen that are often dismissed as pointless pursuits of national prestige.
From how Russia’s inherent geographical vulnerabilities shape its perceivedly aggressive stance towards NATO’s eastward expansion, through to how vast mountain ranges are keeping the world’s two most populous neighbours from conflict (for now), Marshall explores the impact geography has on nations. His examination reaches back into humanity’s past in a tone reflective of Dr Jared Diamond’s crucial historical analysis “Guns, Germs, and Steel“, noting how Africa’s relative lack of natural harbours combined with poorly navigable rivers and challenging interior environment hindered the continent’s development compared to other regions and paved the way for colonial exploitation. Marshall also wrestles with the inherent geographical advantages bestowed upon the United States of America in a manner likely popular with fans of STRATFOR founder George Friedman’s “The Next 100 Years“; the book’s commentary on America brings a truly lucid reality to the term “manifest destiny” associated with the continental drive westward.
Where Marshall’s work really excels, however, is in his acknowledgement in the limitations of his geo-centric theory of geopolitics. Technology is advancing, and ancient limits are being torn down daily. From China’s one-belt-one-road drive westward through the Takla Makan and Gobi deserts to defeat its historical continental island status, through to the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam project allowing Addis Ababa to bend the Nile to its will at the fatal ire of Egypt, Prisoners of Geography takes careful note of how states can break free from their geographical prisons. Where Friedman attempted to follow this same course of analysis in The Next 100 Years, it feels that the author still remained tied to Russian and Chinese geographical shortcomings and America’s guaranteed global superiority. Marshall has produced a more sober view, recognising that advancements will gradually alter the geopolitical playing field.
I would call Prisoners of Geography both essential reading for beginners and veterans of the geopolitical, international relations and military history world. Both groups are likely to find the book an enjoyable, educational and easygoing read, and will likely come away with a refreshed view of how truly crucial the geo is to geopolitics.
Encyclopedia Geopolitica was kindly provided with a review copy of “Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World” from Simon & Schuster for this article.
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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial sector.
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