Book Review: Prisoners of Geography

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global PoliticsPrisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics by Tim Marshall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The subtitle says that these ten maps ‘tell you everything you need to know about global politics’ – well that’s not true. But they tell you much more than you realise. There’s nothing particularly unique or clever about the maps, no weird angle or dataset. Instead just careful studying of the geographical features that is on everyone’s maps: mountains, rivers, deserts, oceans and then drawing insightful conclusions from what this tells you.

Studying the geography explains much of why Russia is so big (strategic depth), USA is so powerful (two oceans, rich in resources), why India & China don’t fight much (the Himalayas) and why Africa and the Middle East are mostly a mess (colonial map drawing but also rivers that aren’t navigable for trade) and so on. It’s all there except for Australia and the Pacific nations which aren’t (presumably because they are too far away and of no strategic interest to anyone else).

Tim Marshall does a brilliant job explaining with dry wit and remarkable brevity the contours of global politics and how geography and history have shaped the world. The main theme is that despite our technological prowess, geography still determines much of global politics.

Marshall also gives insightful clues as to where trouble is likely to come from: the Koreas, the Arctic, the South China Sea, the Middle East, Pakistan and who is likely to have a dog in the fight (you can pretty much bet on China & the US for starters). The world might lack a Hitler or a Stalin but there is plenty of dry tinder around just waiting for a spark.

He’s also right in his observation that no matter how much other things change and even where we build canals (Suez, Panama, and now Nicaragua) geography will still dictate the needs and limits of what happens. Russia will always want a warm sea port, China & India will be hungry for land and resources, and Latin America and Africa will struggle to catch up with the rest of the world because of jungles and deserts.

There’s an awful lot of history, culture, politics and development left out but if you want to get a handle on world politics in one short and enjoyable read, this is a superb place to start.

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