Cover image of "Prisoners of Geography" is a book about how geography explains history.

Most reporting on world affairs, and a great deal of historical and political analysis from academe as well, refers to the interactions of nation states as though they are defined exclusively by the dynamics of internal politics and the actions of other states. However, as any student of geography — or any wise, real-world practitioner of international politics — is well aware, the realities of location, climate, terrain, demographics, and the availability of natural resources constitute more fundamental factors in setting a nation’s policy toward other nations. These are the realities of geography. Together, they constitute realpolitik writ large: geopolitics. Geopolitics explains how geography explains history.

Two approaches to geopolitics

In 2012, Robert D. Kaplan, widely recognized as one of the most provocative analysts of world affairs, explored this too-often-neglected set of factors in The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate. Kaplan took an historical approach, terming the Middle East the geopolitical center of the Earth and describing, for example, why and how Iran and Turkey emerged as great empires and even today remain regional powers there.

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall ★★★★☆

Now Tim Marshall, a British journalist specializing in world affairs, has produced a similar book, Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World. However, Marshall’s approach is different, and in some ways less insightful, than Kaplan’s. While Kaplan turns to history and an analysis of world affairs grounded in geography and minimizing the role of the borders among nation states, Marshall explores the geopolitical realities that confront today’s leading world powers, one after another: the USA, China, Russia, and Western Europe, as well as the challenges faced by the nations of the Middle East, the South Asian subcontinent, Korea and Japan, Latin America, and the Arctic.

How geography explains history

For anyone who has not studied world geography, Prisoners of Geography is likely to be full of surprises. Marshall finds that the growth of the United States as a world power is due as much to the abundance of navigable waterways as to its continent-spanning width. He focuses on the flat North European Plain that stretches from France to the western reaches of Russia as the geographical factor of overriding importance in the history of warfare in Europe.

Marshall explains — convincingly — the solid geopolitical logic behind Vladimir Putin’s militarism and Xi Jinping’s drive to control the South China Sea and to maintain Beijing’s control of Tibet (“nature’s version of a Great Wall of China”). In Africa, he points to the virtual absence of long navigable waterways as a major reason for the lack of development of the continent.

Marshall expresses skepticism that China will overtake the U.S. and become the world’s leading superpower in this century; his reasons include the country’s massive environmental challenges, the instability introduced by the absorption of Muslim-dominated Xinjiang, the many years it will take for China to reach parity on the seas with the United States, and perhaps above all the “growing problem for the party [in] its ability to feed the population.”

Though Prisoners of Geography doesn’t rise to the level of insight in Robert Kaplan’s book, it is a thought-provoking effort well worth attention by anyone interested in world affairs.

About the author

Tim Marshall is well known in the UK as an analyst of world affairs. He has held a number of high-profile positions as a foreign affairs reporter and editor for the British news media and has written a total of three books. Prisoners of Geography is his third.

For more great reading

You might also enjoy The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate by Robert D. Kaplan (Geopolitical analysis illuminates history and world politics).

This is one of the books I’ve included in my post, Gaining a global perspective on the world around us.

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