The What and The Why of ‘Prisoners of Geography’
by Tim Marshall
There are many factors determining why leaders of countries make the decisions they do, of these the most often overlooked is geography.
Words can tell you what is happening, the map helps you to understand why it is happening. As the introduction to Prisoners of Geography states – “Rivers, mountains, lakes, deserts, islands, and the seas, are determining factors in history… Leaders, ideas, and economics are crucial, however, they are temporary, and the Hindu Kush will outlast them all.”
This is not a new theory, but one which is rarely explained, especially in news reporting. What is sometimes described as ‘meaningless violence’ can actually be brutally logical, based on creating a geographical reality.
A current example is Syria. Read history and you learn how President Assad’s minority Allawite tribe came from the hilly region above the Syrian coast. However, look at a map of the country’s roads, hills, and valleys, and the pattern of some of the fighting becomes clear, especially how Assad’s side is desperate to keep the route from Damascus to the coast open in case they have to make a run for it back to their historical roots.
The chapter on the Middle East focuses heavily on the Sykes Picot map which is currently being redrawn in blood as the fault lines emerge from the artificial lines drawn by European colonialists.
The Ottoman Empire divided what is now Iraq into three administrative areas, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. The British then divided three into one, a logical impossibility Christians can resolve through the Holy Trinity, but which in Iraq has resulted in an unholy mess as the Kurds, and Sunni and Shia Muslims fight for control of the regions.
In China we see the limitations of power without a global navy, Europe shows us the value of flat land and navigable rivers, while Africa indicates the effect of isolation.
Russia provides two of the clearest examples the effect of topography. It has been invaded many times from the flat ground of the North European Plain to its west. At its narrowest, between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains, the plain is only 300 miles wide. This is an easier position for Russia to defend itself, or indeed from which to attack. That position is called Poland which explains why Poland has changed shape so often, sometimes disappearing entirely from the map.
Most Russian ports freeze in the winter. Therefore, even though Sebastopol, on the Black Sea, does not have access to the open waters of the oceans it is of vital importance. When Ukraine ‘flipped’ into the NATO sphere of influence, Putin felt he had to invade. Leaving morality to one side, easily done in geopolitics, geography had not given him a choice.
Technology is always pushing at geography’s prison bars. American bombers can now fly from the USA to Mosul without requiring concrete along the way upon which to land to refuel, while the Russian and Canadian fleet of ice breakers mean those two countries may be best positioned to take advantage of the opening up of the Arctic trade routes and energy supplies.
To properly understand why takes a reading of the politics, a quick study of the statistics who has the most up to date ice breaking ships, a glance at the oil and gas statistics, and, a look at the map.
I’m very grateful to Stanford’s Book Shop for making ‘Prisoners of Geography’ their Book of the Month. Thank you.