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Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics

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In Prisoners Of Geography, Tim Marshall sets out to explain world politics in terms of geopolitics – that is, that nations are almost compelled by the physical attributes of their landscape to behave in certain ways. Thus, we are presented with a Russia that will always want to have a buffer of conquered states to the west where flat plains leave it vulnerable; South America will always be poor because the landscape lacks natural harbours and navigable rivers; and the interconnected rivers but high mountain ranges made it inevitable that Europe would become a trading zone divided by many languages.


This all sounds plausible, but does it make a book? Whilst some of the arguments are compelling, it is all presented through the “Lens of Now”. By that, I mean taking the current reality, looking for how geography might have contributed, and then presenting the current state of affairs as an inevitability caused by geography. So, by way of example, China is presented as a successful nation because the Han culture and Mandarin language have achieved dominance in a flat area with natural boundaries and navigable rivers, but development is focused on the coastal region because of ease of transport. But in a parallel universe, where the Han race and Mandarin language had not come to dominate the others, would Tim Marshall have been arguing that an area as vast and flat as China could never be united and enjoy stable governance, always being at the mercy of warlords constantly invading one another’s territory? And thirty years ago when China was not successful, it still had the same geography, didn’t it?

Other examples in the book – the Middle East in particular – don’t seem to be much about geopolitics at all. That seems to be more a problem of cultures and religions jostling for supremacy. There are issues of arbitrarily creating nation states based on lines on a map, but the narrative seems more to be a statement of who currently holds what territory rather than any convincing explanation of how geopolitics got us there. There’s a feeling that even without the lines on the map, there would still be warring factions. And much seems to have been simplified: there is scarcely a mention, for example, of the Maronite Christians, how they came to be in the Levant area (i.e. driven out of Armenia by the Turks) and how the Turks had previously been driven out of Central Asia. By the same token, there’s not much thought about current population movements in the area and how they might impact on the future.

Speaking of the future, there is some discussion of “where to from here”. We consider whether there will ever be a resolution of the Korean issue (answer – not any time soon); and how global warming might open up trade routes through the Arctic. There are occasional references to the politics of water supply. But unlike the definitive statements about how we got here, geography doesn’t seem to give up the future so easily. It all starts to get a bit vague.

Overall there is some interesting material in this book – although after ten chapters it can start to feel a bit samey. Some people have criticized it for over-simplifying things but, in a way, that’s exactly what Tim Marshall set out to do. He wanted to increase our understanding of geopolitics in a very broad sense without having to read the extremely detailed material from which the theories derive. My real beef is not the simplification, it is the weight given to geopolitics in what is a more nuanced world: key decisions might have gone the other way; a different leader might have come to power; the war might have lasted another ten years; Russia might never have sold Alaska, etc. There are lots of what ifs – and I’m not sure this book gives sufficient recognition to those, or to the fact that we are looking at just one point in time facing a vast and unknowable future.



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  • 9 months later...

Review: Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography


I was fortunate to be enrolled into the SocialBookCo reviewer program and was sent Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography to review.


Growing up I was always a devout reader. I loved books, loved collecting books, loved locking myself in my room and allowing my mind to enter new worlds, understand new concepts and live in the life of the characters of my book. Reading is what helped me get through most of my rocky childhood. I usually stuck to science fiction such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Divergent etc. Anything with action, adventure and a bit of suspense.



When I received Prisoners of Geography I was super excited as I didn’t really know a thing about geopolitics. Tim Marshall did not disappoint. The book begins with a super power that every person on this planet has heard of before, a place where power and principles stand true today as they have in the past, Russia.



My opinion of Russia and the culture and territory have changed in my 20s I must say the book has made me think extra hard of the plight Russia now faces. With its barren land, decline in population growth and restrictions from the other super powers of the world, the book made me feel a bit of concern and sincerity for Russia. By reading Prisoners of Geography, it sparked an interest to learn more and to research into what Tim Marshall describes as “six million square miles vast, eleven time zones vast; it is the largest country in the world”. Marshall begins each chapter by outlining the geographical barriers that influence the politics of the continent, the demographics and culture. He begins with the major bodies of water that help with foreign trade and go on to talk about deserts, mountains, plains, etc. Anything that affects the relationships of the country and its neighbors. He begins with Russia, which in my opinion was brilliant as Russia is so vast yet people such as myself from North America know very little. We know what history books have taught us and we know of the European countries as travel destinations but we don’t necessarily pay attention to the geopolitics of the countries and how it affects the country in which we live and their relationships. When we ask why it’s so hard to get visa’s, why oil prices fluctuate, why it’s cheaper to go to some places and not to others or why people are migrating it has to do in some sense with geopolitics and political ties that countries have made in the past. Marshall goes on to outline these very barriers and political outcomes for places such as China, United States of America, Western Europe and many others.


Edited by MisterHobgoblin
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I recently bought this in paperback and found it very interesting and 'digestible'.


What  wss new to me was the explanation for South America's inability to make strides globally - geography of course being such a determinant.  A large sub-continent but with so few harbours for great ports.  Obvious when you think about  it but I for one hadn't thought about it..





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