Book Report: Prisoners of Geography

prisoners-of-geography“The land on which we live has always shaped us. It has shaped the wars, the power, politics, and social development of the peoples that now inhabit nearly every part of the earth. Technology may seem to overcome the distances between us in both mental and physical space, but it is easy to forget that the land where we live, work, and raise our children is hugely important and that the choices of those who lead the seven billion inhabitants of this planet will to some degree always be shaped by the rivers, mountains, deserts, lake, and seas that constrain us all – as they always have.” (Prisoners of Geography)

Title: Prisoners of Geography – Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World

Author: Tim Marshall

Publisher: Scribner

Publication Date: 2015

Origin: Prisoners of Geography came to my attention at the strong recommendation of a good friend and trusted colleague. When I learned a little about the book, I became very excited – I have a general interest in global geopolitics, but often find myself painfully aware that I lack a strong historical foundation. My hope for Prisoners of Geography was that it would provide a bit of a crash course, creating an everlasting (due to the emphasis on geography) context or lens through which I can view and better understand today’s global events.

Summary: After a brief introduction begins to challenge our presumption that technology trumps geography nowadays, Marshall dives right into his first major map, the first of ten.

Summarizing (a bit cheekily), here’s what we get:

  1. Russia: need a warm-water port; also, don’t want to be invaded via Europe
  2. China: are seeking to become a global power; need a blue-water navy, first; are building influence around the world, and creating massive global supply infrastructures for their domestic demands
  3. United States: really lucked out, geographically; don’t want other countries playing in the Americas; have a global strategy that’s ultimately going to be threatened by China
  4. Western Europe: have played nicely with each other for a handful of decades, now; blessed with flat, navigable rivers; a little bit worried about Russia, and the US is quite far away
  5. Africa: did not get lucky, geographically; then, got screwed over completely by Europe; China’s happy to help with economic development and enormous resource extraction
  6. The Middle East: a little bit messy to begin with, due in part to differing interpretations and applications of theology; became very messy when France and England got together and drew a line that had neither relation to nor basis in reality; gonna be messy for a long time
  7. India and Pakistan: England really created a problem, here (a common theme)
  8. Korea and Japan: it’s…complicated
  9. Latin America: another region that didn’t win the geography lottery; the US has been trying to dominate for years, but now China’s come a-callin’
  10. The Arctic: a future mess! Russia’s got the first-mover advantage

It’s difficult to provide a truly global summary, due to the regional nature of Prisoners of Geography, but nevertheless some frequent themes emerge:

  • Geography matters, a lot: Does a region have navigable rivers? Good natural, warm-water ports? Lots of resources to fuel economic growth? Does it happen to sit on some shipping choke-points, allowing it to control other nations’ access to the open ocean? Is it guarded by mountain ranges, deserts, jungles, or other difficult or impassable terrain?
  • The relatively modern idea of nation-states is actually pretty untested, when considered against the several thousands of years of civilization’s history: “The notion that a man from a certain area could not travel across a region to see a relative from the same tribe unless he had a document, granted to him by a third man he didn’t know in a faraway town, made little sense. The idea that the document was issued because a foreigner had said the area was now two regions and had made up names for them made no sense at all and was contrary to the way in which life had been lived for centuries.”
  • The United States and China are on a collision course; Russia’s fairly well bottled up, but are trying to get out
  • Colonial and occupying powers really made a big mess of things; many of today’s conflicts – and perhaps most of the stickiest ones – can be traced back directly to woefully ignorant decisions made by non-locals

“Modern maps show the borders and the names of nation states, but they are young and they are fragile.”

My Take: The sub-title of the book – Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World – is pretty ambitious, but Prisoners of Geography does a fine job of delivering to that lofty goal.

Marshall has truly created an eye-opening, sobering, and unsettling masterpiece, and I’ve already recommended it to several friends.

Over the years, I’ve been very fortunate to work with an internationally and culturally diverse group of colleagues, and through business and personal travel I’ve seen much of the developed world, but frankly, I know very little about global geopolitics. Only so much can be gained from contemporary, personal accounts, and media coverage is often distorted to suit political goals or is genuinely and accidentally mistaken.

Prisoners of Geography has now provided me with a valuable backdrop – an explanatory filter – that I can use to interpret what I see and read in the news, and for that I am grateful.

Read This Book If: …You want a crash course in the geopolitics that have shaped the modern world, so that you can better understand what’s happening today and what’s likely to happen tomorrow.

Notes and Quotes:

“Once they had pulled the peoples apart, it didn’t take much to then push them against each other.”

  • p1: “The land on which we live has always shaped us. It has shaped the wars, the power, politics, and social development of the peoples that now inhabit nearly every part of the earth. Technology may seem to overcome the distances between us in both mental and physical space, but it is easy to forget that the land where we live, work, and raise our children is hugely important and that the choices of those who lead the seven billion inhabitants of this planet will to some degree always be shaped by the rivers, mountains, deserts, lake, and seas that constrain us all – as they always have.”
  • This scary and accurate statement on p3 follows a brief summary of the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s; we see the same forces at work today, especially in US politics: “Once they had pulled the peoples apart, it didn’t take much to then push them against each other.”

“When faced with what is considered an existential threat, a great power will use force.”

  • p23: “Now that Ukraine was no longer Soviet, nor even pro-Russian – Putin knew that the situation had to change. Did the Western diplomats know? If they didn’t, then they were unaware of rule A, lesson one, in ‘Diplomacy for Beginners’: When faced with what is considered an existential threat, a great power will use force. If they were aware, then they must have considered Putin’s annexation of Crimea a price worth paying for pulling Ukraine into modern Europe and the Western sphere of influence.”
  • p24: “Energy as political power will be deployed time and again in the coming years, and the concept of ‘ethnic Russians’ will be used to justify whatever moves Russia makes.”
  • p26, a sadly pragmatic view: “Barefaced lying in the great chamber of the UN Security Council is simple if your opponent does not have concrete proof of your actions and, more important, doesn’t want concrete proof in case he or she has to do something about it.”
  • In some book I recently read (sorry, can’t remember which one), it mentioned that Ho Chi Minh didn’t turn to China for aid during the Vietnam war because, “The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years.” That quote was fresh in my mind when I read the passage on p46 that says, “Vietnam is an irritation for China. For centuries the two have squabbled over territory and, unfortunately for both, this is the one area to the south that has a border an army can get across without too much trouble – which partially explains the thousand-year domination and occupation of Vietnam by China from 111 BCE to 938 CE…”
  • p52: “The Chinese look at society very differently from the West. Western thought is infused with the rights of the individual; Chinese thought prizes the collective above the individual. What the West thinks of as the rights of man, the Chinese leadership thinks of as dangerous theories endangering the majority, and much of the population accepts, at the least, that the extended family comes before the individual.”

“Why do you think your values would work in a culture you don’t understand?”

  • This illustrative anecdote from p52 reminds me of The Righteous Mind…how quickly we believe that our personal values are superior: “I once took a Chinese ambassador in London to a high-end French restaurant in the hope he would repeat Prime Minister Chou En-lai’s much quoted answer to President Richard Nixon’s question ‘What is the impact of the French Revolution?’ to which the prime minister replied, ‘It’s too soon to tell.’ Sadly, this was not forthcoming, but I was treated to a stern lecture about how the full imposition of ‘what you call human rights’ in China would lead to widespread violence and death and was then asked, ‘Why do you think your values would work in a culture you don’t understand?'”
  • p54: “All great nations spend peacetime preparing for the day war breaks out.”
  • p60, reminiscent of Winner Take All: “The Chinese are also building ports in Kenya, railroad lines in Angola, and a hydroelectric dam in Ethiopia. They are scouring the length and breadth of the whole of Africa for minerals and precious metals.”
  • p68, TIL: “The greater Mississippi basin has more miles of navigable river than the rest of the world put together.”
  • p80, in a section about the United States’ strategy for East Asia: “The United States is seeking to demonstrate to the whole region that it is in their best interests to side with Washington – China is doing the opposite. So, when challenged, each side must react, because for each challenge it ducks, its allies’ confidence, and competitors’ fear, slowly drains away until eventually there is an event that persuades a state to switch sides.”
  • At the close of the section on the United States, I found myself wondering if having the world’s biggest military budget is sufficient to offset the massive inefficiency and corruption that wastes much of that spending – for the US to execute on its global geopolitical goals (i.e,. to be the dominant player basically everywhere) requires focus and intelligence, and is harmed by selfish political interests within the country and the current incompetent and disastrous administration.

“The post-Second World War generations have grown up with peace as the norm, but what is different about the current generation is that Europeans find it difficult to imagine the opposite. Wars now seem to be what happens elsewhere or in the past – at worst, they happen on the ‘periphery’ of Europe.”

  • p95, echoing an observation that came up repeatedly during the Brexit campaign: “The post-Second World War generations have grown up with peace as the norm, but what is different about the current generation is that Europeans find it difficult to imagine the opposite. Wars now seem to be what happens elsewhere or in the past – at worst, they happen on the ‘periphery’ of Europe.”
  • p100: “Exhausted by war, and with safety ‘guaranteed’ by the American military, the Europeans embarked on an astonishing experiment. They were asked to trust one another. What is now the EU was set up so that France and Germany could hug each other so tightly in a loving embrace that neither would be able to get an arm free with which to punch the other. It has worked brilliantly and created a huge geographical space now encompassing the biggest economy in the world.”

“What is now the EU was set up so that France and Germany could hug each other so tightly in a loving embrace that neither would be able to get an arm free with which to punch the other.”

  • p108, quoting former chancellor of Germany Helmut Kohl in a 2012 article in the Bild newspaper in which he expressed his concern that those who hadn’t lived through wartime Europe would forget why European trust is so important: “For those who didn’t live through this themselves and who especially now in the (financial) crisis are asking what benefits Europe’s unity brings, the answer despite the unprecedented European period of peace lasting more than 65 years and despite the problems and difficulties we must still overcome is: peace.”

“Africa’s coastline? Great beaches – really, really lovely beaches – but terrible natural harbors. Rivers? Amazing rivers, but most of them are worthless for actually transporting anything, given that every few miles you go over a waterfall.”

  • p110, in a brief explanation of circumstance that reminded me of Guns, Germs, and Steel: “Africa’s coastline? Great beaches – really, really lovely beaches – but terrible natural harbors. Rivers? Amazing rivers, but most of them are worthless for actually transporting anything, given that every few miles you go over a waterfall. These are just two in a long list of problems that helps explain why Africa isn’t technologically or politically as successful as Western Europe or North America.”
  • I have had arguments with people about this point: Africa is fucking huge. I’ve flown over it top-to-bottom on six occasions, so trust me. Still don’t believe me? Click here. So why does it seem relatively small on most maps? p111: “The world’s idea of African geography is flawed. Few people realized just how big it is. This is because most of us use the standard Mercator world map.”
  • Hey, all you racists out there (OK, you’re probably not reading this blog…but still, fuck you), p116: “Many Africans are now partially the prisoners of the political geography the Europeans made, and of the natural barriers to progression with which nature endowed them. From this they are making a modern home and, in some cases, vibrant, connected economies.”
  • p128, once again echoing the same points made in Winner Take All: “Chinese involvement is an attractive proposition for many African governments. Beijing and the big Chinese companies don’t ask difficult questions about human rights, and they don’t demand economic reform or even suggest that certain African leaders stop stealing their countries’ wealth, as the IMF or World Bank might.”

“The Europeans used ink to draw lines on maps: they were lines hat did not exist in reality and created some of the most artificial borders the world has seen. An attempt is now being made to redraw them in blood.”

  • p134: “The Middle of what? East of where? The region’s very name is based on a European view of the world, and it is a European view of the region that shaped it. The Europeans used ink to draw lines on maps: they were lines hat did not exist in reality and created some of the most artificial borders the world has seen. An attempt is now being made to redraw them in blood.”
  • p135…loved this one: “The notion that a man from a certain area could not travel across a region to see a relative from the same tribe unless he had a document, granted to him by a third man he didn’t know in a faraway town, made little sense. The idea that the document was issued because a foreigner had said the area was now two regions and had made up names for them made no sense at all and was contrary to the way in which life had been lived for centuries.”
  • p137 makes a point that few understand or appreciate: “Modern maps show the borders and the names of nation states, but they are young and they are fragile.”

“Modern maps show the borders and the names of nation states, but they are young and they are fragile.”

  • p165: “The Arab Spring is a misnomer, invented by the media; it clouds our understanding of what is happening. Too many reporters rushed to interview the young liberals who were standing in city squares with placards written in English, and mistook them for the voice of the people and the direction of history.”
  • p167 continues that sobering thread: “The liberals never had a chance. Nor do they now. This is not because the people of the region are radical; it is because if you are hungry and frightened, and you are offered either bread and security or the concept of democracy, the choice is not difficult.”

“The liberals never had a chance. Nor do they now. This is not because the people of the region are radical; it is because if you are hungry and frightened, and you are offered either bread and security or the concept of democracy, the choice is not difficult.”

  • Alongside this description of the division of the Koreas, on p199, I’ve simply written, “Fuck me.” See what ignorance gets you? See why the whole world is concerned that Trump’s a moron? Let’s look at history for a lesson: “Washington was so focused on the Japanese surrender on August 10 that it had no real strategy for Korea. With Soviet troops on the move in the north of the peninsula and the White House convening an all-night emergency meeting, two junior officers, armed only with a National Geographic map, chose the 38th parallel as a place to suggest to the Soviets they halt, on the grounds that it was halfway down the country. No Koreans were present, nor any Korea experts. If they had been, they could have told President Truman and his secretary of state James Byrnes that the line was the same one that the Russians and Japanese had discussed for spheres of influence half a century earlier, following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Moscow, not knowing that the Americans were making up policy on the fly, could be forgiven for thinking this was the United States’s de facto recognition of that suggestion and therefore acceptance of division and a Communist north. The deal was done, the nation divided, and the die cast.”
  • p208 reminds us that so much of history is shaped by resource availability: “Japan had few of the natural resources required to become an industrialized nation. It had limited and poor-quality supplies of coal, very little oil, scant quantities of natural gas, limited supplies of rubber, and a shortage of many metals. This is as true now as it was one hundred years ago, although offshore gas fields are being explored along with those of underwater precious metals. Nevertheless, it remains the world’s largest importer of natural gas, and the third-largest importer of oil.”
  • p229, take that, Monroe Doctrine (OK, fine, that was targeted against Europe…but I digress): “We’ve grown used to seeing the Chinese as major players in Africa, but for twenty years now they have been quietly moving in south of the Rio Grande.”
  • p242 starts to touch on a subject that’s been on my mind for a while, what with Canada’s presence and generally small (and underfunded) military: “The effects of global warming are now showing more than ever in the Arctic: the ice is melting, allowing easier access to the region, coinciding with the discovery of energy deposits and the development of technology to get at them – all of which has focused the Arctic nations’ attention on the potential gains and losses to be made in the world’s most difficult environment. Many of the countries in the region have competing claims that they haven’t bothered to press – until now. But there is a lot to claim, and a lot to argue about.”

“The ice is melting, allowing easier access to the region, coinciding with the discovery of energy deposits and the development of technology to get at them – all of which has focused the Arctic nations’ attention on the potential gains and losses to be made in the world’s most difficult environment. Many of the countries in the region have competing claims that they haven’t bothered to press – until now.”

Lee Brooks is a technology marketer based in the high-tech hub of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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Posted in Books, Everything
2 comments on “Book Report: Prisoners of Geography
  1. As someone who had giant world maps spread across my entire house as a child I am very fond of anything that uses a map as a foundation for an argument.

    This quote is one that keeps haunting me since I first read “The War that Ended Peace” a few years ago. My recommendation is not read it and “Capital in the 21st Century” around the same time otherwise your next google search will be “how to built my own bomb shelter”
    “The post-Second World War generations have grown up with peace as the norm, but what is different about the current generation is that Europeans find it difficult to imagine the opposite. Wars now seem to be what happens elsewhere or in the past – at worst, they happen on the ‘periphery’ of Europe.”

    And this is something people who were born in developed countries and are alive today have a real hard time with. Being someone who spent 2/3s of his life in a different part of the world this is crazy obvious. I feel fortunate to be in a position to have seen “both sides” and appreciate the nuances of both discourses. What is discouraging is how far apart both sides are diverging (thank you social “media”).

    “The liberals never had a chance. Nor do they now. This is not because the people of the region are radical; it is because if you are hungry and frightened, and you are offered either bread and security or the concept of democracy, the choice is not difficult.”

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