Prisoners of Geography – Tim Marshall


Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall was a recommendation from a friend, and a half price offer in the bookshop.  It explores an interesting aspect of theories I had first encountered in Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel, the best history book I have read in the past twenty years.

Prisoners of Geography looks at ten maps of the world, offering a brief overview of the impact of geography on the history of the area, and going on to consider the current geopolitical situation, and the likely political developments going forward.

The first map Marshall looks at is of Russia.  He explains the history and the expansion of Russia by claiming that, lacking local geographical features to act as boundaries, the Russian state was forced to find security from invasion by expanding its territory until it reached more defendable barriers, initially in the Ural mountains and the Caucasus.  Marshall goes on to explain Russia’s vulnerability to invasion across the north European plain, and its need to secure a warm water port.  He considers these vulnerabilities to be prime movers in defining Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, and in explaining recent developments such as the annexation of the Crimea, and the support for Syria’s Assad, as well as explaining Russia’s response to the threat that NATO might expand into Ukraine, and its encroachment elsewhere into what was formerly the Soviet Block.

Marshall goes on to look at nine other key areas, considering Europe, Africa, China, South America, North America and the Arctic, which are obviously major land blocks, as well as looking at India/ Pakistan, Japan / Korea and of course the Middle East.  The sections on South America and Africa most clearly depend on some of the key aspects of Diamond’s thesis about human development in the context of world geography: the geographical constraints here are quite obvious and dominate the political environment.  In Africa he talks of the lack of navigable and interconnected rivers, and the lack of deep water ports.  In South America he mentions the lack of good soil, and the geographical boundaries that inhibit trade – high mountains, dense jungle, rivers that do not connect, and a rocky eastern coastline that makes it difficult to link coastal cities in, for example, Brazil.

Marshall’s views about the three main world powers – Russia, China and the USA – are especially interesting. He considers the USA to have been particularly fortunate in its geography, once it had established dominion over the whole of its current territory.  There is easy access to both the Atlantic and the Pacific, a natural border to invasion in the south, consisting of desert, and control of the Caribbean through Florida.  He sees the USA as ideally suited for world domination and tentatively contradicts the view that the next century will belong to China.  In his view Russia is condemned to be limited by its geography, and especially by its lack of a warm water port.  Access to the world’s oceans is restricted in three main places – at the Bosphorus, at Alaska and by the gap between Iceland/ Greenland/ UK through which its fleet must sail to reach the Atlantic.  China is developing a navy to challenge the USA and is not constrained by human rights in its geopolitical development, but he considers the dangers of internal turmoil caused by a financial collapse to be very real, and recognises China’s dependence on imported resources in comparison to the USA’s recent development of oil and gas from fracking.

Overall this was an interesting book, and not a difficult read.  For me it was a mixed bag, as a lot of the material was quite basic: if you read a serious newspaper you will be familiar with most of the summaries of recent political history, and you will already know about some of the major geographical constraints placed on continents and nations if you have done any reading on this subject.  However in some areas Marshall did provide new interpretations, and this was especially so for me with respect to his analysis of events in India, Pakistan, Korea and Japan, and in offering a more detailed analysis of African issues than I had read before.



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