Shedding light on your view of the world through a map

Prisoners of Geography, by Tim Marshall (2015)

**Pages: 288**, Final verdict: Must-read

How will the Western world react to North Korea's reckless nuclear tests? And why hasn't China imposed more sanctions? And what about Russia, is it still controlling Crimea? What was that all about?

Foreign correspondent to Sky News Tim Marshall has been through it all. On the ground during the Serbian war of the 90s, and having covered the most recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, his resume speaks for itself. To answer those questions and (many) more about our world, Tim's best-selling book boldly claims to show "ten maps to tell you everything you need to know about global politics".

World affairs for dummies

The word "geopolitics" might not mean much to a lot of us. Your mental depiction of it might include several middle-aged men wearing suits on a television screen debating the last news on "X" conflict. I know mine was. But it is a lot more than that, as the geographical barriers of our world - our mountains, oceans, climate, access to natural resources - have come to determine how our countries were formed, conflicts have arisen and world order as been established.

Prisoners of Geography is an expedition through 10 of the most important global powers and regions of our world. And the geopolitics for dummies kit that comes with it includes one global power (e.g USA, China, Western Europe), a map of the region and 25-35 pages of its history, current affairs and the author's view of what the future might hold.

"Geopolitics affects every country, whether at war (...) or at peace" - Tim Marshall

The past decade has been fertile in geopolitical plays of power. From the Afghanistan occupation by the US, the Arab spring to the tragic Syrian civil war, the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the increased influence of China everywhere in the world, there is a lot to choose from the menu.

As a constant reminder of the importance of the hand nature has dealt us, Tim Marshall's gives us a glimpse of the world through the eyes of:

  • Russia: The biggest nation in the World and its existential threats, leading from the continuous expansion of Moscow by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century to what keeps Vladimir Putin awake at night.
  • China
  • USA
  • Western Europe
  • Africa: From water wars over the Nile, lack of deep water harbors, the postcolonial wars and China's rising influence, Africa is a geopolitical case study. A whole book could be dedicated to this amazing continent and its geopolitical ramifications.
  • The Middle East
  • India and Pakistan: These two countries share one of the most troubled borders of our time. Stemming from the time the British fled the region and divided the territory into what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), the political and military tension has always been there. China's increased investment in Pakistan's Gwadar port and the $62 billion dollars China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project to connect the two countries only adds to turmoil.
  • Korea and Japan
  • Latin America
  • The Arctic: Particular insightful and surprising, the last chapter explores how global warming and melting of the Arctic is creating new shipping routes, the exploitation of immensely rich natural resources and the rise of new sources of conflict between the Arctic nations.

Releasing ourselves from the shackles nature has imprisoned us with is not an easy endeavor. And even though the rise of technology has allowed drones to bypass mountains and sand storms, long-range air force jets can skip the need for refueling stations and satellites can take high-quality footage from space, nature is still the prevalent factor in many of the decisions that define world order.

Bottom Line

Prisoners of Geography is a remarkable book, a definite must-read. With little under 300 pages, it compresses the history, current affairs and potential outcomes of 10 of the most powerful regions and disputes of our world.

The book follows a compelling and coherent narrative, topped by the maps that accompany each chapter (I saw myself going back and forth between them dozens of times). As a result, with less than a handful of invested hours, I must say I have a much better perception of what moves our world leaders (all of a sudden the Crimea takeover by Russia may an "obvious" move by Russia).

Reflecting over what I read and learned, the main drawbacks of the book are the fact that it is not long enough - for example, a lot more could what have been written about the Middle East or Africa - and that we get the sense that the geopolitics angle is used to a greater extent than it should (this is biased by the fact that I am far from a geopolitics expert).

Prisoners of Geography will surely survive the test of time. For one thing is certain: the political winds change, religious ideologies might come and go, but our mountains, seas and deserts are not going anywhere. Struggles of power over Tibet, the Arctic, the South China Sea, and more are here to stay, so hold on to your copy of the book, it might come in handy.

Further learning:

Happy reading.