Our communications and travel technological advances of the last half century or so have made the world feel very small and suggest that rivers, mountains and even oceans are no longer barriers. That may be true of travel, at least for Americans or Europeans (O.K., Australians too) on vacation, but recent news stories describing the struggles of Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe, not to mention the massive logistical efforts involved in United States interventions in the Middle East and Afghanistan, show that’s simply not the case.
There’s a reason the prefix “geo” often appears before the adjective “political.” Tim Marshall’s persuasive thesis in his book, “Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World,” is that geography is destiny, certainly when it comes to nations.
If we are going to have nations, then they are going to have limits, and Marshall points out that the first and most important thing maps show us is borders. Oceans and mountains make good ones, deserts also. The continental US, for example, protected on the east and west by vast oceans and to some extent by a desert in the south, is very difficult to invade.
Similarly, India and China, while both vast and interested in each other, are separated by the Himalayas and the buffer nations of Bhutan and Nepal, will most likely go on as prickly neighbors for quite a long time. Plains, on the other hand, unless protected by oceans or mountains, function more as an invitation.
Russia has lots of plains, most of them on the eastern steppes. In the Far East, Marshall says, geography — the Ural Mountains and vast distances — protect Russia. But Russia, Marshall reports, has been invaded from the west at least five times in the past 500 years.
That’s because of another plain, the North European Plain, “stretching from France to the Urals” but narrowing to a 300-mile wide wedge in Poland, from the Baltic in the north to the Carpathian Mountains in the south. From Russia’s perspective, Marshall says, “this is a double-edged sword.”
He continues: “Poland represents a relatively narrow corridor into which Russia could drive its armed forces if necessary and thus prevent an enemy from advancing toward Moscow. But from this point the wedge begins to broaden; by the time you get to Russia’s borders it is more than two thousand miles wide, and is flat all the way to Moscow and beyond. Even with a large army you would be hard-pressed to defend in strength along this line. However, Russia has never been conquered from this direction partially due to its strategic depth. By the time an army approaches Moscow it already has unsustainably long supply lines, a mistake that Napoleon made in 1812, and that Hitler repeated in 1941.”
The historical perspective is interesting, but it’s what Marshall says about the future that makes the book so compelling. To return to the Russian example, Marshall says that despite its vast landmass, what Russia lacks — he calls it Russia’s Achilles’ heel — is a warm-water port with direct access to the oceans. He calls Russia’s presence in Tartus, Syria’s Mediterranean port, “a limited-supply and replenishment base, not a major force” — adding that it partly explains Russia’s support for the Syrian government.
The countries of the former Soviet Union and behind the Iron Curtain fall into three camps: pro-Russia, neutral and pro-Western. The latter group are unsurprisingly the European countries, like Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltics. All are members of NATO, and most are members of the European Union. Three more — Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova — fall into a diplomatic limbo, geographically in Europe but physically and militarily close to Russia.
Events of the past couple of years in Ukraine now begin to make more sense: Sevastopol, on the Crimean Peninsula, is now Russia’s only warm-water port, which is why President Vladimir Putin wanted it — and got it by annexing Crimea in 2014. Crimea was part of Russia for two centuries, and then became part of Ukraine at a time when the breakup of the Soviet Union was not anticipated.
But as Marshall says: “Putin knew 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.”
A generous view is that the US and the Europeans were looking forward to welcoming Ukraine into the democratic world as a full member of its liberal institutions and the rule of law and that there wasn’t much Moscow could do about it. Marshall suggests that, not for the first time, Western diplomats had forgotten that “geopolitics still exists in the twenty-first century. . . . “
In an inimitable and breezy style that is easy to read but masks a great deal of thought, he proceeds to outline other areas of conflict and potential conflict around the world, in places as diverse as Africa, the Middle East, the two Koreas and the Arctic.
The Arctic is bordered by five countries, with several more close by. The region is heating up, Marshall points out, in more ways than environmental: opening the frozen sea lanes will change world shipping routes, there may be new reserves of oil and gas, and then there are the environmental consequences to the rest of the world.
It is reminiscent of the European scramble for power in Central Asia, the subject of the Great Game, in what is now India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Russians are paying attention to the Arctic, Marshall says, in ways that the US is not: the Russians are building icebreakers; and there are other disputes — about oil rights, fishing rights and unratified agreements. Happily, Marshall says, there is a possibility that the division of rights in the Arctic will not lead to lengthy conflict because of technology and the fact that rules, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (not yet ratified by the US) are in place, as is a forum for decision-making, the Arctic Council. Perhaps, this time, Marshall says, we’ll “get the Great Game right for the benefit of all.” We can only hope.
There are also rivers and their contribution. Navigable ones, like Europe’s and the Mississippi, are crucial for the development of trade. Lack of navigable rivers is one reason, Marshall says, that Africa has been slower to develop than Europe, the US and Asia. (If you think there are other reasons, Marshall agrees: the first book he cites in his bibliography is Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” one of whose theses is that the spread of food production was rapid along an east-west axis that includes Eurasia, and much slower on the north-south axis from the Middle East into Africa.)
Rivers can serve as borders too and, in fact, one does, more or less, between the two Koreas; but Marshall says, “This was never a natural barrier between two entities, just a river within a unified geographical space all too frequently entered by foreigners.”
“Prisoners of Geography” is a fascinating look at the role geography continues to play in the defense and trade calculus of modern nations. If the book is occasionally reductive, that is because Marshall’s scope is the entire globe — even isolated and mineral-rich Australia gets a few mentions. Read the book for its useful discussion of a dimension often disregarded in modern reporting.
“Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World,” by Tim Marshall. Scribner. ISBN 978-1-5011-2146-3
This review appeared originally in The Brooklyn Bugle.