Prisoners of Geography – Book Review

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by  Tim Marshall is an enjoyable read that traces the worlds geography  and its impact on today’s geopolitics. I picked this up on a whim as the description seemed to indicate an enjoyable refresher on the state of the world as it came to be in terms of geopolitics. The maps were pretty awful to research on my kindle paperwhite and I had to resort to getting the paperback to navigate the maps better.


A lot of the worlds problems today remain as gridlocked as they were at the origin despite decades of evolution and political talks ( think border and territory conflicts across the globe – Israel/Palestine, South China sea, South America and the list goes on). This book is not a comprehensive treatise on the evolution of those problems but a great overview. It does a good job in identifying the factors that drive the national interest and conflict in these areas and the impact of the countries dealing with the limitations/opportunities that their geography has bestowed them with.

I never did realize the importance of navigable and intersecting rivers or natural harbors that impact the destinies of countries. Here are some of my observations and notes from the book.

  • Russia – The books kicks off with the author highlighting the 100-year forward thinking of the Russians and the obsession with “warm water” ports with direct access to the ocean unlike the ports on the Arctic like Murmansk that freeze for several months. This limits the Russian fleet and its aspiration to be a bigger global power. While the oil and gas and being the 2nd biggest supplier of natural gas  in the world brings its own geographical advantages and prop the country up, its aspiration remain for fast maneuvering  to move out of areas like the Black Sea or even the Baltic Sea to counter a feared NATO strike. The author describes moves like the annexation of Crimea to be moves to construct more naval ports to boost its fleets. Countries like Moldova and Georgia ( and propensity to the west)  have a huge bearing on foreign policy and military planning. Interestingly , ‘Bear ‘is a Russian word, but per the author the Russians are also wary of calling this animal by its name, fearful of conjuring up its darker side. They call it medved, “the one who likes honey.”

It doesn’t matter if the ideology of those in control is czarist, Communist, or crony capitalist—the ports still freeze, and the North European Plain is still flat.

  • China –  The Chinese civilization, over 4000 years old that originated around the Yangtze river  is today comprised of 90% Han people united by ethnicity and politics. This sense of identity pervades all aspect of modern Chinese life and powers its  ascent as a global power. The massive Chinese border touches Mongolia in the North, Russia,Vietnam, Laos in the East and  India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the West with various levels of protracted conflicts/disagreements. For example – The India/China border is perceived by China as the Tibetan-Indian border and integral to protect the Tibetan plateau which could open a route for an Indian military push into the Chinese heartland never mind the low probability of that ever happening. The book provides a brief overview of the origin of the Tibet occupation and the worlds attention to it. The author says that if the population  were to be give a free vote, the unity of the Han would crack and weaken the hold of the communist party.  The need for  China to extend its borders and grab land it perceives as its own also extend to the seas. The growing naval fleet and its need to assert supremacy in the south china sea also fuels conflict with Japan and its neighbors. Scouring the length and breadth of Africa for minerals and precious metals in return for cheap capital and modern form of debt slavery is another strategy to dominate the world. This part of the book did not offer any new insight however a society that  holds unity and economic progress as the highest priorities is definitely admirable considering the “developing” status that it once had.
  • Unites States –  The geographical position of invulnerability, fertile land, navigable river systems and the unification of the states ensures prosperity and greatness for the U.S. The author goes into the evolution of the states as they came together after the revolutionary war such as the Louisiana purchase, the ceding of Florida by the Spanish, the Mexican war to acquire Mexico and the purchase of Alaska.  Post world war 2 and the Marshall Plan, the formation of NATO then assured the US of being the greatest firepower across the world.The author deems the Russian threat largely seen off and insists China is the rising power that the US is concerned about (as the current geopolitical climate in 2021 validates). The domination of the sea-lanes will occupy the attention with numerous potential flashpoints. Self-sufficient in energy will continue to America’s position as the preeminent economic power. Overall, this section was well summarized with the progress of American domination despite hiccups over the centuries like the great depression. I still think the author painted a rosier picture than the current situation suggests. Post-pandemic, it remains to be seen if these assertions still hold with all the internal struggles faced in the American society with respect to race relations, inclusivity and attention to a wide variety of social issues.

The California gold rush of 1848–49 helped, but the immigrants were heading west anyway; after all, there was a continental empire to build, and as it developed, more immigrants followed. The Homestead Act of 1862 awarded 160 acres of federally owned land to anyone who farmed it for five years and paid a small fee. If you were a poor man from Germany, Scandinavia, or Italy, why go to Latin America and be a serf, when you could go to the United States and be a free land-owning man?

  • Western Europe – Again, the geographical blessings in this case ensured an agreeable climate mostly to cultivate the right crops at large scale, the right minerals to power the industrial revolution and abundant natural harbors. This led to industrial scale wars as well as Europe remains an amalgam of linguistic and culturally disparate countries yet remains an industrial power. The contrast between northern and southern Europe in terms of prosperity is attributed to industrialization, the domination of Catholicism, and the availability of coastal plains. Spain, Greece, U.K, Germany, Poland, Denmark, Sweden  and the contrasts in their economical status are discussed and  attributed to geographical limitations.  I was hoping the  author provides more than a passing nod to the concerns of immigration and prejudice. Prejudice against immigration and the rise of nationalism remains on the rise across the world and its troubling to see this rise of hate groups, holocaust deniers and all other abhorrent tribes that debase basic human ideals of equality, peace and harmony.  The demographic change with the inverted pyramid of older people at the top with fewer people paying taxes to support them in the future needs to be reversed and the benefits of legal immigration need to be given greater attention rather than burying them under misdirected xenophobic fears.
  • Africa – This was an enlightening section on the lack of utility of African rivers for transportation due to waterfalls and natural obstacles. Africa developed in isolation from the Eurasian landmass and the author asserts that the lack of idea exchange played a huge part in its under development. Sub-saharan exposure to virulent diseases, crowded living conditions and poor health-care infrastructure has also impeded growth. The great rivers of Africa—the Niger, the Congo, the Zambezi, the Nile, and others—don’t connect to its own detriment. The 56~ countries have relatively unchanged borders over the years along with the legacy of colonialism which like most parts of the world divided societies on the basis of ethnicities. The rise of radical Islamist groups has been attributed to the sense of underdevelopment and overall malcontent. On a more positive note, every year roads and railroads are fueling infrastructure boom and greater connectivity with rising education and healthcare.

“You could fit the United States, Greenland, India, China, Spain, France, Germany, and the UK into Africa and still have room for most of Eastern Europe. We know Africa is a massive landmass, but the maps rarely tell us how massive.”

  • Middle East – Another witness to the ancient civilization that rose from the fertile plains of Mesopotamia. The largest continuous sand desert that  British and French colonists carved up as part of the Sykes-Picot carving reflects some of the unrest and extremism today. Its interesting that prior to Sykes-Picot, there was no Syria, Lebanon,  Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel, or Palestine. These are all modern entities with a short history unified by versions of the same religion. Conflict and chaos have ruled supreme in some of the countries ( Iraq, Lebanon etc) while prosperity from the oil fields have propelled some to the world stage (UAE). Lot of detail on Iran-Iraq history, Palestine, the failed promise of the Arab spring, Turkey and others. The complexity of the demographics and religious idealism compounds an already volatile region.

Sykes-Picot is breaking; putting it back together, even in a different shape, will be a long and bloody affair.

  • India & Pakistan– A population of 1.4 Billion pitted against another of 182 million with impoverishment, volatility and mistrust at both ends. Post-pandemic, this section is dated as the imminent Indian emerging economic power described by the author is no longer a reality at least in the near term. Had to skip over this section as there wasn’t much I didn’t already know.
  • Korea and Japan– Tension between the Koreas is well known to the world and the author describes the origins of the Hermit kingdom and the lack of strategy from the USA in dealing with the problem. The 38th parallel was yet another hasty line of division and an uninformed repetition of the line drawn in the aftermath of the Ruso-Japanese war of 1904. I have fond memories of visiting Seoul years ago and it was interesting on how the concept of unification was welcomes by some of the South Koreans I had the opportunity to interact with (peering through the binoculars in the DMZ to the North Korean side was a thrilling experience and emphasized the proximity of the two sides). Not sure if that is the general sentiment but there is enough justification there considering the Northern nuclear power in control of a dictator. The Japanese post-war stance is described in detail and the author contends the increasing Japanese defense budget displays the intent of resolve against Chinese threats.
  • Latin America– Limitation of the Latin America originates from the historical inequality, the reluctance of the original settles to move away from the coats and the lack of subsequent infrastructure in the interiors. Geographical limitations plague Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina despite natural resources. The civil wars of the 19th century broke apart independent countries with border disputes that persist, naval arms races between countries like Brazil, Argentina and Chile held back development of all three and drug cartels have devastated societies. The Panama canal’s newer rival – the Nicaragua Grand Canal that has a huge Chinese investment across the continent seem questionable in terms of value to Latin America.
  • The Arctic– The effects of global warming are alarmingly showing in the Arctic coinciding with the discovery of energy deposits. The complex land ownership includes land in parts of Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States (Alaska). The melting ice has far flung ramifications globally in terms of projected flooding effects in countries far away as Maldives. The melting ice has also opened up new transportation corridor that hugs the Siberian coastline and more access to energy reserves much to the interest of multiple countries that are now jostling for superiority including Russia building an Arctic army.

The word arctic comes from the Greek arktikos, which means “near the bear,” and is a reference to the Ursa Major constellation, whose last two stars point toward the North Star.

A lot of rich detail in the book on various nuances of the geographies and this was an enjoyable read however it did make me pessimistic as status quo or deterioration of the situation in a lot of these geographies has been the norm. As the 21st century progresses, there is not much indication that change is afoot unless a planet threatening situation like climate change becomes a forcing function to minimize petty squabbles to focus on larger resolutions. Being Idealistic or moralistic will not jive well with the ideas in this book and the way forward is to think of creative and new ideas to resolve a lot of these global problems. Great ideas and great leaders need to arise to challenge these realities and put humanity first.

As the author ruefully writes:

” A human being first burst through the top layer of the stratosphere in 1961 when twenty-seven-year-old Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made it into space aboard Vostok 1. It is a sad reflection on humanity that the name of a fellow Russian named Kalashnikov is far better known.”


A couple of other reads recommended to me are Peter Zeihan’s “The Accidental Superpower” and Robert D Kaplan’s “The Revenge of Geography”. I look forward to reading them as well.

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