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Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics
Tim Marshall, with a foreword by Sir John Scarlett
Elliott & Thompson (24)
In 2012, as Syria descended into full-scale civil war, Tim Marshall stood on a hilltop, watching smoke rise over a hamlet in the distance. Such sights were common and Marshall did not think it especially significant until his Syrian friends explained why that village in particular was burning.
The attack had come from a much larger settlement a mile away. If one faction could push the other out of the valley, the valley could be attached to another strip of land that led to the motorway. That in itself would be strategically useful, but the attackers had a more long-term plan: If Syria could not be reconstructed as a unitary state, the area could form the nucleus of a future mini-state.
Just as happened during the Yugoslav wars, the local potentates were already planning their empires, to be built through ethnic cleansing and massacres. “Where before I saw only a burning hamlet,” writes Marshall, “I could now see its strategic importance and understand how political realities are shaped by the most basic physical realities.”
Marshall, a former diplomatic editor at Sky News and BBC reporter, has solid credentials to write Prisoners of Geography. He has covered conflicts and upheavals in 30 countries, including Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and across the Middle East. His blog, Foreign Matters, was shortlisted for the 2010 Orwell Prize. His approach is simple but effective. Ten chapters, each accompanied by a map, cover the world’s regions and global powers. Each shows how geography shapes not just history but destiny. In an ever more complex, chaotic and interlinked world, Prisoners of Geography is a concise and useful primer on geo-politics.
Marshall is not afraid to ask tough questions and provide sharp answers. Why is Africa, the cradle of human civilization, in such a mess? “There are lots of places that are unsuccessful but few have been as unsuccessful as Africa, and that despite having a head start as the place where Homo Sapiens originated about 200,000 years ago.”
Two reasons for this, argues Marshall, are the lack of natural harbors—in contrast, for example, to the Mediterranean—and waterfalls. Africa has numerous great rivers, but they are, says Marshall, “rubbish for actually transporting anything” because of frequent waterfalls.
Over the centuries, the Rhine, and especially the Danube, which runs through numerous countries, have helped Europe prosper and unify. In contrast, Africa’s great rivers, the Nile, the Niger, the Congo and the Zambezi, don’t connect. Most of Africa’s land mass is framed by the Sahara and the Indian and Atlantic Ocean, thus further isolating the inhabited areas from outside technology and intellectual currents.
Layered on top of this isolation is the catastrophic legacy of colonialism. Marshall’s analysis of Africa’s political woes could apply word for word to the Middle East. “The modern civil wars are now partially because the colonialists told different nations that they were one nation in one state and then after the colonialists were chased out a dominant people emerged within the state who wanted to rule it all, thus ensuring violence.”
And when the West destroys the state that it imposed, it fails to build a substitute. When the United States and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003, the military aspect was thoroughly planned, but the aftermath was not. The coalition had failed to learn the lesson of the collapse of communism in 1989: The more repressive the dictatorship, the greater the violence that will follow its removal. Hungary, once dubbed “the happiest barracks” thanks to its relatively liberal dictatorship, enjoyed a peaceful transition to democracy.
The removal of the maniacal Nicolae Ceausescu saw violence and bloodshed. The removal of Saddam Hussein, followed by the dismantling of the Iraqi army, perhaps the one institution that could have held the country together, triggered the collapse of the state, a civil war and the rise of ISIS. Astonishingly, Western powers proceeded to make the same mistake in Libya in 2011, deposing Colonel Qaddafi, then walking away. The result may be seen in the boats full of refugees landing in Italy.
Marshall is sharp on Western perceptions of the Arab world, and how well-meaning liberals bring their cultural baggage to a region with utterly alien social mores. “The Arab countries are beset by prejudices, indeed hatreds of which the average Westerner knows so little that they tend not to believe them even if they are laid out in print before their eyes.” Anti-Semitic cartoons, which echo Nazi propaganda, are endemic across the Arab media.
Instead of condemning such imagery, Western liberals stay silent, for fear of succumbing to “Orientalism,” judging Arab culture through Western eyes. Incitement to murder, they say, must be viewed in the context of the Arabic language and its love for flighty rhetoric. But when people who are full of hatred say something, writes Marshall, they mean it, as the Internet’s ever-expanding atrocity exhibition bears witness.
Occasionally, the material can feel skimpy. Western Europe has 20 pages, as much as Korea and Japan. While Marshall does discuss Poland’s flexible frontiers and the Yugoslav conflict, the book would have benefited from either expanding this section or adding a separate section on Eastern Europe. The Middle East has 34 pages. For a work of reference, the source material, listed in the bibliography, can seem meagre: the chapter on Korea and Japan, for example, cites just two sources. But thankfully there is an index, all too rare nowadays.
The book also looks usefully to the future. The last chapter deals with the Arctic, whose vast resources are increasingly coveted, competed over and may yet be fought over. The Arctic is rich in gas and oil. Gold, zinc, nickel and iron have also been found. “When the Icemen come, they will come in force,” writes Marshall, and they will be speaking Russian. “All other nations are lagging behind, and, in the case of the USA do not even appear to be trying to catch up. America is an Arctic nation without an Arctic strategy in a region that is heating up.”
Heating up literally, as well as metaphorically. The melting of the ice-cap now allows ships to make the journey through the North-West Passage in the Canadian archipelago for several weeks each year. The polar route is 40% shorter than going through the Panama canal. There are already nine legal disputes and claims over sovereignty in the Arctic Ocean. Russia has even planted a rust-proof titanium flag 13,980 feet down to mark its claim. Prisoners of Geography helps explain why.