Prisoners of Geography Summary

Tim Marshall

Prisoners of Geography

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Prisoners of Geography Summary

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In his political nonfiction, Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics (2015), Tim Marshall proposes that leaders are constrained by geography. Power is determined by physical location. Critics positively received the book for its fresh perspective on global politics. A foreign correspondent for Sky News, Marshall has more than thirty years experience in presenting and reporting the news. He also writes occasionally for popular UK newspapers including the Sunday Times.

Marshall does not believe that technology is more significant than geography, even in this modern world where we are all far more connected than ever before. He firmly believes that national leaders will only ever have the power that their geographical location allows them to possess. To understand leaders and global politics, we must first understand geography.

Although Marshall’s thesis is based on geography, he is also concerned about the negative impact of colonialism. He argues that many of the world’s worst conflicts can be traced back to decisions made by colonizers. He also explains that nation states and formal borders are relatively new concepts, often imposed by colonizers; although we may draw these borders on a map, they are fragile and subject to change.

Prisoners of Geography is organized into chapters based on ten detailed maps. These maps each focus on a different part of the world, from Russia to the Arctic. Marshall examines each map in turn, commenting on the leaders and nations inhabiting the areas. He draws comparisons between different parts of the world to show that the land that shapes us, not the other way around.

Marshall begins with Russia, noting that much of Russia is harsh and uninhabitable, particularly in its Asian territory. Because of this, Russian people don’t live in Asia. Russia will never be an Asian superpower if it has no presence there. Russia will always lack the resources to spread its influence too far towards China. Geography, then, controls this potential superpower.

Africa is also controlled by its geographical limitations. Most of its population lives within a few miles of the Nile. Marshall notes that Europe created many of the borders between countries in Africa; these borders are artificial. There is a similar situation, he argues, in the Middle East, and India and Pakistan. These borders put countries in these locations at a disadvantage.

African nations will always be limited by the arid terrain and difficult landscape. Europe, on the other hand, has a rich and diverse landscape and sea protection—especially Great Britain. There are plenty of natural harbors and little unfertile terrain such as desert. Marshall laments that Europeans of old tried to impose a society that works for their continent on regions far less geographically able to cope with them.

Marshall next considers the map of China and its surroundings. China doesn’t seek to control the seas or large swathes of territory. It is only interested in keeping its borders safe. If China didn’t control Tibet, for example, another nation would, and the Chinese border would be vulnerable to attack. Marshall concedes, though, that if there any nation has a global reach far beyond its geographical borders, it is China.

This admission somewhat contradicts Marshall’s message that geography contains and limits power. China is a truly global power even if it doesn’t control multiple territories. Chinese influence on global industries, such as manufacturing, is unprecedented, and we will all suffer if the Chinese suffer a loss of industry or mass unemployment. Still, Marshall believes that China will always be more focused on its own geographical concerns than world power.

Marshall then considers the USA. He explains that the USA is the most geographically isolated of the potential superpowers. He argues that the USA is obsessed with spreading its influence across the entire Americas so that no other nation has significant control of the continent. Latin America, in any case, struggles to become powerful because of the harsh landscape. It is highly unlikely that these countries will unite to take on the USA, even if there is little lush, profitable land in Latin America. The continent will always suffer from a lack of infrastructure—a problem we can’t solve because of the land condition.

Another complex area Marshall examines is the region of Japan and North and South Korea. The border between North and South Korea is artificial and manmade—this means it is volatile and subject to change. Although North Korea is a dangerous nation, geography keeps its power contained.

Marshall also considers remote locations such as the Arctic, and how technology is making it easier to access this isolated geographical region. Many global powers seek to control the region, and it’s unclear who will succeed. Ultimately, according to Marshall, geographical realities will yield the answer.