Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need
To Know About Global Politics
Book by Tim Marshall

Human beings are bound by their physical limitations. Each one of us has a body which offers us a set of strengths and opportunities as well as weaknesses and threats. Given the environment we face, each one of us tries to utilize our physical strengths and opportunities to the fullest to prosper. At the same time, we also try incessantly to manage our weaknesses and tackle threats.

Similarly, nations, when they are born, also receive unique geographical territories. Each has to deal with what this geography brings to them. Their location on the globe defines their environment. It defines the resources available to them at home as well as the accessibility of resources from immediate neighbours and other countries across the globe. Their geography defines their history, philosophy, culture, social setup, politics, economy, foreign policy and security strategies. Unlike humans, who can move to greener pastures, nations are generally bound. They can be landlocked or an island in the middle of a vast ocean. They can be very vast like Russia and can be as small as Israel. They can have the largest rivers or can be situated in the middle of a desert. To move or expand for better resources and opportunities often means to conquer other’s territory and that leads to conflicts and wars. The cost of managing geographical weaknesses and threats is very high. Leaderships since ages, be it in the form of a democratic government or a monarchy have always tried to leverage the resources available to them or manage and compensate for the lack of.

Tim Marshall’s book, published in 2016 has tried to bring back ‘geo’ into geo-politics. The book is an attempt to explain that the major historical events, as well as current developments in global politics, are strongly driven by the geography each nation is endowed with. He explains how some nations like Russia, with a huge territory, face the challenge of protecting it through an army, especially in Eastern Europe. At the same time this huge territory also brings in the advantage that any nation or person who tries to invade Russia will have to travel a great distance to reach Moscow, the supply lines for the army, as a result, would be very long and unsustainable, making it extremely difficult to conquer Russia (consider Napoleon’s and Hitler’s endeavours for example). Mountains and rivers provide natural protection against enemies. They have often acted as natural borders between countries. Proximity to oil-rich countries is an advantage. Countries like China try to increase it by initiating mega infrastructural projects like the CPEC. A small geographical region/feature can become a pain for a nation for several decades or provide major strategic benefits (for example, the Siachen Glacier and Crimea).

The effect of privileges and limitations which geographies of each country provide may have been diluted to some extent due to technological advancements (fighter jets and nuclear missiles for example), yet they remain key to their foreign policy and security strategy.

Tim Marshall’s book brings in a fresh perspective for observing the current global developments. The book generally sticks to the usually accepted historical and geopolitical narratives. Reading this book can help give a bird’s-eye view of the major developments across the globe today and a limited understanding of ‘what drives what’. The book is light reading in that sense. The book, when accompanied by active use of software like 3D Google Earth/Maps to understand the author’s narrative, can help the reader understand the earth and its geography from a strategic perspective. This can help the reader develop a ‘geographical sense’ which can help in analyzing global events better.

Marshall has made several statements on historical events, however, he seldom explains and justifies them. His historical and economic narratives often dilute the geographical narrative he wishes to deliver. The title of the book makes a tall claim “Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics” but the book lacks the necessary rigour. The book is for the average reader but may provide a better perspective to scholars as well. The maps in the book have not been marked in detail to clearly explain the author’s narrative.

This reviewer yearns for the author’s understanding on how these geographical limitations have been overcome partially or completely through technology and how defence, space and infrastructural technology has brought changes in the way geopolitical calculations are done today, in contrast to the conventions 100 years ago.
                                                                                                              Book review by Mohit Choube