Prisoners of Geography

Ten maps that explain everything about the world

Book by Tim Marshall

Article and Review by GlobalMacroForex

While often writers use the term ‘geopolitics’ to just mean politics in general, author Tim Marshall shows us how the actual geography has influenced many countries’ military, political, economic, and even social aspects in subtle ways.  From encouraging certain groups to fight or determining whose economy will develop into a richer society.  While geography is often overlooked in many global analysis, this book ties it all together in a way that keeps the reader engaged.  While I can’t cover all the countries discussed, we’ll cover a few topics including:

·      Russian’s military weakness

·      Western Europe’s economic development

·      Africa’s slow development

·      Middle Eastern tensions

·      India and China’s divide

·      Pakistan and India’s conflict

·      Nicaragua’s new canal

Let’s dig right in…

Russia’s military weakness

Tim Marshall argues that Russia’s current and historic strategy of trying to capture as large a landmass as possible ultimately stems from its geography as a large flat cold landmass that is difficult to defend because of a lack of mountains, waterways, or other strategic choke-points that make invasion impossible.  Because of this, Russian leaders have always sought to expand as far south and west as possible to make it to land areas that do provide protection such as the Ural mountains or Lake Baikal.

Russian forces thought if they could just control the Northern European Plain, then they can put pressure on western Europe and avoid invasion.  At a minimum they must control the Western Siberian Plain, then they could use the Ural Mountains to defend off an invasion from the west in Europe.  If they were unable to obtain this highland area, then they could be vulnerable to any army marching eastward into Russia.

Western Europe’s economic growth

The Danube Basin of interconnected rivers gave Europe a huge advantage in international trade with natural borders and an easily navigable transport network.

“Europe’s second longest river, the Danube (1,771 miles) goes from Germany all the way into the black sea.  Helping to turn the Roman Empire into the center of trade for the entire continent.  The present capital cities of Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Belgrade are all a result of this interconnected river network that allowed for the easy transportation of goods. 

Northern Europe always had a stronger economy than their southern counterparts, Tim Marshall argues this is due to the fact that northern Europe had more coastal plains suitable for agriculture, and the southern areas are more prone to drought.  In addition, the extended waterways allow for easy transport of these crops all across the world.  While at the South’s climate is more prone to natural disasters that ruin agricultural progress.

Mr. Marshall points out how Spain’s economic woes are nothing new, that the country always had poor soil in its strips of coastal plains are too narrow.  Not only that but it’s short rivers cut it off from the rest of the market while the mountains by the Meseta Central lock regions out from international trade.

Germany’s belligerent nature towards the south and the UK can also be seen in its geography.  The UK’s naval dominance could easily chokehold off Germany’s water access from the north, and the rivers flowing through southern Europe are easily subject to the whims of merchant rulers along the river.  Combine this with the open flatland connecting to France, and you can clearly see why Germany would feel the need to constantly be on the offensive to avoid being choked out of global trade.  Also, Germany’s ties to Russian energy resources are easily seen in the massive pipeline connections between the two, which leave other countries like the UK or France less willing to compromise with Moscow. 

Africa’s stunted development

Tim Marshall points out how the African experience would not be what someone would originally expect from the first human civilization on earth.  He points out the bizarre paradox, that the civilization given the biggest head-start in time, is now the least economically developed region on the planet.  But Mr. Marshall points out, as usual, this can be traced back to Africa’s geography.

While at a first glance, Africa seems to be interconnected to everyone because it is at the center of the world’s oceans, in actuality, large regions of central Africa are isolated and choked off from the rest of the world by its harsh deserts and tropical jungles.  The rivers of Africa frequently have waterfalls and steep rock formations which prevent ships from easily getting through to transport goods.  In addition, Africa has problems with agriculture since there many extreme climates with drought, flood, a little fertile soil.

Africa has serious issues with mosquitos that carry diseases which again traces back to its geography.  The author argues that this lack of ability to easily transport goods, and this landlocked isolation of central Africa, preventing the region from fully participating in the process of globalization and the rising standard of living that goes with it.

Middle Eastern tensions

Tim Marshall points to the Sykes-Picot agreement to divide the Middle East among Britain and France after the World War I, as being a huge factor in instigating socio-ethnic tensions in the region.  The agreement was between British diplomat Colonel Sir Mark Sykes and French diplomat Georges-Picot, where they were deciding what to do about this region should the Triple Entente defeat the Ottoman Empire in the First World War.  Mark Sykes literally drew a line dividing what is close to the modern Syria and Iraq border and they split the spoils of war between them.

Tim Marshall points out how although the land was politically and nationally divided into these regions from them on, the reality was the religious-ethnic groups on the ground had completely different divisions of their own communities.  The tensions that arose from this artificial boundary among the various groups helped the imperial powers even further by dividing and conquering the region, so its natural resources could more easily be exploited.

Tim Marshall points to not only to the Sunni vs. Shiite divide in the region but the Kurds as well.  The Kurds are a separate minority group that lives in Kurdistan, a region spread across modern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

As Kurdistan has been divided by the Western draw political boundaries, this group has faced constant persecution in each of the respective countries.  All 3 groups (Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites) have essentially been fighting for political control of these regions, which are now divided into countries that don’t map to the actual communities.

India and China

Tim Marshall argues that the Himalayan Mountains played a pivotal role in the political conflicts in the region, essentially providing a buffer zone to prevent war between China and India.  Since neither side could realistically have a ground army cross the Himalayas, especially as an enemy tried to stop them, it forced peace between China and India.  However, it has ongoing effects for modern-day Tibet.

Tibet is located on a higher elevated plateau right near the Himalayas on the Chinese side.  Both the Chinese and Indian governments have tried to influence this Tibetan region since it’s geo-strategic location would allow one side to control the Himalayan border.

If India had control over Tibet, it could realistically use this elevated highland to strategically dominate the mountains.  On the other hand, if China could assert it’s controlled over Tibet, it could essentially guarantee it’s controlled over its own side of the Himalayas.  It was these factors in mind that lead to the modern day push by the Chinese authorities to control the Tibetan plateau.

Pakistan and India

The author points to a few reasons why Pakistan has struggled including that is has so many different languages and ethnicities within its border that it’s been difficult to cooperate and have a sense of unity amidst racial tensions.  In addition, it’s geography makes it very vulnerable to invasion, and have potential problems with global trade.

One region Mr. Marshall points to is the Kashmir which is a region connecting Pakistan to China.   This region also borders with India and is a hotly contested area between the two. India and Pakistan have a long history of tensions, and part of the reason is that Pakistan’s capital Islamabad is right near the Indian border, making it easy to invade.  By having control over the Kashmir, Pakistan would not only be able to defend itself more strategically but also trade more efficiently with China.  On the other hand, India fears Chinese influence in this region and this tension sparks a proxy conflict as Americans withdraw financial support for Pakistan following the Afghanistan war because the Chinese step in to take their place.


For years the Panama Canal has been the only way to cross the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean without going around Argentina.  However as China grows into the industrial powerhouse it requires more resources to be transported to it and the Chinese don’t like being at the mercy of the Americans, who control the Panama canal. 

Wang Jing a Hong Kong billionaire has started the $50 billion project in Nicaragua to build a canal that can continue to transport resources without having to “ask for American permission”.  Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s president has signed this deal even though it means that 30 thousand people will have to move their homes to build it.

Although Wang Jing insists that this move was not sponsored by the government, this move puts Beijing in a much better position to negotiate for resources in the region because now each project it does in South America will be able to get benefit from this Nicaraguan canal’s ease of transportation.  If the Nicaraguan government properly distributes or invests the money, it could mean positive things for their economy as well.  However, as we’ve seen in the past with these types of things, it’s very easy for the government to misuse the money to stay in power and suppress people.


My summary just touches the tip of the iceberg.  This book covers many more places from the Korean divide, Japan, United States, and central and South America.  We covered Russia’s military motivations based on their weakness to the west, Europe’s rivers and coastal plains influencing economic success, waterfalls and extreme climates in Africa preventing modern global development, and the Himalayan divide between India and China.  There are many other countries and points I didn’t cover in this outline.  I highly recommend this book which shows how geography influences our political, economic, and even social society.  However as the author notes, we can go into space and defy gravity, but as we prepare for wars with each other out of suspicion of thy neighbor, we will always remain prisoners of our own minds.