Book Review: Prisoners of Geography - Tim Marshall

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


Nothing too earth-shattering in the basic idea, which is that geography has a pretty major effect on the world’s cultures, nations and politics. Guns, Germs & Steel would be my starting point if I wanted to read a book on this topic. I dodn’t think I had any great new insights from this book, but many interesting points made, nonetheless, and it was a good choice at the airport bookshop on the way to India.

Key points

  • Russia’s territory is mostly in Asia, but its population is mostly in Europe. Siberia may well end up in the orbit of China in the long term. Vladivostok, the main Russian port on the Pacific Ocean, is very close to North Korea, on the Sea of Japan, and is blocked by ice for several months each winter. Sevastopol is Russia’s only true major warm-water port and the Russians are building as strong fleet there to try to be able to escape if needed. Russia has numerous geographical disadvantages, only its oil, gas and other resources make it a major power.Russia controls the oil and gas of much of eastern Europe. Stalin drew the boundaries of many of the soviet “stans” in a deliberate effort to weaken those countries.

  • China has historically not needed a navy, nor has it been expansive. Now it wants to become a two-ocean power (Pacific and Indian). It needs to control Tibet so prevent India from dominating it.

  • Europe’s major rivers flow to different seas and do not meet. This is one reason why there are so many small countries in Europe. Europe’s natural division is between North and South. Only France straddles both.The South is less suited to agriculture, and has more natural disasters. Greece has many islands and needs an expensive navy. The mountains of the Balkans leads to many small countries.

  • Africa lacks natural harbours and its rivers aren’t much use for transportation due to frequent waterfalls. Colonial powers drew arbitary lines on maps when creating African states, a major cause of today’s instability. The DRC is one of the most serious warzones of the last 50 years. Ethiopia is a growing power due to its water & high elevation. Angola is behind only Saudi Arabia in supplying oil to China. Chinese are involved across Africa. South Africa is richer, it has access to two oceans, natural resources and a climate and land that allow for large-scale food production. Also, there is little malaria unlike most of Africa.

  • The split between Sunni and Shia Muslims dates back to 632 CE.

  • Control of Kashmir would give India a border with Afghanistan and route to Central Asia. It also reduces the prospect of China/Pakistan alliance against India.

  • Japan’s large population mainly live on the coast. The inland is mountainous and rivers are mostly not navigable, leading to the Japanese being maritime traders. They are the world’s largest importer of gas, and the third-largest importer of oil.

  • Latin America’s interior is mostly empty. The bulk of the population lives near the coast. Roads connect to the capital cities only. Bolivia and Chile have a poor relationship due to Chile making it landlocked, trapping it in poverty. Bolivia has large reserves of natural gas but won’t sell to Chile. China is Brazil’s main trading partner. Brazil’s seven largest ports combined can handle fewer goods per year than New Orleans. The United States used force in Latin America almost fifty times between 1890 and the end of the Cold War. Argentina is better placed to become a First World country than Brazil due to its geography, but its leaders have repeatedly messed up.

  • The Arctic will be a battleground in the future. Melting ice caps mean cargo ships can use the Northwest Passage in summer to shorten the Europe to China route. Norway is building an arctic battalion to protect itself from Russian incursions.