Prisoners of Geography: An Indispensable Primer on Geopolitics [book notes]

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics, Tim Marshall, 2015 (Amazon US;Amazon Australia)


Explores the geographical dimension in geopolitics, putting key historical events into context. While geopolitics can quickly become complex, there are certainly recurring themes: access to water transport routes, natural resources etc. Familiarity with these themes helps understand how the world works. So long as one is mindful of the inevitable reductive assumptions they make along the way. This book is a fantastic way to build a knowledge foundation on politics and history along the geography dimension. It’s also very easy to read, and demands no pre-requisite knowledge.


Key take-aways

Russia is desperate for warm-water ports. Vladivostok in the east is ice-locked for 4 months in the year (and can be easily threatened by Japan). Similarly, St Petersburg and its north-western European ports are vulnerable to NATO-controlled choke points, namely the Skagerrak Strait controlled by Denmark and Norway. Sevastopol is a recent addition to Russia’s limited true warm-water ports in the Black Sea. This is partly why Putin couldn’t resist annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. However, even this needs to pass through a NATO choke-point (Istanbul, Turkey). before navigating the Aegean, then the Mediterranean, then the Gibraltar Strait to get to the Atlantic ocean, or the Suez canal to get to the Indian ocean.



Europe reluctantly relies on Russian energy, particularly gas. Latvia, Slovakia, Finland, and Estonia are 100% reliant on Russian gas. Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Lithunia 80%. Greece, Austria, Hungary 60%. Germany 50%. But the UK, just 13%. This is partly why the UK was much more outspoken about the Crimean annexation than Germany was. Unlike oil, gas is difficult to transport, and therefore relies on pipelines (see image below). While LNG (liquefied natural gas) from the US is more costly and needs the port infrastructure, European nations may very well switch to this option for security reasons.



Beijing will continue to shut down separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang at all costs. Beyond defending its political ideology of a unified China, there are geostrategic reasons. Tibet is China’s ‘water tower’ as it feeds the Yellow, Yangtze, and Mekong rivers – which waters the crops that feeds hundreds of millions. Xinjiang (40% Han, 60% Uighurs) has oil and is strategically located along the Belt and Road.


China’s sea route vulnerability and hunger for raw materials motivates its Belt and Road Initiative. Existing routes that bring oil from the Middle East, and other materials from Africa, pass through the Malacca strait. A whopping 80% of China’s oil imports makes its way through this choke point. This makes the strait an easy target for a US naval blockade. China’s response to this route vulnerability problem as well as its projected hunger for raw materials is its trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative. Which is basically a bunch of long-term loans to commodity-rich, credit-rating-poor countries with a lot of conditions attached. The funds are to be used for building infrastructure to produce and transport the commodities that China needs over the next century.



The US is blessed with the Mississippi basin. The $15m Louisiana purchase from Napoleon France in 1803 not only doubled the size of the US; it gave it mastery over the greatest inland water transport in the world. The Mississippi has more miles of navigable river than rest of world put together. Plus, great soil and climate for agriculture. 


Western Europe, similar to the US, is blessed with favorable geography. Good amount of rainfall, good soil, no real deserts, few frozen waters, rare natural disasters. Long, flat, navigable rivers that flows into a variety of seas and oceans. Abundant in natural harbors. Indeed, there are many geographical differences within Europe. The mountainous Balkans region is the mostly likely explanation for its linguistic and cultural divisions over a relatively small area.



Africa is cursed with tough terrain.

First, it has few shallow natural harbors and the big rivers (Niger, Congo, Zambezi, and Nile) don’t interconnect. Its rivers have too many waterfalls. While this is bad for transport, it can be good for hydroelectricity. But whenever an upstream country wants to build a dam, the downstream country will protest. For instance, Egypt and Sudan is bickering with Ethiopia over its (China-funded) hydroelectric dam proposal over the Blue Nile. (Read more: Africa’s largest dam fills Ethiopia with hope and Egypt with dread)

Second, its climate and diseases make the land unwelcoming. This is why European colonizers only went about 100 miles inland.

Third, it has few plants and even fewer animals that could be domesticated. This point, coupled with the fact that it has a North-South orientation (in contrast to Eurasia’s East-West orientation), is Jared Diamond’s key argument in Guns, Germs, and Steel for why Africa fell behind Eurasia in development.

However, we must be careful not to draw reductive conclusions predicated on geographical determinism. Many challenges in Africa today come from post-colonial legacies – when Europeans drew arbitrary borders over Africa. And history has shown us that legacies and stories can always be rewritten.

“In every decade since the 1960s optimists have written about how Africa is on the brink of prevailing over the hand history and nature have dealt it. Perhaps this time it is true. It needs to be”



The Middle East is complicated. “It’s hot, sandy, and everyone hates each other,” as they say.

While this book briefly points out key events of the region’s 20th century history, I remain convinced that the only way to untangle the region’s political complexity is to go much further back. In Oil Geopolitics Part 2 , I did exactly that – covering key events over the past 600 years.

At the heart of the Shia-Sunni divide is Saudi Arabia and Iran competing for regional leadership. I cover more on this in Oil Geopolitics Part 3 (coming soon).

Jerusalem, having no economic or military importance, demonstrates that cultural factors are inherently entangled with geopolitics.

As of July 2014. See Source for more interactive version.


South Asia is a lot more ethnically diverse than what most may think. Throughout history, different powers have invaded the subcontinent but none have truly ever conquered it. Even today, New Delhi and Islamabad, arguably don’t fully control India and Pakistan. The diversity in the region based on languages, let alone ethnicity, is staggering.


The India-Pakistan rivalry has a long history, and the Kashmir corridor has always been contested. India and Pakistan gained independence from the UK in 1947 (British kept independence promise for fighting for her in WW2). In 1965, the first Indo-Pak war over the Kashmir region ends in a stalemate. After which, India drifted closer to the Soviet Union, while Pakistan closer to China. In 1971, East Pakistan rebels against West Pakistan (now just Pakistan). India intervenes, and East Pakistan becomes an independent Bangladesh. By 1998, both India and Pakistan became nuclear armed. The Kashmir region has long been and continues to be contested by Pakistan, India, and China. China and Pakistan would never give up as India’s control of Kashmir could see it deny the Pakistan-China shared border. Gwadar, Pakistan’s deep warm water port is critical to China.


Unlike Russia, which wants more sea access, Bangladesh’s problem is too much access to the sea. The low-lying territory is prone to flooding and rising sea levels.


North Korea’s true enemy is Japan, not South Korea. For most of millennia, the Korean peninsula were independent kingdoms. Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and did lots of terrible things. And North Korea (along with China) is still bitter about it. Then Russia and the US split Japanese Korea along the 38th parallel in 1945 following the end of WWII. The Korean War (1950-1953) ended in a stalemate and continues to be a flash point. All actors in East Asia know that forcing to answer the Korean reunification question at the wrong time risks making things worse. While Japan and more importantly the US would hate to see a powerful united Korea, who knows maybe they could entertain the idea as a way of containing a scarier China.

One thing Japan and South Korea have in common is their dependence on raw material and energy imports. Japan’s thirst for raw materials was a primary motivation for rampaging China in the 1930s, and South East Asia in the 1940s.

Japan is actually a case that demonstrates that geographical disadvantages need not doom a country into slow development. 3/4 of Japan is inhospitable mountainous terrain, and only 13% is suitable for intensive cultivation. Despite this Japan rose to become Asia’s only global colonial power in the early 20th century.


Latin America has bad terrain and poor infrastructure. None of the coastlines have deep natural harbors. The Amazon is navigable but its muddy banks and surrounding lands makes it difficult to build infrastructure on. And while frightening large chunks of the Amazon have been cleared for agriculture, its jungle soil is of poor quality. This is why Brazil, despite being blessed with natural resources, is much poorer than it should be – it lacks the infrastructure to efficiently transport goods. 25% of Brazil’s population live in favela slums.

Nixon declared war on drugs in the 70s, and in the early 90s the US assisted the Colombian government to crack down on drug cartels. The drug lords responded by creating a land through through central America and Mexico to get to the US market. The book argues that without the drug trade, Mexico would be poorer than it is now, although probably much safer.

Unlike the rest of Latin America, the Southern Cone, mostly falling under Argentina is a profitable agricultural region. However, Argentina failed to press on its good quality land. 100 years ago it was among the top 10 richest in the world – even ahead of France and Italy. But it never managed to develop healthy political institutions. It also has deep oil and gas reserves, but will need foreign investment for exploration and extraction. Its political climate puts off most of the foreign oil giants.

The Panama Canal strategically important to the US. China proposed to dig a $50b canal through neighboring Nicaragua, but at 4x the Nicaraguan economy, it’s unlikely to go ahead.



The Arctic’s strategic importance is predicated on shipping routes and energy deposits. 

The Northwest Passage, unfrozen for several summer weeks a year, linking the Atlantic to the Pacific halves the transit time from Europe to China. So this region is important for transport.

The Svalbard Islands, the northernmost settlement on Earth, has no profitable mining or fishing operation. But is used by the Russians to make a territorial claim.

An icebreakers, a special ship that cuts through frozen seas to escort cargo, costs $1b and 10 years to build. Russia has 32, Canada 6 (1 under construction), Finland 8, Sweden 7, Denmark 4, and China, Germany, Norway, US all have 1 each. So the US is an arctic nation without an Arctic strategy.

It’s also rich in energy deposits. However, complex liquefaction infrastructure at sea is difficult, dirty, dangerous, and damn expensive.

Arctic geopolitics is set to change though as the climate warms up, and as energy extraction techniques improve.



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