These days, I read in the US news about a possible nuclear war with North Korea, a trade war with China, Mexico, and other countries, an invasion of Venezuela, of all places, and of course the reasserted racism of the right. Never before have I felt the urge to understand what the hell is going on in the world around me. I’ve always been an avid reader of history, and the more I read, the harder it is to see simple explanations to anything, but I needed some clarity, and so I picked up a copy of Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall, an experienced war and foreign correspondent for Britain’s Sky News TV.
Reading through Prisoners of Geography, I encountered layer after layer of complexity.
“The conflict in Iraq and Syria is rooted in colonial powers ignoring the rules of geography, whereas the Chinese occupation of Tibet is rooted in obeying them.” (p. 7)
Russia’s main ports freeze a few months every year, and so the Russians look at their neighboring countries, such as Ukraine and Georgia, for that year-round warm-water port. Sevastopol in the Crimean Peninsula fits the bill, so there you have a good reason for Russia to annex Crimea.
“Africa’s coastline? Great beaches—really, really lovely beaches—but terrible natural harbors. Rivers? Amazing rivers, but most of them are worthless for actually transporting anything, given that every few miles you go over a waterfall. These are just two in a long list of problems that helps explain why Africa isn’t technologically or politically as successful as Western Europe or North America.” (p. 116)
One important thing the book emphasizes is that the bad guys always have mitigating circumstances.
“As it is, Putin has no choice: he must at least attempt to control the flatlands to the west. So it is with all nations, big or small. The landscape imprisons their leaders, giving them fewer choices and less room to maneuver than you might think. This was true of the Athenian Empire, the Persians, the Babylonians, and before; it was true of every leader seeking high ground from which to protect their tribe.” (p. 1)
Just when I thought I grasped a situation, there was another wait, there’s more, and after a while I had to admit that this stuff was even more complicated than I had assumed, though I’m an avid news reader and I claim to have an idea about things. How complicated? This complicated (from the chapter on the Middle East):
“Others, in their naïveté, say that these incitements to murder are not widespread and must be seen in the context of the Arabic language, which can be given to flights of rhetoric. This signals their lack of understanding of the “Arab street,” the role of the mainstream Arab media, and a refusal to understand that when people who are full of hatred say something, they mean it.” (p. 177)
So, for someone to navigate the situation in the Middle East, they must have knowledge of how much things uttered by locals are meant to be taken literally. Doable…
And then panic descended upon me (again): how on earth is our president going to understand intricate dependencies among nations and cultures and climates and of course geographical constraints? Over and over throughout history colonial powers inflicted long-lasting damage by drawing lines on maps they didn’t understand, be it the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 by the British, or the separation of the two Koreas along the 38th parallel in 1945 by the United States and the Soviet Union.
“Of course, geography does not dictate the course of all events. Great ideas and great leaders are part of the push and pull of history.” (p. 274)
Enter the president’s son-in-law, who’s going to bring peace to the Middle East. And my panic continued.
Ah, but you know who studies all this complicated stuff and is building a network of dependencies across the planet as we speak? China’s leaders. From linking Tibet with the rest of the country, to building harbors in Pakistan, to bringing infrastructure upgrades to Africa, and cutting a new canal through Nicaragua (literally changing the map), while lending huge sums of money to Latin American governments, China is making sure it is well positioned to lead the world in the 21st century. It’s a complicated game, but it can be mastered by studying those maps.
Not something our president is capable or willing to do though.
“Most analysis written over the past decade assumes that by the middle of the twenty-first century China will overtake the United States and become the leading superpower. (…) I am not convinced. It may take a century.” (p. 82)
I now keep a copy of Prisoners of Geography on my desk, for reference, the way people pin their Maps app to the start screen of their smart phones. For instance, the map on page 215 shows why dropping bombs on North Korea is more likely to hurt South Korea’s Seoul (30 miles away from the demilitarized zone) than Pyongyang. It has to do with plains and mountains, among other things.