tim marshall prisoners of geography

Geographical Influence: What the world can learn from maps

Tim Marshall, former Diplomatic Editor of Sky News, firmly believes that we can learn more about world affairs from atlases than from politicians’ manifestos. His latest book backs up these claims.

There are many factors determining why leaders of countries make their decisions. Of these the most often overlooked is geography. Making sense of conflicts without a map and an explanation of geography is almost impossible.

That is why I wrote my most recent book, Prisoners of Geography. Words can tell you the “what”; the map helps you to understand the “why”. As the introduction states: “Rivers, mountains, deserts, islands, and the seas, are determining factors in history… Leaders, ideas, and economics are crucial, however, they are temporary, and the Hindu Kush will outlast them all”.

This is not a new theory, but it’s one that’s rarely explained in the detail it deserves.

A current example is Syria. History tells us that President Assad’s minority Alawite tribe came from the hilly region above the Syrian coast. However, look at a map, and at the pattern of some of the fighting, and it becomes clear that Assad’s side secured the route from Damascus to the coast in case they had to retreat to their historical roots. The Ottomans divided what is currently the nation-state Iraq into three administrative areas, Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. The British then made three into one, a logical impossibility which Christians can resolve through the Holy Trinity, but which in Iraq has resulted in an unholy mess as the Kurds, and Sunni and Shia Muslims fight for control of the regions.

A Middle East map

Russia provides two clear examples of the effect of topography. It has been invaded many times from the flat ground of the North European Plain, and so its rulers seek to dominate that space as a buffer zone against further incursions.

Most Russian ports freeze in the winter. Therefore, Sebastopol on the Black Sea is of vital importance. When Ukraine “flipped” into the NATO sphere of influence, Putin felt geography had given him no choice but to invade.

To properly understand “why” takes a reading of the politics, a glance at the statistics, and, a look at the map. Sometimes the obvious is not apparent. As George Orwell said: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle”.

Tim’s book, Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics contains Tim’s reflections on 25 years as Diplomatic Editor of Sky News.

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