The World Explained in Maps

If you have ever wondered why geography used to be a staple of any decent education and why we are paying the price for no longer staring at maps, spinning globes and memorizing capitals and continents, I have the book for you: Tim Marshall's Prisoners of Geography. This slim, breezy but often eye-popping tour of the globe is an enlightening primer of world geography itself and its enormous influence on man's history both past and current. This book will redraw the map of the world you carry in your head and does convince you that to ignore geography in history is a precursor to ignoring it, at your peril, in foreign policy.

Marshall divides the book into geographic regions of the world with supporting maps. There is no surprise in his choices though there are wide variations of analysis and interpretation in each. The following is an effort to highlight what caught my attention in each section. This summary should, I hope, reveal both how illuminating the book is and how irresistible a role geography has played and will continue to play in all our lives and the lives of our children.


Marshall's treatment of China warrants a bullet point review before moving onto China's role in the book's overarching thesis. While I admit that the bullets may reveal more my own ignorance about China as opposed to Marshall's capacity for insight, I felt China come more into focus with each one.

• China's huge population is 90% Han and the not so gradual expansion of this massive population into non-Han territories ranging from Tibet to Xinjiang serves so many social, economic and political purposes that it may represent China's most potent long term weapon.
• The annexation of Tibet in 1951 was the culmination of a long term desire of China to secure her border with India using the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayan Mountains as impenetrable boundaries and nothing the Dali Lama, the world press or India does will reverse a geographic imperative as vital to China as the two oceans are to the United States.
• The Chinese have been building huge projects for a very long time. The Great Wall is the most famous but less known is the world's largest inland waterway, the Grand Canal, connecting its two great rivers and the southern and northern coastal regions. Both projects took centuries. The Chinese are comfortable with the idea of long-term investments. As Marshall points out in the sections on Pakistan, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, the world is being restitched together in a Chinese quilt of infrastructure investment every bit as massive and patient as the work done on its wall and its Canal years ago.
• Xinjiang is a huge part of western China with a large Muslim population that is undergoing the same Han dilution that Tibet is experiencing. Like Tibet, a couple of hundred years later, Xinjiang was incorporated into China despite serious domestic issues arising from a less than compliant Muslim population because Beijing wanted a physical buffer between it and the larger Muslim world. With a compliant Mongolia in the north, Xinjiang in the west, Tibet in the South, the only real vulnerability for China lies in its sea-lanes.
• China is building a huge Blue Navy to secure those very sea-lanes and project Chinese power around a world that will be increasingly bound together by Chinese financed infrastructure and trade. The Blue Navy will sail between islands recently claimed and even built by China and will refuel in Chinese built ports around the world. The fleet will be able to bypass the US built and protected Panama Canal by utilizing the planned canal in Nicaragua. The US and China are in a long dance where one template of economic, political and military power is gradually being laid on top of the other. There are as many good reasons for China's neighbors to stay close to the American Pacific Fleet as there are for them to make room for the new Blue Navy of China. The same duet will be played out across the world. It will be the most important diplomatic dance of the 21st century, two hugely influential countries radiating out from rock solid geographic bases.
• Two things to think about as China builds its navy and consolidates its stranglehold on Tibet: firstly, 80% of its oil passes through the narrow Strait of Malacca and most of China's water comes from its "water tower" in Tibet where its three major rivers originate.
• Finally, 40% of China's arable land is no longer productive and a similar number stands for her water. There are over 500 serious protests a day. Her economic miracle is also a desperate attempt to avoid social and economic upheaval.


Marshall's opens the section with the accurate observation that no nation drew a better lot than the US in the great geographical lotto. After a breezy summary of our expansion into our vast, secure continent, Marshall addresses his persuasive thesis that due to our mix of political and economic success, secured by our physical place in the world, the United States will not be going into the geopolitical twilight anytime soon. It is part of the most overriding objective of his book, that the next century will be an intricate dance between the emerging Chinese superpower and the still vibrant and critically relevant America as they nurture their shared interest and contain their rivalry in order to maintain a stable world.
His point about the great geographic benefits of our continent is as powerful as it is obvious. Protected on either side by two massive oceans, the United States was able to spend its first three hundred years moving west without the fear of outside aggression. This massive colonization allowed it to grow into its political and economic potential with the only mortal threat coming from within in the form of the Civil War. There might be economic panics, social disruptions and political intrigue; however, there never existed a Mongol Horde or a Napoleon on the horizon. This enormous incubation period may in fact be the only real example of American exceptionalism. Granted, it is important that the people who settled this land did so on the back of the liberal principles of private property and individual rights and freedoms. Granted, the country was blessed with a founding generation with the foresight and genius to protect those principles within the Constitution and a balance of power shared between the states and the federal government that provided the political and social resilience to absorb the many shocks of great growth and change. However, much of this came in direct and indirect ways from our English heritage and without the precedents and example of the English form of government, it is hard to imagine that the American Experiment from 1607 till now would have been so fruitful and dynamic - so much so that most every part of the developed world has mimicked some part of it. To reiterate, the fact that this country could grow for so long without a mortal external threat may have been the most exceptional gift ever offered to any peoples.
Even today, in a world with international terrorists, a nuclear threat, intercontinental missiles, and a global infrastructure making all of this terrifyingly accessible, these oceans remain the greatest early warning system any nation could ask for. The northern border with Canada is not only the longest shared border in the world, it is also the most peaceful. America not only has a neighbor whose differences are greatly outweighed by what we have in common, but it is a neighbor with a vast amount of land that is pretty much uninhabitable and, as such, serves as another great early warning system. The southern border with Mexico is permeable, dangerous and the constant source of real and imagined dangers. During the Cold War, the John Birch Society imagined hundreds of thousands of Chinese communist soldiers amassing in the vast Mexican desert awaiting orders to invade America. This border has and will continue to be a mother lode for apocalyptic thinking in a nation prone to paranoid fantasies - fantasies rooted in the anxiety of its good fortune ... its good geographic fortune. The reality of Mexico is very different. A nation constantly crippled by inept and corrupt governance with no real military heritage, separated from the United States by a vast and utterly hostile desert poses a threat only in so far as we allow it to. Our own inconsistent immigration policies, our desire for cheap labor and, most fatally, our addiction to drugs, are each responsible for creating a "national security" threat where there isn't one.
Unless we undermine our success with domestic dysfunction, Marshall's book makes a good case that our lotto winnings will continue to reap success and influence around the world. The great American Experiment is only ours to destroy.


Marshall is in his element here as he describes Europe as a product of geographical diversity, its many nations nestled within natural borders, its vulnerability being the same wide plain that has so terrorized Russia. It is best to stick with the geography itself and within it is the story of much of Europe's unique history.

• THE GULF STREAM provides the northern half of the continent with temperate seasons, enough sun and rain to grow crops and enough wintry weather to discourage the bugs and diseases faced by much of the world. Without this remarkable watery gift from the Atlantic, much of Northern Europe would face the challenges of the long cold winters of her Russian neighbors.
• The RIVERS of Europe are the arteries that connect and separate. They are numerous and almost entirely navigable. With her generous climate and good soil, surplus crops are easily shipped from one sector to another. The rivers often end in huge, natural harbors and the infrastructure for a trading continent is naturally in place. The Danube's place in history cannot be overstated. It presently serves as a natural boundary for 18 countries and back in ancient times was the dividing line between the cultural birthplace of Europe, Rome, and the wild tribes beyond it. France is blessed with rivers crossing her latitudinally and longitudinally with splendid harbors at each terminus. Germany's two great rivers are the natural interstates between her northern and southern halves while providing some desperately needed natural boundaries.
• The MOUNTAINS of Europe are as numerous as they are modest, protecting smaller states from the neighbors and, in the case of the Pyrenees, allowing large states like France and Spain to coexist with minimal friction. The Balkan mess may be a product of too many mountain ranges, allowing a plethora of small states to emerge without anyone assuming primacy. The Austria-Hungary Empire can be seen as an effort to override the natural confederate geography of this infamously unstable region of the world.
• Europe's many SEAS and OCEANS and the straights and channels that come with them have facilitated endless opportunities for trade and invasion. On one hand your have the Vikings navigating their way through every conceivable waterway to terrorize much of Europe and on the hand you have the formation of the Hanseatic League over a thousand years ago along the continent's northern coast. The greatest beneficiary of the earth's waters, however, must be Great Britain. Its climate and its healthy air, entirely a product of the Gulf Stream, this island spent over a thousand years since the Norman Conquest enjoying enough geopolitical immunity to nurture its political and economic systems to the point where it would one day control a sixth of the world. While there is so much that went into the British Empire, it is hard to refute that without its geographic advantages, England may never had joined the ranks of Rome in the annals of empire-building.


Marshall draws a compelling geographic explanation for much of the dysfunction of Africa - a dysfunction made only exponentially worse by the colonial powers, the Cold War and the desctructive people left in charge of this vast and problematic continent. It is too large a story for any kind of summary, but a few, by now familiar, hallmarks of the geographic game of fortune are a good place to start.

• The world's largest desert, the Sahara, and the hard scrabble Sahel region below it incorporate a third of the continent and have separated Africa from the two thousand years of economic growth enjoyed by the lands north of it.
• Except for the Nile in the northeastern corner of this continent, most every river in Africa resists efficient navigation, thereby, discouraging internal trade growth.
• With the exception of the Mediterranean (cut off by the Sahara from any substantial north south trade) and South Africa (at the very tip of this vast continent), Africa's huge north south coastlines have few harbors and mostly inaccessible interiors.
• Africa had the wrong animals and the wrong crops from the start. Partly due to its forbidding array of ecosystems, Africa was never home to the types of livestock and grains that sustain and nurture both the local populations and trade.
• The geographic immensity combined with the lack of any natural ways to interact and trade led to the development of a complex web of mostly autonomous tribes each with its own language and customs.

The geographic isolation within the continent itself and it isolation from the world around it, made it tragically vulnerable to Western colonialism and economic exploitation. This is a tragic story already told many times. The net result is a quilt of 56 countries with borders mostly drawn by the exiting Western powers, few of which actually reflect the intricate web of peoples that they contain. The results are the horrors of modern Africa: endless wars, failed states, crippling corruption and suffering on a massive scale. While China may succeed through its massive infrastructure investments to connect a previously unconnected continent as she seeks to secure the resources needed to sustain her growth, one wonders if the failed states of Libya and the Congo are actually horribly violent efforts to return parts of Africa back to its more natural, highly fragmented self. The western ideal of the nation state may not fit in a country handicapped by geography and ravaged by history. She may be trying in an anarchic way to reconstitute herself into a postmodern blend of traditional distinctions connected by the combination of Chinese infrastructure and digital technology.


This chapter is a terrific primer in both Middle East history and today's geopolitical chaos. Marshall's narrative does not condense well and should be read in its entirety. Much of it is all too sadly familiar. What I left it with are the following:

• With the exceptions of Iran, one of the oldest and most successful civilizations in world history, and Turkey, also on the perimeter of the boundary less Middle East, pretty much each and every state in the present day Middle East has almost no reason to be there. Without oil, the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, would most likely be part of either something much bigger or would be forgotten principalities on the world map. Syria and Iraq are falling apart because without extreme tyranny, they are not meant to be in their present configuration. Lebanon was a French daydream turned nightmare. It is a miracle that Jordan still exists and, given the chaos that surrounds it, the same thing might be said of Israel at the end of the century.
• There are people in the Middle East willing to fight for generations to reshape the boundaries of their world. The Kurds might qualify as the most organized ethnic group in the world without a country. In the meantime, they will make life miserable for the three countries that they form a significant part of. The Sunni's might represent 85% of the Muslim world, but the great majority of that number live outside the Middle East. People ask where the Muslim moderates are as increasingly radical versions of Islam terrorize the Middle East and the world. The answer is simple and obvious and disheartening - they are not in the Middle East. Instead the increasingly failed states drawn up by Western cartographers and oil companies are pretty much evenly split between two factions of Islam that cannot seem to find middle ground. Marshall, like man others, seems pretty resigned to reality of a 21st century version of the Thirty Years War being played out in lands that for centuries lay hidden beneath the cloak of the Ottoman Empire with oil fields not yet needed nor discovered.
• Like Africa, the Middle East may not be able to resurrect itself on the back of the traditional nation state model. Just as Africa's long relative obscurity prepared the way for its terrible colonial ordeal and the artificial boundaries that came with it, the Middle East's history of being an one empire's sandbox after another (Persian & Ottoman to name two) and a similar pattern of exploitation and artificially constructed order seem to beg the question what kind of order, certainly any familiar variant, can come from the unfolding chaos we are witness to.


There are no surprises here to any student of Russian history. The country's reliance on buffer zones like Siberia, Eastern Europe, the "Stans" are all part of the historical reality of being "born" on the Northern European Plain that runs from France to the Urals and from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian and Caucasus Mountains. This plain has been a two-way expressway for invasion reaching back to the Mongol Golden Hordes from the East to Napoleon and Hitler from the West (to name a few). Seizing Siberia was part of securing her eastern flank so the more important business of keeping the West at bay could be achieved. This fear of entrapment and invasion is more than justified by history and in the eyes of today's Russian leaders, evident in the encroachment of the EU and NATO on its western flanks. While this story, the story of seeking warm water ports (Crimea & invasion of Afghanistan) and the story of a European bias amidst a geographically mostly Asian nation ring familiar bells, the actual snapshot of this vast country, two huge flat plains divided by the Ural Mountains in the middle, provides a startling visual treatment of national anxiety. With no natural border, the Chinese are gradually changing the actual "face" of Siberia through the steady migration of people north - a natural consequence of a overcrowded nation abutting a vast almost depopulated space. There are no natural boundaries separating Russia from her many Muslim neighbors and the very real threats Islamic radicalism presents to Orthodox Russia. There are no natural boundaries separating a historically very untrustworthy West from destabilizing and chipping away at the buffer zones so desperately needed by Moscow. Geography is Big Picture if it is nothing else and looking at Russia through that lens makes it clear that one can argue that her great physical vulnerabilities, validated by centuries of war, may be the biggest geopolitical threat to world order in the 21st century.


India is blessed with geography - mostly. Pakistan is cursed by geography - entirely.
India's advantages in its region are legion. Protected by ocean on its flanks and the Himalayas to the north, the only real vulnerability is to Pakistan on its western border. It has nuclear weapons and the second largest standing army to deal with that. Bangladesh is not a threat except for the fact that this densely populated and terribly poor nation is slowing vanishing under the seas that surround it. Where will its people go? India, of course ...
No ... the real purpose of this chapter is not the relative advantages of India but the unresolvable disadvantages of Pakistan. It is a sobering list and leaves one wondering whether Pakistan is as much as an illusion as the name itself - 'the pure land".
• The country borders are utterly artificial and porous. The northwest, where the Pashtun Taliban lives in an effectively self-governing jurisdiction, should be part of Afghanistan. The northeast is filled with a Muslim Punjab population that in a more harmonious religious environment would be a part of a larger Hindi Punjab population that abuts it in India. Her northern border bumps into India held Kashmir and remains one of the flash points of the world with constant high altitude military exchanges always threatening another war between these two nuclear powers. Just like so many parts of the ex-colonial world, Pakistan is a nightmare of ethnic combinations trying to coexist with senseless borders and an utterly suspicious, hostile neighbor.
• Kashmir will never be solved. The Indus River that flows through India controlled Kashmir is the source of two thirds of Pakistan's desperately needed water. India will hold onto Kashmir to prevent any further encroachment by China through her growing investment in Pakistan. Both nations have a wolf by the ears.
• Pakistan's border with India is both vast and mostly flat leading to invasion scenarios as terrible as they are plausible. Like NATO living with the specter of the massive Soviet army during the Cold War, Pakistan wields its nuclear capacity as a final solution against an invasion by the million man Indian army.
• Pakistan may never assimilate or even manage whole parts of its country. Another British line in the "sand", the Durand Line, created the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan with millions of Taliban sympathizing Pashtuns living in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier whose clear allegiance is with their actual brethren in Afghanistan. Peshawar, the center of this area, is a military machine for the Taliban in both countries. In many respects, Osama Bin Laden never really left Afghanistan. There is no mystery behind the corrupt deals Pakistani intelligence must cut to keep a country together that maybe should not be there.

China is taking advantage of Pakistan's flirtation with "failed state" status to build ports, highways and pipelines in order to secure a trade route that will lessen her reliance on the Strait of Malacca. This will provide money for Pakistan, secure China's fortunes and frighten India whose long term strategic foe is not the mess that is Pakistan but China, whose navy will soon patrol the Indian Sea and whose Han population will continue to absorb Tibet, further solidifying her presence along their 1652 mile shared border. India, meanwhile, will continue to grow and prosper and her reliance on the US as a shield to Chinese encroachments will serve as solid strategic insurance. Pakistan, meanwhile, will only remain the most dangerous and the largest nuclear-armed "failed state" in the world. The tragedy is that she never really had a chance. If geography is part of the hardwired DNA of a nation, Pakistan was born a cripple.


The fact that Korea is divided along a geographically senseless border is fitting. Korea as a whole is a stillborn nation. She was always used as either a shield or a route to somewhere else whether by the Mongols, the Chinese, the Russians or the Japanese. South Korea has probably never had it better despite the fact that her utterly cut-off, clinically insane neighbor has 10,000 pieces of artillery aimed at her capital city, has tunnels running underneath her borders ready to dispatch shock troops whenever instructed and, finally, has some sort of nuclear capacity with some sort of deliverability that just might hit a target 100 miles away. China will not allow North Korea to fail. She wants the buffer between her and American protected Japan. She does not want the 25 million crazy North Koreans infecting her as they flee over the Yalu River. It is hard to imagine that South Korea would want reconciliation with her northern brethren. It might be the demographic equivalent of importing the smallpox virus. Japan also, for historical and strategic reasons, would most likely want things to stay just the way they are. The geography, for what it is, suggests that the Alice in Wonderland world of Korea is a frightening situation in a permanent state of mutual checkmate. In a strange way, the utterly bizarre world of North Korea may be just what the world needed in that historically contested peninsula. Its very toxicity and strangeness acts as a DMZ of sorts, keeping in check even more strategically frightening scenarios involving the competing interests of China, Japan, the United States and, almost as a geopolitical footnote, South Korea itself.
The geography of Japan is bipolar. Surrounded by water, it afforded centuries of isolation. With a large, protected and homogenous population, its mountainous islands would nurture, first, military conquest, and then, later, an economic miracle. It has no real threat from the East except actual tsunamis and imagined Godzillas. Its fear of China in the West, however, is both real and visceral. Trade between the two is growing as quickly as the mutual suspicion. This ancient rivalry exacerbated by the horrors of the 20th century ensures a long-term strategic purpose for the America's Pacific Fleet and her huge military presence in Okinawa - an island sitting smack in the middle of China's access to the Pacific.
In fact, this leads us to reiterate one of Marshall's key points. After his discussions on the Middle East, South Asia and the Far East, it is very evident that America's role in preventing the Chinese control of trade routes and the very existence of several vital democracies ranging from Israel to India to Japan and South Korea, guarantees that, unless domestic dysfunction makes it unavailable, the world will continue to require a large and powerful American presence to ensure whatever stability, prosperity and ideals it presently enjoys.


There are mostly only sad stories in this section. While geography really matters in the fate of all these countries, the story Marshall tells is more about human failure than anything else. It is hard to embrace this section without thinking what was and what might have been. Pre-Columbian Latin America was home to great empires with civilizations every bit comparable to their European and Asian counterparts. European disease and conquest would forever remove whatever geopolitical advantage this part of the world once enjoyed. Now, the countries, big and small, remain trapped in the amber of their histories, their grudges, their corruption and, of course, their geography.
Like her most famous literary genre, magical realism, there is a surreal quality to the vast string of countries that make up the Latin American chain. Beginning in the north, Mexico's terrible northern desert has always been an arid incubator of chaos, protecting rebels and cartels, separating the country from its prosperous northern neighbor, ensuring, in a way, that its own terrible civic corruption and violence will remain maybe its most enduring human legacy. Geography affords few favors in the rest of Central America as these tiny nations try to secure themselves amidst natural disasters, foreign interventions and borders so porous that wars can ignite over the result of a soccer match. Panama found refuge in the American built canal and it looks as if Nicaragua will do the same with China. Costa Rica is the jewel in the necklace and achieved this by being everything but an official state of the United States. Things get bigger but not necessarily better as we enter the huge South American continent.
Brazil is held captive to an unrelenting geography shaped by water on both sides. The Amazon and its vastness is an opportunity that, like the land itself when cleared, vanishes when grasped. The coastline is long but cutoff leaving her trading centers as isolated from the rest of the country as the 25% of her population that continues to live her infamous "favela" slums. Argentina was once one of the richest nations in the world. Today she is famous for relentless inflation and sovereign defaults. Bolivia is isolated and angry. Chile is prosperous and alone.
It is a lonely continent. Marshall argues that people are still betting on its moment in the sun. Maybe Brazil will harness the Amazon and Argentina will finally clean up its act and successfully manage its great natural bounty. By the end of his discussion, though, what comes to mind is his statement that despite the promises of the modern world, the challenges and opportunities of geography, if "you get the politics wrong", no good can come of it. (America, take note)

Some final thoughts on this book:

• The China Century is a very real economic and geopolitical thing and she will likely succeed in sewing together, investment-by-investment, an alternative world order of sorts to the one established by the United States in the 20th century. It will NOT supplant Pax Americana; rather, it will go where America has failed (e.g. Africa & Latin America) while shadowing it in the rest of the world. As long as things don't get dangerously political, another web of infrastructure in the world can only be a good thing.
• Likewise, the rise of China only reinforces the importance of America on the world stage. Marshall's book does an excellent job of underscoring, in particular, the vital role of America's navy in the world. Without the glue of empire or competing world ideologies, the world will clearly to continue to reshape itself along lines that have nothing to do with existing geographic boundaries. This reshaping will often be violent and disruptive and will require any and all nations and organizations, ranging from the United Nations to the IMF to China to the US and the EU, that have world stability as either their mission or as a key to their own self-interest, fully engaged in the messy work of managing the geopolitical reality of our world.
• When the 19th century collapsed in the infernos of the two world wars of the 20th century, much was revealed to the world ranging from colonial exploitation and manipulation to the extraordinary diversity and confusion that lay under these imperial blankets. The Ottoman Empire hid the world from the latent conflicts that are now so apparent in the Middle East. The Austrian-Hungarian empire did the same for the Balkans. The British, Russian (later Soviet) and other European Empires all contained cultural and political complexities sublimated by the many imperatives of colonial control. The failed states of today are very much the unresolved, often centuries old conflicts that were, in effect, "liberated" by the loss of an overarching world order at the end of the 20th century. This historical inevitability, however, is made even more tragic by the fact that geography has offered few natural restraints within which the emerging peoples could nurture this fragile independence. While there are so many other equally if not more compelling reasons for a failed state, Marshall's book makes a persuasive case that a bit of geographic good fortune goes a long way.
• We have all heard the warnings. Water will be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th. While, like most dire futuristic predictions, it may be a bit premature, it feels pretty unavoidable after reading this book. Egypt cannot live without the Nile but Ethiopia controls is largest source and is beginning to dam that up. Pakistan gets two thirds of its precious water from the Indus that must pass through India controlled Kashmir before it can slake that arid, desperate country's thirst. The Mekong that is the primary river for Southeast Asia begins on the Chinese controlled Tibetan water tower where the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers also originate. Throw in the increasing extremes of global climate change and the ravages of massive population and industrial growth, and it seems inevitable that the geography of water will soon contribute to the geopolitical confusion of our world.
• In the end, I am left humbled by this book. Geography is impersonal. It is impersonal in the deeply sublime way one feels when looking at the vastness of Hubble's pictures of an incomprehensibly huge universe or when trying to conceive of life being nothing more than the tiny, chaotic world of quantum physics. Our geography, like the laws and customs of our societies, may be a test of sorts. The instructions are there, in the winding course of the rivers, the relative impenetrability of the mountains, the emptiness of the deserts and the vast depths of our oceans. Maybe, like the Europeans trying to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, our real challenge in the 21st century is to access and fully take in the instructions inscribed within the physical world around us.