Northern Review: ‘Prisoners of Geography’

This week Pen Hadow, a British explorer, set sail from Alaska in a yacht. His destination? The North Pole. If he and his crew are successful in their expedition it will be a “bittersweet” achievement. Speaking to the BBC, the explorer said:

If we can produce a visual image of a sail boat at 90 degrees north I think that could become an iconic image of the challenge that the 21st century faces. Are we serious about running this planet, which is actually what we need to start doing, and its bio-physical resources on a sustainable basis or are we just here for a laugh?

The very possibility of sailing to the North Pole offers a reality check. Physical geography constrains – and changes – how humans interact with our planet and with each other.

In Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall navigates the fascinating intersection between geography and politics, past and present.

Does Russia seriously think it could be invaded anytime soon? “Russia, like all great powers, is thinking in terms of the next 100 years and understands that in time anything could happen,” Marshall writes.

He calculates that over the last two centuries, Russia has been invaded once on average every thirty-three years– across the flat, expansive North European Plain. For that reason, Marshall explains, Russia continues to take such an aggressive interest in Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States.

In Asia, meanwhile, it is geography that will help to prevent the continent’s two rising powers from fighting a war against one another. India and China may be fiercely competitive, but the Himalayas keep the two safely apart; they make the prospect of a land invasion from either side virtually unthinkable.

Pakistan, however, makes things slightly more complicated. Seventy years since its bloody partition with India, the two countries have endured a fraught, bitter relationship. China is working with Pakistan to develop an ‘economic corridor’ that would give it access to a strategically useful port on the Arabian Sea.

This makes India uneasy, prompting it to invest more in its own navy to keep the Chinese in check on the seas: “With India, it always comes back to Pakistan, and with Pakistan, to India.”

But when it comes to tricky animosities, there’s nothing quite like the Korean Peninsula. “How do you solve a problem like Korea?” Marshall asks. “You don’t, you just manage it,” he answers.

All the neighbours know it has the potential to blow up in their faces, dragging in other countries and damaging their economies. The Chinese don’t want to fight on behalf of North Korea, but nor do they want a united Korea containing American bases close to their border. The Americans don’t really want to fight for the South Koreans, but nor can they afford to be seen to be giving up on a friend. The Japanese, with their long history of involvement in the Korean Peninsula, must be seen to tread lightly, knowing that whatever happens will probably involve them.

With the South Korean capital, Seoul, home to 10 million people and sitting just 35 miles away from the border, the relatively small size of the peninsula magnifies the paranoia on both sides. The consequence of a misstep or miscalculation could be devastating.

Thanks to the recent war of words between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, we are largely familiar with this particular geopolitical standoff.

What is most impressive about Tim Marshall’s work is his illumination of global issues that often lie beneath the radar in the West. What are the remnants of colonialism that still hamper many African states? Will Brazil become an economic powerhouse to rival the United States? Why did the initial promise of the Arab Spring so disappointingly dissipate?

Back to the Arctic, an isolated region that is becoming more and more accessible. Will oil discoveries result in clashes over maritime sovereignty? Will it bring Russia and the United States into direct conflict? Will it be the ‘Scramble for Africa’ of the 21st century?

Marshall speculates on a number of plausible scenarios; he thinks it all comes down to how much we use technology to overcome the traditional ‘prison of geography’. And then there’s outer space…

Image result for prisoners of geographyPrisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics (2016) is published by Elliott and Thompson Ltd.

About Jamie Pow

Jamie is Deputy Editor of Northern Slant and a PhD student at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen's University Belfast. His interests include elections, peace building, and making democracy work better. All views expressed are his own, not those of the University.


Also published on Medium.