Written by Samuel Scott
Throughout history, the conundrum of whether events themselves or the actions of those involved possess greater agency is a pertinent one. What is often omitted, however, from discussions of historical and cultural determinism is the role of geopolitics (the intersection of geography and politics). For all too often, geography and its ramifications are overlooked in favour of explanations of how flamboyant and seldom uncontroversial personalities have altered the political fabric of societies through an inexhaustible mixture of action, ideology, and propaganda. This applies to societies of the past as well as the present. Yet, we can see that geographic constraints and opportunities are central in informing the political decisions that leaders and governments take – cultural connectivity and indeed, the contours of socio-economic development across the globe.
This holistic view of geographic interdependency as a primary consideration in global affairs is taken by Tim Marshall in his succinct observational book, ‘Prisoners of Geography’. Marshall draws upon his decades of experience as a foreign affairs correspondent and diplomatic editor. He combines his anecdotal tales from time spent around the world with a forensic comparative approach to its various regions. The book examines how politics is conducted along the lines of geography, as set forth by mother nature but increasingly by humanity’s technological innovations and the proliferation of demographic growth into challenging environments and dramatic climates. From the relatively disconnected water systems of the Congo, Zambezi and Nile rivers that have inhibited systematic development in Africa to the vast Eurasian plains that have left Russia dangerously exposed to the West in turbulent epochs. Geography is a cultural crayon that colours the psyches of nations and polities the world over.
Mountains, valleys, seas, and oceans are some of the more well-known factors affecting cultural, political, and economic prosperity, that are outlined in reference to the development of the globe’s most expansive and far-reaching nation-states and regions. Interwoven into these narratives are the lesser known but still far-reaching effects of climatic pressures, soil fertility, natural resources and harbours. As well as general environmental conduciveness to habitation, coexistence, and conflict. The numerous natural harbours and well-connected waterways of Europe and North America have well-served efforts of political centralisation as well as trade and commerce – perhaps most evidently through the Rhine-Danube and Mississippi river systems.
Conversely, the island status of Britain undeniably aided it in acquiring the mantle of maritime superpower in the age of European empires and colonialism. This culminated in the largest political entity the world has ever seen during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. More recently, artificially-created islands and bases in the South China Sea are setting the stage for new proxy conflicts and interests, with volcanoes no longer having a monopoly on explosive actions in the commercially important region. A key theme which Marshall’s book draws out well, therefore, is how both political and socio-cultural homogeneity and heterogeneity are respectively reflected in the opportunities or limits of geographic features – connecting and separating peoples, traditions, agricultural norms, and exploratory dynamics.
Marshall uses several case studies to illustrate how well societies have, now and in the past, sought to overcome the restraints of geography. For example, in imperial Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great (c.1762-96), groups considered ‘ethnic Russians’ were settled farther west as far as the Balkans and the Crimean Peninsula to legitimise imperial claims to these territories. Whilst employing similar propaganda of ethnic ties to many former Soviet Union countries, today’s President Vladimir Putin forcibly annexed Crimea in 2014. Putin secured the country’s access to the vital ‘warm water’ port of Sevastopol with routes through to the Mediterranean and beyond.
The refusal of China to back a UN resolution condemning the annexation, again, can be considered along geopolitical lines when we consider the country’s long-term energy needs and $400bn deal to be supplied with gas from Russia over the coming decades. A clear line of argument is evidenced by Marshall that encapsulates both politico-cultural expediency with economic necessity. The joint investments by the United States and many European countries in connecting to each other via LGN (liquified natural gas) pipelines speaks to how the West is seeking to counterbalance this economic dependency on Russia, as well the exponential growth of China in global commerce and infrastructure projects.
More striking and understated in the global consciousness are how climatic struggles and pressures have, and indeed still are, impacting international affairs and the decisions taken by leaders and governments. Marshall recounts vividly how during his time spent in conflict zones, how extreme weather mitigated chance of military breakthroughs, often favouring local resistance – such as in the unpredictable terrain of northern Afghanistan where severe sandstorms followed by saturating rain gave Taliban and al-Qaeda forces ample time to evade US satellite technology and regroup, ready to fight another day. At the other end of the temperature spectrum, the scramble for the Arctic is well and truly underway. Global warming coupled with resource and energy anxieties mean that governments and leaders everywhere have a stake in what happens in the taming of one the last frontiers.
Geopolitical considerations are as important as ever in the decision-making processes of world leaders, bringing together political, economic, and diplomatic expediency in the creation of policy, peoples, and the fate of humanity. Concise and accessible for those uninitiated with the study of global affairs and geopolitics, this elucidatory but introductory book is a must-have for those looking to acquire well-informed knowledge of how geopolitics shapes both international transactions and cultural interactions.
Marshall, Tim. Prisoners of Geography: Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics. (Elliot & Thompson, 2016)
Featured image courtesy of Pixabay. Image licence found here. No changes have been made to this image.