Recently I was at a meeting with a pro-Brexit member of the British parliament who, six months after the referendum on Britain’s future in Europe, still did not understand the difference between the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. Not everyone has to know that of course. But when the person in question is taking decisions that they promise will lead to a better tomorrow, one does expect them to have a firm grasp of the basic facts of today.
Prisoners of Geography is about some of those key and immutable facts. It is about the imperatives that are imposed upon political leaders by the geography within which they find their countries and how they feel compelled to respond.
For example Russia needs a warm water port for its navy. This allows it to project its military power across the oceans and be recognised as a world power. So, when Ukraine displayed a desire to move towards the European Union and Nato it did what it felt was necessary and reclaimed the Crimea and with that Sevastopol, the only warm water port available to it.
Similarly the historical Russian habit of extending its empire into Eastern Europe as far as the borders of Germany is explained by the vulnerability of Moscow to attack from the West across the Northern European Plain. Occupying Poland where the plain is at its narrowest, as it has frequently done, therefore increases Russia’s security from attack.
Another area of potential risk is the artic where Russia’s wish to control the energy sources there could put it on course for a clash with Nato.
Reading this book in the aftermath of 2016 US presidential election was a sobering experience. Marshall reminds us that the United States has a treaty with Taiwan which requires it to go to war if Taiwan is invaded. Something that would spark an invasion by China would be formal recognition by the US of Taiwan as an independent country. Fortunately “there is no sign of that”. Or at least there wasn’t until the US’s gerrymandered electoral system put a narcissist with a disinterest in facts and a xenophobia about China into the Oval Office.
Prisoners of Geography is illuminating not just on these contemporary geopolitical issues, but also on a range of developmental issues: why have Africa and South America developed, or failed to develop, as they have; how geography shaped European history and why the peace the continent has experienced over the past 70 years is not inevitable but the result of conscious political choice in the shape of the European Union. It also throws light on contemporary conflicts in the Middle East, between India and Pakistan, and in the Korean Peninsula.
I was mildly disappointed that there was no chapter on the geopolitics of Britain and Ireland, particularly as Brexit threatens to dangerously reshape the relations between the two islands once again. But, as Brexit also shows, as so much of the UK population and political class is utterly disinterested in reality at this moment in history perhaps there is no point.
Prisoners of Geography is a lucidly written and compelling book. It reminds us why the world is still a dangerous place. It is more dangerous still when power is put into the hands of the intellectually lazy, utterly disinterested in the facts.