Review: Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall

I recently read Tim Marshall’s ‘Prisoners of Geography’, and this short post here is meant to be a brief look at some points within there that I disagreed with.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Overall, the book is written in a very poetic style — too much so for what it should be like for the topics considered. What is more important, however, is the cluttering of bad phrases and inadequate comparisons which do no justice to the book.

From the general theme, the author always seems surprised — in every chapter — that technology has enabled us to overcome the limitations geography sets in, but after this — just as often — Mr Marshall dips into a tirade on how geography is limiting nevertheless.

A better look at this topic — and it is an important one, and I wouldn’t think many people would knowingly say that geopolitics is no longer a feature in the 21st century — would have included some examples from the past, illustrating the full extent of the limitations, and then come into the modern world and apply the same logic across all of the continents.

I found a number of misrepresentations in most of the chapters, and this leads me to think that there were plenty I did not recognise in the other sections of the book. Who knows… Perhaps the author is less aware of some topics and erred more in those areas.

On Russia.

The author’s principle of war in Russia seemed to rely on a few historical instances. If one looks carefully at how the different generals there have commanded forces, then historically nearly all of the successful generals have utilised Russia’s geography to their advantage, over-extending the enemy’s supply. The author also entirely ignored Novgorod and somehow made Muscovy be the only place which could have been successful – perhaps this is so with hindsight, but the main cause for this is the respective political systems with a disadvantage for Novgorod in its distance from the main settled areas further to the south and east.

The author also ignored the Russo-Japanese War which was an attempt by Russia to control both Korea and Japan, even though it is so remote. Similarly, despite the distance it was only by a miracle that Japan succeeded and had the internal climate of the Russian Empire allowed for the continuation of war, it is not impossible that Japan would have been pushed back.

Lastly, for discussing the limitations presented in such detail, the author thoroughly ignored one of the main avenues that Russia has chosen in going past these limitations — namely, the special forces descente corps which has actively participated in most of the conflicts of the 20th century though I am less certain about its providence now.

On China.

Though the author mentioned the Ming Empire and its naval fleets, he did it in the wrong context. The Chinese did not found colonies as these were not useful. Even without the colonies, Zheng He brought back tribute from countless places which chose to show respect and honour towards the Middle Kingdom. Planting thousands of Chinese in Africa had never been part of this ideology, and would serve no useful purpose. The naval treks, in effect, proved that the Ming were feared and respected everywhere, much in contrast to how the author treated these.

On the USA.

I disagree with the fact that the British defeat in the Revolutionary War was inevitable. There’s a lot of stuff that can be thrown at this, of course, but in essence the people who led the war on the British side were not interested in an overwhelming military victory until it was too late. If these people had been thinking differently, who knows what could have happened.

Similarly, I think it is too much to say that the expansions to Oregon and Hawaii were all part of a great plan. These were power grasps by individuals who wanted to exercise their power with limited understanding that five decades hence these would be invaluable possessions.

The author was also playing the “USA extending democracy in the world” card when in reality everyone is out to further their interests. Assistance to other states is rarely altruistic, and this idyllic view of the Americans doesn’t belong in a serious contemplative book.

On Europe.

The author’s point was that southern Italy has always been useless because of its geography, but I think that if the facts are carefully investigated then for long periods, southern Italian states have been more economically successful than others, and it is the post-unification policies which have reduced their successes. However, I am not that sure of this.

The second place the author seemed to be very poorly informed about was the UK, or else he was in his constant habit of making bad puns. But to call Agincourt part of the Splendid Isolation policy or to not link Brexit and immigration (instead calling it part of the island geography system) is a bit poor.

On Africa and India. 

I found these chapters interesting but they played too much on very modern politics that we cannot assess yet.

On Middle East.

In the ME region, the author focussed on Sykes-Picot but that seems to be undermining his own argument. Sykes-Picot has nothing to do with geography (or geopolitics) or its limitations, instead representing colonial ambitions. Of course, troubles stretch to it, but in what is essentially a tribal society the geographical context of these could have been described a bit better.

On Korea and Japan.

The same question of the Russo-Japanese War comes up again which was mentioned above. In that sense, it is a bit of a pity that the author didn’t describe these interlinked topics together such that the arguments would carry a bit more weight but that didn’t work with his structure of the work.

But, overall, the author failed to make a geographical case about this area. A description of Korean politics and layout was welcome, but this wasn’t introduced in a context where the peninsula could be explained better by it. With Japan, the author was similarly lazy, although I think this is mostly because Mr Marshall’s interest does not lie in this area.

On Latin America.

I liked this overall, but some things were annoying. One of these was the author defining the area alongside the Caribbean to begin with and the next paragraph over the Dutch- and English-leaning populations of these areas were entirely forgotten.

Some good historic points were made with respect to what benefit or disadvantage the respective countries (such as Bolivia’s loss of access to the ocean). The general level of discussion in this chapter was a lot better than elsewhere.

On the Arctic.

The author’s predilection for bad puns came up again here, although the overall point was good and well-made.


Overall, I wish the book was a bit more thorough and informed in its discussions.

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