Book Review: Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

2015 | Elliott & Thompson Limited | 320 Pages

Nowadays I am interested in light reads, and the popular non-fiction books on or around my expertise seemed the better options than fiction. After Utopia for Realists, I picked Marshall’s book and, unlike the previous, I am happy to have read it (although there are some problems with it).

The Style: I generally am bored while reading social (and especially political) scientists, including historians. Even the most exciting events seem like units of analysis with a dry tone. Marshall, thanks to being a journalist, writes the way that it is easy to read. Language is simple, argument is straightforward, and the stories are well-connected.

The Structure: The book covers ten regions of the world: Russia, China, United States, Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America, and the Arctic. Eastern Europe is included partly in Western Europe and Russia, and Australasia is widely excluded except in discussions on Japan and China.

The Argument: Actually the title summarizes the book pretty well — states are just prisoners of their geography, and global politics is heavily shaped by geopolitics (although this is an outdated term for some). How does it happen in different regions or countries? Read and find it out. Cool enough.

The Exceptional: Lately it is getting less and less possible to find some Westerners who are direct, clear, and very rightly critic of their own country, government, state, or civilization. Tim Marshall does not hesitate to write “we did x wrong” or “we messed, and should fix y” and he is so clear-cut, direct, and precise that I love it. I am forced to exile from my country, Turkey, because I am such a critic and I was happy for Marshall when I thought that I would have been accused of alleged links to terrorism the day I’d send such a book to a publisher. So the applauses both to the author and the government.

The Best: Following Jared Diamond’s argument on the academic side of the discussions, I also argue that geography and its (side) effects shape a lot, along with the culture (while, also, affecting and to some extent shaping the culture). The main argument, as a result, is something I agree with and it was a rather easy read on that sense too — needing to come up with a counter-argument ain’t fun always.

The Better: If you are a Westerner (or from Global North, if you like newer terms, excluding Australians and New Zealanders), the ten chapters of the book will cover the whole world for you. Also the chapters, therefore the regions, are exactly as how you see the world — there is the Middle East, Latin America, Russia, etc. But if you are from the South, things are not exactly as nice and easy. Yet because there is hegemony not only in academia but also in world-politics, at least from where we stand, and because the book is written for those from the North, I tend to consider this a plus.

The Good: The book is made of stories and they are not only historical. The near events are well tied with the older ones, and you can see how geography really affected, even if not (totally) shaped politics of regional powers.

The Bad: This book needs an Australasia section. Australia may not be a global power, and goats can be the “biggest” problem in New Zealand, but these countries, along with Indonesia and Philippines, deserve a section of their own. If nothing else, following Jared Diamond’s tradition, writing some section about Papua New Guinea would be interesting. Also reading again (and again) that a river, desert, or mountain-range created the geographical, therefore political, border and shaped politics, you can get bored. Not that I got bored, but just trying to be clear.

The Worse: When I was reading A Very Short Introduction to African History, I was happy that the authors started with discussing “what Africa exactly is”. I cannot say that Marshall does not get into such a discussion — he divides Africa into two as we are used to for a long time: North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. But that is all. One simply cannot deal with such a huge region that easily. I am aware of the fact that what I would like needs doubling the size of the book, yet Africa as a section, especially with equal importance to Japan and Korea, is odd for me, if nothing else. But, well, who cares about Africa anyway? I, maybe, should thank him for including Africa.

The Worst: None. There is nothing that did upset me much.

The Conclusion: Overall this is a nice read. The language is easy and the stories are more or less well known if you are into history and/or politics. Marshall knows what he is doing, and the links he makes are pretty well. The message is clear, maybe so clear. He is precise, he covers the whole world, and he even make predictions of some I share. After reading the book, with adding some secondary literature and watching the news for some days, you can do more than a chitchat about global politics — and get the chance to develop some intimacy with the love of your life.

Read In: 3 days. Rating: 7/10.

(This post was previously shared at Medium)

Leave a Reply

Site Footer