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Book Review. Geopolitics, popularized

One of the consequences of the spreading of social network usage is the possibility of metaphorically having the entire world at hand. By simply logging in on Facebook, Twitter or similar platforms and typing the appropriate words or names in a searchbox, one can be informed in real time of what is happening in that exact moment, say, in the United States, Burma, or Ukraine, many thousands of kilometres away. At the same time, social media activists in Congo can draw inspiration for their political action from what their Egyptian counterparts have done, physical distance being no longer an obstacle.

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Nevertheless, when coming to politics, geography is indeed still relevant, perhaps more than one can ever imagine, even to the point of shaping the choices of leaders, generals and parties at a time when drones, cyber attacks and propaganda seem to be as important as tanks and boots on the ground. This is the whole point of Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics, which has the ambition to show how international relations are still influenced, as it was centuries ago, by the physical characteristics of the terrain, which can provide a natural shield, or force the enemy to overstretch its supply lines, or affect development. A river, for instance, Marshall argues, can be a communication route and facilitate the spreading of goods and knowledge or – if it’s not navigable – play exactly the opposite role.

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Waterways, plains, natural ports, mountain ranges, different cultural and ethnic backgrounds and – of course – resources are all mentioned in the ten chapters of Marshall’s work, each introduced by a map of the region which is dealt with in the following pages. Coherently with the author’s background (he has worked for Sky News and BBC, covering conflicts in over 30 countries, including Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, and currently authors a blog, Foreign Matters) a great part of the world is taken into account: Russia, China, USA, Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America and finally the Arctic, which could be, because of its mineral wealth, a future battleground for the world’s great powers. Each area is analyzed also taking into account its history, in an attempt to show how geography constitutes a permanent political factor, going well beyond the temporary circumstances in which, for instance, a war is fought and

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“From the Grand Principality of Muscovy, through Peter the Great, Stalin and now Putin, each Russian leader has been confronted by the same problems. It doesn’t matter if the ideology of those in control is tsarist, Communist or crony capitalist – the ports still freeze and the North European Plain is still flat”, Marshall writes, for example, at the end of the first chapter. Emblematic as it is of the spirit of the book, this quote underlines, for this same reasons, one of its biggest limits, which can be summed up by the expression “geographic determinism”. In other words, by reading Prisoners of Geography one can be easily led to think that physical factors have been, are and always will be the main driver of world politics, erasing the human factor and all it brings with it: ideologies, individual decisions and errors, cultures, etc.

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Another shortcoming of the book also arises from what, from another point of view, can be surely seen as a merit: readability. Marshall’s language always avoids technicalities and his approach to the subject makes his arguments easy to follow for all kind of readers. On the other hand, however, this also means that Prisoners of Geography, despite its subtitle, suffers from a lack of depth, which also emerges from the space given to certain subjects. Africa, a continent whose vastness the author underlines, is dealt with in 24 pages, and Western Europe in just 20. Also the bibliography, for such an ambitious work, is somehow disappointing: for Middle East, it includes just two Internet links and this is not the only example.
Generally speaking, the book seems to have been conceived for a non-specialized public and, in some way, it reaches its goal: being the popularized version of a manual of geopolitics and giving the readers at least the basic instruments to understand some aspects of international affairs. Those having a more in-depth knowledge of the subject (but also simple avid readers) however, might arrive at the end of each chapter with a feeling of incompleteness, because of the number of issues that are approached and, for lack of space, left apart. The overall impression is that, given Marshall’s style, a hundred more pages wouldn’t have affected neither the quality of the book nor its readability. (F.C.)

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics, by Tim Marshall, Elliott & Thompson, London, 256 pp.

 

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