This book was first published in 2015. It’s first chapter is a commentary on the geographic position of Russia. This chapter concludes that war between Ukraine and Russia is almost inevitable. Why? The geography.
Here we sit in 2022 and Russia has invaded Ukraine, having previously annexed Crimea.
We rarely see geography mentioned as an aspect of global politics. What Prisoners of Geography does is to take us around the globe pointing out some of the key geographical features and their impact.
In the case of Russia and Ukraine the challenge is access to the oceans. While Russia is a vast country, it’s northern position means that all its ports are inaccessible throughout the winter, that’s not a good thing for a world power.
Other chapters take us around the globe from China to the USA, from Western Europe to Africa, from The Middle East to India to Pakistan. Eight different global areas. The book concludes with a chapter on the Arctic.
I’d never considered, before, how geography has enabled countries and regions to become wealthy and powerful, like the navigable rivers of Western Europe and the USA. While, on the other hand, the lack of navigable rivers has impacted much of Africa and South America and their ability to trade.
There’s China, the growing global superpower, and the geographic impact of the oceans around them. So many good travelling around the world passing through a web of waters belonging to other nations and strategic assets controlled by other powers. Some of them close, like the Straits of Malacca, others further afield, imagine the potential impact of the Suez and Panama canals to a global trading superpower.
Then over to the west there’s another growing power, India, and between them and China is a huge geographic feature, the Himalayas. In our age of flight and the global internet we forget what a huge barrier this is. While we are in the region, there’s Tibet. When I was a teenager, I remember there being lots of discussion about this vast region, I even remember looking it up on the map, but couldn’t see any significance in it. For some reason I never considered it from the Chinese perspective.
Why all the fuss over the Arctic? One of the reasons we miss the significance of this is that our maps are all wrong. In the UK we predominantly see the world through the Mercator projection which nicely shows our small island right in the middle of the action. What this map also does is to massively stretch the geography at the top and the bottom of the globe – Africa is wider than Russia, by a long way. If you look at a projection of the globe with the arctic at the centre things look very different. The recent discussions about Sweden and Finland joining NATO look more significant from this angle. The desires of Russia to extend its control and secure access to valuable minerals make more sense. The mythical North West Passage makes more sense.
I’m not sure that this book quite lives up to its subtitle of telling me everything I need to know about global politics, but it definitely highlighted a dimension that I’d previously overlooked.
Header Image: This is Devoke Water and it’s time for a swim.