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Book Summary: Prisoners of Geography – Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World (Politics of Place)

Did you know that the land you stand on has shaped the society you’re living in? If this sounds a tad abstract, think of it this way: the geographic features and resources around you have strongly influenced your country’s economy, as well as how it has fared in the many wars that have been fought throughout history.

This book summary looks at six of the most fascinating and influential geographies around the globe. More often than you may think, the decisions made by world leaders have a lot to do with the lay of the land. Sometimes, these leaders and the people they represent turn out to be prisoners of geography.

In this summary of Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall, you’ll find out

  • about the one part of the world Vladimir Putin obsesses over the most;
  • why China refuses to let go of Tibet; and
  • why the African continent has struggled to capitalize on lucrative trade routes.

Book Summary: Prisoners of Geography - Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World (Politics of Place)

Russia is an aggressive presence in the Baltics because it fears invasion from the West.

There’s no denying the fact that Russia is enormous. Covering a sprawling 6 million square miles and containing eleven different time zones, Russia is by far the world’s biggest country.

So what keeps Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, tossing and turning at night? It’s one particular stretch of land that somewhat resembles a slice of pizza.

Beginning in Poland, this particular pizza-slice-shaped wedge extends southeast to the foot of the Ural Mountain range, and northeast to Russia’s capital city of Moscow.

What keeps Putin particularly worried is that this area of land is part of what’s called the North European Plain, which stretches from France across Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern Germany, Poland and ends at the Russian Urals. As the name suggests, this area is flat and makes the European gateway to Russia vulnerable and difficult to defend.

Any country within the North European Plain could conceivably send an army across the flatlands and directly into Moscow. As Putin knows all too well, this is exactly what has happened to Russia throughout its history.

During both world wars, this is the path the Germans took in their military campaigns. But that’s not all – since 1812, invaders from the Northern European Plain have attacked Russia an average of once every 33 years!

For generations now, Russia’s strategy for neutralizing the threat from the North European Plain has been to control Poland and all the Baltic states that lie between it and Russia, which include Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Belarus.

These are the nations that make up the meat of that pizza slice, so to speak. While the wedge stretches 2,000 miles from north to south at its easternmost section, it’s only 300 miles wide around Poland and the Baltic states. If Russia can station a strong defensive front here, it can more easily hold off potential Western invaders.

Unfortunately, this means the Baltic states are likely to continue having a rough go of it.

China’s fears of Indian invasion and water shortages keep their grip on Tibet strong.

If you’re familiar with the history of Tibet, you know it’s been the site of an ongoing struggle for freedom from Chinese rule. It’s also one that has involved regular, though always shocking, acts of Tibetan monks setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese oppression. In 2008, 21 Tibetans died after protests turned especially violent.

There’s been no shortage of humanitarian pleas calling for an end to the occupation of Tibet. So why does China refuse to let go of Tibet?

The answer to this question lies just west of Tibet: India.

China and India are far and away the two most populous countries on the planet, so there’s tension over how ugly any major conflict between them could become. It is perhaps fortunate that there is a natural buffer zone between these two world powers in the form of the Himalayan mountains, which run along the western border of China. But this is unfortunate for Tibet, since it’s smack dab in the middle of this buffer zone.

Tibet’s homeland is the Tibetan Plateau, which is right next to the Himalayas, on China’s side of the divide. So, in the theoretical event of India sending an invading army over the Himalayas, they could occupy the Tibetan plateau and have a commanding position, looking down upon mainland China, from which they could launch their attack.

This is China’s primary strategic reason for occupying Tibet. If they don’t control it, they’re leaving the door open for India to take it and thereby leaving themselves extremely vulnerable.

However, there is another motive behind China’s actions: water.

Tibet has long held the nickname “China’s water tower,” since three of China’s main rivers – the Mekong, the Yellow River and the Yangtze – all have their sources in Tibet. So, not only would India have a superior offensive position in Tibet, if they occupied this area they could also cut off China’s main water supply.

As far as China is concerned, whether or not India would ever want to deprive China of water is irrelevant. The fact is that they could, and this is enough of a threat to China’s prosperity for them to continue occupying Tibet.

Guns and geographical good fortune make the United States invulnerable.

If you were to think of the world in terms of real estate, which country do you think a realtor would hold in the highest regard? If you factor in things like good neighbors, water supplies and state-of-the-art security features, most real estate agents would put the United States of America on the top of their list.

Unlike most of the countries mentioned in this book summary, the United States has few concerns about traditional invasions.

The geographical position of the United States is unique in that it makes the country practically invulnerable to any invading army. Its only neighbors are Canada and Mexico, and they’re not just friendly, they’re also big enough that any invading army attempting to reach the United States by going through these countries would have to establish impossibly long supply lines.

Perhaps the best protection the United States has working in its favor are the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, which border the country’s west and east coasts, respectively. This effectively cuts off the east and the west from attacks, since any invading force would have to contend with an entire, volatile ocean before even reaching its target.

As for the state-of-the-art security system – well, how does 100,000,000 loaded guns sound?

The United States’ lenient gun laws have resulted in every small town having the potential to take up arms and immediately defend itself from invasion without any help from the federal government. This is a country with the right to bear arms written into its social fabric, so guns are within easy reach for millions of Americans.

Any invading force would have a new set of armed civilians in every Springfield and Sunnydale they come across.

Geography has blessed northern Europe and blighted its south.

Thanks to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, Europe has hugely contributed to the modern world, for better or for worse. This isn’t just happenstance; it’s due in large part to Europe’s temperate climate, generous rainfall and fertile soil, all of which helped build thriving societies.

Due to geography, however, some areas of Europe have thrived more than others.

In 2012, when the Eurozone crisis was at its peak, nasty stereotypes began appearing in German media with increasing frequency, in attempts to explain why some regions of Europe were experiencing such a severe economic downturn.

In particular, these generalizations portrayed northern Europeans as industrious hard workers, and southern Europeans as a bunch of lazy slackers. But rather than being attributable to work ethic, the true reason for the struggles of some southern European countries lies in geography.

The same Northern European Plain that haunts Russia has provided France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands with fertile soil and a wealth of productive crops. As a result, they’re the nations associated with hard work and money. And with a surplus of crops and goods to trade, northern Europe became home to bustling cities of commerce and major urban hubs.

In contrast, countries in southern Europe have far less arable land.

Greece, for example, doesn’t have enough fertile land to be a major agricultural exporter, and this also means that the country can only develop a small handful of those major cities of commerce that are so abundant in the north. It’s in these cities, like London and Hamburg, where you’ll find the highly educated and skilled workers that drive forward modern economies.

Unfortunately for southern European nations like Greece, geography still plays a major factor in its well-being and political future.

Geography has given Africa beautiful but impractical waterways.

The relationship Africa has with its oceans and waterways is a complex and frustrating one, and this isn’t just as a result of its vast deserts. Africa is home to some of the world’s most stunning beaches and coastlines, as well as legendary rivers. But as we’ll see, African countries have been dealt a difficult hand when it comes to being able to use these waterways for commercial gain.

For starters, Africa’s picture-perfect coastline is all but useless when it comes to setting up harbors.

Unlike much of the jagged coastlines found along Europe and the United States, where the ocean sharply declines into deep waters that are perfect for docking boats, Africa’s shoreline is mostly smooth and shallow. This makes it impossible for cargo ships to load and unload goods for importing and exporting.

While this remains a problem, human ingenuity is starting to find a way around Africa’s problematic geography. Tanzania and Angola, for instance, have formed partnerships with China to start creating man-made deepwater harbors. In Tanzania, they’re using sheer brute force to expand the port of Bagamoyo so that it will eventually be able to load and unload 20 million containers of cargo each year, making it Africa’s biggest port.

But Africa’s challenges don’t end with the coastline. Moving inland, it’s Africa’s rivers that pose another geographical obstacle that has hindered trade.

The Zambezi River is one of the continent’s longest and most spectacular rivers. Its 1,600-mile waterway runs through six countries and is punctuated with whitewater rapids and breathtaking waterfalls, such as Victoria Falls. These stunning features may be great for adventurers, but they severely limit the river’s usefulness for transportation. Simply put, cargo ships and waterfalls don’t mix.

The impracticality of Africa’s rivers as useful trade routes has made both trade and contact between the continent’s different regions very limited. This has, in turn, significantly hindered economic development across the continent and prevented major trade routes from forming.

Geography has gifted North Korea with hills, while there’s flat land in South Korea all the way to Seoul.

With the seemingly endless threats it poses to neighboring countries, North Korea is becoming a major headache – especially for South Korea. You may be wondering how this difficult arrangement has lasted so long and, once again, the answer lies in geography.

Even though South Korea has twice the population and 80 times the economic power of North Korea, not to mention having a superpower like the United States on its side, South Korea has remained the vulnerable one.

This is because of the hills and elevated terrain located along North Korea’s side of the border, which is located only 35 miles away from Seoul, South Korea’s capital city, where half of the country’s 50 million citizens live.

Within these hills, military experts estimate that North Korea has 10,000 weapons stashed, ready to fire 500,000 rounds into the city of Seoul within 60 minutes. So, if a conflict were to occur, South Korea knows that it would have to immediately contend with millions of civilians fleeing south from Seoul, while at the same time trying to create a strong defensive line in that area. It doesn’t take a strategic genius to recognize that this is a recipe for chaos.

Another geographic feature working against South Korea is that the 35 miles of land separating Seoul from North Korea are flat, making the hills along the North Korean side of the border even more dangerous.

Therefore, if North Korea were to launch a surprise attack, their army could move quite easily over the flat terrain and into the heart of the enemy’s capital city, landing a devastating blow. On the other hand, if South Korea were to launch a surprise attack, it would immediately hit a series of geographical speed bumps that would slow down ground troops and make them vulnerable to attack.

This is partly why these two opposing nations have remained in a political deadlock for over 50 years.


The key message in this book:

Societies are inevitably shaped by the land upon which they exist. Natural resources and geographic features can provide safety and prosperity or leave a country’s citizens exposed and struggling. Geography has been a determining factor in the wars humans fight, as well as the speed of our economic development. Although modern technology now allows us to bend the rules of geography, it still remains crucial to understanding why nations have turned out the way they are today.

About the author

Tim Marshall is a leading authority on foreign affairs with more than thirty years of reporting experience. He was diplomatic editor at Sky News and before that worked for the BBC and LBC/IRN radio. He has reported from forty countries and covered conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. He is the author of Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World; The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World; and A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols. He is founder and editor of the current affairs site


History, World Politics, Geography, Economics, International Relations, Travel, Historical, Earth Sciences, Historical Geography, Middle Eastern Politics, Human Geography

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Russia 11
2 China 40
3 United States 68
4 Western Europe 92
5 Africa 116
6 The Middle East 142
7 India and Pakistan 182
8 Korea and Japan 208
9 Latin America 230
10 The Arctic 256
Conclusion 273
Acknowledgments 279
Bibliography 281
Index 287


In this New York Times bestseller, an award-winning journalist uses ten maps of crucial regions to explain the geo-political strategies of the world powers—“fans of geography, history, and politics (and maps) will be enthralled” (Fort Worth Star-Telegram).

Maps have a mysterious hold over us. Whether ancient, crumbling parchments or generated by Google, maps tell us things we want to know, not only about our current location or where we are going but about the world in general. And yet, when it comes to geo-politics, much of what we are told is generated by analysts and other experts who have neglected to refer to a map of the place in question.

All leaders of nations are constrained by geography. In “one of the best books about geopolitics” (The Evening Standard), now updated to include 2016 geopolitical developments, journalist Tim Marshall examines Russia, China, the US, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Japan, Korea, and Greenland and the Arctic—their weather, seas, mountains, rivers, deserts, and borders—to provide a context often missing from our political reportage: how the physical characteristics of these countries affect their strengths and vulnerabilities and the decisions made by their leaders.

Offering “a fresh way of looking at maps” (The New York Times Book Review), Marshall explains the complex geo-political strategies that shape the globe. Why is Putin so obsessed with Crimea? Why was the US destined to become a global superpower? Why does China’s power base continue to expand? Why is Tibet destined to lose its autonomy? Why will Europe never be united? The answers are geographical. “In an ever more complex, chaotic, and interlinked world, Prisoners of Geography is a concise and useful primer on geopolitics” (Newsweek) and a critical guide to one of the major determining factors in world affairs.


“Quite simply, one of the best books about geopolitics you could imagine: reading it is like having a light shone on your understanding.” ― The Evening Standard

“In an ever more complex, chaotic and interlinked world, Prisoners of Geography is a concise and useful primer on geo-politics.” ― Newsweek Europe

“Marshall is excellent on some of the highways and byways of geopolitics.” ― Financial Times

“This is not a book about environmental determinism – the geography of a region is never presented as fatalistic; but it does send a timely reminder that despite technological advances, geography is always there, often forcing the hand of world leaders.” ― Geographical Magazine

“Fans of geography, history and politics (and maps) will be enthralled.” ― Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Lively and perceptive political and historical analyses are frequent. The chapter on China is excellent; the chapter on Africa combines geography and history in a convincing way; the chapter on Western Europe…is a brilliant narrative of European relations, particularly between France and Germany. The superb chapter on the Middle East makes for a clear indictment of the Sykes–Picot agreements and of their tracing of artificial borders. The chapter on the Arctic is precise and informative …A very lively, sensible and informative series of country reports in which geography occupies its rightful place along with shrewd historical reminders and political judgments.” ― Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

“Marshall’s insistence on seeing the world through the lens of geography compels a fresh way of looking at maps—not just as objects for orientation or works of art, but as guideposts to the often thorny relations between nations.” ― New York Times Book Review

“This book is especially timely…Landscapes, rugged or otherwise, and what the land holds in resources, exert their own kind of sway that no one, not even a Putin, can surmount. This book grabbed me because of its enormous relevance to our world today.” ―

“A convincing analysis of Russian geopoliticalthinking….Also makes clear the terrible price the world has had to paybecause European officials decided to create nation-states with borders that completely ignored cultural geography.” ― Washington Post

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Vladimir Putin says he is a religious man, a great supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church. If so, he may well go to bed each night, say his prayers, and ask God: “Why didn’t you put some mountains in Ukraine?”

If God had built mountains in Ukraine, then the great expanse of flatland that is the North European Plain would not be such encouraging territory from which to attack Russia repeatedly. As it is, Putin has no choice: he must at least attempt to control the flatlands to the west. So it is with all nations, big or small. The landscape imprisons their leaders, giving them fewer choices and less room to maneuver than you might think. This was true of the Athenian Empire, the Persians, the Babylonians, and before; it was true of every leader seeking high ground from which to protect their tribe.

The land on which we live has always shaped us. It has shaped the wars, the power, politics, and social development of the peoples that now inhabit nearly every part of the earth. Technology may seem to overcome the distances between us in both mental and physical space, but it is easy to forget that the land where we live, work, and raise our children is hugely important and that the choices of those who lead the seven billion inhabitants of this planet will to some degree always be shaped by the rivers, mountains, deserts, lakes, and seas that constrain us all—as they always have.

Overall there is no one geographical factor that is more important than any other. Mountains are no more important than deserts, nor rivers than jungles. In different parts of the planet different geographical features are among the dominant factors in determining what people can and cannot do.

Broadly speaking, geopolitics looks at the ways in which international affairs can be understood through geographical factors: not just the physical landscape—the natural barriers of mountains or connections of river networks, for example—but also climate, demographics, cultural regions, and access to natural resources. Factors such as these can have an important impact on many different aspects of our civilization, from political and military strategy to human social development, including language, trade, and religion.

The physical realities that underpin national and international politics are too often disregarded in both writing about history and in contemporary reporting of world affairs. Geography is clearly a fundamental part of the “why” as well as the “what.” Take, for example, China and India: two massive countries with huge populations that share a very long border but are not politically or culturally aligned. It wouldn’t be surprising if these two giants had fought each other in several wars, but in fact, apart from one monthlong battle in 1962, they never have. Why? Because between them is the highest mountain range in the world, and it is practically impossible to advance large military columns through or over the Himalayas. As technology becomes more sophisticated, of course, ways are emerging of overcoming this obstacle, but the physical barrier remains a deterrent, and so both countries focus their foreign policy on other regions, while keeping a wary eye on each other.

Individual leaders, ideas, technology, and other factors all play a role in shaping events, but they are temporary. Each new generation will still face the physical obstructions created by the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas, the challenges created by the rainy season, and the disadvantages of limited access to natural minerals or food sources.

I first became interested in this subject when covering the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. I watched close at hand as the leaders of various peoples, be they Serbian, Croat, or Bosniak, deliberately reminded their “tribes” of the ancient divisions and, yes, ancient suspicions in a region crowded with diversity. Once they had pulled the peoples apart, it didn’t take much to then push them against each other.

The River Ibar in Kosovo is a prime example. Ottoman rule over Serbia was cemented by the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, fought near where the Ibar flows through the city of Mitrovica. Over the following centuries the Serb population began to withdraw behind the Ibar as Muslim Albanians gradually descended from the mountainous Malesija region into Kosovo, where they became a majority by the mid-eighteenth century. Fast-forward to the twentieth century and there was still a clear ethnic-religious division roughly marked by the river. Then in 1999, battered by NATO from the air and the Kosovo Liberation Army on the ground, the Yugoslav (Serbian) military retreated across the Ibar, quickly followed by most of the remaining Serb population. The river became the de facto border of what some countries now recognize as the independent state of Kosovo.

Mitrovica was also where the advancing NATO ground forces came to a halt. During the three-month war, there had been veiled threats that NATO intended to invade all of Serbia. In truth, the restraints of both geography and politics meant the NATO leaders never really had that option. Hungary had made it clear that it would not allow an invasion from its territory, as it feared reprisals against the 350,000 ethnic Hungarians in northern Serbia. The alternative was an invasion from the south, which would have gotten them to the Ibar in double-quick time; but NATO would then have faced the mountains above them.

I was working with a team of Serbs in Belgrade at the time and asked what would happen if NATO came: “We will put our cameras down, Tim, and pick up guns” was the response. They were liberal Serbs, good friends of mine and opposed to their government, but they still pulled out the maps and showed me where the Serbs would defend their territory in the mountains, and where NATO would grind to a halt. It was some relief to be given a geography lesson in why NATO’s choices were more limited than the Brussels PR machine made public.

An understanding of how crucial the physical landscape was in reporting news in the Balkans stood me in good stead in the years that followed. For example, in 2001, a few weeks after 9/11, I saw a demonstration of how, even with today’s modern technology, climate still dictates the military possibilities of even the world’s most powerful armies. I was in northern Afghanistan, having crossed the border river from Tajikistan on a raft, in order to link up with the Northern Alliance (NA) troops who were fighting the Taliban.

The American fighter jets and bombers were already overhead, pounding Taliban and al-Qaeda positions on the cold, dusty plains and hills east of Mazar-e-Sharif in order to pave the way for the advance on Kabul. After a few weeks it was obvious that the NA were gearing up to move south. And then the world changed color.

The most intense sandstorm I have ever experienced blew in, turning everything a mustard-yellow color. At the height of the storm you couldn’t see more than a few yards ahead of you, and the only thing clear was that the Americans’ satellite technology, at the cutting edge of science, was helpless, blind in the face of the climate of this wild land. Everyone, from President Bush and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the NA troops on the ground, just had to wait. Then it rained and the sand that had settled on everything turned into mud. The rain came down so hard that the baked-mud huts we were living in looked as if they were melting. Again it was clear that the move south was on hold until geography finished having its say. The rules of geography, which Hannibal, Sun Tzu, and Alexander the Great all knew, still apply to today’s leaders.

More recently, in 2012, I was given another lesson in geostrategy: As Syria descended into full-blown civil war, I was standing on a Syrian hilltop overlooking a valley south of the city of Hama and saw a hamlet burning in the distance. Syrian friends pointed out a much larger village about a mile away, from where they said the attack had come. They then explained that if one side could push enough people from the other faction out of the valley, then the valley could be joined onto other land that led to the country’s only motorway, and as such would be useful in carving out a piece of contiguous, viable territory that one day could be used to create a mini-statelet if Syria could not be put back together again. Where before I saw only a burning hamlet, I could now see its strategic importance and understand how political realities are shaped by the most basic physical realities.

Geopolitics affects every country, whether at war, as in the examples above, or at peace. There will be instances in every region you can name. In these pages I cannot explore each one: Canada, Australia, and Indonesia, among others, get no more than a brief mention, although a whole book could be devoted to Australia alone and the ways in which its geography has shaped its connections with other parts of the world, both physically and culturally. Instead I have focused on the powers and regions that best illustrate the key points of the book, covering the legacy of geopolitics from the past (nation-forming); the most pressing situations we face today (the troubles in Ukraine, the expanding influence of China); and looking to the future (growing competition in the Arctic).

In Russia we see the influence of the Arctic, and how it limits Russia’s ability to be a truly global power. In China we see the limitations of power without a global navy and how in 2016 it became obvious the speed at which China is seeking to change this. The chapter on the United States illustrates how shrewd decisions to expand its territory in key regions allowed it to achieve its modern destiny as a two-ocean superpower. Europe shows us the value of flatland and navigable rivers in connecting regions and producing a culture able to kick-start the modern world, while Africa is a prime example of the effects of isolation.

The chapter on the Middle East demonstrates why drawing lines on maps while disregarding the topography and, equally important, the geographical cultures in a given area is a recipe for trouble. We will continue to witness that trouble this century. The same theme surfaces in the chapters on Africa and India/Pakistan. The colonial powers used ink to draw lines that bore no relation to the physical realities of the region, and created some of the most artificial borders the world has seen. In the Middle East, an attempt is now being made to redraw them in blood.

Very different from the examples of Kosovo or Syria are Japan and Korea, in that they are mostly ethnically homogenous. But they have other problems: Japan is an island nation devoid of natural resources, while the division of the Koreas is a problem still waiting to be solved. Meanwhile, Latin America is an anomaly. In its far south it is so cut off from the outside world that global trading is difficult, and its internal geography is a barrier to creating a trading bloc as successful as the EU.

Finally, we come to one of the most uninhabitable places on earth—the Arctic. For most of history, humans have ignored it, but in the twentieth century we found energy there, and twenty-first-century diplomacy will determine who owns—and sells—that resource.

Seeing geography as a decisive factor in the course of human history can be construed as a bleak view of the world, which is why it is disliked in some intellectual circles. It suggests that nature is more powerful than man and that we can go only so far in determining our own fate. However, other factors clearly have an influence on events, too. Any sensible person can see that technology is now bending the iron rules of geography. It has found ways over, under, or through some of the barriers. The Americans can now fly a plane all the way from Missouri to Mosul on a bombing mission without needing to land to refuel. That, along with their great aircraft carrier battle groups, means they no longer absolutely have to have an ally or a colony in order to extend their global reach around the world. Of course, if they do have an air base on the island of Diego Garcia, or permanent access to the port in Bahrain, then they have more options; but it is less essential.

So airpower has changed the rules, as, in a different way, has the Internet. But geography, and the history of how nations have established themselves within that geography, remains crucial to our understanding of the world today and to our future.

The conflict in Iraq and Syria is rooted in colonial powers ignoring the rules of geography, whereas the Chinese occupation of Tibet is rooted in obeying them. America’s global foreign policy is dictated by them, and even the power projection of the last superpower standing can only mitigate the rules that nature, or God, handed down.

What are those rules? The place to begin is in the land where power is hard to defend, and so for centuries its leaders have compensated by pushing outward. It is the land without mountains to its west: Russia.

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