Prisoners of Geography

Selection_099Tim Marshall, until recently the diplomatic and foreign affairs correspondent for Sky News, and now a successful author is a rare bird indeed. Tim is one of only a few British foreign correspondents who have described the global geopolitical situation with a degree of objectivity that goes beyond the at times myopic official view of his home country.

Tim’s main point is that geographical factors have been sadly overlooked when we judge countries’ geopolitical positioning. He starts off with a solid chapter on Russia, describing how from the time of its creation in 882, Russia has always needed to protect itself from marauding invaders from the West. To the East, Russia has the Urals, and now the vastness of Siberia to shield herself with. To the South there is the vastness of the Mongolian deserts (which did not protect Russia from the Mongols as they originated from the desert itself). But there are no seas, impassable mountain ranges, or massive rivers to protect the country from the west. The French, Germans (twice), Poles, have all marched though the lowlands lying very roughly from the Carpathian mountains to the Baltic States in attempts to subdue Russia. Quite naturally the Russian empire wished to plug this gap, something which was achieved in Soviet times with ‘satellite’ states. Come the fall of the Soviet Union and the appearance of modern armies which can survive Russian winters (but which still cannot travel over mountains), Russia is faced with exactly the same problems – how to protect its western flank. “Looking at the map from Putin’s point of view” Tim said recently at a webinar with Glasgow University’s Global Security students: “Russia has no choice but to protect the flatlands; i.e. the Ukraine and Byelorussia from NATO bases”. Tim also points out in his book that Russia’s only southern exit to the Mediterranean and thus the Atlantic oceans – happens to be at Sevastopol, in the Crimea. Scholars of Russian history, (pro-or anti-Putin, whatever) know that every Russian leader interested in projecting Russia has been concerned with the same general military strategy, because Russia is and will remain a prisoner of geography, as indeed all countries are to a lesser or greater degree.

Having established the principle of geographic-military determinism in the first chapter, Tim goes on to explain that much the same sort of thing can be seen in China. Tibet is on high ground and overlooks not only the western and fertile plains of China, but India as well. Whoever holds the Tibetan plateau (the dominating Han race), holds China and blocks any attack from India. But there is more. Here are glaciers; fresh water reserves, and the source of the three great rivers: the Yellow river, the Yangtze, and the Mekong. Whatever Mr Gere or Mr Obama say about Chinese Buddhists, for geographical/military reasons, China is never going to withdraw. Looking at the world from a geographical perspective, the Chinese navy and its merchant fleet; which not only bring raw materials into the country but take goods to market, could be quite possibly blockaded by an alliance of Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia (which could block the narrow Malacca Strait), Singapore and Australia. From the Chinese point of view, which it seems hardly anybody is interested in finding out about, this puts the Spratly islands into the category of vital security assets needed to secure a passage to the Pacific, a mere matter of life and death.

Tim goes on to cover the USA. America has two oceans as natural borders, mountains and deserts to the north and south but does not limit the projection of her power to the American continent. Perhaps lessens can be learnt from history that any nation which projects itself far beyond its own natural borders ultimately meets the same exhausted fate as Western European empires, or perhaps it is because America’s natural borders are so conducive to trade (through wonderful deep water ports) that it is a world power (which would support Tim’s argument). We shall ‘live and see’, as the Russians say.

The chapter on the Middle East is particularly relevant at the present time. Tim’s self assessment as a realist could be challenged due to the nature of ethnic and religious struggles which do not recognise borders, and in this respect the book perhaps attempts to take on too much. However this does not alter the fact that ‘Prisoners of Geography’ should be on your ‘must-read’ list.