Book review: Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

February 18, 2016
Elliot and Thompson, £16.99

“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.” This is how former Sky Diplomatic Correspondent Tim Marshall, who has reported from more than 30 countries across 25 years, introduces the idea that we should be more aware of how political decision-making is affected by the natural landscape.

In 10 breakneck chapters, Marshall explains the way in which geography has shaped the actions of Russia in the Ukraine, the complex interplay between African nations and the rest of the world—with stops in the United States, western Europe and India.

He concludes by identifying some impending problems, placing them in their geographical context. He looks at the potential for water wars between Turkey, Iraq and Syria, if the water level of the Murat river were to diminish and Turkey were forced to protect its own source by building dams.

Marshall succeeds in making lucid a complex topic and the book is difficult to put down. But there are obvious omissions. By focusing purely on the lay of the land, he neglects other factors—such as the fact that the US and UK are not the powers they once were, and that they are less capable of persuading leaders such as Vladimir Putin into co-operation. In some cases a leader’s will knows no borders.