Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World

Tim Marshall writes in this 2016 book:

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 manoeuvre 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.

* 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 month-long 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.

* 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 recognise 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.

* When Vladimir Putin isn’t thinking about God, and mountains, he’s thinking about pizza. In particular, the shape of a slice of pizza – a wedge.
The thin end of this wedge is Poland. Here, the vast North European Plain stretching from France to the Urals (which extend 1,000 miles south to north, forming a natural boundary between Europe and Asia) is only 300 miles wide. It runs from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Carpathian Mountains in the south. The North European Plain encompasses all of western and northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, northern Germany and nearly all of Poland.
From a Russian perspective this is a double-edged sword. Poland represents a relatively narrow corridor into which Russia could drive its armed forces if necessary and thus prevent an enemy from advancing towards Moscow. But from this point the wedge begins to broaden; by the time you get to Russia’s borders it is over 2,000 miles wide, and is flat all the way to Moscow and beyond. Even with a large army you would be hard-pressed to defend in strength along this line. However, Russia has never been conquered from this direction partially due to its strategic depth.

* A century ago, who could have guessed that American armed forces would be stationed a few hundred miles from Moscow in Poland and the Baltic States? By 2004, just fifteen years from 1989, every single former Warsaw Pact state bar Russia was in NATO or the European Union.
The Moscow administration’s mind has been concentrated by that, and by Russia’s history.

* Russia is the biggest country in the world, twice the size of the USA or China, five times the size of India, twenty-five times the size of the UK. However, it has a relatively small population of about 144 million, fewer people than Nigeria or Pakistan. Its agricultural growing season is short…

* Continuing clockwise, we come to the next land borders: Vietnam, Laos and Burma. Vietnam is an irritation for China. For centuries the two have squabbled over territory, and unfortunately for both this is the one area to the south which has a border an army can get across without too much trouble – which partially explains the 1,000-year domination and occupation of Vietnam by China from 111 BCE to 938 CE and their brief cross-border war of 1979. However, as China’s military prowess grows, Vietnam will be less inclined to get drawn into a shooting match and will either cosy up even closer to the Americans for protection or quietly begin shifting diplomatically to become friends with Beijing. That both countries are nominally ideologically Communist has little to do with the state of their relationship: it is their shared geography that has defined relations. Viewed from Beijing, Vietnam is only a minor threat and a problem that can be managed.

* Very little trade has moved between China and India over the centuries, and that is unlikely to change soon. Of course the border is really the Tibetan–Indian border – and that is precisely why China has always wanted to control it.
This is the geopolitics of fear. If China did not control Tibet, it would always be possible that India might attempt to do so. This would give India the commanding heights of the Tibetan Plateau and a base from which to push into the Chinese heartland, as well as control of the Tibetan sources of three of China’s great rivers, the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong, which is why Tibet is known as ‘China’s Water Tower’. China, a country with approximately the same volume of water usage as the USA, but with a population five times as large, will clearly not allow that.
It matters not whether India wants to cut off China’s river supply, only that it would have the power to do so. For centuries China has tried to ensure that it could never happen. The actor Richard Gere and the Free Tibet movement will continue to speak out against the injustices of the occupation, and now settlement, of Tibet by Han Chinese; but in a battle between the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan independence movement, Hollywood stars and the Chinese Communist Party – which rules the world’s second-largest economy – there is only going to be one winner.
When Westerners, be they Mr Gere or Mr Obama, talk about Tibet, the Chinese find it deeply irritating. Not dangerous, not subversive – just irritating. They see it not through the prism of human rights, but that of geopolitical security, and can only believe that the Westerners are trying to undermine their security…

China’s massive population, mostly crammed into the heartland, is looking for ways to expand. Just as the Americans looked west, so do the Chinese, and just as the Iron Horse brought the European settlers to the lands of the Comanche and the Navajo, so the modern Iron Roosters are bringing the Han to the Tibetans.

* There was, is and always will be trouble in Xinjiang. The Uighurs have twice declared an independent state of ‘East Turkestan’, in the 1930s and 1940s.

* Inter-ethnic rioting erupted in 2009, leading to over 200 deaths. Beijing responded in three ways: it ruthlessly suppressed dissent, it poured money into the region, and it continued to pour in Han Chinese workers. For China, Xinjiang is too strategically important to allow an independence movement to get off the ground: it not only borders eight countries, thus buffering the heartland, but it also has oil, and is home to China’s nuclear weapons testing sites.

* There are similar reasons for the Party’s resistance to democracy and individual rights. If the population were to be given a free vote, the unity of the Han might begin to crack or, more likely, the countryside and urban areas would come into conflict. That in turn would embolden the people of the buffer zones, further weakening China. It is only a century since the most recent humiliation of the rape of China by foreign powers; for Beijing, unity and economic progress are priorities well ahead of democratic principles.
The Chinese look at society very differently from the West. Western thought is infused with the rights of the individual; Chinese thought prizes the collective above the individual. What the West thinks of as the rights of man, the Chinese leadership thinks of as dangerous theories endangering the majority, and much of the population accepts that, at the least, the extended family comes before the individual.

* I was treated to a stern lecture about how the full imposition of ‘what you call human rights’ in China would lead to widespread violence and death and was then asked, ‘Why do you think your values would work in a culture you don’t understand?’

* Another growing problem for the Party is its ability to feed the population. More than 40 per cent of arable land is now either polluted or has thinning topsoil, according to their Ministry of Agriculture.
China is caught in a catch-22. It needs to keep industrialising as it modernises and raises standards of living, but that very process threatens food production. If it cannot solve this problem there will be unrest.

* National pride means China wants to control the passageways through the Chain; geopolitics dictates it has to. It provides access to the world’s most important shipping lanes in the South China Sea. In peacetime the route is open in various places, but in wartime they could very easily be blocked, thus blockading China. All great nations spend peacetime preparing for the day war breaks out.

* The Chinese are determined to have Taiwan but are nowhere near being able to challenge for it militarily. Instead they are using soft power by increasing trade and tourism between the two states. China wants to woo Taiwan back into its arms.

* From the South China Sea Chinese ships would still have problems, whether they headed towards the Pacific or the Indian Ocean – which is the world’s waterway for the gas and oil without which China would collapse. To go westward towards the energy-producing states of the Gulf they must pass Vietnam, which, as we have noted, has recently been making overtures overtures to the Americans. They must go near the Philippines, a US ally, before trying to get through the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, all of which are diplomatically and militarily linked to the USA. The Strait is approximately 500 miles long and at its narrowest is less than two miles wide. It has always been a choke point – and the Chinese remain vulnerable to being choked. All of the states along the Strait and near its approaches are anxious about Chinese dominance, and most have territorial disputes with Beijing.

* when the Burmese Junta began to slowly open up to the outside world in 2010, it wasn’t just the Chinese who beat a path to their door. The Americans and Japanese were quick to establish better relations, with both President Obama and Prime Minister Abe of Japan going to pay their respects in person. If they can influence Burma, they can help check China. So far, the Chinese are winning this particular game on the global chessboard, but the Americans may be able to outmuscle them as long as the Burmese government is confident Washington will stand by it.

* IF YOU WON THE LOTTERY, AND were looking to buy a country to live in, the first one the estate agent would show you would be the United States of America.

* There are fifty American states, but they add up to one nation in a way the twenty-eight sovereign states of the European Union never can. Most of the EU states have a national identity far stronger, more defined, than any American state. It is easy to find a French person who is French first, European second, or one who pays little allegiance to the idea of Europe, but an American identifies with their Union in a way few Europeans do theirs. This is explained by geography, and by the history of the unification of the USA.

* Germany had always had bigger geographical problems than France. The flatlands of the North European Plain gave it two reasons to be fearful: to the west the Germans saw their long-unified and powerful neighbour France, and to the east the giant Russian Bear. Their ultimate fear was of a simultaneous attack by both powers across the flat land of the corridor. We can never know if it would have happened, but the fear of it had catastrophic consequences.

* The dilemma of Germany’s geographical position and belligerence became known as ‘the German Question’. The answer, after the horrors of the Second World War, indeed after centuries of war, was the acceptance of the presence in the European lands of a single overwhelming power, the USA, which set up NATO and allowed for the eventual creation of the European Union. Exhausted by war, and with safety ‘guaranteed’ by the American military, the Europeans embarked on an astonishing experiment. They were asked to trust each other.

* Jordan. Because Israel is so small it has no real ‘strategic depth’, nowhere to fall back to if its defences are breached, and so militarily it concentrates on trying to ensure no one can get near it. Furthermore, the distance from the West Bank border to Tel Aviv is about 10 miles at its narrowest; from the West Bank ridge, any half decent military could cut Israel in two. Likewise, in the case of the West Bank Israel prevents any group from becoming powerful enough to threaten its existence.
Under current conditions Israel faces threats to its security and to the lives of its citizens by terrorist attacks and rocket fire from its immediate neighbours, but not a threat to its very existence. Egypt, to the southwest, is not a threat. There is a peace treaty that currently suits both sides, and the partially demilitarised Sinai Peninsula acts as a buffer between them. East of this, across the Red Sea at Aqaba in Jordan, the desert also protects Israel, as does its peace treaty with Amman. To the north there is a potential menace from Lebanon but it is a relatively small one, in the form of cross-border raids and/or limited shelling. However, if and when Hezbollah in Lebanon use their larger and longer-range rockets to reach deep into Israel, the response will be massive.
The more serious potential threat comes from Lebanon’s bigger neighbour Syria… Damascus wants and needs direct access to the coast. It has always regarded Lebanon as part of Syria (as indeed it was) and remains bitter about its troops having been forced to leave in 2005. If that route to the sea is blocked, the alternative is to cross the Golan Heights and descend to the hilly region around the Sea of Galilee en route to the Mediterranean. But the Heights were seized by Israel after Syria attacked it in the 1973 war, and it would take an enormous onslaught by a Syrian army to break through to the coastal plain leading to the major Israeli population centres. This cannot be discounted at some future point, but in the medium term it remains extremely unlikely…

* Iran is defended by this geography, with mountains on three sides, swampland and water on the fourth. The Mongols were the last force to make any progress through the territory in 1219–21 and since then attackers have ground themselves into dust trying to make headway across the mountains. By the time of the Second Gulf War in 2003 even the USA, the greatest fighting force the world has seen, thought better than to take a right turn once it had entered Iraq from the south, knowing that even with its superior firepower Iran was not a country to invade. In fact, the US military had a catchphrase at the time: ‘We do deserts, not mountains.’
In 1980, when the Iran–Iraq War broke out, the Iraqis used six divisions to cross the Shatt al-Arab in an attempt to annex the Iranian province of Khuzestan. They never even made it off the swamp-ridden plains, let alone entered the foothills of the Zagros. The war dragged on for eight years, taking at least a million lives.
The mountainous terrain of Iran means that it is difficult to create an interconnected economy, and that it has many minority groups each with keenly defined characteristics. Khuzestan, for example, is ethnically majority Arab, and elsewhere there are Kurds, Azeri, Turkmen and Georgians, among others. At most 60 per cent of the country speaks Farsi, the language of the dominant Persian majority. As a result of this diversity, Iran has traditionally centralised power and used force and a fearsome intelligence network to maintain internal stability. Tehran knows that no one is about to invade Iran, but also that hostile powers can use its minorities to try and stir dissent and thus endanger its Islamic revolution.

* Saudi Arabia may be bigger than Iran, it may be many times richer than Iran due to its well-developed oil and gas industries, but its population is much smaller (28 million Saudis as opposed to 78 million Iranians) and militarily it is not confident about its ability to take on its Persian neighbour if this cold war ever turns hot and their forces confront each other directly. Each side has ambitions to be the dominant power in the region, and each regards itself as the champion of its respective version of Islam.

* less than 5 per cent of its [Turkey] territory is in Europe. Most geographers regard the small area of Turkey which is west of the Bosporus as being in Europe, and the rest of the country, south and south-east of the Bosporus, as being in the Middle East (in its widest sense).
That is one reason why Turkey has never been accepted into the EU. Other factors are its record on human rights, especially when it comes to the Kurds, and its economy. Its population is 75 million and European countries fear that, given the disparity in living standards, EU membership would result in a mass influx of labour. What may also be a factor, albeit unspoken within the EU, is that Turkey is a majority Muslim country (98 per cent). The EU is neither a secular nor a Christian organisation, but there has been a difficult debate about ‘values’.

* Politically, the Arab countries remain suspicious that Erdoğan wants to recreate the Ottoman Empire economically and they resist close ties. The Iranians see Turkey as their most powerful military and economic competitor in their own backyard. Relations, never warm, have cooled due to them being on opposite sides in support for factions involved in the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was a policy that backfired when the Egyptian military staged its second coup and took power. Relations between Cairo and Ankara are now icy.
The Turkish elite have learnt that scoring Islamist points by picking fights with Israel results in Israel co-operating with Cyprus and Greece to create a trilateral energy alliance to exploit the gas fields off their respective coasts. The Egyptian government’s dim view of Turkey is contributing to Cairo’s interest in being a major customer for this new energy source. Meanwhile Turkey, which could have benefited from Israeli energy, remains largely reliant on its old foe Russia for its energy needs whilst simultaneously working with Russia to develop new pipelines to deliver energy to EU countries.
The Americans, alarmed at the new cold war between Turkey and Israel, two of its allies, are working to bring them together again. The USA wants a better relationship between them so as to strengthen NATO’s position in the eastern Mediterranean. In NATO terms, Turkey is a key country because it controls the entrance to and exit from the Black Sea through the narrow gap of the Bosporus Strait. If it closes the Strait, which is less than a mile across at its narrowest point, the Russian Black Sea Fleet cannot break out into the Mediterranean and then the Atlantic. Even getting through the Bosporus only takes you into the Sea of Marmara; you still have to navigate through the Dardanelles Straits to get to the Aegean Sea en route to the Mediterranean.
Given its land mass Turkey is not often thought of as a sea power, but it borders three seas and its control of these waters has always made it a force to be reckoned with; it is also a trade and transportation bridge linking Europe with the Middle East, the Caucasus and on up to the Central Asian countries, with which it shares history and, in some regions, ethnic ties.
Turkey is determined to be at the crossroads of history even if the traffic can at times be hazardous.

* The routine expression of hatred for others is so common in the Arab world that it barely draws comment other than from the region’s often Western-educated liberal minority who have limited access to the platform of mass media. Anti-Semitic cartoons which echo the Nazi Der Stürmer propaganda newspaper are common. Week in, week out, shock-jock Imams are given space on prime-time TV shows.
Western apologists for this sort of behaviour are sometimes hamstrung by a fear of being described as one of Edward Said’s ‘Orientalists’.

* INDIA AND PAKISTAN CAN AGREE ON ONE THING: NEITHER WANTS the other one around. This is somewhat problematic given that they share a 1,900-mile long border. Each country fairly bristles with antagonism and nuclear weapons, so how they manage this unwanted relationship is a matter of life and death on a scale of tens of millions.

* India has a population approaching 1.3 billion people, while Pakistan’s is 182 million. Impoverished, volatile and splintering, Pakistan appears to define itself by its opposition to India, while India, despite obsessing about Pakistan, defines itself in many ways, including that of being an emerging world power with a growing economy and an expanding middle class. From this vantage point it looks across at Pakistan and sees how it outperforms it on almost all economic and democratic indicators.
They have fought four major wars and many skirmishes. Emotions run hot. An oft-quoted remark by a Pakistani officer that Pakistan would make India bleed by a thousand cuts was addressed in late 2014 by military analyst Dr Amarjit Singh writing in the Indian Defence Review: ‘Whatever others may believe, my opinion is simply that it is better for India to brave a costly nuclear attack by Pakistan, and get it over with even at the cost of tens of millions of deaths, than suffer ignominy and pain day in and day out through a thousand cuts and wasted energy in unrealized potential.’ That may not reflect official government policy, but it is an indication of the depth of feeling at many levels in both societies. Modern Pakistan and India were born in fire; next time the fire could kill them.

* Islam, cricket, the intelligence services, the military and fear of India are what hold Pakistan together.

* Two hundred years after the beginning of the struggle for independence, the Latin American countries lag far behind the North Americans and the Europeans. Their total population (including the Caribbean) is over 600 million, and yet their combined GDP is equivalent to that of France and the UK, which together comprise about 125 million people.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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