Prisoners of Geography – Tim Marshall: A Review

Date Finished: June 27th 2017

I was fortunate enough to catch a talk at this year’s London Book Fair entitled What Place for Reportage in a Post-Truth World? compered by Tim Marshall. I was aware of Marshall before the talk, but his guidance of the talk and own views on the subject were enlightening, and I resolved to take a longer look at his books next time I was in the mood for non-fiction.

That day came, and I now have Prisoners of Geography adorning my shelves. The book is an introduction to geopolitics, demonstrating how political tensions do not merely arise out of sociological phenomena, but are constrained and deeply influenced by everything from mountain ranges, to natural resources, to ignorant border-planning.

For what sounds like a stodgy subject, Prisoners of Geography is a surprisingly easy read. Marshall’s flowing style, cultivated over the course of his twenty-five year long career in foreign reporting, demands little but gives a lot in return. He seamlessly blends his emphasised geopolitical stance with insights into history, modern politics and international law, and is unafraid to make some tentative predictions on the future of geopolitical relations.

A broad swathe of the world is covered with Russia’s encroachment on Ukraine put into a firm context, the ignorance for established geopolitics exercised by colonial powers in Africa when they drew up borders (and on a continent that had never encountered such constructs) is elucidated, and the looming fight for resources in the slowly melting Arctic seas.

Where Marshall truly fascinates is in regard to some of the lesser understood countries. Whilst the USA, Middle East and Western Europe are broadly familiar to many, the chapters on India & Pakistan, Korea & Japan, Latin America and the Arctic are real eyeopeners, and a compelling call-to-action to learn more about these oft-overlooked territories.

IMG_5134It’s easy to take many of the geopolitical realities recounted within at face value, but it’s important we bear them in mind. We can’t feign surprise at the warring factions that comprise the Middle East, given the historic illogical division of nations and religions; and we have no excuse for failing to recognise the reasons behind the vulnerabilities and tensions in the Eastern Bloc. Of course, it’s important to bear in mind that the people in charge are often aware of these facts, and act in spite of them, but the more we educate ourselves to the effects of geopolitics, and learn to recognise them in the wider world.

As a publishing student aside, it’s a very nice book. The opacity and brightness of the paper are perfect, and the balance between smooth and rough in the texture invites occasional page-stroking. This coupled with the striking cover design and the quality content means that Elliot & Thompson have succeeded in producing an ordinary paperback of outstanding quality – something that can be a real asset in today’s industry.

But, back to the task at hand, Prisoners of Geography can feel like a bit of a whistle-stop tour. It’s subject is so vast that Marshall’s round-up cannot help but seem somewhat sparse, a skeleton with too little meat on its bones, and the geopolitics – a nebulous concept at the best of times – can feel somewhat choked by the many other factors in the politics of these nations that all vie to complicate the picture. That is to say, whatever deficiencies the book suffers from are mostly out of the author’s hands unless you want a thousand page tome, but it’s a point worth making.

Nevertheless, Prisoners of Geography is a brilliant introduction to geopolitics, and certainly leaves the reader wanting more. Marshall’s easy fluency in his subject matter streams off the pages, providing insight, intrigue and a new way of think about our world. We could do worse than to educate ourselves to the geopolitical realities of the world because, perhaps, just maybe, there are some answers to our present problems lurking within these pages.



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