Tim Marshall (2015), Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics, London: Elliott and Thompson,
256pp, ISBN 978-1-7839-6141-2
Katja Laug, English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick, and Shanika Palawaththa, Monash University.
Note: in a departure from our regular practice, the academic and student reviewers elected to collaborate and write a single review together.
When the force of nature renders human and national ambition obsolete, what can be done? The tentative answer, Tim Marshall suggests, is not much. At least, not until technology or fate intervenes.
Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics examines how diverse topography, climate and national interests overlap, forming an understanding of the framework that underpins international relations, events and phenomena. The book, a Sunday Times bestseller, elucidates geopolitics so that it is fit for popular consumption, comfortably fitting under the emerging ‘brainy book’ genre. Seized by the destabilising force of unstable international relations, the world is becoming increasingly difficult to comprehend, and so this introduction to geopolitics arrives with a sense of urgency.
Marshall has served as the diplomatic editor and foreign affairs editor for the British multimedia company Sky News, and has covered events in many countries and several wars. It is apparent that he is experienced and knowledgeable in his subject matter, having reported from, among other locations, the front lines of the American invasion of Afghanistan – events which Marshall alludes to throughout his book.
The book is neatly subdivided into ten sections, each an exploration of a particular region, ranging from the ‘steppe, taiga and mountains’ (p. 4) of Russia to the ‘vast deserts, oases … and coastal plains’ (p. 146) of the Middle East. Discussions centre around the regional map opening each chapter, providing a visual aid to supplement understanding as Marshall traverses the landscapes that inform the social, political and economic decisions of governments.
While the text’s overarching structure retains its linearity, the writing style often digresses as Marshall meanders through each section in a conversational and familiar manner. At times theatrical, at times edged with humour, the book is pleasantly readable despite its non-fiction label, no doubt a factor in its popularity. Amusing analogies (referring to the North European Plain as a ‘slice of pizza’ (p. 5)), personal anecdotes of time spent abroad, and curious historical facts interweave with topographical analysis, allowing Marshall’s developing argument to be accessible to lay readers on a first foray into the field of geopolitics.
The comfort afforded by this writing style, however, is not without its flaws. The digressions occasionally turn tangential and irrelevant, disrupting what would otherwise be a natural progression of the discussion. As Marshall begins to delineate the events leading up to the Mexican–American War, there is a chronologically erratic transition to the ‘cultural historical memory’ in the ‘twenty-first century’ (p. 73), before he returns to his original thoughts (‘But back to 1848’ (p. 73)). Peculiar throwaway comments and anecdotes have a similar effect. There is, for example, excessive detail about an alternate name, ‘Daesh’, for the Islamic State (IS), and the phonological basis on which IS rejects the name (‘sounds a bit like jahesh, meaning stupid ass’ (p. 159)). While comical, the gratuitous inclusion of what appears to be an irrelevant triviality derails the course of the discussion and detracts from Marshall’s otherwise compelling argument.
Prisoners of Geography demonstrates some awareness of intercultural sensitivities as it broaches the issues affecting various states. Marshall acknowledges this, recalling a conversation he had with a Chinese ambassador who once asked, ‘Why do you think your values would work in a culture you don’t understand?’ (p. 51) Later in the book there is recognition of the disenfranchisement propagated by American colonialists who ‘[denied] the native inhabitants [of] their freedom’ (p. 68). In doing so, Marshall ostensibly appreciates events from a postcolonial perspective.
However, Marshall subverts this veneer of understanding with some blunders in expression imparting Eurocentrism, as well as biased, inconsistent viewpoints that disregard cultural and historical context. There is recognition of how US intervention may not necessarily be ‘altruistic’ (p. 80), yet Marshall later contradicts himself, romanticising Washington’s ‘optimistic idea of encouraging Jeffersonian democracies to emerge’ (p. 86), as though the forcible imposition of Western ideals of democracy is sacrosanct, irrespective of cultural practice. On a similar occasion, Marshall quite reasonably argues that the borders drawn artificially by Europeans to create the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have caused significant conflict; however, he proceeds to label the country a ‘giant black hole’ that ‘should never have been put together’ (p. 125). This is a gauchely insensitive expression that undermine the integrity, assets and resilience of the nation and its citizens, as well as betraying Marshall’s own biases and callousness.
While he is merciless in his assessment of the DRC, Marshall also uses euphemistic language to downplay how the American military broke Pakistan’s integrity to kill Osama bin Laden. The US encroached upon Abbottabad without permission, yet Marshall ascribes this action to ‘Americas’ lack of trust in their Pakistani “allies”’ (p. 204). Marshall acknowledges ‘a breach of sovereignty that humiliated the military and government of Pakistan’ (p. 204), yet adds to the humiliation by calling the Pakistani Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI) stupid enough to host the Arabs of Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and then after 9/11’ falling ‘back upon the Pashtun culture of honouring guests, thus refusing to give them [Al Qaeda] up when the Americans came calling’ (p. 207; emphasis added). This lapse in language suggests an arrogance not unlike the arrogant and paternalistic US intervention. As such, Marshall presents a digestible rendition of history palatable to Western tastes, with little appreciation of alternative perspectives of events and histories.
While the relaxed, innocuous writing style means that Marshall is prone to making such gaffes, the poor expressions used are especially problematic, as the book carries no disclaimer in its introduction about potential biases in the views shared, and consequently, proceeds to assume a guise of pseudo-objectivity. Troublingly, the veneer of neutrality Marshall maintains, along with the warm conversational tone, may cause readers to be lulled into accepting the Eurocentric views uncritically, leaving the book’s want of multi-faceted perspectives of politics and history barely visible. The problematic nature of the unacknowledged politics and historical perspective of the book is further exacerbated by distorted facts and a lack of references and bibliographic data. Marshall distils complex topics to superficial overviews and over-simplifies the issues. Considering the bold nature of several of Marshall’s claims, they are supplemented by little evidence in general and the book lacks scholarly rigour; there are no in-text citations and references, leaving the bibliography notably scant. Though Marshall is undoubtably well read and knowledgeable in his field, the harshly judgemental quips scattered throughout imply either a lack of careful research and editing, or a lack of nuance and understanding of the complexities of history and politics.
Further, the central premise of the book is somewhat geographically deterministic. Marshall claims that ‘the land on which we live has always shaped us’ (p. ix), drastically affecting political spheres and diplomatic negotiations. The logical proposition that might follow is to question to what extent humans have agency over the environment, and, conversely, how restraining a force geography can be and truly is. Marshall acknowledges this existential quandary and is aware of how it could ‘be construed as a bleak view of the world’ (p. xv). The perspective he offers himself is quite pragmatic. ‘[M]odern technology is now bending the iron rules of geography’ (p. xv), however ‘geography remains crucial’ (p. xvi) in considering humankind’s inability to wrest complete control of its fate. Marshall frequently alludes to this sentiment through personifying geography (‘geography has its revenge’ (p. 13)) as though it were a visceral force capable of moulding humanity to its will. The human desire to transcend its constraints and the consequent metaphysical implications of geopolitics that Marshall refers to add a welcome layer of intrigue and complexity to his analysis. Despite the book’s flaws, the interspersed nuggets of philosophical thought acknowledge humankind’s irrevocable connection with the land that it attempts to master.
Prisoners of Geography deliberates on the interstices between global politics, topography and history to derive an explanation of why the world exists as it does. In so doing, he debunks notions of complete human agency, adding a curious philosophical dimension to his thinking. However, cynical deliberation of this thought is blunted by the speed and fervour at which Marshall covers the ten maps while maintaining his informal style. At times, the book is marred by a lack of self-awareness of its Eurocentric views, and its unnecessary tangents thwart Marshall’s ability to convey his argument. Nevertheless, the book is outstanding in its clever use of the lightest of tones to deliver the heaviest of implications, extending a complex political subject to a wider audience in a reader-friendly manner – a divide that the tedium of academia is often unable to bridge. The text is certainly an enjoyable read, brimming with insights, even if it should be examined by readers with some caution.
To cite this review please use the following details: Laug, K. and Palawaththa, S. (2018), Tim Marshall (2015), 'Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 11, Issue 2, http://www.warwick.ac.uk/reinventionjournal/archive/volume11issue2/laug-and-palawaththa Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite these reviews or use them in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.