Notes from ‘Prisoners of Geography’
This book is an interesting read that looks at the impact of Geography on global politics; I have made some notes from my reading. However there is much more in the book that I left out of my notes!
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 in habitants of this planet will to some degree always be shaped by the rivers, mountains, deserts, lake and seas that constrain as all -as they always have.
There are numerous examples of how different countries are limited by there geography, for example the author states that “In Russia we see the influence of the Arctic, and how its freezing climate limits Russia’s ability to be a truly global power. In China we see the limitation of power without a global navy.” Or alternatively how geographical decisions in the past impact the future: “The conflict in Iraq and Syria is rooted in colonial powers ignoring the rules of geography, whereas the Chinese occupation of Tibet is rooted in obeying them; America’s global foreign policy is dictated by them” These claims, among others made in the introduction are later discussed in further chapters.
Russia is not an Asian power for many reasons. 75 per cent of its territory is in Asia, only 22 per cent of its population lives there. Siberia may be Russia’s ‘treasure chest’, containing the majority of the mineral wealth, oil, and gas, but it is a harsh land, freezing for months on end, with vast forest (taiga), poor soil for farming and large stretches of swampland. Only two railway networks run west to earth. There are few transport routs leading north to south and so no easy way for Russia to project power southward into modern Mongolia or China; it lacks the manpower and supply lines to do so.
Until now China has never been a naval power- with its large land mass, multiple borders and short sea routes to trading partners, it had no need to be, and it was rarely ideologically expansive. Its merchants have long sailed the oceans to trade goods, btus its navy did not seek territory beyond its region, and the difficulty of patrolling the great sea lanes of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans was not worth the effort. It was always a land power, with a lot of land and a lot of people – now nearly 1.4 billion.
[The reason for the Chinese control of Tibet] is the geopolitics of fear. IF China did not control Tibet, it would be 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.
China has locked itself into the global economy. If we don’t buy, they don’t make. And if they don’t make there will be mass unemployment. If there is mass and long-term unemployment, in an age when the Chinese are a people packed into urban areas, the inevitable social unrest could be – like everything else in modern China – on a scale hitherto unseen.
Western Europe has no real deserts, the frozen wasters are confined to a few areas in the far north, and earthquakes, volcanoes and massive flooding are rare. The rivers are long, flat , navigable and made for trade. As they empty into a variety of seas and oceans they flow into coast lines which are, west, north and south, abundant in natural harbours.
Greece suffers due to its geography. Much of the coastline comprises steep cliffs and there are few coastal plains for agriculture. Inland are more steep cliffs, rivers which will not allow transportation, and few wide, fertile valleys. What agricultural land there is is of high quality; the problem is that there is too little of it to allow Greece to become a major agricultural exporter, or to develop more than a handful of major urban areas containing highly educated, highly skilled and technologically advanced populations.
Geographically, the Brits are in a good place. Good farmland, decent rives, excellent access to the seas and their fish stocks, close enough to the European Continent to trade and yet protected by dint of being an island race – there have been times when the UK gave thanks for its geography as wars and revolutions wept over its neighbours.
Africa’s coastline? Great beaches, really, really, really loverly beaches, but terrible natural harbours. Rivers? Amazing rivers but most of them are rubbish for actually transporting anything, given that every few miles you go over a waterfall.
As long ago as the fifth century BCE the historian Herodotus said: ‘Egypt is the Nile, and the Nile is Egypt.’ It is still true, and so a threat to the supply to Egypt’s 700-mile-long, fully navigable section of the Nile is for Cairo a concern – one over which it would be prepared to go to ware. Without the Nile, there would be no one there. It may be a huge country, but the vast majority of its 84 million population lives within a few miles of the Nile. Measured by the area in which people dwell, Egypt is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
The Africa of the past was given no choice – its geography shaped it – and then the Europeans engineered most of today’s borders. Now with its booming populations and developing mega-cities, it has no choice but to embrace the modern globalised world to which it is so connected.
The Middle East
The Middle of What? East of Where? The region’s very name is based on a European view of the world, and it is a European view of the region that shaped it. The Europeans used ink to draw lines on maps: they were lines that did not exist in reality and created some of the most artificial borders the world has seen.
Groups such as Al Qaeda and, more recently, Islamic State have garnered what support they have partially because of the humiliation caused by colonialism and then the failure of pan-Arab nationalism – and to an extent the Arab nation state. Arab leaders have failed to deliver prosperity or freedom, and the siren call of Islamism, which promises to solve all problems, has proved attractive to many in a region marked by a toxic mix of piety, unemployment and repression.
In impoverished societies with few accountable institutions, power rests with gangs disguised as ‘militia’ and ‘political parties’. While they fight for power, sometimes cheered on by naive Western sympathisers many innocent people die.
India and Pakistan
India and Pakistan can agree on one thing: neither wants the other one around. This is somewhat problematic given they share a 900-mile long border.
Pakistan is geographically, economically, demographically and militarily weaker than India. Its national identity is also not as strong. India, despite its size, cultural diversity, and secessionist movements, has built a solid secular democracy with a unified sense of Indian identity. Pakistan wis an Islamic state with a history of dictatorship and populations whose loyalty is often more to their cultural region than to the state.
With India, it always comes back to Pakistan, and with Pakistan, to India.
How do you solve a problem like Korea? You don’t, you just manage it – after all, there’s a lot of other stuff going on around the world which needs immediate attention.
North Korea is a poverty-stricken country of an estimated 25 million people, led by a basket case of a morally corrupt, bankrupt Communist monarchy, and supported by China, partly out of a fear of millions of refugees flooding north across the Yalu River. The USA, anxious that a military withdrawal would send out the wrong signal and embolden North Korean adventurism, continues to station almost 30,00 troops in South Korea, and the South, with mixed feelings about risking its prosperity, continues to do little to advance reunification.
The geography of the peninsula is fairly uncomplicated and a reminder of how artificial the division is between North and South. The real (broad-brush) split is west to east. The west of the peninsula is much flatter than the east and is where the majority of people life. The east has the Hamgyon mountain range in the north and lower ranges in the south. The demilitarised zone (DMZ), which cuts the peninsular in half, in parts follows the path of the Imjin-gang River, but this was never a natural barrier between two entities, just a river within a unified geographical space all too frequently entered by foreigners.
Latin America, particularly its south, is proof that you can bring the Old World’s knowledge and technology to the new, but if geography is against you, then you will have limited success, especially if you get the politics wrong. Just as the geography of the USA helped it become a great power, so that of the twenty countries to the south ensures that none will rise to seriously challenge the North American giant this century nor come together to do so collectively.
The River Amazon may be navigable in parts, but its banks are muddy and the surrounding land makes it difficult to build on. This problem, too, seriously limits the amount of profitable land available.
The effects of global warming are now showing more than ever in the Arctic: the ice is melting, allowing easier access to the region, coinciding with the discovery of energy deposits and the development of technology to get at them – all of which has focused the Arctic nations’ attention on the potential gains and losses to be made in the world’s most difficult environment.
the Arctic Ocean is 5.4 million square miles; this might make it the world’s smallest ocean but it is still almost as big as Russia, and one and a half times the size of the USA.
There currently are at least nine legal disputes and claims over sovereignty in the Arctic Ocean, all legally complicated, and some with the potential to cause serious tensions between the nations. One of the most brazen comes from the Russians: Moscow has already put a marker down – a long way down. In 2007 it sent two manned submersibles 13,980 feet below the waves to the seabed of the North Pole and planted a rust-proof titanium Russian flag as a statement of ambition.
Perhaps the Arctic will turn out to be just another battleground for the nation states – after all, wars are started by fear of the other as well as by greed; but the Arctic is different, and so perhaps how it is dealt with will be different.