Tag: geopolitics

Divided – Why we’re living in an age of walls

I have previously blogged about one of Tim Marshall’s other books, Prisoners of Geography, this can be read here. He has also published another book Worth Dying For: The Power of Politics and Flags; I have read this but not put my notes on the blog. Over half term I devoted some to reading his most recent novel – Divided: Why we’re living in an age of walls.

This book, like Tim’s other books, is a great primer in global geopolitics. It is an accessible global tour which looks at walls through the theme of walls. Although the focus is on walls (both physical and virtual) the novel explores wider themes of togetherness and the identity of the nation-state.

In the paragraphs that follow I have attempted to summarise some of the key points of the article.

“Today, no walls can seperate humanitarian or human rights crisis in one part of the world from national security crisis in another. What begins wiht the failur to uphold the dignity of one life all too often ends with a calamity for entire nations.” – Kofi Annan

There is a surge to build more walls. ‘In recent years, the cry ‘Tear down this wall’ is using this argument against ‘fortress mentality’. It is struggling to be heard, unable to compete with the frightening heights of mass migration, the backlash against globalisation the resurgence of nationalism, the collapse of Communism and the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. These are the fault lines that will shape our world for years to come. Thousands of miles of walls and fences have gone up around the world in the twenty-first century. At least sixty-five countries, more than a third of the world’s nation-states have built barriers along their borders; half of those erected since the Second World War sprang up between 2000 and now. Within a few years, the European nations could have more miles of walls, fences and barriers on their borders than there were at the height of the Cold War.


Division shapes politics at every level – the personal, local, national and international. It’s essential to be aware of what has divided us, and what continues to do so, in order to understand what’s going on in the world today.


The book takes a regional approach and looks at a number of different case studies.




Let’s say your family is registered as non-agricultural Shanghai. This immediately gives you access to a wide range of health and education services in the city. For example, according to a paper in the China Economic Review, funding per pupil in Beijing in 1998 was twelve times greater than in Guizhou province, the ratio then increases to fifteen in 2001. O”n the other hand, if your family is registered as agricultural from a farming region 1,000 miles west of Shanghai, the schools have access to are way below the standard of those in Shanghai, as is the limited range of social services. Moreover, your work consists of back-breaking labour, which sometimes results only in subsidence farming.


As recently as 2005, only 10 percent of the population had access to the internet. Now, however, the figure is 50 percent and rising. That’s about 700 million users, which is roughly a quarter of the world’s online population. And that is harder to control. The level of censorship varies between the regions; for example, in Tibet and Xinjiang the firewalls are both higher and deeper. A university student in Shanghai might get away with using a VPN to access a banned foreign news source, but no one in the Uighur capital of Urumqi would probably receive an invitation to discuss the technology at the city policy HQ.


United States


For months, Mr. Trump has been promising to build a wall on the US-Mexico border to help curb illegal immigration into the USA. Though he appears mostly to ‘consult his own genius’, even before he entered the White House he was informed of the expense of wall building, the political opposition to it and, of equal importance, the terrain upon which the wall was to be built. Speeches about ‘a wall, a great big beautiful wall’ played well with his core support, but that is a poor basis upon which to found a massive engineering project, and the plans in his head soon ran into a wall of reality – and the quicksand of Washington DC.


The Great Wall of China aimed to separate the civilized world from the barbarians; Trump’s wall aims to separate Americans from non-Americans. IT’s the concept of the nation that units Americans- and now, for some, Trump’s wall signifies the preservation and sanctity of that concept. It ensures the idea of making ‘America Great Again’ and symbolises the support that exists for putting ‘America First’.


Ultimately, very few barriers are impenetrable. People are resourceful, and those desperate enough will find a way around, under or over them. Extra barriers simply push would-be illegal immigrants further and further into unguarded, unpopulated areas. These are often in the desert and usually have to be crossed on foot, meaning that thousands of people die from exposure as they attempt to make it to the Promised Land.


Other presidents have fortified the border with Mexico, but Trump’s wall is particularly divisive because it represents a specific moment in US history. The politics of building the wall isn’t just about keeping Mexicans out. A border defines a nation, and Trump’s wall is attempting to define what America is – both physically and ideologically.


The chapter on the United States ends when Tim Marshall quotes Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention:
‘The pundits like to slice and dice our country into … red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats … But I’ve got news for them … We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and yes, we’ve got gay friends in the red states … We are one people”.




On India’s frontier with Bangladesh is the longest border fence in the world. It runs along most of the 2,500-miles boundary which India warps around its much smaller neighbour; the only part of Bangladesh completely free of it is its 360-mile -long coast at the Bay of Bengal. The fence zigzags from the Bay northwards, along mostly flattish ground, up towards the more hilly country near Nepal and Bhutan, takes a right turn along the top of the country, then drops down south again, often through heavily forested areas, back to the sea. It passes through plains and jungle, beside rivers and over hills. The territories on each side are heavily populated and in many areas the ground is cultivated as close to the barrier as possible, which means the crops grown often touch the divide.


Despite these measures, the Indian fence fails to stop people from trying to cross. They continue to do so despite the barbed wire, and despite the fact that border guards have shot dead hundreds of people attempting to get into India, as well as many other wanting to return to Bangladesh surreptitiously after being in India illegally.  (Page 124)


India is a magnet for migrants. It is a democracy, there are laws to protect minorities, and compared to its neighbours it has a thriving economy. Refugees and illegal immigrants have flocked there from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), Tibet, Pakistan and Bangladesh. There are least 110,000 Tibetans who have fled since China annexed their territory in 1951, around 100,000 Tamil Sri Lankans who arrived during the island’s civil war earlier this century and the up heavily in Afghanistan have seen a steady flow of people to India. But by far the greatest number of immigrants are from Bangladesh, which is surrounded by India on three sides.


In the twenty-first century Indian society is far from ‘deadened’ – indeed India is a vibrant, increasingly important country, embracing a range of high-tech industries – and yet within it are millions of barriers to progress for tens of millions of its citizens. The walls around India are designed to keep people out, and this within to keep people down.




There’s a wall at the top of Africa. It is a wall of sand, of shame and of silence. The Moroccan Wall runs for 1,700 miles through  Western Sahara and not parts of Morocco. The whole construction separates what Morocco terms its Southern Provinces along the Atlantic coast from the Free Zone in the desert interior – an area the Sahrawi people call the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. It is built of sand piled almost 7 feet high, with a backing tranch and millions of landmines stretching several miles into the desert on each side of the barrier. It is thought to be the longest continuous minefield in the world. Every three miles or so there is a Moroccan Army outpost containing up to forty troops, some of whom patrol the spaces between the bases, while two and a half miles back from each major post are rapid-reaction mobile units, and behind those artillery bases.


Independence movements struggle for recognition and self-determination. The idea of the nation-state, having developed in Europe, spread like wildfire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, calling for the self-determining government for a ‘nation’ of people – a group who to some degree share a historic, ethnic, cultural, geographical or linguistic community.


The first generation of leaders of the independent African states understood that any attempt to redraw the colonial maps might lead to hundreds of mini-wars, and so decided they would work with the existing lines in the hope that they could build genuine nation states and thus reduce ethnic divisions. However, most leaders then failed to implement policies to unit their peoples within these borders, instead relying on brute force and repeating the colonialists’ trick of divide and rule. The many different peoples thrown together in these newly minted nation-states had not had the beneficial experience of settling their differences and coming other over centuries. Some states are still struggling with contradictions built into their systems by colonialism.




Tim also presents an interesting viewpoint on the Berlin Wall. Nevertheless, the wall, judged by its raison d’être, can be called a success. It not known how many successfully crossed, but it is estimated that the figure is only around 5,000; the mass exodus had been halted. The East German economy began to stabilise after its workforce was imprisoned, and by the mid-1960s the state had control over its trade and currency and was capable of functioning, along with the rest of the Russian empire’s vassal states.  (Berlin Wall)




Hadrian’s Wall must have been quite a sight for the ‘primitive’ island times. Built-in 122 CE, it was m73 miles long and parts of it were 15 feet high and 10 feet deep. A 13 foot deep, 30 foot-wide-fighting fetch was dug in front of it. Between the two were thickets of spikes. Over the course of 1,500 years, Hadrian’s Wall, a symbol of the great reach of the Roman Empire – as well as its limitations – almost disappeared. After the Romans left, it fell into disrepair. Farmers took bits of it to build house and sheep pens, the burgeoning Christian communities took more for churches, and little by little, as the memory of the Romans in Britain faded, so did their wall crumble into the landscape they had sought to conquer. And even now, in the twenty-first century, with much of the wall long gone, even though most of it actually lies south of the Scottish border, the Roman fortification still symbolises one of the main divisions in what, paradoxically, remains the United Kingdom.


The book concludes with a proverb ‘Good fences make good neighbours’. We are planning for a future in which we hope for the best and fear the worst, and because we fear, we build walls. Tim Marshall concludes by saying “so although at present the nationalism and identity politics are once again on the rise, there is the potential for the arc of history to bend back towards unity.

“Each man is an island unto himself. But thorugh a sea of difference may divide us, an entire world of commonality lies beneath.” – James Rozoff

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

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

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 Arctic

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.