Saturday, 15 October 2016

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

Read an interesting book on geopolitics called “Prisoners of Geography” by journalist Tim Marshall.
The book looks at how geopolitical factors (e.g. geography, climate, natural resources, demographics) affect how states act, taking a number of countries around the world as examples. Geopolitics is very much a long term game, with countries thinking about the next hundred years and knowing that much can change in this timeframe.
This post looks at some of these examples, together with some extra linkage and bloggage.

Originally a small nation centred around Moscow, Russia began to expand quickly when Ivan the Terrible became the first Tsar in 1533, first to the east towards the Pacific then, under Peter the Great from 1721, towards the west, taking over the Baltic states.

The huge strategic depth that Russia now had made it difficult to attack, as Napoleon and Hitler found to their cost.

After WW2, Russia built up a buffer zone of friendly states in Eastern Europe, but the break-up of the Soviet Union has resulted in most of these states joining NATO or the EU – with American troops now stationed close to Russians borders. Russia says that NATO gave assurances that it would not expand towards Russia. NATO says that it did not.

Russia’s huge asian lands, east of the Urals, are populated by just 31 million people – Marshall comments on how these areas may come under Chinese influence in the coming years, as Chinese businesses come to the areas.

Map of Russia

One of Russia’s biggest strategic concerns is its lack of warm water ports from which it can trade and project its power. The Arctic ports are frozen for many months of the year, as is Vladivostok in the east. Peter the Great recognised this and advised, in his will, that future leaders should “approach as near as possible to Contantinople and India”.

Russia acted to occupy the Crimea in Ukraine because it could not afford to lose its warm water port and naval base at Sevastopol there, even though its access to the Altantic was via the Bosphorus which is controlled by Turkey.

In recent year, Russia’s most powerful weapon has been its oil and gas supplies to western Europe. Finland is 100% dependant of Russian gas, Germany is 50% dependent. The UK, just 13%.

European countries are understandably nervous about this situation and have started to build Liquified Natural Gas terminals (or pipelines to these terminals), to have access to shipborne deliveries from the US, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Like Russia, China grew outwards from a vulnerable location populated by the Han people in the central plain and managed to reach natural barriers such as the Gobi desert to the north and the Himalayas to the west.

The west is also where the high plains of Tibet lie, from which flow three of China’s most important rivers. Marshall comments that China feels it cannot afford to have this area controlled by anyone else – in particular its neighbour India – and this is one reason it incorporated Tibet as an autonomous region in 1951. As in many other autonomous regions, there has been a policy of settling Han into the area, which has provoked protests from native Tibetans. The recent completion of a railway into Tibet – a huge technical achievement – has increased the movement of goods into and out of Tibet as well as bringing more Han settlers.

Map of China and surrounding area

Marshall also talks about how the seas to the east and south of China are full of potential choke points and competing territorial claims which could deny China the ability to export goods or import raw materials at a time of tension. In response to this, China is now developing a “blue water” navy – one that can project power across an ocean and that the way the interactions play out between this increasingly powerful Chinese naval force and the US Pacific navy could have significant effects on Sino-US relations. In addition, China is developing ports and transport routes in neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Burma.

Marshall comments on how, during its formation, one of it’s key geopolitical concerns was the port of New Orleans, through which flowed huge amounts of sea trade from (and into) the Mississippi basin (which stretches north to the Canadian border and covers a large part of continental United States). First buying Louisiana from France in 1803, then annexing Texas from Mexico in 1845. In the meantime, the US managed to reach the Pacific when Spain ceded all territory above the 42nd parallel.

After WW2, the US set up forward bases around the world, including in Italy, Germany, Japan, Korea and elsewhere.

Marshall suggests that, with US dependency on foreign oil declining, and with its population increasingly from Mexico and the Far East, the focus of the US will move away from the Middle East, perhaps with questions being asked about the requirement to retain facilities such as a naval base in Bahrain.

Map of USA, showing key territorial aquisitions

Marshall comments on how France had no serious threat of invasion until Germany unified in 1815; that unified Germany was nervous about having powerful France one on side and powerful Russia on the other; and that Poland (when it actually existed as a distint country was nervous about being overrun by Germany as it attacked Russia or vice versa.

Regarding the EU, Marshall says that
“What is now the EU was set up so that France and Germany could hug each other so tightly in a loving embrace that neither would be able to get an arm free with which to punch the other. It was worked brilliantly and created…the biggest economy in the world”

Helmut Kohl, the last European leader to have lived through WW2, has written that

"The evil spirits of the past have by no means been banished, they can always return. That means: Europe remains a question of war and peace and the desire for peace remains the driving force behind European integration. ..For those who didn't live through this themselves and who especially now in the crisis are asking what benefits Europe's unity brings, the answer despite the unprecedented European period of peace lasting more than 65 years and despite the problems and difficulties we must still overcome is: peace."

Map of Europe

Other comments
“Prisoners of Geography” also discusses geopolitics in Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America and The Arctic.

A theme that is repeated in the section on Africa and the Middle East in particular is that many of the issues these regions face had their seeds sown in the way European powers drew arbitrary lines on maps to create nation states – in great contrast to the way previous powers, such as the Ottoman Empire, had governed the areas in a way that was sympathetic to the location of the differing communities there.

Image Sources
Russia, China,