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Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

The full title of this wonderfully informative and sympathetically written jewel is Prisoners of Geography: Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics. Tim Marshall has a list of credentials the length of his driveway: his blog, for instance, Foreign Matters, won the Orwell Prize in 2010. I like Tim Marshall because he writes like a genuine teacher; he wants you to get it and so used simple language and clear reasoning.

In fewer than thirty pages he explains why Vladimir Putin appears to many Europeans to be aggressive, war-like, a sabre-rattler, a Cold Warrior as it were and why such an impression might be said to be simplistic. It’s mostly about geography with a generous smattering of history. Marshall reminds us that geopolitics haven’t gone away, even in this, our 21st century.

Russia, he won’t let us forget, is “vastest.” However, it’s mostly snow. The Western end is where all the action is it seems. Some of the story I already knew. The end of the Second World War saw Russia occupy most of what Germany had taken during the war but soon enough NATO put paid to any especially grandiose designs The Bear had on Europe. Even its answering military fraternity, The Warsaw Pact, broke apart and most of it members joined NATO. ¬†Putin laments the subsequent break-up of the USSR and blames Gorbachev for weakening Russia. Russia has genuine national security concerns in Ukraine because of the behaviour of NATO and the EU.

But while no power would ever consider invading Russia unless it deemed it utterly necessary due to all that size and snow, there are several ways to skin a bear. The EU, for instance, is actively trying to decrease its reliance on Russian gas by building ports capable of receiving LNG – liquefied natural gas – from the US.

This is just the bit about Russia. There are chapters on China, the USA, Western Europe and more; there’s even one about The Arctic. Russia is way out ahead there, the most capable of taming that beast. America, an Arctic country, is bereft of any strategy and this is a mistake, Marshall asserts confidently, because the effects of melting ice will be global. (One wonders if Donald Trump’s administration is likely to care.)

On Africa Marshall provides some interesting eye-openers: we use the standard Mercator world map which shows flat surfaces on a curved sphere and so countries are distorted. Africa is far, far bigger than this familiar map suggests. The author makes beautifully fluid, aerodynamic observations that instantly demystify places or at least quickly begin to help us demystify them. He explains that the top third of Africa is different to the bottom two thirds, the former being mostly Muslim while there is diversity generally elsewhere.

Marshall has written a marvellously useful and readable book. It would be a cliche to say that never has there been a more appropriate time to read it; nevertheless, considering recent events in the US and the growing spectre of global warming and resource-led conflict, as well myriad other concerns, one could do a lot worse when trying to keep up than read Prisoners of Geography.

R.E.