A review of “The Power Of Geography” by Tim Marshall (2021)

Following the (deserved) success of “Prisoners Of Geography” – sub-titled “Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics” – Marshall has now produced this companion work subtitled ” Ten maps that reveal the future of our world”. While it is true that there are 10 double-page maps, there are another 15 smaller maps and the maps are supported by 325 pages of text. As before, it is immensely informative and bang up-to-date; it covers so much material in a commendably concise text; and the writing is clear while the judgements are insightful – all these attributes reflecting Marshall’s experience and skill as a British media reporter of international affairs and global conflicts. 

Marshall takes the view that that overwhelmingly geo-politics has been, and largely still is, shaped by the geographical characteristics of nations and their neighbours. While previously he looked at the major players in geo-politics – most notably, Russia, China and the USA – this time he focuses on some particular nations that sit at key points in the global political battlefield, since now : “We are entering a new age of great-power rivalry in which numerous actors, even minor players, are jostling to take centre stage”.

This assertion is illustrated in detail through 10 chapters looking at different nations, one region and space:

Australia: Although it is the sixth largest country, about 70% is uninhabitable and almost 50% of the population live in just three cities by the south-east coast. Yet it is a key ally of the United States located on the edge of a region in which the emergent super-power China is seeking to assert ever-stronger control. Consequently the country has to perform “a careful balancing act in which a misstep could have serious and lasting consequences in a region now considered to be the most economically important in the world”.

Iran: This is a country larger than Britain, France and Germany combined that is surrounded by mountains making it “a fortress”. Effectively the leader of the Shia Islamic world, it has spent 20 years creating “a corridor to the Mediterranean”through substantial influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, while fostering various Shia terrorist groups and trying to develop a nuclear capability. Marshall believes that: “Eventually there will be either an uprising which replaces the current establishment, or the establishment will slowly wither, but at the moment the authorities still have the upper hand”.

Saudi Arabia: Ever since the Saud family created the nation by force of arms (1902-1932), this country has achieved its wealth and power through its massive oil reserves, but the world is moving away from fossil fuels, so diversification and modernisation are belatedly on the agenda. The Saudis see themselves as the leaders of the Sunni Muslim world, but the fundamentalist version of Islam that they promote (Wahhabism) is followed by less than 40% of Saudis themselves and has spawned the likes of Bin Laden and ISIS.

The United Kingdom: Marshall seems relaxed about the impact of Brexit: “The UK remains a leading second-tier power in economic, political and military terms”. But he thinks that there is a real possibility of Scotland leaving the UK and opines “a case can be made that if Scotland does leave, the damage to the UK’s international standing would be worse than that caused by it leaving the EU”.

Greece: This is a country which includes over 6,000 islands, most of them stretching across the Aegean Sea to the very coastline of the ancient enemy Turkey. Historically the Greeks remember some four centuries of occupation by the Ottomans, the Greek War of Independence of 1821-1829 and the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. Today the country sees itself as a defence against a hostile Russian Navy trying to break out of the Black Sea, a front line in Europe’s migrant crisis, and a crucial transit route for gas pipelines coming out of the eastern Mediterranean. 

Turkey: All that remains of the once huge and long-lasting Ottoman Empire is modern-day Turkey, but Marshall believes that “There are clear signs of ‘neo-Ottomanism’ in its ambitions to expand its control and influence as power is once more being projected in all directions with significant repercussions in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia”. Perhaps most immediately there is the problem of Turkey’s truculent position in NATO and he argues that “Turkey is now at best a ‘semi-detached’ NATO member”.

The Sahel: This is a region of Africa south of the Sahara and north of the rainforests which embraces most notably large parts of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan. Marshall describes it as “one of the most troubled, poor and environmentally damaged places on the planet” and he highlights the growth of radical Islamic terrorism and the struggles over natural resources including rare-earth materials.

Ethiopia: This is the second most populous country in Africa (after Nigeria) with nine major ethnic groups and more than 80 languages. Water defines its geopolitical position: it has no coastline and frequently suffers droughts, but the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile is Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant and could improve the nation’s economic standards and mitigate its ethnic divisions. 

Spain: This kingdom – twice the size of the UK – brought together in the 1500s is still haunted by “the spectre of violent regional nationalism”, most notably in Galicia, Catalonia and the Basque Country and to a lesser extent in Andalusia. As Marshall underlines: “An independent Catalonia would embolden those campaigning for an independent Corsica, Scotland, Flanders, Sicily, Bavaria etc”.

Space: In a final chapter which sits rather oddly in a book on geography, Marshall takes a fascinating look at space and posits two models: national competition (all 12 men to have walked on the moon were American) or international co-operation (more than 240 men and women from 19 countries have visited the International Space Station). He considers the weaponisation of space and argues that “War in space could be earth-shattering”


XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>