Review: Prisoners of Geography

Tim Marshall, author of Prisoners of Geography, is an old had covering foreign policy for the BBC et al. He’s been around the block physically and philosophically and Prisoners does an excellent job showing readers how those link.

The theme of Prisoners is relating the physical shape of nations to their goals and actions as collective entities.  Marshall is not the first to make those kind of connections. His experience with both the reporting and reality of foreign policy sparks Prisoners into something special.

His discussions of how geography shapes the goals and actions of China, America, and Europe are clear and enlightening.  The first place his expertise deepens the analysis is in the discussion of  Russia’s long term motivations. His explanation of  how those motivations shaped Russia’s/Putin’s choices in the recent annexation of the Crimea sparkle. There is nothing like hearing the motivations of the nations, their leaders, and their people from someone who has done the hard work to understand them beyond a surface level.  The Crimean situation and Russia’s perspective are much clearer to me.

As good as the description of Russia is, the chapters on the Indian subcontinent and on Japan and Korea really shine. In particular, my understanding of the players and moves in Pakistan and Afghanistan is much, much clearer.  I’m interested in foreign policy and my eyes glaze over when experts try to explain the relationships in Pak-/Afhgan- istan.  Marshall sifts the facts to identify the key players – who only partially conform to the borders on the map and completely to the shape of the land – to illuminate their motivations, and to lay out their actions.  Actions that seemed random then seem direct now.  The descriptions of the history and motivations on the Korean peninsula is in the same league.


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