Derek Sivers

Prisoners of Geography - by Tim Marshall

Prisoners of Geography - by Tim Marshall

ISBN: 1501121472
Date read: 2019-10-15
How strongly I recommend it: 7/10
(See my list of 200+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

The world's cultures and politics are this way because of geography : oceans, rivers, mountains, deserts, farmable land, etc. Fascinating for me because I'd never looked at this world this way before.

my notes

Geopolitics looks at the ways in which international affairs can be understood through geographical factors:
Climate, demographics, cultural regions, and access to natural resources.

China and India never have fought each other. Why? Because between them is the highest mountain range in the world.

Leaders, ideas, technology, are temporary.
The rules of geography still apply to today’s leaders.
It doesn’t matter if the ideology of those in control is czarist, Communist, or crony capitalist - the ports still freeze, and the North European Plain is still flat.

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.

High up in the Urals there is a cross marking the place where Europe stops and Asia starts. When the skies are clear, it is beautiful.

“Are you European or are you Asian?”
“Neither - I am Russian.”

Although 75 percent of Russia’s territory is in Asia, only 22 percent of its population lives there.
The empty depopulating spaces of Russia’s Far East are even more likely to come under Chinese cultural, and eventually political, control.
China may well eventually control parts of Siberia in the long run.

Vladivostok, the largest Russian port on the Pacific Ocean, is ice-locked for about four months and is enclosed by the Sea of Japan, which is dominated by the Japanese. This does not just halt the flow of trade; it prevents the Russian fleet from operating as a global power.

Sevastopol is Russia’s only true major warm-water port.
Having annexed Crimea, the Russians are building up the Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol and constructing a new naval port in the Russian city of Novorossiysk, which, although it does not have a natural … strong enough to break out of the Black Sea during wartime.

Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires.

Russia is at a geographical disadvantage, saved from being a much weaker power only because of its oil and gas.

When the Soviet Union broke apart, it split into fifteen countries.
Geography had its revenge on the ideology of the Soviets, and a more logical picture reappeared on the map, one where mountains, rivers, lakes, and seas delineate where people live, how they are separated from each other and, thus, how they developed different languages and customs.
The exception to this rule are the “stans,” such as Tajikistan, whose borders were deliberately drawn by Stalin so as to weaken each state by ensuring it had large minorities of people from other states.

Russia also controls the central heating in the homes of the Baltic people. It can set the price people pay for their heating bills each month, and, if it chooses, simply turn the heating off.

The cooling relationship between Russia and the West is already the New Cold War.

25 percent of Europe’s gas and oil comes from Russia; but often the closer a country is to Moscow, the greater its dependency. This in turn reduces that country’s foreign policy options. Latvia, Slovakia, Finland, and Estonia are 100 percent reliant on Russian gas; the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Lithuania are 80 percent dependent; and Greece, Austria, and Hungary 60 percent.
The better your relations with Russia, the less you pay for energy.

China is a civilization pretending to be a nation.

Until now China has never been a naval power - with its large landmass, multiple borders.
It had no need to be, and it was rarely ideologically expansive.

The geopolitics of fear:
If China did not control Tibet, it would 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.
Tibet is known as “China’s Water Tower.”

“What is the impact of the French Revolution?” to which the prime minister replied, “It’s too soon to tell.”

Why do you think your values would work in a culture you don’t understand?

China also intends to become a two-ocean power (Pacific and Indian).
To achieve this, China is investing in deep-water ports in Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka

In Europe, winter actually adds a bonus, with temperatures warm enough to work in but cold enough to kill off many of the germs.

Europe’s major rivers do not meet.
This partly explains why there are so many countries in what is a relatively small space.
Because they do not connect, most of the rivers act, at some point, as boundaries.

The contrast between northern and southern Europe is also at least partly attributable to the fact that the south has fewer coastal plains suitable for agriculture, and has suffered more from drought and natural disasters than the north.

France is the only European country to be both a northern and southern power.

Spain is also struggling, and has always struggled because of its geography. Its narrow coastal plains have poor soil, and access to markets is hindered internally by its short rivers and the Meseta Central.

There are about 1,400 Greek islands. 200 are inhabited.
It takes a decent navy just to patrol this territory, never mind one strong enough to deter any attempt to take the islands over.
The result is a huge cost in military spending that Greece cannot afford.

The Balkan countries’ mountainous terrain led to the emergence of so many small states in the region, and is one of the things that has kept them from integrating.

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.

Africa’s coastline? Great beaches - really, really lovely beaches - but terrible natural harbors.
Rivers? Amazing rivers, but most of them are worthless for actually transporting anything, given that every few miles you go over a waterfall.
These are just two in a long list of problems that helps explain why Africa isn’t technologically or politically as successful as Western Europe or North America.

The Europeans then took maps of the contours of Africa’s geography and drew lines on them - or, to take a more aggressive approach, lies.
The ethnic conflicts within Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Mali, and elsewhere are evidence that the European idea of geography did not fit the reality of Africa’s demographics.
There may have always been conflict: the Zulus and Xhosas had their differences long before they had ever set eyes on a European. But colonialism forced those differences to be resolved within an artificial structure - the European concept of a nation state.
The modern civil wars are now partially a result of the colonialists’ having told different nations that they were one nation in one state, and then after the colonialists were chased out, a dominant people emerged within the state who wanted to rule it all, thus ensuring violence.

The notion that a man from a certain area could not travel across a region to see a relative from the same tribe unless he had a document, granted to him by a third man he didn’t know in a faraway town, made little sense. The idea that the document was issued because a foreigner had said the area was now two regions and had made up names for them.

In 1916, the British diplomat Colonel Sir Mark Sykes took a grease pencil and drew a crude line across a map of the Middle East. It ran from Haifa on the Mediterranean in what is now Israel to Kirkuk (now in Iraq) in the northeast. It became the basis of his secret agreement with his French counterpart François Georges-Picot to divide the region into two spheres of influence should the Triple Entente defeat the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. North of the line was to be under French control, south of it under British hegemony.
The term Sykes-Picot has become shorthand for the various decisions made in the first third of the twentieth century, which betrayed promises given to tribal leaders and which partially explains the unrest and extremism of today. This explanation can be overstated, though: there was violence and extremism before the Europeans arrived.

One of the biggest failures of European line drawing lies in the center of the continent, the giant black hole known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo - the DRC.
The DRC is not developing, nor does it show any signs of doing so. The DRC should never have been put together; it has fallen apart and is the most underreported war zone in the world, despite the fact that six million people have died there during wars that have been fought since the late 1990s. The DRC is neither democratic nor a republic.
The people are divided into more than two hundred ethnic groups.
Belgian colonial rule was ruthlessly brutal.
The population lives in poverty. In 2014, the United Nations’ Human Development Index placed the DRC at number 186 out of 187 countries it measured.

Egypt is the Nile, and the Nile is Egypt.
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.

There are hardly any trees in Egypt, and for most of history, if you didn’t have trees you couldn’t build a great navy.

Ethiopia is sometimes called Africa’s water tower, due to its high elevation, and has more than twenty dams fed by the rainfall in its highlands.
In 2011, Addis Ababa announced a joint project with China to build a massive hydroelectric project on the Blue Nile near the Sudanese border called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, scheduled to be finished by 2020. The dam will be used to create electricity, and the flow to Egypt should continue; but in theory the dam could also hold a year’s worth of water, and completion of the project would give Ethiopia the potential to hold the water for its own use, thus drastically reducing the flow into Egypt.
As things stand, Egypt has a more powerful military, but that is slowly changing, and Ethiopia, a country of 96 million people, is a growing power. Cairo knows this, and also that, once the dam is built, destroying it would create a flooding catastrophe in both Ethiopia and Sudan.
Water wars are considered to be among the imminent conflicts this century, and this is one to watch.

Angola is second only to Saudi Arabia as the biggest supplier of crude oil to China.

Chinese are everywhere, they mean business, and they are now every bit as involved across Africa as the Europeans and Americans.
Chinese involvement is an attractive proposition for many African governments. Beijing and the big Chinese companies don’t ask difficult questions about human rights, and they don’t demand economic reform or even suggest that certain African leaders stop stealing their countries’ wealth, as the IMF or World Bank might.

South Africa is more developed than many African nations, thanks to its location at the very southern tip of the continent with access to two oceans; its natural wealth of gold, silver, and coal; and a climate and land that allow for large-scale food production.
South Africa is one of the very few African countries that do not suffer from the curse of malaria, as mosquitoes find it difficult to breed there.

The Arabian Desert is the largest continuous sand desert in the world, incorporating an area the size of France.

The most important division within Islam is almost as old as the religion itself: the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims dates back to 632 CE, when the prophet Muhammad died, leading to a dispute over his succession. The Sunni Muslims form the majority - 85 percent of the total.
Upon the death of the prophet, those who would become Sunni argued that his successor should be chosen using Arab tribal traditions. They regard themselves as Orthodox Muslims.
The name Shia derives from shiat Ali, literally “the party of Ali,” and refers to the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. Ali and his sons, Hassan and Hussein, were all assassinated and thus denied what the Shia feel was their birthright - to lead the Islamic community.
From this sprang several doctrinal disputes and cultural practices dividing the two main branches of Islam that have led to disputes and warfare, although there have also been long periods of peaceful coexistence. There are also divisions within the division.

Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. In antiquity, the regions very roughly corresponding to the above were known as Assyria, Babylonia, and Sumer. When the Persians controlled the space they divided it in a similar way, as did Alexander the Great, and later the Umayyad dynasty.
The British looked at the same area and divided the three into one, a logical impossibility Christians can resolve through the Holy Trinity, but which in Iraq has resulted in an “unholy” mess.
Many analysts say that only a strong man could unite these three areas into one country, and Iraq had one strong man after another.
But in reality the people were never unified; they were only frozen with fear.


The Kashmir issue is partially one of national pride, but it is also strategic. Full control of Kashmir would give India a window into central Asia and a border with Afghanistan. It would also deny Pakistan a border with China and thus diminish the usefulness of a Chinese-Pakistani relationship.

China wanted Tibet, both to prevent India from having it, and to prevent an independent Tibet allowing India to base military forces there.

The Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh: China claims it as “south Tibet.” As China’s confidence grows, so does the amount of territory there it says is Chinese.

N + S Korea: The economic costs of reunification will be borne by South Korea. The costs would hold back the economy of a united peninsula for a decade, risking the prosperity of one of the world’s most advanced nations.

Japan: three-quarters of the land is not conducive to human habitation. This leaves the Japanese living in close proximity to one another along the coastal plains. Its mountains mean that Japan has plenty of water, but its rivers are unsuited to navigation and therefore trade, a problem exacerbated by the fact that few of the rivers join one another. So the Japanese became a maritime people, connecting and trading along the coasts.

Japan is the world’s largest importer of natural gas, and the third-largest importer of oil. It was the thirst for these products, notably iron and oil, that caused Japan to rampage across the far-less developed Southeast Asia. It occupied Taiwan in 1895 and followed this up with the annexation of Korea in 1910. Japan occupied Manchuria in 1931, then conducted a full-scale invasion of China in 1937.

Japan's previous belligerence and militarism is not entirely gone: just been buried beneath the rubble of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a shattered national psyche. Slowly the Japanese Self-Defense Forces were turned into a modern fighting unit. Americans, realizing they were going to need military allies in the Pacific region, were prepared to accept a remilitarized Japan.

Latin America’s European settlers stayed near the coasts, so all roads from the interior were developed to connect to the capitals but not to one another. The colonialists concentrated on getting the wealth out of each region, to the coast and on to foreign markets. Even after independence the predominantly European coastal elites failed to invest in the interior, and what population centers there are inland remain poorly connected with one another.

Latin America: there’s a lot going on all over this vast space, but the problem is much of it is going on a long way from anywhere other than itself.

Bolivia and Chile: Particularly bitter relationship. In 1879 Bolivia lost a large chunk of its territory, including 250 miles of coastline, and has been landlocked ever since. It has never recovered from this blow, which partially explains why it is among the poorest Latin American countries. This in turn has exacerbated the severe divide between the mostly European lowlands population and the mostly indigenous peoples of the highlands. Despite the fact that Bolivia has the third-largest reserves of natural gas in South America it will not sell any to Chile, which is in need of a reliable supplier.

The borders of the British territory of Belize and neighboring Guatemala. They are straight lines, drawn by the British.

South America is in effect a demographically hollow continent.

Mexico: populations are more equally distributed.

Before the 1846–48 war with the United States the land that is now Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona was part of Mexico. The conflict led to half of Mexico’s territory being ceded to the United States.

The Nicaragua Grand Canal project is funded by a Hong Kong businessman adamant that the Chinese government not be involved. The cost estimate is four times the size of the entire Nicaraguan economy. There will be only one bridge across the canal along its entire length.

Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

China has now replaced the United States as Brazil’s main trading partner, and may do the same with several other Latin American countries.

The Latin American countries do not have a natural affinity with the United States. The United States used force in Latin America almost fifty times between 1890 and the end of the Cold War.

Brazil’s seven largest ports combined can handle fewer goods per year than the single American port of New Orleans.

25 percent of Brazilians live in the favela slums.

If the letters had not spelled what sounds like a word, then the BRICS theory would not have caught on.

Argentina is better placed to become a First World country than is Brazil. Control of the flat agricultural regions of the Rio de la Plata, the navigable river system, and therefore the commerce that flows down it toward Buenos Aires and its port. This is among the most valuable pieces of real estate on the whole continent. It gives Argentina an economic and strategic advantage. But its leadership has botched that natural advantage so far. The Brazilians have a joke about their snobbish neighbors, as they see them: “Only people this sophisticated could make a mess this big.”

The Arctic: a place destined to be a diplomatic battleground in the twenty-first century as countries great and small strive to reach pole position there.
Who has the force? The Russians. No one else has such a heavy presence in the region or is as well prepared to tackle the severity of the conditions.

Arctic comes from the Greek arktikos, which means “near the bear,” and is a reference to the Ursa Major constellation, whose last two stars point toward the North Star.

The Arctic region includes land in parts of Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States (Alaska).

The North Pole: even though there is a fixed point on the globe denoting its position, below it, the ice you are standing on is moving, and without GPS equipment it is hard to tell exactly where you are.

The melting of the ice cap already allows cargo ships to make the journey through the Northwest Passage in the Canadian archipelago for several summer weeks a year, thus cutting at least a week from the transit time from Europe to China. The first cargo ship not to be escorted by an icebreaker went through in 2014.
The polar route was 40 percent shorter and used deeper waters than if it had gone through the Panama Canal.
By 2040, the route is expected to be open for up to two months each year,

Arctic: Norway knows what is coming and has made the High North its foreign policy priority. Its air force regularly intercepts Russian fighter jets approaching its borders; the heightened tensions have caused it to move its center of military operations from the south of the country to the north, and it is building an Arctic battalion.