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Tim Marshall on Why Geography Matters in Modern Politics

Posted on 14th April 2021 by Mark Skinner

Following on from the acclaimed bestseller Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall's latest book, The Power of Geography, examines another ten countries of geopolitical interest; this time in terms of the import they hold for the future. In this exclusive piece, Marshall emphasises how crucial geography is to an understanding of global politics - and how surprising it is that this fact often gets ignored.  

When the term ‘geopolitics’ was first coined, early in the twentieth century, it was taken to mean that events within a state, and between states, are closely linked to geographic features.That’s certainly what Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén, who came up with the word, felt it meant as it came into worldwide use. However, in the past few decades it has become simply a word for international relations.

That is a shame, because students, and indeed practitioners, of international relations benefit enormously in their understanding of events when they place geography at the heart of their studies alongside history, politics and economics. In my new book The Power of Geography I take a similar approach as in its predecessor Prisoners of Geography, although looking at different states and regions that are increasingly relevant to our current times and our future: a country’s story begins from its location, and what lies within and near its borders. Which way do its rivers flow and are they conducive to navigation and internal and external trade? Do the mountains on its borders limit its ability to expand, or protect it from a potentially hostile larger neighbour? Does the climate, topography and soil allow the growth of a large population as in the USA or, as in the case of Greece and Australia, limit it? This is a solid foundation upon which to layer history and current events to not only understand why events are happening, but to predict a country’s likely future behaviour.

Maps reveal as much about a government’s strategy as any high-powered summit or overly blown rhetorical speech. If you want to go somewhere, you can only start from where you are. That may sound obvious, perhaps trite, but a government or a leader forgets it at their peril. They must understand exactly where they are and how much fuel they have in the tank – Napoleon was not the first or last to forget that lesson and he was taught a harsh one in the Russian winter of 1812.

An example in the book is Saudi Arabia. The tribal character of the country was forged in the heat of its deserts, and its place in the world is founded on its key resource underneath the sand. But when the oil was found the population was about 2 million. Now it is 34 million. If the world weans itself off oil, what sustains 34 million people in a country with limited agricultural land? The decisions the House of Saud is now making to diversify its economy are based on geography.

Since the end of the Second World War, putting geography front and centre in international relations has been regarded with suspicion due to its alleged ‘determinism’, and has been eclipsed by hard economics and technology. The high priests of foreign policy, more in academia than in government, came to see it as poor thinking akin to fatalism.

That, however, is in itself poor thinking and flies in the face of common sense. Russia’s President Putin did not take a keen interest in the 2020 election in Belarus due to its potential consumer market for Russian goods or as an emerging high-tech nation. Every Russian leader involves themselves in the immediate territories west of Moscow because it is mostly flat land through which Russia has been invaded, or through which Russian power projects westward. In the case of Belarus it is also linked with the Suwalki Gap, connecting to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. It’s also the pathway to the Smolensk Gate – territory into which military forces are channelled during conflicts, recent examples being the Germans into Russia in 1941, and then the Russians into Poland and on to Germany two years later.

What happens in Belarus is of huge interest to Washington DC, Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, Russia and others, and that interest is overwhelmingly based on the continuity of geography. When we see the news of pro-democracy demonstrations in Minsk, we are looking at people’s aspirations about freedom and economic wellbeing, but we are also looking at geographic insecurities.

Words can tell you the ‘what’; maps can help you understand the ‘why’. Rivers, mountains, deserts, islands and the seas are determining factors in history. Leaders, ideas and economics are crucial, but they are temporary, and geography is ever present. As the Dutch-American geopolitical writer Nicholas Spykman said: ‘Geography does not argue. It simply is.’

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