The one-sentence summary
All leaders are constrained by geography because their choices are limited by mountains, rivers, sea and concrete.
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- The book uses ten maps to explain everything you need to know about global politics. Of course, to follow world events you need to understand people, ideas and movements, but if you don’t know geography, you’ll never have the full picture. Here are some selected interesting facts related to the ten maps.
The largest country in the world, twice the size of the USA or China. It has eleven time zones and takes six days to cross by train. As a concept it dates back to the ninth century as a loose federation of East Slavic tribes known as Kievan Rus’, based in and around Kiev. When the Soviet Union broke apart, it split into fifteen countries, based more on natural geographical lines. Sevastopol in the Black Sea is Russia’s only true major warm water port, but access is restricted by Turkey’s control of the Bosphorus.
In 1949 the People’s Liberation Army under Mao Zedong put the country back together by ‘liberating’ Tibet, blocking Russian influence in Mongolia, and redrawing textbooks to reflect new borders. More recently it regained Hong Kong and Macau and began its push to becoming a world power. Tibet is referred to as ‘China’s Water Tower’ – a critical source of water but the Himalayas also provide natural protection from invasion by India. The population is 90% Han, and they have ruthlessly marginalized other groups, such as Uighurs. The ruling party resists democracy because it might disintegrate the unity of the Han. Over 40% of arable land is now either polluted or has thinning topsoil, so feeding the population of 1.4 billion is an increasing problem.
The USA has strategic depth – huge areas of land that a defending force can fall back into. Any invader would need enormous supply lines to traverse Canada or Mexico, or the world’s largest navy to attack by sea. In 1803 they bought Louisiana from the French for $15 million, doubled their size and gained control of the world’s greatest inland water transport route. The Europeans had gone by 1848, and in 1867 it bought Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million All that remained was to subdue the remaining Indian nations. After World War II, they forged alliances and a physical presence in many far-flung countries to make themselves a world superpower.
- Western Europe
The climate, fed by the Gulf Stream, blesses the region with the right amount of rainfall for large scale crop cultivation, and good soil. It is possible to work all year round, and the winters are cold enough to kill off most bugs to prevent the types of disease that plague many other parts of the world. The north industrialized first and has become richer than the south. The UK has the strategic advantage of supervising the GIUK gap (Greenland, Iceland and UK) – a choke point in the world’s sea lanes. Perhaps ironically the French are now natural partners of the Germans.
Great beaches but terrible natural harbours. Amazing rivers, but rubbish for transporting anything. The continent developed in isolation to the rest of the world mainly because of the obstacle of the Sahara Desert. The Arabs and Europeans brought new technology but mainly kept it to themselves, taking away anything of value – mainly natural resources and people. Arabs began the practice of slavery, subcontracting much of it to willing local tribe leaders. Egypt was a nation state when Europeans were still in mud huts, but it was only ever a regional power because it has so few trees that it couldn’t build enough ships to create a Blue Water Navy.
- The Middle East
The middle of what? East of where? The very name is based on a European view of the world. The Europeans used ink to draw lines on maps. They did not exist in reality and so created some of the most artificial borders the world has seen. An attempt is now being made to redraw them in blood.
- India and Pakistan
This area is effectively impossible to rule, with volatility everywhere. In 1947 the British decided to withdraw, and Pakistan was partitioned from India. Carnage ensued. East Pakistan was not contiguous with West, and in 1971 it rebelled to form Bangladesh. In Urdu, pak means pure and stan means land. It is also an acronym: P for Punjab, A for Afghania, K for Kashmir, S for Sindh, T for ‘tan’, as in Baluchistan. These five distinct regions each have their own language, so it’s a state but not a nation. Afghan Pashtuns are almost undefeatable because they simply wait out foreign invaders and return to prominence later.
- Korea and Japan
The 38th parallel was arbitrarily chosen as the dividing line between North and South Korea in 1945. It has been fought over ever since. The North Koreans tried to gain the whole peninsula in the 50s, leading to three years of war with the USA. Nothing has budged since then. In the 1300s, the Mongols tried to invade Japan. On the second attempt their fleet was wrecked by a massive storm. The seas in the Korean Strait were whipped up by what the Japanese said was a ‘Divine Wind’ which they called a kamikaze.
- Latin America
When President Nixon declared a ‘War on Drugs’ in the 1970s, the cartels responded by creating a land route up the Pan-American Highway to flood the USA with drugs. In 2013, the Nicaragua Grand Canal Project was announced, funded by a Chinese businessman. Intended to provide an alternative to the Panama Canal, it has never been completed. Brazil is included in the BRICS – a group of major countries said to be on the rise economically and politically, but the concept is more fashion than reality. Along with Russia, India, China and South Africa, they have very little in common with each other.
- The Arctic
The region includes land in parts of Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the USA (Alaska). To understand it properly, it pays to view it from the top of the world in a circular fashion. The effects of global warming are now showing more than ever. Claims to sovereignty are not based on the flags of early explorers but the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This affirms economic rights to the signatories from their shores to a limit of 200 nautical miles. They can then declare an Exclusive Economic Zone and start exploiting oil, gas and mineral reserves. The Russians are the only country with a heavy military presence in the area. Their fleet in Murmansk has the fastest access to the Northwest Passage in the Barents Sea.
WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT
- The book was written in 2015 and updated in 2019. It is remarkably prescient about most world events occurring today, in particular the war in Ukraine.