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‘The Power of Geography: Ten Maps that Reveal the Future of Our World’ review: Living in the age of multiple power rivalries and faultlines

International Relations theorists might argue over the inevitability of competition between states, but regardless of what one believes, there is an element of the field whose overriding importance no scholar or practitioner can impugn — geography. Tim Marshall hammered this truth home most emphatically in his 2015 bestseller Prisoners of Geography. The influence of geography is two-fold — it can either make or break policy. The high mountains in the northern and north-eastern parts of India, for instance, serve as a natural frontier. The subcontinental expanse of the United States, away from the theatre of conflict in Europe and with unhindered access to two oceans on either flank, aided its rise to superpower status.

However, the absence of a similarly free access to the sea in China has motivated Beijing to build a strong Blue-Water Navy. In many such ways, physical features of the earth profoundly shape global politics and the nature of engagement between nation-states.

Geopolitical bearings

In the sequel to Prisoners, titled The Power of Geography: Ten Maps that Reveal the Future of Our World, Marshall considers 10 different regions of the world and examines their geopolitical options over the course of the next few decades. With his characteristically felicitous and witty writing, he starts each chapter by introducing the reader to the fundamental geographical realities of a region and its ancient history, eventually winding his way through to the 20th century and then to the present. “The choices people make, now and in the future, are never separate from their physical context,” he writes. “We are entering a new age of great power-rivalry in which numerous actors, even smaller players, are jostling to take centre stage.”

The choice of regions and countries considered in the book is timely. Australia, which finds itself in an era-defining dilemma of trying not to antagonise China upfront while remaining close allies with the U.S., gets careful treatment in the first chapter. “Australia looks around its neighbourhood and wonders what role it should play, and whom it should play it with.” Ethiopia, which is currently embroiled in a bloody and harrowing civil war with Tigrayan militias, also receives sharp analysis by Marshall. Despite the many ethnic fault lines that define the country, he believes the union could still be preserved by greater prosperity and equitable distribution of resources.

Marshall also addresses the indispensability of water to Ethiopia’s existence and how it could potentially draw the country into conflict with its neighbours.

In the final part, Marshall foresees an intensification of geopolitical confrontation between major powers in space, something he argues has every chance of posing the kind of threat to the planet that the nuclear arms race did in the second half of the last century. “With multiple countries racing to be the pre-eminent power in space, and private companies entering the fray, the stage is set for a dangerous cutting-edge arms race, unless we can learn from past mistakes and accept the many benefits of international co-operation.”

Thoughtful introduction

Though the book offers intelligent insights into the international relations of ten specific regions, it is not an in-depth study of any of them. An expert of geopolitics or regional studies would still learn a thing or two about their trade from The Power of Geography. It must also be stressed that it is not a superficial work. The author is well-read and has personal experiences working as a journalist in several regions he writes about in the book.

Where the book excels, much like its predecessor Prisoners of Geography, is in giving the reader a thoughtful introduction to crucial concepts of international politics through the prism of geography. It would stimulate the reader to learn more about the ideas discussed, but it neither is nor does it intend to be a comprehensive appraisal of the topics it addresses.

The Power of Geography: Ten Maps that Reveal the Future of Our World; Tim Marshall, Simon & Schuster, ₹699.

The reviewer is a student of International Relations.


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