Saturday, September 8, 2018

Readers Notes -- Geography is Destiny

In comments to my previous notes I mentioned that reader Arthur's comments provided me with a segue to my next post. Which this is.

I believe I saw Tim Marshall's book Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World (Amazon link) linked in an Instapundit post.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that has studied military tactics that geography has a controlling factor on what you do, and how you do it. It therefore follows that geography has an impact on your application of Operational Art, and of your strategy, not to mention of what used to be referred to a your "Grand Strategy", but in this less-poetically inclined age we simply refer to as "Foreign Policy"; in other words, "geo-politics" is more than just a word.

British journalist Tim Marshall attempts in this book to lay out the geographic causes behind how nations have developed, and fallen.  As the sub-title says, he lays out 10 maps of significant nations or regions to be studied, one chapter each. This analysis addresses current issues in international geopolitics as well as "how we got here."

He starts with China, then moves on to Russia and the USA; he then looks at regions: Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South America, the Indian sub-continent, northeast Asia, and finally, the Arctic.

He describes, for example, how geography (including climate, topography and hydrology) impacted the development of Mexico as contrasted to the United States.

There are few earth-shattering (heh) revelations here for the student of history, especially of military history, at least, not when examining well-studied eras and campaigns. But few westerners have an appreciation of how, for example, African geography constrained the development of civilizations and societies beyond the tribal/village level, and even now prevents most nations there from taking full advantage of the potential available to them.

So I believe that this book will have some useful information to anyone, and might serve as a primer for students with an interest in why nations make the decisions they do, but it is far from an in-depth study.

I will note, on the other hand, that at a certain level it is typical of books that address current events in that in only 3 years, some (much?) of the commentary is already obsolete. For example, he mentions that Obama's Iran deal has dissolved fears of an Iranian nuclear attack.

On the gripping hand, I did see some examples where the author's reasoning was a bit, well, facile. As an American, I am used to the subtle sneers and jibes of Europeans who shrug off anything we do in a sort of  "Well, you know, Americans. AmIright?" way. But Marshal spends a lot of time explaining why Mexico did not grow into the socio-economic powerhouse that the USA did, implying that the United States sort of fell into the jackpot, easily and undeservedly, while poor Mexico got stuck with the North American booby prize.

But the only reason Mexico did not inherit an empire that covered all of North America is that the Spanish Empire's interest in the New World was primarily as a source for the gold that would allow Spain to conquer and maintain a European empire: All that gold was pissed away in the Netherlands, the English Channel, and Italy.

Consider an alternate universe, where Spain saw the Great Plains as an opportunity for colonization for more than just extractive reasons. Where Spanish trappers paid Native Americans for furs, instead of complaining impotently while gringos took them directly, trapping the mountains almost bare of beaver in the process. Where instead of inviting American settlement in Texas as a buffer between Mexico and Comancheria, Spain found loyal subjects who would take on that challenge. But Spain didn't find any subjects who were interested in settling on the frontier, they were interested either in milking the New World for all they could get, or in converting the natives -- and it is questionable just how serious they were about saving native souls.

Whereas Americans were not just interested in settling on the frontier, they were downright insistent that they had a right to and would do so even when their own government said they didn't and couldn't. And, oh by the way, it wasn't all that easy. Europeans, amiright?

In other words, while geography shapes strategy and policy, so does culture. Geography also has an impact on culture, but culture has an impact beyond just "a people who arise in such-and-such terrain will be characterized thus-and-so."

Having spotted these issues in the chapter on the United States, I couldn't help wonder if I was missing similar issues in the other chapters.

Mind you, I'm not saying it ruined the book for me; far from it. The analyses of how geography has and will continue to impact national-level policy and strategy were, IMHO, spot on.

So this book is recommended, just be prepared for an occasional jolt as you think "Did he really write that?" or "THAT statement didn't age well!"

Here is the Amazon blurb:
Maps have a mysterious hold over us. Whether ancient, crumbling parchments or generated by Google, maps tell us things we want to know, not only about our current location or where we are going but about the world in general. And yet, when it comes to geo-politics, much of what we are told is generated by analysts and other experts who have neglected to refer to a map of the place in question.

All leaders of nations are constrained by geography. In “one of the best books about geopolitics” (The Evening Standard), now updated to include 2016 geopolitical developments, journalist Tim Marshall examines Russia, China, the US, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Japan, Korea, and Greenland and the Arctic—their weather, seas, mountains, rivers, deserts, and borders—to provide a context often missing from our political reportage: how the physical characteristics of these countries affect their strengths and vulnerabilities and the decisions made by their leaders.

Offering “a fresh way of looking at maps” (The New York Times Book Review), Marshall explains the complex geo-political strategies that shape the globe. Why is Putin so obsessed with Crimea? Why was the US destined to become a global superpower? Why does China’s power base continue to expand? Why is Tibet destined to lose its autonomy? Why will Europe never be united? The answers are geographical. “In an ever more complex, chaotic, and interlinked world, Prisoners of Geography is a concise and useful primer on geopolitics” (Newsweek) and a critical guide to one of the major determining factors in world affairs.

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