Prisoners Of Geography Book Summary, by Tim Marshall

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Geography has a significant impact on societies. The land and natural resources can provide safety and prosperity or leave the people exposed to danger. It’s been an important force in wars, as well as economic development. Although modern technology has allowed us to bend the rules of geography, it remains crucial to understanding why nations exist today.

Did you know that the land you stand on has influenced the society we live in? Think about it this way: geographic features and resources have strongly affected our economy and how we’ve fared in wars.

This passage looks at six of the most fascinating and influential geographies around the globe. More often than you may think, decisions made by world leaders have a lot to do with geography. Sometimes, these leaders are prisoners of their geography.

In this passage, you’ll find out about Vladimir Putin’s obsession with one part of the world; why China refuses to let go of Tibet; and why Africa has failed to capitalize on lucrative trade routes.

Big Idea #1: Russia invaded the Baltics because it is afraid of being attacked by Western countries.

Russia is a large country. It’s the largest in the world, covering 6 million square miles and containing eleven different time zones.

What keeps Vladimir Putin up at night? He worries about a piece of land that looks like a slice of pizza.

Russia is a country that’s shaped like a pizza. It extends from Poland to the foot of the Urals and then up to Moscow. Putin, Russia’s leader, is particularly worried about this part of Russia because it has flat land that can be easily invaded by other countries.

Russia has a history of invasions from its neighbors. That means any country in the North European Plain could send an army to invade Russia and attack Moscow. Putin knows this, so he’s made it clear that he will not allow any more attacks on Russian soil.

The Germans, during both World Wars, followed the same pattern in their military campaigns. However, that’s not all – since 1812, Northern European invaders have attacked Russia every 33 years on average!

For many years, Russia has used its army to take over Poland and the Baltic states. These are all countries between Russia and Germany on a map in Europe.

The countries in the wedge are important to Russia. If it can maintain control of these nations, it will be better able to protect itself from Western invaders. Unfortunately, this means that the Baltic states are likely to continue having a rough go of things.

Big Idea #2: The Chinese government is worried about a potential Indian invasion and water shortages in Tibet.

Tibetan history is full of conflict with the Chinese. Tibetans have protested by setting themselves on fire to protest oppression from the Chinese. In 2008, 21 people died after protests turned violent.

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There’s been a lot of talk about the occupation of Tibet, but China still refuses to let it go. Why is this? It all comes down to India. These two countries are the most populous in the world and have a lot of tension between them. There’s also tension because they’re neighbors, so there’s no buffer zone for them like there is with other countries who share borders with each other (like Canada and Mexico). This makes things hard on Tibet since it falls right along their shared border.

The Tibetan homeland is the Tibetan Plateau, which is right next to the Himalayas. This means that in theory, if India were to ever invade China through the Himalayas, it could occupy Tibet and have a commanding position over mainland China from which to launch its attack.

China’s main reason for occupying Tibet is to keep the door open for India to take it. This would leave China extremely vulnerable and that’s why they’re controlling it.

There is another reason China is doing this: water.

Tibet has been called China’s water tower because three of China’s main rivers – the Mekong, Yellow River and Yangtze – all have their sources in Tibet. If India occupied this area, it would not only be able to launch a successful offensive against China but also cut off one of its main water supplies.

There is no point in India depriving China of water. The fact that they could do so is enough for them to continue occupying Tibet.

Big Idea #3: The United States is protected by its geographical location and by the possession of nuclear weapons.

If you were to think of the world in terms of real estate, which country would be at the top? Real estate agents would likely put the United States on top because it has good neighbors, water supplies and state-of-the-art security features.

The United States is different from most countries because it has few concerns about traditional invasions. Unlike all of its neighbors, the country can’t be invaded by a foreign army because they’re too far away and have large bodies of water between them.

The best defense the United States has is the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, which border its west and east coasts. This effectively cuts off attacks from those directions, since any invading force would have to contend with an entire ocean before even reaching a target.

We also have a state-of-the-art security system. It’s called 100,000,000 loaded guns.

The United States has a long history of gun ownership. It’s written into the social fabric, and people can easily get guns in small towns because of that.

Every town in America would have a group of armed civilians ready to defend their homes and towns.

Big Idea #4: Northern Europe has been blessed with geography and blighted the south.

Thanks to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, Europe has contributed a lot to the modern world. This is due in large part by its temperate climate, generous rainfall and fertile soil. These factors helped build thriving societies in some areas of Europe more than others. However, when the Eurozone crisis was at its peak in 2012, stereotypes emerged about why certain regions were experiencing economic downturns.

Northern Europeans are hard workers, while southern Europeans don’t work as much. However, the reason for this is not that northern Europeans have a better work ethic; it’s because of geography. Northern Europe has more fertile soil and crops than southern Europe does. Therefore, northern European countries became wealthier and had more to trade with one another. This led to urban hubs in places such as France, Germany and Belgium.

In contrast, countries in southern Europe have less arable land and are therefore unable to export large quantities of food. They also can’t develop as many cities that specialize in commerce. Countries like Greece don’t have enough fertile land for this purpose, which means there aren’t enough highly educated workers needed to drive forward the economy.

Geography still plays a part in the success of southern European nations.

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Big Idea #5: Africa has beautiful rivers, but they’re impractical because of geography.

Africa is a complex continent with many problems. It also has beautiful beaches, rivers and coastlines. However, Africa’s relationship to its oceans is complicated because of the desert land it has.

Africa has a beautiful coastline, but it’s not useful for cargo ships. Most of the coastlines in Europe and America have deep water that is good for docking boats; however, Africa’s shoreline isn’t like this. Instead, it’s smooth and shallow. Because of this, cargo ships can’t dock at African ports to load or unload goods.

While Africa’s geography is problematic, human ingenuity is starting to find a way around it. In Tanzania and Angola, China has helped them build man-made harbors that can handle 20 million containers of cargo each year. It will make those ports the biggest in Africa.

Africa’s challenges are not limited to its coastline. Inland, Africa’s rivers pose another problem that has hindered trade.

The Zambezi river is one of the longest and most spectacular rivers in Africa. It runs through six countries, but its whitewater rapids and waterfalls make it impractical to use for transportation.

Africa’s rivers are not practical for trade, so there is little contact between the different regions. This has significantly limited economic development and prevented major trade routes from forming.

Big Idea #6: North Korea has hills, while South Korea is mostly flat.

North Korea has posed a threat to its neighbors for many years. Despite having twice the population and 80 times the economic power of North Korea, South Korea is vulnerable because it’s backed by a superpower like the United States.

Even though North Korea and South Korea are separated by the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which is only 35 miles away from Seoul, a city of half of the country’s population, it would be difficult to launch an attack on Seoul because there are hills and elevated terrain located along North Korea’s side of the border.

Within these hills, military experts estimate that North Korea has 10,000 weapons stashed. If a conflict were to occur between South Korea and North Korea, South Korea would have to contend with 500,000 rounds of bullets fired into Seoul within 60 minutes. It doesn’t take a strategic genius to realize that this is a recipe for chaos.

Another geographic feature that works against South Korea is the flat land between Seoul and North Korea.

If North Korea were to launch a surprise attack, its army could easily move over flat terrain and into the heart of the enemy’s capital city. However, if South Korea were to launch a surprise attack, it would hit several geographical speed bumps that would slow down ground troops and make them vulnerable to attacks.

The reason why these two countries have remained in a political deadlock for over 50 years is partly because of their opposing views.

Full Summary of Prisoners Of Geography

Overall Summary

Tim Marshall’s book, Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World, was published in 2015 and became a New York Times bestseller. The book describes how geography—mountains, plains, rivers, coastlines, climate and natural resources—shape the fate of nations. It also considers how other influences—religion, culture language and ethnicity–interact with local geography.

Chapter 1 explores Russia, where the North European Plain opens a path from western European armies directly into Russia. This has contributed to Russians’ desire to control a buffer zone of countries between it and the rest of the world. Moving eastward, Chapter 2 describes how China’s borders are delineated by its natural formations such as the Tibetan Plateau, Himalayas jungles deserts and Pacific Ocean even while it is able to reach out to other parts of the world through trade and military might.

Chapter 3 discusses India’s unique location in South Asia that has allowed it to develop strong ties with nearby countries while also making it vulnerable due its long coastline on one side and mountainous northern border on another side. In addition, Chapter 4 focuses on Pakistan’s location within both Central Asia (through its northwestern area) and South Asia (through its southern region). It is separated from all land-locked countries except for Afghanistan but connected via sea routes with Iran at one end of Iran’s coast line and Oman at another end.

Chapter 3 examines the United States, a nation with many resources and good geography. It has generally enjoyed stability because of its common language and heritage. Chapter 4 looks at Europe, which is divided by mountains and rivers, contributing to separate nations with different languages and cultures that are prone to war.

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Chapter 5 discusses the many challenges that Africa has faced, such as geographic barriers and political borders. The north is covered with a desert, while the south is full of jungles. There are also mountains in the middle of the continent. These factors have made it hard for Africans to develop their land and prosper economically.

Chapter 6 explores the Middle East, where mountains and deserts alternate. Borders also create conflict in this region. Chapter 7 focuses on Pakistan and India, which have fought over the Kashmir region for decades. Other internal pressures are present as well.

Chapter 8 discusses Japan and South Korea. They were divided after World War II, but they rely on alliances with larger nations to preserve a precarious peace. Meanwhile, the nation of Japan has drawn together a series of isolated islands to create an economic force that far exceeds its physical size.

Chapter 9 will cover the difficulties of Latin America. The Amazon rainforest is not being conserved, and land for farming has been limited because of a growing population. To top it off, there’s also political neglect in this region. Chapter 10 will focus on another region that’s important to global warming: the Arctic Ocean. Global warming has melted ice caps, opening up new areas for mining and drilling. This area is now becoming a point of conflict over resource extraction as well.”


Tim Marshall begins his article by stating that “the land on which we live has always shaped us.” He explains how the geography of a place affects politics and warfare. For example, Russia is worried about Ukraine because it’s mostly flat and open; this allows for enemies to attack from any direction. In contrast, China and India have never fought each other because they are separated by high mountains.

While reporting on the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s, Marshall noticed that leaders of different ethnic groups were using old divisions to stir up conflict. He saw how important geography was to those differences by looking at a river that divided two sides of Kosovo (Serbians and Muslim Albanians). The Serbians retreated to one side of this river after being defeated by the Ottomans centuries ago, while Muslims moved into an area on the other side. This divide continued for many years until it became a border between Serbia and Kosovo when they declared independence.

Marshall saw how important the physical landscape was when he reported from Afghanistan after 9/11. A sandstorm followed heavy rain, and it prevented troops from moving forward. Marshall notes that even with technology, climate dictates military possibilities because weather can stop armies in their tracks.

Marshall describes how geography plays a role in conflict. He uses the example of one village that set fire to another village, so they could have access to a road and territory.

Marshall argues that many conflicts today are due to borders drawn by colonial powers a long time ago, and those lines don’t reflect the realities of the region. Furthermore, although technology has made the world smaller and we can communicate from anywhere in the world, geography is still important because it shapes how people live their lives.

Chapter 1: “Russia”

Russia is the largest country in the world. It spans two continents and 11 time zones from Poland to the Pacific Ocean. The Ural Mountains divide European Russia, which lies in the west, from Asian Russia to its east. Western Russia is part of a vast plain that stretches all the way to Europe.

Although the flatlands provide easy access to Russia, invading forces need a long supply line. However, many have tried: Poland and Sweden invaded in 1605; France and Germany sent troops in 1812. Over the past two centuries, Marshall notes that “the Russians fought on average once every thirty-three years” (13).

Russia has always been an expansionist country. The Russians have expanded their borders by conquering neighboring countries. They have done this in three ways: they conquered the Asian part of Russia, Siberia; they took control of Ukraine and other Baltic states; and they pushed westward to conquer Europe.

By the end of World War II, Russian Soviet forces had captured most of Eastern Europe. Thus, it became an empire. Forty years later, however, the Soviet Union fell apart. The western NATO alliance began to absorb former communist countries but Russia still has economic and military alliances with these countries in southern and eastern parts of its territory.

Although Russia is geographically larger than the US or China, it has a smaller population with many ethnic and cultural differences. It also has problems with food shortages because of its short growing season.

Russia has a problem with its ports. They are frozen for months of the year, and it has no access to the Indian ocean or difficulty projecting power in the western Pacific.

Russia needs Ukraine to have access to a warm water port and it’s important because Russia is vulnerable without one. The United States, Europe, and other countries want Ukraine to join them instead of being with Russia. This has caused an uprising in the country that led to a new leader who wants Ukraine to be part of Europe. In response, Russia annexed Crimea which is its only warm-water port. However, if there was war then this port would be very vulnerable because Russian forces would need to sail through narrow straits controlled by Turkey or Denmark before they could get into the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean respectively.

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Russia supports ethnic Russian uprisings in eastern and southern Ukraine. In the northwest, Russia could try to take over Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania because of their large ethnic Russian populations. However, NATO would intervene with force; this is currently a stalemate.

There’s another gap between Russia and the West, Moldova. Southeast of Romania lies a plane with Moldova in it, which is an independent country that trades with Moscow instead of Western Europe. Russia has tried to intimidate Moldova by supporting separatists who want their own state called Transnistria.

Russia exerts its power over Moldova and other countries by controlling their gas supply. One-fourth of Europe’s natural gas comes from Russia, and the US is working with Europe to reduce that dependency. The US is developing ports and terminals in order to export liquid natural gas (LNG) to them so they can stop relying on Russian supplies. To guard against lost revenue, Russia plans pipelines heading southeast as well as increased sales to China.

Chapter 2: “China”

China’s history begins in the North China Plain. The Yellow and Yangtze rivers often flood this region, which is now one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. It houses many people and has a lot of industry as well. To the north lies deserts, to the west are mountains, east are oceans, while south is more land. This makes it difficult for invaders to enter from any direction except through Tibet and smaller mountain passes like those near Beijing or Manchuria (42).

China was threatened by other countries, so it expanded its territory. The Grand Canal connected the Yangtze and Yellow rivers in 609 to help with trade between different parts of China. However, the Mongols invaded from the north and ruled China for 90 years until they were defeated by a Chinese general who became emperor.

China was once very protectionist, but it began trading with the West. It opened up trade posts on its coast and left the interior alone (44). In the 1700s, China expanded to the west by conquering Xinjiang. The region had a lot of deserts and mountains that kept China safe from Russia. Although there were times when foreign countries controlled China, they didn’t last long because of its strong military presence in Xinjiang.

After World War II, China was divided into two countries. The Communist Party controlled the mainland and Taiwan became an independent country. Under the Communist regime, China remained poor but unified. In order to improve its economy, it began to move toward a market economy by adopting some elements of capitalism while retaining control over major industries and resources. This new economic model is known as socialism with Chinese characteristics.

China is currently trying to reinforce its northern border with Mongolia and Russia by encouraging Chinese citizens to move there. To the southwest, China borders on Vietnam, which has easy military access but not much reason for conflict. Laos and Burma are mountainous and hard to cross into. Further west lies India, separated from China by the Himalayas; millions of Han Chinese have moved into Tibet in order to take control over it before India could invade through those mountains.

China’s Xinjiang province borders multiple countries and is therefore a strategic location. After riots there in 2009, China responded by brutally suppressing dissent, pouring money into the region, and continuing to move Han Chinese people into the area. It also revived an old trade route through Xinjiang that will allow it to move goods west toward Europe.

China is using its navy to protect their coastline and gain control over the nearby seas. They want to control all of the ocean west of a chain of islands that includes Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. These countries are allied with America so China will have an easier time blockading them.

The US has a defense pact with Taiwan, but China is stronger militarily. There are also territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The author says that these factors could lead to war between the two countries.

China is also investing heavily in other countries. It’s building major ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Burma (Myanmar). These projects will help China build relations with those countries and gain access to trade routes that can connect it to its home country. China is also looking for natural resources such as oil and gas in Africa.

Chapter 3: “United States”

The United States is divided into three large sections: the East Coast Plain, the Mississippi Basin, and the desert-and-mountain West. The Canadian Shield protects it from northern invasion, while deserts surround it on its southwestern side. Finally, oceans protect it on all other sides. It also has a lot of guns—over 300 million to be exact—which are accessible to Americans who value freedom and happiness very highly.

The US bought the Louisiana territory from France in 1803, doubling its size. This purchase also provided a vast area of fertile land and mastery over the Mississippi River, which helped unite people by creating inland trade routes that were cheaper than road travel.

The United States continued to expand its borders through treaties with Spain in 1819 and Mexico in 1846. In the latter treaty, the US gained control over land north of 42 degrees latitude. As a result, the US had reached the Pacific coast.

The California Gold Rush of 1849 and the Homestead Act of 1862 led to settlement in western territories. Immigrants from Europe came to America, and in 1867, the US purchased Alaska from Russia. In 1869, construction of a transcontinental railroad was completed, which reduced cross-country travel time from months to weeks.

The US was concerned that it would be vulnerable to a blockade by Spain, which controlled Cuba. That’s why they fought against Spain in 1898 and gained control over Cuba. The US also annexed Hawaii at the same time because it wanted protection from foreign powers, such as Japan or China.

In 1907, the US Navy sent 16 battleships around the world to demonstrate American power. In 1940, in order to ensure peace and international trade, America acquired bases in South America from Britain.

After World War II, the United States continued to have military forces in Germany and led the formation of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) to protect Western Europe from Soviet incursions. The US also had forces stationed in Iceland, Norway, Italy, Britain and other countries. By 1991 Russia’s power declined with the collapse of the Soviet Union. China grew stronger and its neighbors were vulnerable to falling under Chinese sway if they became less friendly towards America: “Hence we will see more investment by America in East Asia.” Recently American warships moved from Eastern Pacific Ocean area to back up 7th Fleet ships in Western Pacific Ocean area due to tension between China and some Asian nations who fear an invasion. In recent years Marines have been deployed at a new forward base in Australia as well as exercises with allies such as Japan are held regularly so that they can be reassured about their protection against China..

America is a superpower and has interests in many parts of the world, but its attention will shift elsewhere. America’s oil production will increase while its demand for foreign oil decreases. The US tried to build democracies in the Middle East, but it hasn’t worked because people are still fighting each other over tribal issues. In addition, America needs to protect the Panama Canal and make sure that Cuba doesn’t get involved with other countries. Finally, China will compete with America for resources in Africa.

America is a dominant country in the world with its booming economy and large military.

Chapter 4: “Western Europe”

Europe is warm and rainy enough for nearly year-round agriculture, yet cold enough in winter to kill off many of the germs that plague other parts of the world. Its many navigable rivers and natural ports make trade easy, which led to Europeans creating nation states.

Natural barriers have shaped the borders of Europe. In Spain and Portugal, for example, the Pyrenees mountains separate them from France. The Rhine River separates France and Germany. Southern Europe has less natural resources than northern countries like Britain or Germany. Greece’s mountainous terrain makes it difficult to grow crops in large quantities or trade with other countries because its many islands are expensive to protect from invasion by enemies during wartime. During the Recession of 2008, Greek citizens received bailout money from wealthy Northern European countries like Germany that had stronger economies than Greece did at the time.

In the northeast, Poland has become a prosperous country after breaking free from foreign rule. It joined NATO and other countries in Eastern Europe to prevent Russia from becoming too powerful again. In addition, Yugoslavia’s states have moved away from Russia and now belong to NATO or the EU.

To the north, Scandinavia, except for Denmark, is not part of NATO. Sweden has been attacked by Russia and considered breaking its centuries-long neutrality.

France’s borders are protected except in the northeast, where it abuts Germany. There is a corridor there that has been used for invasion and warfare between France and Germany. The EU was formed to stop this recurring problem. It also binds most of Europe together with a single currency called the Euro, which was supposed to be backed by all members who kept debt levels low, among other things. However, some nations weren’t doing what they were supposed to do—they weren’t keeping their debt levels low or reporting accurate numbers about them—and this came out during the 2008 recession when everyone had problems paying off their debts.

If the EU fails, Germany will be seen as a threat. In order to prevent that from happening, Germany has suggested that the eurozone countries form a fiscal union and increase trade with Russia.

Britain is an island off the coast of Europe. It has good farmland, decent rivers, and excellent access to the seas and their fish stocks. Britain also enjoys close proximity to Europe without being a part of it because it’s protected by its location on an island.

Britain’s democratic traditions and civil liberties may stem from its relative safety as an island nation. It is distant from the mainland, which allowed it to stay out of wars that ravaged Europe for centuries. Britain still enjoys a strategic advantage due to geography; it guards the sea lanes from northern Europe to the Atlantic.

The UK is angry about the amount of laws that the EU has enacted and frustrated by how they funnel immigrants to England. Therefore, it’s pulling away from the EU. Other countries are also being affected by immigration and terrorist attacks, so they’re starting to check travel documents despite open borders in Europe. Moreover, Muslim populations within Europe have influenced politics with parliaments having to consider their Muslim constituents when debating civil rights or policy toward the Middle East.

If the EU and NATO fail, then we will see a return to Europe where each nation is searching for allies in order to balance power. In the end, history tells us that things can change rapidly and geography tells us that humans must constantly fight against these natural laws if they want to survive.

Chapter 5: “Africa”

Africa is a large continent. It’s much bigger than it appears on the map, and it’s about three times the size of the United States. It extends for 5,000 miles from east to west and 3,000 miles from north to south. The northern part of Africa consists mostly of desert regions while jungles cover most of its middle section. The southern part has high plains, deserts and semi-arid Mediterranean-type regions similar to those in far northern coastal areas.

Despite its large size, Africa has posed significant challenges for humans to develop. Aside from the isolation of the regions and few harbors and rivers, there are few arable plants or animals that can be domesticated. Moreover, its crowded population and hot interior provide breeding grounds for diseases like malaria, yellow fever, and HIV.

Over the past few centuries, European and Arab traders have struggled to enter Africa’s interior because of its harsh environment. Eventually they were able to trade with African tribes at the edges of the continent. Europe eventually conquered most of Africa but divvied it up among themselves in a way that created arbitrary borders between ethnic groups who are still fighting for political control today.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a country in central Africa that has been exploited for its mineral wealth by outsiders, and it’s been involved in civil wars since the late 1990s. It has great resources, but it’s also one of the poorest countries on earth.

Egypt is surrounded by desert and seas, which has prevented it from building a navy for centuries. It’s also been unable to control the Suez Canal because of its lack of trees. Today, Egypt boasts the largest military in the Middle East with support from the US. However, it still struggles with insurgent groups and manages the Suez Canal. The Nile River is very important to Egypt as most Egyptians live near it; however, Ethiopia plans on building a dam that may cause conflict between these two countries over water rights.

Nigeria is a large country in West Africa. It has the largest population and oil reserves of any African nation, with most of its oil coming from the southern region. The north is less developed than the south because it’s drier there, but northern Nigerians feel that they’re not getting their fair share of the profits from that oil revenue. A militant group called Boko Haram operates in the north and is taking over territory as it builds on resentment against both Nigerian authorities and Western forces fighting terrorism around the world.

In Africa, to the south of Angola lies Namibia. It has a coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and is bordered by rugged land with mountains in the north and jungle in the east. There’s also desert to its south. The western part of Namibia sustains agriculture that supplies food for people living there as well as offshore oil fields that send most of their product to China. In 1975, after gaining independence from Portugal, fighting broke out between tribes supported by different countries over ideological differences disguised as civil war: Russia supported one tribe while Cuba and South Africa supported another two tribes; eventually, communist-leaning Mbundu tribe won over other tribes and took control of Namibia; they then became rich because they exploited people under them.

Foreign involvement and exploitation continue in Africa. American, European, Chinese, and other companies are involved in the extraction of minerals and oil. They also develop port facilities and railroads to transport resources from one country to another. Kenya is becoming the dominant economic power in East Africa while Tanzania is a close second place. Meanwhile, Niger develops its oil fields for export to China which receives minerals by rail from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Angola’s capital, Luanda, has a new airport and houses upward of 200,000 Chinese workers. Marshall notes that thousands of these workers are also trained in military skills to provide China with the option of creating an army if it so requires (135). China protects stable leaders who cooperate on development projects by defending them in the UN despite outstanding international arrest warrants. The US is aware that China plays second fiddle to it when it comes to business terms across Africa because the US understands that “it now plays second fiddle to China in business terms across the continent” (136).

South Africa has a thriving economy, due to its large gold and mineral reserves. It is also well situated geographically with access to two oceans and fertile land for farming. The climate makes it hard for malaria to be spread around the country. South Africa’s ports, railroads, and armed forces help it export goods beyond its borders while keeping them safe from invaders. However, there are issues in neighboring countries that have led South African troops into conflict with other UN peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Overall, Africa is beginning to overcome its difficult geography. This will help it make economic progress and finally pull itself out of the historic doldrums in which it has been stuck for so long.

Chapter 6: “The Middle East”

The Middle East is a region of the world located between the Mediterranean Sea and Iran, as well as from the Black Sea to India. It also includes deserts, oases, snow-covered mountains, long rivers and coastal plains with vast oil reserves beneath it.

The Middle East was created by European colonial powers, who drew borders that didn’t really make sense. Later on, the region saw a lot of fighting over those borders and is still seeing it today with the Islamic State trying to change them.

Another source of conflict in the Middle East is between Muslims and Christians over how to practice their religion, which has caused even more strife.

Iraq was historically divided into three sections, which are Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. It struggled to gain independence under the leadership of strongmen. Meanwhile, the Kurds fought for their own independent homeland in northern Iraq. After Saddam Hussein murdered many Kurds in 1988, they rebelled against him but were eventually defeated. However, with the overthrow of Hussein in 2003 by American forces, a de facto Kurdistan began to take shape because Baghdad will not rule over them again.

After World War I, Britain gave control of Transjordan to the Hashemite tribe. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia was given rein over the Arabian Peninsula. In 1948, Transjordan became independent Jordan and has a mostly Palestinian population. Meanwhile, one million Syrian and Iraqi refugees escaped recent conflicts and crowded into eastern Jordan. This put a strain on its resources because it is extremely limited in size.

Lebanon was a Christian country created by France on the Mediterranean coast. By the 1950s, it had become majority Muslim. The country went through a civil war between 1975 and 1990. Syria is another multi-faith, multi-confessional, multi-tribal state that fell apart at the first time of asking because of its minority rule over Sunnis (the Alawites are in control). The uprising began in 2011 after scores were settled from previous conflicts.

ISIS has been a huge success in the Middle East. Many people have joined ISIS because of its promises and victories, but it has also alienated many people with its violent tactics. In 2014, ISIS was attacked by Western countries and lost some territory. However, it is still active in Libya, where it hopes to establish another front.

Iraq has been torn apart by Kurds in the north and Shia in the south, both of whom control oil fields. Sunnis are also caught between jihadist movements within their own countries. For example, Jordan could easily fall into chaos like Syria has, while Saudi Arabia is now fighting insurgents in neighboring Yemen.

Israel is often in conflict with its neighbors. The country has experienced conflicts with Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza, as well as occasional battles along its borders. Israel’s border to the south is protected by Egypt, while it also has a peace treaty with Jordan to the east. To the north lies Lebanon, which sometimes fires rockets into Israel; however, Israel controls land in Syria that provides an excellent vantage point for observing Syrian activity.

Iran’s population of 78 million people lives mostly in the mountainous regions. The great deserts and salt plains of the interior are uninhabitable, so most Iranians live on mountain ranges. Iran has a lot of oil reserves but is mismanaged and suffers from international sanctions and isolationism because it is surrounded by mountains that restrict transport.

The threat of a nuclear armed Iran scares the Arab world. A deal that has been made between the US and Iran seems to be appeasing them, but it’s not what they want. The Middle East is in turmoil because of this potential war.

When the defeated Ottoman Empire was divided up by Europe at the end of World War I, Turkey rebelled and formed its own independent nation. The country’s leader, Ataturk, tried to westernize it in order for it to be accepted into Europe. Although a member of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), Turkey has never been admitted into the European Union because only a small portion is located in Europe while most lies in the Middle East. Another issue is that 98 percent of Turks are Muslim which bothers majority-Christian Europeans.

Turkey has begun to see itself as a regional power, taking sides in conflicts in Egypt and Syria. It also controls the Bosporus Straits, which connect the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Turkey buys gas from Russia and would like some from Israel, but it is on strained terms with both countries. Moreover, President Erdogan’s “remarks on Jews, race, and gender equality have set alarm bells ringing” (175) among Western nations.

Author Marshall contends that in the contemporary Middle East, people are more likely to be influenced by their religion and culture than Western ideals. In fact, he argues that if you’re hungry and frightened, you’ll choose food over democracy.

Chapter 7: “India and Pakistan”

India and Pakistan are neighbors. They have a lot of differences, but they do have something in common: nuclear weapons. India’s geographical size is larger than that of Pakistan, and its population is also much bigger than that of Pakistan. Furthermore, India’s economy is stronger than that of Pakistan. However, the main thing that makes both countries enemies with each other is their nuclear arsenal.

Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan are located in the northeast of South Asia. However, none of them pose a threat to Pakistan or India because they are landlocked countries and poor. Bangladesh is surrounded by India except for its southern border on the Bay of Bengal, making it vulnerable to floods. Over time, many diverse peoples have settled in this region; however no one has ever conquered it completely due to Hindu resistance along with difficult terrain such as mountains and deserts that make governing the area very challenging.

In 1947, Britain divided its south Asian holdings into India and Pakistan. Millions of Muslims fled the new borders of India, heading west to Pakistan with millions of Hindus and Sikhs coming the other way. Chaos and riots erupted as people were killed by mobs. In 1971, East Pakistan seceded from West Pakistan after much bloodshed between these two countries/sections separated by over a thousand miles of Indian territory.

India is more politically unified and democratic than Pakistan, which has a history of dictatorship. India’s population is diverse but it still manages to maintain unity. The country faces challenges in the form of its diverse peoples and regions; however, this diversity makes it stronger as well.

India and Pakistan fought eight wars between 1947 and 1999, mainly over Kashmir. If India had full control of Kashmir, it would have a doorway into central Asia as well as deny Pakistan access to China’s growing economy. Also, the headwaters of the Indus River pass through Indian Kashmir and its growing population.

The border between India and Pakistan is known as the Line of Control. It suffers from violent flare-ups. India has a larger military, but Pakistan can cut off its supplies with an attack on the main highway that runs through it. Military thinkers in both countries worry about attacks across the Punjab plains to the south where there are no natural barriers to slow down an invading force. The danger of nuclear war is ever-present since both countries have nuclear weapons and neither country wants to lose face by backing down when challenged militarily by another country or group.

When not involved in a full-scale war, each country has tried to make the other side look bad. For example, Pakistan supported terrorist attacks inside India such as the Mumbai massacre of 2008.

Each country has tried to influence Afghanistan, but Pakistan is more successful because of its tribal affiliation with the people there. The colonial Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan is largely ignored.

After 9/11, the US threatened Pakistan for supporting the Taliban. This forced them to support the war on terror, which has led to battles between Pakistani and Taliban forces. The fighting has caused 50,000 civilian deaths in Pakistan. However, some elements of the Pakistani government continue to secretly support the Taliban.

The American government was not sure about Pakistan’s loyalty in the war on terror. So, they decided to invade Pakistan and kill Osama bin Laden, which caused tension between the two countries. The Taliban took advantage of this situation and entered into northern Pakistan. They have been causing problems for their former allies ever since.

India and China have a small conflict along their border. India supports Tibetan independence, which is not supported by China; as a result, China supports Maoists in Nepal to counter the Indian influence there. Additionally, China claims a portion of northeastern India that was previously part of Tibet before it was annexed by British forces. Meanwhile, nearby liberation movements want to gain control of portions of Assam state from India.

India has large amounts of arable land, reliable water supplies and navigable waterways. Although it produces a lot of coal and some oil and gas, India must import much of its energy. It is also trying to grow trade with China by aligning itself with several Southeast Asian countries in order to counter China’s increasing domination over the South China Sea.

As Marshall contends, the conflict between India and Pakistan “always comes back to Pakistan” (205).

Chapter 8: “Korea and Japan”

North Korea is a small country between China and South Korea. It’s ruled by the Kim family, who are Communists. The nation of 25 million people has been ruled with fear for many years, and they’re largely impoverished because of it.

Korea has been divided into two parts by the Yalu River for a long time. Korea was first invaded by Mongolians, Chinese and Japanese people. After World War II, Korea had been freed from Japan but it was still occupied by Russia and America. In 1950, North Korean army attacked South Korea after Russian soldiers left their country. The US didn’t want to lose its allies so they sent troops to fight against the Communist army of North Korea in order to restore peace on the peninsula again. They pushed them back until they reached China’s border where they stopped fighting because China didn’t want US military at its border anymore due to fear of being invaded later on. So both armies remain separated along the 38th parallel line with an uneasy truce since then till now.

The Korean Peninsula is divided in half with the mountains on the east and plains on the west. This makes it easier to divide into north and south than if they were split by a river. The major populations centers are located in western South Korea, while North Korea has artillery aimed at them from hills just north of their border.

As a result, according to Marshall, major conflicts are not far off. North Korea might bombard the South’s cities with 100 000 to 500 000 artillery shells in the first hour of war, and they have one of the largest armies in the world. Eventually South Korea would be aided by other countries like America and China.

If the two Koreas were to become unified, Japan would support it in order to counter China. The South Korean economy is much more developed than North Korea’s, but with rich natural resources like coal and zinc, North Korea could help out. However, a renewal of war between the two Koreas would be economically devastating for both sides. South Korea has built up its navy as a deterrent against attacks from Japan because it has few natural resources and is surrounded by seas on three sides.

Japan is an island nation with 127 million people spread across four large islands and thousands of smaller ones. It’s distance from the Asian landmass has kept it safe from invasion, as well as its mountainous terrain. Japan also lacks natural resources, so it imports most of its gas and oil.

Early in the 20th century, Japan invaded China and Korea. It also attacked Indochina. The US responded by embargoing Japan’s oil supply, which led to war between the two nations. The US needed resources from Asia to fight the war, so it entered World War II against Japan.

The outcome of World War II was determined by geography. The US had to liberate the Pacific Islands one by one, including Okinawa on Japan’s doorstep. They dropped nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force a surrender, but not before their casualties would have been massive if they invaded Japan’s mountainous terrain. After the war, Japan became an economic powerhouse because America helped rebuild it as a hedge against Communist China. Today, though there are differences between South Korea and Japan regarding North Korea (the Korean War), they need each other for protection from China—and so does America with its military presence in both countries.

Chapter 9: “Latin America”

Latin America is limited in terms of economic success because it has a small population and its landlocked area makes transport difficult. Because the Europeans did not invest in building roads that cross from coast to coast, they left large areas undeveloped.

Mexico is limited by harsh northern deserts, dense southern jungles, and mountains in between; its coasts on the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico have few deep harbors. Brazil’s “internal regions will remain isolated from one another” (231). Argentina and Chile are cut off from the rest of South America because of their long Andes mountain range that runs 4,500 miles. East of those mountains lies a temperate area with flat land suitable for agriculture and construction but dominated by more jungle-like areas to the north.

Latin American countries share a language, but borders were created arbitrarily. Therefore, there are cultural clashes among the people who live in these countries. Some of them have African and European roots; others are native to their respective regions. On top of that, there’s an anticolonialist/pro-socialist movement going on that causes instability across the region.

Bolivia lost a war with Chile in 1879 and became landlocked. This has caused them to have an ongoing conflict with their neighbors, as well as their own citizens. Several countries lay claim to portions of neighboring territories, leading to wars that are still occurring today.

The land that is now California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas was once owned by Mexico. It only became part of the United States in 1848 after a war with Spain. The area has a difficult desert terrain which means it’s not easy for people to migrate into the US from there. However, by 2050 the largest ethnic group in southern border states will be Hispanic.

Internally, Mexico is hampered by its rough terrain. It also has to deal with conflicts from within and without. The southern countries of Belize and Guatemala are too rugged for development as well.

Mexico has been plagued by drug-related violence. The US government launched a campaign against the drug cartels, but it backfired when they started smuggling drugs through Central America and Mexico. In response to this, rival gangs began fighting for turf in Mexico. They used their new power and money to infiltrate the Mexican police force and military as well as get into business and political leaders’ pockets. As a result of all this, we’re now seeing civil war-like conditions in Mexico.

China is interested in Venezuelan oil, but the US and Venezuela are at odds. China has partnered with Nicaragua to build a canal across that country, hoping this will ensure access to South American resources.

China is giving loans to Latin American countries and hoping that they will support China in the UN. The Chinese are also providing an alternative trade partner for these countries, since America has used force against them almost 50 times between 1890 and the end of the Cold War.

Brazil is the largest country in South America. It has a lot of area, but it’s difficult to develop because much of that land is rainforest. There are also highlands and mountains that isolate some areas from others. Also, there aren’t many ports for Brazil to use since they can only handle fewer goods than one port in the United States. One quarter of Brazil’s population lives in poverty-stricken slums.

Marshall points out that Brazil is working on its infrastructure, but the country’s geography makes it difficult to connect with other countries. In addition, Brazil wants to create a common market similar to what exists in Europe; however, this will take time because of South America’s rugged terrain. The country has few border disputes as well.

Argentina has the potential for future development and economic growth, as it is a large country with good farmland. It also has many rivers that flow toward Buenos Aires, which is a major port. However, there have been political and economic issues in Argentina that have kept its economy from growing. With shale oil and gas deposits available throughout Argentina’s landmass, however, this country could be self-sufficient for energy production for years to come.

Chapter 10: “The Arctic”

The top of the Arctic is melting due to global warming, which has opened up the Arctic Ocean for resource exploitation. Russia’s been ahead in that race.

Explorers have always wanted to find a short route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Many explorers died trying because Roald Amundsen was able to chart his way through that passage in 1905. Today, ships travel along that same route or along a northeastern lane off the Russian coast during summertime.

Experts believe that there are vast quantities of natural gas and oil in the Arctic region, as well as gold, zinc, nickel, and iron. Several countries border this region—Russia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Greenland (Denmark) and the US in Alaska. However, many of their claims to this region are disputed by other Council members who argue that it is part of the international commons.

Most countries in the Arctic Council have increased their armed forces to protect themselves from Russia. Russia has been holding massive war games, and it has 32 icebreakers, which is more than any other country. However, the United States only has one icebreaker, and it no longer maintains a military presence on Iceland.

The United States has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which would give it rights to two hundred thousand square miles in the Arctic.

However, the Arctic is a dangerous place. The environment is dark and deadly, so it’s important to have laws in place to protect everyone involved. It may be better for countries with similar interests to work together so they can help one another survive in this harsh climate.


Overcoming the limitations of geography has been a longstanding dream for many people. Russia still fears invasion across its plains, and India and China may take to the sea to fight over scarce resources. Flooding from global warming will likely increase as deserts expand, causing wars and mass migrations.

A new frontier, space, presents its own challenges. We can overcome these obstacles and work together to achieve our goals. However, we still have a long way to go in overcoming the barriers that prevent us from working together with others.

Prisoners Of Geography Book Summary, by Tim Marshall

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