I readPrisoners of GeographybyTim MarshalonDec 21st, 2020


If you enjoy the Guns, Germs, and Steel, you may also like this Prisoners of Geography. This book explored how geography shapes the economics, politics, and the regional prosperity and stableness.

Physical barriers

Mountains, desserts, and rivers, these natural barriers acted as deterrents for barbarians or aggressive neighbors.

Tibet, with 0.17% share of domestic GDP, is essential for China’s security. Not only major rivers, such Yangtse River and Yellow River originate from the plateau, it also guards the prosperous industrial heartlands.

Russia faced similar problem: it is all flat from Poland to Moscow, and the front is more than two thousands miles. Russia solved this problem by continuously expand the borders to the west and east. They leveraged this strategic depth to defeat the invasions twice, in 1812 and 1941.

It is unfortunate for South Korea that the capital Seoul lies just 35 miles south of the 38th parallel and the DMZ, fully exposed to the North Korea’s artillery range.

Trade obstacles

Civilizations relied on trades for scarce resources, and cheaper goods thanks to the law of comparative advantages.

The connected, navigable waterways, such as the Mississippi River systems can significantly reduce the time and cost for transportation. On the contrary, Brazil has the second longest river, Amazon River; but benefits little or none for waterway transportation due to many falls.

The trade might be hampered simply by the distances. There are 44 and 54 countries in Europe and Africa respectively. But the sheer size of the Africa continent make the trade much harder, 11.73 million mi² vs. 3.931 million mi². It is worthy noting that the size of Africa is usually underestimated because the Equirectangular projection distortion makes the land in the higher latitude looks bigger. Essentially Africa is bigger than China, India, the contiguous U.S. and most of Europe — combined!

The trade might be be banned for political reasons. In the Saltpepper War, Bolivia lost the coastal Atacama Desert, and became a landlocked country, — which also contributed to its poverty. The grudge between two countries prevented Bolivia to export natural gas to Chile while both countries would benefit.

Arbitrary borders

arbitrarily creating “nation states” out of people unused to living together in one region is not a recipe for justice, quality, and stability.

The European colonizers partitioned Africa to colonies, and various segments from the Berlin Conference(1884 - 85) to the World War I with arbitrary borders drawn on the map with little regards of geography, history, ethnicity, or heritage. These post-colonial borders caused lots of skirmishes and conflicts.

Middle East is another canonical example. The British and France secretly signed the Sykes–Picot Agreement to define their spheres of influences after defeating Ottoman Empire during World War I. Several nations were thrown into one state without external forces to hold them together. In the south Asia continent, India and Pakistan resolved the issue with 12.5 million displacement and estimated millions casualties in the massive violence and slaughter, see Partition of India.

Closing Thoughts

The geopolitics are complicated, usually involved in the religions, heritages, idealogies, and natural resources. I think that is why Middle East is such a mess:

Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni muslim power and Iran, largely Shia muslim, both explore the region hegemony, and actively involve in the regional conflicts such as Syria, Yemen etc, also known as New Cold War.

The Kurds were promised a Kurdistan in 1920 Treaty of Sevres but dashed by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. They remain minorities in the respective countries and treated unfairly.

The Arab Spring movements were oppressed with violent aggression from authorities. The power vacuums resulted in military battles for power consolidation.