Contours and Fissures: A Review of Prisoners of Geography : Tim Marshall,
Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography is an insightful and accessible intervention in current discourse on global geopolitics. The book’s scope is formidable, with chapters concerning every continent barring the Antarctic, yet Marshall avoids a sense of over-extension. As an exercise in corraling and structuring content, Prisoners of Geography succeeds as a well-researched, well-contained narration of the contours and tectonics that define policy the world over, and there are few recent texts that can purport to present the same topoi so effectively.
Whilst Marshall’s foremost aim is to reinstate topography into our understanding of international relationships, his continuous prioritisation of defence is an equally important, albeit more subtle contribution. As anyone with a passing interest in Asian current affairs will be aware, military and territorial concerns are still prominent in disputes between South Korea and the DRK, and India and Pakistan, but Marshall elegantly expands anxieties of sovereignty to the corridors of Washington, Westminster, Tiananmen Square and the Kremlin — landscapes in which these motives have often been underplayed. With the proclaimed ‘End of History’ that came with Neo-Liberal consensus, political commentators and pressure groups have often shifted away from a recognition of invasion and occupation as a prioritised threat for global powers, in lieu of discussing the configuration of economic, cultural and resource hegemony. Whilst these are critical prerogatives in world political discourse, Marshall’s simple and stark discussion of contemporary news events, such as his determination of Crimea as a Russian buffer state, rather than one part of a pan-Slavic reunification project, goes some way to reincorporating military paranoias into our understanding of world political economy. The planet depicted in Prisoners of Geography is weaponised, hostile, and afraid, and in this sphere, the continual strategic importance of areas such as the GIUK gap, the Mediterranean and the East China Sea necessitates a reconsideration of demilitarisation projects in Western states. Whilst Marshall could perhaps be criticised for making his reader fearful, his argument is convincing, and goes some way to remind us that phenomena as antithetical as the invasion of Ukraine and American ‘McDonaldnisation’ are tied to the constant reaffirmation of spatial security.
Marshall’s discussion of Africa is equally persuasive, as he successfully intersects geographical disadvantage with Eurasian opportunism to interpret the continued exploitation of the continent at macrocosmic level. If anything however, I found that his argument here doesn’t reach its fullest conclusion. We cannot expect Marshall to provide an all encompassing historiography of the scramble for Africa, or European Empire Building in the early-modern period however I feel further research could benefit from attempting to take Marshall’s reprioritisation of geography and apply it to the ideological supports of Imperialism and Cosmopolitanism. Does the ability for free movement facilitated by relative flatness and temperate climate (as we see in Europe) always engender exploration and expansionism in a way that cannot be replicated in more isolated communities? The Marxist school has had great success in recent years by reinstating space into cultural analysis (in no small part due to Edward Soja’s seminal Postmodern Geographies), and a similar assessment of the relationship between topography and the production of hegemony could not only illuminate recent history but also provide solutions through exception to a world that Prisoners of Geographyleaves in a waltz towards Mutually Assured Destruction. Marshall’s reinstating of topography, and its apparently symbiotic relationship with militarism and conflict is profoundly worrying, but the utility of his work could lie the possibility of its positive, and pragmatic application.