Russia’s war in Ukraine has involved many surprises. The largest, however, is that it happened at all. Last year, Russia was at peace and enmeshed in a complex global economy. Would it really sever trade ties – and threaten nuclear war – just to expand its already vast territory? Despite the many warnings, including from Vladimir Putin himself, the invasion still came as a shock.
But it wasn’t a shock to the journalist Tim Marshall. On the first page of his 2015 blockbuster book, Prisoners of Geography, Marshall invited readers to contemplate Russia’s topography. A ring of mountains and ice surrounds it. Its border with China is protected by mountain ranges, and it is separated from Iran and Turkey by the Caucusus. Between Russia and western Europe stand the Balkans, Carpathians and Alps, which form another wall. Or, they nearly do. To the north of those mountains, a flat corridor – the Great European Plain – connects Russia to its well-armed western neighbours via Ukraine and Poland. On it, you can ride a bicycle from Paris to Moscow.
You can also drive a tank. Marshall noted how this gap in Russia’s natural fortifications has repeatedly exposed it to attacks. “Putin has no choice”, Marshall concluded: “He must at least attempt to control the flatlands to the west.” When Putin did precisely that, invading a Ukraine he could no longer control by quieter means, Marshall greeted it with wearied understanding, deploring the war yet finding it unsurprising. The map “imprisons” leaders, he had written, “giving them fewer choices and less room to manoeuvre than you might think”.
There is a name for Marshall’s line of thinking: geopolitics. Although the term is often used loosely to mean “international relations”, it refers more precisely to the view that geography – mountains, land bridges, water tables – governs world affairs. Ideas, laws and culture are interesting, geopoliticians argue, but to truly understand politics you must look hard at maps. And when you do, the world reveals itself to be a zero-sum contest in which every neighbour is a potential rival, and success depends on controlling territory, as in the boardgame Risk. In its cynical view of human motives, geopolitics resembles Marxism, just with topography replacing class struggle as the engine of history.
Geopolitics also resembles Marxism in that many predicted its death in the 1990s, with the cold war’s end. The expansion of markets and eruption of new technologies promised to make geography obsolete. Who cares about controlling the strait of Malacca – or the port of Odesa – when the seas brim with containerships and information rebounds off satellites? “The world is flat,” the journalist Thomas Friedman declared in 2005. It was an apt metaphor for globalisation: goods, ideas and people sliding smoothly across borders.
Yet the world feels less flat today. As supply chains snap and global trade falters, the terrain of the planet seems more craggy than frictionless. Hostility toward globalisation, channelled by figures such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, was already rising before the pandemic, which boosted it. The number of border walls, about 10 at the cold war’s end, is now 74 and climbing, with the past decade as the high point of wall-building. The post-cold war hope for globalisation was a “delusion”, writes political scientist Élisabeth Vallet, and we’re now seeing the “reterritorialisation of the world”.
Facing a newly hostile environment, leaders are pulling old strategy guides off the shelf. “Geopolitics are back, and back with a vengeance, after this holiday from history we took in the so-called post-cold war period,” US national security adviser HR McMaster warned in 2017. This outlook openly guides Russian thinking, with Putin citing “geopolitical realities” in explaining his Ukraine invasion. Elsewhere, as faith in an open, trade-based international system falters, map-reading pundits such as Marshall, Robert Kaplan, Ian Morris, George Friedman and Peter Zeihan are advancing on to bestseller lists.
Hearing the mapmongers ply their trade, you wonder if anything has changed since the 13th-century world of Genghis Khan, where strategy was a matter of open steppes and mountain barriers. Geopolitical thinking is unabashedly grim, and it regards hopes for peace, justice and rights with scepticism. The question, however, is not whether it’s bleak, but whether it’s right. Past decades have brought major technological, intellectual and institutional changes. But are we still, as Marshall contends, “prisoners of geography”? [Continue reading…]