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Wednesday, 29 March 2023
The Power of Geography
Ian Black

Tim Marshall has had a long and distinguished career as a British TV and radio journalist, now based in the UK but covering a great deal of international stories, including Kosovo and Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. He has just published another impressive book entitled The Power of Geography: Ten Maps that Reveal the Future of Our World.


 Each of its 10 chapters contain fascinating insights into the way geopolitics are influenced by multiple factors, including the actual size of individual states, their populations, mountains, rivers, seas and minerals. “The choices people make, now and in the future, are never separate from their physical context,” he writes.

 He covers specific countries and regions in which the Cold War is a fading memory, but is now dominated by the US, China and Russia. Australia, a long-standing American ally, is facing a serious challenge from an increasingly assertive and cyber-expert Beijing, not least in the South China Sea; one aspect of that has been an alliance between Canberra and Tokyo.

 The whole book focuses on the complex interplay between geography, history and contemporary geopolitics. In Iran, for example, a key fact is control of Straits of Hormuz – through which one-fifth of the world’s oil supplies pass – and is a card Tehran can play. Marshall is pessimistic about the prospects that the Islamic Republic might retreat from its regional strategy and nuclear aspirations. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has a powerful self-interest in maintaining the status quo. It “talks the revolutionary talk and walks the money- making walk”.

 Another important Middle Eastern state, Saudi Arabia, is built on oil and sand: its main challenge in the coming decades is economic diversification, including focusing on solar and other forms of renewable energy. Relations between Riyadh and Washington cannot be taken for granted, and ties with Beijing are getting closer, because of the Chinese model of “state capitalism”.

 The chapter on Britain is especially illuminating: “The UK lost a lot as the maps changed during the drive to decolonization; now it must navigate a new world in which empire is becoming a distant memory.” Brexit – its departure from the EU after 47 years  - has considerably complicated that challenge. It is now deeply concerned about the prospect of Scotland seeking its own independence and the damage done to fragile peace in Northern Ireland.

 Greece and Turkey deserve a separate look. The dominant issue, as ever, for Greece is judged to be its dominance of the Aegean; plus the recent discovery of undersea gas fields which are the source of tensions between Athens and Ankara. “At the south-eastern corner of Europe, and facing off…against its larger neighbour and nemesis, Greece now finds itself at the crossroads of the EU, Russia, NATO, the turmoil of the Middle East, and the ongoing migrant crisis,” Marshall writes.

 “At a strategic level what concerns them is much the same as when they looked up to Zeus, Apollo and Aphrodite on the heights of Mount Olympus. The gods have gone, empires come and go, alliances shift, but the constants for Greeks remain what made them- the mountains and the sea.”

 Turkey is characterised as following a policy of neo-Ottomanism, under President Recep Erdogan, whose rhetoric fuels Turkish xenophobia and Greek anxieties. It also affects Europe, the Middle East and central Asia. The potential for flashpoints with its western neighbour remains high – even if neither side wants a full-blown conflict. Commemoration of the Armenian genocide remain a source of tension with other countries, especially the US under Joe Biden.

 The chapter on the Sahel is especially grim. Stretching south of the Maghreb, the countries it includes are some of the poorest on the planet: Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Somalia. Climate change is making their problems far worse: “When the rains fail so do the crops. When the lakes shrink so does the food supply. When this happens, people move; and when people move, the places they move to are often not ready for them.”

 Another destabilising factor is jihadist rebels – mainly Tuareg. Isis, al-Qaeda and local groups are all challenging their current regimes as well as the US and France, the former colonial power. China’s expanding military activity in the Sahel region, dovetailing with its Belt and Road trade initiative, provides a clue to what the future holds.

 Another chapter deals with Ethiopia, which has the second biggest population (110 million) in Africa and dominates the Horn of Africa, one of the regions of the world most affected by conflict – whether civil wars, border disputes, extremism and piracy. Water is the key to its influence, especially over Sudan, Egypt and Eritrea.

 As if those terrestrial problems were not challenging enough, the next potential is control of space. That’s way beyond the “space race” of the 1960’s and 1970’s. In October 2020 the US and key allied agreed the Artemis Accords, governing the exploration of the Moon and extraction of its resources. China and Russia did not sign: a Moscow space official described a possible invasion of the Moon as “another Afghanistan or Iraq.” That’s a scary view of the future of our universe.