The Earth is not the limit | Book Review: The Power of Geography by Tim Marshall

By: |
July 18, 2021 12:30 AM

Politics is defined by geography and now space promises to be the new political battlefield

Richard Branson and crew members onboard VSS Unity after reaching the edge of space on July 11. Commercial space flights have begun to open up space for not only governments but private enterprises as well (Virgin Galactic/Handout via REUTERS)Richard Branson and crew members onboard VSS Unity after reaching the edge of space on July 11. Commercial space flights have begun to open up space for not only governments but private enterprises as well (Virgin Galactic/Handout via REUTERS)

Tim Marshall, an acclaimed author and former foreign correspondent for leading British media platforms, including BBC and Sky News, wrote a bestseller in 2015 titled Prisoners of Geography, which was sweeping in its scope. Burnishing an old tenet, that geography is a critical determinant in shaping global politics and the destinies of nations, Marshall wrote about the geopolitics of Russia, China, USA, Europe, the Middle east, Africa, India and Pakistan, Japan and Korea, Latin America and the Arctic.

The influence of geography on military strategy and larger, grand national strategies that shaped and distorted geo-politics in the modern context has been explored in great detail by strategists such as Mahan, Clausewitz, Corbett, Mackinder and Spkyman, among others. Marshall’s appeal in his first book was in synthesising diverse strands into a compelling 101 for a younger generation who may not be familiar with the vicissitudes of colonialism, the 20th century and the two great wars that brought untold misery to the hapless millions who were directly affected.

The current volume, The Power of Geography is an extension of the prequel and reviews nine nations and one domain. The focus in this volume is on Australia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, UK, Greece, Turkey, the Sahel, Ethiopia and Spain; while space is the last chapter and one that is particularly stimulating.

Marshall provides a breezy panoramic survey in each chapter where his fluency in weaving regional history, politics and culture and more contemporary events is compelling. Interspersed are some pithy authorial observations that reflect the seasoned journalist. For instance, in relation to Australia, while noting that it became an island only 35 million years ago, the author canters to the present dilemma that Canberra is facing in relation to the Beijing backlash over Covid and more. Marshall adds in the conclusion: “Managing the relationship (with China) will be difficult: handle it wrong and you risk being part of an Indo-Pacific Cold War, being too weak risks allowing a People’s Liberation Army base in your backyard. The Covid-19 crisis magnified and accelerated existing trends.”

In like fashion, after introducing the many complexities of Saudi Arabia and its recent emergence as a nation, Marshall opines, tongue-in-cheek, that if the young crown prince MBS is unable to successfully steer Saudi Arabia away from an oil-dependent economy and the world moves towards solar energy — “we are approaching a time in which there is no way the Americans will fight to defend Saudi Arabia’s solar panels.”

The chapter on the UK is empathetic in its conclusion — a bit aspirational perhaps, but also reveals the limitations of the Marshall formulation in over-emphasising geography. Noting that ‘the British are coming’ is a phrase that “might have been uttered in much of the world over several centuries during which they built an empire”, the author avers that “Two and a half centuries after the American war of Independence, the British are coming again — to as many places as they can.” Really?

Gliding through the writings/ideas of Mackinder and their misuse, Marshall asserts that “the reality of (UK) being an island off the coast of a continent has not changed”, but his assessment of what the future holds does not quite take into account the political determinant — one that elected a Churchill during the Second World War and the current state of play in London.

Geographical determinism, also referred to as geo-determinism, is a persuasive lens in understanding the meta-historical narrative but needs other streams to fully understand or explain the systole and diastole of specific histories and the degree to which there will be a possible correspondence in the near future.

It is the last chapter that Marshall provides much grist for the mill. He points out that “ever since we pushed through earth’s atmosphere and out, edging a millimetre into infinity, space has become a political battleground.” Absent a truly consensual and ethical approach in how space is explored, punctuated and used to improve the well-being of humanity —space could become as militarily contested and polluted with debris like the global oceans.

Space exploration is no longer the monopoly of the major powers and the entry of the private sector (Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos) has altered the domain. The likelihood of space being harnessed for both adventure initially and resource exploitation commerce is on the anvil and no longer mere science fiction. Marshall dwells on the possibility of an ‘International Musk Spacetel’ — “a billion-star twenty room hotel where guests can take in the sights and eat the finest gastronomical freeze-dried food” — for an astronomical price — $10 million per week!

Minor editing errors (page 319) could be rectified in a future edition — which seems to be likely given the success of the prequel.

As regards mineral resources, Marshall informs the reader that “above us is an asteroid named 3554 Amun. In it are nickel, cobalt, iron and other metals with an estimated value of $20 trillion, approximately the same as the GDP of the USA” and that this is one of countless more.

Urging the global movers and shakers to get over the divisiveness of “us and them” — the “virus which has infected us from the beginning”, Marshall closes on a lofty note of hope. “Humans have always looked up, deep into the night sky, and dreamed…the sky is not the limit.”

Human greed and avarice could yet prove to be Sisyphean.

The Power of Geography
Tim Marshall
Elliot & Thompson
Pp 352 (with index), Rs 699

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