Thursday, January 5, 2017

Book Review - Prisoners of Geography

An introduction to foreign policy masquerading as a book about maps, Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography - Ten Maps That Explain Everything About The World scans the globe to discover that the 21st century looks a lot like the latter half of the 20th - a three-way dance between the United States, China, and Russia for world supremacy. 

But it is less in his chapters about these three powers than it is in those that touch on the rest of the world - from the Arctic Circle to Africa - that Marshall truly shines. Prisoners is an invaluable resource for understanding the nuance and subtlety of international relations and is even more important considering that for the first time since the end of World War II, Americans have no earthly idea how our President and his foreign policy team will handle our diplomatic, economic, and military relations with the rest of the world. 

Marshall makes clear China is deeply invested in spreading its influence primarily through its economic might - the sheer force of more than one billion people can do that, and China is spending on everything from a canal being constructed in Nicaragua to compete with the one in Panama to any number of African countries larded with natural resources necessary for China’s continued expansion. The consequences of these investments is not yet known, but what Marshall highlights is the vast number of investments China is making; not all will pay off (there is, for example, a question whether the Nicaraguan Canal will succeed) but China does not need them to in order to expand its influence. At the same time, China is spending on its military closer to home to firm up a zone of influence that radiates out into the Pacific Ocean, with potential consequences for our allies like Japan and South Korea. Taken together, Marshall sees a rising China competing with America throughout the world in the decades to come. 

On the other hand, Russia is playing a weak hand strongly. It has resources (oil/natural gas) that many European nations rely on but an economy that wobbles because of its corruption. Russia leverages its still powerful military to bully its neighbors, constantly pressing to see how far it can re-extend its reach before getting slapped by its Western neighbors. Its discomfiting enough but with our President-elect’s shameless flirtation with Putin, the consequences could be far more dire. Like China, Russia is keenly interested in a wider buffer zone between it and Western nations. We see this in its retaking of Crimea and war in Eastern Ukraine. Each small conflict comes with the reward of reasserting Russia’s influence and requiring it be treated as closer to an equal on the world stage. 

And that is the key takeaway from this book. While second-tier players like the United Kingdom and France lurk in the background, much of what is happening today is informed by China’s desire to become co-equal with America on the world stage and Russia’s desire to regain what it lost when the USSR crumbled in the early 1990s. These longer term goals are playing out in myriad potential flashpoints across the globe that require deep thinking, an understanding of history, and experience to properly balance these interests, risks and rewards. Handling the on-again/off-again tensions between India and Pakistan or the simmering frustration South American countries feel toward the United States require a deft hand, any mole hill could quickly turn into a mountain and a mountain into a mushroom cloud. President-elect Trump may not appreciate the gravity of what a random tweet or phone call can do, but the rest of the world surely does and the speed and ease with which something he says or does could lead to dire consequences cannot be understated. 

While much of the book focuses on strategic decisions countries make in contemplation of potential wars with adversaries (see, e.g., the Korean Peninsula, India/Pakistan, basically the entire freaking Middle East) the difficulty in predicting the future is how often writers get things wrong. Japan was ascendant in the 1980s but is now hobbled by an aging population and a decade of limited growth. Some argued the oil crunch of the 1970s would lead to America’s demise, but today, we are about to become the largest producer of energy in the world thanks to natural gas. Regardless, readers will be informed by Marshall’s knowledge and understanding of international relations and be left pondering how different the world will surely look in the years to come. 

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