The Power of Geography: Ten Maps that Reveal the Future of Our World

  • Published

The Power of Geography: Ten Maps that Reveal the Future of Our World by Tim Marshall. Elliot and Thompson, 2021, 352 pp. 

Tim Marshall’s The Power of Geography: Ten Maps that Reveal the Future of Our World is an intriguing exploratory study spanning 10 areas of the world the author has identified as the potential locations for future geopolitical tension or conflict.

Marshall links history and geography to current issues and provides the reader with an understanding of why these 10 locations are significant. He is a British author and journalist with more than 30 years of experience with the British Broadcasting Channel and Sky News. He has reported from more than 40 countries and in various conflict zones where he leveraged his experiences and insight to deliver an entertaining examination of the critical role geography has and still plays in the shaping of the world.

The Power of Geography is a follow-up and sequel to Prisoners of Geography, a work that explores how countries are constrained and restricted in their choices based on their geography and position in the world. In this sequel, Marshall acknowledges his previous work and takes a different approach by looking at 10 regions that will influence the global order and politics of the future. He provides a snapshot of each location by including chapters on Australia, Iran, Saudia Arabia, the United Kingdom, Greece, Turkey, the Sahel, Ethiopia, Spain, and outer space, all with varying issues that are vital in an era of great-power rivalry with a shift toward a multipolar world.

Marshall approaches each by defining the location’s borders, its geographical characteristics, and taking the reader through a chronological journey of its history or origins to the present day. By doing so, he explains why that region matters and is crucial to the future of the world.

One of the richest qualities of the book is its variety of locations and the diversity of factors he considered significant. Marshall takes the reader on a trek through Australia, the Middle East, Africa, the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, and even outer space. Through these regions, and with 10 separate case studies, he can provide variability with a broad range of issues without constraining the reader to one area.

For example, he covers factors such as water control with the tension between Ethiopia and Egypt over the recently constructed Nile Dam in Ethiopia; land disputes and historical claims between Turkey and Greece over the island of Cyprus; and the geographical divides of populations within countries such as the United Kingdom and Spain who are threatened by potential breakaway states in Scotland and Catalonia. All of these are either international flashpoints or have the potential to yield global ramifications.

The last chapter is most intriguing. Marshall dedicates it to space, an area that is the near and yet far future of geopolitical contests within strategic competition. In this chapter, Marshall introduces astropolitik or realpolitik for space which he attributes to Professor Everett Dolman of the US Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College as an individual who builds on the famous geopolitical theorists Halford Mackinder and Alfred Mahan (247).

In Dolman’s version, he has partitioned space into four categories: Terra or the Earth and its immediate airspace, Earth space or the region from the lowest possible orbit, lunar space or the geosynchronous orbit to the Moon’s orbit, and solar space or everything beyond the Moon’s orbit (248). He explains this as a concept that is analogous to Mackinder’s famous Heartland theory about the control of the world beginning where who rules Eastern Europe commands the Heartland.

According to Marshall, Dolman breaks this down similarly by mentioning “who controls low Earth orbit controls near-Earth space. Who controls near-Earth space dominates Terra. Who dominates Terra determines the destiny of humankind” (248). Of note, the low-Earth orbit is where all nations’ communications satellites are located, and controlling this can give a country a significant military advantage. The chapter provides additional context yet emphasizes the future role space will play in geopolitics, especially among the major powers.

An additional strength is the book’s readability. Marshall is an outstanding narrator who keeps the chapters concise and focused without providing too much detail or unnecessary jargon that could overwhelm or bore the reader. He provides sufficient detail to warrant the reader an efficient understanding of each location without going too deep into any specific area that could prevent coming away without tangible points. This allows anyone to easily remember portions of the chapters and take away a few key components of each.

In contrast, by choosing 10 locations, Marshall limits his ability to deep-dive into certain regions and instead settles for broad overviews of each. Moreover, while Marshall has the foresight to examine the Arctic, United States, China, and Russia in Prisoners of Geography, he acknowledges that he did not devote a chapter to each in this work to explore other regions. Yet, these locations may be more relevant in this book given the international situation in 2021 and the emergence of strategic competition.

This is nowhere more applicable than with the potential challenges of the Arctic, including climate-induced melting and the opening of new corridors for transit areas, the increasing militarization of the waters, undeclared claims, and resource capture, thus inviting competing interests and likely tension. Lastly, a thought-provoking addition could be a final chapter or conclusion summarizing the main points and tying in the major powers and the Arctic with the power perspective of this work. Since there is a five-year difference between the books, this would be a timely update.

Nonetheless, The Power of Geography is suggested reading for those interested in geopolitics or international relations and anyone seeking a useful foundation in current or future areas of concern. Also, armed services officers, especially those in careers transitioning from tactical to operational or strategic assignments, could benefit from gaining valuable insight into strategic locations of importance throughout the world. Overall, Marshall is an excellent storyteller who provides a knowledgeable and enjoyable read by looking at the past, present, and future of the world through a geopolitical lens.

Major Matt Alexander, USA

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."