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Are we really prisoners of geography?

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”?

In the long run, we are creatures of our environments to an almost embarrassing degree, flourishing where circumstances permit and dying where they don’t. “If you look at a map of the tectonic plate boundaries grinding against each other and superimpose the locations of the world’s major ancient civilisations, an astonishingly close relationship reveals itself,” writes Lewis Dartnell in his splendid book, Origins. The relationship is no accident. Plate collisions create mountain ranges and the great rivers that carry their sediment down to the lowlands, enriching the soil. Ancient Greece, Egypt, Persia, Assyria, the Indus valley, Mesoamerica and Rome were all near plate edges. The Fertile Crescent – the rich agricultural zone stretching from Egypt to Iran, where farming, writing and the wheel first emerged – lies over the intersection of three plates.

Geography’s effects can be impressively enduring, as voting patterns in the southern US show. The deep south is heavily Republican, but an arc of Democratic counties curves through it. That dissenting band makes a shape “instantly recognisable to a geologist”, writes scientist Steven Dutch. It matches an outcrop of sediment from tens of millions of years ago, deposited during the hot Cretaceous period when much of the present-day US was underwater. With time, the deposits were compressed into shale, and with more time, after the waters had receded, they were exposed by erosion. In the 19th century, Dutch explains, planters recognised the outcropping – called the “Black Belt” for its rich, dark soil – as ideal for cotton. To pick it, planters brought enslaved people, whose descendants still live in the area and regularly oppose conservative politicians. The city of Montgomery, Alabama –“smack in the middle” of the Cretaceous band, Dartnell notes – was also a centre of the civil rights movement, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached and Rosa Parks sparked the bus boycott.

Maps showing the correlation between Cretaceous rock deposits (top) and US counties voting Democrat in 2016 (bottom).
Maps showing the correlation between Cretaceous rock deposits (top) and US counties voting Democrat in 2016 (bottom). From Origins: How the Earth Shaped Human History by Lewis Dartnell

Geopoliticians, of course, care more about international wars than local elections. In this, they hark back to Halford Mackinder, an English strategist who essentially founded their way of thinking. In a 1904 paper, The Geographical Pivot of History, Mackinder gazed at a relief map of the world and posited that history could be seen as a centuries-long struggle between the nomadic peoples of Eurasia’s plains and the seafaring ones of its coasts. Britain and its peers had thrived as oceanic powers, but, now that all viable colonies were claimed, that route was closed and future expansion would involve land conflicts. The vast plain in the “heart-land” of Eurasia, Mackinder felt, would be the centre of the world’s wars.

Mackinder wasn’t wholly correct, but his predictions’ broad contours – clashes over eastern Europe, the waning of British sea power, the rise of the land powers Germany and Russia – were right enough. Beyond the details, Mackinder’s vision of imperialists running out of colonies to claim and turning on one another was prophetic. When they did, he foresaw, Eurasia’s interior would be the prize. The Heartland “offers all the prerequisites of ultimate dominance of the world”, he later wrote. “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.”

Mackinder meant that as a warning. But the German army general Karl Haushofer, believing Mackinder to possess “the greatest of all geographical worldviews”, took it as advice. Haushofer incorporated Mackinder’s insights into the emerging field of Geopolitik (from which we get the English “geopolitics”) and passed his ideas on to Adolf Hitler and Rudolf Hess in the 1920s. “The German people are imprisoned within an impossible territorial area,” Hitler concluded. To survive they must “become a world power”, and to do that they must turn east – to Mackinder’s Heartland.

Adolf Hitler’s conviction that Germany’s fate lay in the east was a far cry from Steven Dutch’s observation that Cretaceous rocks predict votes. Yet informing both is the theory that what’s beneath our feet shapes what’s in our heads. By the second world war, when armies clashing over strategically valuable territory had ripped up much of Eurasia, that seemed hard to deny. Mackinder, who lived through that war, saw little reason to believe geography’s “obstinate facts” would ever give way.

Halford Mackinder insisted that the relief map still mattered, but not everyone agreed. Throughout the 20th century, idealists searched for ways to make international relations something other than a “perpetual prize-fight”, as the British economist John Maynard Keynes put it. For Keynes and his followers, trade might accomplish this. If countries could rely on open commerce, they’d no longer have to seize territory to secure resources. For other idealists, new air-age technologies were the key. With all places linked to all others via the skies, they hoped, countries would stop squabbling over strategic spots on the map.

These were hopes, though, not yet realities. The cold war, which divided the planet into trade blocs and military alliances, kept leaders’ eyes fixed on maps. Children learned to read maps, too, thanks to the 1957 French board game La Conquête du Monde – the conquest of the world – that the US firm Parker Brothers sold widely under the name Risk. It had a 19th-century ambience, with cavalries and antiquated artillery pieces, but given that superpowers were still carving up the map, it was also uncomfortably relevant.

Geopolitical thought, though muted since its association with the Nazis, nevertheless left its marks on the cold war. The US’s key strategist, George F Kennan, downplayed the conflict’s ideological component. Marxism was a “fig leaf”, he insisted. The true explanation for Soviet conduct was the “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity” engendered by centuries “trying to live on a vast exposed plain in the neighbourhood of fierce nomadic peoples”. To this Mackinder-tinged problem, Kennan proposed a Mackinder-tinged solution: “containment”, which sought not to eradicate communism, but to hem it in. This campaign ultimately entailed US intervention all over the world, including sending 2.7 million service members to fight the Vietnam war. For many who served, that unsuccessful war was a “quagmire” – a ground that sucks you in. Not until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 did it seem like geography might finally lose its grip.

The cold war had divided the world economically, and its end brought trade walls tumbling down. The 90s saw a frenzy of trade agreements and institution-building: the European Union, the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), Mercosur in Latin America and, towering above all, the World Trade Organization. The number of regional trade agreements more than quadrupled between 1988 and 2008, and they deepened as well, involving more thoroughgoing coordination. In that period, trade tripled, rising from less than a sixth of global GDP to more than a quarter.

A US soldier on patrol in Musa Qala, Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2006.
A US soldier on patrol in Musa Qala, Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2006. Photograph: Rodrigo Abd/AP

The more countries could secure vital resources by trade, the less reason they’d have to seize land. Optimists like Thomas Friedman believed countries that were tightly woven into an economic network would forgo starting wars, for fear of losing access to the humming network. Friedman lightheartedly expressed this in 1996 as the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention: no two countries with McDonald’s will go to war with each other. And he wasn’t far off. Although there have been a handful of conflicts between McDonald’s-having countries, an individual’s chance of dying in a war between states has diminished remarkably since the cold war.

At the same time as trade was diminishing the likelihood of war, military technologies changed its shape. Just months after the Berlin Wall fell, Saddam Hussein led an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This was an old-school geopolitical affair: Iraq had amassed the world’s fourth-largest army, and by seizing Kuwait it would control two-fifths of the world’s oil reserves. What is more, its formidable ground forces were shielded by a large, trackless desert that was nearly impossible to navigate. Mackinder would have appreciated the strategy.

But the 90s were no longer the age of Mackinder. Saddam discovered this when a US-led coalition sent bombers from Louisiana, England, Spain, Saudi Arabia and the island of Diego Garcia to drop their payloads over Iraq, disabling much of its infrastructure within hours. More than a month of airstrikes followed, and then coalition forces used the new satellite technology of GPS to swiftly cross the desert that Iraqis had mistaken for an impenetrable barrier. A hundred hours of ground fighting were enough to defeat Iraq’s battered army, though high-ranking Iraqi officers observed afterward even this hadn’t been necessary. A few more weeks of the punishing airstrikes, and Iraq would have withdrawn its troops from Kuwait without having ever faced an adversary on the battlefield.

What even was the “battlefield” by the 90s? The Gulf war portended a much-discussed “revolution in military affairs”, one that promised to replace armoured divisions, heavy artillery and large infantries with precision airstrikes. The Russian military theorist Vladimir Slipchenko noted that strategists’ familiar spatial concepts such as fields, fronts, rears and flanks were losing relevance. With satellites, planes, GPS and now drones, “battlespace” – as strategists today call it – isn’t the wrinkled surface of the Earth, but a flat sheet of graph paper.

A sky full of drones hasn’t meant world peace. But champions of the new technologies have at least promised cleaner fighting, with fewer civilians killed, captives taken and troops dispatched. The revolution in military affairs allows powerful countries – mainly the US and its allies – to target individuals and networks rather than whole countries. This seemed to mark a shift from international war toward global policing, and from blood-soaked disruptions of geopolitics toward the smoother, though still sometimes lethal, operation of globalisation.

But has globalisation actually replaced geopolitics? “The 90s saw the map reduced to two dimensions because of air power,” concedes geostrategist Robert Kaplan. Yet the “three-dimensional map” was restored “in the mountains of Afghanistan and in the treacherous alleyways of Iraq”, he writes. The contrast between the 1991 Gulf war and the 2003–11 Iraq war is telling. In both, the global superpower led a coalition against Saddam’s Iraq. Yet the first saw air power used to achieve a brisk victory, whereas the second looked, to the untrained eye, like another US-made quagmire.

Global exports, which had been growing rapidly since the 90s, plateaued around 2008. Today “deglobalisation” – a substantial retreat of trade – is plausible in the near future, and European integration has faced an enormous setback with Brexit. As if on cue, there is now also a land war in Europe. Indeed, it is a “McDonald’s war” – the fast-food chain had hundreds of locations in Russia and Ukraine. Whatever economic benefits Russia reaped from peaceful commerce were presumably outweighed, in Putin’s mind, by Ukraine’s warm-water ports, natural resources and strategic buffer to Russia’s vulnerable west. This is, as Kaplan has memorably put it, the “revenge of geography”.

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