Across the world, a wave of bestsellers – from a variety of authors – is spreading the message that a country’s geographic location defines its destiny. As this long read in The Guardian says “…as faith in an open, trade-based international system falters, map-reading pundits such as Tim Marshall, Robert Kaplan, Ian Morris, George Friedman and Peter Zeihan are advancing on to bestseller lists.”
Amongst the early propagators of this theory was 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”.”
The Guardian then goes on to explain how this line of thinking was first born in the nineteenth century and then maintained its popularity until the end of the Cold War brought forth Thomas Friedman’s ‘World is Flat’ thesis. The events of the past couple of years has put commentators like Friedman – and other propagators of globalisation – on the back foot.
However, what the ‘geography is destiny’ camp does not seem to recognise is the numerous holes in their school thought. Here is The Guardian’s critique of Peter Zeihan (whose ‘The End of the World is Just the Beginning’ is mandatory reading in Marcellus): “Even topography, geographers note, isn’t as immutable as geopoliticians suppose. Zeihan, a vice-president at Stratfor for 12 years…has long insisted that the outsize power of the US can be attributed to its “perfect Geography of Success”. Settlers arrived in New England, encountered substandard agricultural conditions where “wheat was a hard no”, and were fortunately spurred on to claim better lands to the west. With those abundant farmlands came “the real deal”: an extensive river system allowing internal trade at a “laughably low” cost. These features, Zeihan writes, have made the US “the most powerful country in history” and will keep it so for generations. “Americans. Cannot. Mess. This. Up.”
But such factors aren’t constants. Wheat was once commonly grown in New England, despite Zeihan’s insistence that it was a “hard no” there. It was historical events – the arrival of pests such as the hessian fly (believed to have travelled with German troops fighting in the Revolutionary war) and the exhaustion of the soil by destructive farming practices – that decreased its grain outputs. The natural rivers that Zeihan makes so much of were also variables. To work, they had to be supplemented with an expensive, artificial canal system, and then within decades they were superseded by new technologies. Today, more US freight, by value, travels via rail, air and even pipeline than via water. Trucks haul 45 times as much value as boats or ships do.
Which is another way of saying that we don’t always accept the topographies we inherit. The world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa, sprouts from Dubai, which was for centuries an unpromising fishing village surrounded by desert and salt flats. Little about its relief map destined it for greatness. Its climate is sweltering and oil sales, though once substantial, now account for less than 1% of the emirate’s economy. If there’s something distinctive about Dubai, it is its legal landscape, not its physical one. The emirate isn’t governed by a single lawbook but is chopped up into free zones – Dubai Internet City, Dubai Knowledge Park and International Humanitarian City among them – designed to attract various foreign interests. The Dubai desert is essentially “a huge circuit board”, the urban theorist Mike Davis once wrote, to which global capital can easily connect.
Turning Dubai into a business hub has meant physically remaking it in ways that defy any notion that the map is destiny…”
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