The One Essential Book on History and Geopolitics

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

If America’s leaders had read Prisoners of Geography, maybe America would’ve stayed out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

It hasn’t improved my middling IQ, but over my adult life, I’ve read hundreds of books on history and geopolitics.  Almost all have been thick ones, many have been impenetrable ones, and most have been scholarly ones written by renowned historians and experts on geopolitics.

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At least the reading has made me more informed than the sorry bunch of geniuses that have been running American foreign policy for decades.

I could’ve saved a lot of time by reading just one book, a book that isn’t seen as scholarly but is brilliant.  More importantly, American foreign policy might not have turned into the disaster it is today if the book had been read by presidents, members of Congress, staffers at the State Department, the commentariat, and every college student and high school student.  The book is:

Prisoners of Geography:  Ten Maps That Explain Everything about the World, by Tim Marshall, 2015, Scribner Publishing, New York, 305 pages.

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The title is misleading.  While the book shows how geography influences the foreign policy of nations, it also summarizes key historical events in regions of the world and in selected countries, as well as describes something that Americans are particularly naïve about:  the downside of diversity—namely, the conflicts, uprisings, and bloodbaths that have occurred and are occurring within and between countries because of irreconcilable animosities centered on race, ethnicity, tribe, religion, and sect.  In many places in the world, diversity is certainly not a strength. 

I’ve read the book three times and refer to it periodically.  The author, a former foreign correspondent for Britain’s Sky News television, was prophetic about several current events, most notably Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and China winning the hearts and minds of many less developed countries through investments in infrastructure and trade, without being ideological or preaching to irredeemable strong men about human rights.

The chapters on Russia and China alone are worth the price of the book.

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The danger of diversity can be seen in every chapter but in particular the chapter on the Middle East.  The word “diversity” isn’t mentioned, but the chapter reveals the folly of the West in trying to force longtime enemies to live together within artificial boundaries.  Scores of in-depth, scholarly history books have covered this in such detail that the big picture can be quickly forgotten by non-historians like myself.

In that regard, there are six great works of Middle Eastern history in my personal library:

Power, Faith, and Fantasy:  American in the Middle East 1776 to the Present, by Michael B. Oren.

Lawrence in Arabia:  War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson.

The Fall of the Ottomans:  The Great War in the Middle East, by Eugene Rogan.

America’s War for the Greater Middle East, by Andrew J. Bacevich.

A Peace to End All Peace:  The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, by David Fromkin.

The Arabs, by Eugene Rogan.

Most Americans don’t have the time or interest (or masochism?) to read the 3,500 pages of the above books, but if they did, they’d probably be like me and end up being overwhelmed by the details.  Prisoners of Geography distills the history to its essence so that it’s easier to remember the key points.

One of the key points is that when the Ottoman Empire (now reduced to present-day Turkey) controlled much of the Middle East for 623 years, it kept existing ethnic, religious, and tribal boundaries in place instead of creating artificial states by arbitrarily moving boundaries around, as the British and French did with their Sykes-Picot agreement, an agreement that explains a lot of the conflicts and extremism in the region today.

Here are three related quotes from Prisoners of Geography:

Iraq is a prime example of the ensuing conflicts and chaos.  The more religious among the Shia never accepted that a Sunni-led government should have control over their holy cities such as Najaf and Karbala, where their martyrs Ali and Hussein are said to be buried.  These communal feelings go back centuries; a few decades of being called “Iraqis” was never going to dilute such emotions.

The routine expression of hatred for others is so common in the Arab world that it barely draws comment other than from the region’s often Western-educated liberal minority who have limited access to the platform of mass media.  Anti-Semitic cartoons that echo the Nazi Der Stürmer propaganda newspaper are common.  Week in, week out, shock-jock imams are given space on prime-time TV shows.

Western apologists for this sort of behavior are sometimes hamstrung by a fear of being described as one of Edward Said’s “Orientalists.”  They betray their own liberal values by denying their universality.  Others, in their naïveté, say that these incitements to murder are not widespread and must be seen in the context of the Arabic language, which can be given to flights of rhetoric.  This signals their lack of understanding of the “Arab Street,” the role of the mainstream Arab media, and a refusal to understand that when people who are full of hatred say something, they mean it.

Maybe if George W. Bush and the Republicans and Democrats who supported his invasion of Iraq had read the book, they wouldn’t have made one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in the history of the United States.

Maybe if they and other leaders had read the book, they would’ve known that Afghanistan and its neighbor Pakistan are so riven with tribal hatreds that they are essentially ungovernable, except by the military or warlords.

Maybe if Joe Biden and the Democrats and Republicans who supported his handling of the Ukraine War had read the book, they would’ve known that sanctions were going to hurt the West and the Third World as much as they were going to hurt Russia.

Maybe if Americans were to read the book, they’d understand how China sees the world and thus know how to meet Chinese competition without resorting to dangerous bluster, bellicosity, belligerence, and bombast.  And maybe they’d also realize that the Chinese don’t have much history of engaging in wars off their shores and certainly don’t have a history of sending gunboats up the Mississippi, unlike the US and other Western nations, which have a history of sending gunboats up the Yangtze.  (Don’t mistake these comments as a paean to authoritarianism.)

Or maybe I’m delusional to think that reading a book can overcome hubris, arrogance, nationalism, and tribalism.

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Americans just witnessed the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 without one Republican vote in the U.S. Senate and House (just as Obamacare was passed in 2010). The IRS  will be hiring 87,000 new agents, many armed, to terrorize American taxpayers.

Americans witnessed the FBI raid at the Trump Mar-A-Lago home and property of President Trump, truly a first in all of American history. We know what that is about. 

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