Letter to the Editor

How powerful is geography?

In our conventional geography lessons we learned about the world in terms of political, topographical, climatic, economic and physical conditions. Now in his book “The Power of Geography” (see Current Concerns No 10, 17 May 2018 [https://www.zeit-fragen.ch/en/ausgaben/2018/nr-10-8-mai-2018/die-macht-der-geographie-wie-sich-weltpolitik-anhand-von-10-karten-erklaeren-laesst.html]), Tim Marshall introduces us to the thinking of a geostrategist, who does not consider the topographical conditions of his own country and of all the others primarily from the point of view of geological science, but rather in terms of a geostrategic analysis.
Thus, straits, mountain ranges, deserts, seas and coasts with natural deep-sea ports or rough cliffs, the island position of a state or its use of two shores, an Atlantic and a Pacific one, are analyzed in detail and considered from a geostrategic point of view, on the one hand for the protection of the state itself and on the other hand for the development of an empire. Interconnected navigable rivers not only represent natural trade routes, but also enable the flowering of economic activities and the rapid transport of any goods, including military supplies. Artificial waterways connecting two oceans, such as the Suez or the Panama Canal, make use of geostrategic istmuses, and human skills create economic and military benefits.
The Strait of Gibraltar, a strait that allows any military force to control, from a rock in Spain, the shipping traffic between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, is also a geostrategic point in which a “power” is inherent which should not be underestimated. The British have secured a rocky spot on the Spanish Mediterranean coast of Gibraltar to control the access to and exit from the Mediterranean.
But what about the exercise of power over these geostrategic points? We know that power does not emanate per se from a strait or an isthmus, or from the Northern European Plain, which is repeatedly mentioned in the book. It is probably rather a kind of attraction. Only, who is attracted by these places? This question, however, is not problematised by Tim Marshall; it is not even thematised, because he is first and foremost in the English tradition of a Halford John Mackinder1 and an apparently natural imperialist mission, which seems to spring from the British island situation. As a longtime correspondent for the BBC from more than 30 crisis areas around the world, he has received numerous awards, earning questionable fame in a medium we know to be only one of the myriad of NATO media.
The lucrative and militarily priceless Panama Canal has been taken over by the US, and not in a peaceful way. The former Colombian province of Panama was split off from Colombia by a secessionist war after Colombia had refused to grant the area to a US consortium. The war was led by the US. The chairman of that US consortium which was founded specifically to build the canal became Panama’s first president. Similar adversity seems to have been looming over Nicaragua for some time now.
In this context Marshal’s statement regarding the behaviour of the Chinese kingdom in the Middle Ages is astonishing: “The Chinese were great sailors; in the 15th century, notably, they plowed through the Indian Ocean. Admiral Zheng He’s expedition went all the way to Kenya. But these were ventures to earn money, not representations of power, and they were not meant to create outposts that could support military operations. Thus, it seems to have been possible at all times to conduct economic and cultural exchanges around the world, without resorting to the insane idea of founding a world empire claiming world domination.
This book might also have been useful to discuss and develop the question of cooperation instead of aggression. It would have been possible to represent the beauty of our world and the resources of our planet from the point of view of transnational human interaction for the benefit of all. At least the description of the African continent, especially of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, might have made it clear who impedes the people of the Congo from living in peace and prosperity and how these merciless actions are carried out. The activities are named to a certain, small, extent. But the masterminds remain in the dark, the heart stays cold. Equally untouched by the human aspect, Marshall continues to describe the geostrategic importance of the Northern European Plain. The Northern European lowlands may well be a space without major geographical barriers or insurmountable natural obstacles, but by no means is this space therefore an invitation to forcibly gain access to Russian mineral resources. In this area geography may, as it were, offer a gateway to an imperialist aggressor, but what is the invader’s justification for simply taking, regardless of all human strokes of fate, everything for himself, and for even believing it to be his. But this idea does not occur to Marshall.
What blessing there is in mutual cooperation, in negotiating fair contracts, always seeking to realise benefits for all sides. The world will then be there for everyone.
But perhaps one should not expect something of the kind from such a book, certainly not from a geostrategic reporter in the service of His Majesty. The question of humanity has no place here. Nevertheless, reading this book expands the view to the current conflict areas, and it sheds light on the geostrategic actors’ way of thinking.
Ewald Wetekamp, Stockach (D)

1 Sir Halford John Mackinder was co founder of London School of Economics. In his book “The Geographical Pivot of History” he developed the heartland-theory as part of geopolitics: That means, the key to world power would be to dominate the heartland Eurasia and Great Britain as leading sea power, which could not dominate this region because of its island position, would have to face an upcoming dangerous expansionistic power on the continent, especially Russia.

(Translation Current Concerns)