If you were an alien newly arrived on this planet, fully unaware of the last 2,000 years of human history and looking for a primer on the nations of the Earth, you could do much worse than the books of Tim Marshall, whose latest, “The Power of Geography: Ten Maps That Reveal the Future of Our World,” a sequel to 2015’s “Prisoners of Geography,” takes readers on a tour of places — from Australia to Iran to Ethiopia — that he sees as pivotal to global politics and conflict. Of particular interest for the extraterrestrial visitor, the last chapter heads into orbit to look at the potential for international conflict in space. 

Marshall, a British longtime foreign correspondent and former diplomatic editor of Sky News, makes the case that sea lanes, rivers and mountain ranges are as determinative of a nation’s actions as the ideological and cultural factors that get more attention, and that those factors are themselves partly determined by geography. In this, he is one of several current writers — including the journalist Robert Kaplan, author of the similarly titled “Revenge of Geography,” and the energy guru Daniel Yergin, author of “The New Map” — whose works aim to put the “geo” back in “geopolitics.” The popularity of this genre makes sense at a time when the world is returning to a mind-set of more traditional great-power conflict between nation-states.  

Marshall’s method is to provide potted histories showing how wars and political decisions were influenced by physical territory. With this project, he is pushing back against the trendy notion among thought leaders that, as he puts it, we live in a “ ‘flat world’ in which financial transactions and communications through cyberspace have collapsed distance, and landscape has become meaningless.” But even as he insists that maps still matter, he rejects the charge of determinism, arguing that he is merely describing the limits geography places on leaders’ decisions. He’s hardly a Marxist but would probably concur with Marx that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.”

At times, the approach can be refreshing and very useful. The chapter on Ethiopia demonstrates how the country’s status as the “water tower of Africa” has the potential to make it a dominant regional power in coming years (as demonstrated by its dispute with Egypt over a massive hydroelectric dam under construction on the Nile) while also showing that its internal geography contributes to separatism and regionalism, as demonstrated by the brutal violence in Tigray. Marshall is also great at knocking down lazy assumptions about the shape of the world: We think, for example, of Australia and China as sharing a region, “but Beijing is as close to Warsaw as it is to Canberra.” 

At times, however, Marshall’s fixation on territory leads him into some odd revisionism. He suggests that Iran agreed to the 2015 nuclear deal primarily because it hoped that doing so would “open the door to discreet cooperation with the Americans” in the fight against the Islamic State, which threatened Tehran’s corridor to the Mediterranean. But this explanation doesn’t match the timeline of the Islamic State war and downplays the far more decisive influence of sanctions in pressuring Iran to accede. The role of the dollar in the global financial system and the U.S. shale oil revolution had far more to do with America’s leverage against Iran leading up to the nuclear deal than any regional conflict.  

And sometimes the arguments are contradictory. Marshall writes that “there is always geography to limit how far Turkey travels” — just after recounting the history of an empire that lasted more than five centuries, at times controlling wide swaths of three continents.  

A few of Marshall’s claims just seem like a stretch. He argues that Catalan or Basque independence would be “anathema to Madrid” in part because Spain relies on these regions to protect itself against armies on the march. He writes, “Throughout Spain’s history, armed forces from the north have moved into the country” via these “narrow belts of flatter land each side of the Pyrenees.” If this is a major factor in the current Spanish government’s thinking, it’s a deeply sublimated one. If Spain were seriously concerned about an imminent ground invasion from France, internal independence movements would surely be the least of its worries. 

But Marshall never really addresses the changing nature of armed conflict. He sees states as constantly motivated by fear of invasion or the desire for territorial expansion. And yet, conventional conflicts between states over the control of territory are nearly unheard of today. The exceptions — Russia’s incursions into its post-Soviet neighbors, China’s threats against Taiwan — only prove the rule, as leftover disputes from the breakup of the Soviet Union and China’s civil war, respectively. When countries do fight over territory today, the battles are strictly limited: Consider troops from India and China, two nuclear-armed superpowers, going at it, by mutual agreement, with rocks and metal rods on their disputed Himalayan border. Few of Marshall’s explanations for the decline of territorial conflict — among them the risks of nuclear war, the rise of globalization and economic interdependence, and the contention that human society has generally become more civilized and rational — have much to do with geography.

Of course, even without explicit fights over territory, the map still matters, even in an era of drones and “over-the-horizon” warfare. Britain’s literal insularity obviously played a role in Brexit, and few would deny that Iran’s mountainous terrain has helped protect it from invasion. But the meaning of geographic features changes as the rest of the world does. Islands, for example, don’t always shape the lives of those who live on them in the same way. Where ocean-bound Britain’s fleets helped it reach out into the world in a more nautical age, its shores now cut it off from the rest of Europe more dramatically.

At times Marshall seems to be arguing that geographic features are fixed constraints, unchanged since antiquity. For instance, he writes of modern Greeks: “At a strategic level, what concerns them is much the same as when they looked up to Zeus, Apollo, and Aphrodite on the heights of Mount Olympus. The gods have gone, empires come and go, alliances shift, but the constants for Greeks remain what made them — the mountains and the seas.” Yes, mainland Greece is mountainous, but that hasn’t exactly deterred the thousands of refugees and migrants who have traveled there as an access point to the European Union nations to the north.

Elsewhere, he rightly acknowledges that the significance of physical features changes over time. This is particularly true when it comes to energy. Oil made Saudi Arabia an unlikely global superpower, but, as Marshall writes, we are “approaching a time in which there is no way the Americans will fight to defend Saudi Arabia’s solar panels.” Meanwhile, worsening drought in Africa’s Sahel region, brought on by climate change, is driving political violence there as well as mass migration to Europe.

As the British geographer Alastair Bonnett has written, we live in a fluid “age of islands” in which sea level rise is reshaping coastlines and threatening sovereign nations with extinction, even as China is constructing new artificial islands to bolster its territorial claims in the South China Sea. It’s not just that the significance of the landscape is changing — the landscape itself can’t be taken for granted. Marshall is right to urge us to keep the land and seas in mind even in a world of cyberconflict and frictionless flows of capital. But what sets out to be an effort to define fixed and unchangeable rules for international conflict ends up revealing how chaotic and unpredictable our world really is.

The Power of Geography

Ten Maps That Reveal the Future of
Our World

Tim Marshall

Scribner

304 pp. $27