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Markets & Geopolitics

Border Control

An upsurge in nationalism and the refugee crisis reminds us that barriers are still with us.

Tim Marshall, Author and journalist
1 February 2018

Whatever your view of the acceleration of globalisation in the last few decades, it was inevitable that it would hit a bump. The upsurge in nationalism, coupled with the refugee crisis, has reminded us that barriers are still with us

Many people had stopped thinking in terms of the nation state, but national borders, and the geographical features that define them, never went away. So if we want to understand this new world, we need to understand the nature of borders, how they are shaped, and how the geography that dictates borders also influences the national consciousness. Doing this without a map, and an explanation of geography, is almost impossible.

Prisoners of Geography

That is why I wrote Prisoners of Geography. Words can tell you the “what”; the map helps you to understand the “why”. This is not a new theory, but it’s one that’s rarely explained in the detail it deserves.

I first began to think about this when covering the Bosnian war in the 1990s. On one occasion I was on a hillside looking down on to a burning village. “Why burn the village?” I asked the perpetrators. The gunmen explained that if they burned the village, the villagers would flee to the next village, then the residents of both would flee, allowing the gunmen to advance through the valley and towards the road they wanted access to for strategic reasons. From then on I tried not to use the term “mindless violence”. In these terrible situations there is often a cold, hard, brutal logic to violence.

Another example comes from Syria. History tells us that President Assad’s minority Alawite tribe came from the hilly region above the Syrian coast. But if you take a look at a map, and at the pattern of some of the fighting, it becomes clear that Assad’s side secured the route from Damascus to the coast in case a situation arose where they had to retreat to their historical roots.

The Ottomans divided what is currently the nation state of Iraq into three administrative areas: Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. The British then made three into one, a logical impossibility that Christians can resolve through the Holy Trinity, but which in Iraq has resulted in an unholy mess as the Kurds, and Sunni and Shia Muslims fight for control of the different regions.


Russia provides two clear examples of the effect of topography. It has been invaded many times from the flat ground of the North European Plain, so its rulers seek to dominate that space to act as a buffer zone against any further incursions.

Most Russian ports freeze in the winter. Therefore, Sevastopol on the Black Sea is of vital strategic importance. When Ukraine “flipped” into the Nato sphere of influence, Putin felt geography had given him no other choice but to invade.

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