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GeoCurrents Advertising Policy AND British Slang in The Economist

K&J Web Productions

Attentive readers may have noticed a small “advertise on GeoCurrents” banner on the website. This feature was added after the blog was approached by several firms interested in posting ads on specific pages that pertain to tourism. In accommodating advertisers, GeoCurrents seeks not to become a profit-making venture, but rather merely to defray some of the costs of running the site. The ultimate finacial goal is to break-even, which currently seems rather distant.

In regard to commercial endeavors, I would like to draw readers’ attentions to the new firm of Kevin Morton and his partner, Jordan Sandoval, K&J Web Production.  Kevin has been managing GeoCurrents for the past half year, after having completely revamped the site’s look and feel. I have been more than pleased with his work, and I would urge anyone interested in hiring outside help for website design and management to contact K&J Productions. According to their promotional materials:

K&J Web Productions as an alternative way for individuals, groups, or small businesses to create elegant and effective websites at the web-savvy college student price. The idea was born out of learning that many businesses in our hometown of San Diego were shelling out ridiculously high monthly payments for mediocre websites. We thought, why not offer an affordable price for a beautiful site? It can be done, and that’s what we’re looking to accomplish. We have a passion for making valuable information, such as that found on GeoCurrents, available in a way that is optimized with technical nuance, making it easily accessible to web surfers.  As a result, we offer academic or article-based pursuits a 50% discount off our normal development rate, and we invite such non-commercial endeavors wholeheartedly.

On a completely different note, GeoCurrents recently criticized The Economist for its use of “crude British slang.” Several readers objected, asking for specific examples—which I could not supply. This week’s edition of the magazine happens to contain several choice instances, all from the “United States” section of the publication.

On page 36, an article on the alleged Iranian bomb plot begins with the assertion that “Iran is a rum country…” A rum country? In querying my family members about the meaning of this term, I received responses varying from “bad” to “drinks a lot of alcohol.” (Jamaica is the quintessential “rum country” to some; see the “rum index” map.) Yet according to the standard definition, “rum” is a “chiefly British term” primarily meaning “strange” and secondarily meaning “presenting danger”—presumably the author had the latter usage in mind. A few pages later (42), an article on Chinese-U.S. relations informs us that the American senate recently passed a bill by a “stonkingly bipartisan margin.” Stonkingly? No one in my family had ever encountered the word “stonking.” Based on context, we all assumed that it means “big.” Yet according to the Urban Dictionary, “stonking” is a “British colloquial expression” meaning “impressive” or “wonderful.” On very next page, the “Lexington” opinion columnist informs his or her readers of the “general bolshiness of assorted Russians, Arabs, and Persians…” Bolshiness? My family members were clueless here, with one volunteering that it might mean “squishiness.”  I had previously encountered “bolshie” as a slang term for “Bolshevik,” and I therefore assumed that the author was arguing that Marxist political beliefs are common in Iran, Russia, and the Arabic-speaking world, a view that is difficult to support, especially for the Arabic realm. The Free Dictionary, however, tells us that this “Brit informal” term actually means “difficult to manage; rebellious.” (A secondary definition, however, does pertain to the radical political left.) Oddly, a Google image search for “bolshie” yields many photos of naked women.

The question remains open as to the effect that such British slang has on the magazine’s large non-British readership. Clearly some confusion is generated, as demonstrated by my querying of an admittedly small sample of American English speakers. But the same group also found the terms quaint and colorful, valuing the British flavor (flavour?) that they impart to the magazine. Rum perhaps, but evidently stonking nonetheless.

GeoCurrents Advertising Policy AND British Slang in The Economist Read More »

GeoCurrents Fall Schedule

Dear Readers,

Map of GeoCurrents PostsThe Demic Atlas is now in suspension; although the project may recommence at a later time, we have largely exhausted the possibilities of the existing database. The various posts that constitute the atlas will, however, be collated and posted on this website as an on-line resource.

As quick glance at the GeoCurrents master map indicates, thus far the blog has ignored southern Africa. That oversight will now be addressed. For the next several weeks, posts will focus on current events of geographical significance in this region. We will begin in Botswana, exploring the intersection of economic development, wildlife conservation, and the standing of indigenous peoples. Subsequent posts will likely take on issues in other southern African countries.

From the end of September until early December, posts will jump from one part of the world to another, focusing on issues of international significance. At that time, I will be teaching a seminar on the history and geography of current global events, and I will use GeoCurrents in part as a vehicle for the course. One of the primary readings for the seminar is the British newsweekly, The Economist.  As a result, a number of posts will elaborate on stories found in that magazine. As always, comments and criticisms from readers are welcome.

GeoCurrents Fall Schedule Read More »

Concluding Posts on the Demic Atlas

Dear Readers,

Map of Island Assignments in the Demic FrameworkThe Demic Atlas project will conclude at the end of this week; next week’s posts will return to the standard GeoCurrents model, examining local issues of geographical significance. Today’s map merely shows which island groups are associated with which regions in the demic framework. As the map is self-explanatory, no further comment is provided. Tomorrow I will respond to the comments that have accumulated over the past few days—my apologies for not having done so already.

As originally envisaged, the Demic Atlas would have contained a number of maps showing the spatial patterning of a wide variety of development indicators. Depictions of literacy, average age of schooling, fertility, mortality, sex ratio and so on would have been included. As we have discovered, however, such information is simply not available in comparable form for most of the sub-national units used to construct the demic framework. Even for the indicators that were mapped (GDP and HDI), problems of data comparability compromised the project in several ways. Yet such difficulties were instructive in their own right, reinforcing the central thesis underwriting the entire project: sovereign states (and their dependencies) so dominate the realm of global data collection and collation that they systematically distort our view of the world. One can gather relatively solid information at the provincial level for most large countries, but only if one does so in isolation from the rest of the world, thwarting the comparison of units of like size. Although the states of India and the provinces and other first-order divisions of China are country-sized units, they cannot readily be contrasted with each other in a single framework. Outside of Europe, choropleth maps integrating data for a number of countries at the sub-state level are, to say the least, challenging to produce.

Further mapping of developmental indicators within the demic framework will therefore not be forthcoming. The remaining atlas posts will take up another issue, that of the variable methods one can use to construct maps out of a single set of data. Quantitative information can be broken down in many different ways, producing divergent images when translated into cartographic form. The maps posted last week, for example, divided GDP and HDI figures at regular intervals to yield subsets of equal size. Seven such quantiles were used, but the data can just as easily be broken down into more or fewer categories. The information set can also be divided in completely different ways; using “natural breaks,” for example, allows one to keep areas that deviate slightly from each other within the same categories. The remaining posts in this series will therefore focus on alternative methods of mapping the information in the Demic Atlas database. This endeavor will reveal otherwise invisible spatial patterns while also showing how the same set of information can yield strikingly different maps depending on how it is arrayed.  Such maps will be constructed in both the demic and the state-based frameworks.

Concluding Posts on the Demic Atlas Read More »

The Demic Atlas Project: Toward a Non-State-Based Approach to Mapping Global Economic and Social Development, by Martin W. Lewis, Jake Coolidge, and Anne Fredell

GeoCurrents has taken a summer hiatus to create a new cartographic framework for analyzing socio-economic development. This project is a collaborative effort involving three team-members: Jake Coolidge, a geospatial historian at Stanford University’s Spatial History Lab; Anne Fredell, a Stanford University undergraduate; and myself. The Spatial History Lab at Stanford, which has provided extensive technical assistance, will eventually publish the maps as an on-line document. GeoCurrents will also post maps from the project, as well as commentary on the process. Beginning today, I will discuss both the intellectual rationale for such an atlas and the problems that we have encountered in creating it.

The Non-Comparability of Sovereign States 

Global economic and social comparisons are almost always made within the framework of sovereign states. Countries are numerically ranked against each other on such measurements as per capita GDP, literacy, and longevity, much as students are tallied together on a class grade sheet. If one wants to know what part of the world is the richest, healthiest, or best educated—or the opposite—the answer will generally come in the form of a national name. Whether on maps, tables, or charts, the country is the category that counts.

Our atlas starts from the premise that, while sovereign states are certainly the essential units of the geopolitical order, they are not necessarily appropriate units of socio-economic comparison. In actuality, countries are ill suited for such purposes. For starters, they are simply not comparable entities, varying enormously in both area and population. We know this, but we rarely let it truly sink in. Consider the discrepancy between China, with 1.3 billion inhabitants, and Tuvalu, with ten thousand. Comparing these two independent states is like weighing a single person against a city of 130,000. To appreciate the absurdity of such an exercise, consider what it would mean to compare either with a hypothetical entity equally far removed in the opposite direction. A country as small relative to Tuvalu as Tuvalu is to China would be inhabited by one twelfth of a person, while a country as large relative to China as China is to Tuvalu would be a galactic polity of 160 trillion inhabitants. No serious study would ever make such a comparison, spanning more than five orders of magnitude. Yet when it comes to assessing the economic and social conditions of the world, making such gargantuan leaps in scale is the price we pay for using country-based data.

Relying on an inappropriate geopolitical framework for social and economic analysis can quickly leads one astray. Consider the CIA World Factbook’s list of countries by average longevity (a list that is replicated in Wikipedia). Surprisingly, one country stands well above all others: Monaco. Whereas twenty-four entries are crowded in the eighty- to eighty-four year life-expectancy range, miniscule Monaco reaches almost ninety (89.7). Intriguingly, the third and fourth places are also occupied by European microstates: San Marino and Andorra. As it turns out, most of the top positions on the CIA list are taken by small, tiny, and smaller-than-tiny polities located in Europe, eastern Asia, and the Caribbean. As a result, some of the seemingly healthiest and wealthiest major countries do not rank particularly high on the longevity index. Germany comes in 32nd out of 223, the United Kingdom is 36th, and the United States trails well back at 50th. A quick glance at the table might make it seem as if the U.S. were bested in life expectancy by almost a quarter of the world. In actuality, the total population of the forty-nine top entries is less than ten per cent of the global sum. That is not exactly a stellar showing for the U.S., especially considering the fact that it is bested by several much poorer countries, including Jordan and Bosnia. Still, the fiftieth-place position indicated by the Factbook is misleadingly low.

The preponderance of microstates in the upper reaches of the longevity list could easily lead to erroneous deductions about country size and public health. The correlation, after all, is striking: sixteen of the top fifty entries on the list have fewer than 100,000 people, while none of the bottom fifty do. One might reasonably conclude that small polities are somehow better able to meet the health needs of their citizens than their more populous neighbors. Could political devolution enhance longevity?

Any such conclusion would be nonsensical. The people of Andorra, a feudal remnant in the Pyrenees sandwiched between France and Spain, may live longer than the average residents of neighboring countries, but they do not out-live the inhabitants of adjacent French and Spanish districts. Put differently, if all Europe were divided into states the size of Monaco (population 36,000), Monaco’s sizable advantage would instantly vanish, as other tiny, wealthy enclaves located in salubrious environments would boast similar longevity figures.

In the end, the CIA rankings are compromised by comparing incommensurable entities. But it is not just the World Factbook that is at fault here. Virtually all numerical assessments of global development shoehorn socio-economic data into the same geopolitical categories, where size means nothing. In the world of international statecraft, to be sure, all sovereign countries are treated as theoretically equivalent individuals, regardless of their population or power. Such pretense may be necessary in the halls of diplomacy, but it does not help anyone grasp the complex patterns of social and economic disparity found across the surface of the earth.

While most global comparisons are made strictly within the framework of sovereign states, which number slightly fewer than 200, the CIA World Factbook employs an expanded list, noting 223 “countries” in its longevity chart. The additional entries are actually dependent territories, most of which boast impressive life-expectancy figures (Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Isle of Man, etc.). Such an inclusive approach is beginning to be followed by other major data sources as well, no doubt from a desire to be fair and comprehensive. Just because Greenland and Guernsey lack full independence is no reason to consign them to statistical oblivion. In the process, however, the problem of incomparability is compounded. While all of the world’s independent countries (barring the anomalous Vatican City) have at least 10,000 inhabitants, many dependencies are much smaller. Wikipedia’s inclusive “list of countries by population” bottoms out with 224th-place Pitcairn, which boasts all of fifty residents at last count. Although Pitcairn does not make the CIA’s longevity table, a number of other miniscule dependencies do. Adding these micro-units clutters the list while providing little information of value.

The biggest distortion that results from using states or quasi-states as all-encompassing spatial containers for socio-economic comparison is that lightly populated areas might receive precise scrutiny, while some of the world’s most populous places are subjected to extraordinarily crude aggregation. As a consequence, the residents of small countries literally count for more than do the residents of large ones. An equal appraisal of individual polities, in other words, results in an intrinsically unfair weighting of the individual persons within those polities. In the World Factbook’s tabulation, the average inhabitant of the British dependency of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha (population 5,660) is inadvertently deemed twenty-six million times more attention-worthy than the average resident of China.

China and India, the world’s demographic giants, are particularly ill-served by being treated as singularities. Not only do these two countries have huge populations—more than a third of the global total between them—but both are characterized by vast regional disparities. As a result, numbers given for China and India as a whole are almost worthless. When overall per capita GDP is calculated in terms of purchasing power parity, China’s $7,500 figure ranks well below the global average of $11,100. But the commercial core areas of eastern China, increasingly vital drivers of the world economy, evince per capita GDP figures well above the world average, reaching $13,000 in Jiangsu, $18,500 in Shanghai, and $46,000 in Hong Kong. In contrast, Guizhou in China’s south-central interior produced only $3,400 worth of goods and services per person in 2010, a figure comparable to that of war-ravaged Iraq. In global comparative terms, China spans the gap between the rich and poor worlds. Grasping such regional differences is essential for understanding the economy of China, and hence that of the world. Yet in the standard method of tabulating and portraying global economic data, such disparities remain invisible.*

The depiction of the world as divided into supposedly comparable individual geopolitical entities reaches its extreme form in a number of almanacs and children’s atlases in which each country is accorded its own map and page or two of text. In such cases, China typically receives a bit more attention than Tuvalu—but not much. The genre is nicely parodied in Our Dumb World: The Onion’s Atlas of the Planet Earth. Its mocking caption for San Marino, whose 32,000 people inhabit twenty-four square miles, reads, “These A**holes Don’t Belong In An Atlas,” while the text focuses on the absurdity of elevating such an insignificant piece of territory to the same level as that of major countries. A sidebar, entitled “A Marino You Should Care About,” claims that “Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino achieved more during his 17-year Hall of Fame career than the ‘nation’ of San Marino has managed to accomplish since A.D. 301.” In actuality, the history of the little state is rather more illustrious than that; in early modern Europe, San Marino was often highlighted by geographers because of the fact that it was a rare republic (officially, “the most serene republic”) during a period of monarchical dominance. But the humorists at The Onion have a point; putting San Marino at the same level as Italy, let alone India, is an exercise in absurdity.

How might such absurdity be avoided? This is a complex issue that will occupy the pages of GeoCurrents over the next several weeks.


* Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China, with its own laws and currency, is usually tabulated separately from the rest of the country

The Demic Atlas Project: Toward a Non-State-Based Approach to Mapping Global Economic and Social Development, by Martin W. Lewis, Jake Coolidge, and Anne Fredell Read More »

New Comment Features On GeoCurrents

Dear Readers,

This is Kevin Morton, GeoCurrents’ web tech. Several months ago, Professor Lewis and I set out to create a look, feel, and organizational structure for GeoCurrents that matched the same quality standard of its posts. After the labor-intensive Master Map release yesterday, I just put the finishing touches on our revamp today with an improved commenting system from Disqus (pronounced “Discuss”). I am making this post to let those readers who follow us regularly know what the new comment feature has in store for their experience on this site.

Disqus is an elegant commenting platform that has been garnering a lot of popularity lately, even being adopted by large news company websites including CNN and Time. Beyond its aesthetic elegance, GeoCurrents readers will also find Disqus to have a bit more functionality than our previous commenting platform. For instance, you can now reply directly to individual comments, embed images from your computers and video from across the web to help illustrate your points, and share your comments with friends and colleagues immediately so they can weigh in on the conversation too.

But perhaps the most exciting feature of Disqus as it pertains to GeoCurrents is its community building potential for those who follow us regularly. If you take a look at the comment thread from yesterday’s Master Map release, you’ll see that each of my comments contains my name, a link to my personal website, a short description about me (“A Stanford student studying Empathy while building websites on the way to independence”) to give other visitors some quick context about who I am, and a picture that when clicked expands my profile to show some of the other thoughts I’ve contributed to GeoCurrents.

An aggregate count of all the posts I have made on GeoCurrents is also tallied, and if I’m a frequent commenter you may see me listed under the “Most Active Members” in the GeoCurrents Community Box (the location of which is shown at right).*

The end result is an ability to make the presence of your thoughts and insights felt throughout GeoCurrents, while simultaneously letting those struck by your comments know about any other projects you may have going on where they can read more of your thoughts.

To get started, just take a few seconds to make a Disqus profile, so you can use that instead of posting as a guest each time. Here’s how:

  1. Go to leave a comment on any post throughout GeoCurrents, and hit “Post as …” in the bottom right of the comment box. (For convenience, just scroll down and make the comment on this post–feel free to tell us what you think about the site revamp, the new commenting system, and/or what you’d like to see from GeoCurrents in the future, organizationally or thematically.)
  2. In the log-in box that pops up switch from Guest to Disqus and click “Register a new Disqus profile” (see image at right).
  3. Follow the instructions, set an avatar, description, and website if you like, and you’re all set.

So feel free to take a few seconds to set up your Disqus profile. It will make GeoCurrents a richer, more integrative forum for discussion, while giving you a chance to build a reputation with us and other visitors through your ideas.

P.S. To further round out the finalization of the revamp of the site, the GeoCurrents Base Maps Professor Lewis made available for download on Thursday can now be found in the GeoResources tab in the main navigation.

 *For those like Asya Pereltsvaig and Jim Wilson, who have a long history of commenting on GeoCurrents, your posts before this upgrade won’t be immediately added to the total of your new profile, but I think Disqus should prompt you to merge your older posts with your new profile once it senses your name and email is the same in both cases.

New Comment Features On GeoCurrents Read More »

Clickable GeoCurrents Base Maps Available for Free Download

Free Download of GeoCurrents Base-MapsDear Readers,

GeoCurrents has been inactive recently, as I have been working on a non-state-based atlas of economic and social development that will appear on the blog later this summer. This project has been demanding, in part because all the information necessary to construct the maps is gathered by, and organized around, states! The new maps will also be much more sophisticated than the maps previously used on GeoCurrents, as they will be based on GIS (geographical information systems) techniques. Previously, all original GeoCurrents maps have been made by hand in Keynote, the Apple presentation program that competes with PowerPoint. Making such maps involves the laborious process of outlining the shapes of geopolitical units on basic maps held in the public domain. Once the outlines have been made, the resulting country-shapes can be easily manipulated through a few simple clicks, allowing one to instantly change country color, boundary color and thickness, and so on.  Keynote’s “shape” feature allows one to easily draw on the maps to show additional features.

Several of these GeoCurrents base maps are now available for free download here: 

Keynote Base Maps (2962 downloads )

If one has an Apple computer and the Keynote program, the maps are remarkably easy to use: just click on a country (or US state) to change it as you see fit. Keynote’s transparency feature is quite useful as well. Country shapes can also be dragged out of place and then placed back where they belong (to place shapes precisely, make sure that the “guidelines” are turned off). The download includes maps of the world, Europe, Asia, Africa, the United States, and a part of the Middle East. Feel free to use these maps as you like.

If you carefully examine these maps, you will see that that the boundary lines are not necessarily of uniform thickness, as the boundaries of adjacent states are not always perfectly traced over each other. One can improve the fit, however, by clicking twice on a given country, focusing in on a segment of its boundary-zone, and then dragging the circles that form the outline to align them more closely with the outline of a neighboring state. It may sound complicated, but Keynote is relatively easy to use, as most of its steps are intuitive.

Clickable GeoCurrents Base Maps Available for Free Download Read More »

About GeoCurrents

Map of a Selection of Geopolitical Anomalies

GeoCurrents is a map-illustrated forum dedicated to exploring global geography. Most posts link to current events, supplying historical background, spatial analysis, and political and intellectual context. Events both major (rebellion in Libya) and minor (protests in Tripura, India) are covered, provided they bear on larger issues and have a clear geographic expression. Whenever possible, local perspectives and divergent views are incorporated and analyzed; comments and criticism from informed readers are always welcome.

GeoCurrents is particularly interested in the cultural dimensions of geopolitical complexity. Many posts describe the ways in which religion, language, and regionalism influence intra- and international disputes, emphasizing the linkage between specific conflicts and particular places. In most cases, this approach reveals a considerably more intricate spatial relations than conventional reportage conveys. Ivory Coast, for example, turns out to be divided not just along north-south lines, as conventional wisdom has it, but in a more complex three-way split separating the north from both south and center. Likewise, while mainstream media reports are content to note that Syria’s embattled government is dominated by the Alawite minority, members of a Shiite-derived sect, GeoCurrents delves deeper. It outlines Alawite beliefs, maps where most Alawites live and explains why that matters, and describes the ways in which Syria’s history of sectarian division has shaped its political evolution.

Above all, GeoCurrents is devoted to mapping. Almost all posts rely heavily on maps, many made expressly for the blog. Some entries center on cartography itself, as well as other forms of geographical depiction. Misleading maps in the media and reference works are periodically critiqued, as is the deceptive marshalling of statistical information. Attention is also occasionally drawn to innovative, useful, or elegant maps. The blog further seeks to devise alternative methods of mapping the world. During the summer of 2011, most posts will be devoted to the construction of a non-state-based atlas of global social and economic development, attempting to improve on the familiar division of the world into sovereign countries—an issue that lies at the core of GeoCurrents’ conceptual concerns.

GeoCurrents ultimately rests on the conviction that the conventional state-based model of the world, manifest in the basic political map posted here, provides an inadequate framework for global comprehension. Its signal flaw is its partitioning of the world’s landmasses into absolute and formally equivalent political units. These entities are regarded as exercising complete power over precisely delineated, compact territories. They are conceptualized as political individuals, entities of the same kind, occupying the same level in the spatial hierarchy of political power. These foundational units are variably called sovereign states, countries, nations, and nation-states, terms of once-distinct meaning that have come to function broadly as synonyms. In the process of terminological convergence, a particular view of geopolitical organization is unthinkingly advanced: one that takes sovereignty, territory, and national cohesion to be necessarily congruent. In the standard world model, sovereign states are nations by default, their people assumed to be bound together in identification with their countries. Such sovereign totalities in turn validate each other’s claims to lands and peoples as the components of the so-called international community, mirrored almost exactly by the membership roll of the U.N.

As anyone who follows the news is bound to discover on a daily basis, however, global political geography is a vastly more complex and interesting affair. Whereas the standard world model is based on ideal types, GeoCurrents reveals messiness and ambiguity. As the blog’s posts lay out in detail, the world we inhabit abounds in geopolitical anomalies: imaginary states, stateless nations, nationless states, officially non-national states, partially recognized and fully unrecognized sovereign entities, non-sovereign sovereign states and tribes, proclaimed but non-existent states, insurgent states, non-sovereign countries, countries containing several nations, kingdoms composed of multiple countries, countries containing multiple kingdoms, and so on. (One widely recognized sovereign entity has no territory or territorial claims whatsoever, its domain limited to two buildings.) The number of sovereign states, moreover, is impossible to peg, just as the boundaries between countries cannot always be reduced to simple lines. Finally, whatever form they take, countries are not necessarily comparable entities. They differ in both their spatial and demographic dimensions by more than five orders of magnitude—a more massive jump in scale than we commonly realize. To put Nauru in the same category with China is like comparing a one-mile stroll with walking around the Earth four times.

Indeed, the closer one looks, the more slippery all the key terms of the standard model appear. The concept of sovereignty, for example, might seem straightforward: countries are sovereign if they are independent. In practice, though, “sovereignty” has a number of meanings, which do not necessarily coincide on the ground. As Stephen Krasner argues, the concept ultimately amounts to nothing less than “organized hypocrisy” (the title of his penetrating book on the subject).* As Krasner contends,

Most observers and analysts of international relations have treated sovereign states as an analytic assumption or as a well-institutionalized if not taken-for-granted structure. The bundle of properties associated with sovereignty—territory, recognition, autonomy, and control—have been understood, often implicitly, to characterize states in the international system. In fact, however, only a few states have possessed all of these attributes.

The defects of the standard view are of more than academic significance. Reliance on a global model based on diplomatic pretense often generates blunders, sometimes with tragic results. Nowhere is such failure more evident than in US-led policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Efforts that were supposed to spread democracy, peace, and prosperity instead sapped Western influence, generated chaos in the target countries, endangered local Christian communities, and energized radical Islam. The United States and its allies continue to bleed money and lives on seemingly unwinnable conflicts—and cannot figure out how to escape. It is impossible to know, of course, what would have happened in Afghanistan and Iraq had the military incursions never been carried out, or had different policies been pursued after the toppling of the old regimes. But it is clear that the predictions made by U.S. government officials and their supporters about the cost and duration of the wars, as well as those focused on post-war reconstruction, were staggeringly incorrect.

Given the quagmires that followed, the origins of the Afghan and Iraqi regime-change gambits call for extended examination. Hubris on the part of war-planners has often been highlighted, but it is the contention of GeoCurrents that deeper conceptual failures lay at the root. Afghanistan and Iraq, simply put, were misconstrued as coherent nation-states. As a result, it was assumed that their people were united enough to make the compromises necessary to run democratic governments. By the same token, the ethnic and religious divisions found in both countries were thought to be contained within broader nationalisms. Regarded as nation-states, Afghanistan and Iraq were expected to function as nation-states. All that was needed was a change in regimes, followed by an inexpensive round of “nation-building”** focused on institutions and infrastructure.

In actuality, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan have ever been genuine nation-states. In both countries, the state was imposed on a variegated populace for whom the bonds of ethnicity and sect, if not those of clan, tribe, and community, have remained much stronger than those of the putative nation. Where national unity is little more than a façade, the state can easily be torn down by a strong external force, as was the case in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. But neither could be readily reassembled, for the social adhesive necessary for regeneration was simply not present. Had American and British leaders realized that both countries lacked solid national foundations, perhaps they would never have entertained the fantasy that toppling their regimes to install elected governments would be a cheap and easy route to regional stability.

Critics may note that public opinion surveys often indicate the opposite, showing relatively high levels of national identity across most of the world. When polled on the matter, most educated residents of country “X” will indeed affirm an “Xian” nationality. Yet these identities are often too shallow to be of much consequence. Most weakly consolidated countries have long engaged in “nation-building” projects to instill a common sense of identity, hammering the message home through schools and the media. Such efforts have generally proved superficially successful. What matters in the end, however, is not abstract responses on surveys, but whether people behave in a manner congruent with national sentiments. Even vehement expressions of mass patriotism do not necessarily indicate genuine national bonds. Most residents of Pakistan, for example, fiercely proclaim their Pakistani status, but they do so largely in opposition to India, Israel, and the United States. In domestic affairs, the country is rent by such deep ethnic, regional, and religious divisions that its integrity as a state, let alone a nation, is severely challenged. The negative nationalism found in Pakistan and several other countries has so far proven inadequate for the construction of a functional nation-state.

Rather than taking proclamations of national identity at face value, GeoCurrents seeks to measure national consolidation in more subtle ways. For democratic countries, voting patterns provide one of the best metrics. Where individual parties and candidates compete across a given country’s territory, successfully appealing to voters living in different regions and belonging to divergent ethnic groups, a high degree of national cohesion is indicated. In contrast, weak to non-existent national bonds are indicated where certain parties consistently achieve overwhelming victories in some regions while suffering overwhelming defeats in others. Chile is a good example of a country in the former category, while Ukraine and Nigeria exemplify the latter.

Finally, it is worth noting that GeoCurrents aims to be instructive rather than polemical. Controversial issues are often discussed, but the goal is to approach each new issue on its own terms, without an overarching theoretical commitment or predetermined position. While many voices are aired, seldom is a particular perspective endorsed. In practice, of course, maintaining a completely disinterested attitude to ongoing global conflicts is not possible, but fair-mindedness and impartiality remain the guiding ideal.

* Stephen D. Krasner, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy. Princeton University Press, 1999, page 220.

**As the idea of the nation was stripped of its original meanings in order to fit the standard world model, so too the concept of nation-building was transformed. Originally referring to efforts to generate a sense of national belonging, nation-building came to denote the construction of effective governmental institutions—state-building, in essence. In the wreckage of Iraq and Afghanistan, the term is being downgraded again, this time to focus more narrowly on physical infrastructure. In an August 31, 2010 op-ed piece in the New York Times, David Brooks declared nation-building in Iraq a relative success, noting that the country had acquired many more internet connections and telephones than it had had under Saddam Hussein, little matter that Iraq cannot form a stable and effective government, no matter that its constituent communities remain at each other’s throats, unable to establish trust across religious, linguistic, and tribal lines.

>>>See the key to the GeoCurrents map of geopolitical anomalies.>>>

About GeoCurrents Read More »

GeoCurrents Summer Schedule

Dear Readers,

As the academic year is coming to an end at Stanford University, I am currently faced with a large stack of student papers and exams. As a result, blogging will be delayed this week. When I do resume posting, I will focus initially on the blog itself. As you may have noticed, the “About GeoCurrents” section of the blog is essentially empty. My next goal is to provide such a description, which will begin as a regular post before being transferred to the “about” section of the blog .

Beginning next week, I will be gearing up for my summer project, which will entail the construction of a non-state-based atlas of economic and social development. I will post maps from the project on GeoCurrents as they are completed, but it is difficult to determine the production schedule, as I will be learning new cartographic techniques as the project unfolds. At some time next week, however, I will describe the atlas project on this site in more detail, and I will provide some preliminary maps of alternative (non-state-based) ways of dividing the world for such purposes. From June 23rd to July 5th, the website will be inactive, as I will be traveling.  Through the rest of the summer, posts will focus on the atlas project, although if time permits I will also occasionally comment on geographical issues encountered in news reports.

When the new academic year begins in late September, GeoCurrents will again focus on providing map-illusrated analyses of current events.

GeoCurrents Summer Schedule Read More »

GeoCurrents Comments; Forthcoming Posts

Dear Readers,

Many thanks to those of you who have been providing comments on GeoCurrents posts. My general policy is to respond to comments on recent posts (those placed on the blog within the previous two weeks). Although I read and appreciate comments on earlier posts, I will not respond, due simply to time limitations.

Posts on Ivory Coast will continue through next week.  After that, I hope to turn my attention to border fences, as the list is lengthening (Greece is currently build a barrier along part of its border with Turkey.)

GeoCurrents Comments; Forthcoming Posts Read More »

Whither GeoCurrents?

Dear Readers,

The GeoCurrents make-over is now almost complete. Many thanks to Kevin Morton for so thoroughly and expertly reformulating the site. GeoCurrents is again linked to Twitter and Facebook, and has a new RSS system, as can be seen on the left-side of the site.

The “GeoCurrents Community Blog” is also active again, providing an outlet for students who share my fascination with things geographical. Andrew Linford will be posting periodically here for the next several months. His posts will be noted in the “featured” section of the blog, but will not appear in the “headline” area. As you can see, his current post examines The Economist’s “shoe-throwers” index. Andrew is particularly interested in issues of global inequality, but his posts will cover a wide variety of subjects.

I have been canvassing friends and colleagues about the directions that GeoCurrents should take, and have received conflicting advice. Some would like me to focus more on major stories, whereas others prefer the off-beat. I will try to satisfy both groups by alternating coverage, focusing on a major global issue one week, and then turning to something more obscure the next. I am now beginning to delve into the Ivory Coast, but progress will be slow, as on-line information is sparse, ethnic and linguistic categorization schemes vary considerable, and I read French slowly. I will also have to briefly suspend posting next week when I travel to Seattle to attend the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers. A series of posts on Ivory Coast will be forthcoming, but not until late April.

In the meantime, I will put together a more obscure series of posts on my own current research project, which involves the history of political mapping. I have recently been spending Friday afternoons in the Stanford University rare books collection, examining atlases and sheet maps produced in the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s. Assisting me in this project is Stanford history graduate student Alex Statman, whose linguistic abilities extend from Latin to Chinese. As Alex and I have discovered, the reigning conceptions of political space in early modern Europe were quite different from what they are today.

Whither GeoCurrents? Read More »

Geocurrents’ New Look

Caribbean Community

Dear Readers,

As you can see, Geocurrents is currently undergoing a transformation.  Many thanks to Kevin Morton, who is now handling the technical side of the blog. Many thanks as well to Samuel Franco, who had been running the website, but is now moving on to other things.

I will be spending the next few days working with Kevin on revamping the blogsite,  classifying the old posts so that they can be more easily accessed, and familiarizing myself with a new blogging program. I have made a few more maps of Caribbean geopolitics that I will also be posting over the next few days, but I will not write extensively on the topic. I hope to begin blogging on new topics — Syria perhaps — within a week.

In the meantime, here is a map of the the most important supra-national organization in the Caribbean, CARICOM. CARICOM basically consists of the former and current British colonies in the region, plus Haiti and Suriname. Of note is Montserrat’s full membership, despite the fact that it is not an independent country.

Geocurrents’ New Look Read More »

Geocurrents Revamp and Break

Dear Readers,

As has been brought to my attention by several students and readers, the Geocurrents site is in serious need of refurbishment. Older posts are difficult to access and do not appear when one clicks the “older posts” button; they are also not categorized in any meaningful manner. “Metainformation” is also missing, making the site difficult to access and navigate.

I will be traveling over the long weekend, and when I return I will be devoting my attention to revamping the blog. Regular posting will resume in roughly one week, still under the old format. I hope that a new Geocurrents design will be up and running by the end of March.

I welcome any advice that any readers might with to share.

Best wishes,

Martin Lewis

Geocurrents Revamp and Break Read More »

Geocurrents Vacation

Dear Readers,

Geocurrents has now been in operation for nearly one year. During that period, 264 posts have been made. As the map and data posted above show, readership is concentrated in North America, Europe, South Asia, and Australia.

This blog will now take a short end-of-the-year vacation. Posting will resume in the second week of January 2011. Many thanks to my readers, especially those who have provided comments, and happy New Year to all. Special thanks are also due to Samuel Franco, who has maintained the website and has provided a number of fascinating Google Earth postings of his own.

Please note that that the students enrolled in my course on the History and Geography of Current Global Events have all uploaded a second posting to the Geocurrents Community Blog, linked to above.

Best wishes,

Martin W. Lewis

Geocurrents Vacation Read More »

Introducing the Geocurrents Community Blog

A new heading appears on this website today: the Geocurrents Community Blog. This separate “blog in a blog” showcases student work, with all of its entries produced by the students currently enrolled in my seminar on the history and geography of current global events at Stanford University. In years past, I simply asked students to write research papers on topics of their own choosing. Many would put considerable effort into such projects, and it always seemed a waste that no one else had access to their work. So this year, as an experiment, I asked them to write two blog posts rather than one conventional paper, again on topics of their own selection. Their initial efforts are now available for public view – and public comment. I hope Geocurrents readers will take a few minutes to read the student postings, and to provide commentary if it is warranted. Through informed criticism and clarification we can all learn a bit more about the world.

Introducing the Geocurrents Community Blog Read More »