GeoCurrents Reorientation

Dear Readers, 

GeoCurrents has been on hiatus for the past two months as I have redirected most of my efforts to writing a book on environmental philosophy, politics, and policies. This work is tentatively titled Middle Path EnvironmentalismTaking Climate Change and Other Environmental Problems Seriously without Crushing the Working Class and Undermining Rural Life. I have finished writing drafts of the introduction and the first chapter, which I intend to post on this blog later this week or early next week. These writings will be put up as regular posts, even though they are based on my opinions and will prove controversial. They will also placed on this site under the “featured essays” tab.  

Starting this summer, I hope to reorient GeoCurrents around illustrated video lectures. These lectures will be on many topics, but most will be organized as college-level courses covering such subject matters as world political geography, the geography of religion, population geography, and so on. The first of these GeoCurrents lectures, however, will cover materials that I have not been able to include in my current Stanford University Continuing Studies class on “The Making of the Modern World: 1200-1800.” These include biological globalization, the Little Ice Age, and the Crisis of the Seventeenth Century. I also hope to record and post several lectures this summer on the world-historical role of the Black Sea region from the Neolithic to the current day.  

I eventually hope to return to writing regular GeoCurrents posts, but this may take some time. My current priorities are working on Middle Path Environmentalism and preparing for my new spring-quarter Stanford University Continuing Studies course (Geography 14; see below) on the history and geography of natural mind-altering substances. 

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The Taliban’s Renewed Assaults on Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia Community

I was surprised to recently read that the Taliban are trying to marginalize the Persian language in Afghanistan, given its near majority status, stature, and role in inter-ethnic communication (see the previous GeoCurrents post). On resuming power in 2021, moreover, the Taliban had promised to pursue less brutal and divisive policies. In their first stint (1996-2001), they had viciously attacked the country’s minority Shia population, mostly found among the Hazara people in central Afghanistan. Some observers viewed these campaigns as almost genocidal (see this earlier GeoCurrents post). But as Radio Free Europe framed the Taliban’s new attitude:

After regaining power, the Sunni militant group tried to assuage Hazaras’ fears of discrimination and persecution. The Taliban visited Shi’a mosques in the Afghan capital and deployed its fighters to protect ceremonies marking the Shi’ite month of Muharram.

Given the Taliban’s previous animosity toward Shia Islam, I had expected that that any reversal of its newly formulated toleration program would be directed against the Hazaras, and perhaps also the smaller non-Hazara Shia communities in western Afghanistan. Yet I had encountered nothing of the sort. It turns out, however, that my reading on this subject had been far too limited. The July 17, 2023 Radio Free Europe article cited above went on to note that:

Last week, the Taliban prevented Shi’a from celebrating an important religious festival. The militants have also restricted the teaching of Shi’a jurisprudence in universities in Afghanistan. In February, the Taliban reportedly banned marriages between Shi’a and Sunnis in northeastern Badakhshan Province.

The Shi’ite community has accused the Taliban of failing to prevent deadly attacks on Hazaras by the rival Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) extremist group. Meanwhile, rights groups have documented the forced evictions of Hazaras by the Taliban, a predominately Pashtun group, in several provinces.

Other reports are even more worrisome. As noted by Jurist, “The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) issued a statement on Friday calling for an end to the systemic killing of Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan in order to prevent a possible genocide under Taliban rule.” According to Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, “These violent deaths are further shocking proof that the Taliban continue to persecute, torture and extra judicially execute Hazara people.”

Also shocking is the lack of reporting on this situation in the American media. Afghanistan’s Shia population is massive, constituting something between 9 and 29.5 percent of the country’s population of 40 million (see the two highly divergent pie charts below). Continuing attacks on these people could quickly generate a humanitarian crisis of the first order.

Although most Shia Muslims in Afghanistan follow the Imami, or Twelver, majority sect of the faith, a significant minority adhere instead to the minority Ismaili sect. Most Afghan Ismailis are also ethnic Hazaras, but a few are ethnic Tajiks (both of which are Persian-speaking peoples). One might expect that the Taliban would be especially hostile to the Ismailis, given their heterodox, esoteric, and cosmopolitan orientation. Scant information, however, is readily available on this group. But according to one prominent 2001 report:

Ismailis in Afghanistan are generally regarded with suspicion by other ethnic groups and for the most part their economic status is very poor. Although Ismaili in other areas such as the northern areas of Pakistan operate well-organized social welfare programs including schools, hospitals and cooperatives, little has been done among Afghan Ismaili communities. Considered less zealous than other Afghan Muslims, Ismaili are seen to follow their leaders uncritically.

The news searches that I conducted for information on Ismailis in Afghanistan mostly returned articles about a recent deadly knife attack by an Afghan refugee on women in an Ismaili center in Lisbon, Portugal. A Shia Wave article, however, notes that the Taliban are trying to convert Afghan Ismailis to Sunni Islam, and evidently with some success. I was disappointed to find no information on Afghan Ismailis on the website of the Aga Khan Foundation, the well-funded and highly effective humanitarian wing of the global (Nizari) Ismaili community. The Foundation does highlight its extensive humanitarian work in Afghanistan, but sidesteps the country’s sectarian divisions.

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An Electoral-Geographical Paradox in Czechia? Not Really

In the January 2023 presidential election in Czechia (the Czech Republic), former army general Petr Pavel decisively defeated former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, with Pavel taking 58.33 percent of the vote to Babiš’s 41.67. Most political leaders and commentators in Western Europe and North America were relieved by this outcome. Pavel is noted for his strong pro-NATO and pro-Western views. He is also a social progressive. Finding inspiration in Scandinavian countries, he supports same-sex marriage, higher taxes on the wealthy, and increased economic redistribution. He also opposes the death penalty. Babiš, in contrast, has expressed skepticism towards NATO and is often regarded as having authoritarian tendencies. He rejects the European Union’s refugee policy, arguing that it is the responsibility of the Czech government to look after the interest of Czech citizens, and has made dismissive comments about his country’s Roma (or Romani) minority. In 2013, he won a satirical prize for the “anti-ecological comment of the year.” Babiš is also extremely wealthy and has been involved in a number a financial and political scandals.

Maps of the 2023 Czech presidential election show a distinct metropolitan/non-metropolitan divide. Although Pavel won the majority of the votes cast across most of the country, his level of support was significantly higher in the Prague metropolitan area, in Brno, Czechia’s second largest city, and in Plzeň, its fourth largest. Babiš, in contrast, did better in rural areas and those dominated by small cities. The one important exception was the metropolitan area of Ostrava, located in the northeastern part of the country. Ostrava is Czechia’s “rust belt,” a region formerly dominated by coal mining and steelmaking that experienced significant decline after the fall of communist rule. It is not surprising that the socially progressive, pro-Western candidate Pavel performed poorly in such an area.

The geographical patterns described above are similar to those found in recent elections in the United States and Western Europe. From an American perspective, Pavel would certainly be regarded as the more left-wing candidate and Babiš as the more right-wing one. But the situation is more complicated. Pavel, for example, describes himself as “right of center,” owing largely to his support for corporate interests and economic orthodoxy. The more populist Babiš, for his part, enacted some policies when he was Prime Minister that would generally be regarded as left-leaning, including increasing pensions and public-sector salaries. Many Czechs therefore reverse the “right-wing” and “left-wing” tags for the two politicians. Consider, for example, the map below, originally posted on Reddit Europe by the Czech commentator “Victor D.” Here the Prague region is mapped as almost always voting for right-wing candidate – as are the country’s other major cities, except left-voting Ostrava. Victor D. depicts rural areas and those dominated by small cities as habitually supporting candidates on the left. He understands that such categorizations run counter to those found in Western Europe:

Western Europeans please note: the usual European situation where cities are mainly left-leaning while the countryside is more right-leaning is reversed in Czechia. This is mainly because the left is, due to historical developments, seen as the “conservative” force in the country, while the right has been the driving force for change and reform. As a result, large urban centres in Czechia are mostly leaning centre-right (liberal, progressive), while rural regions lean towards the left…”

It seems to me that the “usual European situation” is not reversed in Czechia: what is reversed is rather the meaning of the terms “left” and “right.” The connotations of these essential political categories have been in flux for some time in western Europe and especially in North America. The left historically found its main base of support in the working class, which generally opposes the economic interests of the elites but also tends to have somewhat conservative views on social and cultural issues. In recent decades, political parties previously identified as left-wing have turned more to affluent professionals, business leaders, and college-educated workers in the service sector, simultaneously losing support among the traditional working class. Put differently, traditional class politics in “the West” have declined in importance, whereas those associated with identity groups and social, cultural, and environmental issues have become increasingly central.

Such changes in political affiliation and categorization present major problems for communication. From the perspective of current political discourse in the United States, Victor D’s assertion that “large urban centres in Czechia are mostly leaning centre-right (liberal, progressive), while rural regions lean towards the left…” makes no sense whatsoever. But if the terms are defined in a different and most historical manner, they make perfect sense.

I have long been reluctant to use the term “liberal” when discussing politics, as the meanings of this term can be so different as to be diametrically opposed. In the U.S., someone now described as an “extreme liberal” sits at the opposite end of the political spectrum from a “neo-liberal,” whose views would be more accurately described as “paleo-liberal.” I now sometimes wonder whether even “left” and “right” have become so unmoored from their original meanings as to lose their utility as terms of analysis. But what could possibly replace them?  We seem to be stuck in a situation of fundamental paradox and ambiguity.

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Seduced by the Map Introduction (Part 3)


To be elevated to the highest level of the political hierarchy, the nation/state/country must be endowed with the ultimate power of sovereignty, the final keyword in the geopolitical lexicon. “Amorphous, elusive, and polysemic” in the words of Wendy Brown, this may be the slipperiest and subtlest term of all.[1] The modern concept of sovereignty is usually dated to the prescriptive works of the French jurist Jean Bodin in the sixteenth century. Worried that religious unrest was threatening the French monarchy, Bodin held that the state should be supreme, indivisible, and unlimited in time,[2] subject to no authority other than God and the laws of nature.[3] Writing at a time when France was extending its power over areas historically linked to the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), he was effectively fighting against claims of supremacy by both the HRE and the papacy. Unfettering France, in Bodin’s view, required dislodging the hierarchical and parcelized forms of sovereignty that had characterized medieval Europe. Ultimate authority had to placed be in the hands of a sovereign power, ideally those of single monarch (although Bodin allowed that groups of individuals could also wield sovereignty). At any rate, Bodin’s idealized schema of unitary rule foreshadowed the present-day model of geopolitical organization.[4]

Most of those who attacked the absolutism of early-modern European potentates retained the concept of absolute sovereignty but transferred it from the monarch (or oligarchy) that held overriding power to the imaginary construct called “the people.”[5] With the French Revolution this transferal was made explicit; the national Assembly’s first decree was an “act of sovereignty” vesting absolute authority in the nation.[6] The sovereign nation was thus born, and with it the sovereign nation-state.

Today, sovereignty is most often viewed as a legal construct specifying the absolute[7] power of the independent state, allowing no imposition of authority by any other entity. But as Peter Russell insists, sovereignty is always a claim rather than an “incontestable fact,”[8] and as Stephen Krasner and others[9] have noted, sovereignty actually encapsulates a number of distinct aspects of power.[10] In practice, moreover, it is routinely partitioned, with some powers delegated up and down the spatial hierarchy.[11] In the U.S., the fifty constituent states and the officially recognized Native American nations routinely proclaim their own sovereignty; in Europe, the EU exercises some of the sovereign powers that we normally associate with the (national) state.  In other words, “sovereignty,” like “nation,” “state,” and “country,” can inhere simultaneously in different levels of the geopolitical order.[12] Historically, sovereignty can even be found in situations in which there is no state to speak of; the sovereign “divine king” of the Natchez of southern Louisiana could order the execution of anyone within his presence, but lacking any sort of administrative apparatus he was powerless to compel anyone not in his immediate vicinity –and that of his henchmen – to do his bidding.[13]

Despite its inherent identification with state power, sovereignty has often been held by commercial enterprises. In the early modern period, the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) and the British East Indian Company (EIC) exercised sovereign power over vast territories inhabited by tens of millions of people. Although private sovereignty became something of a scandal in the mid nineteenth century, it was revived almost immediately, first in northern Borneo and then in Africa. As Steven Press shows, sovereign rights over lands and persons then became commodities, “accessible to every kind of buyer.”[14] Remnants of commercial sovereignty persist to this day, although some verge on the ludicrous. Examples range from Donald Trump’s feckless bid to purchase self-ruling Greenland from Denmark[15] to the self-proclaimed Principality of Sealand, located on an abandoned military platform in the North Sea, and owned by a single family. For a mere £499.99, one can become a Duke or a Duchess of this parodic nano-realm.[16]  

Regardless of its formal aims, the doctrine of sovereignty has never prevented strong countries – or international bodies – from impinging on the domestic policies of smaller states. Powerful polities have often engaged in such behavior, as the history of U.S. political interventions in the Caribbean and Central America so clearly demonstrates. The “responsibility to protect” doctrine, used by NATO to justify its bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999,[17]allows the international community (or some portion of it) to impinge on the sovereignty of its constituent states in the most direct way imaginable. Aspects of sovereignty are also lodged with international agencies, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.[18] Currently, impositions on national sovereignty seem to be on the rise, owing to globalization, concerns over human rights and environmental despoliation, and aggressive national foreign policies. Such often unwanted interference has led Chinese leaders to call for an international recommitment to non-intervention, sometimes framed as an “Eastphalian” rejoinder to the European tradition of “Westphalianism”[19] (on which more below). Yet the PRC itself is not immune from protests against its own interference in other countries, especially Australia.[20]

The conflicted nature of sovereignty in the United States derives in part from the country’s origin in a cluster of separate colonies. As Timothy Zick explains, after the framers of the Constitution borrowed the ideas of “state” and “sovereignty” from Europe, “they proceeded to alter the concepts, first by binding states together in union, and then substantially limiting not only their powers, but those of the central government as well.”[21] Originally constituted more as a confederation of largely separate polities, the United States eventually developed a powerful federal (central) government. But it was not until after the Civil War that the country came to be referred to in the singular, turning the once-common phrase “the United States are” into antiquated grammar.[22]

If sovereignty remained an ambiguous and contested concept for the U.S., it was all the more problematic for the overseas imperial holdings of the leading Western powers. As Lauren Benton demonstrates, early modern European empires were chock full of both spatial and legal anomalies.[23] “Empires did not cover space evenly but composed a fabric that was full of holes, stitched together out of pieces, a tangle of strings.”[24] Sovereignty in such places was often a snarled mess – a far cry from the orderly illusions of most maps.

Similar complexities were found over much of the world before the nineteenth century. At the heart of Europe, the Old Reich, or Holy Roman Empire, was marked by “the omnipresence of condominiums and exclaves, the limitations of the rulers’ territorial superiority, [and] the frequency of overlapping and contradictory political claims.”[25] Rulers, moreover, often enjoyed different kinds of rights and powers over different domains of action in different places. Rather than being based on contiguous, cohesive, and sovereign units, argues Luca Scholz, “the polities of the early modern Empire are better understood as a system of channels, corridors and checkpoints unevenly distributed in space.”[26] The parallels between this system and that of Tokugawa Japan, conventionally depicted as a singular territorial state, were profound. As noted by Fabian Drixler, Japan before 1868 was not one country but rather “a collection of some 250 states and statelets,” some of which were “no more than portfolios of widely scattered villages.”[27]

The Seductive Westphalian Model

The story of geopolitical development sketched above is at odds with mainstream international relations (IR) theory, where the modern system of sovereign states is depicted as having essentially emerged through a single European event: the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Under this settlement, which ended the brutal Thirty Years War, all (European) states supposedly were given equal standing in international law, just as each state was accorded full control over its own affairs without fear of interference. Although this reductive portrayal of what happened at Westphalia has long been subject to harsh criticism by historians,[28] it remains deeply entrenched in IR circles. As Malise Ruthven restates it in his comprehensive atlas of diplomacy, Carving Up the Globe (2018), “The Peace of Westphalia  (1648) … established the basis for the present-day international system whereby states — territorial units controlled by sovereign governments — became the primary actors in international affairs.”[29]

The actual story of state sovereignty and territorial integrity is rather more complicated.[30] The histories of many European polities fail to match the expectations of the Westphalian model in a spectacular manner, Navarre[31]and Neuchâtel[32] being prime examples. It is also important to note that the supposedly sovereign polities that collectively made up the Holy Roman Empire after 1648 included numerous Imperial Abbeys: nano-theocracies as small as a single convent with a few attached villages. Such polities, needless to say, were not fully sovereign actors in international affairs. At the opposite end of the spatial continuum were sprawling composite states[33] made up of separate polities sometimes linked only through the temporary “personal unions” of their shared rulers and held together largely through dynastic ties and patronage. Some of these lasted well into the nineteenth century.[34] In conventional historical mapping, we see a few composite polities that persisted for centuries (the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), as well as others that eventually transformed into conventional states (Spain). But some are essentially invisible, treated as if it had been clear from the start that they were temporary arrangements.

As Philip Bobbitt[35] has exhaustively demonstrated, Westphalia was merely one step in the lengthy transition from the pre-modern order of personal states, essentially defined by allegiance to dynastic families, to the modern order of territorial states.[36] The Peace of Westphalia was preceded by the Peace of Augsburg (1555) and followed by the equally important Treaty of Utrecht (1713) and Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). Still, the fully modern territorial state – Maier’s “Leviathan 2.0” – did not crystalize until the mid-nineteenth century, with the national state only becoming the norm with the Treaty of Versailles (1919). The modern nation-state, held to be universal, did not gain center-stage until the decolonization movement shattered the global Europeans empires in the early Cold War era.[37] The actual heyday of the conventional nation-state system was surprisingly short, essentially lasting from 1960, when seventeen African countries gained independence, to the early 1990s. Then, in a rapid reconfiguration between 1991-1993, three multi-ethnic countries in Central Europe and Eurasia – Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR – collapsed, eventually yielding 24 newly recognized sovereign polities.

Despite its poor fit with the facts, the idea that the international system of equal and sovereign states emerged full-blown in 1648 looms large in the diplomatic and scholarly imaginations, informing entire schools of analysis. Like the world model that it underlies, it is seductively simple, making the sovereign state appear to be far more solid than it actually is. By our reading, the standard model of international relations is based on a geopolitical structure whose lifespan was closer to 35 years than 350: one that did not fully gel until 1960, and that was already beginning to fracture three decades later. It is hardly surprising that it fails to offer an adequate account of the world, whether today or in the past.

[1] Brown (2014, 48). According to Brown, the concept of sovereignty is inherently contradictory, especially when applied to democratic states, given its absolutist qualities: “It is nearly impossible to reconcile the classical features of sovereignty—power that is not only foundational and unimpeachable, but enduring and indivisible, magisterial and awe-inducing, decisive and supralegal—with the requisites of rule by the demos.” She goes on to suggest that “we have known all along that sovereignty has been, if not a fiction, something of an abstraction with a tenuous bearing on political reality” (p. 49).

[2] Bodin’s three stipulations—that sovereignty must be absolute, undivided, and perpetual—have been subject to on-going interpretation and debate. It is clear, however, that he did not mean that an independent ruler should necessarily have unlimited power, but he did believe that the sovereign should be above human-made law: “[T]he “principal mark of sovereign majesty and absolute power is the right to impose laws generally on all subjects regardless of their consent … And if it is expedient that if he is to govern his state well, a sovereign prince must be above the law” (Bodin 1955 [1576], p. 32). By “perpetual” power, Bodin meant that of the ruler, not the state: “A perpetual authority therefore must be understood to mean one that lasts for the lifetime of him who exercises it” (1955 [1576], p. 26). The thorniest issue is probably that of “undivided sovereignty.” Bodin believed that ultimate authority could be held by the people as a whole (in a democracy), by an aristocratic body, or by a single monarch (his favored solution). But he denied that it could be divided between or among these three elements (Bodin 1955 [1576], p. 52; see also Andrew 2011, p. 77). This assertion, as Bodin understood, ran counter to most classical theories of political order. Polybius, drawing on Aristotle, argued that much of Republican Rome’s strength was derived from its mixed constitution in which sovereign authority was intricately divided among the one (the consuls, actually two in number), the few (the senate), and the many (the popular assemblies) (see Herman 2014). (Such theorizing was of crucial importance in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.) According to Bodin, however, neither Aristotle nor Polybius actually understood what sovereignty entailed: “they treated the subject so briefly that one can see at a glance that they did not really understand the principles involved” (1955 [1576], 41) and “It is clear therefore that none of the three functions of the state that Aristotle distinguishes are properly attributes of sovereignty” (1955 [1576], p. 43).

[3] Bodin emphatically held that sovereigns should be beholden to natural law: “A TRUE king is one who observes the laws of nature as punctiliously as he wishes his subjects to observe his own laws… .” (1955 [1576], p. 59). Although Bodin has been vilified by many recent authors because of his absolutist interpretation of sovereignty, Daniel Lee (forthcoming) seeks to recuperate his interpretation, arguing that Bodin also stressed the responsibilities of the sovereign.

[4] See the discussion in Andrew 2011, p. 78.

[5] Russell 2021, p. 41.

[6] Russell 2021, p. 39.

[7] As Wendy Brown (2014, p. 50) puts it, “There can be no ‘sort of sovereignty’ any more than there can be a ‘sort of God. …”

[8] Russell 2021, 10.

[9] Krasner 1999. See also the discussion in Caspersen (2012, pp. 13-14) and Brown (2014, p. 22).

[10] Krasner (1999, 3-4) distinguishes four types of sovereignty: international legal sovereignty (“practices associated with mutual recognition”); Westphalian sovereignty (“exclusion of external actors from authority structures within a given territory”); domestic sovereignty (“ability of public authorities to exercise effective control within the borders of their own polity”); and interdependence sovereignty (“the ability of public authorities to regulate the flow of information, ideas, goods, people, pollutants, or capital across the borders of their state.”)

[11] As noted by James Sheehan (2006, p. 2), “As a doctrine, sovereignty is usually regarded as unified and inseparable; as an activity, however, it is plural and divisible.”

[12] As Charles Maier (2012, p. 7) puts it, “Although political theorists have often insisted that sovereignty is absolute, in practice it has often been partial or nested within imperial or associative structures.”

[13] Graeber and Wengrow 2021, pp. 391-396.

[14] Press 2017, p. 173.

[15] As a constituent country of the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland verges on sovereignty, and is certainly not a geopolitical commodity that could be traded on the open market. Trump was reportedly so irritated by the rebuff that he received from bewildered officials in Copenhagen that he cancelled a state visit. See “In Denmark, Bewilderment and Anger Over Trump’s Canceled Visit,” by Martin Selsoe Sorensen. The New York Times, August 21, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/21/world/europe/greenland-denmark-trump.html

[16] See the Sealand Webpage: https://sealandgov.org

[17] See Russell 2021, p. 106.

[18] Graeber and Wegrow 2021, p. 421.

[19] Kim, Fidler, and Ganguly 2009.

[20] For a balanced consideration of this controversy, see “When It Comes to China’s Influence on Australia, Beware of Sweeping Statements and Conflated Ideas.” The Conversation: Academic Rigor, Journalistic Flair, April 10, 2018.  https://cwp.sipa.columbia.edu/news/when-it-comes-china’s-influence-australia-beware-sweeping-statements-and-conflated-ideas-0

[21] Zick 2005, 232.

[22] According to Google Books Ngram Viewer, the tipping point occurred in roughly 1890.

This contentious process of restricting sovereignty to the national level in the United States has never reached completion; as Zick (2005, p. 233) notes, “the [U.S.] Supreme Court has waffled famously on this issue.” By the turn of the twenty-first century, it seemed that the power of Washington had overridden almost every aspect of constituent-state sovereignty, leading legal scholar Steve Gey (2002) to argue that sub-national sovereignty is a mere myth. Subsequent events, however, indicate that the situation remains complicated. At the time of writing, for example, U.S. federal law expressly prohibited cannabis, restricting it more severely than cocaine or morphine. Yet cannabis is fully legal in many U.S. states, and is allowed medicinally in many more. Under the provisions of the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, moreover, the federal Justice Department cannot spend funds to interfere with state medical-cannabis laws (See the Wikipedia article “Rohrabacher–Farr amendment.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rohrabacher–Farr_amendment#cite_note-3). Evidently, in this domain, the federal law has essentially become a dead letter, with constituent-state authority once again running supreme.

[23] Tellingly, the title of Lauren Benton’s crucial book on this topic is A Search for Sovereignty (2009).

[24] Benton 2009, p. 2.

[25] Scholz 2020, p. 32.

[26] Scholz (2020, p. 89.

[27] Drixler 2015, p. 23.

[28] As Stuart Elden frames the issue (2013, p. 309), “In recent years there has been a consolidated challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy, with a recognition that the treaties of Westphalia say little that is claimed of them, and that to privilege this as a turning point is misleading in a number of ways.” Jordan Branch (2014, p. 125) is more blunt, arguing that the 1648 settlement “contained little if any change in the deep grammar of political authority.” He goes on to conclude that “Westphalia was anything but the founding moment of modern international relations”  (2014, p. 128).

[29] Ruthven 2018, p. 9.

[30] Indeed, Ruthven’s own description of the Peace of Westphalia (2018, p. 80) acknowledges that “sovereignty and statehood were neither explicitly referred to, nor defined” in the Westphalian treaties.

[31] The important medieval Kingdom of Navarre was split in the early sixteenth century (first by internal dynastic disputes, then by invasion from neighboring Castile and Aragon). Its main geobody was annexed to Spain while its northern, trans-Pyrenees salient was linked in personal union with France. Although northern Navarre was fully incorporated into France in 1620, the ruler of that state was still officially styled “King of France and Navarre” until the Revolution. Southern Navarre, by contrast, survived under Spanish conquest as an autonomous polity, endowed with a quasi-constitutional legal system (fueros) until 1841. Certainly through the period of Habsburg rule (1516-1700), Spain was a multinational, composite state in which the bounds of sovereignty were not always as clear-cut as they appear in historical atlases. Sources from the time often referenced even the empire’s Iberian heartland not as “Spain” but rather as “the Spains.”

[32] In the eighteenth century, Neuchâtel was both a region associated with the Old Swiss Confederacy and a hereditary principality under the personal rule of the king of Prussia. Neuchâtel was allowed to join the Swiss Confederation in 1815, but Switzerland at the time was still a mere political association. In the revolutionary year of 1848, local republican rebels seized power in Neuchâtel just as the Swiss confederation was transformed into a sovereign federal state. Eight years later, an unsuccessful pro-Prussian coup tried to reestablish monarchical rule in Neuchâtel. When that failed, Berlin broke diplomatic ties with Switzerland and threatened war. As international tensions mounted, Prussia agreed to relinquish its claims to Neuchâtel, but only after its king was mollified by being allowed to keep a symbolic princely title to the little realm. Needless to say, such events do not exactly illustrate the Westphalian model in action.

[33] The concept of the composite state is usually traced to H. G. Koenigsberger’s 1978 essay on the relationship between monarchs and parliaments in early modern Europe. In his formulation (1978, p. 202), “Most states in the early modern period were composite states, including more than one country under the sovereignty of one ruler. … A ruler, therefore, did not normally confront just one parliament, but several, and each one of them on quite different terms.”

[34] According to J. H. Elliott (1992), the composite state was the dominant political form in Europe in the sixteenth century and only very gradually yielded to the unitary territorial state. The “composite” mode of governance had its own disadvantages, but enjoyed numerous advantages as well. Elliott rightly scoffs at the idea that “the composite state of the early modern period was no more than a necessary but rather unsatisfactory way-station on the road that led to unitary statehood” (1992, p. 51).

[35] Bobbitt 2002.

[36] For Bobbitt (2002), the “territorial state” per se was merely one step in a progression from the personal state of the monarch to the modern nation-state, which he thinks could soon yield to the market-state. Azar Gat (2013, p. 4), however, objects to the idea of the territorial state, arguing that it is a “rather meaningless concept, as all states have territory.” For us, the crucial issue is whether territory is used as a defining characteristic of the state. That was certainly not the case in most medieval European polities, which grew and shrank through dynastic succession and the awarding of landed dowries. The so-called Angevin Empire, for example, had some control over a number of scattered and periodically changing territories, but that hardly made it a territorial state. On the history of the idea of “territory” more generally, see Elden 2013.

[37] These dates reflect the partition and independence of British India in 1947 and the dismantling of the Portuguese empire in 1975.


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Voting Patterns of Native Americans in Montana

In racial/ethnic terms, Montana is not a diverse state. It has the lowest percentage of Black Americans in the country, the fifth lowest percentage of Hispanic and Latino Americans, and the third lowest percentage of Asian Americans (tied with Wyoming). It does, however, have the fifth largest percentage of Native Americans. Its indigenous population, moreover, is expanding. As can be seen in the paired maps, the Total Fertility Rate is significantly higher on Native American Reservations than it is elsewhere in the state.




Native Americans in Montana, as in most other parts of the country, vote heavily for candidates in the Democratic Party, influencing statewide elections. As the Missoula Current reported just after the 2020 election, “The Native vote in Montana has made the difference before, when Indigenous voters helped Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat who has advocated for Indian Country, … get elected the last three terms in often-close races.” Although the indigenous vote has not had such an impact on presidential contests in Montana, it is still visible on electoral maps. In 2020, sparsely settled Glacier County, the main home of the Blackfeet people, stood out as the state’s bluest county, defying the norm of Republican-voting in areas of low population density. The same pattern is found in other Montana counties with Native American Reservations, although not to the same extent. On the 2020 electoral map, Blaine and Bighorn counties, both with large reservations, appear in light blue. In contrast, Roosevelt and Lake counties, which also have large reservations, are mapped in pink. Donald Trump won both these counties, but did so by narrow margins, especially in Roosevelt.

These seeming discrepancies can be partly explained by a combination of local political geography and demography. As can be seen on the modified Wikipedia map to the left, county boundaries and reservation boundaries do not coincide. The Flathead Reservation, for example, is centered in Lake but extends over portions of three other counties. More important, not all residents of the reservations are Native Americans. The Flathead lands in particular were opened to white settlement in the early 1900s; as a result, non-indigenous people significantly outnumber indigenous people on the reservation. Lake County’s Republican-voting behavior is thus easily explained.




The question remains as to why Glacier County votes more heavily Democratic than other Montana counties with large Native populations. The “American Indian Population by County” map, excerpted from a Vivid map covering the United States, seems to offer a partial explanation: Glacier is depicted here as more than 95 percent indigenous, a much higher figure than either Blaine or Roosevelt counties. But Bighorn County is also depicted as more than 95 percent indigenous, yet it gave 46 percent of its vote to Trump (as opposed to Glacier’s 33 percent). Could it be that the Crow people are somewhat less supportive of the Democratic Party than the Blackfeet? Or is there a problem with the data? As it turns out, Wikipedia articles on Montana counties give very different figures from those found on the Vivid Map, with Bighorn County being reported as only 60 percent Native America.* But then again, Glacier County is listed at only 62 percent Native. Precinct-level maps for both counties show sharply differentiated red and blue zones, presumably reflecting racial differences in different areas. The blue zones in Glacier are, however, distinctly bluer than those of Bighorn.


Elsewhere in Montana as well, the correlation between American Indian ethnicity and voting behavior is close enough that one can apparently discern which areas of the reservations have the main concentrations of Native Americans. Fort Peck Reservation, for example, spans several counties, but its only blue precincts are located in southwestern Roosevelt County.


*Both sources rely on U.S. census data. The Wikipedia articles give figures from 2000 or 2010, whereas the Vivid map is based on 2017 data. It is highly unlikely, however, that there have been enough demographic change in the intervening years to account for these different numbers,

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Montana’s Changing Electoral Geography

Although Montana has usually opted for Republican candidates in U.S. presidential elections, it was until recently something of a “purple” state, often dividing its votes relatively evenly between the two main political parties. As can be seen in the map series on the left, it has been trending in a decidedly red direction. In 2008, Barack Obama received 47 percent of Montana’s votes; in 2016, Hillary Clinton got only 35.7 percent.

As can be seen on these maps, Montana’s patterns of electoral geography have changed as well. The first two maps (1948 and 1960) show a north/south divide, with the south favoring Republicans and the north favoring Democrats. Many counties, however, were almost evenly split, with few experiencing landslide elections. These patterns disappear in the later maps. The north/south divide is now only vaguely evident, and landslide elections are common, at least in the Republican-voting east. Several counties have switched their party alignment. Cascade (Great Falls) formerly trended blue, but is is now reliably red. As the second map show, Cascade County even saw a minor red-shift from 2016 to 2020 (moving from a  57.1 % to a 58.46 % Trump vote). Gallatin County (Bozeman) has moved in the opposite direction. As recently as 2004, Gallatin voted Republican. It is now reliable blue – and getting bluer. It remains, however, Montana’s most libertarian county.





County-level maps of the Trump and Biden vote in 2020 reveal some interesting but subtle patterns. At the crudest level, the state’s main geographical divide now separates the east from the west. Although most western counties are still solidly red, several of the more populous ones are blue. Equally notable, no western county gave more than three-quarters of its votes to Trump. The statistical website 538 thus maps Montana’s western congressional district as leaning Republican, in contrast its solidly Republican eastern district. Twelve eastern counties gave more than 80 percent of their votes to Trump. But Biden did win two eastern counties and came very close in a third. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post, all three of these counties have Native American majorities.



The main electoral geographical divide in the United States now pits metropolitan areas against small towns and rural areas. This pattern, however, is only vaguely apparent in Montana’s county-level data. As can be seen in the paired maps, the most sparsely settled counties gave the highest percentage of their votes to Trump, and several relatively densely populated western counties supported Biden. But Montana’s population leader, Yellowstone County (Billings), solidly backed Trump, and several rural counties that are demographically dominated by Native Americans voted for Biden.



Montana’s rural/urban divide is more clearly evident at the precinct level. Consider Silver Bow County, which is politically consolidated with the city of Butte. Historically, Silver Bow was Montana’s bluest county, its many miners consistently supporting Democratic candidates. Today, the mines are largely shuttered, and the city now specializes in reclaiming toxic sites. It is still blue, although not to the extent that it formerly was. As can be seen, central Butte remains dark blue, whereas most of the outlying areas of Silver Bow County are red. The electoral maps of Billings, Helena, and Livingston all show blue urban cores surrounded by red rural hinterlands. Even the small town of Havre on the Great Plains, population 9,362, had one light blue precinct in 2020. On the other side of the ledger, two of Montana’s largest cities, Great Falls and Kalispell, had no blue precincts in 2020. But they are not as red as their surrounding areas.




A few rural areas and small towns in Montana that are not on native American reservations now habitually vote for Democratic candidates. The college towns of Bozeman and Missoula are both surrounded by rural blue precincts, although they are not as blue as those in the urban cores. Several remote towns and rural areas situated in areas with abundant natural amenities are distinctly blue. Big Sky, noted for its luxury ski resort, falls into this category, as do the small towns of Gardiner and Cooke City, adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. Red Lodge, also near Yellowstone and adjacent to the spectacular Beartooth Highway, falls into the same category. Near Glacier National Park one finds the small blue towns of West Glacier and Whitefish. Nearby Columbia Falls, however, is decidedly red. This difference reflects demographic sorting tendencies: Whitefish became an early center of outdoor recreation and environmentalism, which in turn attracted newcomers with similar interests and values. As Bill Bishop argued in The Big Sort more than a decade ago, Americans are increasingly moving to places that that match their political orientations.

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Why Mapping Sovereignty Matters: IR Theory, Realism, John Mearsheimer, and the Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy

(Note: today’s post is an edited version of a talk that I recently gave at a conference called Re-Mapping Sovereignty: Representing Geopolitical Complexity, held at Stanford University’s David Rumsey map on May 26 and 27, 2022.  I am categorizing it as an editorial essay, as it has more opinion content that standard GeoCurrents posts. At the conference, the talk was illustrated with 88 sides; I have included only the most important ones here. All the conference talks are available on YouTube at:



It would be an understatement to say that U.S. foreign policy over the past few decades has fallen short of its aim. Failures of both prediction and program have been recurrent. Most recently, the consensus was that Russia would crush Ukraine in 48 to 96 hours.[1] Vanishingly few anticipated a successful defense of Kiev, let alone a prolonged conflict. A few months earlier, experts erred in the opposite direction, confident that Kabul would withstand the Taliban for a prolonged period. No one anticipated the rapid collapse of the Afghan army and government, and no one prepared for the evacuation of American personnel before the military withdrew.

Much more damaging was a string of U.S. led or aided regime-change gambits and other military ventures in the early 2000s. These efforts backfired spectacularly. After two decades of bloodletting and institution-building in Afghanistan, the Taliban emerged much stronger than it had been before 9/11, able now to easily overrun the previously impregnable Panjshir Valley. Iraq was turned into a militia-riven country partially aligned with Iran. Libya was shattered for years, becoming a hub of weapons smuggling, and human trafficking, and worse. U.S.-supported efforts to overthrow Syria’s Assad regime fostered a resurgence of radical Islamism and allowed Russia to gain officially permanent control of a major airbase and port facility. U.S.-backed military intervention by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen resulted in a deadly stalemate and a human-rights catastrophe.

Over the same period, the rise of authoritarian China, globally ambitious and increasingly unfriendly toward the United States, likewise defied confident predictions. The Washington consensus was that an enriching China would steadily veer into liberalism and democracy, its participation in global trade networks tightening the bonds of an increasingly peaceable post-Cold War order. Many foreign policy experts welcomed the growing entanglement of the American and Chinese economies, seeing “Chimerica”[2] as an economically stabilizing force that guaranteed cheap, inflation-busting imports. Warnings of a possible totalitarian resurgence in the one-party People’s Republic were given little credence.

It is all too easy, to be sure, to use hindsight to castigate policy decisions and intelligence omissions, or to assume that different paths would have necessarily led to better outcomes. Given the complexities and contingencies of geopolitics, miscues are unavoidable. It is also easy to overlook foreign-policy successes, as the human mind foregrounds the negative over the positive.[3] That said, there is a disconcerting pattern of error. When costly choices repeatedly yield the opposite of what had been intended, inquiry into the deeper roots of the problem would seem to be in order.

The Realist Critique – and Limits

Despite widespread concurrence in Washington, many critics warned against the regime-change gambit. Although the most concerted opposition came from the political left, in academic foreign-policy circles it was most closely associated with the anti-liberal “realist” school of International Relations (IR). Although realists tend to uphold liberal principles in the domestic sphere, they hotly oppose trying to impose them elsewhere. According to John Mearsheimer, dean of this informal school, the post-Cold War effort of the United States to “remake the world in its own image” was based on a “great delusion” of liberal hegemony.[4] In his view, self-interested nationalism is far more potent than either humanitarianism or the desire for liberty. Accordingly, sovereign states are expected to doggedly pursue their interests regardless of whatever laudable schemes are embraced by progressive intellectuals or advanced by the international community. “Realists,” in this view, are those who acknowledge this reality and act accordingly, upholding balance-of-power rivalries even where they run roughshod over human rights and responsibilities.

After both the overwhelming failures of intervention in the Middle East and the authoritarian surge in China, many observers have inclined more in a “realist” direction, although it is a grotesque exaggeration to say, as some do, that “we are all realists now.”[5] Liberal internationalism is still the dominant establishment position, but it is now a chastened version of what had been a more muscular creed. Mearsheimer and his fellow realists have been proven prescient and thus deserve credit for their warnings.

But if realism illuminates some key problems in U.S. foreign policy, its own shortcomings are equally apparent. Fundamental failures to comprehend the geopolitical order are evident in Mearsheimer’s influential 2014 essay, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin.”[6] Here he argued that Moscow was the aggrieved party in the 2014 war, owing to NATO’s push into its legitimate sphere of influence. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and hiving-off of the two Donbass “People’s Republics,” in other words, were defensive acts. Mearsheimer insisted that Putin is a conventional geopolitical figure – a realist himself[7] – who acts like almost any leader of a great power would if faced with similar threats. He thus confidently predicted that Russia’s aims would remain strictly limited: “Putin surely understands that trying to subdue Ukraine would be like swallowing a porcupine.”[8]

In early 2022, Russia did indeed try to subdue Ukraine, invalidating Mearsheimer’s prediction and calling into question his ability to discern Putin’s motivations based on realist assumptions. But as the massive invasion commenced, Mearsheimer doubled down, employing the same porcupine simile and giving the same assurances of limited aims.[9] “It does seem apparent that [Putin is] not touching western Ukraine,”[10] he opined just a few days before Moscow launched a missile attack on Lviv in far western Ukraine, the first of many such strikes.  A few months later, he forcefully reiterated his position,[11] arguing that the United States was principally responsible for the war by leading Ukraine “down the primrose path.” He further claimed that Putin recognized the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood before the war began and was “not interested in making Ukraine part of Russia.”

In Mearsheimer’s understanding at the time of the invasion, Putin would never attempt to subdue Ukraine because doing so would be too expensive and destructive, weakening Russia. Following a clear-cut theory, he expected Putin to coldly calculate his maneuvers, acting in a manner deemed rational by the tenets of realism. As Jan Smoleńskiand Jan Dutkiewicz aptly framed it, “John Mearsheimer and other foreign policy figures [were] treating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine like a game of Risk.”[12] Realist analysis paid little heed to Putin’s own justifications, which he spelled out before the invasion.[13] Given Putin’s craving to extend Russian hegemony over its “Near Abroad,” compounded with the widespread Russian belief in the redemptive power of mass suffering, it is not surprising that he would pursue a self-damaging course. Contrary to realist theorizing, geopolitical myths and ideologies can be tremendously important, and they not infrequently lead in destructive directions. If one imbibes enough hyper-nationalist fables, even the world’s largest porcupine can be a tempting target, as the world learned in June 1941.

It is difficult to make sense of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine war in Mearsheimer’s framework. If it reflected reality, Russia would have continued bullying Kyiv and jockeying for geopolitical advantage rather than launching an outright invasion. Ukraine, for its part, should have complied with Russian demands. As a minor power on a flat landscape, it supposedly had no chance of withstanding its great-power neighbor, fated instead to be a defanged buffer country at best or a Russian puppet state at worst.

Ukraine, Nationalism, and the Failure of Realism

As Mearsheimer rightly emphasizes, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is embedded in national sentiments. Understanding how nationalism functions, however, requires making distinctions between different forms of the phenomenon. Following Hans Kohn, many scholars have differentiated ethnic from civic nationalism.[14] The former is premised on the emotionally charged belief in descent from a locally rooted ancestral population that remains bound together by a common language and cultural practices; the latter is based on allegiance to political ideals. Mearsheimer scoffs at this distinction.[15] In his view, civic ties are too vague and cerebral to be meaningful. Instead, nationalism needs to be cemented by an emotional belief in the “sacred” nature of the national territory if people are “to fight and die for it.”[16] This interpretation accords with those of ethnonational theorist Yoram Hazony and pundit Rich Lowry, who argue that genuine national solidarity must rest on ethnic pillars.[17] These influential authors reject the traditional bipartisan civic nationalism of the United States, which is lodged in loyalty to a liberal republican political creed.

While there are problems with the ethnic/civic distinction,[18] it is nonetheless essential for understanding the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The ideology underwriting Putin’s invasion is one of ethnic essentialism, fixated on the world historical destiny of the Russian people, spiritually entwined with the Russian Orthodox Church. It deviates from garden-variety ethnonationalism by its imperial pretensions. Although Russia is a highly centralized country, Putin’s Eurasianist[19] perspective frames it not as a singular nation-state but rather as the core of a multinational domain; one structured around internal ethnic republics, external unrecognized client states, buffer countries, and an expansive sphere of influence. Russia is constitutionally designated as a multinational federation, with sovereignty officially vested in its various ethno-nationally distinct peoples.[20] While there is no doubt that the Russian ethno-nation forms its core, many others are recognized and granted cultural space; the very existence of the Ukrainian nation, by contrast, is denied, as Ukrainians are said to be a mere local variant of the greater Russian ethnos.[21]

Mearsheimer’s realism overlooks both the pathologies of ethnonationalism and the potentialities of civic nationalism. These pathologies are sadly familiar: national stories tend to be mythologized, leading to damaging historical falsification. Imperial versions, such as Russia’s, foster delusions of destiny that often end in violent imperial overreach. When false narratives are enshrined, moreover, truth-telling becomes subversive and repression follows. Minority groups are typically excluded from the national core and often from the nation itself. Should they become disgruntled enough to rebel, the state is weakened.

The dismissal of civic nationalism by both Mearsheimer and rightwing populists is also unsupportable, as again demonstrated by recent events in Ukraine. Although a sense of common belonging and desire for independence have long been evident across Ukraine, national identity was poorly consolidated before the Russian assault of 2014. To be sure, ethnonational bonds were firm across the north and west, often taking an extreme form in the far west. In and around Lviv, the Svoboda Party – intensely anti-Russian, anti-Communist, and anti-Semitic – routinely gained up to 30 percent of the vote. Eastern and Southern Ukraine, however, strongly favored candidates like Victor Yanukovych who downplayed language and ethnicity, sought closer relations with Russia, and advocated decentralization.[22] Election after election revealed a sharp bifurcation, with candidates who received more than 90 percent of the vote on one end of the country getting less than 10 percent on the other. Such an electoral disjunction, seen most starkly in Nigeria, signals a poorly gelled nation.

Ukraine’s national rift, however, began to heal over after the Russian assaults of 2014. The most pro-Russia areas, Crimea and the eastern Donbass, were excised from the country, while Putin’s brutal actions undermined the pro-Moscow position. More important, a new version of Ukrainian solidarity was put forward by the most unlikely candidate, the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky. As a Russian-speaking Jew who defended the public use of his mother tongue, Zelensky does not even count as Ukrainian in the more hidebound versions of his country’s ethnonational creed. By urging respect for Russian-language institutions, he provoked hostility from extremists.[23] Zelensky’s brand of nationalism had little room for emotional zealotry, religious inflection, or mythologizing the greatness of the Ukrainian past. Instead, he grounded his electoral campaign on a quintessentially civic issue: an anti-corruption drive.

Zelensky first gained traction in Ukraine’s formerly Russia-friendly east and south. In the final voting round, however, he triumphed handily almost everywhere. The only exception was the far west, but even there support for the semi-fascist Svoboda Party had essentially evaporated.[24] Zelensky’s civic nationalism had apparently consolidated the nation, at least temporarily. And when push came to shove, Ukrainians stunned the world with their willingness to fight and die for their land and state. Civically fortified and militarily tested, Ukrainian national consolidation now looks secure.


The Standard World Model

Although Mearsheimer blames the ill-fated regime-change maneuvers undertaken or supported by the United States on a naïve liberal drive to refashion the world, the failure of his own theorizing to make sense of the Russia-Ukraine conflict shows that the underlying problem runs deeper. Again and again, realists and interventionists alike fail to anticipate the consequences of their policies. Why? I argue that their common flaw is to accept without question a simplistic world model and map. According to this all-but universal schema, the world is cleanly divided into a set number of sovereign states. These entities are regarded as fundamental, vastly more important than either their own subdivisions or any supranational entities, cross-cutting political organizations, or intersecting networks. Their significance is all-encompassing, extending well beyond geopolitics. They literally form the base map on which almost all global spatial information in inscribed. In the process, they are inevitably naturalized. As Bill Rankin has written, borders separating countries “become part of a neutral landscape with an almost timeless presence, and they’re conspicuously disconnected from the dynamic,  contingent, human knowledge layered on top. It’s a deceptively simple trick, and its simplicity is what makes it so powerful.”[25]

While not all-important, states certainly are of enormous significance. To comprehend them, one needs to understand their geohistory, asking where, when, and how they originated and in what manner this form of political organization spread across globe. Although no consensus has been reached in the vast literature on the topic, most IR scholars agree that the modern state arose in western Europe in the early modern period.[26] In the larger IR narrative, European states gained the key attributes of full sovereignty and complete territorialization with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The sovereign territorial state then gradually spread, through imposition and emulation, across the world. Tribal and nomadic peoples, such as those of Inner Asia, were among the last to be encompassed within its bounds. By the late twentieth century, the system was globalized, with sovereign states forming the puzzle pieces of the master jigsaw map of the planet.[27]

According to the standard world model, these fundamental units are not just fully sovereign polities governing cleanly demarcated territories. They are also seen as nation-states, implying that the state is fully congruent with the nation – the people – falling under its rule. This equation is encoded in the very term “International Relations.” The correspondence is assumed to be so strong that “state,” “nation,” and “country” have become interchangeable. According to Mearsheimer, nations themselves “tend to be tightly integrated permanent entities separated by clear boundaries.”[28] These platonic entities,[29] as they are called by Nassim Taleb, are presumed to be the world’s essential actors. In international law, they are reduced to singular “persons” who, in concert, constitute a cozy international community.

Real World Dis/Order

The standard world model is concise and convenient, but it is also largely wrong. Reducing the past to a few key events, it is essentially ahistorical; locating all crucial developments on Eurasia’s western fringe, it is inherently Eurocentric. As Munkh-Erdene has demonstrated,[30] pastoral peoples of Central Asia built powerful states with key territorial aspects many centuries ago. State emergence was a prolonged process, with the fully modern form – Charles Maier’s “Leviathan 2.0”not appearing until the second half of the nineteenth century. Jordan Branch more daringly yet convincingly argues that “the state” per se has no time or place of origin, as it is a composite institution whose various components all have their own histories and geographies.[31]

Geopolitical reality is and has always been vastly more complex and chaotic than the world model allows. Across the globe, sovereignty has always been fractionated, nesting, diffuse, and disputed. Borders are often contested and are not infrequently more notional than real. Effectively stateless areas abound, as do counter-states and militarily potent “states within states.” National identity is often questioned and never uniform; states and nations rarely line up with any exactitude. And contemporary sovereign states are certainly not polities of the same sort. For starters, it matters that they differ in size by orders of magnitude. But even countries with comparable populations vary so much in their capacity and infrastructure as to be different kinds of entities. Composite constructions that exist simultaneously in the realms of ideas, infrastructures, and representations, as Jordan Branch argues, states are nothing like persons.

What this means is that we have misconstrued the map. The standard world political map does not depict the world as-it-is; it represents the ideals of the diplomatic community. In the rarified realm of diplomacy, resorting to simplification is reasonable and even desirable. But when the goal is understanding the world and the motives of its actors, the model does more harm than good. If we are to devise effective policies, we need to grapple with the world in its full complexity. Relying on such an idealized image to guide policies and generate forecasts will only lead to more dismay and disappointment.

As Franck Bille[32] emphasizes, mainstream geopolitical scholarship frames deviation as exception, dismissing any challenge to the underlying scheme. In the contemporary world, nation-state uniformity is assumed to have overridden the premodern order of parcelized sovereignty and layered and overlapping political identity, bringing about, in Mearsheimer’s word,[33]  “an extraordinary change from a heterogenous world system to a homogenous one.” But in actuality, divergence from the geopolitical norm is less the exception than the substance of the global political architecture. The more one looks, the more one finds. As Bruno Latour insisted in a different context, “we have never been modern.”[34] We fool ourselves in thinking otherwise.

Moving beyond the game-board view to grapple with the actual configurations of political power can be extraordinarily difficult. Trying to map something as spatially amorphous as the millet system of confessional legal autonomy in the Ottoman Empire challenges the cartographic imagination. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up on visualization altogether. If anything, it makes the mapping of political authority more crucial, if only because the effort to get it right exposes just how slippery and intricate sovereignty can be. Grappling with these intricacies has pushed cartographers to further hone their craft, as Luca Scholz[35] and others here have demonstrated.

Nation-States, Regime Removal, and Country Collapse

The failed regime-change gambits of the early 21st century with which I began this essay are substantially rooted in the standard world model. Having naturalized the state, we can’t help expecting it to be more secure than it often is. We thus imagined that the imagined communities that we call Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya would withstand the shock of imposed new regimes, even if done so though foreign aggression. Japan, after all, had no problem staying in one piece after its devasting defeat and occupation in 1945.

Yet the regime-change gambits of the early century saw instead the crumpling of the targeted states and the breaking of their nations followed by prolonged conflict. Libya and Afghanistan may have been tentatively reconstituted, but they remain precarious. Iraq persists as something of a sham state, surviving only at the insistence of the international community; its self-governing and self-defended Kurdish Regional Government would opt out in a heartbeat if it could.[36] In Yemen, the nation was revealed to have been largely a figment. Prior to the regime-toppling operations, it was less national solidarity than the raw power of their governments that held any of these countries together. All, moreover, have been challenged by powerful countervailing ideologies, ranging from radical Islamism, to Arab nationalism and associated ideologies, to conflicted Kurdish nationalism, to anarcho-libertarian socialism, to Pashtun ethno-imperialism.





This is not to say that these countries completely lack unifying sentiments. Like other states without ethnonational or civic foundations, they developed some measure of common identity through other means. Mearsheimer emphasizes the solidarity-boosting struggle for independence from colonial powers.[37] But while significant, anti-colonialism itself was insufficient to generate enduring solidarity. More important have been state-run schools, a nation-focused press,[38] and the simple experience of living under a single government. But although public-opinion polling usually shows widespread acceptance of the nation-state, that does not mean that the message is taken to heart. When crisis hits, regional, ethnic, and clan-based affinity can quickly trump nation-state loyalty. The world’s “youngest nation,” South Sudan (2011), cohered well enough when fighting for independence but collapsed almost immediately upon receiving it, as the highest allegiance of most of its people remained with the Nuer, Dinka, and other ethnic groups.[39]

The world would probably be much more stable and peaceful if it accorded with the nation-state model. But just as confusing “is” for “ought” can lead to mindless conservatism, as David Hume warned long ago, confusing “ought” for “is” can lead to senseless naivete. A truly realist perspective would deal with the world as it is constituted, not as it is imagined. Such genuine realism, however, faces resistance, as it can be construed as threatening the institutions that underwrite what little geopolitical stability actually exists. If we were all to quit pretending, such thinking has it, everything could collapse, as political cohesion ultimate rests on legitimacy in the public imagination. Although rarely expressed overtly, this concern sometime makes its presence felt. I was recently chided by a senior colleague for arguing that the Peace of Westphalia, contrary to IR theory, did not create anything like a system of individuated sovereign states. He did not fault my evidence or arguments; what bothered him was their implications. But if the devastating failures of U.S. foreign policy are any indication, what is more dangerous is devising policies under the guidance of an illusion.

The Experimental Failure of Geopolitical Theory and Expertise

International Relations scholarship is concerned with both theory and practice. But theory comes first. As Mearsheimer specifies, theory “is indispensable for understanding how the world works.”[40] In one profound sense, he is not wrong. Theorizing of some sort is necessary to understand anything. But experimentally unfalsifiable theories are best held as provisional interpretations that can shift or be abandoned as new developments unfold. In the sciences, competing theories are routinely put to the test, and those that fail are winnowed out. That is not the case, however, in geopolitics.

As it turns out, a trove of relevant experimental data has been collected on the conceptualization of geopolitically significant events. A robust IR theory ought to facilitate forecasting near-term developments. The available evidence, however, suggests otherwise. For decades, Philip Tetlock has been running massive tournaments in which individuals and teams compete to see who can best forecast the likelihood of such events as North Korea launching another missile or Argentina defaulting on its bonds. The results are not good PR for IR. In one study, according to Tetlock, experts performed on average at the level of a “dart-throwing chimpanzee.”[41] The scholars and pundits whose predictions fare worst are those who are animated by a single “Big Idea.” Tetlock paints those most susceptible to this bias as “theory-poisoned.”[42]

By contrast, a few people are “superforecasters” who have far better track records. Intriguingly, those with the knack turn out to be generalists, not specialists. They typically follow a modest strategy, gathering as much information as possible and adjusting their predictions as they go along.[43] Superforecasters tend to regard theories as hypotheses. Driven by curiosity, they have high levels of general knowledge.[44] They are the kind of people, Tetlock tells us, who can “find Kazakhstan on a map.”[45]

The Geo-Historical Alternative

Tetlock’s research confirms my doubts about the standard approach to sovereignty that dominates geopolitical analysis. Given as well the dismal recent record of U.S. foreign policy, a new paradigm is surely called for. The most promising alternative, I would argue, is based on learning the spatial complexities of political power on the ground, and analyzing how they are imagined, represented, legitimated, and contested. Doing so reveals a richly variegated, multidimensional landscape that cannot be reduced to a single model, much less reflected on a single map. This alternative approach relies heavily on cartography to depict, interpret, and appreciate that landscape, but it always puts multiple maps in dialogue with each other and with textual accounts.[46] It also sees maps as laden propositions, not mirrors of reality.

Rescuing history from the nation, as Prasenjit Duara framed it a quarter-century ago,[47] is a well-advanced project by now in the humanities. But recognition in one corner of the university does not mean acknowledgement across the disciplines, much less in the public sphere. Much more than the study of history needs to be rescued from the nation – and from the state, from blanket sovereignty, and from all the other trappings of the standard world model. Or, to put it another way, we might say that it is the practice of statecraft that need to be rescued by the study of history – and of geography.


Perhaps John Mearsheimer would be open to some aspects of this assessment. He too has warned of the dangers of geographical illiteracy. In the early twenty-first century, he lamented “The United States was intervening in countries it knew astonishingly little about – few government officials even … knew that Sunni and Shi’a were different branches of Islam … .”[48] If officials had known such things, and if they had understood that “Iraq” is not permanent puzzle-piece on a stable world map but a tenuous construction conjured into existence by Winston Churchill,[49] Gertrude Bell[50] and other imperial functionaries following the United Kingdom’s betrayal its Arab allies during World War I, perhaps a less destructive path would have been taken in 2003.

[1] “We Assumed Small States Were Pushovers. Ukraine Proved Us Wrong,” by Alexander Clarkson. World Political Review, April 13, 2022. https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/30466/after-russia-invasion-ukraine-shows-that-small-states-can-fight-back.

[2] The term “Chimerica” was coined by Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick. Ferguson contended that the single Chimerican economy accounted for a third of the world’s gross domestic product in 2009, further arguing that the relationship between the two states was, “for a time,” a “symbiotic relationship that seemed like a marriage made in heaven.” But Ferguson further argued that the economic relationship between the two countries eventually became toxic, as revealed by the financial meltdown of 2008. See “What ‘Chimerica’ Hath Wrought,” by Niall Ferguson, The American Interest Online, January-February 2009 Issue. https://web.archive.org/web/20090721015335/http://www.the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=533

[3] For a popular review of the psychological literature on this subject, see The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It, by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister. Penguin Books, 2019.

[4] John J. Mearsheimer, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. 2018. Yale University Press. Quotation from page viii.

[5] “We Are All Realists Now,” by Curt Mills, The National Interest, February 22, 2019.

[6] Published in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 93, No. 5 (SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2014), pp. 77-84, 85-89.

[7] Mearsheimer explicitly depicted Putin as “thinking and acting like a realist” in The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (2018) on page 178.

[8] Mearsheimer 2014, page 85.

[9] “John Mearsheimer on why the West is principally responsible for the Ukrainian crisis,” by John Mearsheimer. The Economist, March 19, 2022. https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2022/03/11/john-mearsheimer-on-why-the-west-is-principally-responsible-for-the-ukrainian-crisis

[10] The quotation is from Isaac Chotiner’s interview of Mearsheimer: “Why John Mearsheimer Blames the U.S. for the Crisis in Ukraine.” The New Yorker, March 1, 2022.  https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/why-john-mearsheimer-blames-the-us-for-the-crisis-in-ukraine

March 1, 2022

[11] See “The Causes and Consequences of the Ukraine War,” by John J. Mearsheimer. Russia Matters, June 23, 2021.


[12] “The American Pundits Who Can’t Resist “Westsplaining” Ukraine: John Mearsheimer and other foreign policy figures are treating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine like a game of Risk,” by Jan Smoleński and Jan Dutkiewicz. The New Republic, March 4, 2022. https://newrepublic.com/article/165603/carlson-russia-ukraine-imperialism-nato

[13] “‘Modern Ukraine entirely created by Russia’ — read full text of Vladimir Putin’s speech.” The Print, February 23, 2022. https://theprint.in/world/modern-ukraine-entirely-created-by-russia-read-full-text-of-vladimir-putins-speech/843801/

[14] Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism. 1944. Collier.

[15] Mearsheimer 2018, Pp. 105-106.

[16] Mearsheimer 2018, Pp. 103.

[17] Yoram Hazony. The Virtue of Nationalism. 2018. New York: Basic Books. Rich Lowry, The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United and Free. 2019. Broadside Books.

[18] The ethnic-civic national distinction is often exaggerated, and it forms less a dichotomy than a continuum. A common history and culture, moreover, can generate firm national bonds without any substantial ethnic or civic foundations; the ethnically diverse nation of Brazil is not exactly united around devotion to “progress and order,” its official civic creed.

[19] See “The Grand Theory Driving Putin to War,” by Jane Burbank, The New York Times, March 22, 2022.https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/22/opinion/russia-ukraine-putin-eurasianism.html

[20] Article 3, Section 1 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation reads: “The bearer of sovereignty and the only source of power in the Russian Federation shall be its multinational people.”  http://www.constitution.ru/en/10003000-02.htm

[21] “‘Modern Ukraine entirely created by Russia’ — read full text of Vladimir Putin’s speech.” The, February 23, 2022. https://theprint.in/world/modern-ukraine-entirely-created-by-russia-read-full-text-of-vladimir-putins-speech/843801/

[22] See the superb map collections of Electoral Geography 2.0:  https://www.electoralgeography.com/new/en/

[23] As the Wikipedia article on the president of Ukraine notes, “In August 2014, Zelenskyy spoke out against the intention of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture to ban Russian artists from Ukraine. Since 2015, Ukraine has banned Russian artists and other Russian works of culture from entering Ukraine. In 2018, romantic comedy Love in the Big City 2 starring Zelenskyy was banned in Ukraine.”


[24]  See the map collections of Electoral Geography 2.0https://www.electoralgeography.com/new/en/

[25] William Rankin, Radical Cartography, Forthcoming. Chapter 2, Page 3.

[26] In Mearsheimer’s view, however, the state itself emerged in England, Spain, and France in the early sixteenth century See Mearsheimer, 2018, p. 96

[27] Although all major schools of IR thought rely on the standard model, their understandings of its contours vary. Liberal theorists have a more capacious view than realists, moving beyond the state, for example, to take seriously the roles of international organizations, international law, and global norms. As individuals, moreover, many IR scholars of all orientations escape the model’s fetters to firmly grasp the nuances of the geopolitical order.

[28] Mearsheimer 2018, p. 86; emphasis added. As Mearsheimer frames the standard model in particularly stark form in The Great Delusion, further quotations are useful in outlining his vision. We live, he avers, in “homogenous world system” (p. 145) structured around nation-states, all based on shared sentiments of hard-edged nationalism (p. 84). As nationalism is “in sync with human nature” (8), a person’s “highest loyalty is almost always to his nation (p. 87).” Members of each nation “mostly speak the same language” (p. 94) and “tend to think and act in similar ways” (p. 87).  Mearsheimer depicts nations as having minds collective minds: “each nation-state tends to think that it is superior to others” (p. 201). This is because “nationalism [is] all about privileging one’s own group over others” (p. 111). The states conjoined with these nations have well defined borders (p. 96)) and can “break or discipline the individuals and groups living within those borders.” Their decision-making power is always “concentrated at the center.” Mearsheimer see the highest expression of such power in armed might. Not only is “the military an integral part” of every state (p. 72), but so too is “offensive military capacity” (p. 131). Ideally, each nation-state is also fully sovereign, suffering no interference in domestic matters by other powers. But Mearsheimer argues that while this preferred condition was approached in the late 1980s, it was soon undermined as “the United States took to interfering with the politics of other countries” (p. 160).

None of these assertions can withstand scrutiny. Even the most seemingly commonsensical ones are simply not true. Every country has an offensive military capacity? States as large and successful as Costa Rica manage well enough with no military force whatsoever, and to imagine Nauru, Tuvalu, Monaco, or San Marino launching a campaign of aggression against some other country is rank fantasy.

[29] On the “platonic” nature of the nation-state construct, see Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007, New York: Random House). As Taleb puts it, “What I call Platonicity, after the ideas (and personality) of the philosopher Plato, is our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and well-defines “forms,” whether objects, like triangles, or social notions, like utopias …, even nationalities. When these ideas and crisp constructs inhabit our minds, we privilege them over other less elegant objects, those with messier and less tractable structures… .”  P. xxv.

[30] Lhamsuren Munkh-Erdene, The Taiji Government and the Rise of the Warrior State The Formation of the Qing Imperial Constitution. 2021. Brill.

[31] Jordan Branch, “Reconceptualizing the State and its Alternatives: Ideas, infrastructures, representations.” Talk given at Stanford University’s Rumsey Map Center, Conference on “Remapping Sovereignty,” May 26-27, 2022.

[32] Franck Bille, “Scattered, Distorted, Voluminous: On Cartographic Representation in Political Geography.” Talk given at Stanford University’s Rumsey Map Center, Conference on “Remapping Sovereignty,” May 26-27, 2022.

[33] Mearsheimer 2018, 145.

[34] Bruno Latour. We Have Never Been Modern. 1993. Harvard University Press.

[35] Luca Scholz, “Condominium: Mapping Joint Dominion in the Holy Roman Empire.” Talk given at Stanford University’s Rumsey Map Center, Conference on “Remapping Sovereignty,” May 26-27, 2022.

[36] As Nicola Degli Espositi explains, “In September 2017, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq held a referendum for independence in which Kurdish voters overwhelmingly – over 93% – chose to secede from Iraq. However, the virtually unanimous opposition of the international community prevented Kurdish president Masoud Barzani from proclaiming independence. The United States, the principal ally of the Iraqi Kurds, refused to back the referendum, prioritising the territorial integrity of Iraq. Baghdad deemed the referendum illegal, and neighbouring Turkey and Iran, worried about the repercussions on their own Kurdish minorities, strongly opposed Kurdish independence. In this context, the prospect of a landlocked Kurdish mini-state looked like a geopolitical nightmare. In the aftermath of the referendum, the KRG was subject to heavy retaliation from Ankara and Tehran, which shut their borders and closed their airspace. The Iraqi army moved towards Kurdish positions and, in a few weeks, took over a vast swathe of territory historically disputed by Baghdad and Erbil, including the oil-rich and highly symbolic city of Kirkuk.” This quotation is from “The 2017 Independence Referendum and the Political Economy of Kurdish Nationalism in Iraq,” by Nicola Degli Espositi. Third World Quarterly, 42(10), 2317-2333, page 2317.

[37] Mearsheimer 2018, p. 99.

[38] Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 1983. Verso.

[39] Although South Sudan was tentative patched back together, the future looks dim: “Diplomats Fear a Collapse of South Sudan’s Latest Peace Deal: Even as they publicly support the pact, many privately think it is built on a house of cards and will be pulled down by the country’s bloody past,” by Justin Lynch, Foreign Policy, March 5, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/05/south-sudan-peace-deal-diplomats-fear-collapse/

[40] Mearsheimer 2018, viii.

[41] Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. 2015. Crown Publishers. p. 68.

[42] Tetlock and Gardner p. 244. The authors are opining here on the fictional character Hamlet, who they describe as “The typical academic, theory-poisoned and indecisive…”

This finding may seem counter-intuitive, but understanding it is not difficult. When one commits to any speculative theory, one tends to see the world from its perspective, passing over discordant information. As confirmation bias is intrinsic to the human mind, concerted effort is necessary to avoid its disabling effects. For a popular overview of the psychological literature on human cognitive biases and heuristics, see Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman (2013, Farrar. Straus and Giroux).

[43] Tetlock and Gardner 2015.

[44] Tetlock and Gardner 2015, Pp. 106-110.

[45] Tetlock and Gardner 201, p. 92.

[46] As Matthew Edney insists, each cartographic act takes shape “within a web of texts that provide the map with different shades of meaning. See Matthew Edney, Cartography: The Ideal and Its History. 2019, University of Chicago Press. P. 12, 40.

[47] Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China. 1995. University of Chicago Press.

[48] Mearsheimer 2018, P. 169.

[49] Christopher Catherwood, Churchill’s Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq. 2005. Basic Books.

[50] Liora Lukitz. A Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq. 2006. I.B. Tauris.


Why Mapping Sovereignty Matters: IR Theory, Realism, John Mearsheimer, and the Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy Read More »

Recent Population Growth — and Decline — in Montana

(Note: As I am spending the summer in Montana to be with my granddaughters and their parents, a number of forthcoming post will focus on the state.)

As can be seen in the map on the left, Montana is a booming state, posting the third largest rate of population growth (in percentage terms) in the United States from 2020 to 2021. In the 2022 election, Montana will gain a second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which it had lost in 1993 due to lagging population growth at the time. Montana is still a sparsely settled state, with the third lowest population density in the country (after Alaska and Wyoming). Its population surge, moreover, is relatively recent. As can be seen in the second map, from 2010 to 2020 it experienced a moderate rate of growth (9.6%), higher than the national average (7.4%), but well below those of neighboring Idaho (17.3%) and North Dakota (15.8%), as well as nearby Utah (18.4%).





As might be expected, Montana’s recent population expansion is very unevenly distributed. Whereas some counties are experiencing sizzling grown, others continue to decline. Growth is concentrated in the mountainous west, whereas decline is pronounced across much of the Great Plains in the east. But as can be seen in the map on the left, two far-eastern counties (Richland and Carter) experienced rapid growth from 2010 to 2020, defying the regional norm. This map, however, is somewhat misleading; as Richland and Carter are sparsely settled countries, small increases in absolute numbers translate into rapid proportional growth. A gain of a mere 255 residents in Carter resulted in a 22% growth rate over the decade. Previously, the tendency had been one of steady decline. In 1920 the county had 3,972 residents, dropping to 1,415 by 2020.


The growth in Richland County from 2010 to 2020 is easily explained; adjacent to the booming oilfields of eastern North Dakota, it became something of a bedroom community for housing-short Williston, ND. But as the oil boom has receded, so too has Richland County. As can be seen in some of the maps posted below, the county lost population from July 2020 to July 2021. Explaining the growth in Carter, one of the most remote counties in the lower 48 states, is more challenging. A recent article in the excellent Montana Free Press, however, is quite helpful. A newly paved road improved access to eastern South Dakota, another area of recent population expansion (due in part to the natural amenities of the Back Hills region). The article also cites a healthy county budget, owing in part to transit fees from energy pipelines, and, unlikely as it might seem, dinosaur tourism. Ekalaka, Carter’s county seat, is evidently a high point on Montana’s so-called Dinosaur Trail.

To help readers make sense of changing population patterns in Montana, I have made several versions of my population-change-by-county maps (posted below). As can be seen in one of these iterations, growth has been concentrated in and around Montana’s largest cities, although Great Falls has lagged behind. Later posts will explore some of these patterns in more detail.

The most recent census data, covering the period from July 2020 to July 2021, shows a continuation of most of the trends seen in the 2010-2020 period. Although most Montana countries grew sharply during this time of COVID, the northern Great Plains continued in its seemingly inexorable decline. All of Montana’s larger cities, except Great Fall and Butte, saw rapid growth. So did Ravalli County in the scenic Bitterroot Valley, a zone of high rural population density (by Montana standards). Also of note is the growth rate of Flathead County in the northwest surpassing that of Gallatin County (which includes Bozeman) in the southwest. This somewhat surprising; as an expanded headline in the Montana Free Press notes, “Montana’s fastest-growing city last year? It wasn’t Bozeman. New Census Bureau estimates chart Montana’s population shifts during the first full year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kalispell led the pack.” This article, by Eric Dietrich, is well worth reading, especially for Dietrich’s superb cartography. (Note that there are a few discrepancies between his map and mine; although I have re-checked the data, his figures may be more accurate.)





The competition between Bozeman and Kalispell is interesting. Intriguingly, Kalispell is Montana’s only significant city with no “blue” (Democratic voting) precincts, although the nearby tourism-oriented town of Whitefish is a different matter. Bozeman, in contrast, is markedly blue, as is Gallatin County as a whole. Gallatin’s smaller towns and most of its rural areas, however, are decidedly red. I have posted details from one of Eric Dietrich’s excellent Montana electoral maps, also published in the Montana Free Press. Later posts will explore Montana’s changing electoral geography in more detail.










Recent Population Growth — and Decline — in Montana Read More »

Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 2)

Chapter Two:

How the Government of the United States Maps the World

(PART 2)

     Erasing a Ghost State in Defiance of the International Community 

     If collapsing states and compromised sovereignty constitute one set of problems, another slippage between the CIA’s map and the world has until recently arisen from the former’s suggestion of statehood in places where sovereignty was never realized in the first place. Yemen and Somalia may now look like anachronisms, but at least they were relatively coherent states at one time. Until 2020, however, the CIA world map suggested that a large block of desert land southwest of Morocco formed the country of Western Sahara, even though this former Spanish colony, mostly under the rule of Morocco since 1975, has never enjoyed self-rule. As the international community understandably deems this annexation illegitimate, no country other than Morocco mapped this land as Moroccan territory. But in 2020, in defiance of international norms, the Trump administration recognized Morocco’s claim, largely to secure its recognition of Israel. The CIA now maps Western Sahara as an integral part of Morocco, even the areas that Morocco does not control, and does not even seek to control.

          Mapping Western Sahara before the Trump administration’s diplomatic turn-around presented the CIA’s cartographers with a challenge. How was this territory, neither a country nor a dependency, to be depicted on a map that categorizes all lands, barring ice-covered Antarctica, as one or the other? (Similar problems are encountered regarding the Palestinian territories, as is explored below). The answer was found in labeling. Western Sahara was not given the all-capital-letters treatment used to identify independent countries, but, unlike dependencies, no overriding sovereign power was noted in parentheses, thus giving the distinctly colored land the appearance of independence. Given such complexities, a brief account of the tragic history of this “ghost state” might explain why such a cartographic anomaly long appeared on the CIA’s world political map.

          When Spain finally pulled out of Africa in 1975-1976, the phosphate-rich colony of Spanish Sahara was immediately invaded by neighboring Morocco and Mauritania; when the dust settled, most of its territory had been annexed by Morocco, a maneuver deemed illicit by the global community. In 1984, in protest against the Moroccan take-over, the Organization of African Unity (predecessor of the current African Union) recognized the formal independence of an entity claiming to represent Western Sahara, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) – prompting Morocco to withdraw from the organization. The SADR is currently acknowledged as a sovereign state by more than forty U.N. members.[1]

          The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic today controls a small slice of Western Sahara’s nominal territory. Morocco firmly rules the rest, which it guards with a heavily fortified series of sand formations (the so-called Moroccan Western Sahara Wall, or Moroccan Berm) that snakes inside the internationally recognized border with Algeria. The zone on the far side of this berm forms something of a no-man’s land under the partial control of the Polisario Front, the military wing of the SADR. Called the “Liberated Territories” by the Polisario Front and the “Buffer Zone” by the Moroccan government, this harsh inland desert is inhabited by some 35,000 people. Although its largest settlement, Tifariti, is the provisional capital of the would-be Sahrawi state, the Polisario Front is not based there. Instead, its physical headquarters are located outside the Western Sahara altogether, in an Algerian oasis town called Tindouf. More than 100,000 Sahrawi people now live on Algerian soil in grim refugee camps south of Tindouf, dwarfing the population that remains in the so-called Liberated Territories.[2]

            The United Nations has long held that the problem of the Western Sahara should be solved by a referendum, allowing the people of the region to choose between independence or union with Morocco. To keep this option open, the UN has maintained a peace-keeping force there called MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) … for more than thirty years. (Designed to be temporary, MINURSO’s mandate has had to be extended more than 40 times since 1991.)  Over the course of those decades, the international consensus against Morocco has frayed, dimming the prospects for Sahrawi independence. In 2017 Morocco was readmitted to the African Union despite its recalcitrance on the issue. European human-rights organizations campaign against importing goods from the disputed territory, but to little effect.[3] In early 2020, Bolivia suspended its recognition of the SADR,[4]following the lead of 42 other countries. Multinational companies that operate in Morocco must acknowledge that Morocco effectively controls the region, as McDonald’s discovered to its chagrin in 2007 when it offered a “happy meal” map depicting Western Sahara as a separate country.[5] (In 2016, a contrite McDonald’s opened an outlet in Western Sahara itself, an action that some experts saw “as recognition that the disputed territory belongs to the Kingdom of Morocco.”)[6] The Trump administration’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in 2020 was widely denounced as irresponsible by both Republican and Democratic foreign policy experts, with arch-conservative John Bolton demanding that Joe Biden quickly “reverse course on Western Sahara.”[7]

            Given these vexatious complications, how should Western Sahara and Morocco be mapped? There is no easy answer. Wikipedia has wisely side-stepped the challenge, acknowledging the contested nature of power in the area by setting four competing maps side by side.[8] Needless to say, only one of the four matches the current vision of the CIA.

            Below and Beyond the State

           Countries with a more corporeal history than Western Sahara can meanwhile reveal other blind spots in the standard geopolitical model. One concerns political taxonomy. A signal feature of the CIA map is its emphasis on national boundaries to the exclusion of all others, implying that internationally recognized states are the universal locus of political authority. Provinces, autonomous divisions, and other lower levels of the political hierarchy[9] could of course be mapped as well, but the CIA chooses not to do so. Strikingly, subdivisions of the sovereign state are invisible not only on its global map but also on its more detailed regional maps. Nor do they show up on the national maps in its often-cited World Factbook.[10] By the same token, supra-state entities like the EU have no place in CIA’s cartographic program. In the final analysis, it is only countries that count, as only they are the persons of the international order.

          But is that really true? Consider the strange case of Belgium. Starting in 2010, the Belgian legislature went for more than a year and a half without being able to form a government, and it failed to do so for an even longer period following a governmental collapse in 2018. While such hiatuses would usually be taken as an alarming indicator of a faltering state, these ones barely raised an eyebrow in the international community,[11] and for good reason. In practice, both Belgium’s internal regions and the European Union do more governing than does its “national” government. The scare quotes here are deliberate. Belgium is not a nation as strictly defined, as the requisite feelings of solidarity are lacking. Former Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme once quipped that the only things common across the land were “the King, the football team, [and] some beers.” Despite The Economist’s retort that “unity through beer is not to be dismissed out of hand,”[12] this is not much on which to ground a nation. The anti-EU British firebrand Nigel Farage went so far as to call Belgium “pretty much a non-country” to the face of the Belgian representative on the floor of the European parliament.[13]

     Beneath Farage’s mind-boggling rudeness[14] is a kernel of truth. Belgium emerged as an independent state in relatively recent times—and largely as a matter of diplomatic convenience. A piece of the late-medieval realm of Burgundy, it passed to the Spanish crown through marriage and inheritance and was later yielded to Austria after the War of Spanish Secession, only to be conquered and annexed by France in 1793. With the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, its future lay in doubt. Austria had little interest in taking it back, having “learnt the hard way that isolated territories brought more trouble than revenue.”[15] Instead, the territory passed to the Netherlands. Its French-speaking elite population chafed under Dutch rule until 1830, when, with the connivance of Britain and France, a new state came into existence, one that would significantly expand nine years later by assimilating much of Luxembourg. The new country derived its name from the ancient Belgae confederation, a polity that had once symbolized all the Low Countries under the guise of Leo Belgicus (the Belgic Lion). The original confederation had both Celtic and Germanic components, and the new-born Belgium was similarly divided, this time between Dutch- (Flemish) and French- (Walloon) speaking communities (with a small German-speaking area thrown into the mix in 1920). Attempts at national consolidation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were never particularly successful.



          Nor is Belgium the only European country where the nation-state model simply does not apply. Bosnia is even less cohesive. Not being a member of the EU—an entity that some regard as a “quasi-state”[16] in its own right—Bosnia (officially Bosnia and Hercegovina) cannot rely on that robust multinational framework to shore up its legitimacy as Belgium does. Yet in some ways, Bosnia too is subject to the authority of the European Union. The most powerful official in the country is probably the “High Representative,” charged with representing the EU (and the larger international community) in making sure that Bosnia carries out the terms of the 1995 Dayton Accord.[17] In practice, Bosnia functions as a single state only in the international arena. Domestically, it is split in two, divided between an autonomous Serb Republic (Republika Srpska (not to be confused with the neighboring Republic of Serbia) and a troubled[18] Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (informally called the Bosniak-Croat Federation).[19] Viewed in this light, Bosnia is more a de jure than a de facto country, one held together largely by the insistence of the international community. A non-diplomatic political map would surely show its federal divisions.[20]

[1] See the Wikipedia article entitled, “International Recognition of the Saharwi Arab Democratic Republic”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_recognition_of_the_Sahrawi_Arab_Democratic_Republic

[2] Shelley 2004.

[3] See, for example, “Trouble in Paradise: The Canary Island Beach Accused of Illegally Importing Sand,” by Anders Lundqvist and Rowan Bauer, The Guardian, July 28, 2017:  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/28/trouble-in-paradise-the-canary-island-beach-accused-of-illegally-importing-sand

[4] “Sahara: Bolivia Abandons Polisario: Separatists’ Isolation Deepens.” North Africa Post, January 21, 2020. http://northafricapost.com/37171-sahara-bolivia-abandons-polisario-separatists-isolation-deepens.html

[5] “McDonalds Morocco Sorry for ‘Offensive’ Meal,” Al Arabiya News, Dec. 2. 2008.https://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2008/12/02/61217.html

[6] The quotation is found in “Morocco: McDonald’s to Open in Disputed Western Sahara,” in ANSAMed, August 10, 2016.  Morocco: McDonald’s to open in disputed Western Sahara – General news

[7] “Biden Must Reverse Course on Western Sahara,” by John Bolton. Foreign Policy, December 15, 2020.

[8] See the Wikipedia article “Western Sahara”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Sahara.

Note that even this commendable cartography overlooks the military command-center of the would-be Sahrawi state in neighboring Algeria.

[9] For a comprehensive global exposition of such divisions, see the website Statoids: Administrative Divisions of Countries. Statoids

[10] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/

[11] See “589 Days With No Elected Government: What Happened in Belgium?,” by Valerie

Straus, Washington Post, October 1, 2013 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2013/10/01/589-days-with-no-elected-government-what-happened-in-belgium/?utm_term=.eb4d09ff252c

[12] “Belgium Diary: Keep it Together,” The Economist, October 5, 2007: http://www.economist.com/node/9891553

[13] In 2010, Farage assailed then-President of the EU Council Herman van Rompuy by saying, “You appear to have a loathing for the very concept of the existence of nation-states — perhaps that’s because you come from Belgium, which of course is pretty much a non-country.” “Nigel Farage,” Wikiquotes: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Nigel_Farage

[14] Farage’s screed earned him a €2,980 fine for “inappropriate behavior.”

[15] The quotation is from McEvedy (1972, p. 80). The late Colin McEvedy, a psychiatrist and amateur historical-political-geographer, was a brilliant writer and cartographer who deserves far more scholarly attention than he has received.

[16] Painter 2009, p. 35. As Robert Jackson (2007, p. 151), citing Neil MacCormick, notes, “The European Union is sometimes portrayed as a ‘thoroughgoing’ transcendence of the sovereign state.”

[17] The Dayton Accord was the treaty that ended the bloody civil war following the collapse of Yugoslavia. According to its website, the Office of the High Representative seeks to “ensure that Bosnia and Herzegovina evolves into a peaceful and viable democracy on course for integration in Euro-Atlantic institutions.” From the Official Webpage, “The Office of the High Representative” (“About OHR,” under “General Information.”): http://www.ohr.int/?lang=en

[18] See “Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina – A Parallel Crisis,” International Crisis Group Report #209, Sept. 28, 2010: https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/balkans/bosnia-and-herzegovina/federation-bosnia-and-herzegovina-parallel-crisis

[19] The country’s official head of state, meanwhile, is lodged in a three-member collective presidency that by law must include one ethnic Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb (from the official website, “Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovinia”: http://www.predsjednistvobih.ba/hron/default.aspx?id=10074&langTag=en-US).

As a society, Bosnia is cleaved among these three ethno-national groups, with largely separate institutions regulating life for the traditionally Muslim Bosniaks, the traditionally Roman Catholic Croats, and the traditionally Eastern Orthodox Serbs (see “Bosnia and Herzegovina — Two Decades after Dayton,” by Maja Halilovic-Pastuovic, in Political Violence @ a Glance, March 14, 2017. http://politicalviolenceataglance.org/2017/03/14/bosnia-and-herzegovina-two-decades-after-dayton/).

[20] The map of Bosnia and Herzegovina found in the CIA World Factbook does show its federal division.


Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 2) Read More »

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 1)

[Thanks to Iryna Novosyolova for a helpful discussion of some of the issues discussed in this post.]


A recent article in Foreign Affairs listed the use of the French language as the best predictor of a country’s rate of Sunni radicalization and violence, and particularly of the percentage of a country’s Muslim population that joins in the international Jihad. According to ICSR estimate, of all Western European countries France has supplied the largest number of foreign fighters to ISIS in absolute terms, whereas Belgium leads in per capita terms (40 per million population). The authors of the Foreign Affairs article, William McCants and Christopher Meserole, claim that Francophone status is a better predictor of foreign fighter radicalization than wealth, education or health levels, or even Internet access. The French language itself, the authors state, is obviously not to blame, but is rather a mere proxy for the “French political culture”. Policies such as the French ban on face covering (adopted in September 2010), which prohibits wearing niqābs, burqas, and other veils covering the face in public places, are said to create a fertile ground for drafting recruits into the militant Islamist movement.

religion in russiaBut France and Belgium may not be the only countries where the assimilatory or discriminatory policies adopted by the state encourage the radicalization of the Muslim population. In fact, Russia has been experiencing the same phenomena: a growth of violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists at home and an increasing recruitment for Jihad outside Russia. As mentioned in an earlier GeoCurrents post by Evan Lewis, Russia has been one of the top recruiting grounds for ISIS. According to ICSR estimate, some 800-1,500 foreign ISIS fighters came from Russia. In absolute numbers, this estimate surpasses the corresponding numbers for United Kingdom (500-600), Germany (500-600), Belgium (440), and possibly even France (1,200). Another recent source cites Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs official Vladimir Makarov as saying that 3,417 Russians have been recruited by ISIS to fight in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, a major increase from the 1,800 Russian citizens fighting for ISIS in September 2015. According to Makarov, some 200 of these Russian ISIS fighters are new converts to Islam who “do not come from the regions where this religion is traditional”. Cases such as that of Varvara Kraulova, a student who attempted to cross into Syria to join ISIS in the summer of 2015, are widely publicized in the media (see, for example, here and here), but they constitute a minor fraction of Russian citizen who have pledged themselves to the so-called Islamic State. As noted in the report on foreign fighters compiled by the New York-based Soufan Group in December 2015, the overwhelming majority of the Russian ISIS fighters come from traditionally Muslim areas of Russia, especially from the Northeast Caucasus (Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan). Other areas with large and historically rooted Muslim populations, such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in the Middle Volga region, have also provided substantial contingents of ISIS fighters, as did the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. According to Voice of America, Russian-speaking jihadists from the former Soviet republics have formed their own community within ISIS, located in Al-Raqqah (the de facto capital of ISIS), with schools and even prayers in Russian.

Russian authorities primarily adopt a punitive approach to the problem, conducting criminal prosecution of ISIS fighters upon their return to Russia. According to Russia’s Chief Prosecutor Yury Chayka, 650 criminal cases were open against Russian citizens fighting for ISIS in November 2015; by March 2016, this number was up to over 1,000. Attempts are also made to drive recruitment down by publicly humiliating those who join in the form of “shame boards” that feature “photos of those traitors [who] dishonor” their names, their families, and their clans by joining ISIS. The anti-terrorism forces also work with the religious authorities in the North Caucasus to certify imams based on their attitudes towards terrorism, reports the Kavkaz-uzel.ru (“Caucasian knot”) website. Yet such anti-terrorism measures seem to be less than consistent, according to the September 2015 Roundtable Summary by Chatham House, as “the Russian security services mostly appear to be looking the other way when North Caucasian fighters travel to Syria, possibly because these potential troublemakers are at much greater risk in the Middle East than at home”.

Moreover, wittingly or unwittingly, Russian state policies also exacerbate the problem by creating a fertile ground for radicalization and jihad recruitment, especially among the youth, as reported by Kavkaz-uzel.ru. The Soufa Group report cited above also points out,

“the North Caucasus has a long history of Islamist extremism, and the increased flow of  fighters from this region is in many ways unsurprising. Local grievances have long been drivers of radicalization in the Caucasus, and as the strong centralized security apparatus of the  Russian government limits the scope for operations at home, the Islamic State has offered an attractive alternative”.

Russia has had a long history of exclusionary and discriminatory policies towards—and even wholesale deportations of—its Muslim populations. As noted in the Wikipedia article on Islam in Russia,

“the period from the Russian conquest of Kazan in 1552 to the ascension of Catherine the Great in 1762 featured systematic Russian repression of Muslims [in the Middle Volga region] through policies of exclusion and discrimination – as well as the destruction of Muslim culture by the elimination of outward manifestations of Islam such as mosques.”

Map of Circassian RepublicsWith the ascension of Catherine the Great in 1762, the focus of these policies shifted to the North Caucasus. Here  war was waged by the Russian state against the indigenous Muslim groups for a hundred years, until Chechnya was finally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1859, and most of the Circassians in the Northwest Caucasus were exiled to the Ottoman Empire in 1864. During the Soviet period, Islam, like other religions, was suppressed. During World War II, several Muslim ethnic groups, including Chechens, Ingush, and Crimean Tatars were deported by Stalin’s security forces from their homelands to Siberia and Central Asia. According to Stanford historian Norman M. Naimark, up to 40% of the Chechen nation perished in the process; comparable numbers in other deported ethnic groups died as well. In 1956, during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program, members of the deported ethnic groups who had not perished during their harsh exile were “rehabilitated” and some of the groups (for example, Chechens but not Crimean Tatars) were permitted to return to their homeland. Nonetheless, the survivors of the exile lost economic resources and civil rights, and continued to suffer from discrimination, both official and unofficial.

At the time of the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, several Muslim-majority republics within Russia, such as Tatarstan and Chechnya, asked for independence, yet the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation declared such attempts to gain sovereignty to be illegal. (Crimea, which had been part of the Ukrainian Union Republic within USSR, remained part of newly independent Ukraine.) In February 1994, Russia offered an autonomy agreement to Tatarstan and Chechnya, promising a broad range of rights and policy-making abilities, but stopping short of full independence. Tatarstan accepted the agreement but Chechnya did not, and the paths of their subsequent histories took different directions, as discussed in detail in my earlier posts on Tatarstan and Chechnya.

As HNN’s David R. Stone summarizes,

“the end of Moscow’s authority meant that the Chechen people, well-equipped with historical grievances to drive their discontent, found themselves in the Russian Federation due to the accidents of history and map, but badly wanted out.”

Over the course of the First (1994-1996) and Second (1999-2000) Chechen Wars, Chechnya was increasingly driven in the radical separatist direction. But the wars also resulted in the installation of a new puppet Chechen administration under the cleric Akhmad Kadyrov, who broke with the anti-Russian resistance movement, in part over its increasing religious radicalism, and began working with Russian authorities. His son, Ramzan Kadyrov, who took over after his father’s assassination in February 2007, continued the policy of apparent cooperation with Moscow, which pleased neither the Chechen separatists nor the Russian loyalists. But he has never been a “Kremlin puppet”, as some pundits have depicted him. Some observers, such as Viktor Shenderovich, even suggest that the younger Kadyrov may be to some extent the puppet-master, pulling the strings in Kremlin. His recent speech on February 23, 2016 (the 72nd anniversary of the Chechen deportation), in which Kadyrov laid a curse on Joseph Stalin and the chief of the Soviet security apparatus Lavrentiy Berya, certainly indicates that Kadyrov has his own agenda and does not always dance to Putin’s tune. Some pundits claim that the speech aimed to further fuel the popular campaign for Kadyrov to remain in power after his term ends later this year.

Still, Kadyrov has largely remained, in the words of journalist Yulia Latynina, “an all-powerful barbarian warlord at the court of a once-powerful but now rotten empire”, and a peculiar symbiosis of Russian and Chechen leadership has emerged in the wake of the two Chechen wars. The current Chechen government accepts that full independence from Russia may never happen, while Putin’s administration continues to use Chechen insurgents as the much-needed enemy figure. Since this situation does not please Chechen separatists, they continue their struggle by resorting to violence, both at home and in other Russian regions, even in Moscow itself. Chechen terrorists perpetrated several horrific terrorist attacks, most notably the October 2002 seizure of the Nord-Ost musical theater in Moscow, where over 800 spectators—many of them children—were taken hostage, and the seizure of an elementary school in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia on September 1, 2004. These terrorist attacks—and the botched rescue attempts by the Russian security forces—claimed the lives of some 130 hostages in the Nord-Ost theater, and 385 children and teachers in Beslan. These horrific terrorist attacks ended whatever hope might have still existed of winning broad international support for the cause of Chechen independence.

The death of the old-style Chechen nationalism during the rule of the Kadyrovs, father and son, the economic devastation of the republic that forced many residents to flee into neighboring regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan, and the rise of criminal gangs engaging in lucrative trade in people, weapons, oil, and drugs have all helped push Chechnya in a more radical direction. Historically, Islam in the North Caucasus was Sufi-oriented, tolerant in its practice, and not especially strict, but the pressure of war resulted in a surge of fundamentalism, as noted in a recent report on the North Caucasus by Konstantin Kazenin and Irina Starodubrovskaya, who claim that the Chechen wars not only gave some younger people in the region military training and battlefield experience, but also contributed to the inclusion of the North Caucasus in the global jihadist networks. Moreover, David R. Stone points out that “the traditional family and clan links that tied Chechen society together frayed and broke as a result of death and displacement”. Chechens who fled into other areas of the Caucasus found themselves in environments where ethnic and clan identity mattered less, and religious identity mattered more. As a result, many Chechen refugees were turned to radical Islam, “a vision that goes far beyond a concrete local struggle for specific, attainable goals to see instead a worldwide struggle between good and evil”. While refugees flowed out of Chechnya, foreign Islamist fighters flowed in to aid what they saw as a Muslim fight against the infidels, be they Russians, Americans, or even relatively secular Chechens. In the words of an Islamist militant leader Said Buryatsky, an ethnic Buryat and an ex-Buddhist convert to Islam,

“gone are the times when we fought for the freedom of Chechnya, for this pagan notion. Now we fight for Allah. Gone are the times when every Chechen was our brother. Now a Russian is our brother if he is a mujahideen, and a Chechen if he’s a kafir is our bitter enemy.”

Framed now mostly as an international radical Islamist movement, Chechen terrorism continues to hold its grip on Russia, perpetrating attacks such as the Domodedovo International Airport bombing in 2011, which killed 37 people, and supplying numerous foreign fighters for ISIS.

Tatarstan_locationTatarstan, which accepted the autonomy agreement with Russia in 1994, has been given many of the institutions of a full-fledged sovereign state, including a constitution, a legislature, a tax code, a national bank, and a citizenship system. At least in theory, it can conduct its own relations with foreign states and can set its own foreign economic policy and trade relations. But when push came to shove in the wake of Russia’s current confrontation with Turkey, which began in November 2015, central Russian government began to dictate to Tatarstan what it can do in relation to Turkey. For example, the Russian Ministry of Culture circulated a “recommendation” to all republics with Turkic titular populations, including Tatarstan, to break off relations with the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TÜRKSOY). It remains to be seen how long Tatarstan can manage to maintain its current “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds” position in relation to Russia and Turkey. Because of its ambivalent situation, Tatarstan has also experienced some radicalization of its Muslim population, similar to what has been happening in Chechnya, albeit in a milder form. According to various sources, including the FSB, a substantial number of ISIS recruits—perhaps as many as 200 or more—came from Tatarstan and the other Middle Volga republics. Ironically, ISIS recruitment for the war in Iraq and Syria resulted in a sharp decrease in terrorist attacks within Tatarstan since the early 2014.

Also as in Chechnya, the focus of the militant movement shifted from ethnic to religious identity. Historically, Volga Tatars have been fairly moderate Muslims, yet they have succeeded in retaining their ethno-linguistic identity despite almost half a millennium of Russian rule: according to the 2002 population census, 96.3% of Tatars still speak their ancestral language, compared to only less than half of the Khanty people, a quarter of the Mansi, and 12% of the Itelmen. But in recent decades this situation has been changing, as more extreme forms of Islam have been gradually gaining ground in Tatarstan. The internationalization of Tatarstan’s Muslim culture has been studied in detail by Rais Suleimanov, an expert on influences of foreign Muslim groups within Russia, particularly in the Middle Volga region; his multi-part article on how “Turkish emissaries for decades influenced the minds and hearts of our [Tatar] compatriots” can be read here and a shorter version of it is found here. According to Suleimanov, religious ties between Tatarstan and Turkey, which began on the basis of the ethno-linguistic and cultural connections between the two peoples, have allowed a more internationalist form of Islamist ideology to penetrate Tatarstan.

Several factors, however, mitigate Islamist radicalization in Tatarstan. Compared to Chechnya, Tatarstan has both more de jure and de facto rights (for instance, only Tatarstan retained the right to call its head a President; Kadyrov is known simply as “the head of Chechnya”, not its president). Also, in sharp contrast to the war-torn Chechnya, whose economic and social development has been stunted by the armed conflict, Tatarstan ranks relatively high in terms of economic and social development indicators. For example, Tatarstan’s GDP per capita is more than 4.5 times higher than that of Chechnya. According to Rosstat data, average per capita income in Tatarstan in 2013 was 26,161 rubles per month, whereas in Chechnya it was only 17,188 rubles per month; moreover, nearly half of Tatarstan’s residents’ personal income comes from salary and business profits, whereas in Chechnya only about a third of personal income comes from those sources, with a bigger chunk (38.1%) deriving from “other sources of income”, including currency operations and “hidden” money streams. In Tatarstan more than three quarters of the population live in towns and cities, whereas in Chechnya only about a third  do. Unemployment is nearly 7 times lower in Tatarstan than in Chechnya (4% vs. 26.9%). An average Tatarstan resident enjoys 6 extra square feet of living space compared to Chechnya. The availability of physicians and nurses per capita is 1.5 times greater in Tatarstan than in Chechnya, and the percentage of students in higher education institutions in Tatarstan is twice that in Chechnya. It may be for those reasons that Tatarstan has supplied 5 times less foreign fighters for ISIS in absolute terms, and 15 times less in per capita terms than Chechnya.

(To be continued…)

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 1) Read More »

Customizable Maps of Turkey, Oman, Germany, and Georgia

Provinces of TurkeyToday’s GeoCurrents post offers free customizable maps of Turkey, Oman, Germany, and Georgia. All are based on the main subdivisions of the countries in question: provinces in the case of Turkey, states in that of Germany, governorates in that of Oman, and a mixture of regions, autonomous republics, and one municipality in that of Georgia. As in Governorates of Omanprevious offerings, these maps are constructed with simple presentation software (available in both PowerPoint and Keynote formats), and hence are very easy to use and manipulate.



States of Germany MapA few irregularities are found in these maps. In the case of Oman, two governorates were divided in two after the Wikipedia map on which my map is based was made. I was not able to add these new divisions, but I did mark the issue on the map itself. In the case of Turkey, I divided three provinces (Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir) due to the fact that I originally made this map to illustrate elections results that had been reported in such Divisions of Georgia (De Jure)a manner. Again, this fact is noted on the map itself. Finally, the map of Georgia is complicated by the declarations of independence of two parts of the country, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are now essentially Divisions of Georgia De Factoclient states of Russia. I have therefore included both a de jure and de facto map of Georgian administrative divisions. The boundaries of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are rather crudely drawn on the latter map. Finally, I have also included a customizable map of Georgia that is overlain on a physical map. In the illustration posted here, I have set the shading of one Georgia’s regions on full transparency, thus revealing its physical features.



Georgia Physical Political Map

Customizable Maps Turkey.Oman, Germany, Georgia (keynote)

Customizable Maps Turkey, Oman, Germany, Georgia (powerpoint)

Customizable Maps of Turkey, Oman, Germany, and Georgia Read More »

‘Tis the Season: GeoCurrents 2015 Year-in-Review

(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for drafting this post)

After a hiatus in the Winter 2015 quarter (January through March), GeoCurrents came back with a wealth of posts on a variety of topics, ranging from major world news, such as the war in Syria and the Mediterranean migration crisis, to often-overlooked corners of the world, such as Socotra and Kiribati. This post offers an overview of the 2015 GeoCurrents posts—and what to look forward in the coming year.
Border Disputes Map

In April 2015, GeoCurrents resumed publication with a series of posts that presented slides from Martin Lewis’ course on the history and geography of current global events. The first four-part mini-series of posts (see here, here, here, and here) discussed an issue central to GeoCurrents conceptual concerns—the flawed nature of the standard geopolitical model. GeoCurrents writes: “This taken-for-granted model posits mutually recognized sovereign states as the fundamental building blocks of the global order. Many of these basic units, however, are highly fragile and a number have collapsed altogether.” The GeoCurrents map on the left illustrates the extent to which the geopolitical reality departs from the standard model of clearly demarcated nation-states. Knowing about these failings of alleged nation-states is indispensable for understanding many of today’s pressing events, from the conflict in Syria to the Mediterranean migration crisis. While this series of posts focused on the area that centers on the Middle East and includes parts of North and East Africa, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and parts of South Asia, similar issues can be raised about the rest of the world as well.

After that introduction to the fraying standard geopolitical model, the rest of Martin Lewis’ lectures—and the corresponding posts (continuing through mid-June 2015)—covered a broad range of topics, offering historical, economic, geographical, and cultural background to current events, in places such as Yemen, Latin America, and Ukraine.

Posts in May 2015 continued with slides from Martin Lewis’ lectures on the Mediterranean migration crisis, conflicts in the East Asian Seas, and the 2015 UK Election. The lecture slides and post on Narendra Modi and the rise of India focused in part on the relationship between India and China.

June 2015 opened with a post summarizing Martin Lewis’ lecture titled “Iran: Nuclear Negotiations, Geopolitical Ambitions, Cultural Complexities, and Historical Legacies”. One of the issues discussed in this post/lecture is the relationship between Arabs and Persians, in a historical context. The following mini-series of posts discussed Nigeria, particularly geographical patterns in its 2015 election, which, as GeoCurrents claims, echo the self-proclaimed independent country of Biafra from the 1960s. While a sharp electoral divide such as the one observed in Nigeria suggests a problem with national unity, GeoCurrents argued that “a sense of national identity is well established across most of the country” and that a breakup of Nigeria is unlikely.

In mid-June 2015, GeoCurrents introduced readers to Martin Lewis’ other recent works, including the book The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics, which “seeks to defend traditional methods in historical linguists against those who would reinvent the field as a quasi-biological science”. In this book, Martin Lewis and his co-author Asya Pereltsvaig argue “against the notion that the Indo-European language family originated among Neolithic farmers in Anatolia, and instead contend that that it most likely originated among semi-pastoral peoples living in the grasslands of southern Russia and Ukraine (the so-called Steppe Theory)”.

This post also summarizes Martin Lewis’ work in the area of environmental philosophy, arguing in favor of “ecomodernism”, a view based on two deep concerns: for the preservation of nature and for broad-based economic development and technological progress. As Martin Lewis argues throughout his work, the former is not possible without the latter. These views are summarized in his essay on “Pragmatic Rewilding”, published by the Breakthrough Institute. These environmental concerns are also evident in GeoCurrents post on whether the Earth is greening.

For the rest of June 2015, GeoCurrents focused on the 2015 Election in Turkey, examining the extent to which economic divisions, the Kurdish question, and the right-wing nationalist vote determined the geographical patterns in the election’s results.

In July 2015, the site’s most productive month of the year, GeoCurrents presented two mini-series and several stand-alone posts. The first series shined light on an often-forgotten corners of the Arabian Peninsula, including two posts on Dhofar (here and here), a post on Yemen’s beleaguered Al Mahrah seeking autonomy, the similarities and differences between Yemen and neighboring Oman, and the troubled Socotra.


Chile North America Map ComparisonThe second series published in July 2015 focused on the uneven distribution of economic and social development in Chile, with posts on Chile’s unusual core/periphery pattern; inequality, incarceration, and drug smuggling; and geographical patterns in education. Another post in this mini-series compares Chile to its counterpart in North America—a region extending in the north-south direction from southeastern Alaska to Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, bounded to the east by highland crests. The map on the left depicts these inverted trans-hemispheric “twins”. The post concluding this mini-series discussed Chile’s indigenous population.

Stand-alone posts published in July 2015 cover a wide range of topics, including the geography of homicide in Mexico; stark electoral divide in Poland’s 2015 Election; and a seemingly impossible rainfall map of California.

For most of August 2015, GeoCurrents was off for a summer break, but at the end of the month, several posts were published on varied topics such as economic development and energy issues in Colombia; the Ahl-e Haqq minority faith seeking a homeland in northern Iraq; and a quixotic campaign to split the New York State.

September 2015 at GeoCurrents opened with a three-part mini-series on the inequality of economic and social development in Argentina (see here, here, and here). The following post examined the connection between the issue of national self-determination for places like Kurdistan and Balochistan and the right/left political divide in the West. This topic was picked up in GeoCurrents Editorial that argued for the recognition of Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland as sovereign states. Other topics discussed by GeoCurrents in September 2015 include the changing geography of poverty in the United States and the professional prospects for students of geography and the importance of learning GIS and other advanced tools of the trade.

In October 2015, GeoCurrents again offered two mini-series, as well as individual posts on a variety of topics. The first mini-series discussed Catalonia’s 2015 Election, especially the role that rural/urban divide played in this election. GeoCurrents also examined two areas related to the Catalan independence movement: Val d’Aran and Valencia.

The second mini-series, started in October and continued into November, concerned mapping world religions and focused on several successful and not-so-successful maps, especially one by reddit user “scolbert08”. A separate post focused on religious complexity in northeastern South Asia. The series was briefly interrupted by a post on the Third Africa-India Forum Summit that took place that month and its cartographically interesting logo.

In November 2015, GeoCurrents continued with a mini-series on mapping world religions, focusing on intriguing geographical patterns of religion in Insular Southeast Asia; the global spread of Heterodox Christianity; the global patterns of Moravian and Mennonite faiths; and the religious divides in Japan.

This series was interspersed with another three-post series on the fascinating oddities of the Pacific country of Kiribati: a part of Kiribati is administered from another sovereign state, Fiji; demographic issues of this spatially large yet land-short country; and the unique physical geography of its Line Islands.

In the same month, GeoCurrents introduced the readers to the “sago-eaters”, the Manusela people of the Indonesian island of Seram, “who evidently incorporate elements of Hinduism, animism, and Christianity in their religious beliefs and practices”. In another post, Martin Lewis reconsidered political divisions in Europe and argued against the fallacy of environmental determinism.

In December 2015, Martin Lewis posted a video lecture on how the knowledge of geography—or the lack thereof—affects foreign policy; challenged the readers to a quiz on the Pacific; and offered some thoughts on the mapping of the ongoing crisis in Iraq and Syria. The latter topic has been picked up by a guest blogger, Evan Lewis, who wrote about the maps produced by the Institute for the Study of War. In this month, GeoCurrents also started producing and offering for free download customizable maps of different countries and continents; so far, such maps of Africa, Russia, and the United States have been posted.

In addition to the regular posts, another big project has preoccupied GeoCurrents since mid-October: an overhaul of the site, which has been managed by Asya Pereltsvaig. In addition to maintenance and “housekeeping” tasks, a number of features, which can be found in the main menu, have been added to the site—we hope they will be useful to our readers. One such feature is the repository of GeoCurrents maps (see “GC Maps” in the main menu). This new part of the site showcases several of GeoCurrents mapping projects, including the newly-created index of GeoCurrents original thematic maps, now searchable by country and by topic. Here you will also find GeoCurrents original language maps of the Caucasus, the region known as “the mountain of tongues”, created in collaboration with Stanford cartographer Jake Coolidge and linguist Asya Pereltsvaig. Another GeoCurrents map project featured here is the Demic Atlas, a non-state-based series of maps of global social and economic development.

Another new GeoCurrents feature is the Editorial section, which can be found at the top-right corner of the homepage and in the main menu. While GeoCurrents is generally a non-partisan blog devoted to providing geographical information, occasionally, opinion pieces, written by Martin W. Lewis, are posted on the site.

Several new pages have been added to “Resources” and “About” sections of the site. Under “Resources”, the readers will find lists of various geography resources found to be valuable by Martin Lewis, such as lists of geography blogs and websites and of map collections. You will also find here some geography quizzes and posts written by guest bloggers outside the main GeoCurrents framework. Under “About”, you can find pages with information about GeoCurrents, its author Martin Lewis, and his conceptual concerns. Additionally, information about Martin Lewis’ books and links to videos of his talks/lectures are available here.

Currently, we are also working on a page that will offer a collection of customizable base maps, which the readers can use for their own purposes. We hope to make this page available soon.

Other “coming attractions” we expect to post in January include a post or two about mapping religion in Japan and a mini-atlas of economic and social development of Russia. We hope you will continue to read and follow GeoCurrents in the coming year.

Happy New Year from the GeoCurrents team!



‘Tis the Season: GeoCurrents 2015 Year-in-Review Read More »

The Geography of American Baby Names

Websites designed to help expectant parents find the perfect baby name abound on the Internet, offering statistics on the most popular names by year and sometimes by country or state. A few sites, such as The Baby Name Wizard and NameTrends.net, even have maps of name popularity past and present for each American state. While these maps may be helpful for future parents, they also yield fascinating insights about American demography and culture.

For example, the interactive maps from The Baby Name Wizard showing popular Spanish boys’ names suggest not only greater concentrations of Spanish speakers in states such as California, Texas, Arizona, and Florida, but also the growth of Latin American immigrant communities in the United States over the past five decades. A collection of thumbnail-sized maps about the popularity of the name “Jose” from 1960 to 2009 shows blue patches darkening across the Southwest as well as spreading northward and eastward, indicating its increasing frequency and implying expanding prevalence of Spanish. In 1960, Jose was the twelfth most popular boy’s name in Texas and the fifty-first in California; in 2009, it was the single most popular in Texas and the fifteenth in California. Both states, along with others where many infants receive Spanish language names, also have large Hispanic populations.

Baby Name Wizard makes note of regional trends with a map that breaks America down into groups of states with similar naming patterns. The website’s creator, Laura Wattenberg, states that even though certain names are popular throughout the country, some are much more common in some states than elsewhere. Examples of regions include the Spanish South, which includes Texas, California, and Florida; the so-called neotraditional states of New England and the Mid-Atlantic, where “Molly,” “Julia,” and “Nicholas” are popular; and the Creative Fringe, where “Nevaeh” (“heaven” spelled backwards”) and “Josiah” are more common. On NameTrends.net, searches for the names “Edward” and “Peter” provide some further evidence for the claim to a neotraditional region. While baby boys throughout the United States received these names in 1960, they more often were given them in the Northeast. By 2009, for example, “Edward” and “Peter” had dropped off the list of the top 100 names in most states, though they remained in New York, New Jersey, and parts of New England.

Both websites’ maps demonstrate that even while Americans have become ever more mobile, baby name trends retain unique, regional flavors. Unfortunately, the maps limit viewers to popularity at the state level and to statistics about the most common names. Even more fascinating would be maps showing statistics at the county level or about less common names, especially ones popular in different immigrant communities.

The Geography of American Baby Names Read More »

“Mapping Stereotypes” Farcical Maps

Yanko Tsvetkov’s farcical Mapping Stereotypes series humorously represents the views that people of various countries, mostly in Europe, hold of other nations. Many of the maps from the Bulgarian graphic designer label Europe’s countries with stereotypes that people of different nations in the region hold about them. Examples of such maps include “Europe According to Italians” and “Europe According to Bulgarians.” Particularly entertaining are the maps that deviate from this pattern, such as “Italy According to Posh Italians,” “The World According to Israel,” and “The World According to Americans.”

The labels in the European maps that make up the bulk of the series offer intriguing geopolitical perspectives. “Europe According to Germany,” for example, evokes Germany’s greater pre-World War II territorial extent, referring to the Baltic states as “old neighbors.” In “Europe According to Russians,” Eastern Ukraine, which has a predominant Russian population and favors Russia in foreign policy, carries the tag “Southern Russia.” In the same map the Russian clientstates of Abkhazia and South Ossetia appear as “brothers” and “sisters,” respectively. The map of France’s view of Europe labels Algeria as “France woz here,” alluding to the country’s former status as a part of France, but neglects to include the erstwhile colonies of Morocco and Tunisia.

“Italy According to Posh Italians” is of particular interest. This map highlights the frustration of many in the wealthier north that their disproportionate tax payments help support the poorer south. Sicily and southern Italy appear with the demeaning labels “Somalia” and “Ethiopia,” respectively. “The World According to Israel,” one of the few non-European maps from Mapping Stereotypes, portrays the country as self-centered, placing it in the middle of a diagram reminiscent of a schematic of the solar system. The map represents Iran as rogue space debris and the United States as a planet orbiting close to Israel, on which the disputed territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights appear as “sun spots.”

The collection includes several maps from the perspective of the United States. These echo the themes found in similar farcical maps, sharing the ascription of communism to Russia, mass-produced goods to China, and AIDS to Africa. However, some of the labels seem uncharacteristic of an American perspective. While the maps mock American ignorance of the world, they in certain cases presuppose detailed geographical knowledge in the American public at large. It seems unlikely that the person who would associate the country Turkey with a “Thanksgiving meal” or refer to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as “Kwpzsfrstan” and “Szwrkstan” would be knowledgeable enough to associate the Tupamaro movement with Uruguay. The same map also labels Indonesia as “Mesoindia,” a term that makes little sense.

Mapping Stereotypes is an impressive collection of farcical maps that, while sometimes unusual and confusing, offers a great range of insights into how different peoples view the world.

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