civic nationalism

The Ethnic Roots of the War in Ethiopia and the Paradox of Tigrayan Ethnic Identity

The horrific and under-reported Tigray War in Ethiopia hinges largely on tensions between ethnolinguistic identity and national solidarity. Under both the Ethiopian monarchy during the Haile Selassie era (1930-1974) and the communist Derg regime (1974-1991), the government foregrounded the minority (30%) Amhara ethnic group and its Amharic language, pushing a harsh “Amharaization” program in many areas. Partly as a result, ethnic militias proliferated and eventually prevailed, toppling the brutal Derg government in 1991. Leading the fight was the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which represented the minority Tigrayan people, constituting only around six percent of Ethiopia’s population. The TPLF had allied with other insurgent groups in an umbrella group called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPLF). After coming to power in 1991, this formerly Marxist-Leninist organization revised its political stance, dropping communism in favor of center-left ethnic federalism. Ethiopia’s old provinces were soon wiped off the map as the country was re-divided into semi-autonomous regions defined primarily on ethnolinguistic grounds.

Ethiopia’s new government performed well. By the early 2000s the country was booming, posting the world’s third highest gains in per capita GDP between 2000 and 2018. But ethnic problems continued to plague Ethiopia. Smaller ethnolinguistic groups, concentrated in the southwest, were unsettled by being amalgamated with other groups in composite regions. This was a particular problem in the linguistically fractured region called Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples. Owing to such ethnic pressure, the Ethiopian government eventually created several new autonomous regions. Elsewhere, ethnic groups clashed over regional boundaries, and anger was provoked when the government tried to shift internal borders. Critics argued that Ethiopia was undermining itself by insistently politicizing ethnicity.

After coming to power 2018, prime minister Abiy Ahmed sought to reorient Ethiopia away from ethnic federalism and toward civic nationalism. In 2019 he disbanded the ruling multi-ethnic coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPLF), replacing it with the non-ethnic Prosperity Party, which currently holds 454 out of 547 parliamentary seats. The Tigrayans were not pleased by this maneuver. They were already angered by their loss of prominent positions within the government and they now feared that they would eventually lose their regional political autonomy. As a result, they rebelled against the government in 2020, precipitating the current war.

The Tigrayan rebellion thus shows the continuing power of ethnic identity in multiethnic Ethiopia, as well as the relatively weakness of national bonds in many parts of the country. But the current conflict also ironically shows the limits of ethnolinguistic identity and the potential power of national bonding to unravel ethnic ties. The Tigrinya linguistic community that has historically underpinned Tigrayan ethnicity has long been spilt on geopolitical grounds, divided between Ethiopia and Eritrea ever since Italy successfully colonized the latter region in the late 1800s. Although Tigrinya speakers form a relatively small portion of Ethiopia’s population, they constitute roughly half of that of Eritrea, arguably forming the country’s dominant ethnic group. Most Tigrinya speakers in both countries also follow the same “Oriental” Orthodox Christian religion, although it was split into Ethiopian and Eritrean branches in 1991. Despite such cross-border ethnic ties, in the current conflict Eritrea is closely allied with the Ethiopian government against Ethiopia’s Tigrinya-speaking population. Eritrea has militarily occupied a small slice of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region and has reportedly attacked local people with brutality. No evidence of any pan-Tigrinya-speaking ethnic solidarity is readily available. In this case, it would seem that national identity has easily trumped language-based ethnic identity.

It is perilous to make such a claim, however, precisely because little information is available. Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive and militarily dominated countries, sometimes put in the same category as North Korea. Its government has worked hard to generate a solid sense of Eritrean national identity and has perhaps succeeded. Its quest to do so was facilitated by its long war of independence against Ethiopia (1961-1991), followed by periodic border conflicts with the same country. But it must also be noted that many Eritreans chafe under their brutal government, prompting vast numbers to flee. As of 2016, an estimated 321,000 Eritrean refugees were living in Europe, with another half million in Ethiopia and Sudan, out of a total national population of roughly six million. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to come to any solid conclusions about ethnic and national identity in Eritrea.

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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.

[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.

[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.

[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.

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.

[13] “‘Modern Ukraine entirely created by Russia’ — read full text of Vladimir Putin’s speech.” The Print, February 23, 2022.

[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.

[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.”

[21] “‘Modern Ukraine entirely created by Russia’ — read full text of Vladimir Putin’s speech.” The, February 23, 2022.

[22] See the superb map collections of Electoral Geography 2.0:

[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 2.0

[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.

[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 »

Seduced by the Map Introduction (Part 2)

Capturing Geographical Complexity: Beyond the Standard Map

While the illusion of the universal nation-state has several sources, one is particularly powerful. Since World War II, people around the world have been exposed to one or another variant of a standard world political map. Whatever their differences, all these maps operate in the same fundamental way: by portraying the globe like a game-board, neatly divided between a discrete set of political units that may vary in size but are otherwise of the same notional type. To represent the world this way is to erase the contortions and contingencies of global geopolitics. And that erasure is no accident; it is inherent to modern mapping. As the literature in critical cartography demonstrates, political maps generate visions of coherence and stability by design.[1] For Denis Wood, this is their most important function: “it has been essential that states appear as facts of nature, as real enduring things, things like mountains; and at all costs to obscure their recent origins … and their tenuous holds on tomorrow.”[2] William Rankin argues more generally that graphic conventions turn maps into tools of simplification, far-away management, and top-down control, rendering the world unnaturally solid and well ordered.[3] On these terms, the ubiquitous mapping of the world as a collection of stable nation-states might be compared to a calculated mirage, substituting smooth platonic forms for jagged realities.[4] The resulting vision may be comforting in its suggestion of inviolable boundaries and uncontested sovereignty. But its comforts are illusory.

This project proposes a more challenging cartographic program: one that exposes the ragged edges of the international system, as well as its holes, its hierarchies, and its unfinished history. This entails not designing a new master-map but putting a cacophony of competing maps into conversation—all the while interrogating what work each was meant to do. To that end, this work offers extended discussions of political geography around the world, making and analyzing arguments in cartographic as well as textual form. We cannot replace the prevailing world political map with an alternative schema, as my fundamental point is that no two-dimensional map can fully capture the contours of sovereignty. Instead, I take a combinatory approach: keeping a wide range of cartographic resources in play, I try to outline the actual geopolitical structures whose ongoing interaction creates the ever shifting and contested landscapes that we see on the ground.

Despite these criticisms, the standard map of nation-states still has three essential roles to play. For one, it has value as an aspirational document. When it comes to arbitrating inter-state relations, the UN’s map of the world can function somewhat like the International Declaration of Human Rights: encoding a planetary vision to which members of the international community can hold each other responsible. For another, it has pedagogical value. Like the continental model,[5] the standard world map of “nation-states” offers an essential starting place for learning about the world. Finally, when subjected to a close reading, the standard map reveals a number of clues about its origins and the historical era in which it was forged.

In a word, the familiar world-maps of the classroom and atlas remain salient. To the extent that engagement with global affairs calls for a visual shorthand, that task is best accomplished through maps.[6] The challenge is to avoid reifying them. Grasping global geopolitics at a sophisticated level means putting different maps in dialogue—both with other information sources and with each other. After all, no map was meant to stand alone. As Matthew Edney insists, each cartographic act takes shape “within a web of texts that provide the map with different shades of meaning.”[7] While official cartography offers an indispensable starting point, in other words, it is not enough; the counter-maps of anti-state movements and independent thinkers, along with evidence from archives and contemporary witnesses, are essential as well.[8]

To associate the failed regime-change gambits in the Middle East with something as mundane as the maps on our school-house walls is avowedly a speculative exercise. I have no privileged access to the mental worlds of war planners or popular-uprising enthusiasts, nor can I gauge the degree to which geographical ideas contributed to their miscalculations. But the purview of this book is a more general one. Its point is that the standard model of geopolitical organization (laid out in Chapter 1), like the map that both reflects and reinforces it (critiqued in Chapter 2), fails to conform to reality over much of the globe – and that the resulting slippage has real-world consequences. To the extent that this flawed model is employed to guide and inform political actions, whether consciously or not, missteps are to be expected. There is no guarantee that better mapping would lead to better outcomes, but it seems worth a try.

            Beyond the National Frame

            Tackling such project entails an inevitable reckoning with one of the thorniest terms in the academic lexicon: nationalism. Although the nation-state is not the monolith that we encounter in the conventional world model, it is still extraordinarily important, commanding our attention at every turn. In response to widespread international anxieties, the veneration of the nation-state appears to be intensifying across much of the world. Ironically, while aiming to strengthen the individual state, hard-edged nationalism sometimes threatens the international system that underwrites state sovereignty in the first place. Ardent ethno-nationalists often reject existing state boundaries, whether by seeking secession or by demanding additional territories to incorporate members of their ethnic group who reside in neighboring countries. For this reason, among others, the multilateral structures that lent stability to the postwar ecosystem of sovereign states are coming under increasing pressure. Richard Haas contends that the world is “in disarray;”[9] others warn darkly of a “new world disorder.”[10] The international system embodied in the standard political map shows serious signs of weakening, but it is not at all clear how the system will evolve – or, if its center does not hold, what will replace it.

            The revival of nationalism is roiling even the world’s most coherent nation-states, prompting fears that it could rekindle international strife.[11] The United States is hardly immune from such trends. Donald Trump’s “America First” movement has generated a slew of soul-searching books and articles across the political spectrum. Where some authors caution that pride and prejudice are inherent dangers in all forms of nationalist discourse, others seek to recuperate a kinder, gentler form of nationalism in the interest of socio-economic solidarity and democratic governance,[12] and a few champion a return to the more restrictive ethnically based nation. To navigate a wise course through these debates is one more reason to scrutinize the world political map, whose basic building-blocks form both the crucibles and the targets of nationalist sentiment.

The recent embrace of ethnonationalism by serious thinkers has troubling implications, both politically and empirically. In The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony claims that all successful nations ultimately rest on ethnic foundations. This is flatly untrue. The various Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas are not differentiated from each other on ethnic grounds, yet they form some of the world’s most stable and secure nation-states. It is for good reason that Benedict Anderson identified Latin America as the nursery of the nation-state.[13] Not coincidentally, this vast segment of the world is essentially ignored by Hazony; not fitting the model, these countries simply slide off the map. Not is Hazony alone in this respect. Although Anderson’s Imagined Communities is widely regarded as the most influential book on nationalism ever published,[14] the author himself was frustrated by the fact that that his “crucial chapter on the originating Americas was largely ignored.”[15]

As this brief preview suggests, nationalism is an ideologically freighted phenomenon that varies widely in both form and intensity across the world. Strong nationalism might seem to arise naturally from solid national cohesion. But one does not necessarily generate the other. Iceland has been described as the world’s only “perfect” nation-state,[16]yet Icelandic nationalism has hardly been a burning force.[17] On the other hand, as George Orwell emphasized, nationalism can be heightened through hatred of a common enemy—even (or perhaps especially) among people who have little else in the way of common bonds.[18] At a more general level, national identity is always partially constructed on the basis of real or perceived differences with nearby nations, as are the local ethnic or “tribal” identities that have structured human political relations for millennia. This essential although often overlooked process was deemed schismogenesis by anthropologist Gregory Bateson in the 1930s, a term that has been recently revived by David Graeber and David Wengrow in their audacious reinterpretation of the early human past, The Dawn of Everything.[19]

Setting aside the controversies surrounding nationalism as an ideology, this work focuses instead on its geographical fault-lines and foundations: how countries fail to cohere as nations, and conversely, what holds them together. Both the strength of national identity and the subsoil that it taps into vary tremendously from one country to the next. In historical perspective, such diversity is not surprising; the 193 member states of the United Nations have strikingly different origin stories. National cohesion, state capacity, and territorial integrity in each case have distinctive local sources – which in turn provoke different responses to the mounting challenges facing the international system. For this reason, above all, delving into the complex foundations of national identity is a timely exercise today.[20]

[1] A number of political scientists and other scholars have also noted this problem. See, for example, Jackson 1990, p. 7.

[2] Wood 2010, p. 33. Just as states are effectively depicted as if they were natural phenomena, nations were at one time commonly theorized to be natural units of humankind, formed by common descent and marked off from their neighbors by supposed cultural and “racial” features. As Lee Buchhheit (1978, p. 4) put it, “Self-determination was therefore to borrow from nationalism the conviction that societies could be broken down into ‘natural’ political units, loosely given the title of ‘nations.’” Some writers still regard nations as features of the natural world. The conservative pundit Rich Lowry argues simply that “nationalism is natural” (2019, p. 33).

[3] Rankin, forthcoming, P. 15.

[4] On the “Platonic” nature of the nation-state construct, see Taleb 2007, p. xxv. As he 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… .”

[5] See Lewis and Wigen 1997.

[6] As a result, we argue against the harshest critics of cartography, who see only propaganda and self-aggrandizement in the entire exercise. Steven Seegel (2018), to take an extreme example, argues that “all maps are epistemically groundless, nihilistic, or surreal” (p. 228). As he frames it, the core argument of his book Map Men is that “interest in maps was often pathological” (page 3). To be fair, Seegel (2018, 228) hedges his argument, noting that “It might be better to say” that “all maps are epistemically groundless.” Nonetheless, he finds evidence of “pathology” in five important early twentieth-century geographers: Albrecht Penck, Eugeniusz Romer, Stepan Rudnyts’kyi, Isaiah Bowman, and Pal Teleki. Even if Seegel’s assessments of these scholars were fair, his larger arguments would not follow. One could surely find important economists who held objectionable views and made dubious claims, but would be enough to indicate that economic models tout court are “epistemically groundless, nihilistic, or surreal”? Or would a study of illiberal “Verse Men” like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis justify a conclusion that poetry is intrinsically retrograde, with the only “antidote” being the production of mock epics and humorous doggerel? The latter position is analogous to the recommendation that Seegel [2018, pp. 229-230] provides for would-be map-makers.

[7] Edney 2019, p. 12, 40.

[8] Wood 2010.

[9] Haas (2017). The title of this work says it all: The World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

[10] See, for example, “The New World Disorder and the Fracturing of the West,” by Martin Wolf, Financial Times, January 2, 2018.

[11] Many opinion pieces have warned of the hazards inherent in nationalism. In the same week, a New York Times op-ed sought to show “How Nationalism Can Destroy a Nation,” while a score of liberal theologians decried nationalism as “anathema to Christian faith.” Such views reflect both the grotesque excesses of nationalism in the mid-twentieth century and the obstacles that national primacy poses for global action in an age of planetary crises.  See “How Nationalism Can Destroy a Nation,” by Lewis Hyde. The New York Times, August 22, 2019 (A27). and “Theologians: Nationalism Is Anathema to Christian Faith,” by Yonat Shimron. UPI, August 20, 2019. Theologians: Nationalism is anathema to Christian faith

Many writers who disdain nationalism contrast it with the more favorable term “patriotism,” defined generally as love of one’s homeland, a distinction first outlined by Orwell (1945). As noted in a website devoted to explaining subtle differences between key terms, “Nationalism makes one to think only of one’s country’s virtues and not its deficiencies. … Patriotism, on the other hand, pertains to valuing responsibilities rather than just valuing loyalty towards one’s own country.” Nationalism and Patriotism | Difference Between

[12] Several recent books by prominent American public intellectuals of diverse political inclination advocate more encompassing forms of civic nationalism. Francis Fukuyama (2018) shows how different national identities have emerged along different paths, some turning toward ethnic-group inclusion and exclusion while others move toward cultural pluralism. Focusing on the United States, Jill Lepore (2019) emphasizes the often-thwarted promise of progressive liberalism found in civic nationalism. Similarly, John Judis (2018) contends that civic nationalism allows the maintenance of the welfare state while warding off the excesses of globalization precisely by contributing to a vibrant international order. From a more conservative perspective, Amy Chua (2018) argues that the United States is unique precisely because its “national identity is not defined by the identity of any one of the innumerable ethnic subgroups that make up the U.S. population” (2018, 11). And although the conservative pundit Rich Lowry (2019) dismisses civic nationalism as a mere illusion, he nonetheless upholds its basic principles, opining that “America largely fulfills the standards of a civic nation…” (2019, 19).

[13] Anderson (1983).

[14] See the Verso webpage on the book:

[15] The quotation is from the preface of the second edition. Anderson 1983 (1991]), p. xiii.

[16] Mikesell 1983, p. 257.

[17] Although a relatively strong movement for Icelandic nationalism emerged in the mid nineteenth century, Iceland did not gain independence from Denmark until 1944, when Denmark itself was under Nazi German occupation.

[18] Orwell 1945. Orwell defined nationalism in both broader and narrower terms than are usual, limiting it to extremedevotion to the nation but expanding it to include all ideologies that he viewed as invidiously dividing humankind (including Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, antisemitism, Trotskyism, and even pacifism). Orwell was, to say the least, opposed to these kinds of belief systems: “By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly – and this is much more important – I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests” (from the first page of the unpaginated on-line publication Notes on Nationalism – The Orwell Foundation. Elsewhere in the essay, Orwell defines nationalism as “power hunger tempered by self-deception.”

[19] Graeber and Wengrow 2021.

[20] For a geopolitics text that emphasizes “complexity, or ‘messiness,’” see Flint 2017, p. 283.


Seduced by the Map Introduction (Part 2) Read More »

Seduced by the Map, Chapter One: The Seductive Nation-State Model (Part 1)

Seduction is not necessarily a bad thing.[1] That which is capable of seducing is by definition attractive. So it is with the standard world model. A political order based on a stable set of equivalent states, each representing its citizens and seeking to provide them with security and other benefits, is a deeply attractive prospect, whatever the countervailing draw of cosmopolitan globalism may be. Moreover, genuine progress has been made toward realizing this vision. Many countries do function more or less effectively as nation-states; not a few governments do strive to advance the well-being of their people. More important, the creation of an encompassing global community composed of such states, if only for the purpose of interceding between squabbling members and enhancing global concord, is embraced by millions as a boon for both humanity and the environment. As ineffective as the United Nations may sometimes be in practice, it would be dangerous to deny the value of its peace-keeping interventions or its rules and procedures for international engagement.

The problem lies in our tendency to mistake what is effectively a diplomatic vision for a description of realty. Having become accustomed to a fixed world map, we are ill-prepared for the anomalies of sovereignty that pop up everywhere once we look more closely. Three provisions of the standard world model in particular work together to cloud clear seeing: first, its representation of the terrestrial world as cleanly divided into a set of functionally equivalent countries; second, its erasure of virtually all polities other than those recognized as sovereign states;[2] and third, its suggestion that all sovereign states are nation-states. The last may have caused the most mischief. Many countries are not and have never been functional nation-states. Our stubborn investment in this idea makes it ripe for abuse by tyrannical regimes, which can claim to represent the will of their nations simply by virtue of the model’s presuppositions.[3]

The present chapter lays out and critiques the standard global model by probing its key terms: nation, state, country, and sovereignty. Given the fraught nature of each of these concepts, the scholarship fairly bristles with disagreement; even a brief overview such as this one must deal with debate at every turn. Academic arguments have been relegated to the endnotes where possible, but thorny definitional thickets come with the territory.


What Is a Nation-State?

The nation-state model is ubiquitous across the globe, employed by governments, embraced by the media, and disseminated by educational establishments. Since minor variations can be found from country to country, we will focus here on the version used in the United States. While world political maps that reflect this model look like straightforward depictions of geopolitical reality, this global vision is more prescriptive than descriptive. It represents the world as it would be if it accorded with the norms of the international community in general, and of the U.S. foreign-relations establishment in particular.

The identification of every sovereign country as a nation-state is the cornerstone of this model. According to the Cambridge Dictionary,[4] a nation-state is simply another term for an “independent country.”[5] The full concept, however, is more specific, positing an exact correspondence between the state (i.e., an organized government exercising sovereign political power over a clearly demarcated territory) and the nation. The latter term properly refers to a group of people – “the people,” in many formulations[6] – who believe that they form a collective entity that is, or should be, represented by a sovereign government of its own. A vast body of scholarship carefully distinguishes the state from the nation.[7] Yet this distinction is routinely ignored in public discourse. The conflation of state and nation is encoded in the very name of the United Nations, whose “nations” are often little more than aspirations. In practice, the UN is a collection of sovereign states, many of which have never rested on solid national foundations and several of which do not even exercise effective sovereignty over their lands. The idea that all independent countries are nation-states istenacious: so entrenched that no amount of evidence can dislodge it from our verbal and visual codes. Like the erroneous idea that medieval European thinkers viewed the world as flat,[8] it persists despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. While this is far from the first attempt to kill this zombie idea, it will surely not be the last.[9]

The vexed concepts of “nation” and “nationalism” have generated massive historical debates. As Benedict Anderson wrote more than a quarter-century ago, “it is hard to think of any political phenomenon which remains so puzzling and about which there is less analytic consensus.”[10] “Primordialists” see the nation as originating in ancient kingdoms that were cemented by ethnic ties;[11] “modernists” counter that it emerged only with the French Revolution, or even in the nineteenth century.[12] Although the extreme primordial view is now deemed untenable by most historians, many scholars still stress the deep-seated ethnic foundations of many nations. Anthony Smith convincingly dates some national sentiments in Europe to the late fifteenth century, arguing that durable groups united by historical myths form the core populations of many successful nations.[13] It is essential to note, however, that some of these early “nations,” Poland and Hungary in particular, were essentially aristocratic conceits that for centuries did not encompass the peasantry.

Rather than engage in this debate on conventional terms, I focus elsewhere. For even if some nations do have deep roots, the nation-state norm per se is a strikingly novel development. As Cornelia Navari notes, “it was only in 1918 that any government made being a nation-state the basic criterion of political legitimacy.”[14]

A prime test of what we might call “nation-stateness” is the effective identification of citizens[15] with the country in which they live. Normatively, people will regard their nation-state as their legitimate guarantor of security, their ultimate legal arbiter, and the main vehicle for their political aspirations, regardless of whether they support its specific government and policies at any given time. Yet in practice, almost every country on earth harbors significant groups of people who deny their state’s legitimacy, reject its demands on their loyalty, and claim to belong to a different nation that lies within or beyond their state’s boundaries. Rarely are such claims recognized officially; Bolivia is exceptional in having constitutionally declared itself to be a plurinational state.[16] In this view, Bolivia’s Spanish-mother-tongue population is seen as forming one nation — sometimes called the “Camba nation”[17] by its own separatists in the eastern lowlands — whereas the peoples who speak Quechua, Aymara, and other indigenous tongues constitute separate nations of their own within the same country. Following this logic, the Bolivian constitution lists no fewer than 36 official languages (including several that have gone extinct.)[18]

Bolivia’s official embrace of plurinationalism is recent and insecure, reflecting the newfound political power of its historically marginalized indigenous majority. But Bolivia is hardly alone in encompassing multiple nations within its borders. According to one Wikipedia article, seventeen of the world’s countries are multinational states.[19] This list could easily be lengthened, since most members of the United Nations contain populations that claim to form nations in their own right.[20] Even the United States, with its dozens of recognized indigenous nations, does not qualify as a nation-state in the strictest sense.[21] How exactly should we understand nation-stateness in such a context?

One way to resolve this quandary is to accept that “nationhood” can coalesce at more than one spatial level. As Guntram Herb and David Kaplan elaborate, identity takes shape at multiple scales.[22] A person can readily identify with both an ethnic nation (say, Catalunya) and a political-territorial nation (Spain).[23] Yet national identities at different scales do not always cohabit benignly. Most Catalan nationalists, for example, take umbrage at the idea that they also belong to the Spanish nation. By the same token, state authorities often object to the use of overtly national terminology by restive groups. The Catalans are not constitutionally allowed to define themselves as a full-fledged nacion, being permitted to refer to themselves only as a nacionalidad (nationality).[24] In a word, the concept of the nation, in political practice if not in scholarly discourse, tends toward exclusivity. While individuals might embrace several national identities at once, states typically seek more rigid formulae, effectively making people pick a side.[25]When Gavin Newsom, governor of California, declared his state to be a nation-state in the midst of Covid-19-related tussles with the federal government in early 2020, bemusement was the main reaction. Newsom was soon forced to admit that his pronouncement was not meant to be taken literally but was a rhetorical flourish, meant to convey “a sense of [California’s] scale and scope.”[26]

A more productive way to approach this question may be to adopt a historical vantage point, viewing the geopolitical order as a continual work-in-progress. The nation-state is often contrasted with earlier forms of political organization that were meant to vanish from the map with the transition to modernity: tribal associations, city-states, city leagues, confederations, multinational empires, and so on. Yet these alternative arrangements linger on in important ways. What is Singapore if not a city-state? That it also functions as an effective nation-state only shows that these categories are not mutually exclusive, defined as they are on different grounds (territorial scope, in the case of the city-state, and common identity in that of the nation-state). At the other end of the spectrum are the remnants of the great early modern empires. The world’s largest country, Russia, is explicitly structured as a multinational federation, as reflected in its official name: the Russian Federation. According to Christopher Coker, Russia actually forms a “civilizational state,” as does China, based on their own official rhetoric.[27] Both Russia and China are heirs to early modern empires and can be viewed as functioning even today in an imperial manner – but so too can France and the United States. It is difficult to square the position of such an entity as American Samoa – officially an “unincorporated and unorganized U.S. territory” – in the nation-state model; the best way to make sense of this “anomaly” is to acknowledge it as an enduring remnant of empire.[28]

Development of the Nation-State Idea

If, as these examples suggest, the nation-state is better understood as an aspirational norm than an accomplished fact, it behooves us to consider where that norm came from and how it caught on. Its intellectual lineage is largely European, although influenced by Europe’s encounter with different political traditions found in other parts of the world.[29] The ethno-linguistic concept of the nation is often thought to have originated with the works of Johann Gottfried Herder in the late eighteenth century. Herder conceptualized the nation in cultural terms, but his followers would soon politicize the concept.[30] Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) politicized the German ethno-nation obsessively, arguing that the very purpose of education should be “to bend the will of the young to the will of the nation.”[31] The resulting “state-seeking” construction of the nation gained traction during the Napoleonic turmoil in the early nineteenth century and found partial realization with the unification of Italy and Germany in the 1860s and 1870s.

Over roughly the same period, an alternative national ideal emerged, taking the French Revolution as its touchtone. In this version, “the people” of an existing state, regardless of ethnic considerations, should band together to claim sovereignty for themselves and thus achieve self-governance. A state so constituted would rest on the consent of the governed, thus ideally call for democratic governance.[32] As James Sheehan notes, such a fundamental reinvention of the state would, if successful, greatly enhance its power: “As the French example made clear, a state that was able to draw on the voluntary support and active participation of its members could mobilize resources – economic, political, and above all military – that greatly exceeded the capacities of the old regime.”[33] The “civic nationalism” developed in late eighteenth-century France applied most readily to western European countries that were characterized by relatively low levels of ethnolinguistic diversity—and to their former colonies in the Americas, which were able to exclude their various indigenous and enslaved[34] populations from their initial nation-building projects.

In the polyglot empires of the Habsburg, Romanov, and Ottoman dynasties, in contrast, the idea of civic self-governance across the entire state had less appeal, especially among members of politically marginalized minority communities. Instead, ethno-national separatists pushed hard to create new states of their own. The resulting ethno-nationalist projects took considerable intellectual effort. Folk songs and tales were assiduously gathered, historical narratives elaborately crafted. Many people had to be explicitly taught to see themselves as members of an ethnicnation. Even in the face of such efforts, resistance—and apathy—remained widespread. [35] As Tara Zaha documents in her study of “national indifference” in the Czech-German borderlands, as late as the 1920s, both Czech- and German-speaking parents often sent their children to families that spoke the other language to ensure that they achieved full bilingualism.[36] Nationalist stalwarts railed against such practices, arguing that they amounted to the “kidnapping of the nation.” But as John Connelly reminds us, most people in east-central Europe readily accepted nationalist teachings. In the Dual Monarchy of the Habsburg Empire, German and Hungarian elites generally disdained members of the other ethnic groups and many even hoped to extinguish their languages, thereby generating a heightened “crisis frame” for ethnonational secessionists.[37]      

Despite any misgivings and resistance on the ground, the varied strands of nationalist thought spread rapidly outside Europe. Japanese leaders embraced the nation-state ideal as part of a package of Western-derived political ideas and practices after the Meiji Restoration of 1868.[38] In Latin America, the spread of commercial printing and government-sponsored education nurtured national sentiments in the non-ethnically based states that had emerged out of anti-colonial revolutions of the early nineteenth century.[39]

Gaining momentum at the turn of the twentieth century, the nation-state dream caught fire in one anti-imperial movement after another. The post-WWI settlement, Erez Manela’s “Wilsonian Moment,”[40] marked the intellectual high point of ethnic nationalism. But the simultaneous “Leninist Moment” had related effects.[41] In the immediate postwar years, self-determination for hitherto stateless ethno-nations became the watchword of the day. This process entailed an intensive and hotly contested use of ethnographic maps.[42] The new international order, as framed by the leaders of the newly founded League of Nations, would be one of self-conscious, territorially expressed nations linked together in international cooperation. As expressed in a League of Nations convention on nationality law, humanity should be cleanly divided, with everyone enjoying membership in one self-determining nation and one nation only.[43]

Such rhetoric obscured deeper contradictions. The most prominent European members in the League of Nations were also imperial states, with extensive – and indeed newly enhanced[44] – overseas holdings. Far from trying to undermine imperialism, the League sought to legitimize it by subjecting it to a modicum of international oversight.[45]Most Western writers at the time argued that only European states, along with their North and South American off-shoots and a few modernizing Asian countries, could constitute nations that were worthy of self-government.[46] In practice, limitations were also placed on several aspiring European nations. Some were regarded as too small to form viable states; in others, geopolitics trumped language in the drawing of new boundaries; and a few defeated states (Hungary in particular) were territorially punished, losing much of their ethnonational lands to neighboring countries. Beyond that, the omnipresent mixing of ethnic groups across the European heartland—where urban enclaves often differed markedly from their rural neighbors—made the delineation of truly ethno-national states well-nigh impossible.[47] Attempts to make the landscape match the map – often through what would later be called “ethnic cleansing” – resulted in a surge of stateless people, among other human rights catastrophes, exposing the contradictions baked into the League of Nations charter.[48]

As the 1930s progressed, the survival of empires in the new world of nation-states, along with mounting statelessness and the emerging horrors of hyper-nationalism, led a number of political thinkers to envision alternatives to the state-based order. As noted by Mira Siegelberg, some concluded that complex confederations, marked by “multilayered government, with a palimpsest of legal jurisdictions,” would allow people “who did not feel that they shared the same history to share a common territory.”[49] In the immediate post-WWII period, however, the individualized state was firmly reinscribed. As Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt specified in their Atlantic Charter of 1941 (an essential UN precursor document), “hopes for a better future of the world” were to be based on the sovereign self-government of each nation, each identified with a specific state.[50] As Siegelberg pithily notes, the Charter “proclaimed a conception of world order premised on the centrality of sovereignty and the state.”[51]

The subsequent post-WWII settlement was thus much like that of WWI, but with subtle differences. The League was dead, but a similarly constituted enterprise, the United Nations, took its place. The individual nation-state would remain the cornerstone of the global political order, but with ethno-national considerations quietly downplayed. In the redrafting of the map of Europe in 1945, most new borders were baldly based on geopolitical calculations, territorially rewarding the victorious Soviet Union at the expense of a vanquished Germany, in contravention of the Atlantic Charter.[52] In this geopolitical re-engineering, ethnic considerations were strictly secondary.[53]

Such realpolitik did not mean that the nation-state ideal was abandoned. On the contrary, it now began to globalize explosively. Well before the war, anti-imperial activists had embraced national self-determination, finding encouragement in the brief “Wilsonian moment.” But what was “the nation” in such a context? Over most of the colonized world, imperially imposed boundaries cut across those of the ethnic groups that constituted the potential nations of ethno-nationalist discourse. Even though such boundaries were usually denounced as artificial lines imposed from afar, erasing them in favor of a more authentic alternative was seen as too fraught and difficult. As a result, most new countries appearing on the map between 1946 and 1975 would be based on the colonial geography. The fact that a state like Nigeria had no indigenous historical grounding did not mean that it could not turn itself into an effective nation. Doing so, however, would take serious work.

In some parts of the colonized world, ethnic nationalism had more political salience. In mainland Southeast Asia, for example, activists sought independent states based on pre-colonial kingdoms that had been closely associated with their leading ethnolinguistic groups. The post-war reformulation of nationalism thus required major accommodations. Aung San and other key Burmese nationalists, for example, now had to express regret for their “obsolete” prewar slogan, “Our race [ethnicity], our religion, our language.”[54] The newly independent Union of Burma, they promised, would be a pan-ethnic nation founded on civic principles. But, as explained by Robert Cornwell, the fact that they had been persecuting the Karen and other minority groups just a few years earlier, in concert with imperial Japan, made such promises ring hollow.[55] As it turned out, Burma would be effectively run as an ethno-national state. Not surprisingly, that generated deep resentments—and multiple, long-lasting ethnic insurgencies—among its minority populations. Changing the country’s name to the ostensibly more inclusive “Myanmar” in 1989 had little ameliorative effect.[56]

[1] Although most dictionary definitions of “seduction” stress its negative qualities, the Oxford English Dictionary lists as its fifth definition, “seductiveness, alluring quality.”  OED On-Line

[2] This point is forcefully made by Alexander Murphy (1997, p. 257): “one of the most notable features of Western social science between 1945 and the early 1970s was the tendency to treat the state as the only territorial unit of great significance in industrialized societies.”

[3] As John Agnew (1994, p. 59) argues, the nation-state construct “seems innocent enough, except that it endows the territorial state with the legitimacy of representing and expressing the ‘character’ or ‘will’ of the nation.”

[4] See the Online Cambridge Dictionary. The definition can be found here:  NATION-STATE | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary

[5] According to the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary, a nation-state is “(more generally any independent political state.)” OED On-Line

[6] As Bernard Yack (2003, p. 35) points out, “…we tend to use the worlds ‘nation’ and ‘people’ interchangeably, in both ordinary and scholarly language.”

[7] To be sure, not all scholarship on the subject maintains this essential distinction. Scholars as insightful as Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (2012), for example, use the term “nation” as a simple synonym for “independent country,” as is reflected in the title of their important book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. Revealingly, such terms as “nation” and “nation-state” do not appear in the book’s index.

[8] Russell 1991.

[9] Devastating criticism of the model’s key components are so common that we cannot possibly do them justice. Here we would only highlight Robert D. Kaplan’s essay on “The Lies of Mapmakers,” in which he advised his readers to “consider the map of the world, with its 190 or so countries, each signified by a bold and uniform color,” and then went on to bemoan the fact that “this inflexible, artificial reality staggers on, not only in the United Nations but in various geographical and travel publications…” (2001, p. 38).

[10] Anderson (1996, 1). Similarly, Timothy Baycroft and Mark Hewitson (2006, p. 1) contend that the simple question “what is a nation” has yet to receive a satisfactory answer.

[11] See, for example, Roshwald (2006). Roshwald’s prime example of ancient nations is that of the Jews, but he also argues that “The ancient Greeks provide another striking example of national identity as a vital political, cultural, and ideological force in the ancient world” (p. 22).

[12] A prime example of the modernist thesis is found in Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (2006 [second edition, original 1983]), which stresses the importance of industrialization. Eric Hobsbawm, another key modernist theoretician of the nation and nationalism, argued that the nation, “belongs exclusively to a particular and historically recent period,” and can only exist in the context of the modern territorial state (1990, p. 9).

[13] Smith (1986, pp. 11, 16, 212). See also Gat (2013). Although a number of nation-states arose around ethnic cores that long predated the industrial period, many successful nation-states have nothing in the way of an ethnic core, whether preexisting or recently invented. I generally concur with Patrick Geary’s counter-contention that nationalist ideology has led many to overplay the historical rooting and ethnic cohesion of European states, although I suspect that he engages in hyperbole of his own in arguing that “the history of Europe’s nations … has turned our understanding of the past into a toxic waste dump, filled with the poison of ethnic nationalism” (2002, p. 15).

[14] Navari 1981, p. 14.

[15] Citizenship is a surprisingly vexed concept, as each country can select criteria for citizenship in any way that it sees fit, and many do so in a highly restrictive manner; see Kochenov 2019. The term “national” is a more fitting if less evocative term, as it refers to all persons under the jurisdiction of the country in question.

[16] “The Transition from a Nation State to a Plurinational State,” by Jubenal Quispe, in Bolivia Rising, June 29, 2007. The transition from the nation state to a plurinational state

[17] “Bolivia’s Separatist Movement,” by Teo Ballvé. Nacla, September 25, 2007.

[18] For a list of the official languages, see Article Five of the Bolivian constitution, available at:

[19] These supposed multinational states are as follows: Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, China, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Madagascar, Montenegro, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. See “Multinational State”

Not surprisingly, other entries in this crowd-sourced encyclopedia regard all independent polities as nation-states. The article on “Westphalian Sovereignty,” for example, describes state sovereignty as “the principle of international law that each nation-state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs, to the exclusion of all external powers, on the principle of non-interference in another country’s domestic affairs, and that each state (no matter how large or small) is equal in international law.”

[20] Anatoly M. Khazanov is worth quoting in this context: “Many alleged nation-states are simultaneously characterized as multiethnic states, states with plural or multicultural societies, and so on. In fact, in addition to stateless nations, there are states without nations, that is, states that in the modern sense lack any nations at all. At best, these might be characterized as ‘nation-states to be’ but only if one wants to demonstrate a good deal of optimism” (2003, p. 80).

[21] The nation-state status of the United States is also potentially challenged by the resurgence of national identity at the constituent-state level. Roughly a third of the residents of the most populous state in the union have so lost faith in the American project that they want to secede, at least according to “Calexit” polling in 2017. (“Support for California Secession Is Up, One Poll Says,” by Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2017.

[22] Herb and Kaplan 1999.

[23] Smith 1986, p. 166.

[24] This distinction is specified in the Spanish constitution: “The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards; it recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all” (Section Two): CONSTITUTION

[25] See the discussion in Fukuyama (2018, p. 169). A charged example of nesting claims and counter-claims to national identity is found in China, a polity that historian Peter Perdue describes as the “multinational Chinese nation-state” (2010, p. 4). Such a seemingly oxymoronic turn of phrase signals Perdue’s disagreement with the official stance of the People’s Republic of China, which posits a singular Chinese nation encompassing all ethnic groups that have ever lived within the current boundaries of the People’s Republic of China – including those that formed their own non-Chinese states in the past. In 2007 the PRC went so far as to ban South Korean historical dramas that (correctly) portrayed the two early Korean (or partially Korean) states of Goguryeo and Balhae, which held lands in what is now northeastern China, as Korean rather than as Chinese. (See “The China-South Korea History War,” by Martin W. Lewis, June 11, 2010. GeoCurrents: The China-South Korea History War). Similar tensions underlie controversies surrounding the national positions of the Tibetans and Uighurs.

[26] “Is California a Nation-State?” by Jill Cowen. New York Times, April 14, 2014.

[27] Coker 2019.

[28] Owing to the geopolitically anomalous situation of American Samoa, its residents have been classified as “nationals” but not “citizens” of the United States. In December 2019, a U.S. federal court ruled against this denial of citizenship, but the case remains under appeal. (

[29] Graeber and Wengrow (2021, 30-31) argue that the “idea that every government should properly preside over a population of largely uniform language and culture” is ultimately rooted in the Enlightenment’s encounter with China, as mediated through the works of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. They more generally argue that Enlightenment-era ideas about individual autonomy and self-determination that would play a major in the subsequent development of the liberal nationalism were rooted in the European encounter with indigenous North American societies.

[30] Several scholars have argued that Herder did occasionally make political claims for the nation, or that political claims were latent in his works. See Patten (2010) and van Benthem van den Bergh (2018).

[31] The quotation is from Kedourie (1960, 84).

[32] Sheehan, forthcoming

[33] Sheehan, forthcoming, p. 38.

[34] Although the enslaved people of African origin came from a wide array of ethnolinguistic groups, both their ethnic identity and indigenous languages were essentially erased in the process of enslavement and relocation.  Much of this was done though the mixing of slaves of diverse backgrounds in plantations and other labor sites. Certain ethnically distinct cultural markers and practices did persist, however, such as the largely Yoruba rituals of the Candomblé religion in Brazil.

[35] As Kedourie (1960, p. 119) noted, “So far from being part of the Polish nation, the peasants of Galicia and Russian Poland manifested complete indifference, and in some cases active hostility, to the Polish nationalists who came from the ranks for the gentry…”

[36] Zaha 2008.

[37] Connelley 2020, p. 24.

[38] Ravina 2017.

[39] Anderson 1983.

[40] Manela 2009.  As Wesley Reisser puts it, “The imperial state model prevailed prior to World War I, but following the war, the concept of the nation-state … dominated.” (2012, p. 11).

[41] As Terry Martin notes, “Lenin and Woodrow Wilson were the two great propagandists for the right of nations to self-determination” (1998, p. 859). The supposedly self-governing national republics of the new Soviet Union, however, were to be firmly subordinated to the Kremlin, with ethno-nationalist rhetoric employed mostly to help incite revolution; see Herman 2017, p. 208.

[42] Altic 2016. As Altic (2016, o. 184) notes, “Therefore, when assessing the actual ethnic composition of the population in a particular area, the Inquiry never relied on maps from a single source alone, but was constantly comparing the data it had received from all the interested parties. Their efforts to cope with this plethora of information, often quite contradictory, were exemplified in the fact that the Inquiry compiled, for their own purposes, a catalogue of all ethnographic maps of the Balkans (the list was 38 pages long!).”

[43] As specified in the Convention on Certain Questions Relating to the Conflict of Nationality Law of 1930: “Being convinced that it is in the general interest of the international community to secure that all its members should recognise that every person should have a nationality and should have one nationality only; Recognising accordingly that the ideal towards which the efforts of humanity should be directed in this domain is the abolition of all cases both of statelessness and of double nationality.” The document in question can be round at UNHRC’s “Refworld” website:

[44] The League of Nations awarded extensive former lands of the Ottoman Empire to the United Kingdom and France as “mandates.” Although Britain and France were supposed to administer these lands for the benefit of their indigenous populations, they were in effect governed as colonies.

[45] Pedersen 2015, P. 4.

[46] Pedersen 2015, p. 72 especially. As Susan Pederson further demonstrates, some League leaders thought that Britain and France could create nationalities in their new Middle Eastern mandates (colonies) but not in their new “uncivilized” African territories (2015, p. 72).

[47] This problem was stressed by Elie Kedourie (1960, pp. 115, 118).

[48] Siegelberg 2020.

[49] Siegelberg 2020, pp. 170-171.

[50] See “The Atlantic Charter,” reproduced on a North Atlantic Treaty Organization webpage:

[51] Siegelberg 2020, p. 160.

[52] The Atlantic Charter had expressed opposition to “territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.”

[53] Reisser 2012, p. 175.  Although a number of countries, notably Poland, became far less ethnically diverse than they had been, that was largely the result of the genocidal Nazi horrors combined with both the forced post-war exodus of Germans and the loss of Polands eastern lands to the Soviet Union.

[54] Cornwell 2020, p. 89).

[55] Cornwell 2020.

[56] Both the Burmese terms “Bama/Bamar” and “Myanma/Myanmar” originally referred only to the dominant, Burmese-speaking ethnic group. After 1989, however, ‘Myanmar” was redefined to refer to all indigenous ethnic groups in the country—excluding the Rohingya, who were deemed non-indigenous.


Seduced by the Map, Chapter One: The Seductive Nation-State Model (Part 1) Read More »