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The Flawed Standard Model of Geopolitics

(Note to Readers: GeoCurrents is now resuming publication after its winter hiatus. Over the next 10 weeks, posts will be oriented toward a weekly lecture course that I am teaching on the history and geography of current global events. The first lecture, given on March 31, examined an overarching issue that is essential for understanding many pressing events of the day: the fraying standard geopolitical model of the world. This taken-for-granted model posits mutually recognized sovereign states as the fundamental building blocks of the global order. Many of these basic units, however, are highly fragile and a number have collapsed altogether. As a result, the next several posts will consider, and critique, the conventional state-based vision of the world.

The second lecture for the course, to be given on April 7, will examine the situation in Yemen. As a result, next week’s posts will be focused on that country. Subsequent lectures and posts will be determined later as global events unfold. As always, informed comments and questions are welcome.)

World Politcal MapAs long-term GeoCurrents readers are probably aware, I am skeptical of the standard “nation-state” model of global politics, as I think that it conceals as much as it reveals about current-day geopolitical realities. This model, evident on any world political map, rests on the idea that that the terrestrial world is divided into a set number of theoretically equivalent sovereign states. Each state is supposed to hold ultimate power over the full extent of its territory, possessing a monopoly over the legitimate use of force and coercion. Such states, it turn, are supposed to recognize each other’s existence, and in so doing buttress a global order in which political legitimacy derives in part from such mutual recognition. The territories of such states are theoretically separated by clearly demarcated boundary lines, which are further solidified by international consensus, without overlap or other forms of spatial ambiguity. Ideally, national territories are contiguous and can thus be easily mapped as single units, rather than scattered across the map in widely separated pockets, as was characteristic of premodern geopolitical systems based on feudalism and dynastic authority.

The standard geopolitical model is explicitly territorial, equating the state (government, in essence) with the area that it rules (the country). As a result, the terms “sovereign state” and “independent county” are fully synonymous. But the model takes a further step by linking in as well the concept of the nation. A nation, as strictly defined on political grounds, is a group of people with common feelings of belonging to a single political community, ideally rooted in cultural commonalities, that either exercises, or aspires to exercise, self-rule. In earlier historical periods, most states made no pretense of being nations, and were instead organized as multi-national empires, subnational city-states, or dynastic kingdoms that ruled over but did not represent their varied human subjects. But with the rise and spread of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the ideal political form came to be the nation-state, one in which the state bolstered its legitimacy by claiming to represent its given nation. In the post-WWII era, it came to be assumed that all sovereign states either already were nation-states or would soon gain that status through the process of “nation-building.”

This new model of global political geography was formalized and institutionalized with the creation of the United Nations in 1945. As the very name of the organization makes clear, the fundamental unit of geopolitics was now defined as the nation, taken to be exactly the same thing as the sovereign state or the independent country. In the U.N. General Assembly, each member is an equal participant and hence an equivalent unit. All are taken to be self-governing units with full sovereignty that represent distinct nations, occupy clearly demarcated territories, and recognize the legitimacy and territorial integrity of each other. On these grounds, the United Nations is supposed to promote international cooperation and work toward global concord.

U.N. Member States MapAs this standard model of global politics has triumphed in the public imagination, the map of the member states of the U.N. has come to mirror the world political map. In the Wikipedia map posted here, only one territory— Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara—appears on first glance to occupy an anomalous position. Closer inspection, however, reveals two smaller non-U.N. areas, mapped as grey circles: the Vatican City and the Palestinian territories. (Countries too small to be easily visible on the map are mapped as circles, thus ensuring that all are represented.) Overall, the show a nearly solid expanse of distinct blue units, members of the U.N. that are also sovereign national powers.

But does it really? Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, yet it is seemingly mapped here as if it were. Such a misleading portrayal is done in deference to the government of China, which views Taiwan a renegade province that will eventually be united with the mainland, even though it is actually a fully independent country. Similarly, Kosovo is mapped as if it were part of Serbia, even though it is also sovereign state, and one that is recognized as such by 108 out of 193 U.N. members. Equally problematic, a number of non-sovereign but self-governing territories that are not themselves members of the U.N. are nonetheless mapped as if they were, marked by distinct blue circles. Examples here include the “Crown dependencies”—the Isle of Man and the bailiwicks of Guernsey, and Jersey—anomalous territories that fall under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom yet are neither parts of it nor colonies of it. More troubling is the fact that the map also seemingly classifies as members of the United Nations (again, as indicated by their distinct blue circle) a number of territories that U.N. itself has placed on its list of non-self-governing territories, such as Gibraltar, French Polynesia, and Bermuda. According to the U.N., these are colonized throwbacks to an earlier era that should be granted independence, given full and formalized self-rule, or subsumed within the territory of an existing U.N member state.

Although it is easy to criticize this map for such infelicities, devising a more accurate portrayal would be no simple matter, as the actual geopolitical situation of the world is considerably more complex than the picture conveyed by the standard model. Many territories occupy inherently ambiguous positions in regard to such crucial characteristics as “sovereignty,” “independence,” and “international recognition,” and hence cannot be mapped in a straightforward manner.

The crucial flaw of the standard model is that it is based on a prescriptive rather than a descriptive view of the world yet never acknowledges that fact. What it shows, in other words, is how certain political actors and entities think that that world should be politically organized rather than how it actually is organized. Most world political maps thus show a country called “Western Sahara” even though there has never been a sovereign state of that name occupying that territory. Such “actors and entities” refer in general to the governments of the U.N.’s constituent members, which have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the existing system. But even here profound disagreements persist, as can be seen in regard to the debates over the political standing of such places as Taiwan, Kosovo, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories.

How Many Countries Are There?As a result of such complications, it is impossible to answer such a seemingly simple question as “how many countries are there in the world today?” As the image posted here show, answers vary according to how the term is defined and whose particular viewpoints are taken into account. A degree of ambiguity and uncertainly is thus acknowledged – but only a degree. Standard reference works allow only slight variation in how the world’s sovereign states are enumerated, with accepted figures generally ranging from 189 to 197.

By the same token, other irregularities in the standard geopolitical model are also widely recognized, such as the presence of hotly contested borders and the existence of complex arrays of exclaves and enclaves in which small pieces of one country are wholly surrounded by the territory of another. But such features are generally regarded as minor exceptions to a general pattern that still holds firm.

In the decades following the formation of the United Nations, the actual political map of the world seemingly came into ever closer accord with the standard model, as decolonization progressed and as numerous newly independent states made progress in inculcating a degree of national solidarity among their citizens. But more recently, the model has begun to unravel, as previously solid-seeming states collapse and as state-like organizations and unrecognized but effectively sovereign entities proliferate. Somalia has been something of a ghost state since 1991, and more recently Syria, Yemen, and Libya have ceased to function as coherent countries, yet they still remain firmly ensconced on our political maps, unlike such effectively independent but unrecognized entities as Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland. Recognizing the reality of this current geopolitical predicament is essential for dealing with it successfully. If one remains beholden to the exhausted model, one risks disengaging from reality in preference for a fantasy world increasingly divorced from actual circumstances.

Some evidence suggests that serious problems have already been generated by undue faith in the standard geopolitical model. When the United States and its partners invaded Iraq in 2003, planners assumed that Iraq was a solid nation-state firmly united by a sense of common Iraqi identity, and that as a result the country could be easily transformed into a democratic state though imposed regime change followed by the institution of free elections, the rule of law, and other trappings of democracy. But as division of Iraq Mapsevents showed, Iraq was actually nothing of the kind. To be sure, a sense of Iraqi identity had emerged among many segments of its populace, but when push came to shove, it quickly became apparent that such national solidarity was relatively superficial, overridden by regional, sectarian, linguistic, and other forms of identity. International policy is still based on the idea of the intrinsic national unity of Iraq, but such a vision increasingly seems illusory. I doubt that Iraq will ever be reassembled into anything approaching a functional state, let alone a coherent nation-state. To the extent that it continues to exist on our maps, it will likely be little more than a mirage.

Standard Model Political MapTo demonstrate the frailty of the standard geopolitical model, the next few GeoCurrents posts will illustrate its inconsistencies and anomalies through a series of maps depicting the current geopolitical situation in a sizable region focused on the so-called Middle East. Rather than using the conventional world region of that designation, I have outlined a circular area centered in northern Saudi Arabia. I have pursued this strategy in order to accommodate as much disorder as possible within a circumscribed area, one that encompasses troubled areas ranging northeastern Nigeria to eastern Ukraine to the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Within this broad zone, as we shall see, the standard geopolitical model fails repeatedly to convey existing realities.

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About GeoCurrents

Map of a Selection of Geopolitical Anomalies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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