myth of the nation-state

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:

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLo6c8cw3_QTHZYxQedpDCqRgzkuEyefLa

 

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.

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Mearsheimer 2014, page 85.

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

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

March 1, 2022

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

https://www.russiamatters.org/analysis/causes-and-consequences-ukraine-war

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

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

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

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

[16] Mearsheimer 2018, Pp. 103.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volodymyr_Zelenskyy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[33] Mearsheimer 2018, 145.

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

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

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

[37] Mearsheimer 2018, p. 99.

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

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

[40] Mearsheimer 2018, viii.

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

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

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

[43] Tetlock and Gardner 2015.

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

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

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

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

[48] Mearsheimer 2018, P. 169.

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

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

 

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Why I Am Posting Rather Than Publishing “Seduced by the Map”

Some six years ago I suspended GeoCurrents because I felt that I needed to write another scholarly book before I retired to maintain academic credibility. I had long been blogging on and teaching about the mismatch between the conventional political map and actual geopolitical conditions, and figured that it would make a nice book project. As I was already working on the topic, I thought that I could finish a manuscript in a year or two and then return to blogging. I made a plan and set about writing a book that I tentatively titled Seduced by the Map: How the Nation-State Model Prevents Us from Thinking Clearly about the World.

But the project did not go as I had imagined, in part because I had succumbed to the planning fallacy. As psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed in the late 1900s, most of us severely underestimate how much time will be needed to complete any major undertaking. A good general rule is to double the expected period of work. In this case, however, more time than that would have been necessary. I reached retirement age this summer and the manuscript was still not ready for submission. At the same time, I was growing tired of the whole endeavor, eager to move on to other topics. I therefore suspended work and abandoned plans for publication. But not wanting to discard everything that I had done, I decided to revive this website and post on the manuscript on it. This was not an easy decision. Seduced by the Mapwill not be taken nearly as seriously as it would have been if I had managed to publish it through a university press. It will also almost certainly have a much smaller readership. But at least interested readers will not have to purchase a book to get access to the information. Readers will also be able to make comments, add information, and provide criticism through the Disqus comments forum. Finally, I will also be able to include many more illustrations than would have been possible in a conventional book . All of that is some consolation.

The biggest problem that I encountered in trying to complete this project is the immense size of the relevant scholarly literature. The number of books and articles published on nationalism alone is staggering, and that is only one of several key topics that I needed to address. As I continued to read, I continued to add new material, especially to the introductory chapters. But these chapters then became bloated and unwieldly, and I found it necessary to prune heavily. But at the same time, I continued to find new information that seemed essential to include, resulting in further rounds of bloating and pruning. Eventually I decided to clean up the manuscript, call an end to the work, and get on with other projects. That has been liberating.

At any rate, I hope that a few people will read this manuscript and find it worthwhile. If so, please feel free to provide comments, and many thanks for taking the time to engage. The introduction to Seduced by the Mapshould appear on this site tomorrow.

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Seduced by the Map, Introduction (Part 1)

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. In January 2022, the consensus was that Russia would crush Ukraine in 48 to 96 hours.[i] 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. Few experts anticipated the rapid collapse of the Afghan army and government, and no one prepared for the evacuation of American personnel and material from the country before the military withdrew.

Much more damaging was a string of U.S. led or aided regime-change gambits 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; it is still a shambles. 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[ii] 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.[iii] 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 Fallacy of the Nation-State

The central argument of this work is that such common ground does exist and can be found in a fundamental misperception of what polities such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria actually are. According to the prevalent model of global geopolitics, these countries—like all others—are fully realized nation-states. The hyphen signals the idea that the nation, a self-conscious political community, precisely aligns with the state, a sovereign government ruling a clearly demarcated territory. In this view, the residents of any given country are assumed to feel a profound bond with their co-nationals, regarding them as fellow members of an imagined mega-community. By the same token, it is taken for granted that almost all of them view their state as the legitimate container of that national community, regardless of what they think of those running their government at any given time. Notionally, the nation-state earns such respect by serving its people, gaining legitimacy by providing security, infrastructure, and other public goods.

But commonplace though these expectations may be, cases abound where they simply do not apply. Over large swaths of the earth, the nation-state is more of an aspiration than a historical fact,[iv] and in some places it is little more than a cruel charade. To be sure, many nation-states are firmly established and highly functional; a country like Denmark or Japan has sufficient cohesion to survive even an extreme crisis. But others, including Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, are far less united. While not lacking national foundations entirely, their nation-stateness is continually contested; when push comes to shove, centrifugal forces can easily prevail. In practical terms, viewing all countries as members the same geopolitical species turns out to be a fallacy.

Yet this fallacy is just the tip of a deeper problem. If the nation-state is questionable, so too is the larger concept in which it is embedded: the sovereign state. Quite a few members of the United Nations do not function as coherent countries governing their full territorial endowments, regardless of whether they are nationally cemented by sentiments of common belonging. Somalia has been essentially a diplomatic fiction since 1991. Or consider Iraq in early 2003, just before the regime-change gambit. Most of the Kurdish northeast had been a de facto independent polity for a dozen years, abiding no governance from Baghdad. Although Iraq appeared on the map as a normal country, crisply cut at its borders, it did not function as one. Yet the optimistic post-invasion scenario of the U.S. war-planners was apparently predicated on the idea that Iraq’s division was merely a temporary aberration caused by inept and autocratic governance: remove the powers-that-be and install a representative government, and Iraq would quickly be restored to its rightful shape and place.

One could argue that effective Iraqi statehood was eventually restored, even if the cost was high and the reunification process prolonged. The country today has a functioning national government and ranks well below the worst position in the Fragile State Index.[v] But to the extent that Iraq has been patched back together, it has been accomplished through a combination of raw force and pretense, carried out largely at the insistence of the international community. Tellingly, the U.S. government believes that it must retain troops in Iraq to maintain security. Non-state militias remain potent, omnipresent corruption corrodes trust in the government, and sectarianism regularly overrides national identity. More important for the long term, the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the northeast accepts its membership in Iraq on a mostly notional basis, its people overwhelmingly rejecting membership in the Iraqi nation. In 2017, the KRG even fought a brief war with Iraq’s central government over what is supposedly a mere internal border. As it achieved victory, Baghdad expelled the Kurdish Peshmerga military from Kirkuk,[vi] the city constitutionally deemed by the Kurdish Regional Government to be its rightful capital. Needless to say, this is not how a sovereign state, let alone a nation-state, is supposed to function.[vii]

Iraq may be an extreme case, but it is not the only one, and even stable countries often fail to fulfill the expectations of the sovereign state. Many do not extend their effective power and legitimate authority across all their lands. A few do not enjoy the complete independence that sovereignty ostensibly entails. Defying diplomatic conventions, ultimate authority is not always fully lodged in the 193-odd sovereign states that formally constitute the global political community. To the contrary, it is often intricately distributed among a variety of polities and networks of varying characteristics. The global political architecture of our day, in other words, is more ambiguous and convoluted than conventional models would have it. It is also far less modern than we think.

The idea that the world is (and should be) neatly divided into a set number of equivalent independent nation-states that embrace their position in a structured international order is a recent one, fully globalized only in the mid twentieth century. The new geopolitical structure was designed to facilitate a transition away from a world of warring empires into a more just, equal, and peaceable interstate system. At its core was an earlier premise that sovereign states enjoy the status of personhood, allowing them to function as individual members of a cozy community of their peers. As spelled out in the influential 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, each sovereign state “constitutes a sole person in the eyes of international law,” and each is “juridically equal, enjoy[ing] the same rights and hav[ing] equal capacity in their exercise…”[viii]

There are good reasons for classifying sovereign states as fictitious persons of equal standing for juridical purposes. Recasting an anarchic realm of global politics into one of rule-bound community relations has no doubt helped ease global strife. But it is one thing to embrace state personhood as a legal ideal, and quite another to treat it as reality. In their most important attributes, independent countries are nothing like persons. To begin with, they vary in size by more than five orders of magnitude. More important, countries, unlike human beings, are eminently divisible. Their (geo)bodies periodically break apart, merge with others, or exchange appendages with their neighbors. Although great efforts have gone into stabilizing the post-war geopolitical system by guarding against such territorial changes, those efforts have not always been effective.

In short, while we tend to treat countries as singular entities, in fact they are composite constructions. Geopolitical stability and popular legitimacy are noble ideals well worth supporting. But to the extent that we regard them as achieved, we delude ourselves about how the global political system really works. Mistaking norms for facts can easily lead politicians and foreign policy experts astray.

All these problems are compounded when the nation-state is assumed to be the product of an ineluctable evolutionary trajectory, one that culminates in representative governments the world over. This idealistic vision, closely associated with the United States, is also attractive, and there are good reasons for pursuing it. But in an age of rising autocracies and faltering democracies, the notion of its inevitability can no longer be taken seriously. More important, trying to force such an outcome on a resistant society can backfire spectacularly, as Afghanistan so well demonstrates.

Yet the ill-fated Afghanistan venture was predicated precisely on the idea that a modern democratic state can be compelled into existence by a combination of raw force and money, even one as seemingly ill-fitted for the role as Afghanistan. What had been done in Germany and Japan after World War II could supposedly be replicated anywhere. All nation-states, after all, are commonly regarded as entities of the same fundamental kind, subject to the same forces of social development that can quickly lead, with adequate prodding, to the same destination.

When the Afghan war was initiated, such an overweening worldview had recently been reinforced by global events. The first Gulf War had been a walkover, fanning greater ambitions. At the same time, the stunningly rapid yet wholly unanticipated collapse of the Soviet Union and of its Warsaw-Pact allies encouraged over-confidence. For many, political evolution clearly pointed in the direction of the neoliberal nation-state; for some, that was nothing less than the preordained destination of history’s grand arc. A decade before the invasion, Francis Fukuyama, drawing on the grandiose ideas of Hegel, gained global renown for arguing that humankind’s central story was coming to its culmination, as there was no longer any real rivalry between competing economic and political systems.[ix] The market-oriented nation-state had vanquished all rivals, and likely for all time.

Although such a teleological view of history had long been thoroughly debunked by philosophers and historians alike,[x] it has evidently retained more than a little intellectual appeal.[xi] Widely celebrated in foreign-policy circles, the “End of History” thesis had clear implications for military interventions. If the final results are inevitable, why not jump-start the process? Surely the Afghan people would quickly learn to appreciate the benefits of living in a self-determining developmental state and would come to thank the Americans and their allies for their sacrifices and generosity in bringing it to fruition ahead of schedule. For many foreign-policy mavens, the regime-change fantasy was compelling if not intoxicating. Neoconservatives reveled in the power of war to create a geopolitical playing field more advantageous for the United States, while their neoliberal allies warmed to its purported ability to install representative governments that would build globally integrated national economies.

The manifest failure of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in pervasive if inconspicuous reassessments of foreign-policy options. Regime-change is no longer on the table, and neoconservatism has lost its luster. Global events and trends have thoroughly undermined the “end of history” thesis. But for all of this, the underlying geopolitical model on which such dysfunctional ideas rest has not budged. It is now time to dislodge it, as it thwarts our ability to understand the globe and deal with its problems effectively. Misconceptions and maladaptive actions are inevitable if we view the world as a geopolitical jigsaw puzzle[xii] divided into 193 basic units, all of which are characterized by the same essential features.

(Note: Many of the endnotes refer to a bibliography, which will be posted separately)

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

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

[iii] 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.

[iv] As Arnold Hughes (1981, 122) argued, “Though we loosely refer to the recently created countries of [sub-Saharan] Africa as ‘nation-states,’ and their peoples as ‘new nations,’ it is by no means certain that such formal appellations have any substance.”

[v] In 2020, it was slotted in the 17th position: https://fragilestatesindex.org/data/

[vi] According to a report in ArmyTimes, U.S.-donated Abrams tanks were crucial in this Iraqi victory over the U.S.-allied Kurdish forces. The article concludes by noting that its reportage “counters much of what U.S. officials have said about the incident.” Furthermore, it highlights the unintended consequences of  “U.S. weapons in the region that may have upended the balance of power between Iraqi and Kurdish forces.” See “US Abrams Tanks Sway the Battle in Kirkuk,” by Shawn Snow, ArmyTimes, Oct. 19, 2017. https://www.armytimes.com/flashpoints/2017/10/19/us-abrams-tanks-sway-the-battle-in-kirkuk/

[vii] Relations between the government of Iraq and the Kurdish regional government improved significantly after this event to the extent that by 2021 Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi could reasonable claim that “Now is the golden age of relations between Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.” In strictly logical terms, however, this formulation implies that the Kurdistan region is not part of Iraq. See: “Erbil-Baghdad relations in a ‘golden age’: Kadhimi to Rudaw.” Rudaw, May 5, 2021. https://www.rudaw.net/english/interview/090520211

[viii] The quotations are from Article 2 and Article 4 of the declaration. See https://www.oas.org/juridico/english/treaties/a-40.html

[ix] Fukuyama 1992.

[x] See, most notable, Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (1957).

[xi] See Graeber and Wengrow (2021) on the ubiquity of teleological reasoning in accounts of geopolitical evolution.

[xii] Evidently, the first jigsaw puzzle, made U.K. in 1766, was map-based. According to Linda Hannas (1972) jigsaw puzzles were originally used to teach students political geography.

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Russell Jacoby and the Myth of the Nation-State

Map of Sudan Superimposed on EuropeFew ideas are as intellectually pernicious as notion that the citizens of a given sovereign country necessarily share the bonds of common nationhood. As evidence of the confusion that this idea generates, consider Russell Jacoby’s important recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “Bloodlust: Why We Should Fear Our Neighbors More Than Strangers” (adapted from Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence From Cain and Abel to the Present [2011, Free Press]).  Jacoby is a fine writer who has made significant contributions to intellectual history, and his essay is illuminating. But it is also compromised by the myth of the nation-state.

Jacoby starts out by pointing out that we often assume violent conflicts are most intense and intractable when they take place between societies, especially between two communities that hail from distinct “civilizations.” Foreign opponents are readily dehumanized as alien beings, beyond the pale of moral consideration. Yet in practice, he goes on to claim, the most fierce and protracted struggles occur not between but within societies. Here is how he puts it:

The most decisive antagonisms and misunderstandings take place within a community. The history of hatred and violence is, to a surprising degree, a history of brother against brother, not brother against stranger. From Cain and Abel to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries and the civil wars of our own age, it is not so often strangers who elicit hatred, but neighbors…. We don’t like this truth. We prefer to fear strangers…. The notion of colliding worlds is more appealing than the opposite: conflicts hinging on small differences.

So far so good. It is certainly true that civil strife can be appallingly brutal. Apt examples (which he cites) include the Lebanese Civil War, the Bosnian conflict, and the Rwandan genocide; all involved people who had previously lived together in mixed communities. But other instances adduced by Jacoby do not fit the model, and some actually indicate the opposite tendency.

Jacoby’s thesis fails most glaringly in Sudan, which he reference on several occasions. In arguing that civil wars last longer than other conflicts, Jacoby notes that “the conflicts in southern Sudan have been going on for decades.” Elsewhere he writes, “Today’s principal global conflicts are fratricidal struggles—regional, ethnic, and religious: Iraqi Sunni vs. Iraqi Shiite, … Sudanese southerners vs. Sudanese northerners” (emphasis added). The implication is that because the southern and northern opponents are all Sudanese, they are “brothers” engaged in “fratricidal” warfare. “Likeness does not necessarily lead to harmony,” Jacoby concludes. In the end, he asks, “Why do small disparities between people provoke greater hatred than the large ones?”

But it is more than “small disparities” that distinguish the southern and northern Sudanese. While it is problematic to divide the people of Sudan into two groups to begin with (where does that leave the people of Darfur?), the chasm between these southern and northern groups is profound. The Nuer, the Dinka, and other Sudanese southerners have very little in common with the Arabic-speaking, politically dominant population of northern Sudan. Their languages are completely unrelated, their religious affiliations have no commonality, their customs, lifeways, and diets are not at all similar, and they vary significantly in physical appearance and genetic make up. All they share is co-residence within a set of national borders—a map that was imposed by outsiders and has never been accepted as legitimate in the south. By what token could these two feuding groups possibly be regarded as sibling peoples locked in fratricidal violence?

Issues of geographical scale come into play as well. Southern and northern Sudanese are in no meaningful sense “neighbors;” the distances between them are vast. To illustrate, I have taken an equal-area world map (the Peters projection), outlined Sudan on it, and then superimposed the resulting image on Europe. This simple exercise reveals that southern Sudan alone occupies an area roughly equivalent to France, in relation to which Khartoum lies approximately in Slovakia, and far northern Sudan would be situated in central Ukraine. Considering the rudimentary transportation infrastructure, the effective distances are actually much greater in Sudan than in Europe. While we rarely regard the peoples of southern France and central Ukraine as “neighbors,” in the case of Sudan we are misled by the myth of the nation-state.

The Sudanese war came to an end in 2005, when a deal was brokered that would allow the South to vote on separation in early 2011. In the resulting election, over 95 percent of Southern Sudanese voters opted for independence. If the Khartoum government honors its promises, Southern Sudan will emerge as a fully sovereign country later this year. Will further conflict between north and south then cease to be treated as “fratricidal,” and instead come to be seen as a conventional war between different societies? On the other hand, if the Sudanese government reneges on its promises, should we then continue conceptualizing the conflict as a battle between brothers, motivated in their hatred by “small differences?”

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