Seduced by the Map Introduction (Part 2)

Capturing Geographical Complexity: Beyond the Standard Map

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

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

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

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

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

            Beyond the National Frame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Rankin, forthcoming, P. 15.

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

[5] See Lewis and Wigen 1997.

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

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

[8] Wood 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

[13] Anderson (1983).

[14] See the Verso webpage on the book:

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

[16] Mikesell 1983, p. 257.

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

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

[19] Graeber and Wengrow 2021.

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


Casamance – harmonious name, discordant reality

“Je viens de la Casamance” (I am from The Casamance): on a recent trip to Senegal, this was the answer that I received roughly three quarters of the time when I asked staff members at hotels, guides, and people who approached me on the beach where they were from in Senegal. Throughout my ten days in the country, the word built up on aura of notoriety and awe in my mind – like something beautiful and dangerous, inaccessible yet desirable. The next words would usually inform me that the Casamance is the true heart of the country, where the luscious beauty of Senegal lies, and where people know how to have real fun. But the actual history of the Casamance region paints a different image from the one that I had built up in my mind based on local accounts.

The Casamance has long been a region in limbo, caught between worlds: today trapped between Senegal and The Gambia, it was subject to both French and Portuguese colonial efforts before the border was negotiated in 1888 between the French colony of Senegal and Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau) to the south. The settlement resulted in Portugal losing possession of the Casamance, which was at the time the commercial hub of its colony. To this day, the region has preserved its local variant of West African Portuguese-based Creole, known as Ziguinchor, and the members of its deeply rooted Creole community carry Portuguese last names like Da Silva, Carvalho, and Fonseca. Ironically, interest in the Portuguese colonial heritage has been revived of late in order to solidify a distinct identity, particularly in Baixa (“lower”) Casamança. Such an identity is also aided by the presence of people from Bissau-Guinean, who have entered Senegal as expatriates, immigrants, and refugees fleeing the poverty and political instability that has affected Guinea-Buissau.

Unfortunately, the Casamance region has seldom been stable, its instability stemming from Senegal’s very independence. Indeed, Senegal’s first president, Leopold Sedar Senghor, allegedly promised the region’s leaders that if they joined Senegal for 20 years they could subsequently have their own state if they wanted it. When the government failed to follow through on the promise in 1980, street demonstrations in the Casamance capital, Zinguichor, turned violent. The main impetus behind the separatist drive is the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), created in 1947 as a political party, before turning to outright separatism in the 1980s. The MFDC gained widespread local popularity following brutal repression against demonstrators who were calling on officials to make good on Senghor’s promise.


Beyond these historical factors, the separatist movement also has economic and geographic origins. First, the Casamance region is the richest in the country by virtue of its lush vegetation and vast natural resources, which has earned it the title of national granary. Peanuts, Senegal’s main cash crop, are particularly important in the region. The exploitation of these riches, which often bypasses the local population, has fostered a sense of victimization among the Southerners, many of whom grieve the systematic plundering of their region for the benefit of other regions, particularly Dakar. Religious differences exacerbate such tensions. Whereas the vast majority of the Senegalese people are Muslims, many residents of the Casamance are Christians or animists. The prevailing sentiment in the region and among the locally dominant Diola (Jola) ethnic group is that they do not benefit sufficiently from their region’s wealth and that Dakar, the capital, reaps most of the profit that is rightfully theirs.


Another factor is the Casamance region’s geographical isolation from Senegal due to the existence of The Gambia. Indeed, the region is poorly connected to the rest of the country by a long, and often nearly impassable road that passes through the eastern Tambacounda region. It is possible, however, to travel from central Senegal to the Casamance by way of the sea or though the territory of the Gambia, but neither option is easy. As a result of such isolation, the Casamance sometimes seems cut off from the rest of the country, and the frustration caused by this alienation fuels a fierce desire among some of its inhabitants to free themselves from the rule of Dakar.

When I visited Senegal this past December, I was told how most Senegalese convoys get across The Gambia. The only way to go to the Casamance without taking a detour all around the Gambia, which would take days, is to cross the River Gambia itself. However, there is no bridge that would make this traversal easy. Indeed, the only current way to get across is a ferry, whose ownership was shifted from the Gambia Public Transport Corporation to the Port Authority in 2001. The authority is eager to maintain its monopoly, and reluctant to allow the construction of a competing bridge. As a result, trucks line up for up to 5 days to get across the river, generating a huge loss of efficiency and profitability, especially for trucks carrying perishables.

Casamance3 Although the Senegalese government has made some efforts at a bridge initiative, the Gambian ferry company has done everything within its power to prevent the implementation of this project. Recently however, The Gambia has paired with the Taiwanese government to enhance the ferry service, which has been highly hazardous. Taiwan is not the only East Asian country interested in Senegal and the Gambia. According to our guides, the Chinese are building soccer stadiums in all major Senegalese towns and cities, ostensibly ‘for free’ but actualy in exchange for fishing rights in the bountiful waters off the coast.

 Casamance4On top of the lack of accessibility, the Casamance faces a major problem in drug trafficking. Drug traffickers take advantage of the local isolation and instability to expand their business, turning the border that the Casamance shares with Guinea Bissau into a hub for the illicit trade. The rebel leaders therefore have a very profitable business in hand and are unlikely to accept anything less than a very favorable settlement. Unfortunately, the Senegalese government is seemingly unwilling to seek a resolution to this issue. While hundreds of Senegalese soldiers are present throughout the Casamance, they have made little headway against the rebellion, and there are growing concerns about human rights violations and the disabling of local economic development. Concrete negotiations with the separatists have not happened for many years. It now seems clear that neither party in really seeking to bring the other to the table for open discussion. Finally, there has been an unfortunate lack of media attention on this conflict. The Senegalese government has also failed to provide information. Indeed, since the inception of the conflcit, no concrete or official figures have been released regarding the number of victims. Some sources, however, claim that up to 5,000 people have lost their lives over the past several decades of fighting.

To add insult to injury, the death toll has been severely exacerbated by the lingering presence of landmines scattered across the region, which has also lead to the abandonment of many villages by former inhabitants. A reported 800 people have lost their lives due to mines since 1988, and the lack of action from the Senegalese government has meant that the demining work has largely been left up to a select group of NGOs. Although a few initiatives have been launched, such as the DDP “disarmament, demining, and ‘projects’” put forward by former President Wade, these peace initiatives have been largely unsuccessful. However, with a recent acceleration of violence, support for the separatist rebels has been dwindling among many locals. In an interview with the IRIN, Moussa Sagna, a trader and resident of Zinguinchor, explains: “The rebels must stop creating violence in the region; they must understand that it is their parents who have suffered now, for 30 years. They shouldn’t fight for the independence of Casamance and at the same time make people suffer in Casamance.”


 If Senegal wants to experience genuine economic development in a near future, it will need to monbilize all the assets that are in its possession. However, it is doubtful this will happen in the absence of its potentially richest region. The Casamance not only has substantial natural resources, but also has great potential for tourism. There can be no question of the urgency for Senegal of the Casamance problem. Economic opportunities remain unrealized, the drug trafficking virus keeps spreading, and the death toll seems to have maintained a steady pace since the early 1980s. With Senegal’s newly instilled biometric visa regime and entry fee for tourists, as well as the discontinuation of the famous Paris-Dakar rally, tourism has experienced a serious hit over the past few years. The government will thus need to find another means to revive its economy, which has not had the same impressive growth rates that many African countries have experienced over the past few years.


Cartography, Slovenian Nationalism, and Its Limitations

Cartography has long been an important tool for nationalism, as nationalist activists have used mapping to help establish the foundations of their national communities in the public mind. In the case of 19th century Slovenian nationalism, struggling against the Austrian Empire, cartography was particularly important; Peter Kozler’s famous map of the Slovene Lands, published in 1854, helped establish the idea of a separate Slovenian nation. The area covered by the map, not surprisingly, is rather larger than the area occupied by speakers of the Slovenian language. The map upset the Austrian authorities, who confiscated copies and briefly imprisoned Kozler.

Slovenian nationalism at the time should not, however, be stressed too much. I have some evidence of such limitations from my own family history; my Slovenian maternal grandfather, born in 1880, always considered himself an Austrian, despite the fact that he spoke no German and had never visited the area that now constitutes Austria (to this day, my elderly aunts call Slovenian “the Austrian language”). I always found this attitude perplexing, but the mystery was clarified yesterday in a talk in the Stanford History Department by Pieter Judson of Swarthmore College, entitled “Everyday Empire: Habsburg Central Europe in the Nineteenth Century.” Judson argued that ethnic-based nationalism in the region has been greatly exaggerated, and that many people, speaking a variety of languages, maintained firm loyalty to the Empire up to World War I. The talk proved somewhat controversial, but based in part on my own family history, I found it largely convincing.