Seduced By the Map

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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The “Seduced by the Map” Project

Ever since GeoCurrents was suspended in 2016 I have been working on a book project tentatively entitled Seduced by the Map: How the Nation State Model Prevents Us from Thinking Clearly About the World. This has been a valuable and enjoyable project, but the topic is so vast that the project has gotten out of hand, covering too much material and becoming somewhat unfocused. As a result, I am reconsidering publication options. I am no longer sure that I want to publish this material as a conventional book. I would prefer that the entire manuscript be made available for free in digital form, which is not possible in either commercial or academic publishing. As a result, I am considering posting the manuscript sequentially on this website over the next few months.

Whatever I decide for the manuscript as a whole, several chapters will definitely be published on this site. This material examines language and religion as a basis of national identity – a far more complex and controversial topic than it might seem. In Winter Quarter of this year, I taught a Stanford Continuing Studies class on the Seduced by the Map project, but the term ended before I reached the sections on language and religion. I will therefore be giving additional lectures on this topic for those people who had enrolled in the original class. I plan to record these lectures and put the recordings on this website after they have been edited. I will also post the same material in textual form, including the accompanying maps and other illustrations. The first of such post will be added tomorrow or perhaps the day after.

One part of the larger Seduced by the Map project will be published in conventional form by an academic press. This is a collection of essays written by leading scholars on the related theme of “remapping sovereignty.” These essays were delivered orally in a small conference held in May 2022 in Stanford’s David Rumsey Map Center; the conference program can be found here: Re-Mapping Sovereignty, public program, final. These presentations are all available on-line at the Rumsey Center’s YouTube channel, which can be found here. Some of these presentations are more accessible than others, but all are interesting and informative. My talk was the last one given. The essays will be edited by my wife, Kären Wigen, and will be published, if all goes according to plan, by the end of next year.

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

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

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

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


What Is a Nation-State?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Development of the Nation-State Idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Russell 1991.

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Navari 1981, p. 14.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[22] Herb and Kaplan 1999.

[23] Smith 1986, p. 166.

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

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

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

[27] Coker 2019.

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

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

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

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

[32] Sheehan, forthcoming

[33] Sheehan, forthcoming, p. 38.

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

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

[36] Zaha 2008.

[37] Connelley 2020, p. 24.

[38] Ravina 2017.

[39] Anderson 1983.

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

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

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

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

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

[45] Pedersen 2015, P. 4.

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

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

[48] Siegelberg 2020.

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

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

[51] Siegelberg 2020, p. 160.

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

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

[54] Cornwell 2020, p. 89).

[55] Cornwell 2020.

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


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

Seduced by the Map, Introduction (Part 2)

The Post-War Formalization of the Nation-State Model    

The anti-colonial movement was initially resisted by the newly formed United Nations. According to Mark Mazower, the UN “started out as a mechanism for defending and adapting empires to an increasingly nationalist age.”[1] But in the Cold War context, Western colonialism was no longer strategically justifiable. Nor was it always financially advantageous. It was also fiercely resisted, through both insurgency and diplomacy—the latter above all in the United Nations. As explained by Adom Getachew, “anticolonial nationalists … successfully captured the UN and transformed the General Assembly into a platform for the international politics of decolonization.”[2]

Such “capture” was made manifest in 1960 with the UN’s unanimous passage of Resolution 1514, “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.” The Western imperial powers abstained on this weighty vote, but they generally went along with its provisions, soon retaining only remnants of their once extensive empires.[3] (Portugal and Spain, however, would not decolonize until the fall of their authoritarian governments in the mid 1970s.) In 1960 alone, seventeen African countries gained sovereignty. The UN now came to be envisioned as an anti-imperial “global club of national states”[4] that would in due time encompass the entire world. As these changes occurred, the nation-state construct lost its remaining ethno-national moorings and was tacitly redefined. In the new era, a nation-state would be any country that claimed to represent all its citizens and govern them on an equal basis. Since every sovereign state made this claim, the nation-state idea was effectively universalized.[5]

The dismantling of Western empires thus produced a large array of self-styled nation-states. Those without indigenous foundations were expected to “build” their nations by convincing their citizens that they formed a single people who should cooperate for the common good.[6] Some degree of national solidarity could quickly be generated across ethnic lines through mass education, political organization, and the media, leading enthusiasts to conclude that every independent country was indeed transforming itself into a fully-fledged nation-state. By the 1970s, mainstream scholars, journalists, and politicians alike silently concurred that the process was a foregone conclusion, if not already essentially complete. In the process, nation building lost its original meaning, devolving from a political identity project into an institutional one,[7] occasionally reduced to little more than the pouring of concrete.[8]

The end of the Cold War, followed quickly by the breakup of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, refocused scholarly attention on national cohesion (or its absence) in multi-ethnic countries. What had seemed reasonably solid if youthful nation-states were revealed to be fragile bricolages – whose sudden ruptures could produce horrifying consequences. Ethno-nationalism, wishfully relegated to the past, proved more potent than diplomats could have imagined. By 1996, pessimism had set in. As Martijn Roessingh noted, there was by then “a growing awareness that the tension between territorial integrity of states and the right of people to self-determination will continue to haunt the international community.”[9] Such haunting has hardly diminished in the decades since.

Other aspects of the nation-state ideal were never globally instituted and now appear to be slipping further away from realization. Despite the United Nation’s assertion that every person has the right to a nationality,[10] millions today are stateless. Burma/Myanmar has essentially consigned the entire Rohingya ethnic group to this woeful condition. Many more are denied citizenship; in some countries, such as Qatar, non-citizens constitute the overwhelming majority.[11] (In 1996, Qatar’s government arbitrarily stripped citizenship from an entire local clan.) The problem of statelessness has even led to the open commercialization of political belonging. In 2008, the United Arab Emirates clandestinely purchased Comorian citizenship for its stateless bidoon residents, almost none of whom had any connection whatsoever with Comoros.[12] Nor is Comoros is the only country to sell or otherwise award national membership to non-residents. Despite the League of Nation’s hope that every person would be limited to one nationality, multiple citizenship is becoming ever more common—for those who can afford it. For a select few, a sheaf of passports grants a kind of multinational if not global citizenship.[13] The vast majority, however, remain firmly bonded to a single nation-state, with the least fortunate having no legal homeland at all.

Yet for all this, the stubborn idea that national states uniformly blanket the globe has as firm a grip on the public imagination as ever. In fact, the hybrid formula “nation-state” has surged in popularity. Rarely deployed before 1910, its use grew around the end of World War I and then rose precipitously with the conclusion of the Cold War.[14] Today, it is all but ubiquitous, applied automatically to any state that gains formal independence. South Sudan, for example, was deemed a nation as soon as it became independent in 2011. Yet a mere two years later, the infant country almost collapsed. (As Rory Stewart drily notes, “U.S. intelligence was surprised … when the South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir, declared war on the vice-president, Riek Machar, and killed thousands of civilians from Machar’s ethnic group, the Nuer, in a single night.”[15])

Nation, State, … Country

If state and nation are the heavy-weight terms of the standard geopolitical lexicon, they are joined by a fuzzier third concept, that of the country.[16] Where “state” calls to mind a government and “nation” evokes a people, “country” connotes a homeland.[17] The three terms thus gesture toward different domains of analysis, concerned respectively with politics, people, and place.[18] Yet their usage patterns both differ and overlap in telling ways. For one thing, “country” always stands alone. While the term “nation-state” is commonplace, English speakers have never felt the need to coin the terms “nation-country,” “state-country,” or “nation-state-country.” The spatial dimension of the trifecta usually goes unmarked, found only in the scholarly term “territorial state.” As geographer John Agnew has observed, conventional international-relations theory simply assumes that all sovereign states rule fixed and coherent territories: “country” need not be problematized, since the spatially bounded state is “viewed as existing prior to and as a container of society.”[19]

There is an apparent logic to this way of thinking. States without a corresponding nation certainly exist, as do nations without a corresponding state, but can a nation exist without a terrain to call its own? Surprisingly, the answer is yes – if we consider “nation” in the broadest sense. Historically speaking, Jews were often viewed as constituting a nation well before their claim on the land of Israel/Palestine gained traction through the Zionist movement. In the Soviet Union, Jews were explicitly designated as forming a nation; to this day, a Russian-speaking Jew born in Russia is not counted as Russian in the ethnonational form of the word (“russkie”). Since the Leninist theory of nationality demanded a homeland for each nation in the union, the dispersed nature of the Jewish community presented a problem. The Politburo’s solution was to designate a Jewish autonomous oblast, Birodidzhan, in far eastern Siberia, thousands of miles from where most Jews lived.[20] Evidence indicates that, on the eve of his death, Stalin was planning to deport the entire Soviet Jewish population to this grim Siberian outpost, a process that would undoubtedly have been catastrophic.[21]

But if a nation can exist without a corresponding country, what about a state? For most political scientists, the answer is no; a state must have a “defined and delimited territory,”[22] as well as permanently rooted institutions of authority. Anthropologists, by contrast, usually define the state more broadly.[23] I find the developmental perspective of historian Charles Maier more useful. Maier deems tribal polities as states of a sort while allowing that the fully modern state – his “Leviathan 2.0” – did not begin to emerge until the mid-nineteenth century.[24]

From a historical perspective, one can identify numerous examples of temporarily landless states: self-governing societies that uprooted themselves at some point and migrated together over hundreds or even thousands of miles. This phenomenon was not unusual in Europe during the so-called Völkerwanderung from late antiquity to the early medieval period, when organized groups – often multiethnic –[25] violently pushed into the lands of what had been the Roman Empire. The last major migration of this kind was that of the Magyars in the ninth century. For many decades, until they reached the Danube basin, the Magyars had no lasting association with any particular territory. Nor were large-scale movements of organized groups limited to the distant past. In 1618, the ancestors of the Mongolic Kalmyk people abandoned their homeland in Central Asia and fought their way across the steppe before settling down in a new territory near the northwestern shores of the Caspian Sea in European Russia. A century and a half later, more than half of their descendants returned en masse to their original homeland.[26] Those who remained now enjoy limited national self-governance through their own internal Russian republic. And as late as the nineteenth century, the Lakota nation of central North America, recognized by cultural historians as a state, transplanted itself hundreds of miles to the west. Many indigenous North American nations – including the Lakota themselves – had been making similar moves for centuries.[27]  

Mobile states like the ninth-century Magyars are a rather special case, since their mobility was temporary. But Eurasian steppe peoples often maintained mobile states on a more enduring basis. These were polities whose centers shifted with the seasons, whose boundaries were often fluid, and whose core lands were sometimes abandoned for new territories as they pushed each other around on the steppe chessboard of power politics.

Unfortunately, conventional scholarship has often exaggerated such fluidity, downplaying the significance of steppe political organization to the extent of denying the existence of true statehood across the great Eurasian grasslands.[28] Instead, pastoral societies have often been viewed as mere tribal aggregations held together by kinship, which were only occasionally forged into powerful polities by charismatic leaders such as Genghis Khan. In this view, only densely populated agricultural lands can produce the surpluses and complex division of labor necessary to support genuine states.

This hoary interpretation of steppe politics, however, is being overturned by such scholars as David Sneath,[29]Christopher Atwood,[30] Lkhamsurmen Munkh-Erdene,[31] and Marie Favereau,[32] who convincingly argue that medieval and early modern pastoral states of Central Asia were not only militarily strong but also flexibly yet tightly organized through complex hereditary administrative structures. These enduring institutional arrangements also had clear territorial structures,[33] even if they did not constitute fully territorial states in the contemporary sense. The highly structured administration of Central Asian states facilitated the chain of command, allowing them to survive the death of charismatic leaders.[34] These political features, combined with the military might of their cavalry forces, allowed states of the steppe to repeatedly conquer and then effectively rule vastly more populous sedentary societies. Although it only indirectly affected the outlying “rimlands” of Eurasia (Europe, Japan, and Southeast Asia), this process arguably formed the central dynamic in Eurasian political history for a millennium before the seventeenth century.[35]  

Other kinds of incompletely territorialized states are omnipresent in the historical record, once one knows where to look. In lightly settled agrarian societies, most notably in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, power usually declined with distance from the royal core, eventually overlapping with other spheres of influence (as described in the so-called mandala model of political organization.[36]) The effective areal bases of most premodern European states too were far from fixed, fluctuating from one decade to the next with the ebb and flow of military fortunes or the rewarding or revoking of loyalty to the crown by powerful underlings. Even more important were dynastic politics.[37]Finally, most premodern states focused their claims to sovereignty as much over individuals as over lands, as formalized under the doctrine of “personal jurisdiction.”[38] Feudal arrangements, which linked lords to their underlings through personal ties, persisted well into early modern times. All these governments still cared about the lands over which they exercised power, to be sure. But they did not form countries in the modern sense of the term, where the state is identified first and foremost with the territory under its control.

The emergence of the fully territorial state, like the nation that it came to be associated with, was a gradual process. As Michael Biggs shows, cartography was crucial to the process.[39] In the sixteenth century, European states began mapping their lands to enhance their power and prestige, and by the late eighteenth century national map surveys were common. Accurate and precise maps proved advantageous for both military and administrative purposes. After the post-Napoleonic settlement of 1815, Biggs writes, “the map of Europe was redrawn as territorial states… .”[40]Similar mapping projects were undertaken in China at roughly the same time, using both Chinese and Western cartographic techniques.[41] And as Thongchai Winichakul demonstrates, by the late 1800s any country hoping to withstand European imperialism, such as Siam (Thailand), had to do the same.[42]

As Jordan Branch shows, over much of Europe the concept of such a state—and its cartographic representation—preceded its actualization by several centuries.[43] As early as the sixteenth century, mapmakers depicted countries (some of which, like Italy, had no political salience) as neatly divided, continuous spatial units. They did so largely for practical and aesthetic reasons. Mapping the extraordinarily intricate geopolitical arrangements of the time would have been all but impossible, whereas outlining and then coloring in “countries” was relatively simple. This process also yielded pleasing depictions with commercial appeal. The idealized territorial state was thus planted in the public imagination and would eventually be seized on by rationalizing and centralizing political actors. But it was not until the post-Napoleonic settlement of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 that the territorialized state emerged as the European diplomatic norm.

Branch does not claim that mapping made the modern territorial state, only that it significantly contributed to its development. Obstacles both practical and conceptual long thwarted its realization in Europe. The Americas presented a different opportunity. There, European imperial powers overwhelmed and eventually largely erased indigenous political geography, turning the “New World” into a laboratory for rationalized geopolitical organization. As Branch writes, “It was only after the geometric view of space had been imposed and established in the New World that the same conception came to be applied to the European continent, homogenizing that space as well.”[44] But even over most of the Americas, such territorialization was more notional than actual for a long time. The imperial powers mightcartographically carve up these vast continents among themselves, but powerful indigenous polities remained ensconced in many areas. As late as the mid-nineteenth century, the all-but-unmapped Comanche Empire (as it is evocatively called by Pekka Hämäläinen) made a mockery of national land claims on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border—claims that were firmly etched on almost every contemporary map.[45]

            Although the European state system had been deeply territorialized by the early nineteenth century, the linkage between region and rule remained far from complete. In the era of high imperialism, powerful countries burst their territorial bounds across the globe. This was more than a matter of seizing colonies, bullying local rulers into granting “protectorates,” and divvying up spheres of influence. The imposition of extraterritoriality on China and other weakened states by European imperial powers, for instance, effectively extended sovereign authority over European citizens regardless of where they happened to be. As Pär Cassel explains, “The foreigner not only carried his own laws and institutions into the host country, but the nebulous idea of ‘foreign interests’ meant that almost anything a foreigner was involved with had an extraterritorial aspect.”[46] Echoes of this much-loathed system linger on in the special status accorded to diplomats, who partially remain under the authority of their own states while living in others. Some contemporary governments, moreover, insist on their right to control their citizens’ behavior even when they are abroad. For instance, Seoul has informed South Koreans that they cannot consume cannabis even if they find themselves in a jurisdiction where it is legal.[47] And China may now be taking extraterritoriality even further. According to one report, its 2020 national security law, aimed at reining in Hong Kong, “applies …  to virtually anyone around the globe who speaks publicly about the Chinese regime.”[48] Donald Clarke goes so far as to argue that Article 38 of this law “is asserting extraterritorial jurisdiction over every person on the planet.”[49]

As these myriad examples show, the actual linkage between state and territory remains variable. Yet the imagined connection has been firmly inscribed. In the public imagination, a country is its territory. In Thongchai Winichakul’s unforgettable formulation, every national map has become a logo, instantly recognizable and emotionally charged .[50] Even trivial threats to the shape of that logo provoke “cartographic anxieties,” underpinning geopolitical tensions the world over. As Franck Billé explains,[51] cartographic anxiety arises wherever there is a “perceived misalignment between a political imagination of separateness and the reality of a cultural, ethnic, and economic continuum on the ground.” As we shall see in the following chapter, these inevitable misalignments challenge the standard world model on every front.   

[1] Mazower 2009, p. 27.

[2] Getachew 2019, p. 73.

[3] Countries abstaining from this measure were: Australia, Belgium, the Dominican Republic, France, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

[4] Mazower 2009, 27.

[5] In embracing national self-determination, key post-WWII anticolonial leaders initially sought something beyond a global community of theoretically equal states. Since such an arrangement would, in their view, allow the continued economic subordination of the formerly colonized world, they engaged instead in what Adom Getachew (2019) calls “worldmaking,” envisioning regional federations of newly independent state that would culminate in anti-hierarchical global governance, eventually generating a “welfare world.” As such idealistic schemes came to naught, the ironic result was to reinforce the global system of discrete sovereign states, all of which jealously guarded their own boundaries and perquisites. “Self-determination” in the formerly colonized world would henceforth be essentially inadmissible for any marginalized or disgruntled region or ethnic group that sought to chart its own political path outside of the country to which it had been assigned by colonial authorities. Only Tanzania under Julius Nyerere bucked this policy in recognizing the independence of Biafra, which had seceded from Nigeria in 1968 (Getachew 2019, p. 103).

[6] For early studies of nation-building, see Deutsch and Folt (1966) and Bendix (1964).

[7] See, for example, “Back to Nation-Building in Afghanistan: Good,” by Max Boot, New York Times, August 22, 2017. Boot insists, “The only conceivable path to success lies in fostering stable and effective institutions of government that can police their own territory with diminishing amounts of outside assistance. In other words, nation-building.”

[8] See “Nation-Building at Home: Why We Need Roads, Bridges, and Boring Stuff Like That,” by Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, Nov 27, 2012. Nation building at home: Why we need roads, bridges, and boring stuff like that

[9] Roessingh 1996, 274.

[10] As specified in Article 15 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

[11] Kochenov 2019: 58-59. See Kochenov more generally on the many problems surrounding the idea of citizenship.

[12] “Bidoons in the United Arab Emirates: Deprived of Live and Death.” Geneva Council for Rights and Liberties, September, 2019.

[13] Abrahamian 2015.

[14] See Google Ngram Viewer page: Google Books Ngram Viewer

[15] Stewart 2020, 32.

[16] In common parlance, as in journalistic practice, “country,” “state,” and “nation” tend to be used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, these terms should be preceded by either “sovereign” or “independent” if they are to unambiguously denote the first-order constituents of the global geopolitical system, since the province-level “states” of federally organized countries, such as California in the U.S. or Uttar Pradesh in India, do not count as “states” in this more elevated sense. Nor do the constituent countries of such constitutional monarchies as the U.K. (Wales, for example), Denmark (Greenland, for example), or the Netherlands (Curaçao, for example).

[17] To be sure, a few popular sources include even uninhabited territories, mostly islands, as “countries.” “The Alphabetizer,” for example, describes the world as divided into” hundreds of countries with different languages, cultures, beliefs, and individuals” – and includes Antarctica on its list.

[18] The convergence of the three basic terms employed in the standard model of geopolitics has its own long history, one that highlights some of the complexities and contradictions inherent in the larger schema. A brief etymological digression may clarify what we are dealing with here.

The term “nation” derives from a Latin word meaning “to be born,” which eventually came to refer to groups of people purportedly descended from the same ancestors. As Raymond Williams noted in Keywords (1985, p. 178), “nation” was essentially a racial term for most of its history. Its definitions subsequently branched off in several directions, coming to refer to entities as diverse as home-town associations of students at Swedish universities and sovereign states. The racial origins of the term might seem to nudge its current connotations toward an ethnic conception of nationality, foregrounding concerns about the resurgence of ethnonationalist discourse. What is striking, however, was the rapidity with which “nation” switched from a predominantly racial to a culturally neutral geopolitical term, with prominent authors ignoring the intermediate ethnonational stage in which the nation was most often conceived as a self-consciously political community united by cultural (especially linguistic) commonalities. As recently as 1936, for example, the influential geographer Griffith Taylor expressed regret that most laymen still incorrectly used the terms race and nation as synonyms (1936, p. 21) – an observation that most laypeople today would probably find baffling. Yet Taylor (1936, p. 21) went on to argue that “nation” had by this time more properly come to mean simply “the body of inhabitants of a country united under an independent government of their own.” Taylor thus classified all sovereign states as nations, regardless of their cultural or political characteristics – or their degree of national cohesion. Such effacement of its own evolution, we suspect, is one reason why “nation” has come to be such a troublesome term.

“State,” like “nation,” also derives ultimately from Latin, stemming from stare, “to stand.” Today the English meanings of “state” are wide indeed, referring most broadly (as a noun) to “condition, manner of existing,” as in the phrase “state of mind” (OED, 1971, Volume II, 3025). Its political referent, which evidently dates to the late 13th century, “grew out of the meaning ‘conditions of a country’ with regard to government, prosperity, etc.” (Online Etymological Dictionary:

From denoting the mere circumstances of the polity, “state” came to mean the government itself, and then gradually extended to include the lands and people under the government’s authority. The Oxford English Dictionary(OED) gives this definition in its 29th entry under “state,” where it is defined as “the supreme civil power and government vested in a country or nation.” That usage emerged as early as 1538 (1971, p. 3025). Intriguingly, the 30th definition provided by the OED, also dating to the sixteenth century, points toward the eventual convergence of all three key geopolitical terms: “State: A body of people occupying a defined territory and organized under a sovereign government. Hence the territory … occupied by such a body.”

“Country” likewise comes from Latin, deriving from contra, “against or opposite” (Williams 1985, p. 71). This term came to denote the land lying “over there,” away from some key vantage point. In this sense, “country” referred to areas removed from the center of power, especially those of a rustic nature. The English word retains this definition, used in such constructions as “country music” and “the countryside.” Eventually, “country” also came to mean any expanse of land associated with some specific feature, be it a particular human group (as in “the Basque country”) or even physiographical attributes (“the high country”). As to its specifically geopolitical usage, the shift from denoting an area removed from the center of power to one focused on but extending well beyond that same center is a striking case of a word coming to mean something entirely opposed to its original definition. Thus Singapore is now regarded as a country, albeit one without a countryside to speak of.

Etymological tracing is a fraught pursuit, considering the transformations that words routinely undergo. This exploration of “nation,” “state,” and “country” is meant to be suggestive only, offered to provoke thought rather than to lead to any solid conclusions. After all, the etymologically informed statement that “our family [nation] stands together [state] over there [country]” is not exactly a promising foundation for a geopolitical order.

[19] Agnew 1994, p. 59.

[20] Gessen 2016.

[21] Martin 1998.

[22] Jackson 2007, pp. 5-6.

[23] Bagge 2019, p. 2.

[24] Maier 2012; see page 4 for a discussion of tribal states.  Since the requirements for statehood remain fuzzy, we make frequent recourse to such qualified terms as “state-like” or “statelet.”

[25] Whether the “wandering peoples” of late antiquity formed nations is another question. Most were evidently multi-ethnic and multilingual; the Vandals, who crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 429 before conquering Roman North Africa, may have counted almost as many linguistically Iranian Alans in their numbers as linguistically Germanic Vandals. On the history of the Alans, see Bachrach 1973.

[26] In the process, they lost more than half of their number. See Khodarkovsky 2006.

[27]  Hämäläinen 2019.

[28] Munkh-Erdene 2016.

[29] Sneath 2007.

[30] Atwood 2012.

[31] Munkh-Erdene, 2011, 2016, and 2018.

[32] Favereau 2021.

[33] Munkh-Erdene 2016, p. 652.

[34] Even if the central ruler was removed, the divisional administrative system typically remained intact, allowing state-structures to survive. With an eye to this, Sneath (2007) writes of the “Headless State.”

[35] See Victor Lieberman 2003. Lieberman elaborates the idea that mainland Southeast Asia and Europe exhibit somewhat similar patterns of state and national development owing to the fact that they were largely insulated from conquest by steppe states. But it is essential to note that they were completely immune. The might of the Scythians, Huns, Avars, Bulgars, and Magyars was a significant factor in ancient and early medieval Europe.

[36] Wolters 1999. Siam’s (Thailand’s) transition from a mandala-style geopolitical realm to a modern territorial state is outlined in Thongchai Winichakul’s deservedly celebrated book Siam Mapped (1997).

[37] Bagge (2019, p. 35) argues that the “fundamental principle of early modern international politics was not the integrity of the state but the rights of the dynasty,” while further contending, in opposition to Charles Tilly, that “the European state system was formed by marriage more than by war” (p. 38). In India, premodern ruling dynasties were if anything less firmly associated with stable territorial bases than were their counterparts in Europe.

[38] Cassel 2012, p. 9.

[39] Biggs 1999. See also Ackerman 1982.

[40] Biggs 1999, 390.

[41] Cams 2017

[42] Thongchai 1997.

[43] Branch 2014.

[44] Branch (2014, pp. 113-114). A number of other authors have made similar arguments. As Stuart Elden (2013, p. 245) argues, “It was not a case of a Europe with nation-states with fixed territory as a model that was exported to the rest of the world; rather, the New World proved to be a laboratory where ideas were tried out, concepts forged, and techniques tested and perfected, which were then carried back to Europe.” Benedict Anderson (1983[1991]) makes an analogous case for nationalism, arguing that the national community was first imagined by expatriate Spanish colonialists in Latin America; see especially the foreword to the revised edition of his signal book, Imagined Communities.

[45] Hämäläinen 2008.

[46] Cassel 2012, pp. 4-5.

[47]  “It’s Illegal for South Koreans to Smoke Weed Abroad—Even Where It’s Legal,” by Steve Mollman. Quartz, August 28, 2018. Weed will soon be legal in Canada, but not for South Koreans.

[48] “China Thinks It Can Arrest Basically Anyone on the Planet for Criticizing Communism,” by Daniel Gilbert. Vice News, July 1, 2020.

[49] “Hong Kong’s National Security Law: A First Look.”  The China Collection Blog, June 30, 2020.

[50] Thongchai 1994.

[51] Billé 2016, p. 11.

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