standard world model

Key to Map of Geopolitical Anomalies

Map of a Selection of Geopolitical Anomalies

Map of a Selection of Geopolitical AnomaliesAs the title indicates, only a selection of geopolitical anomalies are indicated on the map. Many more are ignored, including the Basque nationalist movement, the Catalan nationality seeking status as a nation, the British bastion of Gibraltar, and the Spanish North African exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla—and that is merely for Spain and environs. In regard to colonial remnants, those of France are emphasized, as they are particularly extensive, scattered, and of diverse geopolitical status. A comprehensive map would have to be so involved as to be virtually unreadable. As noted below, some places, marked with #’s, are so geopolitically complex as to defy labels.

Many of the selected places have been analyzed in GeoCurrents, as linked to below (note: links are functional only through the letter “s”).  The other, I hope, will the subjects of future posts.


# (Particularly Complex Anomalies): Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Israel/Palestinian Territories indicated. Here one finds multiple irregularities and challenges to the ideals of the nation-state and indeed the territorial state itself.

Armed “Cease-Fire” Statelet: The United Wa State in northern Burma (Myanmar) indicated. The United Wa State is a well-armed narco-statelet, that had long been an a cease-fire relationship with the Burmese government. That relationship is now in doubt. Ethnic militias abound around the peripheries of Burma, some of which have signed similar cease-fire agreements with the government.

Autonomous Country: Faroe Islands indicated. The Faroe Islands, like Greenland, form an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. Despite being under the sovereignty of Demark, and despite being in Europe, they are not part of the European Union.

Autonomy & Insurgency: Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in the Philippines indicated. A section of Mindanao and most of the Sulu Archipelago have been granted limited autonomy within the Philippines, but that has not stopped the Muslim insurgency in the region, in part because of the autonomous region’s restricted boundaries. State-sanctioned private militias have also played a role, undermining the notion that the state itself has a monopoly on the “legitimate” use of violence.


Barely Recognized Puppet State: Abkhazia indicated. Abkhazia is a de facto independent state that the international community regards as part of Georgia. Many consider it to be a Russian puppet state. Recognized as a legitimate state by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and, as of June 7, 2011, Vanuatu.  Nauru reportedly sold its recognition to Russia for $50 million. Many consider Abkhazia, to be a Russian puppet state. The situation is similar in regard to nearby South Ossetia.

Bifurcating Country?: Nigeria indicated. The split between northern and southern Nigeria is intensifying, bringing into question the future integrity of the country.

Bipolar Country, Currently Split: Libya indicated. Libya formed a relatively coherent country until recently, but it was always deeply split east from west. It is currently divided largely along those lines.

British Territory claimed by Argentina: Falkland Islands/Malvinas, South George, etc. indicated. The Falkland/Malvinas controversy makes for a particularly tense territorial dispute that seems to be heating up again. Discussions in the news almost invariably leave out South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

City State: Singapore indicated. Strictly speaking, city-states are not nation-states, as they lack an adequate territorial extent. Following the standard world model, most observers predicted economic disaster for Singapore when it gained independence in 1965. They were spectacularly wrong. Singapore’s military requires agreements with other Southeast Asian countries to give it adequate room in which to train.


Collapsed State: Somalia indicated. Somalia ceased to be a functioning state and a coherent country in 1991, yet it continues to be mapped as sold and sovereign state. The territory controlled by its internationally recognized government continues to fluctuate, but it often encompasses little more than a few neighborhoods of Mogadishu. That government is always described as “transitional,” but it is far from clear what it is “transitioning” from and to.

Composite Country of Four Nations: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland indicated.  The U.K. is the sovereign entity that is officially composed of four nations (England, Scotland, Wales, and (Northern) Ireland. For several athletic purposes, Ireland as a whole is a nation once again.


Contested Borders: India/China border indicated, as well as Chile/Bolivia border. Contested border are scattered across much of the world, but the conflict between India and China, which entails Pakistan as well, is particularly intricate and problematic. The dispute between Chile and Bolivia is of long-standing and is seemingly irresolvable.

Contested Islands: Southernmost Kuril Islands, Dokdo/Takeshima, Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands indicated. Some of the world’s most intense territorial disputes concern islands in East Asian waters. Japan, Russia, South Korea, China, and Taiwan are parties to the various disputes indicated here.

Crown Colony Financial Refuge: Isle of Man indicated. Crown colonies have an anomalous position; they are not part of the UK, although they remain under its sovereign umbrella. As they have their own financial laws, they have become globally important centers of the dubious “off-shore banking industry.”  The Channel Islands are in the same category.

Country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands: Curaçao indicated. Like several other former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, Curaçao is now officially a constituent country with the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Hence it is a country without sovereignty.


Defeated Insurgent State: Northern Sri Lanka indicated. Northern and part of eastern Sri Lanka formed an insurgent state for decades until defeated in 2009. According to some reports, the area is now treated essentially as an occupied territory. It will take some time to see whether Sri Lanka can become an coherent state. Nation-state status seems out of the question for the time being, considering the high levels of antipathy between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority.

Divided State: Cyprus indicated. Cyprus is supposedly a single-island country, but in actuality it is divided into three sovereign entities. The Republic of Cyprus occupies most of the southern portion of the island. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized as a sovereign state only by Turkey, occupies most of the north. A buffer zone separates the two states. In addition, the U.K. maintains sovereign control over two military bases, Akrotiri and Dhekelia, on the island.

Dutch Municipality: Saba indicated. When the Netherlands Antilles was disbanded in 2010, several of its constituent islands became constituent countries within the Dutch kingdom. Others, such as Saba, became special Dutch municipalities—so special that they use the US dollar as their currency and employ English as the medium of instruction in their schools.

Encapsulated State: Lesotho indicated. The oddity of Lesotho, a country completely surrounded by another (South Africa), is often overlooked. Such encapsulation compromises Lesotho’s sovereign integrity. The world’s only other encapsulated countries are micro-states (San Marino and the Vatican City).


Exclave in Rebellion: Cabinda indicated. Cabinda, an oil-rich exclave of Angola, has been in rebellion for some time.

Federation: United Arab Emirates (UAE) indicated. The UAE is a relatively loose federal state; as a result, it cannot be regarded as a nation-state. Its largest constituent emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, are often treated in the media as if they were independent countries.

Feudal Remnant: Andorra indicated. The Principality of Andorra, like several other European micro-states, is essentially a remnant of the European pre-modern “feudal” order of parcellized sovereignty. Officially a “co-principality,” Andorra has two heads of state, both of whom are foreigners: the president of France and the Spanish Bishop of Urgell. The president of France is thus a reigning monarch, albeit not of France.

France: Réunion and French Guiana indicated. Réunion and French Guiana, like Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, are integral parts of France and hence of the European Union as well. France is thus (in part) a South American country, just as the EU is a South American organization.

French Territory: Kerguelen and other French Sub-Antarctic islands indicated, as well as Saint Pierre and Miquelon Islands off the coast of Canada. Saint Pierre and Miquelon form a remnant of France’s once vast North American empire. France also controls the sizable (2,800 square miles/7,200 square kilometers) Kerguelen archipelago in the south Indian Ocean.

Global Commons?/Overlapping Wedges: Antarctica indicated. Antarctica is often regarded as a global commons, but seven countries maintain partially overlapping, wedge-shaped claims to the ice-bound continent.

Hollow State: Democratic Republic of Congo indicated. The DR Congo barely functions as a state, its government effectively controlling a relatively a relatively small part of its territory.


Incongruous Commonwealth: Puerto Rico indicated. Puerto Rico, like the Northern Mariana Islands, occupies an incongruous geopolitical position. It is not fully part of the US, but neither is it a mere dependency (as are Guam, American Samoa, etc). Puerto Rica is instead officially classified as a “commonwealth.” Four U.S. states (Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts) also have official “commonwealth” status. There is no connection between the two kinds of commonwealths. In fact, in neither instance does the term “commonwealth” have any real meaning at all.

Kingdom of Multiple Countries: Netherlands indicated. Several former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean are now classified as constituent countries of the Kingdom the Netherlands. Denmark is also a kingdom of multiple countries.

Legal Buffer: Zone of Excision: Sea-space around northern Australia indicated. Australia maintains a large oceanic buffer for the purposes of keeping out illegal immigrants. Australian islands within this zone occupy an anomalous geopolitical position.

Legal Autonomy: Aceh in northern Sumatra indicated. Aceh’s seemingly interminable insurgency came to an end in 2005 when the it was granted substantial autonomy as a Special Region of Indonesia. It enjoys legal as well as political autonomy, and has broadly and controversially instituted Sharia (Islamic law).

Looted Lands: Northeast DR Congo and environs indicated. Vast areas here are not under the effective control of any state; rival militias often loot and plunder with virtual impunity, despite the presence of U.N. “peacekeepers.” The vicious Lord’s Resistance Army continues to operate out of its stronghold in Garamba National Park in northeastern DR Congo.

Maoist Lands: Upland Areas of Eastern India Indicated.  Vast tracks of land in eastern India are not effectively controlled by the Indian government, due to the presence of Maoist insurgents.

Mostly Claimed by Neighboring State: Guyana indicated. Venezuela claims more than half of Guyana’s territory.

Mostly Unrecognized State: Taiwan indicated.  Taiwan is a de facto independent country, but it only recognized as such by twenty-three sovereign states, mostly located in the Pacific and Caribbean regions. In general, it has to pay for the recognition that it does receive. As a result, Taiwan must rely on euphemistic tags in international forums, where it is generally called “Chinese Taipei.” Taiwan itself claims not just all of China, but all of Mongolia as well as pieces of a number of other countries.

Multinational Federation, Multiple Republics: Russian Federation (Russia) indicated. Russia is officially a multinational federation rather than a nation state. As a result, many of its citizens are not Russian in terms of nationality.

Multiple Enclaves/Exclaves: The India/Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan/Uzbekistan, and Belgium/Netherlands borders are indicated. These boundaries between these countries cannot de drawn as straight lines, as exclave/enclaves abound.

Multiple Kingdoms within a Country: Uganda indicated. Uganda contain several indigenous kingdoms that retain strong symbolic positions that sometimes influence national politics.


Multiple State Claims: Spratly Islands indicated. All or part of the Spratly Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines, resulting in pronounced international tension.

Narco-Territories: Scattered areas in northern Mexico indicated. To the extent that the Mexican government is fighting a real war against narcotics traffickers in its own territory, its sovereignty over the lands in question is severely compromised.

Nation Larger Than State: Tajikistan indicated. Tajikistan, as its name indicates, is nationally based on the Tajik ethnic group, yet many more Tajiks live outside of Tajikistan than within it. A number of other countries, including Laos, Azerbaijan, and Mongolia, are in the same category.

National Division?: Zulia region of Venezuela indicated. A non-Venezuelan sense of national identity seems to be growing the Zulia region around Lake Maracaibo in northwestern Venezuela. Zulia has long been in cultural opposition to the rest of the country; brands that sell well in Caracas generally don’t sell in Zulia, and vice versa.

New State?: Southern Sudan indicated. Southern Sudan is scheduled to become a new, internationally recognized state this summer. Its future and its border with Sudan remain in doubt.


Non-Administered Tribal Areas: The Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan indicated. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan are not actually “federally administered.” In fact, they are really not really administered at all, as they remain tribally autonomous.

Non-Autonomous Autonomous Areas: Xinjiang, and Tibet in China indicated. Several large areas of China have been designated as “autonomous areas” due to the presence of large, indigenous non-Han Chinese populations; little if any real, autonomy, however, has ever been granted. Movements for independence, or at least real autonomy, are active in both areas. Tibet in particular has a large “virtual” movement for independence, found on the internet.


Non-Congruent Borders/Administration: Egypt/Sudan border indicated. The administrative border here does not coincide with the official border. The Hala’ib Triangle is claimed by Sudan but administered by Egypt; the nearby Bir Tawil triangle (which is not triangularly shaped) is claimed by neither state. As a result, Bir Tawil is officially terra nullius, claimed by no state. The only other land in the same category is Marie Byrd Land in Antarctica.

Non-National State: Belgium indicated. Any sense of Belgium nationality is extraordinarily weak; even as a state, Belgium is tottering. But that is of little account, as both the regional governments of Belgium and the supra-state European Union are of more significance than the “national” government of the country.

Non-Sovereign County: Greenland indicated. Greenland is now officially a constituent country within the kingdom of Denmark.

Non-Sovereign Sovereign States: The United States of America indicated. A number of the constituent states of the United States of America have officially declared their sovereignty. But the sovereignty that they have declared is far from genuine sovereignty as the term is generally understood.

Non-Territorial Sovereign Entities: Rome indicated. The Vatican City is an widely recognized sovereign state, but its realm consists of a cluster of buildings—an area hardly large enough to constitute a genuine territorial state. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (Knights of Malta), recognized as sovereign by 104 states, is also headquartered in Rome. Its sovereignty might be said to extend over two buildings.

One Country, Numerous “First Nations”: Canada indicated. The indigenous peoples of Canada are officially designated as “first nations.” Considering as well Quebecoise separatism, Canada can hardly be considered a nation-state.

One Nation, Two States: Korea indicated. The Koreans in general have an extremely strong sense of national identity, but the nation has been split between two antagonistic states for decades.

Permanently Leased Sovereignty: Guantanamo Bay in Cuba indicated. Guantanamo Bay is officially part of Cuba, but the United States controls it, and exercises effective sovereignty over it, through an unbreakable lease. The minimal annual payments made by the U.S. government are never redeemed by Cuba.

Plurinational State: Bolivia indicated. Bolivia is constitutionally a “plurinational state” composed of several nations. Hence it is by definition not a nation-state.

Proclaimed but Non-Existent States: Communitarian Republic of Moskitia and Republic of Hau Pakumoto indicated. In both cases, indigenous groups demanding independence have declared their own sovereignty, but such declarations have little meaning, and are essentially ceremonial.

Proclaimed Virtual State Entity. The northern Caucasus republics of Russia indicated.  The Russian republics of the northern Caucasus, including mostly Christan North Ossetia, have been deemed by Islamist forces to form the Caucasus Emirate, a “self-proclaimed virtual state entity.”

Protectorate: Bosnia and Herzegovina indicated. Bosnia and Herzegovina is recognized as a sovereign state, but it does not function as one, being split between a “Serb Republic” (Republika Srpska) and a barely functional “Bosniak-Croat Federation” (Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina). Ultimate authority for the country as a whole is in the hands of the European Union’s High Representative, making Bosnia and Herzegovina something of an EU protectorate. The division between “Bosnia” and “Herzegovina,” moreover, is largely historical and has no bearing on the country’s actual divisions.

Protracted Insurgency: Indonesian portion of New Guinea indicated. Western New Guinea was incorporated into Indonesia in the 1960s through a process that most international observers regard as underhanded. A smoldering but widespread insurrection has been going on ever since. Similar problems have occurred elsewhere in eastern Indonesia.

Quasi-Colonial Financial Refuge: Cayman Islands indicated. The Cayman Islands, like several other islands and island groups in the Caribbean, are legally autonomous British dependencies, which allows them to engage in shady and highly profitable financial dealings.


Quasi-Sovereign Reservations: Four-corners area of the United States indicated.American Indian reservations are regarded as having tribal sovereignty, but such sovereignty is a far cry from true sovereignty.


Quasi-State Special Administrative Regions: Hong Kong and Macao indicated. Hong Kong and Macao are officially part of China, but they have their governments, legal codes, and border controls. When it comes to international statistics, they are often tallied as if they were independent countries.


Rebellious Panhandle: Caprivi Strip of Namibia indicated. Countries ideally have compact shapes, but not all do. Namibia’s narrow Caprivi Strip gives the country a particularly aberrant form, which it acquired from the German imperial drive to obtain a access to the Zambezi River for its the colony of Southwest Africa. The Caprivi Strip has long been the site of insurgent activities.

Real but Unrecognized State: Somaliland indicatedSomaliland is a functional and relatively well-run state within the official boundaries of the collapsed state of Somalia. Although it has declared its own statehood, it lacks, international recognition. Ethiopia, however, unofficially recognizes it.

Recognized State in “Free Association” with Another: Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) indicated. FSM is internationally recognized as independent and is a member of the UN. Yet it remains tightly linked to and essentially dependent on the United States. The Marshall Islands and Palau fall in the same category.


Reunited Country?: Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) indicated. From 2003 to 2010, Ivory Coast was a divided country. It remains to be seen whether its recent reunion will hold.


Self-Declared State: Ambazonia indicated. Ambazonia, the former British, Anglophone part of Cameroon, has “declared” independence from the Francophone core of the country.

Smugglers’ Lands: Parts of Eastern Paraguay indicated. Paraguay’s control over many of its border districts remains minimal, as these areas have long been under the effective control of smuggling operations.

State Lacking Legitimate Monopoly on Violence: Lebanon indicated. The Shiite Organization Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the Lebanese government, yet it retains its own separate militia which is more powerful than the national military.

Stateless Nations: Greater Balochistan, Kurdistan, and Oromia indicated. A number of relatively coherent nations—groups of people with a common political identity aspiring to independence—have no state of their own. Among the largest of these so-called stateless nations are Kurdistan, partitioned among Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, Balochistan, divided among Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, and Oromia, a region of Ethiopia.

Stateless People: The Rohingya area of western Burma (Myanmar) indicated. Most Rohingya people have been denied Burmese citizenship/nationality, a situation that has generated a human-rights catastrophe.

Sui Generis Collectivity. New Caledonia indicated. New Caledonia is a possession of France; its geopolitical position is so anomalous that it is officially designated as “Sui Generis Collectivity.” (

Tax Haven. Norfolk Island indicatedNorfolk Island is a geopolitically anomalous part of Australia, allowing it to function as an international tax haven.

Theatrical Insurgency. Chiapas Mexico indicated. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation has declared “war” on Mexico, but its struggle is in large part theatrical.

Tribal Wars: Papua New Guinea indicated. With hundreds ethnic groups, Papua New Guinea (PNG) lacks effective control over much of its territory, where small-scale tribal wars are common. A more organized and protracted insurgency has long smoldered in the mineral-rich island of Bouganville, part of PNG politically, but physically joined to the Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands are another unstable country, plagued by conflict between the residents of the islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita. Much of Melanesia forms an “arc of instability” that has required periodic intervention by Australia and other countries. (;

Unclaimed Insurgency. Southern Thailand indicated. The brutal insurgency in Southern Thailand, a largely Muslim, Malay-speaking area, has made no over political claims. Some observers think that it is propelled in part by thre drug kratom. (

Uncontrolled Lands: Central, southern Sahara indicated. Vast stretches of the Sahara Desert are not under the effective control of any government, regardless what our maps tell us. Tribal groups and Islamist militants vie for control in many areas.


Unrecognized Dependent State. Nagorno-Karabakh indicated. Nagorno-Karabakh styles itself an independent state, but in actuality it is joined with Armenia.  According to the international community, it is part of Azerbaijan.

Unrecognized Puppet State: Transnistria (Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic) indicated. Transnistria is a de facto independent state that the international community regards as part of Moldova. Many consider it to be a Russian puppet state.

Unrecognized State in “Free Association” With Another: Cook Islands indicated. The Cook Islands are in “free association” with New Zealand, just as the Federated States of Micronesia are in “free association” with the United States. But the Cook Islands, unlike FSM, is not counted as an independent country by the international community.

Vanquished Areas. Darfur indicated. The insurgency in Darfur has largely been broken, but that does not mean that the region has been reintegrated in a meaningful sense into the state of Sudan, let alone the nation.

Vast French Sea-Space: French Polynesia indicated. France, like several other countries, has a number of far-flung dependencies and exclaves, many of which are archipelagic. As countries are granted 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zones around each island that they control, France in effect retains a vast oceanic realm.

Key to Map of Geopolitical Anomalies Read More »

About GeoCurrents

Map of a Selection of Geopolitical Anomalies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About GeoCurrents Read More »