Stephen Krasner

About GeoCurrents

Map of a Selection of Geopolitical Anomalies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mapping Forms of Government in the 18th Century and Today

Forms of government in 18th century Europe

Forms of government in 18th century EuropeAs we have seen, maps from the 18th century typically subdivide Europe in a different manner from historical maps produced today, focusing much less on sovereignty. Cartographers typically divided the region into a dozen or so “countries,” some of which were independent kingdoms and others dependent lands, and one of which was a supranational organization (the Holy Roman Empire). In atlas after atlas, the same divisions employed by Robert de Vaugondy that we examined last week reappear. Minor discrepancies are encountered; some cartographers separated Norway from Denmark and Ireland from Britain, and a few differentiated the southern Low Countries (modern Belgium, essentially) from Germany. By the end of the century, most mapmakers were portraying Prussia as a separate “country,” but only the Prussian lands in the east, not those within the Empire.

Enlightenment-era cartographers seldom explained their criteria for partitioning Europe. In a 1783 introductory text (Atlas des Infans*), however, the system of division is laid out in some detail. Europe, the anonymous mapmaker proclaims, is divided into sixteen pays, (countries), described as the principal states of the region: Portugal, Spain, France, Germany (Roman Empire), Switzerland, Italy, the Low Countries, Great Britain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Muscovy, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and Prussia. He further notes that the Italy is “composed of many sovereign states”; as he earlier deemed Italy itself a “principal state,” the mapmaker obviously did not view the state per se as wrapped up with sovereignty.

Despite the criteria that he used for mapping, the author of the Atlas des Infans was concerned with sovereignty, and elsewhere in the text he outlined the sovereign entities of Europe. His main concern here, however, was not to detail all of the many states that might have been regarded as independent, as he ignored hereditary polities with a status below that of a Grand Duchy. His aim was rather to distinguish the varieties of sovereign authority then existing, as all independent states were not regarded as having equal standing. As a result, he carefully distinguished republics from non-republican polities, and then divided the latter category into five distinct forms based on the titles of their sovereigns. Europe, he informed his readers, had one ecclesiastical sovereign (the Pope, ruling the Papal States), three emperors (those of Russia, Germany, and Turkey), eleven kings, one archduke (ruling Austria), and one grand duke (ruling Tuscany).

Most of the kingdoms listed in the Atlas des Infans were also reckoned as countries (pays), but not all. The eleven “kings” of Europe were described as reigning over the kingdoms of France, Spain, England, Portugal, Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Prussia, Bohemia & Hungary, the Two Sicilies, and Sardinia. Although the emphasis was on the personal nature of the monarchies, no mention was made of the fact that the king of “Bohemia and Hungary”—oddly combined here—was also the Archduke of Austria and the Emperor of Holy Roman Empire; as was typical of the time, the jointly ruled collection of states that we refer to as the Hapsburg or Austrian Empire remained invisible. Note also that the “country” (or “principal state”) of Italy was partitioned among two kingdoms, one grand duchy and one ecclesiastical state (as can be seen in the map that I have created based on the political taxonomy laid out in the Atlas des Infans**). Later in the text, the author notes that northern Italy included nine sovereign states and central Italy three more. Most of these states, however, were excluded from the general discussion of Europe, apparently too insignificant to merit discussion.

When it came to republics, the Atlas des Infans was far more comprehensive, including even exiguous San Marino, a sovereign state that still styles itself the “most serene republic.” Of the republics listed, two others were essentially mere city-states, Ragusa (Dubrovnic) and Geneva, and two others city-states that controlled sizable hinterlands, Venice and Genoa. Of the republics listed, only the Swiss Federation and the United Provinces (the Netherlands) also counted as countries or principal states. The extra level of attention given to republics may simply reflect their rarity, but it might also convey concern about this radical departure from the norm of monarchy.

Wikipedia map of forms of governmentModern-day world political maps rarely specify forms of government. What matters today is whether a given state is sovereign, as all sovereign states are regarded as forming equivalent individuals in the global community of nations. Specifying forms of government, moreover, is a surprisingly difficult exercise. The Wikipedia article on the subject does as well as might be expected, but the map that accompanies it, posted here, is of little use. I have on occasion use this map in an classroom exercise, removing the legend and asking students what it could possibly depict—and no one yet has guessed correctly. The problem, as is admitted in the key, is distinguishing the proclaimed form of government from the actual system of governance; that such democracies such as Costa Rica, South Korea, and Chile are classified alongside such non-democratic states such as Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe as “full presidential republics” is more than a little misleading. Iran too falls into the same cartographic category, although in the article that accompanies the map it is also more appropriately classified as a theocracy, along side only the Vatican City. Other discrepancies are also found between map and text. In the article, for example, Qatar is classified as an absolute monarchy, and Egypt as a “military junta state.” In an amusing and euphemistic understatement, the author deems Somalia as a “transitional state,” one in which “the system of government …, is in transition or turmoil and [is] classified with the current direction of change.”

An accurate mapping of the form of government still forces one to bypass sovereignty, as different subdivisions of composite states sometimes have different governmental forms. On the Wikipedia map, non-sovereign Hong Kong and Macao are depicted separately from China, as their governmental systems are completely diffferent. Note also dependencies are mapped separately from the states that hold their sovereignty. Almost all are put in the grey “other” category, yet Greenland is classified, like Denmark, a constitutional monarchy.

The underlying problem with classifying countries by their forms of government is one of pretense, as governments often pretend to be something that they are not. But as regular readers of GeoCurrents have seen, such charades run rampant through most of our schemes of geopolitical classification. As Stanford political scientist Stephen Krasner puts it, sovereignty is “organized hypocrisy.” Perhaps such a situation is to be expected; in the realm of diplomacy, elaborate facades are necessary. When it comes to educational and academic endeavors, however, it is our duty to strip away pretense and try to reveal what lies beneath. As such, it does us little good to pretend that Somalia is a “state in transition,” rather than the collapsed state barely hanging onto life through international support that it actually is.

*Atlas des enfans; ou, Nouvelle method pour apprendre la geographie. Published in Lyon by J.M. Bruyset., 1783

* *Unfortunately, the map is slightly anachronistic, as I used a base map depicting European states in 1700s, whereas the Atlas des Infans depicts the situation in the mid- or even late 1700s.

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