Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 2)

Chapter Two:

How the Government of the United States Maps the World

(PART 2)

     Erasing a Ghost State in Defiance of the International Community 

     If collapsing states and compromised sovereignty constitute one set of problems, another slippage between the CIA’s map and the world has until recently arisen from the former’s suggestion of statehood in places where sovereignty was never realized in the first place. Yemen and Somalia may now look like anachronisms, but at least they were relatively coherent states at one time. Until 2020, however, the CIA world map suggested that a large block of desert land southwest of Morocco formed the country of Western Sahara, even though this former Spanish colony, mostly under the rule of Morocco since 1975, has never enjoyed self-rule. As the international community understandably deems this annexation illegitimate, no country other than Morocco mapped this land as Moroccan territory. But in 2020, in defiance of international norms, the Trump administration recognized Morocco’s claim, largely to secure its recognition of Israel. The CIA now maps Western Sahara as an integral part of Morocco, even the areas that Morocco does not control, and does not even seek to control.

          Mapping Western Sahara before the Trump administration’s diplomatic turn-around presented the CIA’s cartographers with a challenge. How was this territory, neither a country nor a dependency, to be depicted on a map that categorizes all lands, barring ice-covered Antarctica, as one or the other? (Similar problems are encountered regarding the Palestinian territories, as is explored below). The answer was found in labeling. Western Sahara was not given the all-capital-letters treatment used to identify independent countries, but, unlike dependencies, no overriding sovereign power was noted in parentheses, thus giving the distinctly colored land the appearance of independence. Given such complexities, a brief account of the tragic history of this “ghost state” might explain why such a cartographic anomaly long appeared on the CIA’s world political map.

          When Spain finally pulled out of Africa in 1975-1976, the phosphate-rich colony of Spanish Sahara was immediately invaded by neighboring Morocco and Mauritania; when the dust settled, most of its territory had been annexed by Morocco, a maneuver deemed illicit by the global community. In 1984, in protest against the Moroccan take-over, the Organization of African Unity (predecessor of the current African Union) recognized the formal independence of an entity claiming to represent Western Sahara, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) – prompting Morocco to withdraw from the organization. The SADR is currently acknowledged as a sovereign state by more than forty U.N. members.[1]

          The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic today controls a small slice of Western Sahara’s nominal territory. Morocco firmly rules the rest, which it guards with a heavily fortified series of sand formations (the so-called Moroccan Western Sahara Wall, or Moroccan Berm) that snakes inside the internationally recognized border with Algeria. The zone on the far side of this berm forms something of a no-man’s land under the partial control of the Polisario Front, the military wing of the SADR. Called the “Liberated Territories” by the Polisario Front and the “Buffer Zone” by the Moroccan government, this harsh inland desert is inhabited by some 35,000 people. Although its largest settlement, Tifariti, is the provisional capital of the would-be Sahrawi state, the Polisario Front is not based there. Instead, its physical headquarters are located outside the Western Sahara altogether, in an Algerian oasis town called Tindouf. More than 100,000 Sahrawi people now live on Algerian soil in grim refugee camps south of Tindouf, dwarfing the population that remains in the so-called Liberated Territories.[2]

            The United Nations has long held that the problem of the Western Sahara should be solved by a referendum, allowing the people of the region to choose between independence or union with Morocco. To keep this option open, the UN has maintained a peace-keeping force there called MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) … for more than thirty years. (Designed to be temporary, MINURSO’s mandate has had to be extended more than 40 times since 1991.)  Over the course of those decades, the international consensus against Morocco has frayed, dimming the prospects for Sahrawi independence. In 2017 Morocco was readmitted to the African Union despite its recalcitrance on the issue. European human-rights organizations campaign against importing goods from the disputed territory, but to little effect.[3] In early 2020, Bolivia suspended its recognition of the SADR,[4]following the lead of 42 other countries. Multinational companies that operate in Morocco must acknowledge that Morocco effectively controls the region, as McDonald’s discovered to its chagrin in 2007 when it offered a “happy meal” map depicting Western Sahara as a separate country.[5] (In 2016, a contrite McDonald’s opened an outlet in Western Sahara itself, an action that some experts saw “as recognition that the disputed territory belongs to the Kingdom of Morocco.”)[6] The Trump administration’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in 2020 was widely denounced as irresponsible by both Republican and Democratic foreign policy experts, with arch-conservative John Bolton demanding that Joe Biden quickly “reverse course on Western Sahara.”[7]

            Given these vexatious complications, how should Western Sahara and Morocco be mapped? There is no easy answer. Wikipedia has wisely side-stepped the challenge, acknowledging the contested nature of power in the area by setting four competing maps side by side.[8] Needless to say, only one of the four matches the current vision of the CIA.

            Below and Beyond the State

           Countries with a more corporeal history than Western Sahara can meanwhile reveal other blind spots in the standard geopolitical model. One concerns political taxonomy. A signal feature of the CIA map is its emphasis on national boundaries to the exclusion of all others, implying that internationally recognized states are the universal locus of political authority. Provinces, autonomous divisions, and other lower levels of the political hierarchy[9] could of course be mapped as well, but the CIA chooses not to do so. Strikingly, subdivisions of the sovereign state are invisible not only on its global map but also on its more detailed regional maps. Nor do they show up on the national maps in its often-cited World Factbook.[10] By the same token, supra-state entities like the EU have no place in CIA’s cartographic program. In the final analysis, it is only countries that count, as only they are the persons of the international order.

          But is that really true? Consider the strange case of Belgium. Starting in 2010, the Belgian legislature went for more than a year and a half without being able to form a government, and it failed to do so for an even longer period following a governmental collapse in 2018. While such hiatuses would usually be taken as an alarming indicator of a faltering state, these ones barely raised an eyebrow in the international community,[11] and for good reason. In practice, both Belgium’s internal regions and the European Union do more governing than does its “national” government. The scare quotes here are deliberate. Belgium is not a nation as strictly defined, as the requisite feelings of solidarity are lacking. Former Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme once quipped that the only things common across the land were “the King, the football team, [and] some beers.” Despite The Economist’s retort that “unity through beer is not to be dismissed out of hand,”[12] this is not much on which to ground a nation. The anti-EU British firebrand Nigel Farage went so far as to call Belgium “pretty much a non-country” to the face of the Belgian representative on the floor of the European parliament.[13]

     Beneath Farage’s mind-boggling rudeness[14] is a kernel of truth. Belgium emerged as an independent state in relatively recent times—and largely as a matter of diplomatic convenience. A piece of the late-medieval realm of Burgundy, it passed to the Spanish crown through marriage and inheritance and was later yielded to Austria after the War of Spanish Secession, only to be conquered and annexed by France in 1793. With the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, its future lay in doubt. Austria had little interest in taking it back, having “learnt the hard way that isolated territories brought more trouble than revenue.”[15] Instead, the territory passed to the Netherlands. Its French-speaking elite population chafed under Dutch rule until 1830, when, with the connivance of Britain and France, a new state came into existence, one that would significantly expand nine years later by assimilating much of Luxembourg. The new country derived its name from the ancient Belgae confederation, a polity that had once symbolized all the Low Countries under the guise of Leo Belgicus (the Belgic Lion). The original confederation had both Celtic and Germanic components, and the new-born Belgium was similarly divided, this time between Dutch- (Flemish) and French- (Walloon) speaking communities (with a small German-speaking area thrown into the mix in 1920). Attempts at national consolidation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were never particularly successful.



          Nor is Belgium the only European country where the nation-state model simply does not apply. Bosnia is even less cohesive. Not being a member of the EU—an entity that some regard as a “quasi-state”[16] in its own right—Bosnia (officially Bosnia and Hercegovina) cannot rely on that robust multinational framework to shore up its legitimacy as Belgium does. Yet in some ways, Bosnia too is subject to the authority of the European Union. The most powerful official in the country is probably the “High Representative,” charged with representing the EU (and the larger international community) in making sure that Bosnia carries out the terms of the 1995 Dayton Accord.[17] In practice, Bosnia functions as a single state only in the international arena. Domestically, it is split in two, divided between an autonomous Serb Republic (Republika Srpska (not to be confused with the neighboring Republic of Serbia) and a troubled[18] Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (informally called the Bosniak-Croat Federation).[19] Viewed in this light, Bosnia is more a de jure than a de facto country, one held together largely by the insistence of the international community. A non-diplomatic political map would surely show its federal divisions.[20]

[1] See the Wikipedia article entitled, “International Recognition of the Saharwi Arab Democratic Republic”:

[2] Shelley 2004.

[3] See, for example, “Trouble in Paradise: The Canary Island Beach Accused of Illegally Importing Sand,” by Anders Lundqvist and Rowan Bauer, The Guardian, July 28, 2017:

[4] “Sahara: Bolivia Abandons Polisario: Separatists’ Isolation Deepens.” North Africa Post, January 21, 2020.

[5] “McDonalds Morocco Sorry for ‘Offensive’ Meal,” Al Arabiya News, Dec. 2. 2008.

[6] The quotation is found in “Morocco: McDonald’s to Open in Disputed Western Sahara,” in ANSAMed, August 10, 2016.  Morocco: McDonald’s to open in disputed Western Sahara – General news

[7] “Biden Must Reverse Course on Western Sahara,” by John Bolton. Foreign Policy, December 15, 2020.

[8] See the Wikipedia article “Western Sahara”:

Note that even this commendable cartography overlooks the military command-center of the would-be Sahrawi state in neighboring Algeria.

[9] For a comprehensive global exposition of such divisions, see the website Statoids: Administrative Divisions of Countries. Statoids


[11] See “589 Days With No Elected Government: What Happened in Belgium?,” by Valerie

Straus, Washington Post, October 1, 2013

[12] “Belgium Diary: Keep it Together,” The Economist, October 5, 2007:

[13] In 2010, Farage assailed then-President of the EU Council Herman van Rompuy by saying, “You appear to have a loathing for the very concept of the existence of nation-states — perhaps that’s because you come from Belgium, which of course is pretty much a non-country.” “Nigel Farage,” Wikiquotes:

[14] Farage’s screed earned him a €2,980 fine for “inappropriate behavior.”

[15] The quotation is from McEvedy (1972, p. 80). The late Colin McEvedy, a psychiatrist and amateur historical-political-geographer, was a brilliant writer and cartographer who deserves far more scholarly attention than he has received.

[16] Painter 2009, p. 35. As Robert Jackson (2007, p. 151), citing Neil MacCormick, notes, “The European Union is sometimes portrayed as a ‘thoroughgoing’ transcendence of the sovereign state.”

[17] The Dayton Accord was the treaty that ended the bloody civil war following the collapse of Yugoslavia. According to its website, the Office of the High Representative seeks to “ensure that Bosnia and Herzegovina evolves into a peaceful and viable democracy on course for integration in Euro-Atlantic institutions.” From the Official Webpage, “The Office of the High Representative” (“About OHR,” under “General Information.”):

[18] See “Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina – A Parallel Crisis,” International Crisis Group Report #209, Sept. 28, 2010:

[19] The country’s official head of state, meanwhile, is lodged in a three-member collective presidency that by law must include one ethnic Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb (from the official website, “Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovinia”:

As a society, Bosnia is cleaved among these three ethno-national groups, with largely separate institutions regulating life for the traditionally Muslim Bosniaks, the traditionally Roman Catholic Croats, and the traditionally Eastern Orthodox Serbs (see “Bosnia and Herzegovina — Two Decades after Dayton,” by Maja Halilovic-Pastuovic, in Political Violence @ a Glance, March 14, 2017.

[20] The map of Bosnia and Herzegovina found in the CIA World Factbook does show its federal division.


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