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GeoCurrents’ conceptual concerns

Map of a Selection of Geopolitical Anomalies

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.

* 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.>>>