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We now come to the most important acknowledged gap between the world model (based on theoretically equivalent national units) and the world map: the remaining colonial and post-colonial dependencies. Most of these territories are so small that they are a challenge to depict when mapping at the global scale.
As this inventory reveals, getting a handle on all the subtleties of the international system is a maddening pursuit. The closer we look, the more irregularities we find. Riddled with contested boundaries and competing claims—and alive with moving borders, shared sovereignties, exclaves and enclaves, ghost states and para-countries—the political patchwork we actually inhabit is a precarious and jerry-rigged affair.
Nesting territories, like temporally fluctuating Pheasant Island, are a good example of geo-anachronisms: survivals of a pre-modern order that was built on radically different premises from the modern norm of clean-cut, stable borders. Geo-anachronism has other telltale expressions as well, especially in Europe.
Thus far we have looked at cases where the official U.S. government map has persisted in showcasing lapsed, divided, or phantom nation-states. Another way that is misleads is by not representing a class of functional states: those whose existence is officially denied by the international community.
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…
Consider Somalia and Yemen. In the terms of political scientist Robert Jackson, both today are “quasi-states”that have lost control over most of their putative territory. While it is theoretically possible for Somalia or Yemen to experience a renaissance in the coming years, that scenario seems unlikely.
Insightful though Khanna’s cartography may be, rumors of the death of the state are greatly exaggerated. Despite the undeniable rise of global networks, I see no evidence that territorially bounded polities are going away. As has always been the case, spatially dispersed non-hierarchically structured networks intersect with hierarchically structured and spatially bounded power.
Despite its poor fit with the facts, the idea that the international system of equal and sovereign states emerged full-blown in 1648 looms large in the diplomatic and scholarly imaginations, informing entire schools of analysis. Like the world model that it underlies, it is seductively simple, making the sovereign state appear to be far more solid than it actually is.
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. 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.
Seduction is not necessarily a bad thing. 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 …
Many of the endnotes in the Seduced by the Map segments that I have been posting, and will continue to post, refer to a bibliography. This bibliography is posted here. The formatting, unfortunately, is inconsistent.
Seduced by the Map Bibliography
Abrahamian, Atossa. 2015. The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizens. New York: Columbia Global Reports.
Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James A. 2012. …
Capturing Geographical Complexity: Beyond the Standard Map
While the illusion of the universal nation-state has several sources, one is particularly powerful. Since World War II, people around the world have been exposed to one or another variant of a standard world political map. Whatever their differences, all these maps operate in the same fundamental way: by portraying the globe like a …
The central argument of this work is that such common ground does exist and can be found in a fundamental misperception of what polities such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria actually are. According to the prevalent model of global geopolitics, these countries—like all others—are fully realized nation-states.
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 …
In roughly one month, GeoCurrents will turn its attention to examining the history and geography of current global events, beginning with the war in Ukraine. This focus will last for at least 10 week, during which I will be teaching a course in Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program on the same topic. Weekly lectures and associated blog posts will vary …