The Simplistic World-View of Thomas L. Friedman

Ethnic groups in MoroccoIn his April 13, 2011 column in the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman argues that the recent uprisings in the Arab world will probably not lead to the kind of mass democratization that occurred in eastern and central Europe after 1989. Although I must agree with Friedman’s basic thesis, I reject his reasoning, which is both simplistic and geographically misinformed. Owing to the influential nature of Friedman’s work, I fear that his interpretation will muddy rather than clarify the public understanding of contemporary Middle Eastern politics.

Friedman’s argument rests on the idea of the unified nation-state, which he finds lacking in the Arabic-speaking realm but well-established across Europe. As he puts it:

In Europe virtually every state was like Germany, a homogeneous nation, except Yugoslavia. The Arab world is exactly the opposite. … In the Arab world almost all of these countries are Yugoslavia-like assemblages of ethnic, religious, and tribal groups put together by colonial powers—except Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, which have big, homogeneous majorities.

Friedman is correct in noting that most Arab countries were artificially created by colonial powers and hence lack the deep national bonds that characterize genuine nation-states. I also agree that Tunisia and Egypt are exceptions to this rule, although Egypt’s unity is potentially compromised by the chasm separating its Muslim majority from its substantial Christian minority. Morocco, however, does not fit into this category whatsoever, as it is deeply divided between its dominant Arabic-speaking population in the lowlands and its Berber-speaking peoples of the highlands. Admittedly, Morocco does derive some sense of unity from its heritage as an indigenous kingdom. But so too does Oman, an Arab state that Friedman ignores, but which has a more homogeneous population than Morocco. Oman is divided between its dominant Ibadi Muslim population and its Sunni Muslim minority, but that gap is not nearly as wide as the one separating Arabs and Berbers in Morocco.

Friedman is equally misinformed when it comes to Europe. Most of the former Communist countries of the region had significant ethnic divisions in the 1980s, and many still do. The split between Czechs and Slovaks in Czechoslovakia was large enough to break the country apart, albeit in a peaceful manner. Slovakia, moreover, still has a large Hungarian minority, as well as a vocal and politically significant anti-Hungarian, hard-core Slovak nationalist movement. Romania also has a large Hungarian minority, and is still troubled by Romanian-Hungarian tensions. At the time of its revolution, it also had a sizable German population, but most Romanian Germans decamped for Germany after democratization. Hungary’s minority groups are not as large, but far-right Hungarian politicians constantly remind the country’s voters that a third of the Hungarian-speaking population ended up outside of Hungary’s truncated boundaries. Bulgaria has a substantial Turkic-speaking Muslim population, as well as a Bulgarian-speaking Muslim population (the Pomaks); Bulgarian Muslims, moreover, were much more numerous before the expulsions and “Bulgarianization” programs of the 1980s. The Baltic states, especially Estonia, have large Russian minorities, which are often seen as threatening national unity. Albania is divided between the Gheg- and the Tosk-speaking dialect group, and is historically rent by tribalism. And throughout the region, and particularly in Romania and Bulgaria, large Romany (Gypsy) populations remain marginalized, largely outside of the national communities.

It is tempting to wash away such diversity in order to give easy and popular explanations of large-scale social and political processes. But in doing so, we only delude ourselves, doing injustice to the complex world that we all inhabit.

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National Anthems: Forced National Identity?


When countries adopted their current national anthems

Every country and many non-sovereign states have national anthems. They are an indispensable representation of nations, played from official receptions to sporting events. As described by Wikipedia:

“A national anthem is a generally patriotic musical composition that evokes and eulogizes the history, traditions and struggles of its people, recognized either by a nation’s government as the official national song, or by convention through use by the people.”

The map shown above groups countries by when they adopted their national anthems (all dates are taken from this website, a detailed database of all national anthems). In some instances, the data had to simplified in order to create a single chronology, especially in regards to de facto and de jure anthem recognition. Also, if a country returned at some point to an older national anthem, the date of re-adoption was used. Furthermore, the map charts the adoption of anthem music and not necessarily lyrics, which in some instances came later.

Several regional trends appear on the map, mostly related to dates of independence from colonial powers. In particular, Latin America stands out due to the longevity of its anthems. No other region of the world has quite as many long-standing national songs. Most Latin American countries gained independence in the early 1800s, and many of the anthems date from the middle of the century. In fact, Latin American anthems are so distinctive that they can be grouped together as an “anthem family”:

“Latin American epic anthems: Possibly the easiest to identify, these are found in Latin American (Spanish-speaking Central and South America) countries and tend to be rather long, have an epic quality in the music, often containing both a quick, patriotic section of music, and a slower, stately part, and consists of many verses, usually chronicling the history of the country. Many are also composed by Italians (or other Europeans) … Examples include Argentina, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, and Uruguay.”

Most Latin American anthems require four to five minutes to be played in full. Such lengthiness represents a significant problem for events such as the Olympics, which allows only eighty seconds per anthem. As a result, only a short section of many Latin American national songs are actually played. It should also be noted, however, that a few Latin American anthems, such as Venezuela’s, are much shorter.

The trend of new national anthems appearing after independence is visible in other regions of the world including South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. In eastern and southern Asia, most countries gained sovereignty shortly after World War II, and many adopted existing anthems as part of their new identity.  Before their official adoption, these musical pieces served different purposes, but most had been associated with nationalist movement.  The current Chinese anthem was originally written in 1935 and used as a Japanese resistance song, but once the Communists took power in 1949, the communists adopted it and elevated it to national standing. Similarly, Indonesia’s anthem was originally the song of an anti-colonial party, and was adopted by the new government after independence. In Africa, most countries selected new anthems as they gained independence between 1958 and 1975. Eastern European countries that gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 also opted for new anthems at the time, as did several of the other new states of the region.

Countries that have retained independence for long periods of time often have long-standing national anthems. Japan’s anthem dates back to 1883 during the Meiji period, as a national anthem was perceived as a requirement of a modern nation. Thailand and Tonga, which largely escaped European colonialism, have also used the same national anthems for a long period of time.

In regard to issues of national identity, the Commonwealth countries of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are particularly intriguing. As part of the British Empire, they long used “God Save the King/Queen” as their only official anthems. Although local songs began to be used in unofficial circumstances, “God Save the King/Queen” continued to be employed long after independence had been gained. Canada did not switch to “Oh Canada” until 1980. Update: Although “Oh Canada” was not the de jure anthem until 1980, by 1939, it was considered the de facto national anthem. In Australia, the change came only in 1984. In New Zealand, “God Save the King/Queen” is still a co-anthem (although rarely used), and was only demoted to ‘co’ status in 1977. For these countries, switching away from the British anthem reflected increasing nationalist sentiments. At the same time, the importance of their British heritage is demonstrated by their reluctance to finally abandon “God Save the King/Queen.”

Several countries have changed their national anthems since 2000, often signaling intent by the government in power to shift the national image. Although Russia adopted a new anthem in 1990, in 2000, Putin returned to the official Soviet music, albeit with new lyrics, advertising a shift from post-Soviet instability. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan was the only country without a national anthem, as its rulers rejected virtually all forms of music as un-Islamic. Afghanistan’s old national anthem was restored in 2002 after the outing of the Taliban, only to be replaced again by the Karzai government in 2006 as a sign of a new Afghanistan. In 2001, Rwanda changed to a new anthem, adopting it as well as other official symbols, signifying the new post-genocide Rwandan order.

The selection of a national anthem is not only a reminder of differences of national differences, but can also demonstrate similarities. With the independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia re-adopted its pre-Soviet national anthem, which is the exact same piece of music used by nearby Finland. This unusual shared national anthem is symbolic of the very close cultural and linguistic relations between Finns and Estonians.

Although a number of countries around the world are still changing their national anthems, Latin America’s stability in this regard is noteworthy. This constancy demonstrates how anthems can become more important to national identity than regimes themselves, as new governments in Latin America do not change the anthems.  However, for much of the rest of the world, new national songs will likely emerge as political instability continues and as new regimes try to influence national identity.

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The Ambiguities of Sovereignty in Early Modern Central Europe

Locator map of the Electorate of Saxony

Locator map of the Electorate of SaxonyMost current-day mapping of central Europe during the early modern period (1500-1800) emphasizes the division of the so-called Holy Roman Empire into its constituent states. Detailed maps, readily available online, delineate every kingdom, duchy, principality, imperial city, and politically independent archbishopric and bishopric within the empire, as is evident in the impressive Wikipedia map locating the Electorate of Saxony posted here. In this portrayal, the so-called imperial states are depicted as units of the same type, existing at the same level of the political hierarchy, regardless of size and significance. In one sense, such a view is appropriate, capturing an important aspect of the constitutional order of the Holy Roman Empire. Regardless of their size, the polities depicted on the map enjoyed “imperial immediacy,” which meant that they fell “under the direct authority of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Imperial Diet (Reichstag), without any intermediate liege lord(s).” As neither the emperor nor the diet actually held much authority, such states and statelets can be understood to have possessed what the Wikipedia calls a “form of sovereignty.”

But if the various imperial states of the Holy Roman Empire had sovereignty of a sort, they did not possess the full political autonomy that “sovereignty” now generally denotes. Nor were they conceptualized at the time as equivalent units. Archdukes and their archduchies outranked dukes and their duchies, just as the latter outclassed counts and their counties; hierarchy was intrinsic to the system. In the Imperial Diet itself, moreover, different kinds of states were weighed differently. The imperial free cities, for example, had only an advisory role in the Reichstag, while many minor counts and prelates were grouped together in “colleges” that had only a single vote.

Vaugondy map of Germany, 1751In the geographical imagination of the time, the minor states of the empire were of even less account. In the vast majority of maps produced during the early modern period, no effort was made to depict the quasi-sovereign subsidiary states of the Holy Roman Empire. Most were considered too small to be of significance, and—as explained previously—sovereignty per se was not the main criteria for mapping. Instead, the empire was usually subdivided into a dozen or so regional aggregations, as can be seen in the detail of the Vaugondy map of 1751, posted here. Vaugondy included a few of the Empire’s constituent states, such as the Kingdom of Bohemia, but otherwise his map bears no resemblance to our standard reconstruction of the political geography of early modern Germany. Several of Vaugondy’s regions seem odd to the modern eye, especially his Upper Saxony (Haute Saxe), which included two major states (the Electorate of Saxony in the south and the Electorate of Brandenburg in the north) as well as a number of minor ones. In the modern historical conception, “Upper Saxony” is limited to the “electorate” of the same name, never extending into Brandenburg, which was then linked to Prussia.

Vaugondy’s depiction of Upper Saxony, however, was typical of the time. It was also rooted in the geopolitical structure of the Empire. Like most produced in the eighteenth century, his map referenced an overlapping system of division, the so-called Imperial Circles. These spatial groupings were supposedly organized for defense and taxation, although their powers were marginal. They also had their own Diets, or Kreistags. Not all of the empire, however, was so “encircled.” Some of its smallest divisions remained outside the system, as did some of its largest, including Bohemia—by law the Empire’s only kingdom.* Moreover, As the Wikipedia map posted here shows, the circles were themselves fragmented (intricately so in the case of the Electoral Rhenish Circle). In a word, the Imperial Circles essentially reproduced the decentralized structure of the empire as a whole at the regional scale.

Wikipedia map of Imperial Circles 1560Most early modern cartographers had little interest in mapping such spatial “monstrosities” (as Goethe famously characterized the Holy Roman Empire itself), seeking instead to outline regions with more immediacy in the popular imagination. Vaugondy’s own map of the Holy Roman Empire was only loosely based on its division into imperial circles. Even where the place-names lined up, he made no effort to precisely portray the circles, basing his own bounded units only roughly on their territorial forms. Moreover, several of the areas that he delineated, such as Pomerania, were historically constituted regions with no specific imperial status. A handful of enlightenment geographers, to be sure, did depict the Imperial Circles, as can be seen in the Homann map of 1740. But most produced hybrid images, as in John Cary’s map of “the Circle of Upper Saxony with the Duchy of Silesia and Lusatia.”Homann Map of Imperial CirclesCary Map of Upper Saxony

* During this period, however, the King of Bohemia was the Hapsburg Emperor himself, whose forbears had accumulated a string of possessions and hence titles. Prussia was also, after 1701, styled a “kingdom”—of sorts—but that was possible only because its eastern segment (a Duchy!) lay outside of the boundaries of the Empire. Until 1772, moreover, the monarch had had to call himself “King in Prussia,” rather than the “King of Prussia” in order to maintain appearances. Before 1657, the Duchy of Prussia was held in vassalage from the Kingdom of Poland; in Vaugondy’s map, this section of Prussia is still mapped as part of Poland.

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Our Maps of the 18th Century—and Theirs

Europe of 1700, from Euratlas

Europe of 1700, from EuratlasSovereign states provide the building-blocks of contemporary world mapping. A simple image search of “world map” reveals the state-centered focus of our geographical imagination: a few of the maps returned provide land-mass outlines, and a few others depict continental divisions, but most show the world as neatly partitioned into independent countries. At a more local scale of analysis (“Europe map”), the tendency is if anything more pronounced. Countries are what count; in the public imagination, to know the locations of the member states of the UN is to have mastered world geography.

The same view is retroactively applied to the past. Pick up virtually any historical atlas, and you will find map after map of cleanly colored, clearly demarcated territorial states. As previous GeoCurrents posts have explored, while such maps often purport to depict control, what they often show are mere territorial claims over areas well beyond the reach of the state. This is especially true for depictions of early modern colonial claims in the Western Hemisphere. Maps of Europe in the same period (1500-1800 CE) face a different challenge; here virtually all lands were under some kind of governmental control, yet in many instances sovereignties overlapped. To force past polities into the mold of modern geopolitics is to court confusion.

Consider the Euratlas map of 1700 posted here—one of the most sophisticated portrayals of Europe during this period that is available online. In keeping with modern convention, the cartographer uses solid colors to portray premodern states. One “supra-state” entity is also depicted: the so-called Holy Roman Empire, generally viewed as a feckless federation of independent states. Two “personal unions,” in which one monarch reigned over several separate states, are indicated with labels (“England-Scotland-Netherlands” and “Poland-Lithuania-Saxony.”) Territorially discontiguous states are mapped in one color but are difficult to pick out; on the Euratlas site, however, one can outline such fragmented geopolitical entities with a single mouse-click. Examples here include the Spanish Empire (labeled merely “Spanish”), including Spain, southern Italy, Milan, and most of the southern Low Countries [Belgium], and Prussia-Brandenburg (unlabeled) in the north. The overall impression conveyed by the map is one of vast disparities in size among the constituent geopolitical elements of Europe. Relatively large polities dominate the western, eastern, and northern areas, whereas the central swath running from Italy to the North Sea (“German Ocean”) is a shatterbelt of micro-states. Much of central Europe is unequivocally mapped as the Habsburg Empire, shown as a territorially contiguous zone that spanned the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire.

Holy Roman Empire in 1789Even this intricate Euratlas map is at an inadequate scale of resolution to show the small German states. More detailed maps attempt to fill the gap. The second map, from the Wikipedia Commons, gives a fine-grained portrayal of the states of the so-called Holy Roman Empire as they existed in 1789. While it is remarkably rich in detail, even this mosaic fails to capture all the micro-polities of the time. The coloration scheme is also somewhat misleading, as a single color may indicate either different states of the same type (imperial cities in red; ecclesiastical lands in light purple), or single, discontiguous states (the Austrian [Habsburg] Empire in light orange-brown; Brandenburg-Prussia in slate blue). Notice the major territorial changes between the two maps, Austria having acquired the southern Low Countries from Spain, and Prussia (Brandenburg) having taken Silesia from Austria.

Such is our standard conception of Europe in the 1700s: a region cleanly divided among states of widely divergent sizes, with one vestigial “Empire” that had long since devolved into a non-sovereign federation. Educated Europeans of the time, however, had a markedly different conception of their continent’s constituent elements. Almost all maps of the time partitioned Europe into a handful of “countries” or “states” of roughly similar size, not all of which were sovereign entities. Sizable, compact, and potent states such as France, Portugal, Switzerland, the Netherlands (United Provinces), and Sweden were almost always mapped as such, appearing much as they do on our maps of the period. Smaller and less powerful states, however, disappear entirely, as do several of the larger states whose territorial integrity was compromised by fragmentation or by overlapping claims (notably those of the Holy Roman Empire, vestigial though it may have been). Sovereignty, in short, was not what mattered to early modern European cartographers. Far more important were historically and culturally constituted regional formations, conceptualized at roughly equivalent orders of magnitude.

Europe 1751 by Robert de VaugondyConsider, for example, the 1751 Robert de Vaugondy map posted here, entitled “Europe divided into its principle states.” (I have modified the map by enhancing the borders and translating and highlighting the place-labels.) Note the mapping of Italy and Germany (the latter coincident with the Holy Roman Empire) as separate “states.” Geographers at the time were well aware that neither formed a sovereign entity, but that was not the focus of their mapping. Note as well the absence of the Austrian (Habsburg) empire or Prussia-Brandenburg. That the ruler of Austria was styled an Emperor derived from the fact that the head of the Hapsburg dynasty was always elected to reign over the Holy Roman Empire; the notion of a separate “Austrian” or “Habsburg” empire is a modern construct rather than a feature of the time. Instead, the Habsburg dynasty was seen as having successfully acquired the crowns of various states, which retained their distinctive identity regardless of who ruled over them (just as England remained a separate country from the Netherlands during the period when William III was king of the former and stadtholder of the latter). The connections among the “Austrian” lands, in other words, were seen as more personal than geopolitical, easily undone though the vagaries of dynastic succession or military engagements—as indeed they often were. Geographers of the period did periodically redraw their boundaries to reflect changing political circumstances, but their maps registered far fewer changes than do ours of the same time period.

None of this is to argue that eighteenth-century mapping was superior to our cartographic reconstructions of the period. Both highlight some aspects of reality while obscuring others. My point is simply that sovereign entities need not always be the default building blocks of the human community—not now, and certainly not in the eighteenth century.

The next GeoCurrents post will examine more closely the mapping of the Holy Roman Empire during the 1700s, as a case study in the evolving concept of the territorially bounded sovereign state.

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Russell Jacoby and the Myth of the Nation-State

Map of Sudan Superimposed on EuropeFew ideas are as intellectually pernicious as notion that the citizens of a given sovereign country necessarily share the bonds of common nationhood. As evidence of the confusion that this idea generates, consider Russell Jacoby’s important recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “Bloodlust: Why We Should Fear Our Neighbors More Than Strangers” (adapted from Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence From Cain and Abel to the Present [2011, Free Press]).  Jacoby is a fine writer who has made significant contributions to intellectual history, and his essay is illuminating. But it is also compromised by the myth of the nation-state.

Jacoby starts out by pointing out that we often assume violent conflicts are most intense and intractable when they take place between societies, especially between two communities that hail from distinct “civilizations.” Foreign opponents are readily dehumanized as alien beings, beyond the pale of moral consideration. Yet in practice, he goes on to claim, the most fierce and protracted struggles occur not between but within societies. Here is how he puts it:

The most decisive antagonisms and misunderstandings take place within a community. The history of hatred and violence is, to a surprising degree, a history of brother against brother, not brother against stranger. From Cain and Abel to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries and the civil wars of our own age, it is not so often strangers who elicit hatred, but neighbors…. We don’t like this truth. We prefer to fear strangers…. The notion of colliding worlds is more appealing than the opposite: conflicts hinging on small differences.

So far so good. It is certainly true that civil strife can be appallingly brutal. Apt examples (which he cites) include the Lebanese Civil War, the Bosnian conflict, and the Rwandan genocide; all involved people who had previously lived together in mixed communities. But other instances adduced by Jacoby do not fit the model, and some actually indicate the opposite tendency.

Jacoby’s thesis fails most glaringly in Sudan, which he reference on several occasions. In arguing that civil wars last longer than other conflicts, Jacoby notes that “the conflicts in southern Sudan have been going on for decades.” Elsewhere he writes, “Today’s principal global conflicts are fratricidal struggles—regional, ethnic, and religious: Iraqi Sunni vs. Iraqi Shiite, … Sudanese southerners vs. Sudanese northerners” (emphasis added). The implication is that because the southern and northern opponents are all Sudanese, they are “brothers” engaged in “fratricidal” warfare. “Likeness does not necessarily lead to harmony,” Jacoby concludes. In the end, he asks, “Why do small disparities between people provoke greater hatred than the large ones?”

But it is more than “small disparities” that distinguish the southern and northern Sudanese. While it is problematic to divide the people of Sudan into two groups to begin with (where does that leave the people of Darfur?), the chasm between these southern and northern groups is profound. The Nuer, the Dinka, and other Sudanese southerners have very little in common with the Arabic-speaking, politically dominant population of northern Sudan. Their languages are completely unrelated, their religious affiliations have no commonality, their customs, lifeways, and diets are not at all similar, and they vary significantly in physical appearance and genetic make up. All they share is co-residence within a set of national borders—a map that was imposed by outsiders and has never been accepted as legitimate in the south. By what token could these two feuding groups possibly be regarded as sibling peoples locked in fratricidal violence?

Issues of geographical scale come into play as well. Southern and northern Sudanese are in no meaningful sense “neighbors;” the distances between them are vast. To illustrate, I have taken an equal-area world map (the Peters projection), outlined Sudan on it, and then superimposed the resulting image on Europe. This simple exercise reveals that southern Sudan alone occupies an area roughly equivalent to France, in relation to which Khartoum lies approximately in Slovakia, and far northern Sudan would be situated in central Ukraine. Considering the rudimentary transportation infrastructure, the effective distances are actually much greater in Sudan than in Europe. While we rarely regard the peoples of southern France and central Ukraine as “neighbors,” in the case of Sudan we are misled by the myth of the nation-state.

The Sudanese war came to an end in 2005, when a deal was brokered that would allow the South to vote on separation in early 2011. In the resulting election, over 95 percent of Southern Sudanese voters opted for independence. If the Khartoum government honors its promises, Southern Sudan will emerge as a fully sovereign country later this year. Will further conflict between north and south then cease to be treated as “fratricidal,” and instead come to be seen as a conventional war between different societies? On the other hand, if the Sudanese government reneges on its promises, should we then continue conceptualizing the conflict as a battle between brothers, motivated in their hatred by “small differences?”

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The Economist’s “Shoe-Thrower’s Index”: A Success?

As revolution in the Arab World spread from Tunisia, The Economist magazine developed a “Shoe-Throwers Index” (STI). The STI combines available data for most of the Arab League to gain insight into what countries are at the greatest risk for revolution. Originally published on February 9th, the STI came out two days before the departure of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Since then, several countries high on the list have also experienced massive unrest.

The STI is formatted through several indicators, which are all weighted separately (as shown in this Economist video.) By far the most heavily weighted factor of the index is the percentage of population under 25 (the greater the percentage, the higher the score), which accounts for 35% of the total STI score. Other factors include the number of years a ruler has been in power, democracy rankings, and corruption rankings, each of which individually account for 15% of total score. (For a more in-depth analysis of the variables, go here.) Overall, the STI compiles a unique set of information, often relying on other rankings to complete the index. However, The Economist was careful not to include every piece of relevant data.  For example, the data on unemployment was considered “too spotty” to be used. More recently, The Economist has provided an interactive index, which allows users to change factor weighing, and thus generate unique “Shoe Thrower” indices.

Several relatively straightforward geographical patterns are apparent with the STI, as shown in the map above. The clearest pattern is found among the rich Gulf States, especially Qatar, Bahrain, and the U.A.E. Here, oil and gas wealth in combination with higher levels of social development has generated low STIs; these countries have some of the lowest percentages of population under the age of 25.  The Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) also scores relatively low in the STI, as in all three countries less than half of the population is under 25. The countries that top the STI list –Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt — do not share much geographically; beyond the fact Egypt/Libya and Iraq/Syria have common borders.

Has the STI been successful in forecasting which countries in the Arab world are at the great risk for further unrest? In many cases, the STI has been on target, especially in regard to countries at the top and bottom of the rankings. Yemen, the highest scorer, was relatively calm when the index came out, but since that time it has undergone intense turmoil, with prominent government officials resigning. The country with the second highest score, Libya, has experienced not just protests but an actual revolution, eliciting a major international response. In third-ranking Egypt, protests were already in progress when the index was created, which eventually dislodged Mubarak. The fourth country on the list, Syria, has also experienced recent protests and crackdowns. On the other end of STI, Qatar, Kuwait, and U.A.E. have not been substantially impacted by unrest, and Qatar and U.A.E. have even provided military help to the international mission in Libya.

In some countries, however, the STI fails to explain recent events. Most notably, Bahrain has the fifth lowest score, but has still seen intense protests. Iraq, fifth on the list, has experienced some anti-government demonstrations, but they seem unrelated to the democratic wave moving across the Arab World. Furthermore, the country that set-off the wave of unrest, Tunisia, ranks as relatively stable. Although the index does highlight zones of potential unrest, it does not do so perfectly.

Analyzing the STI indicates some problems that arise when one attempts to create a single index for a continually changing dynamic of contemporary events. One of the first issues faced by The Economist’s researchers was to decide which countries to include. They initially selected the Arab League, but “took out the Comoros and Djibouti, which do not have a great deal in common with the rest of the group, and removed the Palestinian territories, Sudan and Somalia for lack of data.” Although this maneuver may seem reasonable, the STI left out Iran, which, although not in the Arab League, has also experienced significant protests. On the BBC website, an informational map of the unrest diverges from The Economist selection. The BBC includes Iran, but leaves off Iraq Qatar, Kuwait, and U.A.E. Although excluding the Gulf States for a map of unrest is understandable, the BBC map contains a significant difference in viewpoint from that of The Economist.

Another problem with the STI is that of signaling a country’s chance for uprising with a single number calculated through a standardized system. Although Libya and Bahrain may be grouped together into the same region, they are separated by vast social, political, and economic differences. Libya, for example, is noted for its harsh autocratic rule and its tribal divisions, whereas the major challenge facing Bahrain is its religious schism between the ruling Sunnis and the majority Shi’ites. Libya and Bahrain demonstrate that while the STI does provide some insight into some of the factors that cause unrest, it cannot predict where unrest will occur or what form it will take.

Create Your Own STI With Custom Factor Weighting


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Geographic Environment, Cultural Diversity, and Liberalism in the Eastern Mediterranean

Map of topography and religious minorities in Syria and Lebanon“The power of mountains to protect makes them asylums of refuge for displaced peoples.” Ellen Churchill Semple, 1911, Influences of Geographic Environment, Chapter 16.

“Great fertility in a narrow coastal belt barred from the interior serves to concentrate and energize the maritime activities of the nation. The 20-mile wide plain stretching along the foot of the Lebanon range from Antioch to Cape Carmel is even now the garden of Syria.” Ellen Churchill Semple, 1911, Influences of Geographic Environment, Chapter, Chapter 8.

In examining the spatial patterns of the eastern Mediterranean, many observers have been struck by the close correlation between mountainous areas and religious diversity. The heartland of the Druze sect is the aptly named Jabal al-Druze, a volcanic cluster of peaks that arises abruptly from the arid plains of southern Syria; other Druze communities are found in the mountains of central Lebanon and in the Golan Heights. The largest Christian population in the region, the Maronites, are concentrated in the Mount Lebanon area; the Alawite community is focused in the An-Nusayriyah Mountains of coastal Syria; and the main Yezidi population is found on and around Sinjar Mountain in the northeast.

The notion of a link between mountainous topography and minority populations was once a widely accepted principle of geography, put forth most eloquently by Ellen Churchill Semple. Since her day, geographers became so wary of environmental determinism that they ceased writing about such linkages. But whatever its causes, the correlation cannot be denied. Consider the language variety of the Caucasus—dubbed by medieval Arab geographers the “mountain of languages”—or of the central highlands of New Guinea. Such diversity does not always stem from “displacement,” as the quote above might indicate. But Semple was correct in noting the “refuge” often afforded by rough terrain. Up to this day, governments have a difficult time controlling, and imposing orthodoxy on, mountainous regions. By the same token, insurgencies often prove more intracatable in highlands than in lowlands. One cannot understand the geography of the Levant without grasping the connection between cultural diversity and upland topography.

Ellen Semple also stressed the cosmopolitan nature of coastal zones that engage in extensive commerce with foreign lands, highlighting Lebanon in the regard. Although Lebanon has its share of religious extremism and animosity, public opinion surveys indicate that Lebanon ranks alongside Turkey as the most socially and politically liberal Muslim-majority country. According to the indispensible Pew Research Center, of the Lebanese Muslims who see a struggle between Islamic modernizers and fundamentalists, eighty-four percent identify with the modernizers; in Egypt, by contrast, fifty-nine percent identify with the fundamentalists. Lebanese Muslims are also more supportive of democracy than are Muslims elsewhere in the world, even in Turkey. Another Pew survey showed that forty-nine percent of Lebanese Muslims consider it a good thing that Islam plays a small role in their country’s political life, whereas in Turkey only twenty-six percent of Muslims agreed, and in Egypt only two percent did so. And whereas eighty-four percent of Egyptian Muslims and eighty-six percent of Jordanian Muslims voiced support for the death penalty for those who leave Islam, in Lebanon only six percent of the Muslim population did so. Likewise, while only thirteen percent of Lebanese Muslims indicated support for whipping or amputation to punish theft and robbery, seventy-seven percent of Egyptian Muslims did so. (Support for the radical Shi’ite party Hezbollah, however, is much higher in Lebanon, where it is based, than in neighboring countries.) In short, the coastal, moutainous strip of territory along the eastern Mediterranean remains a highly distinctive land, set apart in several regards from the rest of the region in which it is located.

None of this is to argue that Lebanon’s coastal orientation determines the beliefs of its inhabitants, or that mountainous locations are necessarily culturally diverse. This is merely a question of tendencies, and tendencies can certainly be overriden by other factors. Semple herself entitled her magum opus Influences of Geographic Environment, not Determinents of Geographic Environment. When examining contemporary geopolitics, we would do well to keep such influences in mind.

Geographic Environment, Cultural Diversity, and Liberalism in the Eastern Mediterranean Read More »

Greater Syria and the Challenge to Syrian Nationalism

Map of Greater Syria

Map of Greater SyriaSyria faces challenges to its geopolitical integrity beyond those posed by its religious and linguistic diversity. Like Iraq, it owes its statehood and geographical boundaries largely to the actions of European imperial powers in the early 20th century. Modern Syria essentially covers the area grabbed by France from the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The territory was officially awarded to France as a “mandate” by the League of Nations, with the provision that it would be prepared for eventual independence. French control, however, had already been as promised in a secret British-French war-time agreement—infuriating Britain’s Arab allies, who had cleared Ottoman forces out of most of the region during the conflict. As can be seen in the maps, the British-French partition ignored the Ottoman Empire’s administrative districts.Map of Ottoman Syria

France’s Syrian mandate was larger than the modern country of Syria, including Lebanon as well as the Turkish province of Hatay. French authorities immediately began rearranging the geopolitical blocks of their new land, creating statelets based in part on religion. The Alawite area came to be governed separately, as did the Jabel Druze—Mountain of the Druze—in the south. France was especially keen to establish political space for the largest Christian group, the Maronites. The Ottoman Empire had previously allowed the Maronite region a degree of autonomy as the “Mutasarrifiyet of Mount Lebanon.” French authorities expanded this area, creating a Greater Lebanon that encompassed Shia, Sunni, and Druze districts but retained a Christian majority.Map of French Syria

The division of French Syria was not locally popular, nor were French policies. Anger at imperial rule erupted in the Druze-led Great Syrian Revolt of 1925-1927. France prevailed, but agreed afterward to amalgamate Damascus, Aleppo, the Alawite state, and the Druze zone into a single entity. In 1936 Paris promised eventual independence for Syria, which was realized in 1944. In the late 1930s, France also yielded to pressure from Ankara and relinquished Alexandretta (Hatay) in the northwest, which Turkey annexed in 1939. The Syrian government has never accepted this loss, regarding—and mapping—this area as unredeemed territory. Greater Lebanon also remained outside the control of Damascus, gaining its own sovereignty a year earlier than Syria itself. Many Lebanese Muslims objected, and some still demand unification with Syria. Syria, in turn, thinks of Lebanon as a client state, and Syrian troops militarily occupied much of the country during and after the Lebanese Civil War (from 1976 to 2005).Map of Syria's territorial losses

More extreme Syrian nationalist aspirations extend well beyond Lebanon and Hatay. Advocates of a Greater Syria dream of uniting all of the historically Arabic-speaking lands of the eastern Mediterranean. The broadest claims, with the maximal ideological justifications, are advanced by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). The SSNP has designs on a vast territory, encompassing not just the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, but also all of Iraq and significant parts of Iran and Turkey. As is detailed on its website:

“[Syria] has distinct natural boundaries and extends from the Taurus range in the northwest and the Zagros mountains in the northeast to the Suez canal and the Red Sea in the south and includes the Sinai peninsula and the gulf of Aqaba, and from the Syrian sea in the west, including the island of Cyprus, to the arch of the Arabian desert and the Persian gulf in the east.”

Even the eastern Mediterranean itself, the SSNP insists, is rightly called the “Syrian Sea.”

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party, founded in 1932 by the Lebanese-born Christian politician Antun Saadeh, is a secularist and stridently nationalist organization. Long outlawed in Syria, the SSNP was legalized in a symbolic liberalization move in 2005 and now forms the second-largest political party in the country, with an estimated 100,000 members. Long a political player in Lebanon, the SSNP is now affiliated with the anti-Western, pro-Syrian March 8 Alliance. It is usually classified as a far-right organization. A recent article in Canada’s anti-extremist website The Propagandist refers to it as an “unambiguously fascist party.” Political gadfly Christopher Hitchens agrees, arguing that a better name for the organization would be the “Syrian National Socialist party,” reflecting its Nazi proclivities. In 2009, Hitchens was attacked by SSNP toughs in Beirut after he defaced one of the party’s swastika-like banners.

As unsavory as the SSNP may be, it deviates from traditional “national socialism” in several regards. Most importantly, it eschews racialist thinking, and even denies the significance of ethnicity in the formation of the Syrian nation. Instead, it foregrounds geography, arguing that a long history of living together within the same naturally bounded space has melded the various peoples of the region into a single nationality.  As explained by Saadeh, the party’s founder:

“The Syrian nation denotes this society which possesses organic unity. Though of mixed origins, this society has come to constitute a single society living in a distinguished environment known historically as Syria or the Fertile Crescent. The common stocks, Canaanites, Chaldeans, Arameans, Assyrians, Amorites, Hiffites [sic], Metanni and Akkadians etc…whose blending is an indisputable historical fact constitute the ethnic-historical-cultural basis of Syria’s unity whereas the Syrian Fertile Crescent constitutes the geographic-economic-strategic basis of this unity.”

Saadeh’s inclusive attitude toward minority groups had it limits, however. While he opined that “immigrant” groups such as the Circassians and Armenians would fully assimilate into the Syrian nation, he expressly excluded Jews from this category. His statements on this issue reflect virulent anti-Semitism:

“But there is one large settlement which can not in any respect be reconciled to the principle of Syrian nationalism, and that is the Jewish settlement. It is a dangerous settlement which can never be assimilated because it consists of a people that, although it has mixed with many other peoples, has remained a heterogeneous mixture, not a nation, with strange stagnant beliefs and aims of its own, essentially incompatible with Syrian rights and sovereignty ideals. It is the duty of the Syrian Social Nationalists to repulse the immigration of this people with all their might.”

All things considered, the Syrian geopolitical environment reveals—yet again—the inadequacy of the standard model of global politics, where all sovereign countries are assumed to be nation-states. The Syrian state may be relatively strong, but the Syrian nation is a tenuous affair, deeply contested by multiple parties with sharply contrasting visions.

Greater Syria and the Challenge to Syrian Nationalism Read More »

Syria’s Ethno-Religious Complexity – and Potential Turmoil

Map of Languages in Syria

Map of Languages in SyriaMost Americans would be surprised to learn of the ethnic and religious diversity that exists in present-day Syria. Standard references sources give an impression of clear domination by Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims. The CIA World Factbook summarizes Syria’s cultural make-up as follows:

“Ethnic Groups: Arab 90.3%, Kurds, Armenians, and other 9.7%. Religions: Sunni Muslim 74%, other Muslim (includes Alawite, Druze) 16%, Christian (various denominations) 10%, Jewish (tiny communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo).”

Map of Religion in Syria

In fact, Sunni Arabs are not as demographically dominant as they might seem. To begin with, the basic numbers are disputed; Alawites, as discussed in a previous post, may constitute as much as twenty percent of Syria’s population. The Sunni population also includes many non-Arabic speakers, including most Kurds–and the Kurdish population may form fifteen or even twenty percent of the total, according to Kurdish websites. Christian numbers are also likely under-reported, as they seldom include the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees living in the country. The Arab Sunni population itself, moreover, is internally divided. Arab Syrians speak widely divergent dialects that most linguists regard as separate languages. As the language map shows, the Arabic dialects of eastern Syria are related not to those of western Syria but rather to those of Iraq.

Map of Arabic Dialects in Syria

Grouping the heterodox Alawites and Druze as “other Muslim” also understates Syria’s diversity. As recounted in the previous Geocurrents post, many Muslims – perhaps most – do not reckon Alawites as members of the community of the faithful. The Islamic standing of the Druze religion is still more questionable, as the Druze generally regard Jethro (father-in-law of Moses) rather than Mohammed as their main prophet. But the Druze conceal their beliefs so extensively—even from the bulk of their own population—that it is difficult to say what they actually believe. Syria’s half-million strong Druze community may constitute only two and a half percent of the country’s population, but the Druze have long formed a politically capable and militarily potent congregation. As the Wikipedia puts it, “The Druze always played a far more important role in Syrian politics than its comparatively small population would suggest.”

The ethno-religious complexity of Syria has long challenged the country’s government. Under the rule of military strongman Adib Shishakli in the early 1950s, “Syrianization” campaigns sought to aggressively meld the population into a single ethnicity/nationality, provoking clashes between the national army and Druze militias. Partly as a result, non-Sunni Arabic speakers gravitated to the Baath Party, whose brand of Arab Nationalism encompassed most minority groups – with the notable exception of the non-Arab Kurds* (see the earlier Geocurrents post). Under the current Baathist regime, the Sunni majority has generally co-existed peacefully with Christians, Druze, and Alawites. According to the government, such concord demands the harsh repression of an autocratic government. In a March 30, 2011 speech, President Bashir al-Assad blamed outside agitators, particularly Israelis, for the current unrest, insinuating that the fall of his government would unleash a sectarian bloodbath. Considering events in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, such forebodings are being taken seriously in the White House. David Lesch argues that “the Obama administration wants [Assad] to stay in power even as it admonishes him to choose the path of reform.” (Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, on the other hand, is urging much stronger punitive action against the Assad regime.)

It is difficult to find information on the position of Syria’s minorities in the current struggle. According to one recent report, “The Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook group, a key player in organizing the protests, appealed to the Druze of Syria to join the protests against the Syrian Regime.” Another source notes that the controversial Lebanese Druze politician Wiam Wahhab “implored his Syrian co-religionists to remain loyal to Bashar al Assad ….

‘[T]he Syrian regime must not be tampered with since in the event of Assad’s downfall the whole region might drift into utter destruction for the next 100 years,’ he said.” Wahab’s efforts might indicate that support for Assad is teetering among the Druze population.

* Syria’s Kurdish-speaking Yezidis have been especially victimized.

Syria’s Ethno-Religious Complexity – and Potential Turmoil Read More »

Confusion About Syria’s Alawites

Alawite region of Syria

Alawite MapNews stories about the recent demonstrations and reprisals in Syria routinely mention that the country’s government is dominated by members of the Alawite sect, but rarely describe Alawite beliefs and practices. Many mention only that the Alawites form a minority in primarily Sunni Syria, sometimes noting that the Alawite faith stems from Shi’ite Islam. A March 25, 2011 Guardian lesson on the “20 Things You Need to Know about Syria” adds that the Alawites are “a secretive religious sect usually regarded as an offshoot of Shia Islam.” In fact, all accounts agree that the Alawite sect grew out of Shi’ite Islam. What is highly controversial is whether Alawites today are Shi’ite Muslims, or indeed, any kind of Muslims at all. Hard-line Sunni fundamentalists often insist that Alawites are not just unbelievers, but are guilty of the unforgivable sin of shirk (polytheism or idolatry).

The controversies surrounding the Alawites focus on their theology. One school of Islamic thought holds that the faith is an unusual variant of Shiite Islam, yet still falls within the bounds of respectability. Those who emphasize the Muslim nature of the Alawites maintain that their aberrant practices have been exaggerated, and, more importantly, that they have been moving in the direction of orthodoxy over the past several decades. Others, however, stress the sect’s historically divergent beliefs and cast doubt on the recent transformation, regarding it largely as an example of taqiyya, or the practice of concealing one’s true faith to avoid persecution.

The Wikipedia article on the Alawite sect lays out the basic arguments about its status in Islam. Those who stress its heterodox nature emphasize the Alawite tenet that the “esoteric, allegorical” meanings of the Qur’an override its literal readings.  They likewise point out that Alawites “celebrate certain Christian festivals ‘in their own way,’ including Christmas, Easter, and Palm Sunday, and their religious ceremonies make use of bread and wine.” The article avoids mention, however, of the more irregular aspects often purported to Alawite belief, which are recounted in a number of websites devoted to orthodox Islam. As TurnToIslam frames it:

“Alawi doctrine is a mixture of Islamic, Gnostic and Christian beliefs. Some Alawi doctrines appear to derive from Phoenician paganism, Mazdakism and Manicheanism. But by far the greatest affinity is with Christianity. Alawi religious ceremonies involve bread and wine; indeed, wine drinking has a sacred role in Alawism, for it represents God. The religion holds Ali, the fourth caliph, to be the (Jesus-like) incarnation of divinity. The Alawis possess a range of distinctive doctrines which have led them to be treated as heretics and non-Muslims.”

The article goes on to enumerate these supposedly “distinctive doctrines,” including “rejection of the Qur’an,” “rejection of the five pillars of Islam,” “belief in incarnation,” “disbelief in resurrection,” and faith in astrology. It further maintains:

“The Alawis believe that all persons were stars in the world of light but fell from here due to disobedience. They believe they must be reincarnated seven times before they once again return to the stars where Ali is prince. A good Alawi will assume a better form after his death than a bad Alawi. The Alawis claim that the Milky Way is in fact the deified souls of the true believers. The less pious souls require more transformations. If an Alawi is sinful, he will be reborn as a Chrsitian [sic] until his atonement is complete. A bad Alawi will definitely assume a better form than a non-Alawi. Infidels will be reborn as animals.”

A number of English-language Islamic discussion boards have tackled the topic of Alawite standing within the faith (for instance, see the 2006 debate on ShiaChat). Appraisals are sometimes harsh. A denunciation of the Syrian-born critic of Islam Wafa Sultan in IslamicAwakening, for example, notes that her Alawite background “should explain everything – she was a Kafir from the beginning, never a Muslim.”

Whether or not most Alawites currently hold such decidedly non-Islamic tenets as reincarnation and “star-birth,” the crucial point here is that if significant numbers of Sunni fundamentalists believe this to be the case, the community could find itself in danger were the current Alawite-dominated government to fall. Extremists have targeted highly heterodox sects of Islam in many other parts of the world, and there is no reason to imagine they would not do so in Syria if opportunities arose. The repressive nature of the current Alawite-dominated regime, along with the periodic massacres** that it has perpetrated, would add fuel to the fire.

Some observers think that Syria’s government is incapable of riding out the current unrest. The New York Times reported on March 28, 2011 that a Western diplomat in Damascus, “speaking on the condition of anonymity in accordance with diplomatic protocol,” had flatly pronounced “it’s over; it’s just a question of time.” But considering the broader context outlined above, such a judgment may be premature. Not just the al-Assad clan but the entire Alawite Syrian political establishment has every incentive do everything possible to retain power. A relatively gentle Egyptian- or Tunisian-style political transformation, in other words, seems highly unlikely.

In this context, the demographic strength of the Alawites merits attention. The Guardian claims that the Alawis form a “tiny minority” of Syria’s population, yet the community numbers well over one million, or more than five percent of the country’s total population. Some sources posit much larger figures; the Wikipedia claims that “they were never estimated to be less than 20% of the Syrian population (which would be about 4 million people if true today).”* As many as 150,000 Alawites live in Lebanon, while Turkey may be home to 400,000 more. The sect might thus be regarded as small, but it is hardly “tiny.”

Syria’s Alawite community is concentrated in the geographically distinctive western coastal region, with a secondary concentration in Damascus. The Alawite region, unsurprisingly, has been a bulwark of the Assad regime. Yet recent anti-government protests in the coastal metropolis of Latakia—a mixed Sunni, Christian, and Alawite city—have been intense, and have been accompanied by bloodshed. A March 29 report from The Australian claimed that the city took on the appearance of a “ghost-town” after “unknown people in cars and on rooftops began shooting randomly at people…” According to the official Syrian news agency, most of the 200-odd people wounded in the attacks were government security personnel. Syrian officials blamed followers of the Qatar-based, media-savvy cleric, Youssef al-Qaradawi, as well as Palestinians from a nearby refugee camp. But many observers are skeptical. As The Australian reported:

“There is talk of possible attempts to divide residents who are members of the President’s minority Muslim Alawite sect—an offshoot of Shia Islam—and majority Sunni Muslims. One witness said groups of people had driven around Alawite-dominated villages on the city’s outskirts, spreading rumours that the Sunnis were about to attack them. ‘Then they drove to Sunni areas and told them the opposite.’”

*The same Wikipedia article also gives a figure of 1.35 million.

** In 1982, Syria’s former dictator, Hafez al-Assad – father of its current strongman – slaughtered some 10,000 people in the city of Hama in order to suppress an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Confusion About Syria’s Alawites Read More »

Geocurrents’ New Look

Caribbean Community

Dear Readers,

As you can see, Geocurrents is currently undergoing a transformation.  Many thanks to Kevin Morton, who is now handling the technical side of the blog. Many thanks as well to Samuel Franco, who had been running the website, but is now moving on to other things.

I will be spending the next few days working with Kevin on revamping the blogsite,  classifying the old posts so that they can be more easily accessed, and familiarizing myself with a new blogging program. I have made a few more maps of Caribbean geopolitics that I will also be posting over the next few days, but I will not write extensively on the topic. I hope to begin blogging on new topics — Syria perhaps — within a week.

In the meantime, here is a map of the the most important supra-national organization in the Caribbean, CARICOM. CARICOM basically consists of the former and current British colonies in the region, plus Haiti and Suriname. Of note is Montserrat’s full membership, despite the fact that it is not an independent country.

Geocurrents’ New Look Read More »

The Netherlands Is No Longer a Low Country: Conundrums of Geopolitical Classification

highest point in the netherlands?

highest point in the netherlands?composite countries sovereign states composed of constituent countriesThe modern Netherlands forms the heart of the so-called Low Countries, a historical region composed of the flat and watery delta formed by the Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt, and Ems rivers. As the name suggests, the Low Countries have no mountains. On WikiAnswers, the second-highest-rated response to the question, “What is the highest point in the Netherlands?” is simply, “Nope, we don’t have mountains. Large hills is the best we can do.” The first return, however, is strikingly different, referencing Mount Scenery, a precipitously sloped volcano that reaches 870 meters (2,800 feet) in elevation. Mount Scenery became the Netherlands’ highest point on October 10, 2010, when the Caribbean island of Saba, which essentially is Mount Scenery, was transformed into a “special municipality” of the Netherlands.

The incorporation of Saba, Bonaire, and Saint Eustatius into the Netherlands transformed the basic parameters of the country in several regards. The demographic change was relatively minor; the Netherlands’ population jumped by 18,000. More significant were shifts to the country’s geography; its southernmost and westernmost points were suddenly relocated by thousands of miles. The Netherlands also became, in part, a tropical land.

Such changes may seem trivial, but the reformulation of the Netherlands’ Caribbean holdings opens a fascinating window onto some surprisingly tricky issues of geopolitical conceptualization. What does it require for a formerly separate area to fully become part of a country—not just in legal terms but also in the popular imagination? No one doubts that Hawaii is fully part of the United States. Likewise, the French overseas departments, including Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, are by all accounts integral portions of France. But Saba, Bonaire, and Saint Eustatius are “special” municipalities of the Netherlands, and remain distinctive in a more profound sense than that of sheer distance from the mainland. While the use of English as the language of public school instruction in Saba and Saint Eustatius is odd enough, it is the official status of the US dollar that really sets the three islands apart. The relationship maintained by the Netherlands proper with Saba, Bonaire, and Saint Eustatius is in some ways similar to that between China proper and its “special administrative regions” of Hong Kong and Macao, both of which have their own currencies. Although Hong Kong certainly falls under the umbrella of Chinese sovereignty, whether it is an integral part of China is another matter. It is not treated as such by the CIA, the World Bank, and other many other international agencies, and is instead accounted as a separate though subordinate unit.

Similar conundrums of geopolitical classification are posed by a number of other European outliers, starting with the Dutch anomalies of Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten. Legally defined as “constituent countries” of the Kingdom of the Netherlands,” these three islands are too autonomous to be counted as integral parts of the Netherlands (whose westernmost point is said to be Bonaire, not the more westerly island of Aruba.) Greenland is treated in a similar manner. Denmark is never regarded as including this “constituent country;” if it were, Denmark would jump to thirteenth rank in the standard list of countries by area. Yet the relationship between the United Kingdom and its “constituent countries” – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – is completely different, entailing much tighter linkages. Geographers would never think of excluding Scotland from a depiction of the United Kingdom the way we habitually exclude Greenland from Denmark.

In short, the concept of “constituent country” is inherently muddled, meaning different things in different sovereign states. Further extensions of the category provide no clarity. French Polynesia is sometimes described as a constituent country of France, just as the Cook Islands and Niue may be said to form constituent countries of New Zealand, yet none of these Pacific polities is legally defined in such terms. Officially, the Cook Islands form a parliamentary democracy in “free association with New Zealand,” which retains sovereignty. Yet the three countries that exist in similar “free association” with the United States (the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau) are all considered independent, and are in fact members of the United Nations.

The upshot is that the term “Netherlands” is now an inherently ambiguous geopolitical category. It might refer just to the European heartland, or it might include the three Caribbean special municipalities as well. But the “Kingdom of the Netherlands” explicitly includes as well as the three Caribbean constituent countries (Aruba, Curacao, and Sint Maarten). To put it differently, the Netherlands is not to be confused with the Kingdom of the Netherlands, of which it is merely one constituent country. And to make matters even more complex, the European portion of the Netherlands is often referred to in casual parlance as Holland, even though this term, strictly speaking, denotes only two of the country’s twelve provinces (North Holland and South Holland).

As always, the political division of the world turns out to be far more complex than it seems at first glance.

The Netherlands Is No Longer a Low Country: Conundrums of Geopolitical Classification Read More »

Caribbean Geopolitical Rivalry?

alliances in the caribbean

alliances in the caribbeanAs explained recently in Geocurrents, the anti-U.S. ALBA alliance led by Venezuela is not what it might appear to be at first glance, as several small Caribbean countries have joined it more for economic than geopolitical reasons. Still, it seems worthwhile to map the potential geopolitical division of the Caribbean entailed by the existence of the ALBA alliance and that of its nemesis, NATO, led by the United States. The resulting map, posted above, shows both the land areas and the maritime exclusive economic zones held by members of the two blocks. The areas mapped within the NATO zone include both integral portions of NATO member states (southern Florida, the French overseas departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and the new special Dutch municipalities), as well as their Caribbean dependencies. The maritime dispute between the U.S. and Nicaragua is also indicated. Note also that Guantanamo Bay, perpetually leased by the United States from Cuba, is also indicated, and is exaggerated in size to be made visible.

Caribbean Geopolitical Rivalry? Read More »

The Little-Noticed Dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles

Netherlands Antilles Aruba Political Map

Netherlands Antilles Aruba Political Mapnetherlands caribbean eezLike the unrest in Turks and Caicos, the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles has been little mentioned in the press. Indeed, an internet search under that name would lead one to believe it still exists, given the continuing stories on its sports teams, economy, maritime boundaries, and tourism prospects. Yet the Netherlands Antilles was officially disbanded half a year ago, on October 10, 2010. The six Dutch Caribbean islands now have independent relations with the Netherlands: three as “special municipalities,” and three as “constituent countries.”

The Netherlands Antilles was always a geographically and culturally awkward place. Its core originally consisted of the three “ABC” islands—Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao—lying off the Venezuelan coast. Having maintained close relations with the mainland, these islands developed a Portuguese-based language called Papiamentu (in Aruba, Papiamento). The remaining Dutch Antilles—Saba, Saint Eustatius (“Statia”), and Sint Maarten—lie far to the northeast in the Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles. Here the basic language is a Creole form of English. The northern islands are much smaller; Saba covers five square miles (thirteen square kilometers) and is home to fewer than 2,000 people, whereas Curaçao covers 171 square miles (444 square kilometers) and is home to more than 142,000. Sint Maarten is the giant of the northern Dutch possessions, with 37,000 people on thirteen square miles (thirty-four square kilometers), yet it covers only half of the island on which it is located; the rest forms the French “overseas collectivity” of Saint Martin.

During the Cold War, the Netherlands planned on relinquishing its holdings in the Caribbean to a single new country. Such plans were complicated by the historical enmity between Aruba and Curaçao, the most populous of the islands. Aruba had long agitated for separation from the Dutch Antilles, a status that it gained in 1986, with a provision that it would advance to full independence a decade later. But most Arubans, like most other residents of the Dutch Caribbean, soured on the notion of independence as they witnessed the political and economic turmoil that followed the gaining of sovereignty by the former Dutch possession of Suriname on the South American mainland. In 1994, the Netherlands’ government agreed that Aruba could remain an autonomous area under Dutch sovereignty, its official status becoming that of a “constituent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.”

Although the animosity between Aruba and Curaçao was the biggest obstacle to Dutch Antillian unity, the other islands also had their own disagreements. Dissention about the political future of the islands grew intense. Some islanders wanted more separation from the Netherlands, others more integration. In referendums held between 2000 and 2005, only Saint Eustatius voted to remain in the Netherlands Antilles. Curaçao and Sint Maarten opted to follow Aruba, becoming fully autonomous “constituent countries” within the Kingdom. The voters on Bonaire and Saba, meanwhile, chose closer ties with the Dutch homeland. In the end, they, along with Saint Eustatius, were transformed into “special municipalities” of the Netherlands.

As “special municipalities,” Bonaire, Saba, and Saint Eustatius have seemingly become integral parts of the Netherlands, gaining voting rights in both Dutch and European elections. Yet their status remains exceptional. They will not receive the same levels of social security as the Netherlands proper, and they may not have to adopt all Dutch laws—notably that allowing same-sex marriage. In the most striking symbolic departure from European practice, when they dropped the Antillean guilder in January 2011, they adopted not the euro but the US dollar.

The official use of American currency in the three Dutch municipalities has generated some controversy, both locally and in the Netherlands. The heavy dependence on tourism played a role in the decision, as did the strength of the euro. The underlying economic issues, as well as the local cultural flavor, are nicely captured by the comments posted on a St. Maarten website by a dollar defender

Obviously u all aint livin on Sint Maarten to see what the euro is doin the french side of the island. Mussa 40% of businesses on da french side close down because of da value of da euro. Tay even got da citizen of the french side comin over on da dutch side to shop.

Although geopolitically defunct, the Netherlands Caribbean evidently still functions as a unit in sports. A recent headline reads, “Peru confident of beating Netherlands Antilles in Davis Cup.” The Netherlands Antilles’ Olympic Committee (NAOC) acknowledges no organizational change in its discussions of the activities of would-be Olympians from the islands. The geography section of the NAOC website, unfortunately, has not been updated for some time. It simply states that, “The Netherlands Antilles are now in the middle of restructuring the country. This means that from 2007 each island will have an individual relation with the Netherlands.”

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