Myth of the Nation-State

Problems Faced by Countries Directly Rooted in Conquest Empires

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have remarked on Nepal’s relatively low social and economic indicators, especially when compared with other environmentally and culturally similar regions in the southern Himalayas. Explaining why this is the case, however, has not been attempted. Nepal’s chaotic political environment and recent history of conflict no doubt play a major role. But could a deeper reason be lodged in the fact that the modern state of Nepal is directly rooted in the early-modern conquest empire of the Gorkhas? In such an empire, one group of people conquers and imposes its will on many other groups, creating profound resentment. Turning such a polity into a well-functioning nation-state, and especially a democratic one, can be a challenge.

To assess this thesis, it is useful to look at other modern countries similarly founded on relatively recent conquest empires. Although many countries could potentially be placed in such a category, I have limited it to eight states, including Nepal (see the map below). Each will be briefly examined here.

Ethiopia, in its currently geographical bounds, emerged in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the rapid conquests of the Kingdom of Abyssinia, or Ethiopian Empire, dominated by the Christian Amhara people. Although most of Africa was colonized by Europeans, quite a few of its peoples were subjugated by this indigenous empire. Not surprisingly, religiously and linguistically diverse Ethiopia continues to experience pronounced ethnic tensions, and has never successfully transitioned into a fully national state.

Saudi Arabia is a more recently created conquest state, emerging in the early 1900s. In 1902, the domain of the Saud family was limited to a small area near the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. Through a spectacular series of conquests over the next several decades, Ibn Saud had carved an extensive state that became known as Saudi Arabia. Although one could argue that Saudi Arabia was never an empire because its creation involved the conquest of other Arabic-speaking Muslim groups, the actual situation was more complicated. The austere Wahhabi sect that was, and still is, closely linked to the Saudi dynasty, was foreign to most of what is now Saudi Arabia. Especially to Twelver Shi’ites of the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia can still seem like an empire. But it is also true that generous social spending and rapid economic development have more generally transformed Saudi Arabia into a successful nation-state.

Afghanistan is directly rooted in the Durrani Empire, carved out by Ahmad Shah Durrani in the mid 1700s. A Pashtun project, the Durrani Empire forcefully brought many members of other ethnic groups, with different languages and cultures, under its rule. In the twentieth century, Afghanistan sought to transform itself into a national state in several different incarnations, with middling success. But Afghanistan’s continuing tensions and turmoil have some linkages with its imperial formation.

Modern Burma/Myanmar is firmly rooted in the Burmese Konbaung Empire and Dynasty (1752 to 1885). The first Konbaung ruler crushed the wealthy and sophisticated Kingdom of Pegu in southern Burma and subsequently almost wiped its Mon people off the map. Konbaung rulers went on the conquer the Shan states, Arakan, Manipur, and even Assam, severely threatening the British East India Company in Calcutta. Three Anglo-Burmese war followed, eventually reducing the entire empire to British imperial rule. But when Burma was reborn as an independent state in 1948, its leaders sought to reestablish ethnic Burman domination over non-Burman peoples, following Aung San’s pre-war slogan “our race, our language, our religion.” Ethnic rebellions immediately proliferated and continue to this day. Burma has never been able to turn itself into a solid nation state.

Iran has deeper and more complicated roots, but it was essentially formed by the Safavid Dynasty, which conquered the region that is now Iran, and more, in the early sixteenth century. The religiously driven Safavids turned Iran a Twelver Shi’ite country; today it is a Twelver Shi’ite theocracy. The Safavid state was a joint project of Turkic military power and Persian cultural and administrative capability, the combination of which continued to form the backbone of the Iranian state long after the Safavid Dynasty fell from power in 1736. Iran eventually turned itself into a relatively successful national state, but to its mostly Sunni Kurds and Balochs, and to many Iranian Arabs as well, it can still seem like a Persian empire.

Russian arguably became an empire in 1552, when Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) conquered the important Muslim state of Kazan, turning Russia into a multi-confessional, multilinguistic polity. Subsequent expansion brought many other non-Russian peoples under its imperial rule. Although the Bolsheviks rejected the very idea of empire, in many ways the Soviet Union that they created continued to function as an imperial state – as does Russia to this day. Ethnic conflicts, however, are not a major problem today. Crucial factors here include the fact that ethnic Russian form a solid majority (70 to 80 percent of the total population) and the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s political suppression.

China is the most complicated case. Its civilizational roots extend back for millennia, longer even than those of Iran. But the geographical expression of China today stems from the conquests of the Qing Dynasty and Empire in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Taiwan, viewed by Beijing today as an intrinsic part of its territorial domain, had never previously been under Chinese rule. The huge regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Manchuria all became firmly part of China owing to the power of the Qing. Ironically, the Qing were not themselves an ethnic Chinese but rather Manchus; their success in subjugating the vastly more numerous Han Chinese people resulted in their own demographic swamping and virtual disappearance as a people. Today, China forms a secure national state with relatively minor ethnic conflicts. Such stability stems from the demographic predominance of the Han people (92 percent of the population) and to the country’s rapid economic ascent. But to Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and others, China can still feel like an imperial state.

Many other countries, including the United States, have some imperial roots and are treated as empires by some writers. But for the eight countries mapped above, imperial roots are pronounced. It is probably not coincidental that none of them has a successful history of democratic governance.

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Nepal’s Paradoxes of Nationalism and Historical Development: Why the Nepali Language Is Not the Nepali Language and Gurkhas Are Not Gorkhas

The past several GeoCurrents posts have examined the Limbu and related Kirati peoples of eastern Nepal, asking why they are so little known, all but erased from the history of the region. The simple answer is what might be called the myth of the nation-state, which rests on the idea that the people of virtually all countries are firmly united by sentiments of national solidarity. Although Nepal today forms a reasonably coherent nation-state, achieving such unifying identity has been a prolonged and contentious process that has never reached full completion. It also entailed the conquest and political suppression of many formerly independent peoples. Not surprisingly, this process is downplayed if not denied in the national mythos of Nepal.

On the surface, Nepal has a reasonably high degree of common cultural grounding. More than 80 percent of its people are Hindu, with another nine percent following Buddhism. The national language, Nepali, is spoken across the country and serves as an effective common tongue, used in government, education, and the media. Nepali is the mother tongue of almost half the population, and that figure is growing.

But there is an interesting oddity concealed by the term “Nepali language.” The sixth most widely spoken language in the country is Nepal Bhasi, which literally means “Nepali language.” Yet this Sino-Tibetan Nepali language does not even belong to the same language family as the country’s Indo-European official Nepali language. Nepal Bhasi was the language of the original state(s) of Nepal; the names of both the country and its tongue were usurped by the Gorkha Kingdom (or Empire), which conquered and annexed Nepal in 1768. The modern country of Nepal, put simply, originated as a conquest empire, one that later sought to refashion itself as a modern nation-state. In so doing it has obscured the processes that brought it into being in the first place

The story of these extraordinary acts of cultural appropriation are not difficult to find, but they tend to be papered over. Consider, for example, the following passage, taken from the second paragraph of the Wikipedia article on Nepal:

The centrally located Kathmandu Valley is intertwined with the culture of Indo-Aryans and was the seat of the prosperous Newar Confederacy known as the Nepal Mandala. The Himalayan branch of the ancient Silk Road was dominated by the valley’s traders. The cosmopolitan region developed distinct traditional art and architecture. By the 18th century the Gorkha Kingdom achieved the unification of Nepal.


This passage is not incorrect, but it is misleading. The large, fertile, and strategically located Kathmandu Valley was the center of a smallish kingdom (or, at times, kingdoms) that had long been known as Nepal. Its dominant ethnic group, the Newar, spoke (and still speak) the Sino-Tibetan Nepali language, or Nepal Bhasa. The Newar were originally part of the Kirati group, which is now mostly confined to eastern Nepal. As a cosmopolitan trade-oriented people, the Newar welcomed other ethnic groups into their state and interacted with them extensively. Their language and culture were subsequently heavily influenced by Indic (Indo-Aryan) newcomers. Most of the Newar eventually converted to Hinduism (although about 10% follow Buddhism), and they adopted some elements of the caste system. To this day, the Newar “pride themselves as the true custodians of the religion, culture and civilisation of Nepal,” and they “consistently rank as the most economically and socially advanced community of Nepal.” But they lost their state and political independence in 1768, when they were conquered by the aggressive Gorkha Empire based to their west. The Gorkha spoke an Indo-Aryan language, and their kingdom was ruled and run by a Hindu military-administrative caste/ethnicity called the Khas, who had originated much earlier in the lowlands of India. Until the 1800s, they called their own Gorkha state Khas Desh (or Khas country). Later renamed the Chhetri, the Khas are Nepal’s largest group of people, forming 16.6 percent of the national population.

In 1743, under the leadership of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Gorkha Kingdom began to conquer and annex its small neighboring states, thus effectively becoming an empire. After defeating the much wealthier and more sophisticated Newar states in 1768, Shah transferred his capital to the Kathmandu Valley and assumed its name – Nepal – for his expanding empire. (“Newar” and “Nepal” are actually variants of the same term, “Newar” being the colloquial form and “Nepal” the learned one.) Shah then went on to conquer dozens of other small states, first moving to the east to subdue the Kirati people, and then annexing many Himalayan statelets in the west. The empire that he founded later encompassed extensive lands in what are now the Indian states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

The language of the original Gorkha Kingdom was first called Khas Kura, after the ruling Khas caste, and was later referred to as the Gorkha language. In 1933 it was finally renamed “Nepali” by the state’s official publishing agency, which simultaneously changed its own name from “Gorkha Language Publishing Committee” to “Nepali Language Publishing Committee.” In 1951, the term “Gorkhali” (or Gorkha people) in the country’s national anthem was finally changed to “Nepali.” At this time, the appropriation of the term “Nepal” was complete.

It was not easy for the Gorkha Empire to defeat the Limbu people, who were well equipped to defend themselves. After a three-year war, a peace treaty was signed in 1774 that incorporated Limbuwan into the Gorkha Empire but allowed the Limbu people to retain extensive autonomy, thereby securing their loyalty. In the 1860s, however, new policies of cultural and linguistic suppression incited widespread Limbu rebellions against the state. In the early twentieth century, Limbu land rights came under attack. By the 1950s, the continuing erosion of local autonomy combined with assaults on traditional land tenure again incited insurgency. An ethnonationalist state agenda enacted under the slogan “one country, one king, one language, one culture” further angered the Limbu and other minority peoples.

 The expansion of the Gorkha Kingdom and the subsequent creation of the modern state of Nepal is generally portrayed positively as a process of national unification. One can make the case that it was a beneficial development that prevented the British East India company from gobbling up the many tiny states of the region. But the term “unification” might imply that it was a semi-natural process that brought together various peoples who already constituted a kind of nation in embryo. Seem from the perspective of the Limbu and other minority peoples, including the Newar, the creation of the modern nation-state of Nepal can be framed as less a process of unification than one of appropriation and (attempted) forced assimilation.

The expansionistic Gorkha Empire eventually come to blows with the British East India company. After the hard-fought Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-1816, the victorious British annexed roughly two-fifths of the Gorkha territory. (This annexation given rise to a rather feckless “Greater Nepal” movement that still hopes to reclaim these lost lands.) But unlike other defeated South Asian kingdoms that were transformed into dependent “Princely States” under the British Raj, Nepal essentially retained its independence. The British were so impressed by the fighting ability of the Gorkha soldiers, moreover, that they insisted on the right to recruit them for their own Indian army. These storied fighters, called Gurkhas, still play an important role in the militaries of the United Kingdom and several other countries; they also serve as U.N. peacekeepers. More than 200,000 Gurkhas fought for Britain in World War I. Some experts regard them as the world’s best soldiers.

But although the British continued to recruit Gurkhas, before long they were no longer actually Gorkhas. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, formerly called the Sepoy Mutiny, the British grew suspicious of high-caste Hindus, including the Khas who had formed the bedrock of the Gorkha army. According to the Wikipedia, military recruitment subsequently shifted to the Gurungs and Magars, indigenous Sino-Tibetan peoples who had been conquered by the Gorkhas. But the Encyclopedia Britannica (Fifteenth Edition) article on the Kirati Rai people tells a somewhat different story: “With the Limbu and Magar peoples, they supplied the bulk of the Gurkha contingent to the British Indian armies.”

 Nepal is a politically troubled country today, and its social-economic indicators lag well below those of other Himalayan polities, such as the independent country of Bhutan and the Indian states of Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh. The historical processes outlined are a major factor in Nepal’s current plight.  


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Why Mapping Sovereignty Matters: IR Theory, Realism, John Mearsheimer, and the Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy

(Note: today’s post is an edited version of a talk that I recently gave at a conference called Re-Mapping Sovereignty: Representing Geopolitical Complexity, held at Stanford University’s David Rumsey map on May 26 and 27, 2022.  I am categorizing it as an editorial essay, as it has more opinion content that standard GeoCurrents posts. At the conference, the talk was illustrated with 88 sides; I have included only the most important ones here. All the conference talks are available on YouTube at:


It would be an understatement to say that U.S. foreign policy over the past few decades has fallen short of its aim. Failures of both prediction and program have been recurrent. Most recently, the consensus was that Russia would crush Ukraine in 48 to 96 hours.[1] Vanishingly few anticipated a successful defense of Kiev, let alone a prolonged conflict. A few months earlier, experts erred in the opposite direction, confident that Kabul would withstand the Taliban for a prolonged period. No one anticipated the rapid collapse of the Afghan army and government, and no one prepared for the evacuation of American personnel before the military withdrew.

Much more damaging was a string of U.S. led or aided regime-change gambits and other military ventures in the early 2000s. These efforts backfired spectacularly. After two decades of bloodletting and institution-building in Afghanistan, the Taliban emerged much stronger than it had been before 9/11, able now to easily overrun the previously impregnable Panjshir Valley. Iraq was turned into a militia-riven country partially aligned with Iran. Libya was shattered for years, becoming a hub of weapons smuggling, and human trafficking, and worse. U.S.-supported efforts to overthrow Syria’s Assad regime fostered a resurgence of radical Islamism and allowed Russia to gain officially permanent control of a major airbase and port facility. U.S.-backed military intervention by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen resulted in a deadly stalemate and a human-rights catastrophe.

Over the same period, the rise of authoritarian China, globally ambitious and increasingly unfriendly toward the United States, likewise defied confident predictions. The Washington consensus was that an enriching China would steadily veer into liberalism and democracy, its participation in global trade networks tightening the bonds of an increasingly peaceable post-Cold War order. Many foreign policy experts welcomed the growing entanglement of the American and Chinese economies, seeing “Chimerica”[2] as an economically stabilizing force that guaranteed cheap, inflation-busting imports. Warnings of a possible totalitarian resurgence in the one-party People’s Republic were given little credence.

It is all too easy, to be sure, to use hindsight to castigate policy decisions and intelligence omissions, or to assume that different paths would have necessarily led to better outcomes. Given the complexities and contingencies of geopolitics, miscues are unavoidable. It is also easy to overlook foreign-policy successes, as the human mind foregrounds the negative over the positive.[3] That said, there is a disconcerting pattern of error. When costly choices repeatedly yield the opposite of what had been intended, inquiry into the deeper roots of the problem would seem to be in order.

The Realist Critique – and Limits

Despite widespread concurrence in Washington, many critics warned against the regime-change gambit. Although the most concerted opposition came from the political left, in academic foreign-policy circles it was most closely associated with the anti-liberal “realist” school of International Relations (IR). Although realists tend to uphold liberal principles in the domestic sphere, they hotly oppose trying to impose them elsewhere. According to John Mearsheimer, dean of this informal school, the post-Cold War effort of the United States to “remake the world in its own image” was based on a “great delusion” of liberal hegemony.[4] In his view, self-interested nationalism is far more potent than either humanitarianism or the desire for liberty. Accordingly, sovereign states are expected to doggedly pursue their interests regardless of whatever laudable schemes are embraced by progressive intellectuals or advanced by the international community. “Realists,” in this view, are those who acknowledge this reality and act accordingly, upholding balance-of-power rivalries even where they run roughshod over human rights and responsibilities.

After both the overwhelming failures of intervention in the Middle East and the authoritarian surge in China, many observers have inclined more in a “realist” direction, although it is a grotesque exaggeration to say, as some do, that “we are all realists now.”[5] Liberal internationalism is still the dominant establishment position, but it is now a chastened version of what had been a more muscular creed. Mearsheimer and his fellow realists have been proven prescient and thus deserve credit for their warnings.

But if realism illuminates some key problems in U.S. foreign policy, its own shortcomings are equally apparent. Fundamental failures to comprehend the geopolitical order are evident in Mearsheimer’s influential 2014 essay, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin.”[6] Here he argued that Moscow was the aggrieved party in the 2014 war, owing to NATO’s push into its legitimate sphere of influence. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and hiving-off of the two Donbass “People’s Republics,” in other words, were defensive acts. Mearsheimer insisted that Putin is a conventional geopolitical figure – a realist himself[7] – who acts like almost any leader of a great power would if faced with similar threats. He thus confidently predicted that Russia’s aims would remain strictly limited: “Putin surely understands that trying to subdue Ukraine would be like swallowing a porcupine.”[8]

In early 2022, Russia did indeed try to subdue Ukraine, invalidating Mearsheimer’s prediction and calling into question his ability to discern Putin’s motivations based on realist assumptions. But as the massive invasion commenced, Mearsheimer doubled down, employing the same porcupine simile and giving the same assurances of limited aims.[9] “It does seem apparent that [Putin is] not touching western Ukraine,”[10] he opined just a few days before Moscow launched a missile attack on Lviv in far western Ukraine, the first of many such strikes.  A few months later, he forcefully reiterated his position,[11] arguing that the United States was principally responsible for the war by leading Ukraine “down the primrose path.” He further claimed that Putin recognized the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood before the war began and was “not interested in making Ukraine part of Russia.”

In Mearsheimer’s understanding at the time of the invasion, Putin would never attempt to subdue Ukraine because doing so would be too expensive and destructive, weakening Russia. Following a clear-cut theory, he expected Putin to coldly calculate his maneuvers, acting in a manner deemed rational by the tenets of realism. As Jan Smoleńskiand Jan Dutkiewicz aptly framed it, “John Mearsheimer and other foreign policy figures [were] treating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine like a game of Risk.”[12] Realist analysis paid little heed to Putin’s own justifications, which he spelled out before the invasion.[13] Given Putin’s craving to extend Russian hegemony over its “Near Abroad,” compounded with the widespread Russian belief in the redemptive power of mass suffering, it is not surprising that he would pursue a self-damaging course. Contrary to realist theorizing, geopolitical myths and ideologies can be tremendously important, and they not infrequently lead in destructive directions. If one imbibes enough hyper-nationalist fables, even the world’s largest porcupine can be a tempting target, as the world learned in June 1941.

It is difficult to make sense of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine war in Mearsheimer’s framework. If it reflected reality, Russia would have continued bullying Kyiv and jockeying for geopolitical advantage rather than launching an outright invasion. Ukraine, for its part, should have complied with Russian demands. As a minor power on a flat landscape, it supposedly had no chance of withstanding its great-power neighbor, fated instead to be a defanged buffer country at best or a Russian puppet state at worst.

Ukraine, Nationalism, and the Failure of Realism

As Mearsheimer rightly emphasizes, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is embedded in national sentiments. Understanding how nationalism functions, however, requires making distinctions between different forms of the phenomenon. Following Hans Kohn, many scholars have differentiated ethnic from civic nationalism.[14] The former is premised on the emotionally charged belief in descent from a locally rooted ancestral population that remains bound together by a common language and cultural practices; the latter is based on allegiance to political ideals. Mearsheimer scoffs at this distinction.[15] In his view, civic ties are too vague and cerebral to be meaningful. Instead, nationalism needs to be cemented by an emotional belief in the “sacred” nature of the national territory if people are “to fight and die for it.”[16] This interpretation accords with those of ethnonational theorist Yoram Hazony and pundit Rich Lowry, who argue that genuine national solidarity must rest on ethnic pillars.[17] These influential authors reject the traditional bipartisan civic nationalism of the United States, which is lodged in loyalty to a liberal republican political creed.

While there are problems with the ethnic/civic distinction,[18] it is nonetheless essential for understanding the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The ideology underwriting Putin’s invasion is one of ethnic essentialism, fixated on the world historical destiny of the Russian people, spiritually entwined with the Russian Orthodox Church. It deviates from garden-variety ethnonationalism by its imperial pretensions. Although Russia is a highly centralized country, Putin’s Eurasianist[19] perspective frames it not as a singular nation-state but rather as the core of a multinational domain; one structured around internal ethnic republics, external unrecognized client states, buffer countries, and an expansive sphere of influence. Russia is constitutionally designated as a multinational federation, with sovereignty officially vested in its various ethno-nationally distinct peoples.[20] While there is no doubt that the Russian ethno-nation forms its core, many others are recognized and granted cultural space; the very existence of the Ukrainian nation, by contrast, is denied, as Ukrainians are said to be a mere local variant of the greater Russian ethnos.[21]

Mearsheimer’s realism overlooks both the pathologies of ethnonationalism and the potentialities of civic nationalism. These pathologies are sadly familiar: national stories tend to be mythologized, leading to damaging historical falsification. Imperial versions, such as Russia’s, foster delusions of destiny that often end in violent imperial overreach. When false narratives are enshrined, moreover, truth-telling becomes subversive and repression follows. Minority groups are typically excluded from the national core and often from the nation itself. Should they become disgruntled enough to rebel, the state is weakened.

The dismissal of civic nationalism by both Mearsheimer and rightwing populists is also unsupportable, as again demonstrated by recent events in Ukraine. Although a sense of common belonging and desire for independence have long been evident across Ukraine, national identity was poorly consolidated before the Russian assault of 2014. To be sure, ethnonational bonds were firm across the north and west, often taking an extreme form in the far west. In and around Lviv, the Svoboda Party – intensely anti-Russian, anti-Communist, and anti-Semitic – routinely gained up to 30 percent of the vote. Eastern and Southern Ukraine, however, strongly favored candidates like Victor Yanukovych who downplayed language and ethnicity, sought closer relations with Russia, and advocated decentralization.[22] Election after election revealed a sharp bifurcation, with candidates who received more than 90 percent of the vote on one end of the country getting less than 10 percent on the other. Such an electoral disjunction, seen most starkly in Nigeria, signals a poorly gelled nation.

Ukraine’s national rift, however, began to heal over after the Russian assaults of 2014. The most pro-Russia areas, Crimea and the eastern Donbass, were excised from the country, while Putin’s brutal actions undermined the pro-Moscow position. More important, a new version of Ukrainian solidarity was put forward by the most unlikely candidate, the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky. As a Russian-speaking Jew who defended the public use of his mother tongue, Zelensky does not even count as Ukrainian in the more hidebound versions of his country’s ethnonational creed. By urging respect for Russian-language institutions, he provoked hostility from extremists.[23] Zelensky’s brand of nationalism had little room for emotional zealotry, religious inflection, or mythologizing the greatness of the Ukrainian past. Instead, he grounded his electoral campaign on a quintessentially civic issue: an anti-corruption drive.

Zelensky first gained traction in Ukraine’s formerly Russia-friendly east and south. In the final voting round, however, he triumphed handily almost everywhere. The only exception was the far west, but even there support for the semi-fascist Svoboda Party had essentially evaporated.[24] Zelensky’s civic nationalism had apparently consolidated the nation, at least temporarily. And when push came to shove, Ukrainians stunned the world with their willingness to fight and die for their land and state. Civically fortified and militarily tested, Ukrainian national consolidation now looks secure.


The Standard World Model

Although Mearsheimer blames the ill-fated regime-change maneuvers undertaken or supported by the United States on a naïve liberal drive to refashion the world, the failure of his own theorizing to make sense of the Russia-Ukraine conflict shows that the underlying problem runs deeper. Again and again, realists and interventionists alike fail to anticipate the consequences of their policies. Why? I argue that their common flaw is to accept without question a simplistic world model and map. According to this all-but universal schema, the world is cleanly divided into a set number of sovereign states. These entities are regarded as fundamental, vastly more important than either their own subdivisions or any supranational entities, cross-cutting political organizations, or intersecting networks. Their significance is all-encompassing, extending well beyond geopolitics. They literally form the base map on which almost all global spatial information in inscribed. In the process, they are inevitably naturalized. As Bill Rankin has written, borders separating countries “become part of a neutral landscape with an almost timeless presence, and they’re conspicuously disconnected from the dynamic,  contingent, human knowledge layered on top. It’s a deceptively simple trick, and its simplicity is what makes it so powerful.”[25]

While not all-important, states certainly are of enormous significance. To comprehend them, one needs to understand their geohistory, asking where, when, and how they originated and in what manner this form of political organization spread across globe. Although no consensus has been reached in the vast literature on the topic, most IR scholars agree that the modern state arose in western Europe in the early modern period.[26] In the larger IR narrative, European states gained the key attributes of full sovereignty and complete territorialization with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The sovereign territorial state then gradually spread, through imposition and emulation, across the world. Tribal and nomadic peoples, such as those of Inner Asia, were among the last to be encompassed within its bounds. By the late twentieth century, the system was globalized, with sovereign states forming the puzzle pieces of the master jigsaw map of the planet.[27]

According to the standard world model, these fundamental units are not just fully sovereign polities governing cleanly demarcated territories. They are also seen as nation-states, implying that the state is fully congruent with the nation – the people – falling under its rule. This equation is encoded in the very term “International Relations.” The correspondence is assumed to be so strong that “state,” “nation,” and “country” have become interchangeable. According to Mearsheimer, nations themselves “tend to be tightly integrated permanent entities separated by clear boundaries.”[28] These platonic entities,[29] as they are called by Nassim Taleb, are presumed to be the world’s essential actors. In international law, they are reduced to singular “persons” who, in concert, constitute a cozy international community.

Real World Dis/Order

The standard world model is concise and convenient, but it is also largely wrong. Reducing the past to a few key events, it is essentially ahistorical; locating all crucial developments on Eurasia’s western fringe, it is inherently Eurocentric. As Munkh-Erdene has demonstrated,[30] pastoral peoples of Central Asia built powerful states with key territorial aspects many centuries ago. State emergence was a prolonged process, with the fully modern form – Charles Maier’s “Leviathan 2.0”not appearing until the second half of the nineteenth century. Jordan Branch more daringly yet convincingly argues that “the state” per se has no time or place of origin, as it is a composite institution whose various components all have their own histories and geographies.[31]

Geopolitical reality is and has always been vastly more complex and chaotic than the world model allows. Across the globe, sovereignty has always been fractionated, nesting, diffuse, and disputed. Borders are often contested and are not infrequently more notional than real. Effectively stateless areas abound, as do counter-states and militarily potent “states within states.” National identity is often questioned and never uniform; states and nations rarely line up with any exactitude. And contemporary sovereign states are certainly not polities of the same sort. For starters, it matters that they differ in size by orders of magnitude. But even countries with comparable populations vary so much in their capacity and infrastructure as to be different kinds of entities. Composite constructions that exist simultaneously in the realms of ideas, infrastructures, and representations, as Jordan Branch argues, states are nothing like persons.

What this means is that we have misconstrued the map. The standard world political map does not depict the world as-it-is; it represents the ideals of the diplomatic community. In the rarified realm of diplomacy, resorting to simplification is reasonable and even desirable. But when the goal is understanding the world and the motives of its actors, the model does more harm than good. If we are to devise effective policies, we need to grapple with the world in its full complexity. Relying on such an idealized image to guide policies and generate forecasts will only lead to more dismay and disappointment.

As Franck Bille[32] emphasizes, mainstream geopolitical scholarship frames deviation as exception, dismissing any challenge to the underlying scheme. In the contemporary world, nation-state uniformity is assumed to have overridden the premodern order of parcelized sovereignty and layered and overlapping political identity, bringing about, in Mearsheimer’s word,[33]  “an extraordinary change from a heterogenous world system to a homogenous one.” But in actuality, divergence from the geopolitical norm is less the exception than the substance of the global political architecture. The more one looks, the more one finds. As Bruno Latour insisted in a different context, “we have never been modern.”[34] We fool ourselves in thinking otherwise.

Moving beyond the game-board view to grapple with the actual configurations of political power can be extraordinarily difficult. Trying to map something as spatially amorphous as the millet system of confessional legal autonomy in the Ottoman Empire challenges the cartographic imagination. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up on visualization altogether. If anything, it makes the mapping of political authority more crucial, if only because the effort to get it right exposes just how slippery and intricate sovereignty can be. Grappling with these intricacies has pushed cartographers to further hone their craft, as Luca Scholz[35] and others here have demonstrated.

Nation-States, Regime Removal, and Country Collapse

The failed regime-change gambits of the early 21st century with which I began this essay are substantially rooted in the standard world model. Having naturalized the state, we can’t help expecting it to be more secure than it often is. We thus imagined that the imagined communities that we call Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya would withstand the shock of imposed new regimes, even if done so though foreign aggression. Japan, after all, had no problem staying in one piece after its devasting defeat and occupation in 1945.

Yet the regime-change gambits of the early century saw instead the crumpling of the targeted states and the breaking of their nations followed by prolonged conflict. Libya and Afghanistan may have been tentatively reconstituted, but they remain precarious. Iraq persists as something of a sham state, surviving only at the insistence of the international community; its self-governing and self-defended Kurdish Regional Government would opt out in a heartbeat if it could.[36] In Yemen, the nation was revealed to have been largely a figment. Prior to the regime-toppling operations, it was less national solidarity than the raw power of their governments that held any of these countries together. All, moreover, have been challenged by powerful countervailing ideologies, ranging from radical Islamism, to Arab nationalism and associated ideologies, to conflicted Kurdish nationalism, to anarcho-libertarian socialism, to Pashtun ethno-imperialism.





This is not to say that these countries completely lack unifying sentiments. Like other states without ethnonational or civic foundations, they developed some measure of common identity through other means. Mearsheimer emphasizes the solidarity-boosting struggle for independence from colonial powers.[37] But while significant, anti-colonialism itself was insufficient to generate enduring solidarity. More important have been state-run schools, a nation-focused press,[38] and the simple experience of living under a single government. But although public-opinion polling usually shows widespread acceptance of the nation-state, that does not mean that the message is taken to heart. When crisis hits, regional, ethnic, and clan-based affinity can quickly trump nation-state loyalty. The world’s “youngest nation,” South Sudan (2011), cohered well enough when fighting for independence but collapsed almost immediately upon receiving it, as the highest allegiance of most of its people remained with the Nuer, Dinka, and other ethnic groups.[39]

The world would probably be much more stable and peaceful if it accorded with the nation-state model. But just as confusing “is” for “ought” can lead to mindless conservatism, as David Hume warned long ago, confusing “ought” for “is” can lead to senseless naivete. A truly realist perspective would deal with the world as it is constituted, not as it is imagined. Such genuine realism, however, faces resistance, as it can be construed as threatening the institutions that underwrite what little geopolitical stability actually exists. If we were all to quit pretending, such thinking has it, everything could collapse, as political cohesion ultimate rests on legitimacy in the public imagination. Although rarely expressed overtly, this concern sometime makes its presence felt. I was recently chided by a senior colleague for arguing that the Peace of Westphalia, contrary to IR theory, did not create anything like a system of individuated sovereign states. He did not fault my evidence or arguments; what bothered him was their implications. But if the devastating failures of U.S. foreign policy are any indication, what is more dangerous is devising policies under the guidance of an illusion.

The Experimental Failure of Geopolitical Theory and Expertise

International Relations scholarship is concerned with both theory and practice. But theory comes first. As Mearsheimer specifies, theory “is indispensable for understanding how the world works.”[40] In one profound sense, he is not wrong. Theorizing of some sort is necessary to understand anything. But experimentally unfalsifiable theories are best held as provisional interpretations that can shift or be abandoned as new developments unfold. In the sciences, competing theories are routinely put to the test, and those that fail are winnowed out. That is not the case, however, in geopolitics.

As it turns out, a trove of relevant experimental data has been collected on the conceptualization of geopolitically significant events. A robust IR theory ought to facilitate forecasting near-term developments. The available evidence, however, suggests otherwise. For decades, Philip Tetlock has been running massive tournaments in which individuals and teams compete to see who can best forecast the likelihood of such events as North Korea launching another missile or Argentina defaulting on its bonds. The results are not good PR for IR. In one study, according to Tetlock, experts performed on average at the level of a “dart-throwing chimpanzee.”[41] The scholars and pundits whose predictions fare worst are those who are animated by a single “Big Idea.” Tetlock paints those most susceptible to this bias as “theory-poisoned.”[42]

By contrast, a few people are “superforecasters” who have far better track records. Intriguingly, those with the knack turn out to be generalists, not specialists. They typically follow a modest strategy, gathering as much information as possible and adjusting their predictions as they go along.[43] Superforecasters tend to regard theories as hypotheses. Driven by curiosity, they have high levels of general knowledge.[44] They are the kind of people, Tetlock tells us, who can “find Kazakhstan on a map.”[45]

The Geo-Historical Alternative

Tetlock’s research confirms my doubts about the standard approach to sovereignty that dominates geopolitical analysis. Given as well the dismal recent record of U.S. foreign policy, a new paradigm is surely called for. The most promising alternative, I would argue, is based on learning the spatial complexities of political power on the ground, and analyzing how they are imagined, represented, legitimated, and contested. Doing so reveals a richly variegated, multidimensional landscape that cannot be reduced to a single model, much less reflected on a single map. This alternative approach relies heavily on cartography to depict, interpret, and appreciate that landscape, but it always puts multiple maps in dialogue with each other and with textual accounts.[46] It also sees maps as laden propositions, not mirrors of reality.

Rescuing history from the nation, as Prasenjit Duara framed it a quarter-century ago,[47] is a well-advanced project by now in the humanities. But recognition in one corner of the university does not mean acknowledgement across the disciplines, much less in the public sphere. Much more than the study of history needs to be rescued from the nation – and from the state, from blanket sovereignty, and from all the other trappings of the standard world model. Or, to put it another way, we might say that it is the practice of statecraft that need to be rescued by the study of history – and of geography.


Perhaps John Mearsheimer would be open to some aspects of this assessment. He too has warned of the dangers of geographical illiteracy. In the early twenty-first century, he lamented “The United States was intervening in countries it knew astonishingly little about – few government officials even … knew that Sunni and Shi’a were different branches of Islam … .”[48] If officials had known such things, and if they had understood that “Iraq” is not permanent puzzle-piece on a stable world map but a tenuous construction conjured into existence by Winston Churchill,[49] Gertrude Bell[50] and other imperial functionaries following the United Kingdom’s betrayal its Arab allies during World War I, perhaps a less destructive path would have been taken in 2003.

[1] “We Assumed Small States Were Pushovers. Ukraine Proved Us Wrong,” by Alexander Clarkson. World Political Review, April 13, 2022.

[2] The term “Chimerica” was coined by Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick. Ferguson contended that the single Chimerican economy accounted for a third of the world’s gross domestic product in 2009, further arguing that the relationship between the two states was, “for a time,” a “symbiotic relationship that seemed like a marriage made in heaven.” But Ferguson further argued that the economic relationship between the two countries eventually became toxic, as revealed by the financial meltdown of 2008. See “What ‘Chimerica’ Hath Wrought,” by Niall Ferguson, The American Interest Online, January-February 2009 Issue.

[3] For a popular review of the psychological literature on this subject, see The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It, by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister. Penguin Books, 2019.

[4] John J. Mearsheimer, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. 2018. Yale University Press. Quotation from page viii.

[5] “We Are All Realists Now,” by Curt Mills, The National Interest, February 22, 2019.

[6] Published in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 93, No. 5 (SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2014), pp. 77-84, 85-89.

[7] Mearsheimer explicitly depicted Putin as “thinking and acting like a realist” in The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (2018) on page 178.

[8] Mearsheimer 2014, page 85.

[9] “John Mearsheimer on why the West is principally responsible for the Ukrainian crisis,” by John Mearsheimer. The Economist, March 19, 2022.

[10] The quotation is from Isaac Chotiner’s interview of Mearsheimer: “Why John Mearsheimer Blames the U.S. for the Crisis in Ukraine.” The New Yorker, March 1, 2022.

March 1, 2022

[11] See “The Causes and Consequences of the Ukraine War,” by John J. Mearsheimer. Russia Matters, June 23, 2021.

[12] “The American Pundits Who Can’t Resist “Westsplaining” Ukraine: John Mearsheimer and other foreign policy figures are treating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine like a game of Risk,” by Jan Smoleński and Jan Dutkiewicz. The New Republic, March 4, 2022.

[13] “‘Modern Ukraine entirely created by Russia’ — read full text of Vladimir Putin’s speech.” The Print, February 23, 2022.

[14] Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism. 1944. Collier.

[15] Mearsheimer 2018, Pp. 105-106.

[16] Mearsheimer 2018, Pp. 103.

[17] Yoram Hazony. The Virtue of Nationalism. 2018. New York: Basic Books. Rich Lowry, The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United and Free. 2019. Broadside Books.

[18] The ethnic-civic national distinction is often exaggerated, and it forms less a dichotomy than a continuum. A common history and culture, moreover, can generate firm national bonds without any substantial ethnic or civic foundations; the ethnically diverse nation of Brazil is not exactly united around devotion to “progress and order,” its official civic creed.

[19] See “The Grand Theory Driving Putin to War,” by Jane Burbank, The New York Times, March 22, 2022.

[20] Article 3, Section 1 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation reads: “The bearer of sovereignty and the only source of power in the Russian Federation shall be its multinational people.”

[21] “‘Modern Ukraine entirely created by Russia’ — read full text of Vladimir Putin’s speech.” The, February 23, 2022.

[22] See the superb map collections of Electoral Geography 2.0:

[23] As the Wikipedia article on the president of Ukraine notes, “In August 2014, Zelenskyy spoke out against the intention of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture to ban Russian artists from Ukraine. Since 2015, Ukraine has banned Russian artists and other Russian works of culture from entering Ukraine. In 2018, romantic comedy Love in the Big City 2 starring Zelenskyy was banned in Ukraine.”

[24]  See the map collections of Electoral Geography 2.0

[25] William Rankin, Radical Cartography, Forthcoming. Chapter 2, Page 3.

[26] In Mearsheimer’s view, however, the state itself emerged in England, Spain, and France in the early sixteenth century See Mearsheimer, 2018, p. 96

[27] Although all major schools of IR thought rely on the standard model, their understandings of its contours vary. Liberal theorists have a more capacious view than realists, moving beyond the state, for example, to take seriously the roles of international organizations, international law, and global norms. As individuals, moreover, many IR scholars of all orientations escape the model’s fetters to firmly grasp the nuances of the geopolitical order.

[28] Mearsheimer 2018, p. 86; emphasis added. As Mearsheimer frames the standard model in particularly stark form in The Great Delusion, further quotations are useful in outlining his vision. We live, he avers, in “homogenous world system” (p. 145) structured around nation-states, all based on shared sentiments of hard-edged nationalism (p. 84). As nationalism is “in sync with human nature” (8), a person’s “highest loyalty is almost always to his nation (p. 87).” Members of each nation “mostly speak the same language” (p. 94) and “tend to think and act in similar ways” (p. 87).  Mearsheimer depicts nations as having minds collective minds: “each nation-state tends to think that it is superior to others” (p. 201). This is because “nationalism [is] all about privileging one’s own group over others” (p. 111). The states conjoined with these nations have well defined borders (p. 96)) and can “break or discipline the individuals and groups living within those borders.” Their decision-making power is always “concentrated at the center.” Mearsheimer see the highest expression of such power in armed might. Not only is “the military an integral part” of every state (p. 72), but so too is “offensive military capacity” (p. 131). Ideally, each nation-state is also fully sovereign, suffering no interference in domestic matters by other powers. But Mearsheimer argues that while this preferred condition was approached in the late 1980s, it was soon undermined as “the United States took to interfering with the politics of other countries” (p. 160).

None of these assertions can withstand scrutiny. Even the most seemingly commonsensical ones are simply not true. Every country has an offensive military capacity? States as large and successful as Costa Rica manage well enough with no military force whatsoever, and to imagine Nauru, Tuvalu, Monaco, or San Marino launching a campaign of aggression against some other country is rank fantasy.

[29] On the “platonic” nature of the nation-state construct, see Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007, New York: Random House). As Taleb puts it, “What I call Platonicity, after the ideas (and personality) of the philosopher Plato, is our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and well-defines “forms,” whether objects, like triangles, or social notions, like utopias …, even nationalities. When these ideas and crisp constructs inhabit our minds, we privilege them over other less elegant objects, those with messier and less tractable structures… .”  P. xxv.

[30] Lhamsuren Munkh-Erdene, The Taiji Government and the Rise of the Warrior State The Formation of the Qing Imperial Constitution. 2021. Brill.

[31] Jordan Branch, “Reconceptualizing the State and its Alternatives: Ideas, infrastructures, representations.” Talk given at Stanford University’s Rumsey Map Center, Conference on “Remapping Sovereignty,” May 26-27, 2022.

[32] Franck Bille, “Scattered, Distorted, Voluminous: On Cartographic Representation in Political Geography.” Talk given at Stanford University’s Rumsey Map Center, Conference on “Remapping Sovereignty,” May 26-27, 2022.

[33] Mearsheimer 2018, 145.

[34] Bruno Latour. We Have Never Been Modern. 1993. Harvard University Press.

[35] Luca Scholz, “Condominium: Mapping Joint Dominion in the Holy Roman Empire.” Talk given at Stanford University’s Rumsey Map Center, Conference on “Remapping Sovereignty,” May 26-27, 2022.

[36] As Nicola Degli Espositi explains, “In September 2017, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq held a referendum for independence in which Kurdish voters overwhelmingly – over 93% – chose to secede from Iraq. However, the virtually unanimous opposition of the international community prevented Kurdish president Masoud Barzani from proclaiming independence. The United States, the principal ally of the Iraqi Kurds, refused to back the referendum, prioritising the territorial integrity of Iraq. Baghdad deemed the referendum illegal, and neighbouring Turkey and Iran, worried about the repercussions on their own Kurdish minorities, strongly opposed Kurdish independence. In this context, the prospect of a landlocked Kurdish mini-state looked like a geopolitical nightmare. In the aftermath of the referendum, the KRG was subject to heavy retaliation from Ankara and Tehran, which shut their borders and closed their airspace. The Iraqi army moved towards Kurdish positions and, in a few weeks, took over a vast swathe of territory historically disputed by Baghdad and Erbil, including the oil-rich and highly symbolic city of Kirkuk.” This quotation is from “The 2017 Independence Referendum and the Political Economy of Kurdish Nationalism in Iraq,” by Nicola Degli Espositi. Third World Quarterly, 42(10), 2317-2333, page 2317.

[37] Mearsheimer 2018, p. 99.

[38] Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 1983. Verso.

[39] Although South Sudan was tentative patched back together, the future looks dim: “Diplomats Fear a Collapse of South Sudan’s Latest Peace Deal: Even as they publicly support the pact, many privately think it is built on a house of cards and will be pulled down by the country’s bloody past,” by Justin Lynch, Foreign Policy, March 5, 2020.

[40] Mearsheimer 2018, viii.

[41] Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. 2015. Crown Publishers. p. 68.

[42] Tetlock and Gardner p. 244. The authors are opining here on the fictional character Hamlet, who they describe as “The typical academic, theory-poisoned and indecisive…”

This finding may seem counter-intuitive, but understanding it is not difficult. When one commits to any speculative theory, one tends to see the world from its perspective, passing over discordant information. As confirmation bias is intrinsic to the human mind, concerted effort is necessary to avoid its disabling effects. For a popular overview of the psychological literature on human cognitive biases and heuristics, see Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman (2013, Farrar. Straus and Giroux).

[43] Tetlock and Gardner 2015.

[44] Tetlock and Gardner 2015, Pp. 106-110.

[45] Tetlock and Gardner 201, p. 92.

[46] As Matthew Edney insists, each cartographic act takes shape “within a web of texts that provide the map with different shades of meaning. See Matthew Edney, Cartography: The Ideal and Its History. 2019, University of Chicago Press. P. 12, 40.

[47] Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China. 1995. University of Chicago Press.

[48] Mearsheimer 2018, P. 169.

[49] Christopher Catherwood, Churchill’s Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq. 2005. Basic Books.

[50] Liora Lukitz. A Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq. 2006. I.B. Tauris.


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Language and Nationalism, Part 2: State and Language in Europe’s Romance Zone

The connection between language development and state consolidation is clearly evident in Western Europe, usually regarded as the birthplace of the nation-state. Such linkages undermine the ethnonationalist assertion that nations are natural reflection of language-defined communities. We will examine this phenomenon in several posts, beginning today with the Romance zone, composed of countries whose official and national languages derived from Latin. We begin with France, which is often viewed as the quintessential nation-state.

French, as spoken today, was not the language of the early medieval kingdom that evolved into modern France. Latin was used by both the church and state, while the precursor of French was the dialect of the Paris Basin, originally regarded as merely the local spoken form of Latin (or “Romance,” the language of Rome). That dialect would eventually be standardized and politicized by the evolving state, spreading widely both by both imposition and emulation. But south of the Loire River, dialects generally grouped together as Occitan long maintained their grip; in Brittany and the Basque region, non-Romance tongues continued to hold sway. In the romantic age of the nineteenth century, language was politicized in France, as it was elsewhere in Europe, for nation-building purposes.[i] But it was not until the late 19th century, or even WWI, that standard French gained dominance across the country. Service in the military was crucial to this development. In the memorable words of historian Eugen Weber, this was part of a broader process of turning “peasants into Frenchmen.”[ii] That process is by no means fully complete today, especially in the increasingly independence-minded island of Corsica, where the local language is more closely related to Italian than to French.




National consolidation worked out differently in the other Romance-speaking countries. Spain, also regarded as one of the world’s first nation-states, first appears on historical maps in 1469, with the marriage of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. But but it long functioned as a composite monarchy, joining together diverse groups of peoples, places, and polities under one crown.[iii] Efforts to forge a closer union prompted resistance, starting with a failed Catalan revolt (the Reaper’s War) in 1640 and intensifying under the Bourbon dynasty (beginning in 1700). At that time, the Castilian dialect (castellano) began to be referred to as Spanish (español), reflecting the increasing dominance of Castile within the state. Both terms, however, are used to this day, with Article III of the Spanish constitution stipulating that “El castellano es la lengua española oficial del Estado.” (Intriguingly, in some Latin American countries the language is called “Castilian” and in others “Spanish.”) In Spain, many Catalans take umbrage at the political pretension that they see as inherent in the term “Spanish.”





As was true elsewhere in Europe, linguistic standardization in Spain proceeded slowly as local Romance languages like Leonese and Aragonese declined in favor of Castilian. Today, only a few tens of thousands of people speak either of these once-important tongues. Resistance to Castilian was more pronounced in the Basque country, noted for its non-Indo-European language (Euskara, or Basque), and in Catalonia, where the local tongue (Catalan) is arguably a variant of Occitan. Dictator Francisco Franco (r. 1936-1975) tried to force linguistic unity across the country, compelling a Spanish identity on the Basques and Catalans and prohibiting their languages in the public sphere. This policy resoundingly backfired, prompting both groups to intensify their own national projects. Across the border in France, by contrast, more lenient policies and more attractive inducements to nationalism have rendered Basque and Catalan separatism largely moot.[iv]






Faced with the incomplete success of their nation-building efforts, Spanish officials have tried to maintain the integrity of their nation-state by making allowances to linguistic minorities and provincial populations. After Franco’s death, the new Spanish constitution (1978) granted limited self-rule to all the country’s main political divisions, which were henceforth deemed “autonomous communities.” The Basques and Catalans are further allowed to claim the status of “nationalities” (nacionalidades). They cannot, however, officially define themselves as nations (naciones), as that would supposedly compromise the unity of Spain.[v] Such concessions have not fully succeeded in bringing either group into the larger national fold. Intriguingly, the Basque national project appears to have weakened itself by embracing violence, whereas that of the Catalans has been better maintained through its peaceful but persistent resistance. But Catalan nationalism faces potent challenges. It is viewed with suspicion by most inhabitants of Barcelona (many of whom have non-Catalan backgrounds) and infuriates many residents of Valencia and the Balearic Islands, people who speak Catalan dialects but spurn Catalan identity.[vi] “Catalanophobia” has become widespread in Valencia, where, ironically, calls to boycott Catalan products are issued in the Catalan language.



Galicia, in northwestern Spain, defies these generalizations. Its language is more closely related to Portuguese than Spanish; whether Galician is a separate language or a dialect of Portuguese is a matter of much debate. Like Catalan in Catalonia but unlike Aragonese in Aragon, Galician is still the majority language of the region. And like both the Basque Country and Catalonia, Galicia is officially granted the status of “historical nationality.” But while Galician regionalism is a potent political force, Galician nationalism has never gained widespread support (although nationalist candidates did receive 19 percent of the vote in elections in 2005). Desire for union with Portugal, on the other hand, is rare. A few Portuguese nationalists in Portugal, however, do dream of a Greater Portugal, or “Portugalicia.”










In Italy, which did not become a state until the 1870s, linguistic consolidation was delayed and remains far from complete today. Owing in part to Italy’s belated state formation, its national language derives not from the dialect of its capital, but rather from that of culturally prestigious Florence, whose Tuscan dialect was popularized through the works of Dante. Many Italian dialects are not mutually intelligible and are thus classified by linguists as separate languages. The “Gallo-Italic” dialects of the north are more closely related to Occitan than to standard Italian, while the Friulian language of the northeast groups with the Romansh language of southeastern Switzerland. The Sardinian language is even more distinctive, having emerged from Latin before the linguistic divergence that gave rise to the other Romance languages. In addition, several non-Romance languages are scattered across parts of the Italian peninsula, including dialects of Greek and Albanian.




The Italian government has granted official recognition to a score of regional languages and dialects, most of which are spoken in the north. The country’s most widely used local languages, however, are denied such status, regarded instead as mere dialects of Italian. Many of these “dialects” retain spoken vitality. The Piedmontese language of the northwest, for example, is still used by some two million people, about half of the population of Piedmont. The ability to read and write in Piedmontese, however, has almost vanished. Although the government of Piedmont gave the language official regional status in 2004, it is seldom taught in schools, upsetting local language activists.






In general, the regional dialects/languages of Italy have experienced little politicization, and thus pose no threat to the nation-state. Whatever their mother tongue, almost all young and middle-aged Italians are fluent in the national language and use it on a daily basis. Although secession movements have considerable support in the north, economic grievances outweigh those of language. But if northern Italy (“Padania”), or some portion of it, ever were to separate from the rest of the country, it would be interesting to see what language policies governments would be enacted.






The main exception to these generalizations about language and national identity in Italy is South Tyrol, or Alto Adige, located in the far north. This mostly German-speaking region was annexed by Italy after World War I, in violation of the ethnonational self-determination principles championed by the U.S. delegation at Paris Peace Conference. Ignoring linguistic geography, Italy demanded and received a border at the crest of the Alps. This maneuver quickly spurred a Tyrolian independence movement, which engaged in occasional acts of violence though the 1960s. Although Italy has granted the region limited autonomy, support for secession remains widespread. Polling shows that more than half of the region’s German speakers would prefer to secede. Intriguingly, quite a few of its Italian speakers agree. South Tyrol is Italy’s most prosperous region, and many of its people, regardless of their native language, think that membership in the country comes at too large of an economic cost.



Europe’s other national Romance languages, Portuguese and Romanian, have fewer political complications. The dialects of Portuguese are all easily interintelligible; the main issue here is status of Galician in northwestern Spain, discussed above. Romanian also has relatively little dialectal diversity, with all its dialects being mutually interintelligible. This is a rather curious feature, given Romania’s relatively large size and complex history of political division and rule by other states. (The “Vlach” languages that are scattered over the southern Balkans outside of Romania, however, are sometimes classified as highly distinctive Romanian dialects.) Within Romania, the main issue of linguistic politics concerns the speakers of unrelated languages, particularly Hungarian.













Romanian, however, is not just the national language of Romania, as it has the same status in neighboring Moldova, a former Soviet Republic. Under Soviet rule, Moldovan was classified as a separate language on political grounds, but its differences from standard Romanian are minor. Although one does find a “Moldavian” dialect in Moldova, this form of the language is also spoken across northeastern Romania (and in a few pockets of Ukraine). Given this linguistic environment, it is not surprising that that many Romanians and Moldovans advocate unification on ethnonational grounds. Economic and political complications, however, limit its appeal. According to early 2022 polling, “only 11% of Romania’s population supports an immediate union, while over 42% think it is not the moment.” In Moldova, support for unification is also a minority position, but it rose markedly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Polls asking the question “if a referendum took place next Sunday regarding the unification of the Republic of Moldova and Romania, would you vote for or against the unification?” showed an increase in agreement from approximately 20% in 2015 to 44% in 2022.

The relationships between language, politics, and geography are highly complicated across the Romance zone of Europe, challenging any facile stories of natural language-based ethnonational solidarity. The same situation is true in the Germanic language zone, as we shall see in the next post.

[i] According to Kedourie (1960, 60), “It was literary men, with literary preoccupations, who … enowed language with political significance.”

[ii] Weber 1976

[iii] Henry Kamen, Empire; How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763. Harper Perennial, 2004

[iv] Thomas D. Lancaster, “Comparative Nationalisms: The Basques of Spain and France,” European Journal of Political Research, 1987, 15: 561-590.

[v] “A Nationality, Not a Nation,” The Economist, July 1, 2010.

[vi] Martin W. Lewis, “Valencia and the Països Catalans Controversy,” GeoCurrents, Oct. 13, 2015.


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Why I Am Posting Rather Than Publishing “Seduced by the Map”

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 on the topic, I thought that I could finish a manuscript in a year or two and then return to blogging. I made a plan and set about writing a book that I tentatively titled Seduced by the Map: How the Nation-State Model Prevents Us from Thinking Clearly about the World.

But the project did not go as I had imagined, in part because I had succumbed to the planning fallacy. As psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed in the late 1900s, most of us severely underestimate how much time will be needed to complete any major undertaking. A good general rule is to double the expected period of work. In this case, however, more time than that would have been necessary. I reached retirement age this summer and the manuscript was still not ready for submission. At the same time, I was growing tired of the whole endeavor, eager to move on to other topics. I therefore suspended work and abandoned plans for publication. But not wanting to discard everything that I had done, I decided to revive this website and post on the manuscript on it. This was not an easy decision. Seduced by the Mapwill not be taken nearly as seriously as it would have been if I had managed to publish it through a university press. It will also almost certainly have a much smaller readership. But at least interested readers will not have to purchase a book to get access to the information. Readers will also be able to make comments, add information, and provide criticism through the Disqus comments forum. Finally, I will also be able to include many more illustrations than would have been possible in a conventional book . All of that is some consolation.

The biggest problem that I encountered in trying to complete this project is the immense size of the relevant scholarly literature. The number of books and articles published on nationalism alone is staggering, and that is only one of several key topics that I needed to address. As I continued to read, I continued to add new material, especially to the introductory chapters. But these chapters then became bloated and unwieldly, and I found it necessary to prune heavily. But at the same time, I continued to find new information that seemed essential to include, resulting in further rounds of bloating and pruning. Eventually I decided to clean up the manuscript, call an end to the work, and get on with other projects. That has been liberating.

At any rate, I hope that a few people will read this manuscript and find it worthwhile. If so, please feel free to provide comments, and many thanks for taking the time to engage. The introduction to Seduced by the Mapshould appear on this site tomorrow.

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Seduced by the Map Introduction (Part 2)

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 game-board, neatly divided between a discrete set of political units that may vary in size but are otherwise of the same notional type. To represent the world this way is to erase the contortions and contingencies of global geopolitics. And that erasure is no accident; it is inherent to modern mapping. As the literature in critical cartography demonstrates, political maps generate visions of coherence and stability by design.[1] For Denis Wood, this is their most important function: “it has been essential that states appear as facts of nature, as real enduring things, things like mountains; and at all costs to obscure their recent origins … and their tenuous holds on tomorrow.”[2] William Rankin argues more generally that graphic conventions turn maps into tools of simplification, far-away management, and top-down control, rendering the world unnaturally solid and well ordered.[3] On these terms, the ubiquitous mapping of the world as a collection of stable nation-states might be compared to a calculated mirage, substituting smooth platonic forms for jagged realities.[4] The resulting vision may be comforting in its suggestion of inviolable boundaries and uncontested sovereignty. But its comforts are illusory.

This project proposes a more challenging cartographic program: one that exposes the ragged edges of the international system, as well as its holes, its hierarchies, and its unfinished history. This entails not designing a new master-map but putting a cacophony of competing maps into conversation—all the while interrogating what work each was meant to do. To that end, this work offers extended discussions of political geography around the world, making and analyzing arguments in cartographic as well as textual form. We cannot replace the prevailing world political map with an alternative schema, as my fundamental point is that no two-dimensional map can fully capture the contours of sovereignty. Instead, I take a combinatory approach: keeping a wide range of cartographic resources in play, I try to outline the actual geopolitical structures whose ongoing interaction creates the ever shifting and contested landscapes that we see on the ground.

Despite these criticisms, the standard map of nation-states still has three essential roles to play. For one, it has value as an aspirational document. When it comes to arbitrating inter-state relations, the UN’s map of the world can function somewhat like the International Declaration of Human Rights: encoding a planetary vision to which members of the international community can hold each other responsible. For another, it has pedagogical value. Like the continental model,[5] the standard world map of “nation-states” offers an essential starting place for learning about the world. Finally, when subjected to a close reading, the standard map reveals a number of clues about its origins and the historical era in which it was forged.

In a word, the familiar world-maps of the classroom and atlas remain salient. To the extent that engagement with global affairs calls for a visual shorthand, that task is best accomplished through maps.[6] The challenge is to avoid reifying them. Grasping global geopolitics at a sophisticated level means putting different maps in dialogue—both with other information sources and with each other. After all, no map was meant to stand alone. As Matthew Edney insists, each cartographic act takes shape “within a web of texts that provide the map with different shades of meaning.”[7] While official cartography offers an indispensable starting point, in other words, it is not enough; the counter-maps of anti-state movements and independent thinkers, along with evidence from archives and contemporary witnesses, are essential as well.[8]

To associate the failed regime-change gambits in the Middle East with something as mundane as the maps on our school-house walls is avowedly a speculative exercise. I have no privileged access to the mental worlds of war planners or popular-uprising enthusiasts, nor can I gauge the degree to which geographical ideas contributed to their miscalculations. But the purview of this book is a more general one. Its point is that the standard model of geopolitical organization (laid out in Chapter 1), like the map that both reflects and reinforces it (critiqued in Chapter 2), fails to conform to reality over much of the globe – and that the resulting slippage has real-world consequences. To the extent that this flawed model is employed to guide and inform political actions, whether consciously or not, missteps are to be expected. There is no guarantee that better mapping would lead to better outcomes, but it seems worth a try.

            Beyond the National Frame

            Tackling such project entails an inevitable reckoning with one of the thorniest terms in the academic lexicon: nationalism. Although the nation-state is not the monolith that we encounter in the conventional world model, it is still extraordinarily important, commanding our attention at every turn. In response to widespread international anxieties, the veneration of the nation-state appears to be intensifying across much of the world. Ironically, while aiming to strengthen the individual state, hard-edged nationalism sometimes threatens the international system that underwrites state sovereignty in the first place. Ardent ethno-nationalists often reject existing state boundaries, whether by seeking secession or by demanding additional territories to incorporate members of their ethnic group who reside in neighboring countries. For this reason, among others, the multilateral structures that lent stability to the postwar ecosystem of sovereign states are coming under increasing pressure. Richard Haas contends that the world is “in disarray;”[9] others warn darkly of a “new world disorder.”[10] The international system embodied in the standard political map shows serious signs of weakening, but it is not at all clear how the system will evolve – or, if its center does not hold, what will replace it.

            The revival of nationalism is roiling even the world’s most coherent nation-states, prompting fears that it could rekindle international strife.[11] The United States is hardly immune from such trends. Donald Trump’s “America First” movement has generated a slew of soul-searching books and articles across the political spectrum. Where some authors caution that pride and prejudice are inherent dangers in all forms of nationalist discourse, others seek to recuperate a kinder, gentler form of nationalism in the interest of socio-economic solidarity and democratic governance,[12] and a few champion a return to the more restrictive ethnically based nation. To navigate a wise course through these debates is one more reason to scrutinize the world political map, whose basic building-blocks form both the crucibles and the targets of nationalist sentiment.

The recent embrace of ethnonationalism by serious thinkers has troubling implications, both politically and empirically. In The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony claims that all successful nations ultimately rest on ethnic foundations. This is flatly untrue. The various Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas are not differentiated from each other on ethnic grounds, yet they form some of the world’s most stable and secure nation-states. It is for good reason that Benedict Anderson identified Latin America as the nursery of the nation-state.[13] Not coincidentally, this vast segment of the world is essentially ignored by Hazony; not fitting the model, these countries simply slide off the map. Not is Hazony alone in this respect. Although Anderson’s Imagined Communities is widely regarded as the most influential book on nationalism ever published,[14] the author himself was frustrated by the fact that that his “crucial chapter on the originating Americas was largely ignored.”[15]

As this brief preview suggests, nationalism is an ideologically freighted phenomenon that varies widely in both form and intensity across the world. Strong nationalism might seem to arise naturally from solid national cohesion. But one does not necessarily generate the other. Iceland has been described as the world’s only “perfect” nation-state,[16]yet Icelandic nationalism has hardly been a burning force.[17] On the other hand, as George Orwell emphasized, nationalism can be heightened through hatred of a common enemy—even (or perhaps especially) among people who have little else in the way of common bonds.[18] At a more general level, national identity is always partially constructed on the basis of real or perceived differences with nearby nations, as are the local ethnic or “tribal” identities that have structured human political relations for millennia. This essential although often overlooked process was deemed schismogenesis by anthropologist Gregory Bateson in the 1930s, a term that has been recently revived by David Graeber and David Wengrow in their audacious reinterpretation of the early human past, The Dawn of Everything.[19]

Setting aside the controversies surrounding nationalism as an ideology, this work focuses instead on its geographical fault-lines and foundations: how countries fail to cohere as nations, and conversely, what holds them together. Both the strength of national identity and the subsoil that it taps into vary tremendously from one country to the next. In historical perspective, such diversity is not surprising; the 193 member states of the United Nations have strikingly different origin stories. National cohesion, state capacity, and territorial integrity in each case have distinctive local sources – which in turn provoke different responses to the mounting challenges facing the international system. For this reason, above all, delving into the complex foundations of national identity is a timely exercise today.[20]

[1] A number of political scientists and other scholars have also noted this problem. See, for example, Jackson 1990, p. 7.

[2] Wood 2010, p. 33. Just as states are effectively depicted as if they were natural phenomena, nations were at one time commonly theorized to be natural units of humankind, formed by common descent and marked off from their neighbors by supposed cultural and “racial” features. As Lee Buchhheit (1978, p. 4) put it, “Self-determination was therefore to borrow from nationalism the conviction that societies could be broken down into ‘natural’ political units, loosely given the title of ‘nations.’” Some writers still regard nations as features of the natural world. The conservative pundit Rich Lowry argues simply that “nationalism is natural” (2019, p. 33).

[3] Rankin, forthcoming, P. 15.

[4] On the “Platonic” nature of the nation-state construct, see Taleb 2007, p. xxv. As he puts it, “What I call Platonicity, after the ideas (and personality) of the philosopher Plato, is our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and well-defines “forms,” whether objects, like triangles, or social notions, like utopias …, even nationalities. When these ideas and crisp constructs inhabit our minds, we privilege them over other less elegant objects, those with messier and less tractable structures… .”

[5] See Lewis and Wigen 1997.

[6] As a result, we argue against the harshest critics of cartography, who see only propaganda and self-aggrandizement in the entire exercise. Steven Seegel (2018), to take an extreme example, argues that “all maps are epistemically groundless, nihilistic, or surreal” (p. 228). As he frames it, the core argument of his book Map Men is that “interest in maps was often pathological” (page 3). To be fair, Seegel (2018, 228) hedges his argument, noting that “It might be better to say” that “all maps are epistemically groundless.” Nonetheless, he finds evidence of “pathology” in five important early twentieth-century geographers: Albrecht Penck, Eugeniusz Romer, Stepan Rudnyts’kyi, Isaiah Bowman, and Pal Teleki. Even if Seegel’s assessments of these scholars were fair, his larger arguments would not follow. One could surely find important economists who held objectionable views and made dubious claims, but would be enough to indicate that economic models tout court are “epistemically groundless, nihilistic, or surreal”? Or would a study of illiberal “Verse Men” like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis justify a conclusion that poetry is intrinsically retrograde, with the only “antidote” being the production of mock epics and humorous doggerel? The latter position is analogous to the recommendation that Seegel [2018, pp. 229-230] provides for would-be map-makers.

[7] Edney 2019, p. 12, 40.

[8] Wood 2010.

[9] Haas (2017). The title of this work says it all: The World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

[10] See, for example, “The New World Disorder and the Fracturing of the West,” by Martin Wolf, Financial Times, January 2, 2018.

[11] Many opinion pieces have warned of the hazards inherent in nationalism. In the same week, a New York Times op-ed sought to show “How Nationalism Can Destroy a Nation,” while a score of liberal theologians decried nationalism as “anathema to Christian faith.” Such views reflect both the grotesque excesses of nationalism in the mid-twentieth century and the obstacles that national primacy poses for global action in an age of planetary crises.  See “How Nationalism Can Destroy a Nation,” by Lewis Hyde. The New York Times, August 22, 2019 (A27). and “Theologians: Nationalism Is Anathema to Christian Faith,” by Yonat Shimron. UPI, August 20, 2019. Theologians: Nationalism is anathema to Christian faith

Many writers who disdain nationalism contrast it with the more favorable term “patriotism,” defined generally as love of one’s homeland, a distinction first outlined by Orwell (1945). As noted in a website devoted to explaining subtle differences between key terms, “Nationalism makes one to think only of one’s country’s virtues and not its deficiencies. … Patriotism, on the other hand, pertains to valuing responsibilities rather than just valuing loyalty towards one’s own country.” Nationalism and Patriotism | Difference Between

[12] Several recent books by prominent American public intellectuals of diverse political inclination advocate more encompassing forms of civic nationalism. Francis Fukuyama (2018) shows how different national identities have emerged along different paths, some turning toward ethnic-group inclusion and exclusion while others move toward cultural pluralism. Focusing on the United States, Jill Lepore (2019) emphasizes the often-thwarted promise of progressive liberalism found in civic nationalism. Similarly, John Judis (2018) contends that civic nationalism allows the maintenance of the welfare state while warding off the excesses of globalization precisely by contributing to a vibrant international order. From a more conservative perspective, Amy Chua (2018) argues that the United States is unique precisely because its “national identity is not defined by the identity of any one of the innumerable ethnic subgroups that make up the U.S. population” (2018, 11). And although the conservative pundit Rich Lowry (2019) dismisses civic nationalism as a mere illusion, he nonetheless upholds its basic principles, opining that “America largely fulfills the standards of a civic nation…” (2019, 19).

[13] Anderson (1983).

[14] See the Verso webpage on the book:

[15] The quotation is from the preface of the second edition. Anderson 1983 (1991]), p. xiii.

[16] Mikesell 1983, p. 257.

[17] Although a relatively strong movement for Icelandic nationalism emerged in the mid nineteenth century, Iceland did not gain independence from Denmark until 1944, when Denmark itself was under Nazi German occupation.

[18] Orwell 1945. Orwell defined nationalism in both broader and narrower terms than are usual, limiting it to extremedevotion to the nation but expanding it to include all ideologies that he viewed as invidiously dividing humankind (including Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, antisemitism, Trotskyism, and even pacifism). Orwell was, to say the least, opposed to these kinds of belief systems: “By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly – and this is much more important – I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests” (from the first page of the unpaginated on-line publication Notes on Nationalism – The Orwell Foundation. Elsewhere in the essay, Orwell defines nationalism as “power hunger tempered by self-deception.”

[19] Graeber and Wengrow 2021.

[20] For a geopolitics text that emphasizes “complexity, or ‘messiness,’” see Flint 2017, p. 283.


Seduced by the Map Introduction (Part 2) Read More »

Seduced by the Map, Introduction (Part 2)

The Post-War Formalization of the Nation-State Model    

The anti-colonial movement was initially resisted by the newly formed United Nations. According to Mark Mazower, the UN “started out as a mechanism for defending and adapting empires to an increasingly nationalist age.”[1] But in the Cold War context, Western colonialism was no longer strategically justifiable. Nor was it always financially advantageous. It was also fiercely resisted, through both insurgency and diplomacy—the latter above all in the United Nations. As explained by Adom Getachew, “anticolonial nationalists … successfully captured the UN and transformed the General Assembly into a platform for the international politics of decolonization.”[2]

Such “capture” was made manifest in 1960 with the UN’s unanimous passage of Resolution 1514, “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.” The Western imperial powers abstained on this weighty vote, but they generally went along with its provisions, soon retaining only remnants of their once extensive empires.[3] (Portugal and Spain, however, would not decolonize until the fall of their authoritarian governments in the mid 1970s.) In 1960 alone, seventeen African countries gained sovereignty. The UN now came to be envisioned as an anti-imperial “global club of national states”[4] that would in due time encompass the entire world. As these changes occurred, the nation-state construct lost its remaining ethno-national moorings and was tacitly redefined. In the new era, a nation-state would be any country that claimed to represent all its citizens and govern them on an equal basis. Since every sovereign state made this claim, the nation-state idea was effectively universalized.[5]

The dismantling of Western empires thus produced a large array of self-styled nation-states. Those without indigenous foundations were expected to “build” their nations by convincing their citizens that they formed a single people who should cooperate for the common good.[6] Some degree of national solidarity could quickly be generated across ethnic lines through mass education, political organization, and the media, leading enthusiasts to conclude that every independent country was indeed transforming itself into a fully-fledged nation-state. By the 1970s, mainstream scholars, journalists, and politicians alike silently concurred that the process was a foregone conclusion, if not already essentially complete. In the process, nation building lost its original meaning, devolving from a political identity project into an institutional one,[7] occasionally reduced to little more than the pouring of concrete.[8]

The end of the Cold War, followed quickly by the breakup of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, refocused scholarly attention on national cohesion (or its absence) in multi-ethnic countries. What had seemed reasonably solid if youthful nation-states were revealed to be fragile bricolages – whose sudden ruptures could produce horrifying consequences. Ethno-nationalism, wishfully relegated to the past, proved more potent than diplomats could have imagined. By 1996, pessimism had set in. As Martijn Roessingh noted, there was by then “a growing awareness that the tension between territorial integrity of states and the right of people to self-determination will continue to haunt the international community.”[9] Such haunting has hardly diminished in the decades since.

Other aspects of the nation-state ideal were never globally instituted and now appear to be slipping further away from realization. Despite the United Nation’s assertion that every person has the right to a nationality,[10] millions today are stateless. Burma/Myanmar has essentially consigned the entire Rohingya ethnic group to this woeful condition. Many more are denied citizenship; in some countries, such as Qatar, non-citizens constitute the overwhelming majority.[11] (In 1996, Qatar’s government arbitrarily stripped citizenship from an entire local clan.) The problem of statelessness has even led to the open commercialization of political belonging. In 2008, the United Arab Emirates clandestinely purchased Comorian citizenship for its stateless bidoon residents, almost none of whom had any connection whatsoever with Comoros.[12] Nor is Comoros is the only country to sell or otherwise award national membership to non-residents. Despite the League of Nation’s hope that every person would be limited to one nationality, multiple citizenship is becoming ever more common—for those who can afford it. For a select few, a sheaf of passports grants a kind of multinational if not global citizenship.[13] The vast majority, however, remain firmly bonded to a single nation-state, with the least fortunate having no legal homeland at all.

Yet for all this, the stubborn idea that national states uniformly blanket the globe has as firm a grip on the public imagination as ever. In fact, the hybrid formula “nation-state” has surged in popularity. Rarely deployed before 1910, its use grew around the end of World War I and then rose precipitously with the conclusion of the Cold War.[14] Today, it is all but ubiquitous, applied automatically to any state that gains formal independence. South Sudan, for example, was deemed a nation as soon as it became independent in 2011. Yet a mere two years later, the infant country almost collapsed. (As Rory Stewart drily notes, “U.S. intelligence was surprised … when the South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir, declared war on the vice-president, Riek Machar, and killed thousands of civilians from Machar’s ethnic group, the Nuer, in a single night.”[15])

Nation, State, … Country

If state and nation are the heavy-weight terms of the standard geopolitical lexicon, they are joined by a fuzzier third concept, that of the country.[16] Where “state” calls to mind a government and “nation” evokes a people, “country” connotes a homeland.[17] The three terms thus gesture toward different domains of analysis, concerned respectively with politics, people, and place.[18] Yet their usage patterns both differ and overlap in telling ways. For one thing, “country” always stands alone. While the term “nation-state” is commonplace, English speakers have never felt the need to coin the terms “nation-country,” “state-country,” or “nation-state-country.” The spatial dimension of the trifecta usually goes unmarked, found only in the scholarly term “territorial state.” As geographer John Agnew has observed, conventional international-relations theory simply assumes that all sovereign states rule fixed and coherent territories: “country” need not be problematized, since the spatially bounded state is “viewed as existing prior to and as a container of society.”[19]

There is an apparent logic to this way of thinking. States without a corresponding nation certainly exist, as do nations without a corresponding state, but can a nation exist without a terrain to call its own? Surprisingly, the answer is yes – if we consider “nation” in the broadest sense. Historically speaking, Jews were often viewed as constituting a nation well before their claim on the land of Israel/Palestine gained traction through the Zionist movement. In the Soviet Union, Jews were explicitly designated as forming a nation; to this day, a Russian-speaking Jew born in Russia is not counted as Russian in the ethnonational form of the word (“russkie”). Since the Leninist theory of nationality demanded a homeland for each nation in the union, the dispersed nature of the Jewish community presented a problem. The Politburo’s solution was to designate a Jewish autonomous oblast, Birodidzhan, in far eastern Siberia, thousands of miles from where most Jews lived.[20] Evidence indicates that, on the eve of his death, Stalin was planning to deport the entire Soviet Jewish population to this grim Siberian outpost, a process that would undoubtedly have been catastrophic.[21]

But if a nation can exist without a corresponding country, what about a state? For most political scientists, the answer is no; a state must have a “defined and delimited territory,”[22] as well as permanently rooted institutions of authority. Anthropologists, by contrast, usually define the state more broadly.[23] I find the developmental perspective of historian Charles Maier more useful. Maier deems tribal polities as states of a sort while allowing that the fully modern state – his “Leviathan 2.0” – did not begin to emerge until the mid-nineteenth century.[24]

From a historical perspective, one can identify numerous examples of temporarily landless states: self-governing societies that uprooted themselves at some point and migrated together over hundreds or even thousands of miles. This phenomenon was not unusual in Europe during the so-called Völkerwanderung from late antiquity to the early medieval period, when organized groups – often multiethnic –[25] violently pushed into the lands of what had been the Roman Empire. The last major migration of this kind was that of the Magyars in the ninth century. For many decades, until they reached the Danube basin, the Magyars had no lasting association with any particular territory. Nor were large-scale movements of organized groups limited to the distant past. In 1618, the ancestors of the Mongolic Kalmyk people abandoned their homeland in Central Asia and fought their way across the steppe before settling down in a new territory near the northwestern shores of the Caspian Sea in European Russia. A century and a half later, more than half of their descendants returned en masse to their original homeland.[26] Those who remained now enjoy limited national self-governance through their own internal Russian republic. And as late as the nineteenth century, the Lakota nation of central North America, recognized by cultural historians as a state, transplanted itself hundreds of miles to the west. Many indigenous North American nations – including the Lakota themselves – had been making similar moves for centuries.[27]  

Mobile states like the ninth-century Magyars are a rather special case, since their mobility was temporary. But Eurasian steppe peoples often maintained mobile states on a more enduring basis. These were polities whose centers shifted with the seasons, whose boundaries were often fluid, and whose core lands were sometimes abandoned for new territories as they pushed each other around on the steppe chessboard of power politics.

Unfortunately, conventional scholarship has often exaggerated such fluidity, downplaying the significance of steppe political organization to the extent of denying the existence of true statehood across the great Eurasian grasslands.[28] Instead, pastoral societies have often been viewed as mere tribal aggregations held together by kinship, which were only occasionally forged into powerful polities by charismatic leaders such as Genghis Khan. In this view, only densely populated agricultural lands can produce the surpluses and complex division of labor necessary to support genuine states.

This hoary interpretation of steppe politics, however, is being overturned by such scholars as David Sneath,[29]Christopher Atwood,[30] Lkhamsurmen Munkh-Erdene,[31] and Marie Favereau,[32] who convincingly argue that medieval and early modern pastoral states of Central Asia were not only militarily strong but also flexibly yet tightly organized through complex hereditary administrative structures. These enduring institutional arrangements also had clear territorial structures,[33] even if they did not constitute fully territorial states in the contemporary sense. The highly structured administration of Central Asian states facilitated the chain of command, allowing them to survive the death of charismatic leaders.[34] These political features, combined with the military might of their cavalry forces, allowed states of the steppe to repeatedly conquer and then effectively rule vastly more populous sedentary societies. Although it only indirectly affected the outlying “rimlands” of Eurasia (Europe, Japan, and Southeast Asia), this process arguably formed the central dynamic in Eurasian political history for a millennium before the seventeenth century.[35]  

Other kinds of incompletely territorialized states are omnipresent in the historical record, once one knows where to look. In lightly settled agrarian societies, most notably in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, power usually declined with distance from the royal core, eventually overlapping with other spheres of influence (as described in the so-called mandala model of political organization.[36]) The effective areal bases of most premodern European states too were far from fixed, fluctuating from one decade to the next with the ebb and flow of military fortunes or the rewarding or revoking of loyalty to the crown by powerful underlings. Even more important were dynastic politics.[37]Finally, most premodern states focused their claims to sovereignty as much over individuals as over lands, as formalized under the doctrine of “personal jurisdiction.”[38] Feudal arrangements, which linked lords to their underlings through personal ties, persisted well into early modern times. All these governments still cared about the lands over which they exercised power, to be sure. But they did not form countries in the modern sense of the term, where the state is identified first and foremost with the territory under its control.

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.[39] 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. Accurate and precise maps proved advantageous for both military and administrative purposes. After the post-Napoleonic settlement of 1815, Biggs writes, “the map of Europe was redrawn as territorial states… .”[40]Similar mapping projects were undertaken in China at roughly the same time, using both Chinese and Western cartographic techniques.[41] And as Thongchai Winichakul demonstrates, by the late 1800s any country hoping to withstand European imperialism, such as Siam (Thailand), had to do the same.[42]

As Jordan Branch shows, over much of Europe the concept of such a state—and its cartographic representation—preceded its actualization by several centuries.[43] As early as the sixteenth century, mapmakers depicted countries (some of which, like Italy, had no political salience) as neatly divided, continuous spatial units. They did so largely for practical and aesthetic reasons. Mapping the extraordinarily intricate geopolitical arrangements of the time would have been all but impossible, whereas outlining and then coloring in “countries” was relatively simple. This process also yielded pleasing depictions with commercial appeal. The idealized territorial state was thus planted in the public imagination and would eventually be seized on by rationalizing and centralizing political actors. But it was not until the post-Napoleonic settlement of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 that the territorialized state emerged as the European diplomatic norm.

Branch does not claim that mapping made the modern territorial state, only that it significantly contributed to its development. Obstacles both practical and conceptual long thwarted its realization in Europe. The Americas presented a different opportunity. There, European imperial powers overwhelmed and eventually largely erased indigenous political geography, turning the “New World” into a laboratory for rationalized geopolitical organization. As Branch writes, “It was only after the geometric view of space had been imposed and established in the New World that the same conception came to be applied to the European continent, homogenizing that space as well.”[44] But even over most of the Americas, such territorialization was more notional than actual for a long time. The imperial powers mightcartographically carve up these vast continents among themselves, but powerful indigenous polities remained ensconced in many areas. As late as the mid-nineteenth century, the all-but-unmapped Comanche Empire (as it is evocatively called by Pekka Hämäläinen) made a mockery of national land claims on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border—claims that were firmly etched on almost every contemporary map.[45]

            Although the European state system had been deeply territorialized by the early nineteenth century, the linkage between region and rule remained far from complete. In the era of high imperialism, powerful countries burst their territorial bounds across the globe. This was more than a matter of seizing colonies, bullying local rulers into granting “protectorates,” and divvying up spheres of influence. The imposition of extraterritoriality on China and other weakened states by European imperial powers, for instance, effectively extended sovereign authority over European citizens regardless of where they happened to be. As Pär Cassel explains, “The foreigner not only carried his own laws and institutions into the host country, but the nebulous idea of ‘foreign interests’ meant that almost anything a foreigner was involved with had an extraterritorial aspect.”[46] Echoes of this much-loathed system linger on in the special status accorded to diplomats, who partially remain under the authority of their own states while living in others. Some contemporary governments, moreover, insist on their right to control their citizens’ behavior even when they are abroad. For instance, Seoul has informed South Koreans that they cannot consume cannabis even if they find themselves in a jurisdiction where it is legal.[47] And China may now be taking extraterritoriality even further. According to one report, its 2020 national security law, aimed at reining in Hong Kong, “applies …  to virtually anyone around the globe who speaks publicly about the Chinese regime.”[48] Donald Clarke goes so far as to argue that Article 38 of this law “is asserting extraterritorial jurisdiction over every person on the planet.”[49]

As these myriad examples show, the actual linkage between state and territory remains variable. Yet the imagined connection has been firmly inscribed. In the public imagination, a country is its territory. In Thongchai Winichakul’s unforgettable formulation, every national map has become a logo, instantly recognizable and emotionally charged .[50] Even trivial threats to the shape of that logo provoke “cartographic anxieties,” underpinning geopolitical tensions the world over. As Franck Billé explains,[51] cartographic anxiety arises wherever there is a “perceived misalignment between a political imagination of separateness and the reality of a cultural, ethnic, and economic continuum on the ground.” As we shall see in the following chapter, these inevitable misalignments challenge the standard world model on every front.   

[1] Mazower 2009, p. 27.

[2] Getachew 2019, p. 73.

[3] Countries abstaining from this measure were: Australia, Belgium, the Dominican Republic, France, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

[4] Mazower 2009, 27.

[5] In embracing national self-determination, key post-WWII anticolonial leaders initially sought something beyond a global community of theoretically equal states. Since such an arrangement would, in their view, allow the continued economic subordination of the formerly colonized world, they engaged instead in what Adom Getachew (2019) calls “worldmaking,” envisioning regional federations of newly independent state that would culminate in anti-hierarchical global governance, eventually generating a “welfare world.” As such idealistic schemes came to naught, the ironic result was to reinforce the global system of discrete sovereign states, all of which jealously guarded their own boundaries and perquisites. “Self-determination” in the formerly colonized world would henceforth be essentially inadmissible for any marginalized or disgruntled region or ethnic group that sought to chart its own political path outside of the country to which it had been assigned by colonial authorities. Only Tanzania under Julius Nyerere bucked this policy in recognizing the independence of Biafra, which had seceded from Nigeria in 1968 (Getachew 2019, p. 103).

[6] For early studies of nation-building, see Deutsch and Folt (1966) and Bendix (1964).

[7] See, for example, “Back to Nation-Building in Afghanistan: Good,” by Max Boot, New York Times, August 22, 2017. Boot insists, “The only conceivable path to success lies in fostering stable and effective institutions of government that can police their own territory with diminishing amounts of outside assistance. In other words, nation-building.”

[8] See “Nation-Building at Home: Why We Need Roads, Bridges, and Boring Stuff Like That,” by Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, Nov 27, 2012. Nation building at home: Why we need roads, bridges, and boring stuff like that

[9] Roessingh 1996, 274.

[10] As specified in Article 15 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

[11] Kochenov 2019: 58-59. See Kochenov more generally on the many problems surrounding the idea of citizenship.

[12] “Bidoons in the United Arab Emirates: Deprived of Live and Death.” Geneva Council for Rights and Liberties, September, 2019.

[13] Abrahamian 2015.

[14] See Google Ngram Viewer page: Google Books Ngram Viewer

[15] Stewart 2020, 32.

[16] In common parlance, as in journalistic practice, “country,” “state,” and “nation” tend to be used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, these terms should be preceded by either “sovereign” or “independent” if they are to unambiguously denote the first-order constituents of the global geopolitical system, since the province-level “states” of federally organized countries, such as California in the U.S. or Uttar Pradesh in India, do not count as “states” in this more elevated sense. Nor do the constituent countries of such constitutional monarchies as the U.K. (Wales, for example), Denmark (Greenland, for example), or the Netherlands (Curaçao, for example).

[17] To be sure, a few popular sources include even uninhabited territories, mostly islands, as “countries.” “The Alphabetizer,” for example, describes the world as divided into” hundreds of countries with different languages, cultures, beliefs, and individuals” – and includes Antarctica on its list.

[18] The convergence of the three basic terms employed in the standard model of geopolitics has its own long history, one that highlights some of the complexities and contradictions inherent in the larger schema. A brief etymological digression may clarify what we are dealing with here.

The term “nation” derives from a Latin word meaning “to be born,” which eventually came to refer to groups of people purportedly descended from the same ancestors. As Raymond Williams noted in Keywords (1985, p. 178), “nation” was essentially a racial term for most of its history. Its definitions subsequently branched off in several directions, coming to refer to entities as diverse as home-town associations of students at Swedish universities and sovereign states. The racial origins of the term might seem to nudge its current connotations toward an ethnic conception of nationality, foregrounding concerns about the resurgence of ethnonationalist discourse. What is striking, however, was the rapidity with which “nation” switched from a predominantly racial to a culturally neutral geopolitical term, with prominent authors ignoring the intermediate ethnonational stage in which the nation was most often conceived as a self-consciously political community united by cultural (especially linguistic) commonalities. As recently as 1936, for example, the influential geographer Griffith Taylor expressed regret that most laymen still incorrectly used the terms race and nation as synonyms (1936, p. 21) – an observation that most laypeople today would probably find baffling. Yet Taylor (1936, p. 21) went on to argue that “nation” had by this time more properly come to mean simply “the body of inhabitants of a country united under an independent government of their own.” Taylor thus classified all sovereign states as nations, regardless of their cultural or political characteristics – or their degree of national cohesion. Such effacement of its own evolution, we suspect, is one reason why “nation” has come to be such a troublesome term.

“State,” like “nation,” also derives ultimately from Latin, stemming from stare, “to stand.” Today the English meanings of “state” are wide indeed, referring most broadly (as a noun) to “condition, manner of existing,” as in the phrase “state of mind” (OED, 1971, Volume II, 3025). Its political referent, which evidently dates to the late 13th century, “grew out of the meaning ‘conditions of a country’ with regard to government, prosperity, etc.” (Online Etymological Dictionary:

From denoting the mere circumstances of the polity, “state” came to mean the government itself, and then gradually extended to include the lands and people under the government’s authority. The Oxford English Dictionary(OED) gives this definition in its 29th entry under “state,” where it is defined as “the supreme civil power and government vested in a country or nation.” That usage emerged as early as 1538 (1971, p. 3025). Intriguingly, the 30th definition provided by the OED, also dating to the sixteenth century, points toward the eventual convergence of all three key geopolitical terms: “State: A body of people occupying a defined territory and organized under a sovereign government. Hence the territory … occupied by such a body.”

“Country” likewise comes from Latin, deriving from contra, “against or opposite” (Williams 1985, p. 71). This term came to denote the land lying “over there,” away from some key vantage point. In this sense, “country” referred to areas removed from the center of power, especially those of a rustic nature. The English word retains this definition, used in such constructions as “country music” and “the countryside.” Eventually, “country” also came to mean any expanse of land associated with some specific feature, be it a particular human group (as in “the Basque country”) or even physiographical attributes (“the high country”). As to its specifically geopolitical usage, the shift from denoting an area removed from the center of power to one focused on but extending well beyond that same center is a striking case of a word coming to mean something entirely opposed to its original definition. Thus Singapore is now regarded as a country, albeit one without a countryside to speak of.

Etymological tracing is a fraught pursuit, considering the transformations that words routinely undergo. This exploration of “nation,” “state,” and “country” is meant to be suggestive only, offered to provoke thought rather than to lead to any solid conclusions. After all, the etymologically informed statement that “our family [nation] stands together [state] over there [country]” is not exactly a promising foundation for a geopolitical order.

[19] Agnew 1994, p. 59.

[20] Gessen 2016.

[21] Martin 1998.

[22] Jackson 2007, pp. 5-6.

[23] Bagge 2019, p. 2.

[24] Maier 2012; see page 4 for a discussion of tribal states.  Since the requirements for statehood remain fuzzy, we make frequent recourse to such qualified terms as “state-like” or “statelet.”

[25] Whether the “wandering peoples” of late antiquity formed nations is another question. Most were evidently multi-ethnic and multilingual; the Vandals, who crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 429 before conquering Roman North Africa, may have counted almost as many linguistically Iranian Alans in their numbers as linguistically Germanic Vandals. On the history of the Alans, see Bachrach 1973.

[26] In the process, they lost more than half of their number. See Khodarkovsky 2006.

[27]  Hämäläinen 2019.

[28] Munkh-Erdene 2016.

[29] Sneath 2007.

[30] Atwood 2012.

[31] Munkh-Erdene, 2011, 2016, and 2018.

[32] Favereau 2021.

[33] Munkh-Erdene 2016, p. 652.

[34] Even if the central ruler was removed, the divisional administrative system typically remained intact, allowing state-structures to survive. With an eye to this, Sneath (2007) writes of the “Headless State.”

[35] See Victor Lieberman 2003. Lieberman elaborates the idea that mainland Southeast Asia and Europe exhibit somewhat similar patterns of state and national development owing to the fact that they were largely insulated from conquest by steppe states. But it is essential to note that they were completely immune. The might of the Scythians, Huns, Avars, Bulgars, and Magyars was a significant factor in ancient and early medieval Europe.

[36] Wolters 1999. Siam’s (Thailand’s) transition from a mandala-style geopolitical realm to a modern territorial state is outlined in Thongchai Winichakul’s deservedly celebrated book Siam Mapped (1997).

[37] Bagge (2019, p. 35) argues that the “fundamental principle of early modern international politics was not the integrity of the state but the rights of the dynasty,” while further contending, in opposition to Charles Tilly, that “the European state system was formed by marriage more than by war” (p. 38). In India, premodern ruling dynasties were if anything less firmly associated with stable territorial bases than were their counterparts in Europe.

[38] Cassel 2012, p. 9.

[39] Biggs 1999. See also Ackerman 1982.

[40] Biggs 1999, 390.

[41] Cams 2017

[42] Thongchai 1997.

[43] Branch 2014.

[44] Branch (2014, pp. 113-114). A number of other authors have made similar arguments. As Stuart Elden (2013, p. 245) argues, “It was not a case of a Europe with nation-states with fixed territory as a model that was exported to the rest of the world; rather, the New World proved to be a laboratory where ideas were tried out, concepts forged, and techniques tested and perfected, which were then carried back to Europe.” Benedict Anderson (1983[1991]) makes an analogous case for nationalism, arguing that the national community was first imagined by expatriate Spanish colonialists in Latin America; see especially the foreword to the revised edition of his signal book, Imagined Communities.

[45] Hämäläinen 2008.

[46] Cassel 2012, pp. 4-5.

[47]  “It’s Illegal for South Koreans to Smoke Weed Abroad—Even Where It’s Legal,” by Steve Mollman. Quartz, August 28, 2018. Weed will soon be legal in Canada, but not for South Koreans.

[48] “China Thinks It Can Arrest Basically Anyone on the Planet for Criticizing Communism,” by Daniel Gilbert. Vice News, July 1, 2020.

[49] “Hong Kong’s National Security Law: A First Look.”  The China Collection Blog, June 30, 2020.

[50] Thongchai 1994.

[51] Billé 2016, p. 11.

Seduced by the Map, Introduction (Part 2) Read More »

Seduced by the Map, Introduction (Part 4)

Toward A Post-State Global Order?

Critics who have largely accepted the Westphalian schema as a serviceable depiction of the past have at times prophesied its impending demise. Bold prognosticators of various political stripes have for decades seen the interstate system and even the state itself as teetering on the verge of a post-Westphalian collapse. In the 1990s, some neoliberals “were inspired by swift economic globalization to dream of the withering away of the state”[1] – a fantasy more often associated with their anarchist opponents. Critical IR theorists around the same time began to claim that sovereignty itself was intrinsically totalitarian and would soon vanish from the world.[2] Others imagined the advent of alternative arrangements. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, calls were made for a “return to earlier ideas about an international order composed of diverse political entities, including groups with national rights [but] without sovereignty over a defined territory, or minority rights protection under the auspices of an international organization.”[3] Although nothing of quite that kind came about, the growing power of the EU and of various international institutions were read by many observers as signaling the dawn of a post-Westphalian world. As late as 2006, the influential social theorist Jürgen Habermas could hopefully proclaim that “a world dominated by nation-states is indeed in transition toward the postnational constellation of global society.” He envisioned states “losing their autonomy” as international law steadily transformed into cosmopolitan law.[4]

Habermas was too cagey to bet all his chips on a post-Westphalian future. As he noted elsewhere in the same work, “states remain the most important actors and the final arbiters on the global state,” and “are simultaneously gaining latitude for a new sort of political influence.”[5] Nonetheless, his Kantian dream of perpetual peace[6] led him to conjure a near-term future that has simply not played out. Both the troubles of the EU and the rise of an increasingly authoritarian and geopolitically ambitious China have by now cast sharp doubt on any sureties about the waning away of the sovereign state. The state is not and has never been the monolith of Westphalian theory, but neither is it a feeble construct that can be swept away by either the forces of globalization or the drive for social justice. Habermas and other cosmopolitan thinkers may well be right about the long-term direction of political evolution, but we have no way to know. Even if they are eventually proven prescient, the path toward a post-state future appears to be slow, bumpy, and prone to sudden reversals.

Whatever the setbacks, dreams of a soon-to-be-realized global order that transcends both the nation and the state remain evergreen. One recent wave of thinking throws the entire notion of political territoriality into doubt. In a moment of intensifying transnational networks and relational spaces, some Silicon Valley futurists insist that the modernist project of dividing the globe into bounded polities is rapidly becoming obsolete. According to the best-selling author Parag Khanna, the world “is graduating toward a global network civilization whose map of connective corridors will supersede traditional maps … We are moving into an era where cities will matter more than states and supply chains will be a more important source of power than militaries.”[7]

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.[8] Unexpected assaults on the global order, like COVID-19, moreover, often serve to re-inscribe borders. On the ground, as we will see, the situation is complicated and disordered, just as it has always been. But for the time being, it seems safe to say that an international order based on sovereign states still reigns supreme, both in popular conceptualization and in formal international law. Geographer Alexander Murphy deserves the last words here:

Territory’s allure, in short, remains a powerful force in our contemporary world of flows, relational spatial understandings, and new ways of envisioning space. Our fascination with the latter should not blind us to the power of the former.[9]

[1] Habermas 2006, 168.

[2] For example, Camillari and Falk 1992. For a critical take on this thesis, see Bickerton et al. 2007.

[3] Siegelberg 2020, p. 228.

[4] Habermas 2006, 115.

[5] Habermas 2006, p. 176.

[6] Much of Habermas’s 2006 essay focuses on Immanuel Kant’s 1795 book, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.

[7] Khanna 2016, p. 6.

[8] See Ferguson 2018.

[9] Murphy 2013, p. 1224.


Seduced by the Map, Introduction (Part 4) Read More »

Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 1)

Chapter Two:

How the Government of the United States Maps the World

Among all the global maps in circulation in the United States today, one has special status: the CIA’s map of the world. Endorsed by the government, handsome in design, comprehensive in coverage, regularly updated, and (most seductive of all) free to download, this digital map can be readily accessed on the website of the Central Intelligence Agency.[1]

At a glance, what this world-image conjures is an attractive vision of a stable international community, with sovereignty and representation for all. How exactly does it do this? For starters, the Agency’s (anonymous) cartographers, like almost all their contemporary counterparts, divide the land area of the globe into colored blocks that snap together cleanly at their borders. While obviously differing in size, these units are all depicted in the same way, implying that they are all the same species of thing: independent countries (or, in popular short-hand, nation-states). With just a few exceptions, generally noted in fine print, each territory shown is a sovereign state with voting rights in the United Nations General Assembly.[2]

On closer inspection, to be sure, a few anomalies crop up. The CIA does not actually depict all its puzzle-pieces as polities of the same kind, nor do all of them have seats in the UN.[3] Small-font labels signal a two-level hierarchy, distinguishing sovereign states from dependencies. Most dependencies are too small to be readily visible on the world map, and only become legible when one zooms in or looks at the more detailed regional maps found on the same website. We will look more closely at formal dependencies toward the end of this chapter, after considering a number of other geospatial categories that go unmarked altogether.

The main reason for this extended critique of the CIA world map is straightforward. Having seen how this document is routinely handled—cited and reproduced as if it simply translated an agreed-upon international order into visual form—I am convinced that a sustained critical conversation about its premises is overdue. To jump-start that conversation, the present chapter is structured as a guided tour of sorts, alighting on a succession of places where the contours of power on the ground belie the picture on the page. We begin with de jure countries that appear only on the map, followed by de facto governments that appear only on the ground. Zones of contested sovereignty come next, including a handful that are shown as well as more that are hidden. While scores of borders around the planet are contested, only a few of those conflicts surface on the CIA map—and when they do, the signaling is often ambiguous. Finally, we will examine entities that exercise territorial control without taking the form of sovereign states. Whether colonial remnants or military installations, these areas of para-sovereignty barely get a cartographic nod.

All of these slippages and oversights are well known to regional specialists and local journalists. What has been missing until now is a thorough-going critique of the map as a whole: a comprehensive overview of the anomalies that have accrued to it over time, and an assessment of the cumulative challenge that they represent to its image of the international community. Proceeding from presence to absence, we begin with visible puzzle-pieces that are not quite what they seem.

Quasi-states and Cartographic Figments

Some of the most striking anomalies in the CIA world map today are a product of inertia. Although the map is annually revised in minor ways (and occasionally in major ways, when newly recognized countries are ushered into the UN), the geopolitical model on which it is based is essentially stuck in the post-WWII settlement and the subsequent decolonization movement. A lot has happened in global geopolitics since then, but those changes have been only selectively sanctioned by the U.S. diplomatic establishment. As a result, by the early twenty-first century, a number of countries on the CIA map could no longer claim the integrity that they once took for granted.

Consider Somalia and Yemen. In the terms of political scientist Robert Jackson, both today are “quasi-states”[4]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. Somalia disintegrated decades ago, at the end of the Cold War in 1991;[5] since then, most of its territory has been under the control of autonomous regional governments, shifting separatist groups, clan leaders, and Islamist insurgents. Although Somalia periodically veers toward stability and reunion, such conditions have never lasted long; prompting firm opposition from the almost fully autonomous regions of Puntland and Jubaland.[6] Yemen fell apart more recently, but its situation is equally fluid. At the time of writing, Yemen’s nominal territory was effectively divided among half a dozen factions: Houthi rebels (backed by Iran), the Hadi-led government (backed by the Saudis), a secession-minded Southern Transitional Council (supported by the United Arab Emirates), and various tribal coalitions and Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda and ISIS. Nonetheless, both Somalia and Yemen continue to occupy the seats in the United Nations that were assigned to them decades ago. Likewise, both continue to be mapped by the CIA as though they controlled lands that their current governments can only dream of regaining.

Iraq and Syria are also cleaved by governmental rivalries that remain invisible in the cartography of the CIA. In Iraq, the Kurdish northeast remains a land apart, its people overwhelmingly devoted to independence[7] and its military force, the Peshmerga, refusing to take orders from Baghdad. In Syria, ISIS has essentially been extirpated, and although other Islamist groups in the interior northwest hold substantial territory, their days seem numbered. But Turkey maintains its own zones of occupation in this area, confounding hopes for easy unification. More significant, northeastern Syria seems firmly detached from the rest of the country. Outside the Turkish “security belt,” the northeast is mostly controlled by Kurdish-led forces who have declared the de facto autonomous area of Rojava. Rojava is governed under markedly different principles from the rest of Syria: an unusual amalgam of libertarian-socialist principles (originally espoused by Brooklyn-born Murray Bookchin[8]) along with the Kurdish feminism (jineology) of Abdullah Öcalan (the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Considering the Kurds’ military prowess – theirs was the primary force that defeated ISIS in Syria – it is unlikely to be vanquished any time soon by the Assad regime. Rojava’s leaders advocate a united Syria governed under their own framework of socialist decentralization,[9] a vision that effectively precludes accommodation with the Damascus regime.

A handful of other countries have serious gaps in their territorial sovereignty that the CIA map similarly passes over. Consider the interior of Africa. Central African Republic (C.A.R.) is a large but notoriously weak state, roughly half of whose lands lie beyond the scope of its struggling government. As of 2019, ten percent of the population had been internally displaced, while another fifteen percent languished in refugee camps beyond its borders.[10] If the CIA were to publish an empirically accurate map of territorial control in C.A.R., its lawless zones and refugee encampments would need to be marked. Neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R. Congo) is also severely compromised. Having temporarily lost control over half of its territory in the 1990s and early 2000s – much to forces from little, genocide-wracked Rwanda – D.R. Congo has again been threatened with meltdown in the last few years. Some 1.4 million of its people were forced to flee their homes in the diamond-rich Kasai region in the summer of 2017, yielding an alarming total of 3.8 million displaced persons in the country as a whole.[11] Kasai continues to suffer from the so-called Kamwina Nsapu Rebellion, marked by campaigns of ethnic cleansing. Throughout eastern D.R. Congo, ethnic violence and warlord-led resource conflicts remain rife. In the first seven months of 2019, this region experienced more than 200 attacks against clinics and health workers struggling against Ebola.[12]

Equally troubling is the armed conflict in the adjoining state of South Sudan, which was granted independence in 2011. Split between the closely related Dinka and Nuer peoples, South Sudan has been so plagued by ethnic conflicts that it ranked in 2018 as the world’s most fragile state.[13] In the area where it converges with the C.A.R. and the D.R. Congo, so little formal governmental authority is exercised that the infamous warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, has been able to shelter there for years, protected by as few as 100 soldiers.[14] Here is a stark case of what Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart call the “sovereignty gap”: “the disjunction between the de jure assumption that all states are ‘sovereign’ regardless of their performance in practice — and the de facto reality that many are malfunctioning or collapsed states … .”[15]

It is possible that some of these countries will be patched back together in the coming years or decades. Whether such reassembly will prove enduring is another matter, as evidenced by Libya. For a decade after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya was wracked by civil war. From 2014 to 2020 it was geographically split between the UN-supported Government of National Accord (backed primarily by Turkey and Qatar) and so-called Tobruk Government (supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia), with remnant Islamists and tribal militias contending for power as well. In early 2020, a ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia collapsed within hours. But in December of the same year, a “permanent” ceasefire agreement was signed, followed by the creation of an interim unity government in March 2021. Two months later, militants stormed the hotel used as the Presidential Council’s headquarters.[16]

The post-“Arab Spring” chaos in Libya attracted mercenaries and militants from other countries, destabilizing its geopolitical neighborhood. Chad saw the battlefield death of its long-serving President, Idriss Déby, an almost unimaginable event in the modern world. Déby was killed by forces of the Chadian rebel group FACT that had just surged out of their haven in southern Libya, protected by Libya’s Tobruk Government. In subsequent fighting, FACT forces were apparently rebuffed, although the rebel group did proclaim the independence of the Tibesti region of northern Chad,[17] a proclamation that was barely noticed by the global press.

If fractured countries like Libya can sometimes be reassembled through negotiations, seemingly stable countries can collapse with alacrity. In 2019, Ethiopia was a rising star of economic development, its prime minister (Abiy Ahmed) awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for patching up relations with neighboring Eritrea. A mere two years later, a prominent U.S. political journal warned that Abiy’s actions against the restive Tigray region had “condemned Ethiopia to dissolution.”[18] At the same time, an opinion piece in al Jazeera claimed that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were jointly “engaged in systemic ethnically cleansing, rape, starvation, and massacres on an unprecedented scale” in Tigray.[19]


[2] International law goes further, granting each the status of personhood. As is spelled out in Article One of the influential Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (1933), “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” The full text of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States can be found at:

[3] The CIA maps Kosovo as a sovereign state, but it is not recognized as such by the UN.

[4] Jackson 1990.

[5] Ahmed and Green 1999.

[6] “Why Is Somalia’s Political Crisis So Difficult to Solve?” by Corrado Cok. Fair Observer, May 24, 2021.

[7] In the 2017 referendum, the vast majority of voters in Iraqi Kurdistan opted for independence. See “More than 92% of Voters in Iraqi Kurdistan Back Independence,” by Martin Chulov, The Guardian, September 27, 2017.

[8] See “How My Father’s Ideas Helped the Kurds Create a New Democracy,” by Debbie Bookchin, New York Review of Books Daily, June 15, 2018.  How My Father’s Ideas Helped the Kurds Create a New Democracy

[9] As spelled out in preamble to The Constitution of the Rojava Cantons:

“In pursuit of freedom, justice, dignity and democracy and led by principles of equality and environmental sustainability, the Charter proclaims a new social contract, based upon mutual and peaceful coexistence and understanding between all strands of society. It protects fundamental human rights and liberties and reaffirms the peoples’ right to self-determination.

Under the Charter, we, the people of the Autonomous Regions, unite in the spirit of reconciliation, pluralism and democratic participation so that all may express themselves freely in public life. In building a society free from authoritarianism, militarism, centralism and the intervention of religious authority in public affairs, the Charter recognizes Syria’s territorial integrity and aspires to maintain domestic and international peace.)”

[10] “Central African Republic Situation,” UNHCR: Central African Republic situation

[11] “DC Congo Violence Displaces 3.8 Million: UN,” Al Jazeera, August 26, 2017. DR Congo violence displaces 3.8 million: UN | DR Congo News

[12] “An Epidemic of Violence: How do you reform a country where gunmen torch Ebola clinics?The Economist, August 3, 2019. Pages 35-37.

[13] Fragile State Index: (see data for South Sudan)

[14] “Uganda Ends Its Hunt for Joseph Kony, Empty-Handed,” by Zach Baddorf, New York Times, April 3, 2017:

In 1990, Robert Jackson (1990, p.149) portrayed neighboring Chad in even starker term, writing that it amounted to little more than a violent arena “where rival ethnic warlords preyed upon innocent bystanders and laid waste to the countryside in a perennial struggle to seize control of a nominal state represented by the capital city.”

[15] Ghani and Lockhart 2008, p. 21.

[16] “Libya: Gunmen storm hotel used as Presidential Council HQ,” al Jazeera, May 8, 2021

[17] See “Over 300 Rebels Killed in Northern Chad,” by Peter Kum and Rodrigue Forku. Anadolu Agency, April 19, 2021.

[18] “Abiy Ahmed Has Condemned Ethiopia to Dissolution,” by Michael Rubin. The National Interest. May 16, 2021.

[19] “The Tripartite Alliance Destabilising the Horn of Africa,” by Goitom Gebreluel. Al Jazeera, May 10, 2021.

Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 1) Read More »

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.


Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 2) Read More »

Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 3)

De Facto States and their Contested Boundaries

            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.[1] Such polities have been called “de facto states” by Scott Pegg, who deems them the “flip side of the quasi-state coin.”[2]

Perhaps the clearest example of a de facto state that is consistently left off the map is Somaliland, a breakaway polity that proclaimed its independence from a disintegrating Somalia in 1991. In the decades since then, Somaliland has attained all the essential attributes of sovereignty except international recognition.[3] Remarkably, it has been described as the most stable and best-governed country in the Horn of Africa.[4] Nor has this gone unnoticed. Israel, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) come close to treating Somaliland as a sovereign state, while Djibouti, Turkey, and Denmark maintain consulates or their equivalent in the country. Wales has even awarded it full acknowledgement.[5] The UAE, in return for being allowed to establish a naval base, has gone so far as to promise to “protect the Republic of Somaliland from all external threats and protect Somaliland’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” [6] wording that echoes many declarations of formal recognition. The African Union, by contrast, vociferously rejects Somaliland’s claims. The resistance is understandable. Acknowledging any breakaway polity could encourage similar developments elsewhere in the volatile region.

While Somaliland may be a particularly clear example of the cartographically invisible states, it is by no means the only one. The most important of these, Taiwan, is also the most complicated and will be examined below. The others have powerful patrons, whom they effectively serve as clients. An extreme example is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a self-ruling entity that enjoys the recognition of exactly one UN member: Turkey. (Not surprisingly, it is often regarded as a Turkish puppet, especially in Greece.[7]) But several autonomous zones of the former Soviet Union operate in a similar gray area, enjoying some diplomatic recognition while arguably lacking full independence. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for example, are militarily and diplomatically supported by Russia and officially recognized by Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria, and Nauru. Transnistria—a self-declared sliver of a state sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova —has a more shadowy existence. With an economy based heavily on smuggling and weapons manufacturing, it is sometimes regarded as little more than gangster turf.[8] Transnistria relies on Moscow to maintain its autonomy. Nagorno-Karabakh, in the Caucasus, is comparably dependent on Armenia. Despite having proclaimed independence as the Republic of Artsakh (an entity recognized by nine U.S. states, if not by Washington DC),[9] it is essentially administered as part of Armenia, with its citizens using Armenian passports.[10]

Rebuffed by the global community, these four post-Soviet breakaways responded by creating their own “international” organization, the ambitiously named Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations (a.k.a. the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States).[11] Diplomats from Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh have met periodically under its auspices, as if in pantomime of the United Nations. They have not been joined by representatives from the two newest self-declared states in the region, the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics, whose leaders have discussed merging their statelets to form something they call the Federation of Novorossiya (“New Russia”). Regarded as terrorist organizations by Kiev,[12] both of these “republics” were hived off of eastern Ukraine in 2014 by Russia-oriented separatists, aided by the Russian military.

Whatever one makes of these splinter polities,[13] their existence makes one thing clear: not all of the internationally recognized states that emerged out of the Soviet Union fully control the territories ascribed to them by the standard map. Unable to prevent the break-out of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), the “parent” republics of Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan have never exercised authority across their own full official expanses. Immediately on gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, all these fledgling countries saw border-altering struggles. While commonly deemed frozen conflicts,[14] they occasionally burst into bloodshed. Azerbaijan engaged in an inconclusive four-day struggle against Armenia and its client state of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) in 2016, and triumphed against them in a much more deadly war in 2020. After the latter struggle, Azerbaijan reclaimed more than half of the territory that it had lost to Armenia when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Yet all of these territorial changes go unmarked on the CIA map, which references instead the old internal political boundaries of the USSR, which in these instances have never served as de facto international divides. Like the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, such border changes are judged illegitimate and therefore ignored. What is frozen would seem to be the map, not the conflicts.

While the moral logic behind this refusal of diplomatic recognition is understandable, the public still needs some way to keep track of whose boots are on the ground. Some of these unrecognized states have endured for decades and may well persist for decades or more to come.[15] For the CIA map to be truthful, it should come with the caveat that it represents an idea of the world: a vision rooted in the world-order from the last century.

[1] Some political theorists regard formal recognition by the international community as a necessary condition for statehood. Thomas Grant (1999, p. 4), for example, differentiates “constitutivists,” “who argued that recognition is necessary to make a state,” from “declaratists” who claimed that recognition is “an acknowledgement of statehood already achieved.”

[2] Pegg 1998, p. 4. Other authors have used different terminology. Deon Geldenhuys (2009), for example, deems these non-recognized polities “contested states,” which he contrasts with “confirmed states.”

[3] See Somaliland’s official website:

[4] See “Somaliland: A Stable and Independent State, But Not Recognition,” by Nimo Ismail, World Policy Blog,  Feb. 21, 2017:

Somaliland is also somewhat democratic and moderately free, besting on this score several of Africa’s recent stars of economic development, such as Rwanda and Ethiopia. Freedom House rates Somaliland only as “partly free,” but it is the only country in the northeastern quadrant of Africa to receive that designation, the other being rated as “not free.” (See Freedom House, Somaliland, Freedom of the World in 2020: Nina Casperson, however, notes that in Somaliland, “the need for unity and the avoidance of internal strife has undermined what are otherwise significant democratic achievements (2012, p. 93).

[5] “Somaliland: Wales Strikes Out on Its Own in Its Recognition of Somaliland,” Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, March 6, 2016:

But as Wales is a non-sovereign polity, such recognition is merely symbolic.

[6] The quotation is from “Somaliland, UAE Sign Historic Economic and Military Pact,” The National, March 21, 2017:

[7] See, for example, “Opinion: Turkey’s New Invasion of Cyprus,” by  Andreas C. Chrysafis, Greek Reporter, February 28, 2018:

[8] This view of  Transnistria (formally called the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic) is articulated by Glenny (2008, p. 91). Nina Caspersen argues that such a depiction is unduly “alarmist”; Caspersen (2012, p. 46).

[9] See the Wikipedia article, “Political status of Nagorno-Karabakh”:  Intriguingly, two U.S. states have passed opposing bills recognizing the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

[10] But if Armenia exerts a significant measure of control over Nagorno-Karabakh, Nagorno-Karabakh also influences Armenia; see Caspersen (2012, p. 58).

[11] As little is available on this organization in English, I recommend the Wikipedia article:

[12] See “Ukraine Parliament Votes to Call Donetsk And Luhansk People’s Republics Terrorist Groups,” by Christopher Harress, IBT, Jan. 27, 2017:

[13] On unrecognized states more generally, see Caspersen 2012.

[14] See, for example, “Putin’s Frozen Conflicts,” by Robert Orttung and Christopher Walker, Foreign Policy, Feb. 13, 2015:

[15] On the assumption of impermanence, see Caspersen (2012, p. 103). As Pegg notes, “there is little incentive to devote much attention to de facto states because their ultimate defeat and reincorporation into existing states is both assumed and sought” (1998, p. 8).


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Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 4)

Contested Boundaries Between Recognized States

Breakaway countries are by no means the only areas of contested sovereignty in the world today. Boundary disagreements are rife, involving many UN members in slow-burning conflicts. According to Alexander C. Diener and Joshua Hagen, of the roughly 300 contiguous international land borders, fully one-third are contested.[1] Island disputes can be especially complicated, involving multiple states that are not necessarily adjacent to the contested sites. Most notorious is the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by no fewer than six countries: China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.[2]  Labeling all of these overlapping claims on a world map would certainly be challenging. The CIA’s approach is to leave the archipelago geopolitically unmarked, even though some of these islands now bristle with armaments. While one can be sympathetic with the difficulty of marking specks in the sea, ignoring land-border disputes is harder to justify. Particularly where one or another disputant insists that all third-party maps must reflect its own version of the truth, persistent boundary disputes between UN members would seem to deserve more acknowledgement than they receive.

Kashmir is an instructive case. All or parts of the Kashmir region have been contested for decades by three nuclear powers: India, Pakistan, and China. India is so insistent on controlling the narrative that it has outlawed maps that depict the actual situation on the ground, requiring cartographers to portray Pakistani- and Chinese-controlled areas as if they were part of India.[3] CIA mappers finesse this by distinguishing Indian claims from the “line of control” (with Pakistan) and the “line of actual control” (with China). The result is a rare case where contested sovereignty is rendered visible on a document that studiously ignores such conflicts wherever possible.  India’s eastern border conflicts with China, by contrast, are disregarded by the CIA (and indeed by most other world political maps), even though one of these disputes emerged in 2017 as a military flash-point.[4]

Pakistan is not as demanding as India about how other countries map its spatial extent. But the official Atlas of Islamic Republic of Pakistan (2012) reveals some telling departures from the international community’s boundaries in the region.[5] Predictably, this atlas portrays Pakistan as rightfully including all of greater Kashmir, albeit labeling the region “Disputed Territory.” (The border with China in this region is likewise labeled “undefined.”) More surprising is its portrayal of a sizable portion of neighboring Gujarat, a Hindu-majority Indian state. After the violent partition of 1947, this area—formerly ruled by the princely state of Junagadh and Manavadar—became part of the Republic of India. The Pakistani atlas suggests that its incorporation is seen as illegitimate in Islamabad by showing much of western Gujarat as a (non-disputed!) part of Pakistan. The global political overview in the same volume portrays the same region as if it were an independent country. In the imagination of the Pakistani cartographer, it also retains its former intricate geography, pocked with numerous exclaves and enclaves. Although these features vanished with the end of British rule, their afterlife in the Atlas recalls Junagadh’s unusual shape and status as a self-governing state under the Raj.

Whether or not they are disputed, international borders also vary tremendously in their intrusiveness on the ground. The heavily armed border zone between North and South Korea, at one end of the spectrum, is of an entirely different order from the ethereal abstraction separating Belgium from the Netherlands in the town of Baarle-Nassau. Where the Korean Peninsula is cleft by a militarized four-kilometer-wide no-man’s land, a traveler in Europe’s Low Countries might cross unknowingly from one state to another simply by wandering through a doorway. A naïve reader of the CIA map might imagine the Korean border as the less formidable of the two, given that it is denoted by a porous-looking dashed line (a sign meant to indicate that it remains unresolved in international law.) Or consider the Canadian and Mexican borders of the United States, which appear identical on the map despite massive differences in how rigorously they are fortified and defended. The fact that virtually every international border can be depicted just like any other is among the clearest indications that the CIA’s cartographic project is a normative one. A descriptive approach would call for a different set of discriminations.     

Detached Territories and Feudal Remnants

            Countries are generally thought of as covering contiguous territories. Yet quite a few have detached bits, or exclaves.[6] Americans are familiar with their own disconnected state of Alaska, but most seem unaware of other examples, including some of immense geopolitical import. Few U.S. college students know that a small piece of Russia, the oblast called Kaliningrad, is almost entirely surrounded by NATO and EU member countries. (The CIA map does label Kaliningrad as Russian, but it is easy to miss.) France has more numerous detached provinces, and in more distant areas. Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion, and Mayotte are integral departments of France, in exactly the same way that Alaska and Hawai’i are part of the United States. While its logo-map in our minds may be the classical European hexagon, France today is also a South American country, a Caribbean country, an Indian Ocean country, and an African[7] country.

Other border incongruities are strewn about the world as well. Nesting territories and seasonally fluctuating borders may have no great geopolitical import, but they challenge our models nonetheless. What should we make, for example, of Nahwa village: an exclave of the United Arab Emirates that is located in a larger exclave of Oman (Madha) that is in turn wholly surrounded by the United Arab Emirates?[8] Or what of Belgium’s 22 territories encircled by the Netherlands—the largest of which includes six Dutch enclaves within it?[9]  (The border between India and Bangladesh in the Cooch Behar area was even more involuted until it was simplified in 2015, counting one third-order enclave: a bit of India within Bangladesh within India within Bangladesh.)[10] In another European case, involving Slovenia and Croatia, border complexities have generated a situation in which state authorities “are not entirely sure exactly where the border line is.”[11] Another form of anomaly arises where an international dividing line does not stay fixed in time. Such “moving borders” range from an ice-defined alpine boundary separating Italy from Austria—where an array of glacier-tracking devices are now needed to update international maps in real time[12]—to Pheasant Island in the Bidasoa River, an islet that passes from Spain to France and back again every six months.[13] The latter island has historically found a role as a neutral zone for treaty signing (the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659) and as a venue for royal marriages.

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. Small size is one. Luxemburg, at 2,586 square kilometers (999 square miles), is a speck on the world map, but it dwarfs Monaco, a nano-state of just two square kilometers.[14] Andorra, San Marino, Lichtenstein, and the Vatican City all fall on the micro-state spectrum as well. A clue to the premodern origins of some of these polities is their limited sovereignty.[15] The Principality of Andorra today counts two heads of state, both of whom reside elsewhere: the Spanish/Catalan bishop of Urgell, and the president of France. Much as it runs against the grain of French republicanism, Emmanuel Macron is simultaneously an elected premiere and a feudal prince,[16] whether he wants the honor or not. Benign anomalies like this attract little media attention and may well be dismissed as geo-curiosities. But considered alongside the quasi-states, de facto states, border disputes, fluctuations, and other incongruities discussed above, they further underscore the slippage between the map and the world.

And that’s not all.

[1] Diener and Hagen 2010, p. 3.

[2] “Territorial claims in the Spratly and Paracel Islands,” Global Security.Org:

[3] See “Economist Accuses India of Censorship Over Kashmir Map,” By Sanjoy Majumder, BBC News, May 24, 2011:

[4] In August 2017, India and China were rattling their sabers in this area intensively enough to prompt warnings of war. This generally overlooked conflict is also intricate, involving little Bhutan as well as the world’s two demographic giants. (See “Chinese and Indian Troops Face Off in Bhutan Border Dispute,” by Michael Safi, The Guardian, July 5, 2017:

[5] Ahmad et al. 2012. For an extended discussion, see “Does Pakistan Claim Junagadh in the Indian State of Gujarat?,” by Martin W. Lewis, GeoCurrents, April 22, 2014:

[6] Strictly speaking, an exclave must be entirely surrounded by the territory of another country. If it can be reached from the main body of the state by water, it is instead defined as either a “semi-exclave” or a “pene-exclave.” The terminology is complex; see the explanatory diagram of territorial discontinuities found in the Wikipedia article “Enclave and Exclave” For a classic work on this phenomenon, see Robinson 1939. For a more detailed and recent study, see Vinokurov 2007.

[7] This assertion is true to the extent that the island of Mayotte is part of Africa whereas Reunion belongs with anIndian Ocean region.

[8] See “Fun With Enclaves and Exclaves: United Arab Emirates and Oman,” by Brian Cohen. The Gate:

[9] See “The Most Complicated Border Town in the World,” by Kaid Benfield, CityLab, February 17, 2012:

[10] “India and Bangladesh Swap Territory, Citizens in Landmark Enclave Exchange.” By Hosna J. Shewly, Migration Policy Institute, March 9, 2016:

[11] Nikolić 2019, p. 18. Zoran Nikolić’s The Atlas of Unusual Borders is a visual treasure-trove of such border irregularities. For a somewhat similar and equally delightful work, see Nick Middleton’s (2017) An Atlas of Countries That Don’t Exist.

[12] Billé 2016, p. 2. See also

[13] “The World’s Most Exclusive Condominium,” by Frank Jacobs. The New York Times, January 23, 2012:

[14] The full international recognition of such microstates, Deon Geldenhuys (2009, p. 10) argues, indicates a “devaluation of the importance of territory in the 20th century,” and consequently a diminution of the territorial principle that ostensibly lies at the core of the standard model of world politics.

[15] As Caspersen notes, “entities such as Monaco and Andorra … have pragmatically accepted less than full sovereignty” (2012, p. 103).  Lichtenstein and San Marino have also ceded some power to their much larger neighbors (Switzerland and Italy, respectively), as is explained in the Wikipedia article on Associated State

[16] “Why Emmanuel Macron Is Technically Now a Prince,” by Madeleine Luckel. Vogue, May 15, 2017:


Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 4) Read More »

Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 5)

The Problem of Para-Countries

How many independent countries exist in the world? This seemingly simple question has no straight answer. There is neither a global consensus nor a binding institution capable of generating a definitive list of who’s in and who’s out. Instead, each sovereign state exercises the right to declare its own list of real and rogue nations. The CIA map—like the State Department list on which it is based—fudges the issue a bit. The 193 UN member states form its core, but two other polities, Kosovo and the Holy See (Vatican City), are included as well, giving a total of 195 “independent states.”[1] An internet query will typically yield a slightly higher number, usually by adding Taiwan and Palestine.[2] Such polities gain entry on the grounds that they are recognized as sovereign by some United Nations members. (Of course, that could also be said for Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and other places that rarely make the cut.) The most capacious roster that I have seen, published on the World Population Review website, names 206 “sovereign nations” as of 2020.[3]

It is not surprising that Kosovo is included on the CIA map, since it functions as a sovereign country and is recognized as such by the U.S. Department of State. Many other member states of the United Nations also recognize Kosovo. But China and Russia do not, effectively precluding its admission to the organization; as permanent members of the Security Council, both the PRC and the Russian Federation can veto applicant states. Russia rejects Kosovo’s independence, viewing it as a wayward part of Serbia, a state that it has long diplomatically supported.[4] As a result, UN maps to this day depict Kosovo—which has functioned as an independent state since 2008—as if it were still part of Serbia.

Taiwan is the most vexing case. One might even say that the extraordinary call for “strategic ambiguity”[5] vis-à-vis Taiwan reveals most starkly the limits of standard world maps and models. It is universally understood that the Taipei-based Republic of China (ROC) exercises sovereignty over the island of Taiwan. Yet most governments officially pretend otherwise, in deference to the vastly more powerful People’s Republic of China. Those few that do not bow to the PRC must recognize Taiwan’s own audacious counterclaim to be China’s only legitimate government. The U.S. Department of State makes no bones about its position: “With the establishment of diplomatic relations with China on January 1, 1979, the U.S. Government recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China and acknowledged the Chinese position that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China.”[6] The CIA world map falls in line with this declaration, representing Taiwan as though it were part of the PRC. It would be hard to find balder evidence that the map reflects a diplomatic vision of the world. Left unsaid is that Taiwan’s people are embroiled in a long-running, high-stakes controversy over the status and future of their island, with the majority viewpoint swinging away from a Chinese identity toward a specifically Taiwanese one.[7] The growing political consensus in Taiwan seems to be one of embracing the island’s de facto independence, bypassing any incendiary claims for de jure sovereignty.

While the Taiwanese controversy is the most dramatic, less familiar conundrums can be found farther down on any expanded country list. If the Holy See is granted sovereign-state status, one might ask, why is the “Sovereign Military Order of Malta” denied the same consideration?[8] The Knights of Malta may not have an actual territorial domain, but the Vatican City is little more than a collection of buildings inhabited by an officially celibate population – hardly a real country either, as the term is conventionally understood. And if mutual recognition is taken to be an important feature of statehood, what then does one make of UN members that are denied such standing by some of their UN fellows? This applies most notably to Israel, but also to Armenia and the Republic of Cyprus.[9]

            To craft one’s list of countries based on de facto sovereignty rather than de jure recognition would solve some of these problems, but that procedure would generate other headaches. Palestine, for one, would probably be excluded, since its sovereign power is limited; it does not control its airspace, waters, or entry points, and its spatially separated territories are far from united. Likewise, several full-fledged UN member-states could find their country status called into question. Notable here are the Pacific nations that operate under compacts of “free association”[10] with the United States: the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau. All three are essentially “para-countries” in which the U.S. provides external security, access to several American domestic programs, and automatic U.S. residency rights in exchange for military concessions. In the case of the Marshall Islands—home of the strategically vital Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site (the world’s largest target, receiving test missiles fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California)—such considerations are significant indeed. New Zealand has similar arrangements with the Cook Islands and Niue. The Joint Centenary Declaration (2001) between New Zealand and the Cook Islands expressly declares the independence of the latter: “In the conduct of its foreign affairs, the Cook Islands interacts with the international community as a sovereign and independent state.[11] Yet the Cook Islands and Niue are not reckoned as sovereign by the United States, and are marked as dependencies of New Zealand on the CIA’s world political map. Few other lists of “independent countries” or “sovereign states” include them, either.

Interestingly, the United Nations does regard Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign states, officially designating them (on the UN map of “The World Today”) as the world’s only “Non-Member States of the United Nations.”[12]Crucial to this designation is treaty-making power. As noted on the United Nations website, “the Secretary-General, as depositary of multilateral treaties, recognized the full treaty-making capacity of the Cook Islands in 1992 and of Niue in 1994.”[13] But not all official UN maps grant them the same status. On the UN map of “The World,” found in the same cartographic repository as “The World Today,”[14] the Cook Islands and Niue are unambiguously marked as falling under the control of New Zealand.[15] Evidently, confusion over the status of these islands is widespread.

            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. Little wonder that most of these loose ends are routinely kept out of view; the sheer simplicity of the standard model is one of its main attractions. It was a clever move to create a make-believe surface where all countries are sovereign, national, and equal. But what is gained in legibility is lost when it comes to navigating the rough and tumble arena of power politics.

[1] See “Independent States of the World,” US Department of State:

[2] For example, “Countries in the World: 195,” Worldometer:

As this article states, “There are 195 countries in the world today. This total comprises 193 countries that are member states of the United Nations and 2 countries that are non-member observer states: the Holy See and the State of Palestine.” For another example, see “How Many Countries,” Infoplease: How Many Countries? According to this article, “There are 196 countries in the world today. Unless you don’t count Taiwan… Taiwan is not considered an official country by many, which would bring the count down to 195 countries.”

[3] The World Population Review’s figure of 206 is based on the 193 UN members, the two UN “observers” (The Vatican City and Palestine), and 11 additional polities classified as “‘other’ states.”  The “other” states are: Abkhazia, Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), Cook Islands, Kosovo, Niue, Northern Cyprus, Western Sahara (SADR), Somaliland, South Ossetia, Taiwan, and Transnistria. The map of “sovereign nations” on the same website, however, does not match the list. See:

Similarly, a 2007 “School’s Wikipedia Selection” came up with a list of 202 “sovereign states” by including most of the polities mentioned in the preceding paragraph: see

[4] It is significant that the United States, which usually follows the standard international practice of refusing to recognize states that unilaterally declare independence, made an exception in the case of Kosovo.

[5] See, for example, “Strategic Ambiguity in Cross-Strait Relations,” by Walter S. Boone, New Century GeoStrategist, March 29, 2016.

[6] “Independent States of the World,” US Department of State, note 3:

[7]  Brown, 2004.

[8] The “sovereignty” of the Knights of Malta is discussed well in the Wikipedia article on the entity: Note, however, that the measure of sovereignty that it does possess is sometimes challenged by the Vatican; see “Pope Seizes Power from the Knights of Malta, Brutally Ending 900 Years of Their Sovereignty,” by Damian Thompson, The Spectator, January 25, 2017:

[9] 30 U.N. members currently do not recognize the state of Israel; see the Wikipedia article on the subject: Turkey does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus (, and Pakistan does not recognize Armenia (–Pakistan_relations#cite_note-1).

[10] “Compact of Free Association,” Legal Information System of the Federated States of Micronesia:

[11] “The Cook Islands and Free Association: Understanding the Nature & Practice of the Special Relationship with New Zealand,” Cook Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration  Emphasis in the original.

[12] See the official United Nations Map, “The World Today”:

The same map places the Holy See and the State of Palestine in slightly different category, that of “Observer Non-Member States of the United Nations.”

[13] See “United Nations Treaty Collection: Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary General,” Niue, Note 1.

[14] Both maps can be found at the UN’s “Geospatial Information Section”:

The map of “The World” can be located through the pull-down menu under the heading “General Maps.” The map of “The World Today” can be located under the heading “Thematic maps More Maps.”


Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 5) Read More »

Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 6)

Dependencies as Quasi-Countries?

       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. The CIA cartographers resort to some serviceable if subtle expedients. Where recognized states (including the Vatican and Kosovo) are labeled in all capital letters, dependencies are not; in addition, the names of their sovereign superiors are noted (in parentheses). For example, under Greenland one finds (DENMARK); under Curaçao, (NETH).[1]

       Still, one size does not necessarily fit all. One of the most stubborn challenges to accurate mapping of dependencies is the need to distinguish among the varied relationships they have with their metropoles. The situation of the U.S. commonwealths, Puerto Rico or the Northern Mariana Islands, for example, is not the same as that of the “unincorporated and unorganized territory” called American Samoa.[2] The key variable in metropole-dependency relations is supposedly the degree of self-government. Although difficult to quantify, this metric matters a great deal to the United Nations, which maintains an evolving list of non-self-governing territories that are supposed to be on a trajectory toward full autonomy, independence, or union with their controlling power.[3] Critics note that the decision to include or exclude a given dependency from this UN list reflects political considerations more than measurable self-governance (although at least it represents an attempt to draw distinctions). I take a similar tack here, cataloguing some of the inconsistencies and quirks in the way the CIA maps dependencies around the world. Close reading turns out once again to be an effective tool for exposing the unstated priorities—indeed, the worldview—of the map’s creators.

       Some of the world’s not-quite-countries are classified vaguely by the U.S. State Department as “areas of special sovereignty.” On both the State Department list and the CIA map, such places are lumped together with formal dependencies, making it difficult to differentiate the two categories. The two most prominent cases in the former category are Hong Kong and Macao—China’s Special Administrative Regions (SARs)—which retain their own legal systems, immigration bureaucracies, and currencies, but fall under the sovereign sway of the People’s Republic. On the CIA map, the SARs’ status is clearly marked through the tag “Special Administrative Region,” the only such labels on the map. These territories differ from other global dependencies in that their subordinate position derives from prior colonization by a country other than the one to which they currently belong. During the transition from one overarching sovereign (Britain/Portugal) to another (China), both were allowed to retain elements of their previous governmental apparatus. But that situation is scheduled to end in the mid-21st century, and already the SARs are being harshly subjected to the power of Beijing. Given their liminal status, Hong Kong and Macao are perhaps best viewed as temporary quasi-countries. That said, Hong Kong appears be in the process of forging a national consciousness of its own,[4] as seen in the heated clashes of 2014 and 2019. As for the other areas of special sovereignty recognized by the State Department, the map either leaves them off or marks them simply as dependencies. For example, while the CIA World Factbook specifies that the British military bases on Cyprus (Dhekelia and Akroteri) are areas of “special sovereignty,” neither figures in the CIA’s world political map.[5]


       If such special zones and dependencies generally remain hard to see on the map, they do show up on various tabulations and charts. One influential taxonomy is that of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which provides two-letter “country codes” for all kinds of territorial entities (including some with no human inhabitants).[6] The ISO Alpha-2 codebook reserves “GS” for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (with an estimated year-round population of 16), and “TF” for the uninhabited “French Southern Territories.”[7] In the ISO’s reckoning, the terrestrial globe is divided into 249 discrete, coded territories, all of which are formally classified at the same hierarchical level.[8] Such a schema evidently proves serviceable for the global organization of the internet, where the issue of sovereignty is largely moot.

            Although increasingly used in pull-down menus on websites and in the flag-emojis employed in text messaging,[9] the ISO country-classification scheme is seldom encountered in its pure form in general tabulations of geographical information. But in data tables provided by the World Bank, the IMF, and the CIA, populated dependencies are increasingly finding their place alongside sovereign states.

            One might wonder whether dependencies are worth such extended consideration as we have given them here. After all, little attention is accorded to them in the standard world model (or in the mainstream media, for that matter). Most are treated as vanishing vestiges of bygone times—colonial holdovers fated eventually to dissolve into union with their metropoles or gain independence. In the vast literature on the British empire, the remaining territories are typically dismissed in a sentence or two. For Niall Ferguson, “The British Empire is long dead; only flotsam and jetsam now remain.”[10] Simon Winchester, one of the few popular authors who does focus on imperial remnants, highlights the “lack of caring [that] seems to characterize Britain’s dealings with her final imperial fragments.”[11] One could say the same of the United States, where imperial holdings have always been downplayed; those that remain constantly slip out of the national consciousness. As David Immerwahr argues in How to Hide an Empire, “One of the truly distinctive features of the United States’ empire is how persistently ignored it has been.”[12]

       Like Immerwahr, I believe there are good reasons not to ignore the world’s dependent territories when thinking about geopolitical space. For one thing, although most are small in terms of land-area, many are situated in highly strategic places, and collectively they confer control over a vast expanse of sea-space. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of French Polynesia alone encompasses almost five million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean. This makes a huge difference for the size of France. By conventional land-based reckoning, there are 40 countries on the planet larger than France. But if one includes maritime holdings, France jumps to the sixth position, trailing only Russia, the United States, Australia, Brazil, and Canada.[13] Island possessions also allow metropolitan countries to project military power across much of the world. As Immerwahl bluntly puts it—tipping his hat to Ian Fleming—“islands are instruments of world domination.”[14]

       Moreover, while dependencies may be remnants of an earlier order, that does not necessarily mean they are headed for extinction any time soon. On the contrary, most seem to be here to stay—often owing to the wishes of their own residents. In the ironic endgame of European imperialism, many territories that were once economically exploited are now subsidized, and their residents have no desire to be cut loose. Valuing their connections to Europe, the inhabitants of places like the Dutch Caribbean have rejected independence in repeated referenda. Of the six Dutch holdings in the area, half have opted to become “constituent countries” of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while the rest have elected the status of “special municipality” within the same state.[15] On the CIA’s map, the former are marked as dependencies, whereas the latter are not. (Compare the depiction of Aruba and Bonaire on the second map below. The label “Bonaire” is italicized, marking it as an island rather than a polity, while the label for the sovereign state to which it belongs, “NETH,” is not placed in parentheses, marking it as an integral part of the Netherlands.)

       To be sure, strong movements for independence have arisen in some former colonies. A secession movement in French Polynesia commands considerable support on some islands, and independence referenda in New Caledonia in 2018 and 2020 received heavy backing from the indigenous Melanesian Kanak population. Although the latter two plebiscites did not pass, their narrow failure was due not only to the resistance of French settlers but also to the newer Polynesian and Asian communities.[16] The current official designation of New Caledonia — “a sui generis collectivity” — says much about the uncertain nature of geopolitical affiliation in the remaining vestiges of Western overseas empires.

      Local residents are not the only party with a vested interest in perpetuating para-states. Wealthy individuals from across the world profit from the shadowy status of dependencies like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, which enjoy British security without being subject to British corporate and tax law. The Cayman Islands, with a grand total with a grand total of 57,000 residents, is home to a staggering 100,000 corporations, nearly a fifth of which are domiciled in a single five-story building called Ugland House.[17] Vast sums of money stream through this and other non-sovereign financial centers, arguably at great cost to the global economy. According to one 2014 report, “$7.6 trillion, or 8 percent of individual financial wealth …, is held in offshore tax havens, resulting in $190 billion in lost annual tax revenue for governments.”[18] Not surprisingly, private interests have joined forces with the governments of these islands to maintain the status quo, resisting British and international efforts to reign in their shady financial practices.[19] In short, despite their small size, dependencies play an outsized role in the global economy.

[1] Incongruously, however, the French overseas departments of Reunion, Mayotte, Martinique, Guadalupe, and Guiana were portrayed in the same manner until 2019, as if they were mere possessions rather than integral parts of France. To this day Mayotte, another French overseas department, is not uniformly treated as an integral part of France. Although it is portrayed in such a manner on the CIA world map, on the CIA regional map of Africa it is depicted instead as “administered by France claimed by Comoros.”

[2] In formal terms, the former designation “broadly describes an area that is self-governing under a constitution of its adoption and whose right of self-government will not be unilaterally withdrawn by Congress,” whereas the latter term designates only “an area over which the Constitution has not been expressly and fully extended by the Congress.”). These quotations are found in: 7 FAM 1120


(CT:CON-429;   01-03-2013)
(Office of Origin: CA/OCS/L

[3] “Non-Self-Governing Territories,” United Nations and Decolonization (Official United Nations Document):  Significantly, “unorganized” American Samoa appears on this roster but the Northern Mariana Islands, formally a commonwealth, does not.

[4] See “HK Youth Shunning ‘Chinese’ as their National Identity: A Survey Finds That 8.7% of the City’s Young People Find Their Hong Kong Identity ‘Absolutely Incompatible’ with Being ‘Chinese,’” By Kent Ewing. Asia Times, April 19, 2018.

[5] One problem here is the failure of the U.S. Department of State, and most international organizations as well, to differentiate dependencies from “areas of special sovereignty” (see “Dependencies and Areas of Special Sovereignty,” US Department of State. The CIA World Factbook does specify that each of the British bases on Cyprus count as an “area of special sovereignty” (see

and  Hong Kong and Macao are likewise usually reckoned as “areas of special sovereignty.”

Other places that are sometime classified as “areas of special sovereignty” include Finland’s autonomous Åland Islands and Norway’s dependency of Svalbard (see The U.S. Department of State, however, includes only the latter in its list of “dependencies and areas of special sovereignty.”

More problematic, the same source incorrectly includes French overseas departments in this list, while noting that, “French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte and Reunion are first-order administrative divisions of overseas France, and are therefore not dependencies or areas of special sovereignty. They are included in this list only for the convenience of the user.” Their inclusion, we suspect, generates more confusion than convenience for “the user.”

[6] See International Organization for Standardization, Country Codes ISO 3166:

[7] Technically speaking, these are ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 codes.

[8] At the next level down in the spatial hierarchy, ISO 3166-2 provides codes for the main subdivisions of the larger of these “countries,” such as India’s Uttar Pradesh [IN-UP], with a population of more than 200 million

[9] See Tim Whitlock’s webpage on this issue:

[10] Ferguson 2004, p. 358.

[11] Winchester 2004, p. 346.

[12] Immerwarh 2018, p. 18.

[13] See the data tables found in Fishery Management:

[14] Immerwahl 2019, p. 340.

[15] “Dutch Caribbean,” in Dutch Caribbean Legal Portal:

Although determined to retain their ties with the Netherlands, the residents of the two largest islands, Aruba and Curaçao, are equally adamant that they remain cut-off from each other, tied to the metropole through separate formal relations. As Arend Lijphart (1980, p. 191) notes, “during the colonial period, the Arubans often resented the overbearing administration of their island from Curaçao more than Dutch colonialism itself… .”

[16] See “New Caledonia Narrowly Rejects Independence from France in Historic Referendum,” by Stephen Dziedzic and Prianka Srinivasan, ABC News, November 4, 2018. But with more than 56 percent of the voters rejecting independence, the rejection of independence was perhaps not as narrow as the headline indicates. See also “The French Election in the Pacific,” by Grant Wyeth, The Diplomat, May 3, 2017.

In the 2020 independence referendum, however, support for remaining a dependency of France dropped to 53 percent. See “’No’ Vote in New Caledonia Independence Referendum a Pyrrhic Victory for Loyalists,” by Denise Fisher. The Strategist (Australian Strategic Policy Institute), October 6, 2020.

[17] “House of Nineteen Thousand Corporations,” by Joshua E. Keating. Foreign Policy, January 24, 2012:

See also, “The Cayman Islands: Home to 100,000-Companies and the £8.50 Packet of Fish Fingers,” by Jaques Peretti, The Guardian, January 18, 2016:

[18] “The Geography of Financial Secrecy,” by Uri Friedman, The Atlantic, April 9, 2016: Admittedly, not all of this money is held in non-sovereign off-shore banking centers, but a great deal of it is.

Intriguingly, the concept of “off-shore banking” originated with some of Europe’s most venerable geopolitical incongruities, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. As crown dependencies, Jersey, Guernsey, and Man are not subject to the laws of the United Kingdom, but they do shelter beneath its protective blanket, as we shall explore in Chapter Three.

[19] In 2019, for example, “the leaders of the British Overseas Territories presented a united front … against what they all see as the creeping neo-colonialism of the UK.” See “BOTs Unite Over ‘Modern Colonialism’ Threat.” Cayman News Service, June 27, 2019.


Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 6) Read More »

Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 7, Final)

Military Bases

        While colonial dependencies get at least a token nod on the CIA map, military bases are nowhere to be seen. It is tempting to infer that the reason bases do not appear on political maps is, well, political: would one really expect the CIA to draw attention to American military footholds around the globe? While that may well be part of the story, their omission has an inherent cartographic logic as well (borne out by its recurrence on similar maps made in other countries). If bases do not make it onto the map-key, it is partly because our standard world maps are designed to highlight sovereign entities (states), whereas military networks are typically created through contracts (leases). In traditional political theory (and neo-classical economics), states and leases are completely different classes of things; the one cannot compromise the other. If anything, the ability to enter into contracts is taken as proof of the host-country’s sovereign status. In practice, of course, the relationship between long-term leases and national sovereignty is a fraught one, especially when such a relationship yokes the poor to the powerful.

        Before examining bases in detail, it may be worth pausing to briefly consider two other types of invisible exclaves with which they have telling similarities: foreign embassies and corporate holdings. Like bases, both of these entities typically come into being through lease agreements, and yet in practice they can function as semi-sovereign exclaves of their home country. Embassies are unusual in the extent to which they advertise their foreignness: by hoisting the home country’s flag over their property, stationing their own military personnel inside it, and exercising special legal rights within their walls (as the world is reminded every time a dissident or criminal flees to an embassy for refuge). Corporate exclaves, by contrast, tend not to announce their presence any more than necessary. The reason is not far to seek. Leaseholds and land purchases in poor countries, for the purpose of gaining access to agricultural or mineral resources, are often fiercely opposed by local citizens who denounce them as compromising the sovereignty of their nation. When a foreign state backs up such a move, opposition can be even more intense; China in recent years has been widely accused of neo-colonial “land grabs” in Africa.[1] Similar arguments swirl around major infrastructural projects, whether funded by the IMF or an individual state. To be sure, opposition is never unanimous within the host countries.[2] The governments in question generally welcome the investment, seeing it as a boost for their economies rather than as a threat to their sovereignty.[3]

         In the case of military bases, the compromises are starker. When staring down a fleet of foreign warships or a fortified encampment of alien soldiers, it is hard to argue that their presence does not impinge on local sovereignty. Denial becomes still less credible when the lease underpinning such arrangements can be revoked only if both countries agree to end it—or when the compensation is set so low that, as a point of pride, the host country never cashes the check. Unlikely though such extreme conditions may sound, both obtain in Guantanamo Bay, a nominal piece of Cuban territory that is effectively controlled by the United States. As noted by Joseph Lazar in 1968, “The legal status of Guantanamo Bay, both in international law and municipal law, is peculiar and unique.”[4] It effectively functions as an extraterritorial possession of the United States—one whose offshore location allows its infamous military prison to flout the American constitution. Yet on the CIA world map, it is indistinguishable from the rest of Cuba. (It is, however, is marked on the regional CIA political map of Central America and the Caribbean, where it is colored as part of Cuba but labeled “U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay.”)

        Guantanamo Bay is only the closest and most controversial of a great many overseas U.S. military bases.Although the figures vary among different sources, the number is staggering. David Vine, in Base Nation, calculates that the United States runs a total of 686 foreign base sites.[5] While no other facility on foreign soil has the same entrenched legal status as Guantanamo Bay, these myriad territories collectively project U.S. military power over much of the world. Many scholars have argued that such a massive military-base complex constitutes the sinews of a veritable American Empire that is entirely invisible on conventional political maps.[6] Even by more conservative definitions, the bulk of the North Pacific can be mapped as part of a greater U.S. realm, extending from the state of Hawai’i through the quasi-dependent countries under “Free Association” with the United States to culminate in the U.S. territory of Guam, almost one third of which is devoted to military bases. Some analysts would include security agreements under the same rubric. The noted Japan scholar Chalmers Johnson went so far as to argue that this hidden empire in the north Pacific ranges yet farther to the west: “the richest prize in the American empire” he argued in 2000, “is still Japan.”[7]Nor is the maritime extension of the U.S. military limited to the Pacific. The joint American-British base on Diego Garcia in the Chagos archipelago (also known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, or BIOT) projects power across the Indian Ocean and well beyond. In 2019, the International Court of Justice ruled that British sovereignty over the BIOT is unlawful, ordering that the archipelago be handed over to Mauritius, where its inhabitants were exiled in the late 1960s and early 1970s to make room for Chagos’s militarization.[8] Evidently, neither the UK nor the US has any intention of following the court’s ruling.[9]

        While the United States has more foreign military bases than all other countries put together, it is not the only player in the game. The UK exercises sovereign power over its bases in Cyprus, while Russia maintains bases in Armenia and Central Asia. In 2015, Syria allowed the “free and indefinite transfer to Russia of the Khmeimim Air Base,” further agreeing to give Russian military personnel “the status of immunity and extraterritoriality.”[10] Some states lease bases to more than one external power. In Tajikistan, for example, Moscow maintains the 201st Russian Military Base while India shares the Farkhor Air Base with Tajikistan’s armed forces. Djibouti hosts American, French, Japanese, Italian, and Chinese military facilities, and additional countries are considering joining them.[11] Such entrepreneurial leasing may well entangle Djibouti unfavorably in the geopolitical webs that it has woven, but it does indicate that the country is not a subject of any single imperial power.[12]

         As already noted, we are not exactly surprised that the territorial infrastructure for projecting power abroad goes unmarked on the CIA world map. On the one hand, leasehold arrangements are beyond its conceptual purview. On the other hand, depicting hundreds of military bases on a map at this scale would be daunting. That said, the call to do better is compelling. Anyone who is serious about mapping global political structures on an empirical basis needs to include military archipelagos, which surround and infiltrate sovereign states to create a powerful set of network geographies. How to capture it all is the question.

The CIA World Map Reconsidered

        As I have sought to demonstrate, the CIA’s world map is a highly useful but often misleading document: one that foregrounds a US-centered diplomatic vision while hiding a host of inconvenient aberrations. The official map employed in the United States renders de facto states invisible, even as it makes chimerical ones look real. Yet the political and ideological presuppositions behind this cartographic strategy go unspoken, allowing viewers to be easily seduced into seeing it as an objective portrayal of the situation on the ground. To rely on the CIA world political map to guide our global understanding is to sacrifice empirical complexity in favor of a stripped-down and antiseptic model of geopolitical organization.

        To be fair, asking the CIA to map the world in a less prescriptive and more descriptive way would be unrealistic.If only on practical grounds, designing a world depiction so detailed as to highlight tiny offshore banking refuges along with scattered archipelagos of the US military would be challenging indeed. For general pedagogical purposes, a simple portrayal has much to recommend it. Properly understood, moreover, the CIA world political map is an invaluable document. The key to unlocking its value is to grasp what the Agency’s cartographers are actually charged withmapping: the world as officially imagined by the US Department of State. That world-view, in turn, is embedded within a broader (although far from universal) international diplomatic consensus about how the world ought to be geopolitically structured. This is why almost all global political maps the world over have much the same appearance, deviating from each other only at the margin.

        To reiterate my central claim, all of these conventional political maps are both useful and seductive. Put simply, they make the world look more orderly and stable than it is, masking a messy flux that requires careful attention. To take the map at face value is to assent that a country is a semi-natural entity—one that, whatever its current tribulations, will endure as a unified state. Underpinning that belief, in turn, is the notion that every country’s inhabitants, however divided, form a singular people—a nation—whose collective will is best expressed through that state.

         If this were always true, we might inhabit a peaceful planet. If all the countries of the world governed their own lands, served their own citizens, and respected each other’s sovereignty, the world would probably be a more secure and wholesome place. In this sense, perhaps Somalia ought to be a nation-state. But that does not mean that it is one. If conflating “is” with “ought” can generate a kind of mindless conservatism, as David Hume warned in 1739, conflating “ought” with “is” can lead to blinding utopianism.

         Yet the slippages between reality and depiction that I have highlighted thus far are relatively superficial, entailing merely the most obvious infidelities visible on the map. It is time now to turn to cases where the misalignment between the standard model of geopolitics and the actual global organization of both political power and national sentiments is more subtle.

[1] See, for example, “What Do We Know About Chinese Land Grabs in Africa,” by Amadou Sy, Brookings, November 5, 2015.

[2] See, for example, “U.S. Politicians Get China in Africa All Wrong,” by Deborah Bräutigam, Washington Post, April 12, 2018.

[3] Political leaseholds and other forms “privatized sovereignty” form a vast topic that we cannot do justice to in these pages. For a historical exploration of the phenomenon, see Press 2017. As he argues, sovereign rights over lands and persons in the late 1800s essentially became commodities, “accessible to every kind of buyer” (2017, p. 173).

[4] Lazar 1968, p. 730.

[5] Vine 2015, p. 4. Of that total, about ten percent, or 64, are “active major installations.”

[6] Lutz 2009, p. 7.

[7] Johnson 2000, p. 21.  Elsewhere, Johnson (2010, p. 1) rather extraordinarily described Japan as a “docile satellite of the United States.”

[8] “UN Court Rejects UK’s Claim of Sovereignty over Chagos Islands,” by Owen Bowcott. The Guardian. February 25, 2019.

[9] Whether the vast network of U.S. foreign military bases constitutes an empire is a complex and controversial issue. Those who reject the idea point to the fact that several countries, including the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, have expelled U.S. forces and taken over their bases with relatively little push-back from Washington.  But even if foreign military bases are excluded, some writers maintain that unequal power relations alone can generate imperial sway. For Engseng Ho, the United States is “an empire without colonies,” or an “anti-colonial empire” (2004, p. 225), able and inclined to dominate other states even without the “presence of possession over expansive transnational spaces…” (2004, p. 211). Such an expansive claim is certainly not going to be resolved in these pages. But in one sense, it is moot; even if one looks only at formal dependencies, the United States can be regarded as holding a vestigial empire.

[10] Vasiliev 2018, p. 489.

[11] See “The Most Valuable Military Real Estate in the World: Strategically Placed at the Entrance to the Red Sea, Djibouti Is Home to More Foreign Bases Than Any Other Country,” by Bruno Maçães, Politico, January 15, 2018:

[12] As a final note, it must be acknowledged that the United States, Russia, France, and the UK are not the only countries to maintain effective spheres of influence, allowing them to cast a penumbra of sovereignty over lands and waters well outside their own territorial bounds. Australia, for example, has intervened in several Melanesian countries in recent decades, sending in security forces when anarchy seemed impending. It did so, however, through the invitation of the states in question, and with substantial local support. An Australian-led military contingent was present in the Solomon Islands, for example, from 2003 to 2013, as part of “Operation Helpem Fren” (See “RAMSI Ends: “What’s Next for the Solomon Islands?” by Grant Wyeth, The Diplomat: June 30, 2017: In late 2021, troops Australian troops again intervened in the Solomon Islands to quell unrest.  See “’Nothing left’: Solomon Islands burn amid new violence as Australian troops arrive,” by Michael E, Miller, The Washington Post. November 26, 2021.

Australia has also recently operated overseas detention facilities for undocumented would-be immigrants, which some scholars view as neo-imperial impositions. But Australia shuttered the Manus Regional Processing Centre in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 2017 after the PNG Supreme Court ruled that this detention facility was illegal; it shut down its “processing facility” in Nauru in 2019. In 2018 the Australian government closed a detention center in its own dependent territory of Christmas Island, but it might be reopened in the near future. In the case of the Nauru facility, media access had been tightly restricted, supposedly by Nauru’s own government. An October 2018 issue of The Guardian, however, reported that the policy was actually concocted jointly by Nauru and Australia. (“Australia Jointly Responsible for Nauru’s Draconian Media Policy, Documents Reveal,” by Helen Davidson. The Guardian, October 3, 2018: Australia jointly responsible for Nauru’s draconian media policy, documents reveal) Basic issues of sovereignty are thus at play yet again.


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