Seduced by the Map

The Development of National Languages in the Germanic Zone of Northern Europe

As was largely the case across the world, the development of national languages in the Germanic zone of northern Europe was more the product of state consolidation than the reflection of preexisting ethnolinguistic communities. As this process is most clear in the North Germanic region of Scandinavian, we will begin there.

The North Germanic Languages

At the dawn of Viking Age, circa 800 CE, the core area of Scandinavia (most of today’s Sweden, Norway, and Denmark) was linguistically unified, its people speaking Old Norse. A single language found over so large an area in pre-modern times indicates the rapid expansion of the people speaking it. Norse expansion would continue for several centuries, taking its speakers, as both settlers and conquerors, to Iceland, Greenland, Britain, and beyond, although only in previously uninhabited Iceland would their language persist. At the same time, Old Norse was gradually differentiating, eventually forming a complex dialect continuum. Neighboring dialects remained easily understandable, but those located at further distances had reduced mutual intelligibility.


Yet even today, the national languages of mainland Scandinavia come close to mutual intelligibility. The ability of individuals to make sense of other North Germanic languages, however, is not necessarily reciprocal; Norwegians can supposedly understand Swedish and Danish much more easily than Swedes and Danes can understand each other (see below). More to the point, the everyday spoken dialects that persist, especially in peripheral rural areas, tend to cut across political boundaries (as can be seen on the map posted here). As this map indicates, the Scanian dialect of southern Sweden is regarded by most linguists as a form of Danish rather than Swedish. Swedish linguists, however, usually analyze it as a variant of their own language. Caught between contending national forces, some local activists have campaigned for Scanian to be recognized as a distinct language. Some even view Scania as a separate nation that deserves independence.

States began to emerge in Scandinavia during the Viking age, as local leaders enhanced their power and expanded their domains. By the year 1000, the precursors of the region’s modern countries had come into existence as the Kingdoms of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. (Note on the map posted here that Denmark originally included Scania, which only became part of Sweden in 1658.) Cultural affinity and worries about the power of the Hanseatic League of the north German cities led to a loose merger of the three kingdoms in the Kalmar Union, created in 1397. This union dissolved with the exit of Sweden in 1523, but Denmark prevented the Kingdom of Norway from doing the same. Norway finally seceded in 1814, but it was soon annexed by Sweden as a semi-autonomous kingdom. It would not gain independence until 1905.


The development of national languages in Scandinavia arguably began with the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, when Lutheranism spread quickly across the region. As Latin was displaced as the language of religion, the Bible was translated into the dialects used in the core regions of both Sweden and Denmark. The process of national language development intensified during the nineteenth century as popular writers nurtured national consciousness. In Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen, noted for his fairy tales, is often regarded as exemplifying this trend.[i] The nationalistic focus on the Danish language received a further boost in the 1860s with the kingdom’s loss of its largely German-speaking southern regions, Schleswig and Holstein, to Prussia. (This was a crucial event for the subsequent unification of Germany).

Norway, lacking independence, did not experience the early development of a national language. Danish long served as its written language, while most of its people spoke dialects that are sometimes regarded as intermediate between Swedish and Danish (as the American linguist Einar Haugen put it, “Norwegian is Danish spoken in Swedish,” referring to the pitch accents found in both Swedish and Norwegian dialects). While the independence movement of the late 1800s prompted efforts to forge a national tongue, competing schemes foiled the quest. When Norway at last gained sovereignty in 1905, it was confronted with the “Norwegian Language Controversy,” called målstriden, språkstriden, or sprogstriden, depending on which would-be national tongue is used. Currently two written languages have official standing, Bokmål (“Book Language”) and Nynorsk (“New Norwegian”).[ii] Nynorsk tends to be used more in rural areas and in the west, whereas Bokmål is more prominent in the east and north.

A different North Germanic language, Icelandic, is spoken Iceland, a country that did not gain independence from Denmark until 1944. Not inhabited before the medieval period, sparsely settled Iceland experienced minimal dialectal diversification. Its language remained close to Old Norse, and even today Icelanders can read their medieval sagas with relatively little difficulty. The language most closely related to modern Icelandic is Faroese, spoken in the Faroe Islands, an autonomous area under the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Denmark. Faroese is the official language of the islands, but Danish is taught in schools and is often used for public purposes. The long-standing Faroese independence movement evidently still has some support.

The German Language

The story of the German language is distinctive, as it emerged centuries before the creation of the German state. Rather than arising from a particular dialect, its foundations were laid by authors who wanted to reach a broader audience than their own parochial dialects would allow. As in Scandinavia, religion played a significant role, with Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible being of crucial importance. Luther partly based his translation on the language used by the government of the Electorate of Saxony, a middling German state in the Holy Roman Empire whose dialect is roughly midway between the High German of the south and the Low German of the north. But Luther also drew on other central German dialects, essentially crafting a new language in the process.

Although this written language spread widely over the Germanic areas of the Holy Roman Empire, even those of Roman Catholic faith, it did not displace the region’s many dialects. Only in the nineteenth century did Standard German emerge as a common spoken language. As it did, it helped impel the German national ideal, which in turn paved the way for political unification. But such processes generated a persistent quarrel between those who sought a Großdeutschland, or Greater Germany – covering the entire contiguous zone where German was spoken – and those who advocated instead a Kleindeutschland, or “lesser Germany.” Advocates of Kleindeutschland wanted to exclude German-speaking Austria on political grounds; as the core of the multilingual Habsburg Empire, its inclusion would have threatened the ethnonational unity of the envisioned new country. Although this “Lesser Germany” idea triumphed, the outcome remained uncertain and contested until the mid-twentieth century. Hitler viewed it as an abomination, annexing Austria as soon as he could. Another ethnonational problem stemmed from the millions of Germans who lived further to the east, found in scattered communities extending to Russia’s Volga River and beyond. After Hitler’s failed bid to encompass these areas within the Third Reich, almost all their ethnic German inhabitants either moved to Germany or adopted the languages and national identities of the countries in which they lived. Some 175,000 German speakers, however, still reside in northern Kazakhstan.

After German unification, spoken Standard German spread relatively smoothly over the linguistic continuum that encompassed the Low, Middle, and High German dialects. Today, local dialects continue to be used, but most are in rapid decline. Only in Switzerland does a regional dialect – Schwiizerdütsch – retain full vitality, spoken ubiquitously in daily life. The country’s national language, however, is Swiss Standard German (along with French, Italian, and Romansh), a slightly modified version of Germany’s national language. In Switzerland, unlike in Germany and Austria, this standardized form of the language is used mostly for written communication. Austrian Standard German is also almost identical to German Standard German. Local dialects in Austria are still used in casual conversations, but the most important of these, Central Bavarian, is most closely identified with Bavaria in southeastern Germany.

Dutch and Luxembourgish  

The one area of the German dialect continuum that resisted Standard German, as both a written and spoken language, is the far northwest. There the Nederlands language – Dutch/Flemish – was already politically entrenched, both in long-independent Netherlands and in neighboring Flanders, which formed the northern half of Belgium after 1830. As a result, its speakers resisted the idea, favored by many German nationalists, that their language was a mere dialect of German.[iii] The Dutch language derives from the Germanic Franconian dialect, which is viewed by some scholars as the language of the early medieval Franks, who established the Kingdom of France but abandoned their own tongue in its lands. Franconian dialects still extend beyond the Dutch-speaking zone into Germany’s northern Rhineland. In northeastern Netherlands, contrastingly, local dialects belong to the Low German group, closely linked to northern Germany. The separate Germanic language called Frisian, the closest relative of English, is discontinuously distributed in the northern Netherlands and extreme northwestern Germany. The three existing dialects of Frisian are all classified as endangered or threatened, as their speakers increasingly switch to Dutch or Standard German.

Along with standard Dutch, one other dialect in the Franconian Germanic group has a secure future, again linked to its official status in an independent country. This is Luxembourgish, the French-influenced national language of Luxembourg. Luxembourg is an unusually multilingual country; according to a Wikipedia article, “as of 2018, 98% of the population was able to speak French at more or less a high level (usually as a second language), 78% spoke German, and 77% Luxembourgish (which is the most common native language).” Fluency in English is also widespread. After World War II, Luxembourg’s government created a regulatory body for what had previously been regarded merely as a local German dialect, elevating it to national status. The limited number of its speakers, coupled with Luxembourg’s ubiquitous multilingualism, has thwarted the development of Luxembourgish literature. Luxembourg’s rightwing Alternative Democratic Reform Party, however, champions the tongue, trying to install it an official language of the European Union and seeking to make knowledge of it necessary for the naturalization of foreign-born residents.

As we have seen, the development of national languages in Germanic zone of northern Europe has been a deeply political process. The situation regarding English, also classified as a Germanic language, is similar yet distinctive, as (I hope), we shall see in a later post.

[i] Some scholars, however, disagree; see  Thomsen, T. B. (2019). Funen Means Fine: Andersen the Anti-nationalist. In A. K. Bom, J. Bøggild, & J. N. Frandsen (Eds.), Hans Christian Andersen and Community (pp. 243-258). Syddansk Universitetsforlag. Publications from the Hans Christian Andersen Center Vol. 7

[ii] Two others have unofficial status, Riksmål (“State Language”) and Høgnorsk (“High Norwegian”).

[iii] Kedourie (1960, 123).

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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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Language and National Identity, Part 1

(Author’s Note: This is a preliminary draft of a chapter that might be included in a forthcoming book, tentatively entitled Seduced by the Map: How the Nation-State Model Prevents Us from Thinking Clearly About the World. It includes some bibliographical citations, but they are woefully incomplete.)  

There are good reasons why students of nationalism often emphasize language.[1] Building a community, even an imaginary one, requires communication. For ethnonationalists, language has even greater significance, as it is seen as a key indicator of the deeply rooted relatedness that supposedly generates strong and stable nations. Up to the mid-1900s, scholars often used language as a proxy for genetic bonds; many maps of “race” made at the time actually depicted languages or language families. In the ethnonationalist discourse of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Europe, people who speak a single language that originated in the territory that they inhabit were often viewed as forming a cohesive ethnic group that, if large enough, deserves to have its own state.

Such ideas are no longer easily supported. It is now obvious that languages can spread independently of genes, but it is less commonly realized that they have done so for millennia. The ethnolinguistic communities that supposedly form the age-old bedrock of national solidarity are not as clearly separated from each other as they have been imagined to be, and in many cases their emergence has been relatively recent. As we shall see, the national languages that underpin contemporary ethnonational states were in almost all cases politically molded or even created to enhance state cohesion and national solidarity. They were not, in other words, natural features of preexisting populations.

In countries founded on extensive immigration from distant lands, traditional ethnonationalism is not applicable. The American, Australian, and Brazilian nations, for example, cannot be depicted as rooted in local ancestral populations united by cultural and genetic ties. But that does not mean that language plays no role in their national imaginations, nor does it make them immune from ethnonationalism. But the neoethnonationalism found in some extremist quarters in the United States and other immigration-based countries necessarily rests on different foundations from the older creed. It generally turns to race as the key indicator of relatedness while framing language and religion as cultural adhesives necessary for national bonding.

As a result of this disparity, the racism inherent in the “white ethnonationalist” fringe in United States and a few other immigration-based countries differs markedly from the racism that generally accompanied traditional European ethnonationalism. The notion that the Germans and the Poles, or the English and the Irish, could find political solidarity in their common “Caucasian” racial identity would have struck most nineteenth-century observers as absurd. In the era’s popular wisdom, each linguistically defined national community formed its own race. Scholars of the time, in contrast, distinguished broader races ostensibly based on such physical attributes as head shape and skin color but often linked for convenience to language groups. Until the post-WWII era, however, the emphasis was on dividing Europeans by race, not uniting them. This situation changed, however, in the late twentieth-century as diverse immigration streams began to transform European demography.

To understand the linkage between language and nationalism it is therefore necessary to differentiate countries that have potential grounds for traditional language-based ethnonationalism from those do not. States in the first category have clear majority populations that speak a single language that originated (or is perceived as having originated) within its national territory. As can be seen in the map posted here, such countries are clustered in Europe, East Asia, Mainland Southeast Asia, and Central Asia. But as we shall see, many complications intrude on this simple binary classification. This map shows one such problem: situations in which more than one state can lay claim to the same ethnolinguistic legacy.

The present chapter takes on countries linked to a particular locally rooted ethnolinguistic group. As we shall see, the correspondence between state and language does not reflect ancient conditions but is instead a feature that has been politically engineered over the past several centuries. The more complicated situations faced by countries that have no indigenous ethnolinguistic core group are taken up in the following chapter. Both discussions explore how language has been used to invoke the imagined communities that lie at the heart of the nation-state project. As we shall see, the relations between nation and language can be intricate indeed.

Before delving into specific cases, it is worth noting that most Americas are probably perplexed by the subtleties and importance of language politics in the rest of the world. Distinctions that matter passionately elsewhere may seem arcane or even moot from the standpoint of the speakers of the planet’s key international language. It takes time and patience to drill down into these emotionally charged histories and geographies to appreciate their continuing significance.

            The Deep Historical Development of National Languages

Language is usually imagined as the most important factor in separating “them” from “us” in early human societies, delimiting discrete social groups that conceptualized themselves as a single people denoted by their own ethnonym. The noted linguist Mark Baker has suggested that this differentiating facility is one of the main reasons why languages diverge from each other as quickly as they historically have.[2] But such separation by language is only one side of the coin. Many individuals have always learned the tongues of neighboring peoples, while trade languages have long enabled communication across ethnolinguistic lines. Some evidence suggests that such practices were widespread before the development of agriculture. In some contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, particularly those of Australia, some individuals cross multiple language lines while wandering over vast distances, generally finding themselves accepted into tiny but often multilingual bands.[3] Somewhat similar dynamics may have been at play in the Paleolithic Age over most of the world.



As sedentary social organization emerged and spread, languages probably tended to become more firmly fixed in place. Before the advent of the state and other institutions of broad social integration, local languages tended to be restricted to small territories and were spoken by groups seldom numbering beyond the tens of thousands. To be sure, some languages expanded relatively quickly over vast areas through the demographic expansion and social domination of the peoples who used them. Such a process was usually propelled by some technological advantage, such as the crops and iron tools and weapons of the Bantus in Africa, the seagoing boats and navigational techniques of the Austronesians in the Pacific and Indian oceans,[4] and the horses of the early Indo-Europeans in Eurasia. But the expanding languages of such linguistic “spread zones” were simultaneously differentiating into different dialects and then into separate languages, undermining any linguistic unity that the initial process seemed to promise. To sustain a single, standardized language over an area the size of most modern countries requires integrative mechanisms, which have usually relied on governmental power. In a word, most ethnonational states substantially built the languages that supposedly serve as their primordial glue.






This drive for political-linguistic coherence is relatively new. Not all states have historically sought to disseminate the language of their ruling elites. Pre-modern polities, especially large ones, were often strikingly multilingual. Elites and commoners, moreover, often spoke different languages. A clear example from the early modern period is the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a vast and powerful polity whose leaders never sought to govern through their own tongue; even in their capital city of Vilnius/Vil’nya, “the dominant administrative language was Slavonic ruski, not Baltic Lithuanian.”[5] Many early states employed multiple languages of administration, often including “extinct” classical tongues of high prestige. Latin was the official language of multi-lingual Hungary until 1844. The earliest known polities of Southeast Asia apparently employed Sanskrit rather than their own tongues. Later, other languages gained prominent roles. The Burmese kingdom/empire of Pagan (849-1297), for example, seems to have used Burmese, Pyu, and Mon, employing the classical Indian language Pali, as well as Sanskrit, for religious purposes. Similar examples are legion in the ancient Near East, as recounted in Nicholas Ostler’s insightful Empires of the Word.[6] The Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BCE), for example, used Elamite, a little-know but once important language, and then Aramaic as its main administrative language, downplaying the Old Persian of its ruling elite.[7] (In the empire’s grand stone inscriptions, the texts are written in Elamite, Akkadian, and Old Persian.) Ostler concludes that “the life and death of languages are in principle detached from the political fortunes of their associated states.”[8]













To be sure, some ancient empires did spread the language of their ruling class widely, generating something like a national tongue in the process. Latin was originally a minor language limited to a small area in west-central Italy, but by the fourth century CE it was spoken over most of the western half of the Roman Empire.[9] Similarly, Arabic was originally restricted to the central Arabian Peninsula, but after the conquests of the Umayyad Caliphate in the early seventh century it spread over much of Southwest Asia and most of North Africa. In South America, Quechua was similarly disseminated far beyond its small homeland in the southern highlands of Peru by the Inca Empire, a process that continued under Spanish authority well into the eighteenth century.


















Despite these precedents, a close fit of state with language is generally a feature of the modern world. To be sure, state-level centralization coupled with linguistic consolidation has proceeded in a fitful manner, but it eventually yielded scores of countries that are closely associated with their own language. This pattern mainly characterizes the Eurasian rimlands of Europe, East Asia, and mainland Southeast Asia. Let us now look at each of these regions in turn.

[1] Elie Kedourie, Nationalism. 1960. London: Hutchison and Co. Page 68.

[2] Mark Baker, The Atoms of Language: The Mind’s Hidden Rules of Grammar. 2002.

Basic Books.

[3] See the discussion in David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. 2021. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[4] In many parts of their expansion zone, including Madagascar and Polynesia, the early Austronesians were the first people to settle the lands.

[5] Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe. 2011. Allen Lane. Page 261. Ruski refers here not so much to Russia as to the language ancestral to modern Belarusian.

[6] Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. 2005. Harper Perennial.

[7] Ostler, pages 47, 57

[8] Ostler, page 63

[9] Local languages, however, persisted in odd corners, as attested by the survival of Welsh and Basque, while the eastern half of the empire mostly used Greek and Aramaic/Syriac. The spread of Latin is attributed not merely to its administrative functions, but also to the emulation of local elites and the widespread experience of service in the Roman army. Its final fillip may have been the spread of Christianity, which reached deeper into everyday life than the empire ever had.

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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.

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

Seduced by the Map, Introduction (Part 1)

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. In January 2022, the consensus was that Russia would crush Ukraine in 48 to 96 hours.[i] 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. Few experts anticipated the rapid collapse of the Afghan army and government, and no one prepared for the evacuation of American personnel and material from the country before the military withdrew.

Much more damaging was a string of U.S. led or aided regime-change gambits 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; it is still a shambles. 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[ii] 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.[iii] 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 Fallacy of the Nation-State

The central argument of this work is that such common ground does exist and can be found in a fundamental misperception of what polities such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria actually are. According to the prevalent model of global geopolitics, these countries—like all others—are fully realized nation-states. The hyphen signals the idea that the nation, a self-conscious political community, precisely aligns with the state, a sovereign government ruling a clearly demarcated territory. In this view, the residents of any given country are assumed to feel a profound bond with their co-nationals, regarding them as fellow members of an imagined mega-community. By the same token, it is taken for granted that almost all of them view their state as the legitimate container of that national community, regardless of what they think of those running their government at any given time. Notionally, the nation-state earns such respect by serving its people, gaining legitimacy by providing security, infrastructure, and other public goods.

But commonplace though these expectations may be, cases abound where they simply do not apply. Over large swaths of the earth, the nation-state is more of an aspiration than a historical fact,[iv] and in some places it is little more than a cruel charade. To be sure, many nation-states are firmly established and highly functional; a country like Denmark or Japan has sufficient cohesion to survive even an extreme crisis. But others, including Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, are far less united. While not lacking national foundations entirely, their nation-stateness is continually contested; when push comes to shove, centrifugal forces can easily prevail. In practical terms, viewing all countries as members the same geopolitical species turns out to be a fallacy.

Yet this fallacy is just the tip of a deeper problem. If the nation-state is questionable, so too is the larger concept in which it is embedded: the sovereign state. Quite a few members of the United Nations do not function as coherent countries governing their full territorial endowments, regardless of whether they are nationally cemented by sentiments of common belonging. Somalia has been essentially a diplomatic fiction since 1991. Or consider Iraq in early 2003, just before the regime-change gambit. Most of the Kurdish northeast had been a de facto independent polity for a dozen years, abiding no governance from Baghdad. Although Iraq appeared on the map as a normal country, crisply cut at its borders, it did not function as one. Yet the optimistic post-invasion scenario of the U.S. war-planners was apparently predicated on the idea that Iraq’s division was merely a temporary aberration caused by inept and autocratic governance: remove the powers-that-be and install a representative government, and Iraq would quickly be restored to its rightful shape and place.

One could argue that effective Iraqi statehood was eventually restored, even if the cost was high and the reunification process prolonged. The country today has a functioning national government and ranks well below the worst position in the Fragile State Index.[v] But to the extent that Iraq has been patched back together, it has been accomplished through a combination of raw force and pretense, carried out largely at the insistence of the international community. Tellingly, the U.S. government believes that it must retain troops in Iraq to maintain security. Non-state militias remain potent, omnipresent corruption corrodes trust in the government, and sectarianism regularly overrides national identity. More important for the long term, the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the northeast accepts its membership in Iraq on a mostly notional basis, its people overwhelmingly rejecting membership in the Iraqi nation. In 2017, the KRG even fought a brief war with Iraq’s central government over what is supposedly a mere internal border. As it achieved victory, Baghdad expelled the Kurdish Peshmerga military from Kirkuk,[vi] the city constitutionally deemed by the Kurdish Regional Government to be its rightful capital. Needless to say, this is not how a sovereign state, let alone a nation-state, is supposed to function.[vii]

Iraq may be an extreme case, but it is not the only one, and even stable countries often fail to fulfill the expectations of the sovereign state. Many do not extend their effective power and legitimate authority across all their lands. A few do not enjoy the complete independence that sovereignty ostensibly entails. Defying diplomatic conventions, ultimate authority is not always fully lodged in the 193-odd sovereign states that formally constitute the global political community. To the contrary, it is often intricately distributed among a variety of polities and networks of varying characteristics. The global political architecture of our day, in other words, is more ambiguous and convoluted than conventional models would have it. It is also far less modern than we think.

The idea that the world is (and should be) neatly divided into a set number of equivalent independent nation-states that embrace their position in a structured international order is a recent one, fully globalized only in the mid twentieth century. The new geopolitical structure was designed to facilitate a transition away from a world of warring empires into a more just, equal, and peaceable interstate system. At its core was an earlier premise that sovereign states enjoy the status of personhood, allowing them to function as individual members of a cozy community of their peers. As spelled out in the influential 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, each sovereign state “constitutes a sole person in the eyes of international law,” and each is “juridically equal, enjoy[ing] the same rights and hav[ing] equal capacity in their exercise…”[viii]

There are good reasons for classifying sovereign states as fictitious persons of equal standing for juridical purposes. Recasting an anarchic realm of global politics into one of rule-bound community relations has no doubt helped ease global strife. But it is one thing to embrace state personhood as a legal ideal, and quite another to treat it as reality. In their most important attributes, independent countries are nothing like persons. To begin with, they vary in size by more than five orders of magnitude. More important, countries, unlike human beings, are eminently divisible. Their (geo)bodies periodically break apart, merge with others, or exchange appendages with their neighbors. Although great efforts have gone into stabilizing the post-war geopolitical system by guarding against such territorial changes, those efforts have not always been effective.

In short, while we tend to treat countries as singular entities, in fact they are composite constructions. Geopolitical stability and popular legitimacy are noble ideals well worth supporting. But to the extent that we regard them as achieved, we delude ourselves about how the global political system really works. Mistaking norms for facts can easily lead politicians and foreign policy experts astray.

All these problems are compounded when the nation-state is assumed to be the product of an ineluctable evolutionary trajectory, one that culminates in representative governments the world over. This idealistic vision, closely associated with the United States, is also attractive, and there are good reasons for pursuing it. But in an age of rising autocracies and faltering democracies, the notion of its inevitability can no longer be taken seriously. More important, trying to force such an outcome on a resistant society can backfire spectacularly, as Afghanistan so well demonstrates.

Yet the ill-fated Afghanistan venture was predicated precisely on the idea that a modern democratic state can be compelled into existence by a combination of raw force and money, even one as seemingly ill-fitted for the role as Afghanistan. What had been done in Germany and Japan after World War II could supposedly be replicated anywhere. All nation-states, after all, are commonly regarded as entities of the same fundamental kind, subject to the same forces of social development that can quickly lead, with adequate prodding, to the same destination.

When the Afghan war was initiated, such an overweening worldview had recently been reinforced by global events. The first Gulf War had been a walkover, fanning greater ambitions. At the same time, the stunningly rapid yet wholly unanticipated collapse of the Soviet Union and of its Warsaw-Pact allies encouraged over-confidence. For many, political evolution clearly pointed in the direction of the neoliberal nation-state; for some, that was nothing less than the preordained destination of history’s grand arc. A decade before the invasion, Francis Fukuyama, drawing on the grandiose ideas of Hegel, gained global renown for arguing that humankind’s central story was coming to its culmination, as there was no longer any real rivalry between competing economic and political systems.[ix] The market-oriented nation-state had vanquished all rivals, and likely for all time.

Although such a teleological view of history had long been thoroughly debunked by philosophers and historians alike,[x] it has evidently retained more than a little intellectual appeal.[xi] Widely celebrated in foreign-policy circles, the “End of History” thesis had clear implications for military interventions. If the final results are inevitable, why not jump-start the process? Surely the Afghan people would quickly learn to appreciate the benefits of living in a self-determining developmental state and would come to thank the Americans and their allies for their sacrifices and generosity in bringing it to fruition ahead of schedule. For many foreign-policy mavens, the regime-change fantasy was compelling if not intoxicating. Neoconservatives reveled in the power of war to create a geopolitical playing field more advantageous for the United States, while their neoliberal allies warmed to its purported ability to install representative governments that would build globally integrated national economies.

The manifest failure of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in pervasive if inconspicuous reassessments of foreign-policy options. Regime-change is no longer on the table, and neoconservatism has lost its luster. Global events and trends have thoroughly undermined the “end of history” thesis. But for all of this, the underlying geopolitical model on which such dysfunctional ideas rest has not budged. It is now time to dislodge it, as it thwarts our ability to understand the globe and deal with its problems effectively. Misconceptions and maladaptive actions are inevitable if we view the world as a geopolitical jigsaw puzzle[xii] divided into 193 basic units, all of which are characterized by the same essential features.

(Note: Many of the endnotes refer to a bibliography, which will be posted separately)

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

[ii] 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.

[iii] 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.

[iv] As Arnold Hughes (1981, 122) argued, “Though we loosely refer to the recently created countries of [sub-Saharan] Africa as ‘nation-states,’ and their peoples as ‘new nations,’ it is by no means certain that such formal appellations have any substance.”

[v] In 2020, it was slotted in the 17th position:

[vi] According to a report in ArmyTimes, U.S.-donated Abrams tanks were crucial in this Iraqi victory over the U.S.-allied Kurdish forces. The article concludes by noting that its reportage “counters much of what U.S. officials have said about the incident.” Furthermore, it highlights the unintended consequences of  “U.S. weapons in the region that may have upended the balance of power between Iraqi and Kurdish forces.” See “US Abrams Tanks Sway the Battle in Kirkuk,” by Shawn Snow, ArmyTimes, Oct. 19, 2017.

[vii] Relations between the government of Iraq and the Kurdish regional government improved significantly after this event to the extent that by 2021 Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi could reasonable claim that “Now is the golden age of relations between Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.” In strictly logical terms, however, this formulation implies that the Kurdistan region is not part of Iraq. See: “Erbil-Baghdad relations in a ‘golden age’: Kadhimi to Rudaw.” Rudaw, May 5, 2021.

[viii] The quotations are from Article 2 and Article 4 of the declaration. See

[ix] Fukuyama 1992.

[x] See, most notable, Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (1957).

[xi] See Graeber and Wengrow (2021) on the ubiquity of teleological reasoning in accounts of geopolitical evolution.

[xii] Evidently, the first jigsaw puzzle, made U.K. in 1766, was map-based. According to Linda Hannas (1972) jigsaw puzzles were originally used to teach students political geography.

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

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 Bibliography

Dear Readers,

Many of the endnotes in the Seduced by the Map segments that I have been posting, and will continue to post, refer to a bibliography. This bibliography is posted here. The formatting, unfortunately, is inconsistent.


Seduced by the Map Bibliography

Abrahamian, Atossa. 2015. The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizens. New York: Columbia Global Reports.

Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James A.  2012. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.  Crown Business

Ackerman, James R. 1982. “Cartography and the Emergence of Territorial States in Western Europe.” Tenth Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History, 84-93.

Agnew, John. 1994. “The Territorial Trap: The Geographical Assumptions of International Relations Theory,” Review of International Political Economy, 1(1), 53-80.

Agnew, John. 2009. Globalization and Sovereignty, 2009. Roman and Littlefield.

Ahmad, Nafees, Masood, Muhammed, and Elahi, Noor. 2012. Atlas of Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Rawalpindi: Survey of Pakistan.

Ahmed, Ismail and Reginald Herbold Green. 1999. “The Heritage of War and State Collapse in Somalia and Somaliland: Local-Level Effects, External Interventions, and Reconstruction,” Third World Quarterly, 20(1), 113-127.

Altic Mirela. 2016. “The Peace Treaty of Versailles: The Role of Maps in Reshaping the Balkans in the Aftermath of WWI.” In: Liebenberg E., Demhardt I., Vervust S. (eds), History of Military Cartography. Lecture Notes in Geoinformation and Cartography. Springer, Cham.

Amrith, Sunil. 2015. Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants. Harvard.

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

Anderson, Benedict. 1996. “Introduction,” in Gopal Balakrishnan, ed., Mapping the Nation. Verso, Pp. 1-16.

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Seduced by the Map, Chapter One: The Seductive Nation-State Model (Part 1)

Seduction is not necessarily a bad thing.[1] That which is capable of seducing is by definition attractive. So it is with the standard world model. A political order based on a stable set of equivalent states, each representing its citizens and seeking to provide them with security and other benefits, is a deeply attractive prospect, whatever the countervailing draw of cosmopolitan globalism may be. Moreover, genuine progress has been made toward realizing this vision. Many countries do function more or less effectively as nation-states; not a few governments do strive to advance the well-being of their people. More important, the creation of an encompassing global community composed of such states, if only for the purpose of interceding between squabbling members and enhancing global concord, is embraced by millions as a boon for both humanity and the environment. As ineffective as the United Nations may sometimes be in practice, it would be dangerous to deny the value of its peace-keeping interventions or its rules and procedures for international engagement.

The problem lies in our tendency to mistake what is effectively a diplomatic vision for a description of realty. Having become accustomed to a fixed world map, we are ill-prepared for the anomalies of sovereignty that pop up everywhere once we look more closely. Three provisions of the standard world model in particular work together to cloud clear seeing: first, its representation of the terrestrial world as cleanly divided into a set of functionally equivalent countries; second, its erasure of virtually all polities other than those recognized as sovereign states;[2] and third, its suggestion that all sovereign states are nation-states. The last may have caused the most mischief. Many countries are not and have never been functional nation-states. Our stubborn investment in this idea makes it ripe for abuse by tyrannical regimes, which can claim to represent the will of their nations simply by virtue of the model’s presuppositions.[3]

The present chapter lays out and critiques the standard global model by probing its key terms: nation, state, country, and sovereignty. Given the fraught nature of each of these concepts, the scholarship fairly bristles with disagreement; even a brief overview such as this one must deal with debate at every turn. Academic arguments have been relegated to the endnotes where possible, but thorny definitional thickets come with the territory.


What Is a Nation-State?

The nation-state model is ubiquitous across the globe, employed by governments, embraced by the media, and disseminated by educational establishments. Since minor variations can be found from country to country, we will focus here on the version used in the United States. While world political maps that reflect this model look like straightforward depictions of geopolitical reality, this global vision is more prescriptive than descriptive. It represents the world as it would be if it accorded with the norms of the international community in general, and of the U.S. foreign-relations establishment in particular.

The identification of every sovereign country as a nation-state is the cornerstone of this model. According to the Cambridge Dictionary,[4] a nation-state is simply another term for an “independent country.”[5] The full concept, however, is more specific, positing an exact correspondence between the state (i.e., an organized government exercising sovereign political power over a clearly demarcated territory) and the nation. The latter term properly refers to a group of people – “the people,” in many formulations[6] – who believe that they form a collective entity that is, or should be, represented by a sovereign government of its own. A vast body of scholarship carefully distinguishes the state from the nation.[7] Yet this distinction is routinely ignored in public discourse. The conflation of state and nation is encoded in the very name of the United Nations, whose “nations” are often little more than aspirations. In practice, the UN is a collection of sovereign states, many of which have never rested on solid national foundations and several of which do not even exercise effective sovereignty over their lands. The idea that all independent countries are nation-states istenacious: so entrenched that no amount of evidence can dislodge it from our verbal and visual codes. Like the erroneous idea that medieval European thinkers viewed the world as flat,[8] it persists despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. While this is far from the first attempt to kill this zombie idea, it will surely not be the last.[9]

The vexed concepts of “nation” and “nationalism” have generated massive historical debates. As Benedict Anderson wrote more than a quarter-century ago, “it is hard to think of any political phenomenon which remains so puzzling and about which there is less analytic consensus.”[10] “Primordialists” see the nation as originating in ancient kingdoms that were cemented by ethnic ties;[11] “modernists” counter that it emerged only with the French Revolution, or even in the nineteenth century.[12] Although the extreme primordial view is now deemed untenable by most historians, many scholars still stress the deep-seated ethnic foundations of many nations. Anthony Smith convincingly dates some national sentiments in Europe to the late fifteenth century, arguing that durable groups united by historical myths form the core populations of many successful nations.[13] It is essential to note, however, that some of these early “nations,” Poland and Hungary in particular, were essentially aristocratic conceits that for centuries did not encompass the peasantry.

Rather than engage in this debate on conventional terms, I focus elsewhere. For even if some nations do have deep roots, the nation-state norm per se is a strikingly novel development. As Cornelia Navari notes, “it was only in 1918 that any government made being a nation-state the basic criterion of political legitimacy.”[14]

A prime test of what we might call “nation-stateness” is the effective identification of citizens[15] with the country in which they live. Normatively, people will regard their nation-state as their legitimate guarantor of security, their ultimate legal arbiter, and the main vehicle for their political aspirations, regardless of whether they support its specific government and policies at any given time. Yet in practice, almost every country on earth harbors significant groups of people who deny their state’s legitimacy, reject its demands on their loyalty, and claim to belong to a different nation that lies within or beyond their state’s boundaries. Rarely are such claims recognized officially; Bolivia is exceptional in having constitutionally declared itself to be a plurinational state.[16] In this view, Bolivia’s Spanish-mother-tongue population is seen as forming one nation — sometimes called the “Camba nation”[17] by its own separatists in the eastern lowlands — whereas the peoples who speak Quechua, Aymara, and other indigenous tongues constitute separate nations of their own within the same country. Following this logic, the Bolivian constitution lists no fewer than 36 official languages (including several that have gone extinct.)[18]

Bolivia’s official embrace of plurinationalism is recent and insecure, reflecting the newfound political power of its historically marginalized indigenous majority. But Bolivia is hardly alone in encompassing multiple nations within its borders. According to one Wikipedia article, seventeen of the world’s countries are multinational states.[19] This list could easily be lengthened, since most members of the United Nations contain populations that claim to form nations in their own right.[20] Even the United States, with its dozens of recognized indigenous nations, does not qualify as a nation-state in the strictest sense.[21] How exactly should we understand nation-stateness in such a context?

One way to resolve this quandary is to accept that “nationhood” can coalesce at more than one spatial level. As Guntram Herb and David Kaplan elaborate, identity takes shape at multiple scales.[22] A person can readily identify with both an ethnic nation (say, Catalunya) and a political-territorial nation (Spain).[23] Yet national identities at different scales do not always cohabit benignly. Most Catalan nationalists, for example, take umbrage at the idea that they also belong to the Spanish nation. By the same token, state authorities often object to the use of overtly national terminology by restive groups. The Catalans are not constitutionally allowed to define themselves as a full-fledged nacion, being permitted to refer to themselves only as a nacionalidad (nationality).[24] In a word, the concept of the nation, in political practice if not in scholarly discourse, tends toward exclusivity. While individuals might embrace several national identities at once, states typically seek more rigid formulae, effectively making people pick a side.[25]When Gavin Newsom, governor of California, declared his state to be a nation-state in the midst of Covid-19-related tussles with the federal government in early 2020, bemusement was the main reaction. Newsom was soon forced to admit that his pronouncement was not meant to be taken literally but was a rhetorical flourish, meant to convey “a sense of [California’s] scale and scope.”[26]

A more productive way to approach this question may be to adopt a historical vantage point, viewing the geopolitical order as a continual work-in-progress. The nation-state is often contrasted with earlier forms of political organization that were meant to vanish from the map with the transition to modernity: tribal associations, city-states, city leagues, confederations, multinational empires, and so on. Yet these alternative arrangements linger on in important ways. What is Singapore if not a city-state? That it also functions as an effective nation-state only shows that these categories are not mutually exclusive, defined as they are on different grounds (territorial scope, in the case of the city-state, and common identity in that of the nation-state). At the other end of the spectrum are the remnants of the great early modern empires. The world’s largest country, Russia, is explicitly structured as a multinational federation, as reflected in its official name: the Russian Federation. According to Christopher Coker, Russia actually forms a “civilizational state,” as does China, based on their own official rhetoric.[27] Both Russia and China are heirs to early modern empires and can be viewed as functioning even today in an imperial manner – but so too can France and the United States. It is difficult to square the position of such an entity as American Samoa – officially an “unincorporated and unorganized U.S. territory” – in the nation-state model; the best way to make sense of this “anomaly” is to acknowledge it as an enduring remnant of empire.[28]

Development of the Nation-State Idea

If, as these examples suggest, the nation-state is better understood as an aspirational norm than an accomplished fact, it behooves us to consider where that norm came from and how it caught on. Its intellectual lineage is largely European, although influenced by Europe’s encounter with different political traditions found in other parts of the world.[29] The ethno-linguistic concept of the nation is often thought to have originated with the works of Johann Gottfried Herder in the late eighteenth century. Herder conceptualized the nation in cultural terms, but his followers would soon politicize the concept.[30] Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) politicized the German ethno-nation obsessively, arguing that the very purpose of education should be “to bend the will of the young to the will of the nation.”[31] The resulting “state-seeking” construction of the nation gained traction during the Napoleonic turmoil in the early nineteenth century and found partial realization with the unification of Italy and Germany in the 1860s and 1870s.

Over roughly the same period, an alternative national ideal emerged, taking the French Revolution as its touchtone. In this version, “the people” of an existing state, regardless of ethnic considerations, should band together to claim sovereignty for themselves and thus achieve self-governance. A state so constituted would rest on the consent of the governed, thus ideally call for democratic governance.[32] As James Sheehan notes, such a fundamental reinvention of the state would, if successful, greatly enhance its power: “As the French example made clear, a state that was able to draw on the voluntary support and active participation of its members could mobilize resources – economic, political, and above all military – that greatly exceeded the capacities of the old regime.”[33] The “civic nationalism” developed in late eighteenth-century France applied most readily to western European countries that were characterized by relatively low levels of ethnolinguistic diversity—and to their former colonies in the Americas, which were able to exclude their various indigenous and enslaved[34] populations from their initial nation-building projects.

In the polyglot empires of the Habsburg, Romanov, and Ottoman dynasties, in contrast, the idea of civic self-governance across the entire state had less appeal, especially among members of politically marginalized minority communities. Instead, ethno-national separatists pushed hard to create new states of their own. The resulting ethno-nationalist projects took considerable intellectual effort. Folk songs and tales were assiduously gathered, historical narratives elaborately crafted. Many people had to be explicitly taught to see themselves as members of an ethnicnation. Even in the face of such efforts, resistance—and apathy—remained widespread. [35] As Tara Zaha documents in her study of “national indifference” in the Czech-German borderlands, as late as the 1920s, both Czech- and German-speaking parents often sent their children to families that spoke the other language to ensure that they achieved full bilingualism.[36] Nationalist stalwarts railed against such practices, arguing that they amounted to the “kidnapping of the nation.” But as John Connelly reminds us, most people in east-central Europe readily accepted nationalist teachings. In the Dual Monarchy of the Habsburg Empire, German and Hungarian elites generally disdained members of the other ethnic groups and many even hoped to extinguish their languages, thereby generating a heightened “crisis frame” for ethnonational secessionists.[37]      

Despite any misgivings and resistance on the ground, the varied strands of nationalist thought spread rapidly outside Europe. Japanese leaders embraced the nation-state ideal as part of a package of Western-derived political ideas and practices after the Meiji Restoration of 1868.[38] In Latin America, the spread of commercial printing and government-sponsored education nurtured national sentiments in the non-ethnically based states that had emerged out of anti-colonial revolutions of the early nineteenth century.[39]

Gaining momentum at the turn of the twentieth century, the nation-state dream caught fire in one anti-imperial movement after another. The post-WWI settlement, Erez Manela’s “Wilsonian Moment,”[40] marked the intellectual high point of ethnic nationalism. But the simultaneous “Leninist Moment” had related effects.[41] In the immediate postwar years, self-determination for hitherto stateless ethno-nations became the watchword of the day. This process entailed an intensive and hotly contested use of ethnographic maps.[42] The new international order, as framed by the leaders of the newly founded League of Nations, would be one of self-conscious, territorially expressed nations linked together in international cooperation. As expressed in a League of Nations convention on nationality law, humanity should be cleanly divided, with everyone enjoying membership in one self-determining nation and one nation only.[43]

Such rhetoric obscured deeper contradictions. The most prominent European members in the League of Nations were also imperial states, with extensive – and indeed newly enhanced[44] – overseas holdings. Far from trying to undermine imperialism, the League sought to legitimize it by subjecting it to a modicum of international oversight.[45]Most Western writers at the time argued that only European states, along with their North and South American off-shoots and a few modernizing Asian countries, could constitute nations that were worthy of self-government.[46] In practice, limitations were also placed on several aspiring European nations. Some were regarded as too small to form viable states; in others, geopolitics trumped language in the drawing of new boundaries; and a few defeated states (Hungary in particular) were territorially punished, losing much of their ethnonational lands to neighboring countries. Beyond that, the omnipresent mixing of ethnic groups across the European heartland—where urban enclaves often differed markedly from their rural neighbors—made the delineation of truly ethno-national states well-nigh impossible.[47] Attempts to make the landscape match the map – often through what would later be called “ethnic cleansing” – resulted in a surge of stateless people, among other human rights catastrophes, exposing the contradictions baked into the League of Nations charter.[48]

As the 1930s progressed, the survival of empires in the new world of nation-states, along with mounting statelessness and the emerging horrors of hyper-nationalism, led a number of political thinkers to envision alternatives to the state-based order. As noted by Mira Siegelberg, some concluded that complex confederations, marked by “multilayered government, with a palimpsest of legal jurisdictions,” would allow people “who did not feel that they shared the same history to share a common territory.”[49] In the immediate post-WWII period, however, the individualized state was firmly reinscribed. As Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt specified in their Atlantic Charter of 1941 (an essential UN precursor document), “hopes for a better future of the world” were to be based on the sovereign self-government of each nation, each identified with a specific state.[50] As Siegelberg pithily notes, the Charter “proclaimed a conception of world order premised on the centrality of sovereignty and the state.”[51]

The subsequent post-WWII settlement was thus much like that of WWI, but with subtle differences. The League was dead, but a similarly constituted enterprise, the United Nations, took its place. The individual nation-state would remain the cornerstone of the global political order, but with ethno-national considerations quietly downplayed. In the redrafting of the map of Europe in 1945, most new borders were baldly based on geopolitical calculations, territorially rewarding the victorious Soviet Union at the expense of a vanquished Germany, in contravention of the Atlantic Charter.[52] In this geopolitical re-engineering, ethnic considerations were strictly secondary.[53]

Such realpolitik did not mean that the nation-state ideal was abandoned. On the contrary, it now began to globalize explosively. Well before the war, anti-imperial activists had embraced national self-determination, finding encouragement in the brief “Wilsonian moment.” But what was “the nation” in such a context? Over most of the colonized world, imperially imposed boundaries cut across those of the ethnic groups that constituted the potential nations of ethno-nationalist discourse. Even though such boundaries were usually denounced as artificial lines imposed from afar, erasing them in favor of a more authentic alternative was seen as too fraught and difficult. As a result, most new countries appearing on the map between 1946 and 1975 would be based on the colonial geography. The fact that a state like Nigeria had no indigenous historical grounding did not mean that it could not turn itself into an effective nation. Doing so, however, would take serious work.

In some parts of the colonized world, ethnic nationalism had more political salience. In mainland Southeast Asia, for example, activists sought independent states based on pre-colonial kingdoms that had been closely associated with their leading ethnolinguistic groups. The post-war reformulation of nationalism thus required major accommodations. Aung San and other key Burmese nationalists, for example, now had to express regret for their “obsolete” prewar slogan, “Our race [ethnicity], our religion, our language.”[54] The newly independent Union of Burma, they promised, would be a pan-ethnic nation founded on civic principles. But, as explained by Robert Cornwell, the fact that they had been persecuting the Karen and other minority groups just a few years earlier, in concert with imperial Japan, made such promises ring hollow.[55] As it turned out, Burma would be effectively run as an ethno-national state. Not surprisingly, that generated deep resentments—and multiple, long-lasting ethnic insurgencies—among its minority populations. Changing the country’s name to the ostensibly more inclusive “Myanmar” in 1989 had little ameliorative effect.[56]

[1] Although most dictionary definitions of “seduction” stress its negative qualities, the Oxford English Dictionary lists as its fifth definition, “seductiveness, alluring quality.”  OED On-Line

[2] This point is forcefully made by Alexander Murphy (1997, p. 257): “one of the most notable features of Western social science between 1945 and the early 1970s was the tendency to treat the state as the only territorial unit of great significance in industrialized societies.”

[3] As John Agnew (1994, p. 59) argues, the nation-state construct “seems innocent enough, except that it endows the territorial state with the legitimacy of representing and expressing the ‘character’ or ‘will’ of the nation.”

[4] See the Online Cambridge Dictionary. The definition can be found here:  NATION-STATE | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary

[5] According to the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary, a nation-state is “(more generally any independent political state.)” OED On-Line

[6] As Bernard Yack (2003, p. 35) points out, “…we tend to use the worlds ‘nation’ and ‘people’ interchangeably, in both ordinary and scholarly language.”

[7] To be sure, not all scholarship on the subject maintains this essential distinction. Scholars as insightful as Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (2012), for example, use the term “nation” as a simple synonym for “independent country,” as is reflected in the title of their important book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. Revealingly, such terms as “nation” and “nation-state” do not appear in the book’s index.

[8] Russell 1991.

[9] Devastating criticism of the model’s key components are so common that we cannot possibly do them justice. Here we would only highlight Robert D. Kaplan’s essay on “The Lies of Mapmakers,” in which he advised his readers to “consider the map of the world, with its 190 or so countries, each signified by a bold and uniform color,” and then went on to bemoan the fact that “this inflexible, artificial reality staggers on, not only in the United Nations but in various geographical and travel publications…” (2001, p. 38).

[10] Anderson (1996, 1). Similarly, Timothy Baycroft and Mark Hewitson (2006, p. 1) contend that the simple question “what is a nation” has yet to receive a satisfactory answer.

[11] See, for example, Roshwald (2006). Roshwald’s prime example of ancient nations is that of the Jews, but he also argues that “The ancient Greeks provide another striking example of national identity as a vital political, cultural, and ideological force in the ancient world” (p. 22).

[12] A prime example of the modernist thesis is found in Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (2006 [second edition, original 1983]), which stresses the importance of industrialization. Eric Hobsbawm, another key modernist theoretician of the nation and nationalism, argued that the nation, “belongs exclusively to a particular and historically recent period,” and can only exist in the context of the modern territorial state (1990, p. 9).

[13] Smith (1986, pp. 11, 16, 212). See also Gat (2013). Although a number of nation-states arose around ethnic cores that long predated the industrial period, many successful nation-states have nothing in the way of an ethnic core, whether preexisting or recently invented. I generally concur with Patrick Geary’s counter-contention that nationalist ideology has led many to overplay the historical rooting and ethnic cohesion of European states, although I suspect that he engages in hyperbole of his own in arguing that “the history of Europe’s nations … has turned our understanding of the past into a toxic waste dump, filled with the poison of ethnic nationalism” (2002, p. 15).

[14] Navari 1981, p. 14.

[15] Citizenship is a surprisingly vexed concept, as each country can select criteria for citizenship in any way that it sees fit, and many do so in a highly restrictive manner; see Kochenov 2019. The term “national” is a more fitting if less evocative term, as it refers to all persons under the jurisdiction of the country in question.

[16] “The Transition from a Nation State to a Plurinational State,” by Jubenal Quispe, in Bolivia Rising, June 29, 2007. The transition from the nation state to a plurinational state

[17] “Bolivia’s Separatist Movement,” by Teo Ballvé. Nacla, September 25, 2007.

[18] For a list of the official languages, see Article Five of the Bolivian constitution, available at:

[19] These supposed multinational states are as follows: Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, China, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Madagascar, Montenegro, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. See “Multinational State”

Not surprisingly, other entries in this crowd-sourced encyclopedia regard all independent polities as nation-states. The article on “Westphalian Sovereignty,” for example, describes state sovereignty as “the principle of international law that each nation-state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs, to the exclusion of all external powers, on the principle of non-interference in another country’s domestic affairs, and that each state (no matter how large or small) is equal in international law.”

[20] Anatoly M. Khazanov is worth quoting in this context: “Many alleged nation-states are simultaneously characterized as multiethnic states, states with plural or multicultural societies, and so on. In fact, in addition to stateless nations, there are states without nations, that is, states that in the modern sense lack any nations at all. At best, these might be characterized as ‘nation-states to be’ but only if one wants to demonstrate a good deal of optimism” (2003, p. 80).

[21] The nation-state status of the United States is also potentially challenged by the resurgence of national identity at the constituent-state level. Roughly a third of the residents of the most populous state in the union have so lost faith in the American project that they want to secede, at least according to “Calexit” polling in 2017. (“Support for California Secession Is Up, One Poll Says,” by Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2017.

[22] Herb and Kaplan 1999.

[23] Smith 1986, p. 166.

[24] This distinction is specified in the Spanish constitution: “The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards; it recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all” (Section Two): CONSTITUTION

[25] See the discussion in Fukuyama (2018, p. 169). A charged example of nesting claims and counter-claims to national identity is found in China, a polity that historian Peter Perdue describes as the “multinational Chinese nation-state” (2010, p. 4). Such a seemingly oxymoronic turn of phrase signals Perdue’s disagreement with the official stance of the People’s Republic of China, which posits a singular Chinese nation encompassing all ethnic groups that have ever lived within the current boundaries of the People’s Republic of China – including those that formed their own non-Chinese states in the past. In 2007 the PRC went so far as to ban South Korean historical dramas that (correctly) portrayed the two early Korean (or partially Korean) states of Goguryeo and Balhae, which held lands in what is now northeastern China, as Korean rather than as Chinese. (See “The China-South Korea History War,” by Martin W. Lewis, June 11, 2010. GeoCurrents: The China-South Korea History War). Similar tensions underlie controversies surrounding the national positions of the Tibetans and Uighurs.

[26] “Is California a Nation-State?” by Jill Cowen. New York Times, April 14, 2014.

[27] Coker 2019.

[28] Owing to the geopolitically anomalous situation of American Samoa, its residents have been classified as “nationals” but not “citizens” of the United States. In December 2019, a U.S. federal court ruled against this denial of citizenship, but the case remains under appeal. (

[29] Graeber and Wengrow (2021, 30-31) argue that the “idea that every government should properly preside over a population of largely uniform language and culture” is ultimately rooted in the Enlightenment’s encounter with China, as mediated through the works of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. They more generally argue that Enlightenment-era ideas about individual autonomy and self-determination that would play a major in the subsequent development of the liberal nationalism were rooted in the European encounter with indigenous North American societies.

[30] Several scholars have argued that Herder did occasionally make political claims for the nation, or that political claims were latent in his works. See Patten (2010) and van Benthem van den Bergh (2018).

[31] The quotation is from Kedourie (1960, 84).

[32] Sheehan, forthcoming

[33] Sheehan, forthcoming, p. 38.

[34] Although the enslaved people of African origin came from a wide array of ethnolinguistic groups, both their ethnic identity and indigenous languages were essentially erased in the process of enslavement and relocation.  Much of this was done though the mixing of slaves of diverse backgrounds in plantations and other labor sites. Certain ethnically distinct cultural markers and practices did persist, however, such as the largely Yoruba rituals of the Candomblé religion in Brazil.

[35] As Kedourie (1960, p. 119) noted, “So far from being part of the Polish nation, the peasants of Galicia and Russian Poland manifested complete indifference, and in some cases active hostility, to the Polish nationalists who came from the ranks for the gentry…”

[36] Zaha 2008.

[37] Connelley 2020, p. 24.

[38] Ravina 2017.

[39] Anderson 1983.

[40] Manela 2009.  As Wesley Reisser puts it, “The imperial state model prevailed prior to World War I, but following the war, the concept of the nation-state … dominated.” (2012, p. 11).

[41] As Terry Martin notes, “Lenin and Woodrow Wilson were the two great propagandists for the right of nations to self-determination” (1998, p. 859). The supposedly self-governing national republics of the new Soviet Union, however, were to be firmly subordinated to the Kremlin, with ethno-nationalist rhetoric employed mostly to help incite revolution; see Herman 2017, p. 208.

[42] Altic 2016. As Altic (2016, o. 184) notes, “Therefore, when assessing the actual ethnic composition of the population in a particular area, the Inquiry never relied on maps from a single source alone, but was constantly comparing the data it had received from all the interested parties. Their efforts to cope with this plethora of information, often quite contradictory, were exemplified in the fact that the Inquiry compiled, for their own purposes, a catalogue of all ethnographic maps of the Balkans (the list was 38 pages long!).”

[43] As specified in the Convention on Certain Questions Relating to the Conflict of Nationality Law of 1930: “Being convinced that it is in the general interest of the international community to secure that all its members should recognise that every person should have a nationality and should have one nationality only; Recognising accordingly that the ideal towards which the efforts of humanity should be directed in this domain is the abolition of all cases both of statelessness and of double nationality.” The document in question can be round at UNHRC’s “Refworld” website:

[44] The League of Nations awarded extensive former lands of the Ottoman Empire to the United Kingdom and France as “mandates.” Although Britain and France were supposed to administer these lands for the benefit of their indigenous populations, they were in effect governed as colonies.

[45] Pedersen 2015, P. 4.

[46] Pedersen 2015, p. 72 especially. As Susan Pederson further demonstrates, some League leaders thought that Britain and France could create nationalities in their new Middle Eastern mandates (colonies) but not in their new “uncivilized” African territories (2015, p. 72).

[47] This problem was stressed by Elie Kedourie (1960, pp. 115, 118).

[48] Siegelberg 2020.

[49] Siegelberg 2020, pp. 170-171.

[50] See “The Atlantic Charter,” reproduced on a North Atlantic Treaty Organization webpage:

[51] Siegelberg 2020, p. 160.

[52] The Atlantic Charter had expressed opposition to “territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.”

[53] Reisser 2012, p. 175.  Although a number of countries, notably Poland, became far less ethnically diverse than they had been, that was largely the result of the genocidal Nazi horrors combined with both the forced post-war exodus of Germans and the loss of Polands eastern lands to the Soviet Union.

[54] Cornwell 2020, p. 89).

[55] Cornwell 2020.

[56] Both the Burmese terms “Bama/Bamar” and “Myanma/Myanmar” originally referred only to the dominant, Burmese-speaking ethnic group. After 1989, however, ‘Myanmar” was redefined to refer to all indigenous ethnic groups in the country—excluding the Rohingya, who were deemed non-indigenous.


Seduced by the Map, Chapter One: The Seductive Nation-State Model (Part 1) 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).


Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 3) Read More »

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.”


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