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 »

About GeoCurrents

Map of a Selection of Geopolitical Anomalies

GeoCurrents is a map-illustrated forum dedicated to exploring global geography. Most posts link to current events, supplying historical background, spatial analysis, and political and intellectual context. Events both major (rebellion in Libya) and minor (protests in Tripura, India) are covered, provided they bear on larger issues and have a clear geographic expression. Whenever possible, local perspectives and divergent views are incorporated and analyzed; comments and criticism from informed readers are always welcome.

GeoCurrents is particularly interested in the cultural dimensions of geopolitical complexity. Many posts describe the ways in which religion, language, and regionalism influence intra- and international disputes, emphasizing the linkage between specific conflicts and particular places. In most cases, this approach reveals a considerably more intricate spatial relations than conventional reportage conveys. Ivory Coast, for example, turns out to be divided not just along north-south lines, as conventional wisdom has it, but in a more complex three-way split separating the north from both south and center. Likewise, while mainstream media reports are content to note that Syria’s embattled government is dominated by the Alawite minority, members of a Shiite-derived sect, GeoCurrents delves deeper. It outlines Alawite beliefs, maps where most Alawites live and explains why that matters, and describes the ways in which Syria’s history of sectarian division has shaped its political evolution.

Above all, GeoCurrents is devoted to mapping. Almost all posts rely heavily on maps, many made expressly for the blog. Some entries center on cartography itself, as well as other forms of geographical depiction. Misleading maps in the media and reference works are periodically critiqued, as is the deceptive marshalling of statistical information. Attention is also occasionally drawn to innovative, useful, or elegant maps. The blog further seeks to devise alternative methods of mapping the world. During the summer of 2011, most posts will be devoted to the construction of a non-state-based atlas of global social and economic development, attempting to improve on the familiar division of the world into sovereign countries—an issue that lies at the core of GeoCurrents’ conceptual concerns.

GeoCurrents ultimately rests on the conviction that the conventional state-based model of the world, manifest in the basic political map posted here, provides an inadequate framework for global comprehension. Its signal flaw is its partitioning of the world’s landmasses into absolute and formally equivalent political units. These entities are regarded as exercising complete power over precisely delineated, compact territories. They are conceptualized as political individuals, entities of the same kind, occupying the same level in the spatial hierarchy of political power. These foundational units are variably called sovereign states, countries, nations, and nation-states, terms of once-distinct meaning that have come to function broadly as synonyms. In the process of terminological convergence, a particular view of geopolitical organization is unthinkingly advanced: one that takes sovereignty, territory, and national cohesion to be necessarily congruent. In the standard world model, sovereign states are nations by default, their people assumed to be bound together in identification with their countries. Such sovereign totalities in turn validate each other’s claims to lands and peoples as the components of the so-called international community, mirrored almost exactly by the membership roll of the U.N.

As anyone who follows the news is bound to discover on a daily basis, however, global political geography is a vastly more complex and interesting affair. Whereas the standard world model is based on ideal types, GeoCurrents reveals messiness and ambiguity. As the blog’s posts lay out in detail, the world we inhabit abounds in geopolitical anomalies: imaginary states, stateless nations, nationless states, officially non-national states, partially recognized and fully unrecognized sovereign entities, non-sovereign sovereign states and tribes, proclaimed but non-existent states, insurgent states, non-sovereign countries, countries containing several nations, kingdoms composed of multiple countries, countries containing multiple kingdoms, and so on. (One widely recognized sovereign entity has no territory or territorial claims whatsoever, its domain limited to two buildings.) The number of sovereign states, moreover, is impossible to peg, just as the boundaries between countries cannot always be reduced to simple lines. Finally, whatever form they take, countries are not necessarily comparable entities. They differ in both their spatial and demographic dimensions by more than five orders of magnitude—a more massive jump in scale than we commonly realize. To put Nauru in the same category with China is like comparing a one-mile stroll with walking around the Earth four times.

Indeed, the closer one looks, the more slippery all the key terms of the standard model appear. The concept of sovereignty, for example, might seem straightforward: countries are sovereign if they are independent. In practice, though, “sovereignty” has a number of meanings, which do not necessarily coincide on the ground. As Stephen Krasner argues, the concept ultimately amounts to nothing less than “organized hypocrisy” (the title of his penetrating book on the subject).* As Krasner contends,

Most observers and analysts of international relations have treated sovereign states as an analytic assumption or as a well-institutionalized if not taken-for-granted structure. The bundle of properties associated with sovereignty—territory, recognition, autonomy, and control—have been understood, often implicitly, to characterize states in the international system. In fact, however, only a few states have possessed all of these attributes.

The defects of the standard view are of more than academic significance. Reliance on a global model based on diplomatic pretense often generates blunders, sometimes with tragic results. Nowhere is such failure more evident than in US-led policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Efforts that were supposed to spread democracy, peace, and prosperity instead sapped Western influence, generated chaos in the target countries, endangered local Christian communities, and energized radical Islam. The United States and its allies continue to bleed money and lives on seemingly unwinnable conflicts—and cannot figure out how to escape. It is impossible to know, of course, what would have happened in Afghanistan and Iraq had the military incursions never been carried out, or had different policies been pursued after the toppling of the old regimes. But it is clear that the predictions made by U.S. government officials and their supporters about the cost and duration of the wars, as well as those focused on post-war reconstruction, were staggeringly incorrect.

Given the quagmires that followed, the origins of the Afghan and Iraqi regime-change gambits call for extended examination. Hubris on the part of war-planners has often been highlighted, but it is the contention of GeoCurrents that deeper conceptual failures lay at the root. Afghanistan and Iraq, simply put, were misconstrued as coherent nation-states. As a result, it was assumed that their people were united enough to make the compromises necessary to run democratic governments. By the same token, the ethnic and religious divisions found in both countries were thought to be contained within broader nationalisms. Regarded as nation-states, Afghanistan and Iraq were expected to function as nation-states. All that was needed was a change in regimes, followed by an inexpensive round of “nation-building”** focused on institutions and infrastructure.

In actuality, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan have ever been genuine nation-states. In both countries, the state was imposed on a variegated populace for whom the bonds of ethnicity and sect, if not those of clan, tribe, and community, have remained much stronger than those of the putative nation. Where national unity is little more than a façade, the state can easily be torn down by a strong external force, as was the case in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. But neither could be readily reassembled, for the social adhesive necessary for regeneration was simply not present. Had American and British leaders realized that both countries lacked solid national foundations, perhaps they would never have entertained the fantasy that toppling their regimes to install elected governments would be a cheap and easy route to regional stability.

Critics may note that public opinion surveys often indicate the opposite, showing relatively high levels of national identity across most of the world. When polled on the matter, most educated residents of country “X” will indeed affirm an “Xian” nationality. Yet these identities are often too shallow to be of much consequence. Most weakly consolidated countries have long engaged in “nation-building” projects to instill a common sense of identity, hammering the message home through schools and the media. Such efforts have generally proved superficially successful. What matters in the end, however, is not abstract responses on surveys, but whether people behave in a manner congruent with national sentiments. Even vehement expressions of mass patriotism do not necessarily indicate genuine national bonds. Most residents of Pakistan, for example, fiercely proclaim their Pakistani status, but they do so largely in opposition to India, Israel, and the United States. In domestic affairs, the country is rent by such deep ethnic, regional, and religious divisions that its integrity as a state, let alone a nation, is severely challenged. The negative nationalism found in Pakistan and several other countries has so far proven inadequate for the construction of a functional nation-state.

Rather than taking proclamations of national identity at face value, GeoCurrents seeks to measure national consolidation in more subtle ways. For democratic countries, voting patterns provide one of the best metrics. Where individual parties and candidates compete across a given country’s territory, successfully appealing to voters living in different regions and belonging to divergent ethnic groups, a high degree of national cohesion is indicated. In contrast, weak to non-existent national bonds are indicated where certain parties consistently achieve overwhelming victories in some regions while suffering overwhelming defeats in others. Chile is a good example of a country in the former category, while Ukraine and Nigeria exemplify the latter.

Finally, it is worth noting that GeoCurrents aims to be instructive rather than polemical. Controversial issues are often discussed, but the goal is to approach each new issue on its own terms, without an overarching theoretical commitment or predetermined position. While many voices are aired, seldom is a particular perspective endorsed. In practice, of course, maintaining a completely disinterested attitude to ongoing global conflicts is not possible, but fair-mindedness and impartiality remain the guiding ideal.

* Stephen D. Krasner, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy. Princeton University Press, 1999, page 220.

**As the idea of the nation was stripped of its original meanings in order to fit the standard world model, so too the concept of nation-building was transformed. Originally referring to efforts to generate a sense of national belonging, nation-building came to denote the construction of effective governmental institutions—state-building, in essence. In the wreckage of Iraq and Afghanistan, the term is being downgraded again, this time to focus more narrowly on physical infrastructure. In an August 31, 2010 op-ed piece in the New York Times, David Brooks declared nation-building in Iraq a relative success, noting that the country had acquired many more internet connections and telephones than it had had under Saddam Hussein, little matter that Iraq cannot form a stable and effective government, no matter that its constituent communities remain at each other’s throats, unable to establish trust across religious, linguistic, and tribal lines.

>>>See the key to the GeoCurrents map of geopolitical anomalies.>>>

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Libya’s Tribal Divisions and the Nation-State

Unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, that of Libya has a strong tribal component. When key tribal leaders rejected his regime, Muammar Gaddafi’spower began to evaporate from large segments of the country.

The phenomenon of tribalism in oil-rich Libya has caused some confusion in the media. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor began by noting that Libya is “considered one of the most tribal nations in the Arab world,” yet went on to assert that “Qaddafi’s greatest and most lasting accomplishment may prove to be stripping [the tribes] of their political power as modernization also diluted their importance.” Only the “current chaos,” the article contends, has allowed tribes to “reassert their importance.” Most reports, by contrast, maintain that Gaddafi sought to manipulate rather than eliminate the country’s tribal structure, bolstering his own power by dividing military command, for example, along clan lines. Yet the consequences of such tribalized power structures for the country’s national government can be perplexing. A recent article attributed to the New York Times portrays them in stark terms: “Under Gaddafi’s four decades of rule, Libya has become a singular quasi-nation, where the official rhetoric disdains the idea of a nation-state, [and] tribal bonds remain primary even within the ranks of the military…” Yet the original Times article, as posted on its website, pulls back from such a blunt assessment, blandly contending only that “under Colonel Qaddafi’s idiosyncratic rule, tribal bonds remain primary even within the ranks of the military.”

Such confusion derives largely from the expectations generated by socio-political theory. Political modernization is supposed to dismantle traditional social features like tribal power structures, replacing them with the systematic administration of the bureaucratic state. Tribes thrive where state power is weak or non-existent, allowing a measure of security in an anarchic environment. By this logic, Libya, with its vast oil wealth, has undertaken a path of state-led modernization that should have undermined the country’s tribes. And to regard Libya as anything less than a nation-state would risk throwing our entire geopolitical world model into question, as all countries are habitually regarded as nation-states, political entities in which primary allegiance is given to the nation as a whole rather than to subsidiary aggregations such as tribes, ethnic groups, or regional communities. Tribal affiliation, by such thinking, is a vanishing feature of a by-gone world.

But despite countless assertions of Libya’s nation-statehood, its political structures have never matched the model. Far from attempting to replicate the forms of the European nation-state, Gadaffi has sought to build a different kind of government, as reflected in his country’s official name: the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” “Jamahiriya,” a term Gadaffi coined himself, is usually translated along the lines of “state of the masses” or “direct democracy.” According to official propaganda, the Libyan political model seeks to transcend not so much the national side of the nation-state model but rather the state itself. Jamahiriya, we are told, is based on “[the] rejection of the notion that the people need the structure of the state in order to regulate their lives. … [T]here is no need for a superfluous state structure which, however well monitored by the people, may threaten the revolutionary achievement of direct democracy….” Such a form of government, Gaddafi has insisted, is fitting for the entire world. As a result, Libya’s official ideology has been deemed the “Third Universal Theory.”

“Direct democracy” in Libya, as elsewhere, has promised much more than it has delivered. In practice, it has entailed autocratic rule, nepotism, and massive levels of corruption, much to the fury of the Libyan people. But by disparaging the normal structures of national government, the Libyan experiment has also left a vacuum of political organization—one that has been partially filled by the tribal groups. It is in this backhanded way that Jamahiriya has reinforced the tribal element in Libyan politics.

Because tribal groups in the greater Middle East have generally been regarded as anachronistic remnants destined to die out, they have rarely been mapped, and almost never in any detail. The 1974 CIA map of ethnic groups of Libya posted above in unusual in that it does show “selected tribes,” but its selective nature reduces its utility. Most of the country’s tribes are not depicted, including the largest, Warfalla, with an estimated one million members. As the continuing importance of tribal politics in the greater Middle East has been demonstrated not just by the upheaval in Libya but much more powerfully by experiences of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, cartographic attention to this aspect of political organization is clearly in order. Thanks to M. Izady and Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, comprehensive mapping of tribal groups in Afghanistan has now been carried out. Further efforts, one can hope, will be forthcoming.

* Many thanks to Shine Zaw-Aung for pointing out the discrepancies between the article on the New York Times website and the same article as reprinted in other newspapers.

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Spain, Bolivia, Iraq, and the Fallacy of the Nation-State

This final posting on regionalism in Spain steps back to reexamine the concept of the nation-state. Spain constitutionally defines itself as a nation-state, insisting that all its citizens belong to the Spanish nation. But as we have seen, many are adamant that Spain is a country of multiple nations. Some sub-Spanish nationalists retain the nation-state ideal, arguing that the independence of Catalonia and the Basque Country is necessary for the creation of genuinely national states. Less extreme partisans reject nation-state status, arguing that Spain should declare itself a plurinational state: one country, in other words, divided into several nations.

The debate sometimes seems unduly semantic. Proponents of plurinationalism point to Switzerland, a country where several nations—speaking four languages—easily coexist in a confederation based on local autonomy. Opponents retort that Switzerland is very much a nation-state, as the vast majority of its citizens are happy to identify themselves as Swiss at the national level. In truly plurinational countries, by this way of thinking, most people place local affinity above loyalty to the state, thereby undermining it. Belgium, perennially near the edge of collapse, is their favored example.

Semantics actually matter here. People care a great deal about how they are classified, whether by themselves, their government, or foreign observers. Visitors are advised to choose their labels carefully; those in Barcelona who refer to their hosts as Spaniards are likely to get a chilly reception. More importantly, classification sometimes takes on real political significance. Bolivia, for example, has officially opted out of nation-statehood, declaring itself the Plurinational State of Bolivia (Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia). This change was accepted by the international community, with the gate-keeping 165-country International Organization for Standardization noting the new name on May 8, 2009 and correspondingly assigning Bolivia a new country identification code (ISO 3166-1 code). According to Bolivia’s revised constitution, Bolivians of indigenous background belong to different nations from those of European or mestizo descent. As one Bolivian website frames the issue, “The nation-state political project failed in Bolivia because there was no Bolivian nation that could sustain it and the first nations were excluded, without a state.”

Unfortunately for Bolivia, such distinctions are lost on most foreign observers. The idea of the nation-state has become so powerful that it has blurred the distinctions between its component elements, impeding understanding and communication. Certainly most people in the United States consider all countries to be nation-states. In common parlance, “nation-state” is actually a redundancy, as “nation” has devolved into a mere synonym for country or sovereign state. This slippage is neither new nor specifically American; it is encoded in the very name of the world’s premiere global organization, the United Nations, as well as that of its predecessor, the League of Nations. But with Bolivia going out of its way to declare its non-nation-statehood, more precise terminology becomes necessary. Referring to contemporary Bolivia as a nation or a nation-state is simply wrong; that is exactly what the Bolivian government has proclaimed itself not to be.

In the idealized world of nation-states, each nation – defined as a group of people with a common political identity – controls its own self-governing state, and every sovereign state extends uniformly across an unambiguous territory. The nation-state concept is thus three-fold, merging identity (the nation), politics (the sovereign state), and geography (the country). But in practice it is seldom realized. As we have seen in dozens of cases, countries, states, and nations often fail to coincide, defying all the norms of geopolitics. (If memory serves, the geographer Marvin Mikesell once quipped that the world’s only perfect nation-state is Iceland.)

According to the once-conventional potted history, the nation-state can be traced back to the early modern era, when the kingdoms of England, France, Spain, and Portugal, along with the Republic of the Netherlands, gradually crystallized as territorially distinct national states. In the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s failed effort to unify Europe, the ideals of nationalism coalesced and spread eastward among peoples who were divided or subdued politically yet united by language or race (as it was framed at the time). Subsequent national awakenings led to the unification of Germany and Italy in the 1870s and contributed to the break-up of the multi-national Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires in the early 1900s. With the end of European colonization in the mid-twentieth century, the idea of the nation-state spread around the world, with former colonies supposedly reconstituting themselves as nationally based sovereign states.

But even in its supposed European heartland, the nation-state model is more troubled than we might expect. State-level nationalism has been compromised by the rise of both supranational affiliation (at the level of the EU) and sub-state loyalties—and not just in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Scotland. Large parts of Southeastern Europe, too, suffered paroxysms of violence through the 1990s as unsatisfied nationalists fought to remake political geography. Especially where national identity is assumed to be based on ancient bonds of kinship, language, or culture, locally distinctive groups are often eager to proclaim their own nationhood.

Few of the new countries to emerge out of the European colonial realm after WWII had strong national foundations, and many had none at all. These states were therefore left to construct their nations, largely by teaching their people that they belonged to a single nationality and had an equal stake in national citizenship. On the surface, such efforts were usually rather successful. Those who received national educations usually thought in national terms. People schooled in Chad, for example, generally report on surveys that they think of themselves as Chadian. As a result, outside observes declare Chad a nation-state. In actuality, merely reporting such inculcated sentiments does not mean that they have real significance, much less that they outweigh claims of ethnic, clan, or village loyalty. In many instances, nationalism generated from above remains largely negative, based more on antipathy to people of other countries than on common bonds within the so-called nation. Pakistan, as we have seen, is an excellent example of such a country; Ivory Coast is another.

In the post-colonial world of the 1950s and ‘60s, it was simply expected that all new countries would build national identities and thus become nation-states. The dangers of that assumption are now clear. In early 2003, Iraq was widely viewed in the US foreign policy establishment as a well-developed nation-state: one in which Iraqis would readily band together to run a modern democracy if only their repressive rulers could be removed by force. Recent events have exposed that view as rank fantasy. Regarding nation-states as realities, rather than ideals, generated a make-believe model of the world.

The concept of nation-building has gone through transformations of its own. Originally referring to efforts to generate a sense of national belonging, nation-building came to denote the construction of effective governmental institutions: state-building, in essence. In the wreckage of Iraq and Afghanistan, the term is apparently being downgraded again, this time to focus more narrowly on physical infrastructure. In an August 31 op-ed piece in the New York Times, the usually incisive David Brooks declared nation-building in Iraq a relative success, noting that the country now has many more internet connections and telephones than it did under Saddam Hussein.

The nation-state ideal is attractive in part because it is so simple. Things would surely be easier if the world were actually divided into unambiguous units that were at once nations, sovereign states, and countries. Geocurrents is dedicated to the proposition that the world is a good deal more complex – and vastly more interesting.

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DR Congo: A Potemkin State?

The ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is reputed to be the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. Most observers estimate the death toll at around 5.4 million deaths; some figures put the toll as high as 6.9 million. One controversial 2009 report—from the Human Security Report Project of Simon Fraser University—claims that the actual death count was less than a million. Such wild discrepancies suggest how difficult it is to collect accurate information in a place as anarchic as DR Congo.

The Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t much of a democratic republic, but that’s not its major problem. More serious is that it doesn’t really function as a country at all. The government hardly governs even in the portion of its territory that it actually controls. Our reference works mislead us when they classify the DRC is a “developing nation-state,” as they habitually do. It certainly isn’t developing (see the chart above), and its governmental apparatus remains miniscule; the DRC takes in less revenue annually than Haiti ($700 million as opposed to $961 million), a deeply impoverished country a fraction of its size. National identity is weak at best. Those Congolese who went to school learned that they constitute a Congolese nation, a lesson that many have apparently taken to heart, but when push comes to shove regional and ethnic cleavages deeply divide. To put it bluntly, since independence in 1960, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been a de-developing, non-national Potemkin state: a façade of a country with scant substance.

The DRC owes its existence to the wild greed of Leopold II, king of the contrived state of Belgium. Desperate to put his mark on the globe, Leopold unleashed his agents, starting with Henry Stanley, to cut a swath of terror across central Africa. Local people were forced to collect vast amounts of wild rubber; if they failed to meet quotas, hands were chopped, and often heads as well. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, Bismarck and the other European leaders simply awarded Leopold the bulk of central Africa as his personal domain, calling it the Congo Free State (ironies run deep here). After word of the carnage in the Congo reached global attention, Leopold lost his African estate to his own government, and in 1908 the Belgium Congo was born. When Belgium abruptly withdrew from Africa in 1960, the Congo almost immediately split in four (see map). It convulsed with violence through the first half of the 1960s, as regional leaders turned to either the Soviet Union or the United States for support. Che Guevara came to mentor Laurent Kabila, founder of the DR Congo, in the arts of revolutionary war.

Relative stability, but little else, came to Congo in 1965 with the dictatorship of Western-backed Joseph Mobutu, who renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko just as he rechristened his country Zaire. Reportedly the third highest grossing kleptocrat (thief-ruler) in world history, Mobuto made off with an estimated $5 billion in his 32 years of rule; only Indonesia’s Suharto and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos stole more. But when one considers the vastly greater resources of Indonesia and the Philippines, Mobutu must take first place. While Indonesia prospered and the Philippines merely stagnated under kleptocratic rule, Mobutu’s realm steadily declined. When the Cold War ended, its economy collapsed. In the mid-1990s, Zaire collapsed as well. Its demise came in 1997 when Rwanda-backed Joseph Kabila, no longer a Marxist, seized control. A year later, his disappointed Rwandan backers sent another army to replace him. As Rwandan forces were closing in on Kinshasa, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe (with a little help from Chad and Libya) stepped in to defend the Kabila regime. By the beginning of the millennium, DR Congo had fractured into a complex welter of militia-run territories – the geography of which no map adequately conveys. Increasingly, these militias came to fight, with extreme brutality, over access to resources, particularly coltan (a rare mineral used in the manufacture of electronics).

It is quite telling that Rwanda – a country a fraction the size of DR Congo that had just endured its own genocidal hell – could treat the vast DR Congo as its pawn. This is not something that would have happened to a genuine nation-state. (To be continued.)

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