Geographical Education

Free Customizable Maps of Africa for Download

Over the past few years, I have created a number of customizable base maps that I subsequently used to make the original GeoCurrents thematic maps that have been posted on this site (which are themselves now searchable by country and by topic). These customizable base maps were initially created by hand in Keynote, the Apple presentation program that competes with PowerPoint. Over the next several weeks, I will be fine-tuning all of these maps and then releasing them for downloading on this site in both Keynote and PowerPoint formats. Please free to use these customizable maps as you like. All that I would ask is that you retain the source note on the maps: GeoCurrents Customizable Base Map.

The customizable base maps were made by outlining the shapes of geopolitical units on basic maps held in the public domain. Once the outlines have been made, the resulting country- or province-shapes can be easily manipulated through a few simple clicks, allowing one to instantly change country color, boundary color and thickness, and so on. Keynote’s “shape” feature allows one to easily draw on the maps to show additional features. Shapes can also be dragged out of place and then placed back where they belong (to place shapes precisely, make sure that the “guidelines” in Keynote are turned off). Similar functionalities are available in the PowerPoint format, although I never personally use PowerPoint and hence I am a bit uncertain about what it actually allows. (But see these basic instructions How can these maps be manipulated in PowerPoint.)

Africa Per Capita GDP mapThese maps can be profitably used in the classroom. If students are provided with a customizable map of a particular part of the world along with a data list pertaining to the same place, they can make their own thematic map. One example would be a map of African countries along with a list of African countries by per capita GDP. This exercise will help students learn the locations and shapes of the units in question (the countries of Africa in this case), and will allow them to grasp the patterns that they are mapping much more effectively than by merely looking at a map that someone else has made. Such a process is also useful for teaching students about selecting appropriate breaks in the data for effective map visualization, the use of different color schemes in mapping, and so on. One can also scatter the country shapes and then ask students to reassemble the map as a sort of game. Unfortunately, the shapes will not “click” into place, but the process still works well enough.

Africa Customizable Map 1I am beginning this project by releasing a single map, that of the countries of Africa. Several different versions of this map are available in the PowerPoint and Keynote files provided below this text. The first is a simple outline map of the conventional countries of the region (although some insular African countries are excluded: Cape Verde, Seychelles, and Mauritius, as well as the French department of Reunion). Boxes with the Africa Customizable Map 2word “text” next to them can be used to construct a map key. The second is the same map but with the addition of country names. As the maps are all customizable, these names can be easily removed to (re)create the initial map. The third map includes two de facto changes to the basic political map that have not Africa Customizable Map 3been recognized by the international community: the effective independence of Somaliland, and the extension of Morocco over most of Western Sahara, along with the virtual independence of the so-called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in the remaining territory. The essentially collapsed states of Libya and (the rest of) Somalia still appear on this map as regular countries, but that could easily be changed by the user (such as by turning them to a darker shade of grey). The final map includes the base map that was used to create the customizable map, which is a physical map of Africa. This version of the map can be used in a variety of ways. If one wants to include rivers or certain other physical features on one’s own map, just click on the relevant countries, turn their “opacity” Africa Customizable map 4settings to zero, trace in the feature in question, and then click on the countries again and reset the opacity to 100 percent.

Please note that these maps have limited resolution. Small features, such as many of the islands on the Africa map, were by necessity reproduced as mere ovals or triangles. Boundary lines between countries, moreover, have not been perfectly traced out: as a result, boundary thickness is somewhat uneven. I personally find the end result aesthetically pleasing, as it gives these maps a somewhat soft appearance. Other users, however, may disagree. Users could, however, manually adjust the boundary lines to make them fit more precisely. I have done a lot of that work myself, but eventually Africa Customizable Map 5I give up and decide that the map in question is good enough.

Also note that the physical base map was made before South Sudan gained independence. As a result, South Sudan appears as a layer placed over pre-2011 Sudan in my customizable maps. On the map (with rivers added) posted here, I somehow neglected to restore South Sudan. Other customizable maps that I will post later will not have such problems.

As this might be confusing, I would be happy to answer any questions in the discussion forum.

Many more customizable maps will be released over the next few weeks. Additional maps can be found here: https://www.geocurrents.info/customizable-base-maps

 

For Keynote Download, click here: Customizable Africa Maps

For PowerPoint Download, click here: Customizable Africa Maps

But are There Any Jobs in Geography?

(Note to readers: Last week I promised a GeoCurrents post on secession movements and proposals for the partitioning internationally recognized sovereign states. That post is still forthcoming, but it is taking considerably more time than I had anticipated. At present, I hope to post it by the middle of this week. In the meantime, I have written something a little different.)

Jobs in GIS USCAs a university geography instructor, I am often asked by students about potential careers in the field. “I love geography,” they tell me, “but how can studying it get me a job?” This is not an easy question for me to answer, because, like most professors, I have little experience and few contacts outside of academia. What I have long done is to refer such students to the Association of American Geographers (AAG), which provides information on such matters. Olivia Crosby’s “Geography Jobs,” linked to on the AAG webpages, is particularly useful.

Most “jobs in geography” discussions focus on the importance of technical education, particularly Geographical Information Systems (GIS). When I was in geography graduate school in the early 1980s at UC Berkeley, GIS was a relatively new field. Unfortunately, I missed the boat. I did so for two reasons. First the Berkeley Geography Department was hostile to Geographical Information Systems because the department was, paradoxically, both too conservative and too leftist for anything as useful as GIS. Second, I was myself something of eco-radical Luddite at the time, as such I had no interest in something as technical as GIS. But I have long since rejected the Luddite philosophy in favor of eco-modernism, and I am now a strong GIS proponent. I have not taken the effort to learn GIS myself, much to the disappointment of some GeoCurrents readers, but I always urge my students to do so. If they do, a rewarding career in geography might result.

The U.C. Berkeley Geography Department, to my knowledge, never embraced GIS, but most other geography departments have, as have a great many departments in other disciplines. “Spatial history,” for example, is a burgeoning subfield in the discipline of history, one that produces technically sophisticated historical geography (or geographical history, if one prefers). To my mind, the foremost practitioner of this art—and science—is the historical geographer Anne Knowles. See this New York Times article for an exploration of her work, and well as a discussion of the new term “spatial humanities.”

 

USC GIS MH370One school that has made great strides in GIS, both in regard to research and education, is the University of Southern California (USC), as can be seen in the website of its “Geographic Information Science & Technology Graduate Programs.” The USC program is particularly good at generating “infographics” that explore major topics of public concern through effective images. One example, that of the search for MA370, is reproduced here. The USC GIS program also produced the infographic on careers in GIS that is found at the top of this post. As can be seen, interesting job opportunities are available in numerous fields.

 

Nigeria Slides

Nigeria Population MapDear Readers,

My final lecture on the history and geography of current global events focused on Nigeria; the slides from this lecture are available at the link below.

Next week I will resume regular GeoCurrents posts. The first of these will look at issues related to Nigeria’s recent election, reflecting some of these lecture slides. Subsequently, I hope to examine Turkey’s recent election and then move on to a wide variety of other topics.

NigeriaLectureSlides

Iran Lecture Slides

Arabic Persian Islam MapMy second-to-last lecture on the history and geography of current global events has now been delivered, and the slides are available here at the link. As is noted on the first slide, the lecture was titled, Iran: Nuclear Negotiations, Geopolitical Ambitions, Cultural Complexities, and Historical Legacies.    

Next week I will speak on Nigeria; after that I hope to resume regular posting on GeoCurrents. 

In the map posted here, Farsi (Iran), Dari (Afghanistan), and Tajik (Tajikistan) are all taken to be dialects of Persian. Afghanistan is mapped as a Persian-speaking country even though it is possible that a bit less than half of its population speaks Dari as its mother tongue. But even if this is the case, Persian is still the main language of inter-ethnic communication in the country.

In the lecture, I played a four-minute video clip of the Iranian American comedian Maz Jobrani joking about the differences between Iranians (Persians) and Arabs (a still-shot of Jobrani’s routine is included in the slides). I played this clip because I think that comedy is an effective way of conveying  ethnic stereotypes that may be offensive but are still important to understand. I also think that Jobrani is a talented comedian. But in the beginning of his routine, Jobrani makes some comments about Iranians being “Aryans” that I could not let pass. As a result, the slides following the one of Jobrani take a short detour into the issue of Indo-European linguistics.

IranLectureSlides

Slides on Conflicts in the East Asian Seas

Disputed Islands in the East Asian SeasDear Readers,

East Asian Seas MapRegular GeoCurrents posts continue to be delayed, due to a combination of illness and teaching obligations. Today’s post merely links to a set of slides that I used for my lecture last night on territorial conflicts in the East Asian Seas. I made several original maps (on Google and Google Earth base maps), which are posted here directly.

Six Seas of Eurasia's Eastern RimNext week’s lecture  will be on the 2015 UK election. I hope to write a blog post or two on the election before  next Tuesday.

East Asia Seas Conflicts

Lecture Slides on the Mediterranean Migration Crisis

Dear Readers,

Military Spending per GDP mapYet again, other obligations have prevented me from making regular GeoCurrents posts. Most of my recent time has been devoted to preparing lectures for my course on the History and Geography of Current Global Events. This week’s talk was on the Mediterranean Migration Crisis; the lecture slides are available at the link below (“MediterraneanMigration”). The remainder of this post summarizes those slides

The lecture began with an overview of recent events, using media headlines, maps, graphs, and quotations from various articles. The table on page 11 departs from this introduction, showing that although human smuggling—whether across the Mediterranean or anywhere else—is indeed a big business, it is much smaller than many other illicit activities, including that of counterfeiting auto parts (the table is from the invaluable site Havocscope: Global Black Market Information). Slides 14-19 consider some of the reasons why human smuggling and its associated fatalities have increased recently, including Italy’s abandonment of “Operation Mare Nostrum” and the construction of border barriers by Greece and Bulgaria.

The next slide simply outlines the remainder of the lecture: 1. Global Perspectives on Migration; 2. Local Particularities: Europe and the Mediterranean; 3. Response from Europe & Repercussions for Europe; 4. Contrasts with Australian Policy.

Slides 21-34 present maps and other visuals that try to capture the global dynamics of international migration. The overarching idea here is that people tend to move from poor and chaotic countries to wealthier and more stable ones. The best of these maps is a busy and somewhat dated French portrayal that contains a wealth of information. Slides 26 and 27 illustrate the under-appreciated fact that a major portion of migration occurs within the so-called Global South, going from poor countries to richer but still not “fully developed” ones. (In discussing slide 28, however, I critique the very notion of the “Global South,” as the conventional definition places a number of impoverished states on the “rich” side of the line [Tajikistan, Moldova] and quite a few wealthy countries on the “poor” side [Singapore, Qatar]). The next set of images gives information on a few particular instances of troubled international immigration in the “South,” including Nicaraguans moving to Costa Rica, Paraguayans and Bolivians going to Argentina, and Indonesians migrating to Malaysia. Slides 33 and 34 show that this process sometimes goes into reverse, as when Ivory Coast experienced protracted conflicts that resulted in millions of people from Burkina Faso and Mali fleeing back to their homelands.

With slide 35, the lecture returned to the current crisis in Europe and the Mediterranean. Slides 36-38 show migration routes, but not very accurately (the last of these maps appear to be the best). More significant is slide 39, which includes two tables showing the countries of origin of people illegally crossing the sea into Europe in recent months. This slide brings up the significant question of why these particular countries send so many would-be immigrants into Europe. Some are easy to explain on the basis of war and related calamities, such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Others can be explained on the basis of severe repression, including the Gambia and Eritrea. A number of these slides (41-50) delve into the horrors of life in contemporary Eritrea. Beginning with slide 50, the lecture took on the issue of why Libya has become the main embarkation point for trans-Mediterranean migrants. Here I first explored the political chaos encountered now in Libya and then considered the legacy of Muammar Gaddafi in encouraging trans-Saharan immigration into his country. The final slides in this section examine to proximity of Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa, considering as well the conditions found on that small island.

At this point, the lecture turned to the responses to the crisis found in Europe. Different European countries have had different reactions, and the EU’s “ten-point plan” has been wide criticized for being weak and ineffectual. Many Europeans, however, maintain that they have been unduly taken to task, especially considering the fact that Europe takes much more than its “fair share” of asylum seekers. Some European countries, however, attract many more asylum seekers than others (slide 73), but do so for different reasons. Sweden is particularly generous, while Hungary is merely located in an area that is easy to reach for many asylum seekers. Slides 76 and 77 examine Europe’s detention system for people claiming refugee status, considering as well the criticisms of this system by human-rights activists.

The next set of slides examine debates within Europe over the larger immigration issue. Images 98-82 consider the argument that Europe needs high levels of immigration due to its low birth rate and rapidly increasing dependency burden, showing as well the growing demographic imbalance between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. But as the next group of slides shows, Europeans are increasingly opposed to high levels of immigration, although sentiments vary considerably from country to country (with Italy and Sweden at opposite ends of the spectrum). Attitudes also vary widely in regard to the country-of-origin of would-be immigrants. Perhaps surprisingly, in Western Europe opposition to migration from Eastern Europe is almost as strong as that to migration from the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa.

Beginning with slide 86, the presentation considers the political ramifications for Europe of the migration crisis, focusing on the rise of so-called right-wing, anti-immigrant parties, most of which are also highly skeptical of the EU. In the lecture, efforts were made to differentiate the political philosophies of these various parties, which differ significantly. Map 89, for example, distinguishes the “extreme far right” from both the “far right” and the “populist right.” Although the distinction between the “extreme far right” (Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, and Attack in Bulgaria) and the other parties seems valid, I am not convinced about difference between the “far right” and the “populist right.” Although Alternative for Germany has often been portrayed as populist in the German press, as it is on the map, it appears to me to be more of a neo-liberal (or “classical liberal”) party. At any rate, the remainder of this section of slides provides more detail on number of these parties. As can be see, they generally have heavier representation in the European parliament than in the legislative chambers of their own countries.

A number of these parties would like Europe adopt immigration policies more like those of Australia. The final set of slides thus outline the Australian immigration system, examining policies on both asylum seekers and those seeking work permits through standard immigration channels.

MediterraneanMigration

Ukraine Lecture Slides

Dear Readers,

Ukraine mapUnfortunately, regular posting continues to be delayed due to other obligations. I do, however, hope to write a brief post on some of those “other obligations” later this week. Mostly, however, I have simply been busy preparing slides for my weekly lectures this term on the history and geography of current global events. This week’s lecture focused on Ukraine. The 128 slides for this one-hour-and-fifty minute lecture are available below, in pdf format. The first group of slides examine current events, the second turns to geographical patterns, and the last explores historical development.

 

Next week’s lecture will look at news and controversies surrounding international migration, with a particular focus on South Africa and Mediterranean crossings from North Africa to Europe.

UkraineSlides

Attempts to Map Latin America’s Political Spectrum

Latin America Pink Tide MapsThis’s week’s lecture for my class on the history and geography of current global events focused on the crisis in Venezuela, the slides from which are available at the link posted below. I framed this situation in terms of Latin America’s “democratic revolution” of the late 20th century followed by its electoral turn to the left (the so-called pink tide) in the early 21st century. In order to illustrate the latter phenomenon, I searched for maps showing the geographical extent of the “turn to the left” and quickly found a few. Most of these maps depict countries with “left” governments in red and “right” governments in blue; they do so for specific years, as with each national election the distribution of governing parties can easily change. Some of these maps also show the degree of leftward (or rightward) orientation of particular governments by using different shades of color, employing pink, for example, for center-left governments and darker hues of red for farther-left regimes.

Daily Kos Pink Tide MapSuch maps evidently prove confusing for some readers in the United States, who are accustomed to seeing electoral support for the center-left Democratic Party mapped in blue and that for the center-right Republican Party mapped in red. This usage, however, only goes back to 2000, and is generally limited to the U.S. The long-established international convention is to associate the political left with the color red. To translate the mapping of Latin America’s “pink tide” into the idiom of the United States, the website Daily Kos provided two maps in which the color scheme was reversed, proclaiming that the “Pink Tide = Blue Latin America.” The resulting maps are crude and not particularly accurate, but I have posted them here nonetheless.

My main problem with these maps, however, is not their crudity or inaccuracy, but rather that they seem to imply that a country with a far-left government, such as Venezuela, should be conceptualized like a “deep-blu”e U.S. state that generally votes for candidates from the Democratic Party, such as Massachusetts. As a result, I devoted part of my lecture to outlining criticisms of the standard one-dimensional political spectrum based on the left-right distinction. In the slides linked to below, one can find images of the competing “horseshoe” and “matrix” models, the former maintaining that the “ends” of the political spectrum converge, and the latter insisting on a two-dimensional political arena that differentiates social from economic beliefs. Another slides indicates that the manner in which such matters are conceptualized varies significantly from country to country and from region to region.

My own preference is actually that of a complex, multi-dimensional political space that acknowledges the fact that an individual can hold logically consistent beliefs on a great number of particular issues that that fail to mesh with either a one-dimensional spectrum or a two-dimensional matrix. Such a multi-dimensional scheme, however, would be too complicated for general use and too difficult to represent graphically. As a result, we must fall back on simplistic schemes, such as the left-right continuum, while recognizing their limitations.

Latin America Political Spectrum MapWith such considerations in mind, I tried to map the current governments of Latin America along the left-right spectrum. Doing so, however, is anything but easy, as it requires the making of subjective judgments about the political complexions of particular governments. How far to the right, for example, is the government of Paraguay as compared to that of Panama? Both the Panameñista Party that currently governs Panama and the Colorado Party that current governs Paraguay are members of the Union of Latin American Parties, which proclaims its political position to be center-right. Historically, however, the Colorado Party seems to be more conservative in many ways that the Panameñista Party, and hence I have mapped it accordingly. But I am not at all certain about this choice, and I am far from pleased with the map. Please feel free to criticize as you see fit.

Next week’s lecture will examine the current situation in Ukraine and Russia.

Venezuela Slides

Yemen Lecture Slides

Hadhrami Diaspora MapAs mentioned in a previous post, I have devoted most of the past week to preparing a lengthy lecture on Yemen for my course on the history and geography of current global events. I had planned to develop several blog posts on the issues, focusing on such matters as the position of Hadhramaut, an important and fascinating region in eastern Yemen, in the current struggle. (For those interested in the culture of this region, I would recommend the blog-site “Out of Hadhramaut”.) Unfortunately, other pressing issues have descended, making it impossible for me to write these posts.

But I have decided to share all of my many slides from this lecture in PDF format, available at the link below. The first group of these slides mostly provides headlines pertaining to recent events in the country (up to April 7, when the lecture was give). The next set explores the geographical, demographic, economic, and cultural background of Yemen, with a subset devoted to Hadhramaut. The final section examines the country’s historical background, going back to the Bronze Age. I have provided URL information for many of these slides; many of those lacking such information are derived from Wikipedia. In the future, I will try to provide URL information on all slides for this course.

I have some misgivings about sharing these slides without providing explanations of them, as I am sometimes critical of the images that I show. One example here would be the BuzzFeed photos of qat chewing, which I find over-the-top and somewhat reminiscent of the exaggeration found in early anti-drug films such as Reefer Madness, but rather amusing nonetheless.

I do hope that some readers will find these images to be of some use.

Yemen,April7,2015

 

Final Maps on “Geopolitical Anomalies”

This post merely contains some of the additional maps that I prepared for my March 31 lecture on the history and geography of current global events. These maps, like those in the two preceding posts, focus on geopolitical irregularities and anomalies in a region of the world that might be called the “Greater Middle East” (for lack of a better term). The maps in this post, in general, depict anomalies that are less pronounced than those considered in the previous posts.

Unfortunately, I do not have time to prepare explanatory text to accompany these maps. I must be ready to give an hour-and-fifty-minute lecture on Yemen for the same course on Tuesday, April 7, and that will demand most of my time over the next two days.

Divided Territories Map Non-Contiguous States MapOman Exclave MapNew States MapRefugees Map 1Refugees Map 2European Colonial Spheres MapFederations Map

Geopolitical Anomalies in the “Greater Middle East,” Part 2

(note: The introduction to this post is found in the post of April 1)

Thus far we have examined a number of geopolitical anomalies in a sizable region of the world centered on Saudi Arabia. We have not yet looked at the most serious challenge to the standard model, however, that of state collapse. Other important issues remain to be considered as well.

Feeble States MapAs mentioned in the introduction to this series, Somalia has not functioned as a coherent state since 1991. Although its internationally recognized federal government controls more territory than it did a few years ago, large areas are still under the power of the radical Islamist group al-Shabaab, while the northwest forms the de facto state of Somaliland. Other areas are essentially run by local clans or other organizations that pledge their ultimate loyalty to the federal government but in actuality have complete or almost complete autonomy. A prominent example is Puntland in the northeast, which covers a third of Somalia and contains roughly a third of its population. Puntland’s constitution reveals its geopolitically ambiguity. It states, for example, that “Puntland is an independent integral part of Somalia”; being “independent” and being an “integral part” of a given country, however, would generally be seen as mutually exclusive propositions.

For many years, Somalia was the only collapsed state in the area covered by the map. That is obviously no longer the case. The official governments of Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq have lost control of vast stretches of their official territory to rival national governments, fully autonomous regions, and Islamist militias. It is now questionable whether any of them can be reconstituted as coherent states, at least any time soon. The authority that several of these states do still possess, moreover, relies heavily on military backing from other countries. The governments of both Iraq and Syria, for example, depend on the armed clout of Iran. The United States and other countries also help prop up Iraq by launching air strikes against ISIS (alternatively, ISIL, Daesh, or Islamic State). Afghanistan is more stable and unified than the other countries highlighted on the map, and is therefore depicted in a lighter shade of red. But if the United States military were to withdraw completely, it is quite possible that it too would unravel — as indeed has previously occurred in the recent past.

Islamist Organizations Greater Middle East MapOne of the main reasons for the collapse or near collapse of the states depicted on this map is the rise of radical Islamist organizations, the more important of which are shown on the next map. The territories under the power of these groups change rapidly, and as a result the map should be regarded as suggestive rather than strictly factual. But the rise of these groups is highly significant, presenting a major challenge to the standard model of global geopolitics. The more extreme groups, such as ISIS, vehemently reject the very notion of the nation-state, which they view as an unholy Western creation and imposition. Although the territories under the control of Islamist armies may well be rolled back in the coming months, these organizations still have the ability to attract militants both locally and from abroad, and thus will likely continue to present an obstacle to state consolidation for many years.

Combat Fatalities MapAlthough actual battle casualties in recent years have not surprisingly been highest in Syria and Iraq, many other countries in the region have experienced a good deal of bloodshed. The map to the left shows total combat fatalities by country for 2014 alone, based on a Wikipedia table. Two states stand out here that have not featured prominently on the other maps in this series: South Sudan and Central African Republic. South Sudan would actually rank second, after Syria, if I had selected the highest estimate given for each country rather than the lowest. South Sudan is noted as the world’s newest sovereign state, having gained independence in 2011. When South Sudanese rebels were fighting against the government of Sudan for independence, they were able to maintain a degree of cohesion, but when that struggle ended the two main ethnic groups of the region, the Dinka and the Nuer, quickly fell apart. Although the fighting has more recently subsided, it is uncertain whether South Sudan will be able to construct cohesive state. Central African Republic has a much longer history of independence than South Sudan, but it also continues to have difficulty in this regard. The vicious fighting between its Muslim and Christian militias in 2014 certainly does not bode well for future stability.

Separatist Movements MapEven many of the countries in this region that have not experienced extensive combat nonetheless contain active separatist movements that seek independence for the people they claim to represent, thereby challenging the legitimacy of the nation-state. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, most of the countries visible on this map are home to such separatist groups, as can be seen in the image posted here. Most of these organizations, however, are not particularly violent or effective, and many consist of little more than a few discontented persons banding together to create a website. But others have the potential to emerge as threats to the states in which they are located. Consider, for example, Ethiopia. According to the Wikipedia article, Ethiopia experienced only 218 combat fatalities in 2014, 172 in the war against Somali OLF Mapinsurgents in the eastern Ogaden region and 46 in the struggle against Oromo rebels in the central part of the country. The same article, however, gives much higher cumulative combat fatalities in these struggles (1,300 in both cases). Another Wikipedia article states that the insurgency of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) ended in 2012, but a low-level conflict nonetheless persists, and as recently as the 1990s the organization boasted 60,000 fighters (current figures run around 5,000). Significantly, the OLF claims roughly half of Ethiopia’s territory, and its website maintains that it represents an Oromo nation some 40 million strong.

 

Border Disputes MapThe next map in today’s post shows the ubiquity of territorial disputes in this part of the world, based on another Wikipedia table. As can be seen, relatively few countries here have no border disagreements with their neighbors. Most of these disputes are admittedly relatively minor, and thus do not interfere much with international relations. Some are also rather obscure, such as the argument between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over Tiran and Sanafir islands. According to Wikipedia, Egypt controls these islands but Saudi Arabia claims them, but the article goes on to state that “the definite sovereignty over Tiran Island is left unclear by both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, due to geostrategic reasons.” GlobalSecurity.org, however, frames the issue quite differently, stating that:

Tiran Island MapBoth of the islands officially belong to Saudi Arabia but are being used by Egypt. Because of strict military regulations, it’s not possible to enter the islands.

The Multinational Force and Observers [MFO] has soldiers stationed at observation points to ensure both parties abide the treaty. The force and observers, totaling 1,900, are under the command of a Norwegian military officer. The military personnel are on loan from 11 nations.

Other border disputes in the region are far more serious. The Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, for example, is absolutely rejected by the government of Afghanistan, which claims that it had been negotiated with the British colonialists in South Asia to separate spheres of influence rather than to fix an international boundary. This perennial border dispute plays into the tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have recently intensified. As noted in a Wikipedia article on Afghanistan–Pakistan skirmishes, “The cross-border shellings intensified in 2011 and 2012 with many reports from different occasions claiming that Pakistani missiles have hit civilian areas inside Afghanistan’s Nuristan Province, Kunar Province and Nangarhar Province.”

Additional geopolitical anomalies found in this region of the world will be explored in the final post in this series. With luck, that post will go up on April 5. We will then turn our attention to the situation in Yemen.

 

Geopolitical Anomalies in the “Greater Middle East,” Part I

(Note: The introduction to this post is found in the previous post, that of April 1))

U.N. Greater Middle East MapA detail from the Wikipedia map of United Nations members, discussed in the previous post, shows only one non-member in the region that we might crudely dub the “greater Middle East,” which is the focus of today’s post. That non-member is the Palestinian geopolitical anomalies map 1territory, composed of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as can be seen the second map. This area is deeply anomalous in regard to geopolitical standards, and would be worthy of an entire post. The two units of which it is composed are not just geographically but also politically separate, despite efforts to form a unity government.* They have some but by no means all of the attributes of sovereignty. As the map notes, they also occupy an ambiguous position in the United Nations, as well as in the global system of mutual state-to-state recognition.

geopolitical anomalies map 2But the Palestinian territories are merely one of a great many geopolitical anomalies found in the region depicted on this map. Consider, for example, the situation of Kosovo. Although the U.N. map portrays Kosovo as part of Serbia, it is in actuality an independent country. It is not, however, a members of the United Nations, and its recognition by other sovereign states is far from complete. Three other states in the region are also characterized by incomplete international recognition, as the next map shows. 32 U.N. members do not recognize Israel, while Cyprus and Armenia are each denied by one member, Turkey in the former case and Pakistan in the latter. Curiously, Pakistan refuses to acknowledge Armenia in deference to Azerbaijan, which has lost much of its internationally recognized territory to Armenia, yet Azerbaijan itself continues to recognize the country.

geopolitical anomalies map 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

geopolitical anomalies map 4The next map, “States With Barely Functional Central Governments,” highlights recognized U.N member states in which regional governments or factional militias have more power than the state itself, a category that encompasses Lebanon and Bosnia & Herzegovina. In the former case, the militia of Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia political party, is much stronger than the national armed forces. As Hezbollah militarily operates on its own, with support from Iran and without oversight by the Lebanese government, its presence in Lebanon contravenes a key defining feature of the state, as states are supposed to have a monopoly over the legitimate use of force and coercion. Lebanon has a peculiar system of “confessionalism,” one in which politics are structured around religious communities. Although this system once functioned relatively well, it has not in the long run proved conducive to national unity. Intriguingly, Lebanese confessionalism was enacted as a temporary measure more than 80 years ago, yet it remains full ensconced.

Bosnia in many ways is even less of a coherent state than Lebanon. It is divided into three autonomous units, the “Serb Republic,” the Croat-Bosniak “Federation” (which is itself rather dysfunctional), and the self-governing unit of Brčko (which formally belongs to both the “republic” and the “federation”). Equally important, the highest political office in the country is arguably that of the “High Representative,” who is not even a citizen of the state, making Bosnia something of an international protectorate. As the Wikipedia notes, “The OHR’s [Office of the High Representative] prolonged interference in the politics of Bosnia and Herzegovina is also considered to be one of the causes of the low commitment of citizens towards the state.” The other reasons for the “low commitment of citizens towards the state,” however, are probably more significant, particularly that of the persisting ethnic animosity that marks Bosnia’s constituent communities. If given a free choice, most Bosnian Serbs would probably opt to join their territory with Serbia, just as most Bosnian Croats would likely want to join their lands with Croatia. Under such conditions, referring to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a sovereign state is a bit of a stretch, while calling it a “nation-state” is simply unreasonable.

geopolitical anomalies map 5The next two maps, showing internationally unrecognized annexations, are a bit more straightforward. Russia has officially annexed Crimea, and will likely retain full control over that territory. But as this action is widely viewed as illegitimate, most maps produced elsewhere in the world will almost certainly continue to show Crimea as geopolitical anomalies map 6Ukrainian territory. The situation in regard to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh is somewhat more complicated. The Armenian-majority territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has officially declared itself to be an independent state, although it has not been recognized as such by any member of the U.N. Most sources, however, regard it as having been unofficially annexed by Armenia. Most of the lands surrounding the official boundaries of Nagorno-Karabakh, moreover, are controlled by the Armenian military and are therefore effectively part of that country. Armenia is able to maintain control over these territories, which formally belong to the larger and more economically powerful country of Azerbaijan, in large part due to Russian support.

geopolitical anomalies map 7The next map portrays internationally recognized sovereign states that do not control their full territorial extent due to the emergence of self-proclaimed states (which are themselves depicted on the following maps). All of these proclaimed statelets exercise effective power over all or most of the territories that they claim, but they do not necessarily possess all of the elements that constitute genuine sovereignty. Most of them are widely viewed as “puppet states” of larger independent countries.

 

 

geopolitical anomalies map 8The map posted to the left shows the three self-proclaimed states in question that have received some international recognition. Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Turkey and is often regarded as Turkish client state. The other two, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have gained higher international standings, being reckoned as independent by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru. (Vanuatu had briefly recognized Abkhazia and Tuvalu had briefly recognized both states, but they later withdrew their recognition). Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are commonly regarded as Russian client states, with Nauru giving its nod of approval due to financial compensation from Russia, and Venezuela and Nicaragua doing so to signal their disapproval of the United States and other countries opposed to Russia’s actions. Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared their independence shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, rejecting membership in Georgia, which by international consensus should rightfully encompass them. Northern Cyprus declared its independence from Cyprus in 1983, a maneuver made possible by the Turkish invasion and partition of the island in 1974.

geopolitical anomalies map 9The next map adds to the previous one several self-proclaimed states that lack international recognition. One, Nagorno-Karabakh, has been discussed earlier in this post. Three of the other entities shown on this map, Transnistria (officially, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic), Luhansk People’s Republic, and Donetsk People’s Republic, are widely regarded as Russian puppet states. Transnistria was hived off from Moldova after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the latter two emerged out of far eastern Ukraine during the conflict of 2014. Together, Luhansk and Donetsk form the self-proclaimed federation of Novorossiya, or New Russia. They are recognized as sovereign states only by South Ossetia. Transnistria is recognized by South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Together, these four statelets comprise the inaptly named Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations, also called the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States. The other self-proclaimed state shown on this map, Somaliland, enjoys more genuine independence, not serving as a client state. Yet Somaliland has no formal international recognition and is instead regarded as part of the non-functional state of Somalia. Ethiopia, however, comes close to recognizing it, with its local consulate headed by a diplomat with ambassadorial ranking. In 2014, moreover, the British city of Sheffield recognized Somaliland’s independence, a purely symbolic maneuver that nonetheless generated marked enthusiasm in the self-proclaimed state.

geopolitical anomalies map 10Finally, the last map includes as well a fully autonomous region that has not declared its own sovereignty but may well do so in the future: Iraqi Kurdistan. Of all of the “statelets” shown on this map, Iraqi Kurdistan probably has the most effective government; along with Somaliland, moreover, it has the best claims to possessing something approaching genuine independence. I have also appended to it the currently autonomous Kurdish areas of northern Syria, known locally as Rojava. The future situation of this area is of course highly uncertain.

 

Whatever Rojava’s future may hold, the region is currently structured in an interesting manner that has some bearing on geopolitical models. As described in the Wikipedia:

 The political system of Rojava is a mixture of socialist principles at the local level with libertarian principles at the national level. …

Political writer David Romano describes it as pursuing ‘a bottom-up, Athenian-style direct form of democratic governance’. He contrasts the local communities taking on responsibility vs the strong central governments favoured by many states. In this model, states become less relevant and people govern through councils similar to the early US or Switzerland before becoming a federal state in the Sonderbund war. Rojava divides itself into regional administrations called cantons named after the Swiss cantons. …

Its programme immediately aimed to be “very inclusive” and people from a range of different backgrounds became involved (including Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, and Turkmen (from Muslim, Christian, and Yazidi religious groups).

 

Thus far we have examined just a few of the anomalies found in the geopolitical map of this region. We will look at many more in tomorrow’s post.

* As noted in the Wikipedia, “On 30 November 2014, Hamas declared that the unity government had ended with the expiration of the six month term. But Fatah subsequently denied the claim, and said that the government is still in force.”

The Flawed Standard Model of Geopolitics

(Note to Readers: GeoCurrents is now resuming publication after its winter hiatus. Over the next 10 weeks, posts will be oriented toward a weekly lecture course that I am teaching on the history and geography of current global events. The first lecture, given on March 31, examined an overarching issue that is essential for understanding many pressing events of the day: the fraying standard geopolitical model of the world. This taken-for-granted model posits mutually recognized sovereign states as the fundamental building blocks of the global order. Many of these basic units, however, are highly fragile and a number have collapsed altogether. As a result, the next several posts will consider, and critique, the conventional state-based vision of the world.

The second lecture for the course, to be given on April 7, will examine the situation in Yemen. As a result, next week’s posts will be focused on that country. Subsequent lectures and posts will be determined later as global events unfold. As always, informed comments and questions are welcome.)

World Politcal MapAs long-term GeoCurrents readers are probably aware, I am skeptical of the standard “nation-state” model of global politics, as I think that it conceals as much as it reveals about current-day geopolitical realities. This model, evident on any world political map, rests on the idea that that the terrestrial world is divided into a set number of theoretically equivalent sovereign states. Each state is supposed to hold ultimate power over the full extent of its territory, possessing a monopoly over the legitimate use of force and coercion. Such states, it turn, are supposed to recognize each other’s existence, and in so doing buttress a global order in which political legitimacy derives in part from such mutual recognition. The territories of such states are theoretically separated by clearly demarcated boundary lines, which are further solidified by international consensus, without overlap or other forms of spatial ambiguity. Ideally, national territories are contiguous and can thus be easily mapped as single units, rather than scattered across the map in widely separated pockets, as was characteristic of premodern geopolitical systems based on feudalism and dynastic authority.

The standard geopolitical model is explicitly territorial, equating the state (government, in essence) with the area that it rules (the country). As a result, the terms “sovereign state” and “independent county” are fully synonymous. But the model takes a further step by linking in as well the concept of the nation. A nation, as strictly defined on political grounds, is a group of people with common feelings of belonging to a single political community, ideally rooted in cultural commonalities, that either exercises, or aspires to exercise, self-rule. In earlier historical periods, most states made no pretense of being nations, and were instead organized as multi-national empires, subnational city-states, or dynastic kingdoms that ruled over but did not represent their varied human subjects. But with the rise and spread of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the ideal political form came to be the nation-state, one in which the state bolstered its legitimacy by claiming to represent its given nation. In the post-WWII era, it came to be assumed that all sovereign states either already were nation-states or would soon gain that status through the process of “nation-building.”

This new model of global political geography was formalized and institutionalized with the creation of the United Nations in 1945. As the very name of the organization makes clear, the fundamental unit of geopolitics was now defined as the nation, taken to be exactly the same thing as the sovereign state or the independent country. In the U.N. General Assembly, each member is an equal participant and hence an equivalent unit. All are taken to be self-governing units with full sovereignty that represent distinct nations, occupy clearly demarcated territories, and recognize the legitimacy and territorial integrity of each other. On these grounds, the United Nations is supposed to promote international cooperation and work toward global concord.

U.N. Member States MapAs this standard model of global politics has triumphed in the public imagination, the map of the member states of the U.N. has come to mirror the world political map. In the Wikipedia map posted here, only one territory— Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara—appears on first glance to occupy an anomalous position. Closer inspection, however, reveals two smaller non-U.N. areas, mapped as grey circles: the Vatican City and the Palestinian territories. (Countries too small to be easily visible on the map are mapped as circles, thus ensuring that all are represented.) Overall, the show a nearly solid expanse of distinct blue units, members of the U.N. that are also sovereign national powers.

But does it really? Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, yet it is seemingly mapped here as if it were. Such a misleading portrayal is done in deference to the government of China, which views Taiwan a renegade province that will eventually be united with the mainland, even though it is actually a fully independent country. Similarly, Kosovo is mapped as if it were part of Serbia, even though it is also sovereign state, and one that is recognized as such by 108 out of 193 U.N. members. Equally problematic, a number of non-sovereign but self-governing territories that are not themselves members of the U.N. are nonetheless mapped as if they were, marked by distinct blue circles. Examples here include the “Crown dependencies”—the Isle of Man and the bailiwicks of Guernsey, and Jersey—anomalous territories that fall under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom yet are neither parts of it nor colonies of it. More troubling is the fact that the map also seemingly classifies as members of the United Nations (again, as indicated by their distinct blue circle) a number of territories that U.N. itself has placed on its list of non-self-governing territories, such as Gibraltar, French Polynesia, and Bermuda. According to the U.N., these are colonized throwbacks to an earlier era that should be granted independence, given full and formalized self-rule, or subsumed within the territory of an existing U.N member state.

Although it is easy to criticize this map for such infelicities, devising a more accurate portrayal would be no simple matter, as the actual geopolitical situation of the world is considerably more complex than the picture conveyed by the standard model. Many territories occupy inherently ambiguous positions in regard to such crucial characteristics as “sovereignty,” “independence,” and “international recognition,” and hence cannot be mapped in a straightforward manner.

The crucial flaw of the standard model is that it is based on a prescriptive rather than a descriptive view of the world yet never acknowledges that fact. What it shows, in other words, is how certain political actors and entities think that that world should be politically organized rather than how it actually is organized. Most world political maps thus show a country called “Western Sahara” even though there has never been a sovereign state of that name occupying that territory. Such “actors and entities” refer in general to the governments of the U.N.’s constituent members, which have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the existing system. But even here profound disagreements persist, as can be seen in regard to the debates over the political standing of such places as Taiwan, Kosovo, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories.

How Many Countries Are There?As a result of such complications, it is impossible to answer such a seemingly simple question as “how many countries are there in the world today?” As the image posted here show, answers vary according to how the term is defined and whose particular viewpoints are taken into account. A degree of ambiguity and uncertainly is thus acknowledged – but only a degree. Standard reference works allow only slight variation in how the world’s sovereign states are enumerated, with accepted figures generally ranging from 189 to 197.

By the same token, other irregularities in the standard geopolitical model are also widely recognized, such as the presence of hotly contested borders and the existence of complex arrays of exclaves and enclaves in which small pieces of one country are wholly surrounded by the territory of another. But such features are generally regarded as minor exceptions to a general pattern that still holds firm.

In the decades following the formation of the United Nations, the actual political map of the world seemingly came into ever closer accord with the standard model, as decolonization progressed and as numerous newly independent states made progress in inculcating a degree of national solidarity among their citizens. But more recently, the model has begun to unravel, as previously solid-seeming states collapse and as state-like organizations and unrecognized but effectively sovereign entities proliferate. Somalia has been something of a ghost state since 1991, and more recently Syria, Yemen, and Libya have ceased to function as coherent countries, yet they still remain firmly ensconced on our political maps, unlike such effectively independent but unrecognized entities as Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland. Recognizing the reality of this current geopolitical predicament is essential for dealing with it successfully. If one remains beholden to the exhausted model, one risks disengaging from reality in preference for a fantasy world increasingly divorced from actual circumstances.

Some evidence suggests that serious problems have already been generated by undue faith in the standard geopolitical model. When the United States and its partners invaded Iraq in 2003, planners assumed that Iraq was a solid nation-state firmly united by a sense of common Iraqi identity, and that as a result the country could be easily transformed into a democratic state though imposed regime change followed by the institution of free elections, the rule of law, and other trappings of democracy. But as division of Iraq Mapsevents showed, Iraq was actually nothing of the kind. To be sure, a sense of Iraqi identity had emerged among many segments of its populace, but when push came to shove, it quickly became apparent that such national solidarity was relatively superficial, overridden by regional, sectarian, linguistic, and other forms of identity. International policy is still based on the idea of the intrinsic national unity of Iraq, but such a vision increasingly seems illusory. I doubt that Iraq will ever be reassembled into anything approaching a functional state, let alone a coherent nation-state. To the extent that it continues to exist on our maps, it will likely be little more than a mirage.

Standard Model Political MapTo demonstrate the frailty of the standard geopolitical model, the next few GeoCurrents posts will illustrate its inconsistencies and anomalies through a series of maps depicting the current geopolitical situation in a sizable region focused on the so-called Middle East. Rather than using the conventional world region of that designation, I have outlined a circular area centered in northern Saudi Arabia. I have pursued this strategy in order to accommodate as much disorder as possible within a circumscribed area, one that encompasses troubled areas ranging northeastern Nigeria to eastern Ukraine to the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Within this broad zone, as we shall see, the standard geopolitical model fails repeatedly to convey existing realities.

GeoCurrents Suspension

ancient map of the worldDear Readers,

Due to a number of professional obligations and personal matters, I must suspend GeoCurrents until at least April 2015. At that time I will reconsider the future of the site. Many thanks to those who have read the blog, and special thanks to those who have taken the time to provide informative comments.

Best wishes to all,

Martin Lewis