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Home » Myth of the Nation-State, Seduced by the Map

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

Submitted by on September 29, 2022 – 2:02 pm |  

Military Bases

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

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

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

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

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

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

The CIA World Map Reconsidered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Lazar 1968, p. 730.

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

[6] Lutz 2009, p. 7.

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

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

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

[10] Vasiliev 2018, p. 489.

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

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

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


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