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

Seduced by the Map Introduction (Part 2)

Submitted by on August 31, 2022 – 9:44 am |  

Capturing Geographical Complexity: Beyond the Standard Map

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

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

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

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

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

            Beyond the National Frame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Rankin, forthcoming, P. 15.

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

[5] See Lewis and Wigen 1997.

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

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

[8] Wood 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

[13] Anderson (1983).

[14] See the Verso webpage on the book:

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

[16] Mikesell 1983, p. 257.

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

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

[19] Graeber and Wengrow 2021.

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


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