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

Seduced by the Map, Introduction (Part 2)

Submitted by on September 7, 2022 – 1:35 pm |  

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.

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