9 Chapter 9 Political Geography

R. Adam Dastrup

The 20th century was also the deadliest century, in terms of war, in human history.  This century experienced two world wars, multiple civil wars, genocides in Rwanda (Tutsis and moderate Hutus), Sudan, Yugoslavia, and the Holocaust that decimated the Jewish population in Europe during WWII. In addition to WWI and WWII, this century experienced the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the first Gulf War. Additionally, this century saw regional and civil conflicts such as those experienced in the Congo (6 million people died), as well as an upsurge in child soldiers and modern slavery.

9.1 Defining Nation-States

The term nation refers to a homogeneous group of people with a common heritage, language, religion, or political ambition. A state is an organized political community acting under a government. States may be classified as sovereign if they are not dependent on, or subject to, any other power or state. States are considered to be subject to external sovereignty, or hegemony if their ultimate sovereignty lies in another state. A federated state is a territorial, constitutional community that forms part of a federation. Such states differ from sovereign states, in that they have transferred a portion of their sovereign powers to a federal government. A location claimed by a sovereign state is called a territory.

To understand the differences between state and nation, consider an example like Poland. The people of Poland have long formed a nation with a shared language and culture, but that nation has, through history, been crosscut by various political borders. Thus, at times, members of the Polish nation have been governed by different states. Today, Poland’s boundaries roughly align with the geographical area where the people of the Polish nation live, and thus Poland can be thought of as a nation state.

States may be classified as sovereign if they are not dependent on, or subject to, any other power or state. Other states are subject to external sovereignty or hegemony where ultimate sovereignty lies in another state. A federated state is a territorial and constitutional community forming part of a federation. Such states differ from sovereign states, in that they have transferred a portion of their sovereign powers to a federal government. When people of the same nation and state come together, there is a true nation-state, wherein most citizens share a common heritage and a united government.

The concept of the state is different from the concept of government. A government is a particular group of people that controls the state apparatus at a given time. In other words, governments are the means through which state power is employed; for example, by applying the rule of law. The rule of law is a legal maxim whereby governmental decisions are made by applying known legal principles. The rule of law is rule not by one person, as in an absolute monarchy, but by laws, as in a democratic republic; no one person can rule and even top government officials are under and ruled by the law.

The concept of the state is also different from the concept of a nation, which refers to a large geographical area, and the people therein who perceive themselves as having a collective identity. The state is a political and geopolitical entity; the nation is a cultural or ethnic entity. The nation-state is a state that self-identifies as deriving its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign entity for a nation as a sovereign territorial unit. The term nation-state implies that the two geographically coincide.

In classical thought, the state was identified with political society and civil society as a form of the political community. In contrast, modern thought distinguishes the nation-state as a political society from civil society as a form of economic society. Civil society is the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests. It is sometimes considered to include the family and the private sphere and then referred to as the third sector of society, distinct from government and business.


A colony is a territory that is controlled by a sovereign state. European powers focused on establishing settlements and political power around the world by imposing their military, economic, political, and cultural influence through colonialism. Colonialism is control of previously uninhabited or sparsely inhabited land. Europeans used colonialism to promote political control over religion, extract natural resources, increase economic influence, and to expand political and military power. The European states first colonized the New World of the Americas, but later redirected their focus to Africa and Asia. This colonial expansion across the globe is called imperialism. Imperialism is the control of territory already occupied and organized by an indigenous society.

State Formation and the Centralization of Power

Today we take it for granted that different societies are governed by different states, but this has not always been the case. Since the late nineteenth century, virtually the entirety of the world’s inhabitable land has been parceled up into areas with more or less definite borders claimed by various states. Earlier, quite large land areas had been either unclaimed or uninhabited, or inhabited by nomadic peoples who were not organized as states. In fact, for most of human history, people have lived in stateless societies, characterized by a lack of concentrated authority, and the absence of significant inequalities in economic and political power.

The first known states were created in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, the Americas (e.g., Aztec civilization, Inca civilization). Most agree that the earliest states emerged when agriculture and writing made it possible to centralize power durable. Agriculture allowed communities to settle and also led to class division: some people devoted all their time to food production, while others were freed to specialize in other activities, such as writing or ruling. Thus, states, as an institution, were a social invention. Political sociologists continue to debate the origins of the state and the processes of state formation.

9.2 Political Institutions of a State

There are various forms of government a country can adopt and how government forms the foundations of the institutions that countries build. Although this course tries to give a global perspective on government, a lot of the specifics we will look at will be from the perspective of the United States.

Divisions of Power

How do societies remain free? Constitutions, as we have seen, can declare there are all kinds of freedoms. For them to work, people have to obey the law. One answer has been dividing power within a government, so that there are checks on the power of any one part of the government, or the power of any particular interest group. If the power of the government is limited, citizens see that government is not overstepping its bounds, and are more likely to go along and obey the law.

The power within a government can be divided in various ways. Obviously, in authoritarian governments, power is not divided, and so there is no check on the power of whoever has the authority. This can create a couple of problems. First, it robs people of the ability to peacefully take action if the government does something they do not like. Second, there are no brakes if the government gets carried away – nothing in the system that could force those in authority to adhere to the laws as written.

Checks on power begin with elections. Elections effectively split power between the people and the government. If citizens do not like something government is doing, they can vote elected leaders out of office. However, elections are periodic – they only happen every so often – and in the short term, the government can do things that an election will take too long to rectify.

A second check on power is the division of power into different branches. This is not very common around the world; many republics tend to concentrate power in the legislative branch. That is especially true of parliamentary systems, where the head of government, the prime minister, is usually the leader of the majority party in parliament. So in that system, there is no separate branch that checks the power of parliament (except, perhaps, a constitutional court that can rule on the constitutionality of a particular law). This is called legislative supremacy – most power in the government rests with the legislative body. It has the advantage of letting things happen more quickly. In a parliamentary system, a new majority party can make changes more quickly, as there is no president to veto new laws, or usually even another legislative chamber where proposed changes can bog down.

That happens in a country such as the United States, where power is divided between co-equal branches of government. In the case of the U.S., that means only Congress can pass laws; the president must sign them to become law, and the court system can declare laws to be unconstitutional and thereby null and void. Of course, the president appoints federal judges, who must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and Congress as a whole can impeach and remove any federal official from office for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The problem with this term is that the Founding Fathers never clarified what “misdemeanors” constituted a big enough crime to remove a sitting president from office. The ancient Roman Republic had even more checks on power, to the point where needed reforms were impossible to push through because somebody nearly always had the power to keep them from happening. The American government can sometimes look that way, although when the game is on the line, the system does allow change to happen, such as the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s. On the other hand, it took nearly 100 years after the Civil War for the question of civil rights to be meaningfully addressed. Consequently, division of power into branches is both a prize and a penalty in government. The checks and balances inherent in such a division make it harder for government to get carried away, and also make it harder to get anything done.

Unitary and Federal States

Most governments are placed into two categories: federal states or unitary states. Unitary states place most of the political power in the hands of a central government. The unitary state model works best with states that have little cultural or ethnic diversity and strengthen national unity. The United Kingdom is an example of a unitary state. Federal states, like the United States, works best with nations that have greater diversity. Size also determines if a government tends to be unitary or federal. Large states like the United States, Russia, or Canada tend to be federal because having the entire country controlled by one city (i.e., capital) becomes impractical. Many states around the world have been pressured to decentralize their governments and provide more political power to smaller ethnic groups.

Federalism, Unitary Systems, and Confederations

Federalism is a system of government that divides power between different levels of government. A Confederacy would give most if not all the power to states that make up the confederation, while a unitary system of government puts all the power in the hands of the central government.

The vast majority of the world’s governments are unitary. A strong central government lends power to subnational governments, who cannot make and execute policy on their own. Unitary governments can create or abolish subnational units of governments. Federal governments typically cannot. The U.S. national government, for example, cannot decide that Wyoming would be much better as a part of Montana, or that two Dakotas is just one too many.

The other choice usually is a confederation, in which a group of states is equal partners in a government. While this prevents a strong central government from dictating to its members, it also means nobody is in charge. The United States, from 1783-1788, was a confederacy, under the Articles of Confederation. It did not work very well. The national government could not pay its debts, which caused the economy to shrink; the states were on the edge of war over trade and territorial issues. The Confederate States of America seceded from the Union in 1861, leading to the Civil War. They, too, suffered the problem of being unable to compel the member states to support the war effort fully.

The European Union is a confederation. Although there is a freely elected European Parliament, it lacks the full authority to force the 27 member states to do everything it might. The power of the confederation primarily exists because the member nations have signed on to the treaties creating it, because they share a common currency (the Euro) and because states such as Germany and France have so much more economic power than the other members (and cannot afford to see it all fail). It helps that all the member nations are relatively well-developed states and all republics with regular elections of their own. The EU also seems to be very careful in not stepping on the sovereignty of its member nations. As a consequence, despite EU provisions that require member nations to maintain roughly balanced budgets, significant budget deficits in Greece, Italy, and Spain have provoked a financial crisis for the entire union.

imageFederalism divides and shares power between the national government (often referred to as the federal government in the U.S.) and subnational governments such as states or provinces. Subnational governments may be bound by a national constitution, but have some ability to work within that framework to create their particular laws. In U.S. federalism, for example, states can regulate trade within their borders, but only the federal government can regulate commerce that crosses state borders. National governments usually retain the sole ability to provide for national defense and the conduct of foreign relations, whereas both the states and the national government can create traffic and environmental laws. Both levels can raise revenues and spend money, while only national governments can address topics relating to international trade. Larger nations sometimes turn to federalism to manage widespread territories, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Federalism comes in varies degrees. In weak federalism, states do not get very much power, as in Mexico or Brazil. In strong federalism, subnational governments have a higher degree of power, as in Canada. The federalism in the United States is somewhere in between. Worldwide, 26 states are federal republics; nine more have granted some local authority to regional governments.

For example, for most of its history, the United Kingdom was a unitary state. England conquered Wales and Ireland, and was united with Scotland when James I became king of both nations in 1603. Ireland won its independence in 1921, but the six counties of what became Northern Ireland voted to remain in the United Kingdom. However, then, in 1997, people in Scotland and Wales voted for devolution, by which the central government granted some authority to local assemblies there. Northern Ireland also now has its local assembly as well. All can raise taxes, spend money, and order their affairs, but they are not sovereign states.

9.3 Shape of States

The shape of a state is essential because it helps determine potential communication internally, military protection, access to resources, and more. The following is a list of the six types of state shapes and can be viewed in Google Maps by clicking on the links provided.

Compact states have relatively equal distances from their center to any boundary, much like a circle. They are often regarded as efficient states. An example of a compact state would be Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi.

Elongated states have a long and narrow shape. The major problem with these states is with internal communication, which causes isolation of towns from the capital city. Malawi, Chile, and Vietnam are examples of elongated states.

Prorupted states occur when a compact state has a portion of its boundary extending outward exceedingly more than the other portions of the boundary. Some of these types of states exist so that the citizens can have access to a specific resource such as a large body of water. In other circumstances, the extended boundary was created to separate two other nations from having a common boundary. An example of a prorupted state would be Namibia.

Perforated states have other state territories or states within them. A great example of this is Lesotho, which is a sovereign state within South Africa.

Fragmented states exist when a state is separated. Sometimes large bodies of water can fragment a state. Indonesia is an example of a fragmented state. Fragmentation also occurs when a state is separated by another state. An example in the U.S. would be Michigan.

Landlocked states lack a direct outlet to a significant body of water such as a sea or ocean. This becomes problematic specifically for exporting trade and can hinder a state’s economy. Landlocked states are most common in Africa, where the European powers divided up Africa into territories during the Berlin Conference of 1884. After these African territories gained their independence and broke into sovereign states, many became landlocked from the surrounding ocean. An example here would be Niger.

Types of State Boundaries

State boundaries are determined either by physical features such as rivers, mountains, deserts, or glaciers or by cultural features such as religion, culture, or ethnicity. Boundaries are dynamic features that vary with space and time. Throughout most of human history, boundaries were determined by frontiers where no political entity controlled the area. These were often large, uninhabitable regions such as deserts, oceans, and glaciers. However, technological and communication advancements have allowed nations to protect their regions without the need of frontiers. Today, most frontiers have been replaced by boundaries.

Desert boundaries can be quite significant barriers for states and can serve for protection. Deserts are typical along 30 degrees north or south of the equator where permanent high pressure creates sunny, dry conditions year-round.

Mountainous boundaries can also protect large areas if they are difficult to climb through. However, they can also isolate societies from each other using transportation, trade and export, and culture. Like desert boundaries, they can also make geopolitics difficult when determining the boundary of a state since it is not a clear boundary or line.

Often, water boundaries like rivers, lakes, and oceans create state boundaries. If the body of water is large enough, it can be protective. Invading armies would need to use boats and limited resources to attack a state from its water boundary. However, boundaries that use rivers and lakes can be problematic with changing climates. If a river meanders to a new location, does the boundary of that country also change?

Geometric boundaries are straight lines drawn on a map.

Cultural boundaries are used to separate people with differences in both of these cultural traits. Often, cultural and ethnic conflicts occur between people with different languages or religions. Religious differences often coincide with boundaries between states, but in only a few cases has religion been used to select the actual boundary line. The most notable example was in South Asia, when the British partitioned India into two states based on religion. The predominantly Muslim portions were allocated to Pakistan, whereas the predominantly Hindu portions became the independent state of India. Language is an essential cultural characteristic for drawing boundaries, especially in Europe. By global standards, European languages have strong literacy traditions and formal rules of grammar and spelling. Language has long been an essential means of distinguishing distinctive nationalities in Europe. In 2011, the state of Sudan separated into Sudan and South Sudan along a language boundary.

9.4 International Institutions

Even as the Cold War dragged on, the nations of the world created international forums for attempting to address disputes between nations. World War I, the war to end all wars, as it was known at the time, prompted the victors to create an international body known as the League of Nations. At its peak, it included 58 nations, and created several forums for addressing political and economic issues. It lasted from 1920 to 1942, and suffered immediately from the failure of the United States to join. The U.S. became somewhat isolationist following World War I, the end of which created only an uneven peace and seemed to foster as many problems as it solved.

Nonetheless, the league represented the high point of interwar idealism, built on a belief that nations could talk instead of shoot, and that diplomacy would solve more problems than would bombs. Despite its best intentions, it was mostly powerless, and the member nations failed to act when Italy invaded Italy unprovoked in 1935. The league effectively collapsed with the start of World War II.

Following the end of the war, however, the nations gathered to try it again, creating the United Nations in 1947. The U.N., headquartered in New York City, declared its support in its charter for a broad range of human rights, and attempted to provide a multilateral forum for talking things out. Although every member nation gets one vote, a certain number of decisions must be funneled through the 15-member Security Council, which consists of five permanent members, including the United States, France, China, the Russia Federation (formerly the Soviet Union), and the United Kingdom. The other ten members are elected by the General Assembly to two-year terms, with each region of the globe represented on the council.

The five permanent members each have veto power, and can block action by the council. Also, since the members are often taking what can only be described as a realist perspective on their approach to foreign policy, Russia may seek to block concerted action in war-torn Syria, where it has interests, just as the U.S. will block U.N. resolutions to condemn Israel’s handling of the Palestinian question. Which is, in case you have missed it, whether there will ever be a fully sovereign Palestinian state. The Security Council’s permanent membership is overwhelmingly white and western. One suggestion has been to add Brazil, India, Germany and Japan (sometimes called the G-4) as permanent members, plus perhaps one African and one Arab state. The existing permanent members have not exactly jumped on that bandwagon, as doing so would reduce their power on the council. The U.S. supports adding Japan and perhaps India; the Chinese oppose adding Japan. Great Britain and France have supported adding the entire G-4.

The U.N., through its member nations and its various branches, has had some success. Member nations have contributed combat troops for peacekeeping missions, which attempt to separate belligerent groups in one country or region to forestall all-out war. It has in fact, since its inception, negotiated 172 peace settlements that have prevented all-out war in various parts of the world. U.N.-led efforts, via the World Health Organization, to stamp out various diseases have met with some success, a few nations will object to efforts to end deadly diseases such as smallpox. U.N. cultural efforts have probably also helped preserve important historical sites all over the world, and have at least underscored the importance of preserving some of our shared past. So while the U.N. has not managed to end the war, it has not been an abject failure.

One of the essential documents that came from the United Nations is called the Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/).  Based on the United States Bill of Rights, this declaration declares what rights humans have throughout the world no matter what nation they are a citizen of.

The U.N. includes the International Court of Justice, which has been used to settle disputes between nations. It has 15 justices elected from the U.N. General Assembly, and while the Security Council can enforce its decisions, council members may also veto that action. Consequently, the court has acted with mixed success. In 1984, for example, the court ruled that U.S. efforts in Nicaragua, in fact, violated international law; the U.S. ignored the decision. In other instances, the court has been able to help solve border disputes between nations. Special courts also have been established by the U.N. to try war criminals from conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Other international organizations have had some impact globally, particularly in economic areas. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have attempted to spur economic developments and end poverty, with decidedly mixed results. Critics abound on both the left and the right. Conservative critics say they waste too much money; liberal and left critics say it merely helps cement the economic dominance of the western world. Sometimes they fund projects that make sense, such as wastewater treatment projects around the world, while at other times, they support efforts, like digging a canal to flood a seasonal river in Africa to produce fish in the desert, manage only to produce the most expensive fish in the world. Similarly, the World Trade Organization (WTO), which is a forum for resolving trade disputes and for encouraging open trade, is neither all good nor all bad.

Not every intergovernmental organization (IGO) is global in scope. The world is peppered with regional organizations, ranging from the European Union (EU) to the African Union.

The EU is particularly noteworthy. It grew out of the end of World War II, beginning with a customs union to ease trade between Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. From there it grew into trade agreements over coal and steel, to the European Common Market, and finally to the EU in 1993. It now has 27 member states in a political and economic union. While not quite the United States of Europe, it does have an elected parliament with the ability to make some common law for the entire group, and a common currency, the euro. Travel and trade over national borders are considerably eased, and crossing from one EU state to another is now little more complicated than crossing from one U.S. state to another.

No other intergovernmental organization is quite that extensive. For example, ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Countries, has ten member states and focuses on promoting economic development and shared expertise and resources. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a relic of the Cold War. Initially created to help forestall Soviet aggression in Europe, it remains a mutual defense pact between the U.S., Canada and much of Europe. An attack on one member is regarded as an attack on all, so that the U.S. response to 9.11 was in fact at NATO response.

To the extent that international institutions work at all, it is because nations adhere to what the institutions say. While a hard-line realist perspective would encourage ignoring the U.N. or the WTO, a liberal perspective would suggest that nations go along if only because it is in their interest for others to do the same. A nation cannot very well expect another nation to observe the rule of law if it does not do so itself. International law, therefore, works because of reciprocity—each state expects the others to behave the same way, so it adheres to the law to encourage others to do the same.

The United Nations

The United Nations (UN), headquartered in New York City in 1949, is an international organization whose stated aims are facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and achievement of world peace. The UN was founded in 1945 after World War II to replace the League of Nations, to stop wars between countries, and to provide a platform for dialogue. It contains multiple subsidiary organizations to carry out its missions.

Replacing the League of Nations

The League of Nations failed to prevent World War II (1939–1945). Because of the widespread recognition that humankind could not afford a third world war, the United Nations was established to replace the flawed League of Nations in 1945. The League of Nations formally dissolved itself on April 18, 1946, and transferred its mission to the United Nations: to maintain international peace and promote cooperation in solving international economic, social, and humanitarian problems.

Creation of the United Nations

The earliest concrete plan for a new world organization was begun under the aegis of the U.S. State Department in 1939. Franklin D. Roosevelt first coined the term ‘United Nations’ as a term to describe the Allied countries. The term was first officially used on January 1, 1942, when 26 governments signed the Atlantic Charter, pledging to continue the war effort.

On April 25, 1945, the UN Conference on International Organization began in San Francisco, attended by 50 governments and several non-governmental organizations involved in drafting the United Nations Charter. The UN officially came into existence on October 24, 1945, upon ratification of the Charter by the five then-permanent members of the Security Council – France, the Republic of China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States – and by a majority of the other 46 signatories. The first meetings of the General Assembly, with 51 nations represented, and the Security Council, took place in London in January 1946. Since then, the UN’s aims and activities have expanded to make it the archetypal international body in the early 21st century.

UN Peacekeeping

The United Nations Peacekeeping began in 1948. Its first mission was in the Middle East to observe and maintain the ceasefire during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Since then, United Nations peacekeepers have taken part in a total of 63 missions around the globe, 17 of which continue today. The peacekeeping force as a whole received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988.

Though the term “peacekeeping” is not found in the United Nations Charter, the authorization is generally considered to lie in (or between) Chapter 6 and Chapter 7. Chapter 6 describes the Security Council’s power to investigate and mediate disputes, while Chapter 7 discusses the power to authorize economic, diplomatic, and military sanctions, as well as the use of military force, to resolve disputes. The founders of the UN envisioned that the organization would act to prevent conflicts between nations and make future wars impossible; however, the outbreak of the Cold War made peacekeeping agreements extremely difficult due to the division of the world into hostile camps. Following the end of the Cold War, there were renewed calls for the UN to become the agency for achieving world peace, and the agency’s peacekeeping dramatically increased, authorizing more missions between 1991 and 1994 than in the previous 45 years combined.

9.5 Challenges to the Nation-State

In the world in which we live, the globe is divided up into sovereign nations. Remember that a sovereign state is one in which the state in the form of the government is the highest earthly power – there is no place to appeal a decision of the state except the state itself. So a sovereign state has defined borders that are respected by its neighbors, and control over its territory. In this part of the discussion, when we use the term “the state,” we mean a sovereign nation, not a political subdivision such as a U.S. or Mexican state. States in federal systems such as the U.S. and Mexico are formally referred to as sovereign states, but they are still ultimately dominated by national governments.

Moreover, this is where the challenges of international relations begin. In much of our discussion of politics, it is presumed that the state holds power and uses it as the people who control the state see fit. The power may be divided into different branches and levels of government, or not divided; through mechanisms such as elections, different people may assume power and state policies may change as a result of those elections. This presumption of a kind of state and a kind of allocation of power casts the study and practice of politics in a particular light. There is a way to resolve disputes; ultimately, somebody has the power to say yes or no and, absent violent revolution; everybody has to go along. However, in a world of genuinely sovereign states, which recognize no higher authority than themselves, the system is best described as anarchy.

A sovereign state is said to be the ultimate authority within its boundaries, borders that are respected by its neighbors. The government is legitimate in the eyes of the citizens, who generally obey the law. The United States is a sovereign nation; so are France and Indonesia. Most of the 192 recognized nations on earth are, in fact, sovereign nations.

Somalia, on the east coast of Africa, is not quite. The nation is currently divided into three parts. First is the former legitimate government of Somalia, which controls very little of the country, mostly in the south, and is beset by various warlords and religious factions. In the middle is a functioning state calling itself Puntland, which does not seek independence from Somalia but, at this point, might as well be. In the north is a state calling itself Somaliland, which is mainly functioning as a sovereign nation although few other countries currently recognize it as such.

This world of sovereign states came together in a treaty called the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. That treaty ended the 30 Years War, literally a three-decade-long conflict between Catholic and Protestant rulers and their subjects that tore apart what is now Germany and caused widespread suffering across Europe. Throughout history, people have found creative and largely pointless reasons for killing each other. However, the upshot of the treaty was that states had a right to order their affairs, in this case, the most northern, Protestant principalities of Germany and what was then called the Holy Roman Empire. The treaty, in effect, created the notion of sovereignty as an acknowledged fact of international law and diplomacy, and the Europeans exported the idea from there to the rest of the world.

European colonialism, as when the European nation states carved up Africa at the end of the 1800s, forced sovereignty onto sometimes disparate groups of people that had previously been more or less sovereign nations in their parts of the continent. Only two African states – Liberia, which which had been carved out earlier in the century by freed American slaves, and Ethiopia, which had been successfully fending off invaders for a thousand years—survived the onslaught. Although Africa had long been home to several substantial kingdoms and empires, the Europeans by the late 1800s had taken a technological leap forward that allowed them to conquer the continent in a few decades. The redrawing of the African map lumped together with groups of people who had previously been part of different states, creating political challenges when the Europeans were forced out after World War II.

A world comprising sovereign states means that there is no overarching world power that can tell them what to do. Why not, then, a world government to sort everything out? First, most if not all the sovereign states would have to agree, and both political leaders and ordinary citizens tend to dislike having someone else tell them what to do. The farther away from that someone is, the less they like it. Visions of black helicopters and invading U.N. troops were the stuff of many Americans’ paranoid nightmares in the 1970s and 1980s, despite the lack of any reality to this fear. Even if such a government could be established, the variety and diversity of the world would make it very difficult to rule, even in a highly democratic state. A world government would have to keep control and settle local and regional disputes, becoming, in the process, as despotic as the states it replaces, if not more so.

So, what we are left with are a lot of sovereign states, and a world system that is based on that single fact. Moreover, as there is no referee or overarching power, one state can erase another, as when Prussia and Russia effectively erased Poland, once the most significant state in Europe, from the map in 1795. The Poles, and their language, culture, and traditions remained, but the Polish state did not reappear until 1918. This does not mean that a state can act without consequence. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, states from around the world united in the effort to drive the Iraqis out and re-establish Kuwaiti sovereignty. Later in the same decade, Europeans and Americans joined to end ethnic cleansing in what was then Yugoslavia. So no state operates in a vacuum.

What remained of Poland after its 18th-century partition, and what most defines a place such as Somalia today, is a nation. In the precise terminology of international relations, a state has defined borders, but a nation has a cultural, linguistic, or ethnic similarity among a group of people. A nation is a sense of community among a group of people; that group of people may want to control themselves politically and become a nation as well. So, for example, the Kurds, of whom around 30 million live in the Middle East, are a nation but not a state. They are divided chiefly between Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran, comprising the largest single ethnic group in the world without its state. Kurdish separatists have fought for independence in Turkey, and all but carved out a sovereign state in the north of Iraq. However, at the moment, the Kurds remain a nation, and not quite a state.

9.6 Terrorism

The term terrorist (Latin for “to frighten”) has become a mainstream term since the attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Terrorism is the systematic use of violence by a group in order to intimidate ordinary citizens as a way to coerce a government into granting the group’s demands. Violence is considered necessary by terrorists to bring widespread publicity to goals and grievances that they believe cannot be addressed through peaceful means.  Belief in the cause is so strong that terrorists do not hesitate to strike despite knowing they will probably die in the act. State-sponsored terrorism exists when a state provides sanctuary for terrorists that are wanted by other countries; provides weapons, money, and intelligence to terrorist groups; or helps in planning a terrorist attack.

Geospatial technology is used heavily in geopolitical conflicts within the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and the Department of Homeland Security, to name a few. The video on the right is a section of the Geospatial Revolution, Episode 3 that focuses on war and conflict.

Click here to read an interesting article from WIRED Magazine titled How Geospatial Analytics is Helping Hunt the LRA and al-Shabaab.

Geospatial technology can also be used for humanitarian efforts as a way to end conflict or monitor situations before they escalate. One organization, called the Satellite Sentinal Project, was created by The Enough Project and the largest private satellite imagery corporation called Digital Globe. The organization was first used satellite imagery from Digital Globe and Google Earth to monitor potential humanitarian conflicts along the border of Sudan and the newly created South Sudan. Now it is using satellite imagery to track poachers who use the money from the black market to fund civil wars like the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).


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Chapter 9 Political Geography by R. Adam Dastrup is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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