Geeking Out on Nation-Statehood

Geeking Out on Nation-Statehood

By Sanjena Sathian


Because for many on the planet, maps aren’t innocuous documents. They’re historical proof that incites rage, extremism and violence.

By Sanjena Sathian

Among the more baffling features of the Islamic State is that it may not be a state at all — by most Western definitions. It’s a theoretical entity, held together not by a map’s boundary lines, but by insistent belief, ideology and other conceptual things that don’t exactly fit into cartographical lines.

Blame the maps …

It all starts with the maps. Just ask The West Wing:



Yeah, yeah. These are geeky, academic questions. But they also might be the stuff of bloodshed and warmongering. And as we’re plagued with problems of nationalism the world over, it’s fair to wonder what the whole deal with modern nations is, anyway. Because it’s not all about globalization in one easy finger snap.


Ze history in verrrry few seconds

  • If you draw it … : One explanation for the nation-state as we know it today is this — people like to make lists. We just can’t help ourselves. And so we inevitably made lists of countries, and lo! — the countries came after

  • Ay, Westphalia: Recall this tidbit from your European history class in high school? On October 24, 1648, the Thirty Years’ War ended with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia — the treaty we think of as having birthed the modern-day nation-state. But don’t assume the drawing up of the modern globe was done with a ton of sobriety and pomp. In fact, it took the participants almost four years to get their shit together on everything from seating arrangements to who would sing at what ceremony. 

  • Nationalism: From the Volk literature of Germany in the 19th century to the Pan-African movement in the late 1800s to the birth of multiple nations after the Brits’ departure from the South Asian subcontinent in 1947, the rise of nation-states has often meant the rise of nationalism — which might just mean patriotism, but could also mean an intense political ideology … intense enough to inspire violence.

  • Nonstate actors: Today, the world seems marked by more and more nonstate actors. Think al-Qaida first, and now the Islamic State. And if you ask prominent globalization thinkers like Fareed Zakaria, the whole polarity of the world is shifting. 


Reading List

  • The Ghost Nations: The definition of state seems straightforward. According to the 1933 Montevideo Convention: “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” That last one is the trickiest. But the problem is that every year, more and more groups of loosely defined people decide they want to be a state, too! And not all of them go gently into that good night. (Just take Khalistan and the caliphate as two examples.)

  • Geek out on all things polarity and consider how the balance of power changes: Check out Fareed Zakaria on the “post-American world,” and John Ikenberry on the same.

  • While everyone else was talking about China … : Globalization geek-slash-guru Parag Khanna was checking out what the future of dissipated and dispersed power looks like. His hypothesis? The view of the rising Asian tiger is short-term, and to get a real sense of the future of nation-statehood, we’d better look elsewhere.

  • The cartography revolution: And it all comes back to maps. Obsessed with politics, globalization and those other factors that make the world turn? The best way to geek out is on all things cartography.