There’s a lot of talk of states these days. Palestine and Israel, one state or two? Ukraine and Russia. One state or two? The United States. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one…right? What about that one D.C. federal district, or those five territories, and a bunch of ‘minor’ islands? And don’t forget the many tribal nations within the nation-state of the United States which can often spread across many state borders!
I started writing about all this and it got long, so I’m broke it two. Ex uno plures, from one, many. I suppose there’s a lesson in all this. No matter how fixed a given state of affairs may appear, we have to be prepared for bifurcations and reconfigurations.
Let’s dig in!
THE RISE OF STATES
I easily confuse states with nations. Nations are loosely defined as a group of people with a shared identity. A nation-state is a political structure represented by a territorial boundary claiming to contain a common identity. I used the words ‘loosely’ and ‘claim’ because so many territorially bounded areas or nations contain a multitude of identities. The United States, a notoriously diverse country, is a great example.
Nations and nation-states seem to have chicken-and-egg origin story. I believe those who claim the nation-state rose out of folks like those early European colonizers. Fueled by the thought of amassing wealth, land, and power once only believed to be wrangled by feudal lords and monarchs, influential and enterprising European intellectually ‘entlightened’ elites pooled their resources and got to work.
The idea of a nation-state, and their bordered geographic territories, began to take shape through 14th-17th century Europe. The late Middle Ages and the rising Renaissance witnessed a gradual decline of feudalism and the rise of centralized monarchies who were incented to consolidate power within defined territorial boundaries. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years' War in Europe, is often cited as a key moment in the history of nations as it established the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity fundamental to the nation-state concept.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of nationalism, a significant driving force behind the nation-state concept. Nationalism emphasized a shared identity based on language, culture, and ethnicity, often aligned with a specific geographic territory. The French Revolution (1789–1799) and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars accelerated the spread of these ideas across Europe.
Language invention and reconstitution burgeoned across Europe. One example is from 1820 Finland. Born out of an interest in Finnish tradition and culture a groundswell of nationalism by Finnish writers, teachers, pastors, and attorneys took hold. They stitched together their collective past stories and dialects and published dictionaries and grammar guides that differentiated them from the Swedes. This forged a more confident and self-determined government and national identity defined by their borders and their language.
In 1819 the first publication of Ukrainian grammar was printed. Russian grammar was defined just 17 years prior. By 1830 more Ukrainian writers were published in their native language. This is the date that established the language as a bonding element of Ukrainian nationalism. In 1846 the first Ukrainian nationalist organization was founded. And not by a politician with a sovereign agenda, but by a historian.
The 19th century also saw the unification of various nation-states. Notable examples include the unification of Italy in the 1860s and Germany in the 1870s. These unifications were driven by shared cultural, linguistic, and ethnic identities, as well as by political and economic interests.
It took Germany just 40 years to rise as a dominant and powerful nation-state in Europe. This led to tensions around Europe, especially with France and Britain. But it was a Serbian nationalist group and their assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in 1914 that triggered war. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and Europe erupted into World War I.
The United States entered the war in 1917, in part fearing a potential alliance between neighboring Mexico and Germany. This was also the same year they began preparing for peace agreements and the redistricting of territories of nation-states.
In 1918 U.S. President Woodrow Wilson boarded a ship for Paris bringing with him a team of cartographers to create materials for the Paris Peace Conference. This included chief cartographer Mark Sylvester William Jefferson who had invented a form of thematic mapping based on ethnography, demography, and population distribution called anthropography.1
Comfortable with nearly thirteen languages, he and a team of ethnographers, linguists, and anthropologists set up offices in a Paris hotel. They drew convincing maps used by Wilson and his allies to sell other world leaders on the formation of nation-states that would best serve their interests. U.S. interest in one of those nation-states invented in Paris remains today — Ukraine.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER, ALLIED BY RANCOR
Out of this conference emerged the first worldwide intergovernmental organization, the League of Nations. With it came a set of treaties that shifted power principally to the United States, Great Britain, and France while mandating political power to newly drawn, U.S. directed, and ethnically and linguistically determined nation-state maps.
Just four years after the formation of the League of Nations, in 1923, the League of Nations turned their attention to the Middle East declaring Palestine a state. A British mandate, it was based on a cartographic line originally drawn in 1906 by the British and the French between Palestine and Egypt. This was the first internationally recognized boundary in the Middle East.
Having already colonized Egypt as part of their growing empire, England then wanted control of the Suez Canal. So they invented another border that awarded them the Sinai Peninsula. Then, in 1916, the English and French met in secret to create a dividing line between Egypt and Turkey. They decided Egypt would go to England and Turkey would go to France. Four years later they determined Lebanon and Syria would go to France, and Palestine and Mesopotamia to England.
It took the end of the second World War in 1947 for the League of Nations, now rebranded the United Nations, to recommend a plan to divide Palestine into two “independent Jewish and Arab states.”2
The Jewish organization that had long been helping resettle the area begrudgingly accepted the proposal, but most of the Arab contingent did not. In 1948 the British mandate expired, hundreds of Palestinians were expelled, 78% of the land was handed to Israel, and before the year was up the region had their first Arab-Israeli war. And here, again, like in Ukraine, today we have borders and states defined by the West roiled in controversy and war.
History reveals how European and American colonialism spread the concept of the nation-state globally. And economics were a central theme. Local and regional agrarian and mercantile economies of the 17th century led to regional specialization, with certain areas developing specific industries based on their geographic advantages. This specialization then influenced economic structures within nation-states and their interactions with other states. Those with common religion, language, or cultures conspired against the ‘others’.
Natural resource acquisition, deprivation, and distribution brought needs for trade routes and resource accessibility at a time when the world was being both mapped and explored by Europeans. Geographic features that facilitated or hindered trade, such as rivers, seas, mountains, and plains, all impact the development and power of nation-states. For example, access to trade routes along the Dnieper River has played a critical role in trade and distribution from Greece to Kiev dating all the way back to the first millennium BC.
The Suez Canal was built it in the late 1800s by the French and remains an important international trade route to this day. The industrial revolution and subsequent urbanization and modernization that followed all hinge on economic geography. And its nation-state status that awards a nation’s entry into competing and cooperating or demoralizing and destroying.
I’d like to think cartographers like Jefferson, and social scientists like him, were well-intentioned and hopeful they could use human identities forged from language, culture, ethnicity, race, creed, or tribes to empower and protect vulnerable peoples politically and socially. Perhaps they believed these cartographic mandates, sensitive to human geography, could lead to peaceful and eternal coexistence.
But it seems fictitious fixed borders drawn on a map fail to convey, capture, and contain the amorphous and pluralistic panoply of peoples. Maybe identities can’t be drawn by a Cartesian map using political philosophies rooted in Cartesian dualities. Maybe nations and nation-states shouldn’t be defined by one common shared identity. Maybe they can’t. Maybe these concepts have run their course and we don’t yet know what comes next.
Maps Made to Persuade: Part 2: Mapping the powerful and the ponderous at the Paris Peace Conference. Interplace. Brad Weed. 2022.