the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2011 December 5


Like any term, ‘nationalism’ cannot be understood in detail until a definition is found, and like many terms, ‘nationalism’ has more than one use in common and scholarly language. Colin Williams can be helpful here. ‘Nationalism’ can mean state nationalism, in which the nationalist is an enthusiast/defender/chauvinist of a particular state, generally on the belief or assumption that the state is congruent (as Williams says) with the nation (is, in other words, a “nation-state”). ‘Nationalism’ can also mean ethnic nationalism, in which the nationalist is an enthusiast/defender/chauvinist of a particular group of people, which is closer to the historical (pre-Westphalian) understanding of ‘nation’.

There are many, Williams and Daniele Conversi among them I believe, who view the nation even in the ethnic sense as inherently geographic. A nation, in this reading, is not just a group of people; it is a group of people identified with a particular territory. I find this unpersuasive. If the statement is meant to be true by definition — a group is not a nation unless it is identified with a particular territory — then I find it too far from the vernacular, or even the common scholarly, usage of ‘nation’.1 For instance, can the Romany not be taken as a nation? While their language can be traced back to India, they can hardly be defined by an association with India. What of the Jews? The modern existence of the state of Israel in the land of Palestine, as well as the historical memory of Palestine prior to Zionism, may be taken to satisfy the territorial requirement, but in reality Jewish identity relies on cultural, ethnic, and religious commonalities to a far greater extent than an origin in Palestine.

And of course, if ‘nation’ is not geographic by definition, but instead the assertion is that nations, however defined, have as well an association with a particular territory, then the word is overdetermined, and the above examples and many others argue against. If a nation from a South Pacific or Indian atoll relocates to Australia or India due to rising sea levels, does it become a different nation, or, should it not be granted a permanent territory, no nation at all?

Nonetheless, I am happy to concede that most nations are associated with, and especially associate themselves with, a particular territory. The claiming of territory is an important element of ethnic nationalism as it is generally found in the world. Wars are fought, of course, ethnic cleansing is undertaken, grievances are aired, irredentism is campaigned upon, sabers are rattled. Territorial disputes are quite common in the world, in rhetoric if not usually in arms, and many of them are ethnic in nature — that is, they are centered around the claim of a people, or more than one people, to a piece of land. Even when a state is involved (usually in the form of a purported “nation-state”), the nation is the typical claimant. For example, Taiwan and Tibet are claimed, as I hear it, in the name of “China”, the ethnic-cultural grouping, rather than in the name of “the People’s Republic of China”, the most recent form of political organization within that same ethnic-cultural grouping. The Serbs and the Kosovars haggle over Kosovo as peoples, with their governments merely agents; in particular, the Serb claim to Kosovo has much to do with the people’s history and culture, and the Kosovar claim to do with the people’s current residence, a claim made most significantly in the absence of an autonomous government.

While there are some, which in my own disputed reading includes Paul Hirst and Michel Foucault, who have begun questioning the territoriality of the state, in my view we are on much more solid ground to confine the word ‘state’ to a geographic entity. To put it another way, I would be comfortable including the control of land (not necessarily bounded land, certainly not recognized bounded land) as a necessary element of empirical statehood, because, as I have stated elsewhere, there is only one very-narrow sense in which an institution can rule over individuals without controlling the land on which they live, which is by seizing hostages or some other prized objects and carrying them around.2 To be sure, the traditional definition of state under Montevideo (consider the work of James Crawford) requires territory; we should not be bound by this usage, though, since at the same time it requires the subjective and nebulous “capacity to enter into relations with the other states”. But at the very least, the state is broadly considered to be geographic, and here I find the conventional position accurate, if not the conventional means of getting to it.

And so it happens that state nationalism is geographic of necessity, and ethnic nationalism is geographic under most real-world circumstances. It is thus completely or largely impossible to deterritorialize these nationalisms as ideologies in a way that many others can be. Indeed, many ideologies are universalist — various liberalisms, variations of socialism, and political fundamentalisms which are themselves based on universalist doctrines (so, Islamism). Fascism had elements of ethnic nationalism coupled with sundry, not always predictable, economic platforms, but was geographic because of nationalism. Environmentalism can have elements of local concern, but is more often associated with the territory of the whole Earth — post-geographic, if you will.

If geography is important to nationalism, how important is nationalism to geography? Counting both state nationalism and ethnic nationalism, it is one of a handful of significant driving forces in human geography. In fact, we can say that it is important to geography as a reality of the world, and at the same time it is important to geography as a subject: both what the world is, and what it is said to be. The latter is easily seen in the widespread perception of a world of countries. Sankaran Krishna’s identification of “cartographic anxiety” in India is partially a matter of insistence on the sanctity of the map, primarily the mental map but also every physical instance of a map, depicting the state as the state wishes to be depicted. John Agnew’s territorial trap is dependent on the conviction that the “countries” on the map are not mere expressions of diplomacy, which is far too narrow an interest for the common person to care about, but all-encompassing expressions of life and society.

The former importance, of nationalism to geography as a reality in the world, arises from the devoted, sometimes fanatical, actions of nations and those who would serve them and use them. Many of the nationalisms identified by Conversi are at work. If a nation is created (instrumentally) by power elites to serve their own interests, they naturally have an interest in territory, both for practical purposes — resources and defensive positions — and for symbolic purposes — if the created nationalism is territorial (and typically it is), defense of the territory is inherently popular. If, instead, the nation arose spontaneously, it will likely have emerged not only with a specific culture, but also in a specific place, which will then be integrated into that culture in its language and its lore. The people will be, in Yi-Fu Tuan’s sense, rooted to the place, unable to imagine themselves elsewhere.

While it is easy, when discussing nationalism, to confine our assessment to global-scale geography, Nuala Johnson reminds us that the material landscape of our everyday lives can also be changed by nationalism. The nation, particularly a state that pretends to nationhood or that is in service to an organic nation, has an interest in reminding us of the claim as often as possible; it is not enough to show us a map in elementary geography class, or to hang a map on the wall in a government building. We need to be surrounded by visible symbols of nationhood while conducting our ordinary business. Part of what concerns Krishna is the way that the state enforces national belonging — indeed, possession by the nation — in the lives of those who live within its claimed territory. In other words, India (as other states would do) has its borders clearly in mind, and wishes everyone living within those borders to keep them clearly in mind as well. It takes the borders so seriously, according to Krishna, that soldiers will be posted where the border crosses the Siachen glacier, even though an invasion at that point would be preposterous and even though half the soldiers posted there will die. This is cartographic anxiety to its extreme.

Taking the historical view, perhaps with the assistance of an atlas, we can clearly see that various nationalisms have had a greater impact on our world than other ideologies. A few decades of struggle in the name of communism, or even several centuries in the name of Islam, simply do not compare to century after century of conflicts in all parts of the Earth in the name of (if not actually the service of) a nation. Territorial claims are made, wars are fought, lands change hands, populations settle and are resettled or simply wiped out. The Westphalian myth of the permanence of nations and their territories is patently false even in the Westphalian era. But of course, if the efforts made by these very Westphalian entities to fix borders now and forever were ever successful, that resulting geography would also owe much to nationalism, given the pretensions of organic nationhood of even the most artificial Westphalian state.


1. I should clarify that with the word ‘nation’, we have the problem of multiple senses of multiple senses. ‘Nation’, thanks in part to the usage of ‘state’ for the elements of the US, has been put into service to take the place of ‘state’. I am not making any reference to that sense. Rather, I am talking about subsenses of the word after we have established that we are talking about groups of people, rather than polities.

2. It is important to emphasize in these discussions that we are talking about actual control, about coercion. The voluntary submission to the authority of a religious institution is not government, or certainly not as I am using it. Consider how likely we would be to call the US a government if citizens could pick and choose the laws they obeyed. And if we allow the Catholic Church to be a “government”, why not the Boy Scouts, or ‘Dancing with the stars’?


John Agnew. ‘The territorial trap: the geographical assumptions of international relations theory’, p53-80 in the Review of International Political Economy, v1 n1 (1994 Spring).
Daniele Conversi. ‘Reassessing current theories of nationalism: nationalism as boundary maintenance and creation’, p73-85 in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, v1 n1 (1995 Spring).
James Crawford. ‘The creation of states in international law’. Clarendon (Oxford), 1979.
Michel Foucault. ‘Security, territory, population: lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978’. Picador, 2007. Translated by Graham Burchell.
Paul Hirst. ‘Space and power: politics, war and architecture’. Polity, 2005.
Nuala Johnson. ‘Cast in stone: monuments, geography, and nationalism’, p51-65 in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, v13 (1995).
Ronald J. Johnston and Peter J. Taylor, eds., ‘A world in crisis? Geographical perspectives’, ch9. Blackwell, 1989.
Sankaran Krishna. ‘Cartographic anxiety: mapping the body politic in India’, p507-21 in Alternatives: Social Transformation and Humane Governance, v19 n4 (1994).
Yi-Fu Tuan. ‘Rootedness versus sense of place’, p3-8 in Landscape, v24 n1 (1980).
Colin H. Williams. ‘The question of national congruence’, ch9 in Johnston and Taylor, eds.



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