When the news is writing a page of history

Geopolitical explanations of risks in the new world order

When the news is writing a page of history
Strange sentiments affect the witnesses and agents in this second decade of the 21st century.  The old world seems to them to be unequivocally dead, while the new one is not yet born, with no clear delivery date.
The interaction of these two states is often at the heart of much pessimism but also questions, doubts, uncertainties, concerns and understandable but possibly dangerous nostalgia.

This is by no means the first time that the generations to whom belonged the second half of the 20th century are faced with critical schisms between the past and future.

There was 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the defining symbol of the Cold War. There was 2001, when, on 9/11, we saw tragically that History was not at an end.

In these two cases, there were certainly remarkable places and images, but nevertheless understandable and interpretable events.

But since 2011, all countries, regions, and continents seem to be in motion simultaneously, without apparent links. This (apparently) senseless motion, almost Brownian in nature, begets anguished bewilderment.
We will suggest here that a geopolitical lens can make a small contribution to fashion comprehension from anxiety. Let’s give geopolitics a chance, with the understanding that geopolitics is the composition of geography and history.

The argument that follows will attempt to demonstrate by just a few examples that it is less the world that is changing so radically than the lenses with which we view it, our geographical and historical perspectives, remain stagnant and anachronistic, making comprehension difficult if not impossible.

Let us use as case studies three places: Libya, Syria, and Iraq. It is now 2016, five years after the start of what we felt able to call the Arab Spring. 

What season would it remind us of today? All the readers of this article, as well as the writer, have learned to identify the names of these three countries, to locate them on color-coded maps with names identifying precisely delineated states. There’s no doubt, we were dealing with countries or even states. What is the legacy of this? 

We see the pieces of a fragmented puzzle superimposed on the names of old ruined countries: in place of exploded Libya there is now Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan.

Meanwhile in Iraq and Syria, Sunni and Shia, Arabs and Kurds (the reality is far more complex than this simplification) have by fire and blood torn apart the countries we had become used to seeing.
But in reality all these entities existed long before our maps were printed, long before we learned to conceive of the world by their neat lines. Libya, Syria, and Iraq, are in effect voluntary and recent constructs, born out of the desire to overcome old divisions by giving independence to heterogeneous regional agglomerations in the first half of the 20th century.

In the first the desire was Italy’s, while with respect to Syria and Iraq it was the Franco-British Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 – its centennial being this year – which should be conducive to its co-memorization, meaning the common, popular operational memory. 

These realities precede our memory. Long before we were demarcating world maps, complicated identities existed in the places we wished to simplify, sometimes with good reason, by a varnish of homogeneity. But the old identities have persisted under the thin layer of the will of men. It is as if we wished to hide wall cracks with whitewash. 

Everyone agrees that history is written by the victors, we should also add that it is they who draw the maps. But just as the clothes do not make the man, as a beard does not make a philosopher, likewise a map does not create a territory, especially when it tries to agglomerate some and divide others. And identity perseveres, it can be recalled at any time.

And this is what is playing out before our eyes. We have mistaken makeup for skin, constructed appearances for ancient realities. This incredible illusion causes us to confuse maps and territories. This is my initial hypothesis: we have learned to view the world through the latest maps, while real comprehension requires an appeal to the make-up of the former territories. Rendered myopic by our acclimation short time spans, we are stupefied by the resurgence of long-term realities. On all sides, the tables turn, tossing off tablecloths and dishes.

Can we find more examples of what could be called territory’s revenge on maps?
These could be countless since the process is at work the world over, we can all discover this process around us.

So we see in Africa the reappearance of ancestral rifts between nomads and sedentary peoples, ancient denizens and new arrivals, farmers and stock-breeders, animisto-Christians and animisto-Muslims. And a number of countries recently drawn onto the atlas have already fractured, will they survive? 

In Europe as well, the fracture lines, hidden from view by the superficial cosmetics of maps, are reopening: we see in the division of Ukraine, which is itself but a constructed aggregate from 1945, the divisions that emerged during the East-West schism of Christianity in 1054, always alive as testified by the meeting between Popes Francis and Kirill in February 2016.

This line also went through Crimea, which only became separated from Russia in 1954. Those who have seen but the edited map, are not aware of these circumstances. And this situation is even more extreme for those who have seen only maps created after 1991, they have learned of the world with no cartographic references to the USSR. 

Just as the sign "Wet Paint” signals that it is best to stay away, we should be wary of "recent maps”. There is not enough space here for many more examples. We will contend ourselves with just a few to highlight how troubling and systematic is the current counter-attack of territories on maps. 

Greece’s Orthodox affiliation appears in its movement away from the European Union and towards Russia. There is no ambiguity here: what is influential here is not primarily religious beliefs or practices, but, above all, a cultural tropism, encompassing believers, unbelievers, and infidels all.

Since the start of 2016 we have seen in Athens a project for the departure of Greece from the Schengen agreement to put it in line with the non-signatory Romania and Bulgaria, recreating the dividing line between the Eastern and Western Roman Empire which dates from the fourth century AD! 

As for the independence movements in Scotland and Flanders, notice that these are territories that were not incorporated into the Roman Empire, regions whose people were regarded as barbarian. It appears that the past does not pass. Let us stop the examples there. Do not doubt that each can find in his own geographic environment illustrations of such processes. 

In the Chinese world, unity does not eliminate the Beijing/Shanghai divisions, nor the peculiarities of identity among the Han and other populations. In Vietnam there is the presence and resurgence of specificities between Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina.

There are many much more qualified than me who can demonstrate how diverse India persists as just one country.

In the United States itself, are we certain that the divisions of the Civil War are forgotten? A recent quarrel over flags gives reason to doubt this assumption.

Of course, we gladly admit that there may be counterexamples, we are not proposing an absolute theory but a lens to use as a key, with which we do not aim to open all doors. 

However, through these examples, several lessons can be offered to readers to inform their viewpoints and reflections on the risks of the world. We offer two:

• The revenge of territories on maps, long arcs of history on short periods, is a bearer of violent conflicts, which accompany affirmations of identity, resurgences all the stronger for having been buried, as a return of the repressed. They destabilize the powers in place that loathe ceding their privileges. Even though they are cyclical, decades serve as brackets on history. It is necessary to explain: in all cases,the aggrandizement of tensions leads to an  increase in risk and necessitates investigating a broader scope.

• A second lesson: the proposed hypothesis shows how dangerous it is to confuse short and long time - the duration of our lives, the length of our memory, and the span of history. It is perilous to consider a volcano extinct just because it has long seemed dormant. This is the same error that leads some to renounce vaccinations, having never experienced an epidemic.  A specialist in risk management must then have a memory which extends far beyond his or her birth.

Beware, beware of amnesiacs! 

By Alain Simon, Managing Director of the Phileas Consulting Group

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