Democratic Ideals and Reality: An Enduring Tension

Portrait of Halford Mackinder
Portrait of Halford Mackinder (James Lafayette)

A century ago, a British member of Parliament and geographer, Halford Mackinder, wrote one of the famous books of geopolitics, Democratic Ideals and Reality. The book discussed the tension between what nations want (“democratic ideals”) and what they often get (geographic “reality”).

That tension seems especially topical this week. Read more

World Won’t Let Catalonia or Kurdistan Come Quietly Onto the Map

Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, October 3
Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, October 3 (Fotomovimiento)

Catalonia and Kurdistan couldn’t seem farther away. One is nestled in the peace and prosperity of Western Europe, the other swims in the chaos of a dissolving Middle East.

Yet the two independence referendums of these would-be nation states are revealing. Both raise questions about the meaning of their regional orders and have provoked pushback from the status-quo world. Read more

Iraq’s Kurds Deserve the West’s Support for Their Own State

View of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, May 10, 2011
View of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, May 10, 2011 (James Gordon)

Western countries are falling into the familiar habit of discouraging Kurdish self-determination.

American and European officials have urged Iraq’s Kurds to delay their independence referendum, scheduled for next Monday.

The reasons are by now well-known: a Kurdish state would anger the Turks, destabilize Iraq and complicate the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

All of which is true, but there will always be a reason to deny the Kurds self-rule. They have been stateless for generations. If it isn’t Turkish apprehensions today, it will be fears of an Iranian-Turkish condominium tomorrow.

The Kurds, one of the most progressive people in the Middle East, deserve better. Read more

Iraq Takes Similar Approach to Separatist Challenge as Spain

The Al-Rahman mosque in Baghdad, Iraq, October 23, 2003
The Al-Rahman mosque in Baghdad, Iraq, October 23, 2003 (James Gordon)

Like Spain’s, the central government of Iraq is determined to prevent an independence vote for its largest majority. But like the Catalans, the Kurds are determined to vote anyway.

Iraq’s parliament voted on Tuesday to stop a referendum in its Kurdish region and instructed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to preserve national unity.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to do “whatever is necessary” to prevent a referendum on secession in Catalonia. At his government’s request, Spain’s Constitutional Court has suspended the Catalan referendum law.

Catalan regional authorities are pressing ahead. So is the Kurdistan Regional Government, which controls the northern part of Iraq. Read more

Trump and the Turks

Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Donald Trump of the United States pose for photos in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 16, 2017
Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Donald Trump of the United States pose for photos in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 16, 2017 (Turkish Presidency)

As Donald Trump returns from his first international tour as American president, one thing that stands out is, as usual, the difference between his and Barack Obama’s approach to diplomacy. Whereas Obama’s first Mideast destinations were Turkey and Iraq, Trump’s were Saudi Arabia and Israel, a country Obama did not even visit until his second term in office.

Trump’s trip also included stops in Brussels, Sicily and the Vatican in Rome. Along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, these represent four of the five most significant allies of the United States within the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean region: Italy, Israel, the Saudis and the EU.

The fifth ally, which appears to have been snubbed, is Turkey. The Turks were not honored with a stop during Trump’s first trip to the region, as they were during Obama’s.

Turkey failing to make it onto Trump’s travel itinerary might seem to be of little significance, if it were not for the flurry of unpleasant events involving the Turks and Americans that have occured this same month. Read more

Catalans, Kurds, Given No Other Choice, Announce Referendums

Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Girona, October 1, 2014
Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Girona, October 1, 2014 (Ariet/Carles Palacio)

Both the Catalans and Iraq’s Kurds have announced independence referendums this week over the objections of their central governments.

The two might seem a world away. Catalans have virtually no security concerns. The Kurds are waging a war on two fronts: one against Turkey to the north and another against the self-proclaimed Islamic State to the south.

Yet they have things in common. Read more

Erdoğan Discovers Personality Doesn’t Trump Geopolitics

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey speaks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, in Kiev, March 20, 2015
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey speaks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, in Kiev, March 20, 2015 (Press Service of the President of Ukraine/Palinchak Mikhail)

Turkey still hopes the United States might reconsider their support for Kurdish rebels in Syria, but it doesn’t look like Donald Trump will change this policy from his predecessor, Barack Obama.

If anything, the new president has doubled down, approving the delivery of more arms to Kurds who do battle with the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Read more