Democratic Ideals and Reality: An Enduring Tension

From Catalonia to Cameroon to Kurdistan to Puerto Rico, democratic ideals clash with the realities of geography.

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.

Puerto Rico

It is not every day that the president of the United States gives a geography lesson, but that happened when Donald Trump explained aiding hurricane-struck Puerto Rico is so difficult because of “the big ocean” — the Atlantic, of course — blocking it from the rest of the country.

Puerto Rico’s ocean barrier is more than a logistical barrier. It is also an emotional, political one. It helps explain why many Americans care little about the plight of Puerto Ricans in the same way as they do for the hurricane victims of Florida and Texas.

It is also the main reason why the United States have not offered Puerto Rico statehood, despite 97 percent — of the 23 percent of voters who participated in a referendum this summer — supporting it.

Catalonia and Kurdistan

An opposite situation exists for Catalonia and for Iraqi Kurdistan. No oceans separate Barcelona and Irbil from Madrid or Baghdad.

Catalonia lies south of the Pyrenees Mountains, making it part of the Iberian Peninsula along with the rest of Spain. Ditto for Iraqi Kurdistan, which lies on the Mesopotamian side of the high peaks that divide Iraq from neighboring Kurdish regions east and north.

The tensions between democratic ideals — over 90 percent of Catalans and Kurds voted for independence (with 43 and 73 percent turnout, respectively) — and geographic realities are high.

There’s always a bigger fish

Geographic realities are not necessarily or directly decisive. Hawaii is an example of this; its Big Island is surrounded by an even bigger ocean than is Puerto Rico’s. Portugal is another example, Iberian but not Spanish. So too is Kuwait, Mesopotamian but not Iraqi.

The difficulty is knowing how much to lean toward realism or idealism in any given case.

The examples given came about less from ideals trumping geographic realities than geographic reality being crushed by an even greater reality, that of superpowers’ decisionmaking.

America chose Hawaii in spite of its remoteness, the British Empire chose to protect Portugal from the Spanish and French and both the Americans and British have worked, on separate occasions, to carve Kuwait out of the Mesopotamian plains to which it belongs.


This brings us to the other, neglected secession attempt this week, which occurred in Cameroon.

Cameroon was an historical compromise between two imperial powers, Britain and France, which took it from Germany in World War I. It is located in a region, West Africa, that was also split between the two European empires. An estimated 50-60 percent of people in Cameroon speak French and another 20-30 percent English.

Last week, more than a dozen people were killed in protests by the English-speaking minority, some of whom have called for separation from French-speaking Cameroon.

Misdrawn borders

In few parts of the world were geographical realities as ignored as in West Africa.

While it is popular to chastise British and French imperialists for misdrawing Middle Eastern borders, they did an even worse job in West Africa.

The region is full of states or autonomous regions which, like Kuwait, seem to be enclaves carved out from larger regions willy-nilly. Examples include Gambia, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and the Angolan region of Cabinda.

It also has states that, like Iraq, have narrow strips of land created solely to make them accessible to Europeans by sea. Examples include Gambia again, plus both Congos, Benin and Togo.

All this has left five states landlocked.


It is here where we come to the final and perhaps most important aspect of the secession issue: transnational regionalism.

Regionalism has kept Puerto Rico from becoming an Atlantic Hawaii: it belongs to a region — Latin America — the United States is not part of.

Regionalism plays a role in Catalonia, where the strength of the EU has helped to bolster the independence movement but the weakness of the EU simultaneously limits the movement’s success.

And regionalism plays a role in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been the West’s vanguard in fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State, a group with transnational ambitions.

If and when transnational regionalism becomes a success, it is likely to be in a region where nationalism is itself most problematic. Given its terribly-drawn borders, that may be West Africa.

A version of this article originally appeared at Future Economics, October 6, 2017.