The Many Scenarios of a Republican Civil War

Members of the Texas delegation listen to a speech at the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota, September 2, 2008
Members of the Texas delegation listen to a speech at the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota, September 2, 2008 (PBS/Tom LeGro)

In August 2016, I was penning an article titled “The Coming Republican Civil War”. The premise was simple: after a self-inflicted Trumpian defeat in November, the party of Lincoln would tear itself asunder assigning blame and shedding factions.

But Hillary lost. For a few brief months, the Grand Old Party looked triumphant.

Not so much anymore.

The long-term trajectory of the Republican Party isn’t great; factional infighting has already sunk several attempts to roll back the Affordable Care Act and by the end of the month we’ll know just how deep the divides go should tax reform and the Graham-Cassidy health-care bill fail. Read more “The Many Scenarios of a Republican Civil War”

The United Republics: A Peace Plan for America

Clare Trainor's proposal for high-speed rail connections between seven American megaregions
Clare Trainor’s proposal for high-speed rail connections between seven American megaregions

The 2016 election was a turning point in American history. Cultural, political and regional differences have become so vast that the American political system is becoming unsustainable. There are two fundamentally different visions of what this country should be and the current federal system does not allow these differences to be reconciled.

For these reasons, I am proposing a new political system that would transform the United States of America into the United Republics of America.

This new government would still allow nationwide coordination of domestic and foreign policy, but it would devolve power to newly created republics. Read more “The United Republics: A Peace Plan for America”

Territorial Changes Shaped Polish Society

1945 map of a potential post-World War II partition of Poland
1945 map of a potential post-World War II partition of Poland (Time/Robert M. Chapin Jr.)

Poland’s historical changeability on the map of Europe has had a profound impact on its political and social composition. A century after it regained its independence, differences still exists between those parts of Poland that were annexed by Germans and those that were once part of Austria and Russia.

In the last few parliamentary and presidential elections, the political map of Poland could be drawn almost perfectly along the former borders of its occupiers. The liberal Civic Platform party won pluralities in almost all counties that were part of the German Empire until 1914. The conservative Law and Justice, by contrast, won most counties in the east. Read more “Territorial Changes Shaped Polish Society”

Geography Renders Poland Vulnerable to Foreign Plots

Topographical map of Poland and Europe
Topographical map of Poland and Europe (Wikimedia Commons)

Situated on the North European Plain between Germany and Russia, Poland has often played a pivotal role in European history. It dominated Central Europe in the seventeenth century, stretching from the Baltic Sea in the north to near the Black Sea in the south as part of a commonwealth with Lithuania. Two centuries later, it had disappeared off the map, partitioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia.

Like Germany in the west and Russia to the east, Poland largely lacks clear natural borders. The Baltic Sea coast and central plain are flat and have historically served as an invasion route, from Napoleon’s attempted conquest of Russia in 1812 and Adolf Hitler’s more successful attempt in 1941-42 to the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany the other way around three years later.

The country’s two main rivers, the Oder and Vistula, facilitate east-west movement. Most large cities, including Gdańsk, Poznań, Wrocław and Warsaw — the capital — straddle it.

Poland’s only natural defenses are in the south. The Carpathian and Sudeten ranges offer some barrier but are not forbidding enough to altogether deter an invading force, such as when the Austrians moved across the mountains in 1809 in a futile attempt to take Warsaw from what was then a French puppet state. Nor are they so rugged as to frustrate economic development. Major cultural and industrial centers like Katowice and Kraków can be found in the Carpathians.

Given its geographical position in Europe, Poland’s fate is inextricably tied up with the intentions of its neighbors. When they are weak, such as Germany and Russia were in the seventeenth century, Poland can defend its independence and prosper. When its rivals are not only powerful but act together, Poland is doomed. Read more “Geography Renders Poland Vulnerable to Foreign Plots”

Poland’s Election Shaped by History of Partition

Skyline of Warsaw, Poland
Skyline of Warsaw, Poland (Unsplash/Alexey Topolyanskiy)

Poland’s conservative Law and Justice party is likely to unseat the liberal Civic Platform in October’s election, polls show. Partly this is because voters are eager for a change after eight years of Civic Platform rule. But Poland’s election outcomes are also shaped by the country’s history. Read more “Poland’s Election Shaped by History of Partition”

Blaming Sykes-Picot: A Dangerous Deception

Sykes-Picot Agreement map
1919 map of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, showing proposed British (red), French (blue), Italian (green) and Russian (yellow) territorial gains and spheres of influence in the Middle East (Stanfords Geographical Establishment London)

We have previously argued that blaming the colonial borders in the Middle East for today’s mayhem in Iraq and Syria overlooks the role played by the Arabs themselves. There’s another reason to be wary of the “artificial state” narrative. Taken to its logical conclusion, it leads to more, not less, sectarian conflict.

The rise of the Islamic State militant group has brought new attention to the supposed artificiality of Iraq’s and Syria’s borders. This self-declared caliphate is determined to erase a desert frontier that emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.

The Islamic State’s propaganda and much Western commentary traces the region’s ethnic and sectarian strife back to a secret 1916 agreement between Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot that divided the Arab lands into respectively British and French spheres of influence.

This is rather unfair to Sykes and Picot. Their plan never really panned out (for one thing, Italy and Russia did not get the territory they envisaged) and Sykes himself, a War Office diplomat at the time, recognized it as a “reactionary measure” only a few years later when the region’s borders were still in flux. Neither Sykes nor Picot had the power to enforce borders on anyone and it took more planning, several conferences and consultations with the Arabs — who had after all supported the Allies in the war against the Turks — before the borders of today’s Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria were finalized.

Sara Pursley, a Princeton University postdoctoral fellow, totally rebukes what she calls the “legend” of Sykes-Picot in contribution for Jadaliyya. She argues that Iraq’s borders in particular weren’t drawn on an “empty map” somewhere in London or Paris. Rather, they formed in much the same way as other states: “A lot of work and a lot of violence went into their construction and a lot of work and a lot of violence would go into their reconstruction.”

Blaming European imperialists for “drawing lines in the sand” and setting off decades of conflict in the Middle East is not just a gross exaggeration of what happened; Westerners who perpetuate this narrative deny the Arabs agency in their own history. The notion that a few decades of European involvement in the region are wholly to blame for everything that’s wrong in the Middle East today is frankly preposterous; as though nothing that happened before or since was of any significance.

Which is exactly why this is such an attractive narrative for some Arabs. It allows them to deny responsibility for their own backwardness.

Or worse. Pursley warns that following the artificial state narrative to its logical conclusion leads to one place — “and that place is not peace in the Middle East but rather the violence of ethnosectarian cleansing.”

This is what the Islamic State (IS) is doing. It seeks to construct a “pure” Arab and Sunni state in the heart of the Middle East and is literally eradicating everyone who doesn’t fit its definition of what it means to be a true Muslim.

Yet rather than compelling the rest of the world to rethink the logic of the artificial state narrative — which is, I repeat, the logic of ethnosectarian cleansing — the violence of IS is being marshaled as yet more evidence of that narrative’s purported truth.

There are no “natural” borders in the Middle East that would give Shia and Sunni Muslims and Arabs and Kurds neatly-defined states of their own. Such borders don’t exist anywhere. The formation of nations and states usually goes hand-in-hand. Seldom does a nation clearly exist before the state.

The Kurds are one exception but even an independent Kurdistan would not be ethnically and religiously homogenous.

It doesn’t have to be. Peace doesn’t break out when every community gets a state of its own. It happens when different communities learn to live with each other in one state. This is what the people of the Middle East are struggling to do. Telling them they don’t need to try — and that the reason they’re fighting isn’t even their own fault — doesn’t help.

Keeping the Water and Neighbors at Bay

Topographical map of the Netherlands and Europe
Topographical map of the Netherlands and Europe (Wikimedia Commons)

The geography of the Netherlands is primarily defined by the confluence of the Meuse, Rhine and Scheldt Rivers, giving the small country an extended network of waterways for movement and trade — and strategic depth against invaders.

The Netherlands’ economic and political core of Holland developed around and to the north of this river delta. Today, more than half of the Dutch population lives in the area that includes the country’s four largest cities: Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, a conurbation known as the Randstad.

Where natural waterways were lacking, the Dutch built canals to connect the major cities and their surrounding towns. This helped centrally located Amsterdam develop into an entrepôt for European finance and trade in the seventeenth century; a position that was partially taken over by Rotterdam in the twentieth. The latter remains one of the world’s busiest ports and a major transit point for the transport of bulk goods and liquified natural gas into Germany and Central Europe. Read more “Keeping the Water and Neighbors at Bay”

Russia’s Geopolitics: The Necessity of Empire

Topographical map of Russia
Topographical map of Russia (Wikimedia Commons)

Russia is the world’s largest land power, extending almost halfway around the globe. But most of its territory is too cold or too dry to accommodate large, permanent settlement.

The area between the Arctic Ocean and the Arctic Circle is a barren tundra. To the south lies the taiga, the world’s largest coniferous forest, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Parts of it are covered in permafrost.

Between the Carpathian Mountains in the west and Manchuria in the east is the steppe. Russia scholar W. Bruce Lincoln described it as “the great grass road.” It carried the Mongol invasion of Kievan Rus’ in the thirteenth century as well as Russia’s own expansion into Central Asia during the nineteenth century. Historian Philip Longworth identified the repeated expansion and collapse of empires across this generally flat topography as the principal feature of Russian history in Russia: The Once and Future Empire from Pre-History to Putin (2006). Read more “Russia’s Geopolitics: The Necessity of Empire”

How Culture and Geography Divided the United States

Map from the cover of Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011)
Map from the cover of Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011)

The United States is often described as a “nation of immigrants” but into the twentieth century, those immigrants were almost exclusively European and often Protestant. Historically, America has not been a melting pot so much as a New Europe.

In his 1989 study Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hackett Fischer identified the four principal English migration flows that still influence cultural divisions in America today. Read more “How Culture and Geography Divided the United States”

The Geographical Origins of American Hegemony

Topographical map of the United States
Topographical map of the United States (Wikimedia Commons)

The dominant geographical feature of the landmass comprising the United States is the Mississippi River basin, an area that has more kilometers of navigable internal waterways than the rest of the world combined. The many natural and easily navigable waterways here greatly reduce the costs of transportation from the agricultural regions in the American Midwest — which is itself the world’s largest contiguous piece of farmland — to not just the rest of the country but the world.

Stretching into Montana and Minnesota in the far north and the Appalachian Mountains in the east that separate the historical core of the United States from the rest of North America, the Mississippi and its tributaries act as an economic and political unifier of much of the continent. Whereas the states of New England and the Old South, which were both settled overwhelmingly by Englishmen, developed unique cultures of their own, with many particularities carried over from Europe, the areas north and west of Appalachia, which were settled mostly by Northern European immigrants, formed a cultural whole.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously argued in his Frontier Thesis that the sheer presence of abundant and uncultivated arable land west of the Appalachians combined with what America’s 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, described as “the winning of the west” to forge a new and rugged identity, one that spread into the “Wild West” and Pacific Ocean states and came to dominate the American mindset. Read more “The Geographical Origins of American Hegemony”