Discursively mapping the geopolitical menagerie

0 angloEgypt_cropAnother course I am enjoying teaching this semester is Geopolitics, a graduate course in our International Studies program. The course should really be called “Critical Geopolitics” as it mostly brings the tools of discourse analysis to bear on key texts in the geopolitical tradition, beginning with Halford Mackinder’s seminal “The Geographical Pivot of History” (1904), through George Kennan’s “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (1947) to Samuel Huntington’s infamous “Clash of Civilizations?” (1993) and beyond. These short articles, despite the limited intrinsic merit of their analyses, had profound and lasting impacts on the policies of the world powers that produced them.

Much of the course consists of deconstructing these geopolitical texts and exposing the assumptions they contain about a great many far-away places and peoples. This analysis is way too dry to make for a good blog post, so I will spare readers here. However, the course also considers maps as discursive documents, and these look great on the web, so here goes:

Today, I presented students with maps as discourse. Maps can be as discursive as any text. Certain “facts” are presented while others are kept silent. Certain facts are brought together to lay out an argument while facts that might mess up the neatness of the argument are omitted. While some geopolitical maps are “serious” in their analysis, circulated among a coterie “intellectuals of statecraft,” others are satirical, cartoons published in newspapers with the intent of swaying public opinion. These are the ones I present below.

Size counts, doesn’t it?

Contrary to texts, maps make discursive arguments through graphic design. For instance, a “threat” can be graphically represented on a map by sheer size; the visual “fact” of the great size of an enemy entity is sufficient to convey the message about who the “aggressor state” must be. After all, a much smaller entity cannot possibly aggress a much larger one, can it?

01 British aggression 1940_crop

Map published by pro-German lobbyists in the US in 1940 to “prove” that Britain was the aggressors, not Germany.

02 Arab aggression 1973_crop

Map published by pro-Israel lobbyists in Canada in 1973 to “prove” that the Arabs were the aggressors, not Israel.

The point here is that neither of these maps proves anything at all as there is no correlation, let along causation, between size of a polity and military aggression (and the “Arabs” can hardly be said to have constituted a single polity in 1973 or at any other time in recent history).

00 iconsOf arrows and pincers

Another common trope of geopolitical maps is use of arrows. Arrows are among the strongest map symbols (right up there along with skull and crossbones, nuclear radiation symbols and exploding bombs). They can make any “threat” evident to the eye.

11 Czech threat 2

This map was published in German newspapers in 1938 in order to show that the Czechoslovak air force could attack nearly every part of German territory.

Not shown on the above map was the ability of the much larger and more modern German air force to attack every part of Czechoslovakia from multiple directions.

Distances of Major Cites from Cuba

This map was published in American newspapers in 1962 in order to show that Soviet missiles in Cuba could attack every part of the United States.

Not shown on the above map was the ability of U.S. missiles to obliterate the island of Cuba many times over at a moment’s notice. Neither was a map showing the ability of U.S. missiles based in Turkey to reach deep into Soviet territory published along with this one. In both of the above maps, the arrows “actualize” a threat, decontextualize it, and make it feel dangerously real.

Next-door to arrows on the graphic threat scale are encircling pincers. The cartoon map below, from the early 1990s, shows hapless Israel watching helpless as Iranian ayatollah Khomeini, crescent pincers emanating from his beard, encircles it with radical Islamists in Algeria.

21 Islamist threat 1992Of spiders and octopi

Geopolitical cartoon maps of the late 19th and early 20th century personified the great powers of the day in a menagerie of national characters. They showed the British lion (sometimes also John Bull the bulldog), the French rooster, the Russian bear and various eagles jostling over territories.

31 British globe 1905_crop

This British postcard from 1905 warns the imperial German eagle to keep its clutches off the world. After all, the globe was already firmly in the imperial clutches of the British lion.

RBC_Royal_Bank.svgIncidentally, the logo of that most imperial institution, the Royal Bank of Canada, shows the British lion clutching the globe. Why do I still bank there?

32 Asia 1900

A Chinese cartoon ca. 1900 shows the British lion, the Russian bear, the American eagle, the French frog (quelle insulte!) and the Japanese sun (apparently allied to the lion) all grabbing at different parts of its territory.

Of all the characters in the animal kingdom, two would go down in cartographic infamy: the octopus and the spider. For reasons entirely beyond their control, these two animals inspire equal measures of revulsion and fear in children and sentient adults alike. They also happen to have eight tentacles/legs. If humans can grab territories with only two arms, imagine how much territory might be grabbed by an octopus or a spider.

41 1877 Satirical_map_of_Europe

This satirical map of Europe in 1877 shows Russia as an octopus whose tentacles ensnare Finland, Poland, Bessarabia, Crimea, the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea.

42 1917 French war prussia

This French war propaganda cartoon from 1917 shows the tentacles of the Prussian/German octopus extending all across Europe and into Asia Minor.

43 1915 l'entente cordiale

This German war propaganda cartoon from 1915 depicts Britain as a spider whose web extends across Europe and overseas to America and Asia and whose legs reach to Gallipoli, Egypt, Malta and Gibraltar. The German eagle, perched above, prepares to attack it.

44 Nazi spider map

In this 1943 map cartoon it is Hitler who is the spider. His legs are being broken in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the North Sea by Allied tanks, ships and planes. The leg breaking is shown selectively; despite Stalingrad, spider-Hitler’s legs in the USSR are depicted as bent but not broken.

45 Roosevelt & Churchill octopus

A Japanese map cartoon from the early 1940s depicts Churchill and Roosevelt as octopi whose tentacles are being severed all over Asia by a valiant patriotic soldier.

In the late 1940s WWII was succeeded by the Cold War and the Octopus was reincarnated as Stalin in the American map cartoon below.

46 Stalin octopus

In this American map cartoon, a valiant patriotic American family is encouraged to slash Stalin’s tentacles, which extend across Asia.

Geopolitical discourse, and the maps which accompany it, has changed since the overtly imperialistic and militaristic heyday of the 1890s-1940s. The spiders and the octopi have gone, though the bears and lions and eagles still make an appearance. As the semester proceeds, I will show my students more recent expressions of geopolitical cartographic demagoguery, and I plan to post some of these in this blog. A suivre…

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About ericrossacademic

Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
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One Response to Discursively mapping the geopolitical menagerie

  1. Pingback: Of heartlands and pan-regions: mapping the spheres of influence of the great powers in the age of world wars | Eric Ross, academic

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