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. It is not everyday that the president of the United States tries to give his viewers a geography lesson, but that occured in the past few days as President Trump repeatedly reminded his constituents that aiding Puerto Rico would be difficult because of “the big ocean” that blocks it from the rest of the country.
Puerto Rico’s ocean barrier is more than just a logistical barrier. It is also an emotional, political one. It is the main reason why many Americans do not care about the plight of Puerto Ricans in the same way as they did for the hurricane victims of Texas or Florida. It is also the main reason why the US has not offered Puerto Rico statehood, despite 97 percent (of the 23 percent of its voters who participated in the referendum this past June) voting in favour of its becoming a state.
An opposite situation exists for Catalonia and for Iraqi Kurdistan, where referendums were held in the past two weeks. No big oceans separate regional capitals Barcelona or Erbil from national ones Madrid or Baghdad; the latter two of which have taken steps to prevent secession by the former.
Rather, Catalonia lies south of the high, steep 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 neighbouring Kurdish regions east and north. The tensions between Democratic Ideals — over 90 percent of Catalans and Iraqi Kurds voted in favour of independence (with 43 and 73 percent voter turnout)—and geographic Realities are high.
Of course, 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, which is Mesopotamian but not Iraqi.
Still, it is hard to know how much to lean toward realism or idealism in any given case. The three examples given above came about less because of ideals trumping geographic reality, but instead because of geographic reality being crushed by an even greater reality; namely, the decisions of superpowers. The US chose Hawaii in spite of its remoteness. The British Empire chose to protect Portugal from the Spanish and French in order to pursue its own political aims. And both the British and the Americans have worked, on separate occasions, to carve Kuwait out of the Mesopotamian plains to which, geographically, it belongs.
This brings us to the other, more neglected secession attempt this week, which occured in Cameroon. Historically Cameroon was a compromise between two imperial powers, Britain and France, which took it from Germany in WW1 (the same year Mackinder was writing his book). It is located in a region, West Africa, that was also split between Britain and France. An estimated 50-60 percent of people in Cameroon speak French and 20-30 percent English. Last week, arguably 17 people were killed during protests being held by some of the country’s English-speaking minority, some of whom have called for secession from Cameroon.
This is especially notable given that West Africa is the region of the world in which geographic realities were most readily ignored by the imperial powers which drew the maps of the region’s states. While today it has become popular to chastize past British and French governments for misdrawing Middle Eastern borders, the truth is that in most cases it is actually not easy to figure out alternative Middle Eastern borders that would have clearly been much better. (And some of the ones that are most obviously wrong, such as—arguably—the existence of Kuwait, are not the ones usually criticized). In West Africa, in contrast, most of the borders that were drawn are obviously wrong.
West Africa is full of states or autonomous regions that, like Kuwait, seem to be enclaves carved out from larger regions willy-nilly (examples include Gambia, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, the Angolan region of Cabinda, and, arguably, Sierra Leone). It also has states that either have or consist entirely of narrow strips of land that were created solely to make them accessable to the Europeans from the sea (examples include Gambia again, plus Togo, Benin, and both of the Congos). And it has five different large, landlocked countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and the Central African Republic).
From this we come to the final and perhaps most important aspect of the secession issue: transnational regionalism. It is regionalism that has, arguably, helped to keep Puerto Rico from becoming an Atlantic Hawaii: Puerto Rico is a part of a large region, Latin America, which the US in general is not a part of. Regionalism also plays a role in Spain, where the existence of the EU has helped to bolster independence movements like that of the Catalans, while the weakness of the EU limits those movements’ success. And regionalism plays a role in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has served as a leading force in the fight against ISIS’ transnational attempt at a Caliphate; ISIS recently having its largest city, Mosul, just 85 km away from Iraqi Kurdistan’s, Erbil.
If and when transnational regionalism is ever a success anywhere, it is likely to be in a region in which nationalism is itself most problematic. Given its terribly-drawn borders, that may turn out to be West Africa.