Except in those places where the issue is burning with
new nationalistic emotions, much of the world is largely
unaware how widespread is the phenomenon to make
all contemporary geographical atlases obsolete.
National identities and national borders have been in
constant change since recorded history began, but by
the conclusions of the two world wars, the atlas of the
world’s nations seemed, for the first time, to be
more or less fixed. After World War I, the victorious
nations of the United States, Great Britain, France and
its allies attempted to redraw the national maps of the
world, They, and the defeated nations of Germany,
Austro-Hungary and the Turkish empire, had been
colonial powers throughout the world. The victorious
states attempted to enhance their control of territories
outside their own national borders at the expense of the
defeated states, but the colonial presumption, so carefully
cultivated for the past five centuries, an echo of the empire
conquests of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Carthagenians,
Persians, Mongols and the early Arabs, were already fading
as local national aspirations were rapidly gaining strength.
British, French, Dutch, Spanish, German, Portuguese,
Belgian and Russian explorers had created the earliest
modern maps with the territories they conquered and
exploited. By the onset of World War II, many of these
colonized lands had been ceded to local sovereignty,
especially those of the British, French, Spanish and
Portuguese in North and South America. The Germans
and Italians had lost most of their colonies in Africa;
the Austrians had lost most of its empire in Europe.
Colonies remained in Africa and Asia. The Middle East,
not previously organized as true national states was
refigured arbitrarily with League of Nation mandates,
Big Power occupations and new kingdoms.
After the unprecedented violence and bloodshed of the first
half of the 20th century, most of the remaining colonial
territories, especially in Africa and Asia become sovereign
states, and adopted what seemed to be permanent national
borders. The world’s largest colonial power, the British
empire, became the British Commonwealth of Nations, a
voluntary organization of former colonies symbolically led by
the British monarch. Most of the French, Dutch, and Spanish
colonies were gone. As with the British Commonwealth,
lingering informal ties were maintained by the legacies of
language and custom.
Today, there are almost 200 independent nations, most of
which belong to the United Nations, the successor to the
League of Nations, which was created as World War II was
ending, and was hoped to be a worthwhile international
institution in the world. Unfortunately, like its predecessor,
the U.N. has devolved into a mostly feckless existence, even
unable to maintain in its own organizational support for
Nevertheless, at the end of the 20th century, a schoolchild
perusing a world atlas could perceive that the borders of
most nations in the world seemed more or less permanent.
This has turned out to be an illusion, especially since so many
borders had been so carelessly contrived. In a few cases,
a redrawing of borders and creation of new states was
peacefully agreed to --- for example, Slovakia separated from
the Czech Republic in an amicable fashion. Less amicably,
the region of Yugoslavia, so long a source of internal ethnic
conflicts (one of which led directly to World War I) was
divided into several nations. After the economic and political
failure of the Soviet Union, created in 1919, its “empire” was
also divided into numerous independent states. Germany,
divided after World War II, was reunited. Ethiopia became
two states, Ethiopia and Eritria.
At the onset of the 21st century, then, it again seemed as if
national borders were more or less settled.
In Europe, however, ethno-national movements have once
again arisen. Separatist forces are on the rise in Belgium
(Flemish vs. Belgian), Great Britain (Scottish vs. British),
Spain (Catalan, Basque and Galician vs. Castilian), Slovakia
(Rusyn vs. Slovak), as well as other movements in France,
Scandinavia, Rumania, Poland, Russia and the former
In a few weeks, the voters of the autonomous Spanish
province of Catalonia will decide if they want to separate
from Spain. It is not clear if, even if they do vote to separate,
that the Spanish government will recognize it. The British
prime minister has okayed a plebiscite in Scotland in which
Scots have the choice to remain part of Great Britain or
become a completely sovereign state.
North America is not free of this phenomenon. Well-known
has been the effort of Quebec separatists to break off from
Canada, but previous plebiscites have failed, although both
English and French are now recognized as national languages.
Most recently, in the United States, a serious effort is being
made to put on the state ballot the division of the state of
California into six new and entirely separate states, each of
which would remain in the Union. If the ballot were approved,
it is not clear just how such an action could be accomplished
without the approval of the U.S. Congress which would have to
admit ten more U.S. senators. While this proposal is not
“secession” (which set of the American Civil War in the 19th
century), it might lead to similar actions in other existing
states, and redraw the American map.
The status of Puerto Rico, once a Spanish colony, and now
a U.S. territory, could change. It could become a state,
remain a territory or achieve total independence.
Indigenous native groups in Mexico, Central and South
America, as they acquire more political power, also
have begun to clamor for separation from their existing
China is now composed of several regions and provinces
which were once independent states, and where separatist
movements are currently suppressed.
Active and long-time efforts to make the provinces of
Kashmir and Punjab independent states are the most
prominent and serious in India where many regions seek
to break away from the world’s reportedly now most
The Pacific Rim region contains not only several new and
tiny independent nations, but the U.S., Britain and France
even now control many of its islands and island groups,
any of which could decide to seek independence.
The vast areas of both the Arctic and Antarctic are not yet
defined by permanent recognized borders, but neighboring
countries at both ends of the poles seem to maneuvering for
territorial control, especially as valuable mineral rights
become an issue.
In addition to the relatively serious separatist movements
mentioned above, there are numerous small or incipient
efforts to establish new sovereign states from existing
nations now active throughout the world.
Atlas publishers will likely be busy in coming decades.
Maps of the world are likely to be changed again many times,
with no end of it in sight.
Cartography might be one of the next “hot” professions.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.