Geopolitics: How Maps Help Us Understand History, Predict the Future – Pt. 1, by Brian Miller

Editor’s Introductory Note: The following guest article was first posted by It is re-posted with permission. It appealed to me because–like the author–I adhere to the Geographic Detriminist school of history. – JWR

“It is not often that nations learn from the past, even rarer that they draw the correct conclusions from it.” – Henry Kissinger

American students are notoriously bad at geography, and have been for some time. In 2002, for instance – the year after the 9/11 attacks – only 17% of American students could find Afghanistan on a map. In 2016, less than one third were able to score a minimal pass of 66% on the National Geographic Global Literacy Survey. In 2015, the United States Government Accountability Office reported that 75% of eighth grade students don’t even know what geography is.

Picture your old-school geography class. More likely than not, it was a boring subject requiring rote memorization of global factoids, U.S. state names, and their capitals. This does American students a disservice, because an appreciation for the hidden power of geography helps one make sense of seemingly random historical tidbits, more accurately predict the future, and see beyond political rhetoric to what actually matters among nation-states.

When contemplating geography’s usefulness in better understanding our world, consider the following:

  1. Why is it important to the state to get a handle on its subjects and their environments, i.e., through long-established practices like land registries and the creation of permanent last names? Or more recent examples such as the census bureau, the passport system, the DMV, birth and death certificates, or just registering to vote?
  2. Why is the state seemingly always the enemy of “people who move around,” i.e., nomads and pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people, iterants, runaway slaves, and serfs? All have always been a thorn in the side of the state, and efforts to permanently settle these mobile peoples seem to rarely succeed.

The answers to these questions are straightforward when the classic imperatives of the state are known – and these are taxation, conscription, and the prevention of rebellion.

In order to satisfy these imperatives, the state has to know as much as possible about its inhabitants, and it wants them to be sedentary. You can’t tax what you can’t measure. You can’t draft someone to fight if you don’t know they exist. And you can’t stop a rebellion if you don’t know those who seek to overthrow your order.

As a result of these imperatives, accurate maps of the land and the people that occupy it are necessary for the survival of the state. And what’s in those maps is as important as what’s excluded from them.

Geography’s raison d’etre is straightforward: to write about, describe, or better understand patterns and processes on Earth. It’s not just maps and state capitals, nor is it simply the creation of maps (that’s cartography).

Thus, when the hidden power of geography is appreciated – especially as it relates to the state’s imperatives – conflicts between competing states as well as the relationship between the state and the individual begins to make more sense.

Early Geography: The Printing Press and “Imagined Communities”

To begin with a basic concept of geographic history, it’s important to consider the difference between a nation and a state. It is common today for the term “nation” and “country” to mean the same thing, but in geography, “country” actually means “state” and the term “nation” is defined by a shared identity among a large population within a state.

This shared identity is what Benedict Anderson referred to as “imagined communities.” These communities of the imagination had early relationships to the invention of the printing press, which allowed people (other than elites) to have easier access to both maps and literature. Such publications contributed to standardizing languages, which allowed a variety of cultures to understand not only each other, but also the maps that explained the world.

The printing press contributed to standardizing the histories of the past so that many different cultures began to remember (and forget) the same things. According to Anderson, communities became imagined because people of even the smallest nations will never know or interact with the majority of people in that country. Yet, the majority will have an understanding of their shared histories.

From the Western perspective, the early history of geography has its origins during the Middle Ages. European travelers would explore beyond the edge of known territory and map their observations of different places, races and cultures. A common similarity of these early written accounts was that different types of climate were thought to be a defining factor for how races and cultures were different from the European traveler.

These early accounts were written from the perspective that European travelers were normal, and all non-Europeans were then defined by their difference. This is to say that according to these written accounts, Europeans were the reference point for what was normal and right.

During this period, the climates of the world were classified by three types: frigid (very cold), temperate (just right), and torrid (very hot). The frigid climate was thought to be too cold for people while the torrid climate was too hot. This understanding of the climate is why, for example, Ethiopians were thought to have lived too close to the sun, and that their skin was burnt black as a result – an observation considered a scientific fact because the European traveler was able to see it with their own eyes and then write about it.

An important aspect to these early written accounts was that as new cultures, terrain and races were “discovered,” they were often described as monsters from inhospitable lands. These monsters were commonly written about and became a source of both myth and legend. Such legends told of monstrous beings at the edge of where the known and unknown territories meet.

As these early Europeans embarked on new expeditions, each exploring further than the last, the unknown territories became known, but the monsters were always pushed further to the edge of the updated maps. According to Joanne Sharp, this pattern was a result of two factors.

First, the Europeans had a need to define their territory with myths and legends of the unknown monster because this was a defining factor for European identity. This is to say that an identity is not only based on how people are similar, but also how people are thought of as different.

The second factor was that for the earliest explorers during this time period, first contact and interaction with new cultures did generate fear. Sharp noted:

“Practices of lip stretching and yoga could seem like distorted bodies to the first travelers; warriors’ use of colorful shields might look – from a distance – like faces on their chests; and non-European languages could sound very alien to travelers.”

It was through these early expeditions that the Middle Aged maps of the world had a large influence on how people understood that world, and their place in it.

Roots of Geopolitics: From the Monarchy to the State

The transition from the Middle Ages to the 17th century is not marked by a single event, but rather several events over long periods of time. One of the more discussed events was the transition from the monarchy to state sovereignty, a move that marks the early origin of geopolitics.

From 1618 to 1648, one of the most destructive wars in history was waged in Central Europe. At its end, the “Thirty Years’ War” marked the creation of state sovereignty with the “Peace of Westphalia” settlement in 1648. This peace settlement defined territories by state sovereignty rather than a territory, and everything in it, owned solely by the monarchy. Sovereignty is the cornerstone of statehood and is defined by four basic principles:

  • Defined boundaries of state territory.
  • A government structure with absolute authority over internal and external affairs.
  • Recognition by other states.
  • A permanent population in that territory.

An important aspect to state sovereignty was that the population of a territory was no longer the property of the monarchy. A state relies on its territory as the source for political organization, but this became problematic because people who lived in those territories also had a new found freedom. They were no longer serfs, or considered property owned by the king, but now viewed as citizens of the sovereign state.

Similar to the previous example about monster myths being a political tool toward defining a European identity during the Middle Ages, maps and supporting literature played an essential role in not only marking a state’s territory, but also the imagined community of people inside and outside of that territory.

Prior to the rise of state sovereignty, loyalty to the monarchy could be an issue, and more so for the kings’ armies. It was not uncommon for these early armies to be made up of thieves and vagabonds as well as contracted mercenaries. These types of soldiers had little to no loyalty to the king, which was problematic for several reasons, one of which was because they were armed. Following the 1648 peace settlement, loyalty became tied to nationalism and the country.

This was an important development because, as mentioned, defining an identity results from shared similarities as well as differences. The expansion of territory through war could be more easily acceptable to the soldier if the enemy was different. However, when the enemy looked more like a friend, as can be found in any historical example of dueling Christian armies, the power of the state together with the nation changed the notion of territorial expansion from the “sport of kings” to a clash between nations.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)


  1. Wonderful article. I was fortunate to have an elderly teacher for first 3 grades in a 2 room school house in Connecticut. Large pull down maps over the blackboard showed countries from time of the Romans, through the Vandals, etc. We had to learn from them. We were given a map of the 48 STATES (I started 1st grade in 1948), and had to fill in the names of the states, and the capitols. The 3 R’s were taught along with basic science, music (we learned to sing both melody and harmony), and so much more. Spelling was emphasized, and also PHONICS and roots of words. Even the dictionaries back then were so much more complete. Alas, within two generations the public schools were woefully lacking. All part of a deliberate plan dating even from the time of Dewey!

  2. Interesting! Several years ago I had visited the World War I museum in Kansas City and the first short film they showed talked about imagined communities and WW1. Looking forward to part 2.

  3. Ownership of land by a state is an interesting concept. Interesting too how state power rises from the need of a sedentary people. Somebody needs to think “big” and form a global state with one religion worshiping the earth.
    Fallen man unable to accept one law from his Creator foolishly believes creating his own many laws will make him free.
    Revelation 13:10 He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity: he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints. (KJV)

  4. There is a great deal of truth in this 1st part. I’m always stunned by the fact that our leaders do not learn from history ………… and we little minions pay the price.

    The USA is nothing special in terms of time. Our schools and long living bureaucracies are really corrupt and only taking care of themselves.

    I feel im watching the decline of the American Empire.

    Great 1st part, looking forward to the conclusion…..if only this were taught in schools.

    God Bless

    1. Even as we experience the “decline of empire” and as painful as that is, imagine living in a country where losing a leg to a landmine is a daily fear. Our empire has left thousands of deadly explosives under the ground all over the world. Here is one organization that is doing something about it.

      The money quote, “Cox said the rats have freed more than 1 million people from the terror of living with land mines.”

      The link:

      Carry on

  5. Just a short comment on how poorly the U.S. population is educated in Geography. My brother was needing to travel to New Mexico for a business situation. He was on the phone trying to make a flight reservation. He mentioned to the clerk that he needed to travel to New Mexico. She informed him that they did not have flights to Mexico. He said, “Oh no you misunderstand, I need to fly to New Mexico.” Her answer was, ” I’m sorry sir will still don’t fly to Mexico.” My brother was totally stunned! After a short moment of disbelief he asked to talk to her supervisor. He explained again that he needed to get a flight to NEW MEXICO! The supervisors response was, ” Sorry sir we don’t fly to Mexico.” In disgust he just hung up and got another airline. This is so unbelievable that if it was not my brother telling me this from first hand knowledge I would have thought it was a joke or something.

  6. Hmm, the first sentence of this article caught my eye, as I’ve had first hand experience with people ot knowing their geography. An example: In the early 90’s, my son was stationed in Germany and he wanted a loan from my local credit union. when I told him that he would not get it because he was outside the borders of the U.S. some weeks later he called and said the he had called them and had gotten the loan ( which surprised the heck out of me ). Then about three months later I receive a call from the credit union checking on the information that he gave them. At the end the young lady then ask: ‘Where in the U.S. is Germany located?” Long story short, when I told her, her answer was “Oh S–t ” and hung up. I found out later she was fired on the spot. I agree that public schooling and education for the last 30 to 40 years is… (I’m grasping for a better, less vulger word ) and has been lacking. I’ve spoke with retired teachers and complained to them and their answer was ” everything that is taught in schools comes down from the national level ” they have no say in what is being taught or how. Another example: My two step granddaughters in Thailand ride the bus 2 hours a day to and from school every day and spend 8 to 10 hrs a day in school and when they aren’t going to school, they are enrolled in both English ans Chinese language schools. And they are only 10 and 12 yrs old.

  7. This goes to show you how the liberal run schools in the US are deleting history and certain subjects for students. I have run into young people that had no idea where certain countries were located and had no idea about American history. The dumbing down and liberal brainwashing of our youth continues.

  8. In the past, one argument for the US to intervene in European wars is that a power that united the resources of the Eurasian continent would be powerful enough to eventually conquer North America — greater resources, population, etc.

    The British –living on a small offshore island — have always known this. Let Sir Humphreys explain it:

  9. 1) A book that really exposes the power of geography is Ian Morris’ “Why the West Rules –For Now”. Notes how geography has led to the rise of past empires (e.g, Mediterranean Sea transport aiding the rise of the Roman Empire.)

    2) The vast size of the Pacific Ocean relative to the Atlantic meant that Europe was able to loot the enormous resources of North and South America –whereas the Chinese were shut out. Giving us a (temporary) lead in power.

    3) Something Ian Morris does not mention is the huge importance of Andrew Jackson winning the battle of New Orleans. If Britain had managed to seize New Orleans,– easily defended by the Royal Navy in the Gulf of Mexico — then she would have controlled water transport/commerce on the Mississippi River –hence would have controlled the Midwest, which would have split off from the states on the Atlantic seaboard.

    In 1812, it was cheaper to transport corn from western Pennsylvania by sending it down the Mississippi River on barges and up the Atlantic coast on ships than to transport it overland by wagons on the miserable roads of the day.

    An interesting question is WHY is the US K12 curriculum designed to create citizens deeply ignorant of the important matters — commerce, entrepreneurship, military power, etc.

  10. I’m definitely enjoying to article so far. I can’t wait to read part two!

    Also, I got JWRs survival guide this past week and am having a blast with every section I’ve read. Great job JWR!

  11. I was traveling from Boston to Montana and the travel agent says “That’s in Canada, isn’t it?”
    Further, the few teachers that try to add expanded teachings, whether, civics or geography, even English quite often get a lot of kick back from parents about why their children are being ‘burdened with this ‘extra’ crap. I think it’s because the parents can’t/don’t want to help with the home work. That was about ten years ago and I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t sat through a number of meeting at school about this ‘extra crap.’

  12. Of my favorite subjects during my school years, History ranks as #1 with emphasis on the American Revolution part. Coming in at #2 was geography with Ag & Shop a toss up for #3, with English & the book part #4. Always figure everything I ever needed to know about anything I could find at the school & public libraries.
    Maps and geography have always ranked very high on my list of things I enjoy. I can sit and look at maps for hours studying all the details of where everything fits with everything else, and my tiny little existence within the whole picture. Helps develop a picture of where everything is in relation to everything else, when people talk of certain places wherever they may be, you see in your mind a picture of where it is they are talking about.
    Of course living in about 50 different places in 5 different countries and having driven well over 4 million miles commercial, private auto/truck & motorcycles, plus traveling about on 9 different boats probably helped develop the sense of where I
    am in relation to the rest of the world.
    I find it very sad so many of the younger generations have no clue as to where things are in the world and cannot relate to seemingly the simplest directions. No wonder they come across to the rest of the world as completely lost, in body mind and soul…….

    1. “Maps and geography have always ranked very high on my list of things I enjoy. I can sit and look at maps for hours studying all the details of where everything fits with everything else, and my tiny little existence within the whole picture.”

      Me too! In fact sometimes I have to avoid maps if I want to focus on other book work.

  13. My 2 cents worth (adjusted for inflation): earlier than the Middle Ages, differences between peoples were noted by the Ancient Greeks by the word “barbarian,” which was a description of their language “bar bar bar.”

  14. Human progress in science and technology occurs in settled societies — which have been constantly attacked and destroyed by nomadic raiders from the steppes of Asia. The Huns drove the Germans into the Roman Empire and destroyed it. China was overrun and disrupted several times by nomadic raiders — the Mongol, Manchus,etc.
    Here in the USA , the Army had a difficult time subduing the Comanches of Texas.

    Thank God for barbed wire, machine guns and artillery.

  15. One of the problems, IMHO, is that the United States did become an Empire. We were never intended to be an Empire and it was one of our greatest mistakes. We should never have violated the Monroe Doctrine, it was a sound and secure statement of our position in the world.

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