The colours of the globe: Iraq and Ukraine

In my introductory political science courses I typically bring a globe into the classroom at some point. I hold it up to the students and ask them what all the colours mean on the land surface. If we were in orbit around the earth, would we see these same colours? No, of course not, the students invariably respond. Why not? Because they represent political boundaries created by human beings and are thus not visible from space. The boundaries are no less real for not being visible, but even the neat colours parcelled out amongst the world’s nations do not always adequately account for realities on the ground.

The current state system, now covering the globe, is usually traced back to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War. After this point, states were said to be sovereign within their respective territories, immune from interference from adjacent states. Since then the state system has proved to be most at home in Western Europe and those countries formed by overseas settlement from that region. France is France, Britain is Britain, and Spain is Spain. End of discussion.

Elsewhere, however, the modern state has been less successful. The decades leading up to the outbreak of the Great War saw Europe’s statesmen preoccupied with the vexing Eastern Question, that is, what would become of the territories belonging to the declining Ottoman Empire. As Turkish control over southeast Europe receded, several neighbouring entities, including Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, made conflicting claims to these lands. But Turkey was not alone. Austria-Hungary and Russia too were polyglot empires whose diverse peoples lacked a cohesive sense of national identity and unity.

However, with the collapse of the pre-1914 old order and the dismemberment of the western colonial empires after 1945, it was widely and popularly assumed that the state system had now spread across the globe, presided over by the United Nations Organization. But once again, the reality is more complex than this.


First, Iraq. Prior to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the Great War, there had been no such place as Iraq, which was created within arbitrary boundaries by France and Britain as they partitioned Turkey’s southern provinces between themselves. Britain established Iraq under a Hashemite monarch, Faisal I, with roots, not in Mesopotamia, but in the Arabian Peninsula. Although Britain’s direct control of Iraq ended in 1932, the new state failed to develop a sense of common nationality. Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Kurds and Assyrian Christians, along with such smaller groups as Mandaeans, harboured loyalties outweighing their putative allegiance to something called Iraq. Once Saddam Hussein’s strong-arm methods were out of the way, there was little to hold the country together, much as Yugoslavia did not ultimately survive the death of long-time communist ruler, Josip Broz Tito.

Historians may one day record that Iraq lasted for not quite a century, held together more by the machinations of other more powerful states than by the will of its own people to form a nation. The old Eastern Question never went away; it was merely pushed into the second decade of the 21st century.

Now, Ukraine. For more than two decades I’ve been telling my students that Ukraine is a severely divided country with a better-than-even chance of breaking up along the historic boundary that once separated Catherine the Great’s Russia from the old Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. As long as it was content to remain a “borderland” – which is what Ukraine means – it would muddle along under governments trying mightily to bridge the chasm between the pro-European west and the pro-Russian east. However, as soon as Kiev attempted to move definitively into one camp or the other, it risked partition. This latter scenario seems now to be unfolding before our eyes. Russia has already annexed Crimea, and the chances of it taking the eastern oblasts (districts) are increasing by the day.

Like Iraq, Ukraine had never existed as a state before 1991, except for a brief period after the Great War. Its current external boundaries were the by-product of Soviet-era commissars attempting to give the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics the semblance of an ethnically-based federal structure. Within its recent internationally-recognized borders, Ukraine may not endure even half as long as Iraq.

This autumn I will once again bring my increasingly out-of-date globe into the classroom. But I will advise my students not to take the colours they see as a guide to what they will find if they travel the surface of the real thing. Take your passport, but be prepared for the unexpected, especially if you are heading to the Middle East or Eastern Europe.


  • David Koyzis is a Global Scholar with Global Scholars Canada. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (2nd ed., 2019) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He has written a column for Christian Courier since 1990.

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