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Argument

The End of History and the Last Map

Cartography and conflict in the post-Cold War world.

American punditry has entered a new phase of post-Cold War pessimism. Liberal internationalist optimism about the worldwide triumph of peace and democracy may have died long ago, but proclaiming its death is now more popular than ever. A steady stream of think pieces about the return of history, resurgence of nationalism, and reemergence of great-power competition all herald what might be called the rise of Risk geopolitics.

How did we get here? One problem is that the pessimists had better maps.

Spreading peace and democracy has never been cartographically convincing, even to its promoters. And it could sometimes look downright sinister to those on the wrong side of the map. At the same time, maps are ideally suited to essentialist visions of the world that, accurately or not, divide people into discrete, ready-to-clash units, each with their own color and territory. Perhaps as a result, maps have served nicely as a metaphor for those who assumed conflict was more natural, or more interesting, all along.


The challenges of mapping global peace and prosperity were already evident 75 years ago, when Americans began to articulate a new liberal internationalist vision for the future. The end of World War II, like the end of the Cold War, led some to imagine that the world was entering an unprecedented era of international peace. Earnest optimism about this postwar world took particularly fanciful form in two striking—yet strikingly unrealistic—maps. The first is the cartographer Leslie Macdonald Gill’s 1942 map of the Atlantic Charter, which visualized U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s promise for the peace that would follow an Allied victory. Rays of sun shine down on a world engaged in commerce and industry while a man in the corner hammers artillery into ploughshares. Borders between countries are still demarcated but only barely, with dotted lines that disappear under all the bustle.

1942 Time & Tide Map of the Atlantic Charter. R63.5, G40.0, B58.5/P.J. Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography/Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections/Cornell University Library

A second such map, this one more whimsical, was drawn by Ernest Dudley Chase in 1944, when Allied victory in the war appeared considerably closer. Titled “Mercator Map of the World United: A Pictorial History of Transport and Communications and Paths to Permanent Peace,” Chase’s map posits peace and world government as the natural endpoint of human historical development. His map celebrates the role of planes, ships, radio, and the “rocket mail of the future” in bringing people closer together. A series of insets show political organization advancing from the “cave man family” through states to “the unity of all nations.”

1944 Mercator map of the world united.

1944 Mercator map of the world united. G3201.A5 1944 .C43/Oliver K. Whiting/Norman B. Leventhal Map Center/Boston Public Library

Observers today like to romanticize the post-World War II origins of the liberal international order. These maps certainly convey the idea’s overly romantic side, while the careers of their creators capture its founding contradictions: Gill remains best known for his colorful cartographic propaganda for the British Empire, and Chase, by 1950, had pivoted to drawing starker red-and-white maps of the divided Cold War world. Indeed, after World War II, it became clear that many in the global south would reject America’s liberal internationalism as a neoimperialist attempt to sustain Western hegemony. And, of course, the superpower conflict between Washington and Moscow would quickly reveal the United Nations’ limits as a mechanism for permanent peace through the unity of all nations.

After the Cold War ended, maps of peace and harmony proved far less visually engaging than their predecessors and were just as ideologically fraught. Perhaps the best modern-day cartographic depiction of what liberal internationalism’s triumph might look like is Freedom House’s map of freedom in the world, with all the countries gradually ticking green. Like maps of global risk or human development, the Freedom House map offers a ready metric for imagining Western politics and living standards spreading across the globe.

2018 Freedom in the World map

2018 Freedom in the World map.Freedom House

For those who wanted a more militant depiction of liberal internationalist ambition, there was also “The Pentagon’s New Map.” Published by the political scientist Thomas Barnet in 2003, it generated a flurry of media attention before being largely forgotten in the disastrous aftermath of the Iraq War. The map envisioned the United States’ 21st-century military strategy as “identifying the problem parts of the world and aggressively shrinking them.” Through interventions like the invasion of Iraq, Washington would expand the “functioning core” of globalization and eliminate the “non-integrating gap,” which was plagued by terrorism, poverty, and repression.

2003 Pentagon New Map.

2003 Pentagon New Map. Thomas Barnett

Taken together, these two maps capture the paradox of America’s post­-Cold War liberal internationalism. Americans might have seen their ambitions as benign, but many others around the world found them threatening. The result is a strange contradiction whereby organizations like Freedom House and the Open Society Foundations appear to represent a kind of earnest if slightly quixotic idealism in Washington while becoming the subject of countless conspiracy theories abroad. For those who imagined color revolutions as a series of CIA-sponsored plots to spread U.S. influence under the guise of democracy, the Freedom House map was also the Pentagon map; seeing the world painted all one shade was tantamount to the United States conquering it.


In contrast to global peace, Risk geopolitics appear all too mappable. Maps have proved particularly popular with people looking for the so-called real fault lines—be they religious, ethnic, or geopolitical—along which the post-Cold War world would inevitably fracture. Most famously, the political scientist Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations came with a clear, if not particularly coherent, map that supposedly predicted what the contours of the 21st century’s conflicts might be.

"The World of Civilizations: Post-1990,” map from Samuel P. Huntington's <if>The Clash of Civilizations</if>, 1996.

“The World of Civilizations: Post-1990,” map from Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, 1996.Wikimedia

Ironically, an equally essentialist view of human society inspired a series of completely contradictory maps imagining what the Middle East’s so-called real borders would look like. Amid the chaos of Iraq’s civil war, some observers began to focus on the fault lines within Huntington’s category of Islamic civilization and concluded that it was, say, the tensions between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds that would ultimately prove insurmountable. In 2013, for example, one widely circulated map from the New York Times showed how Syria and Iraq might end up reconfigured on ethno-sectarian terms as four smaller, seemingly more homogeneous, states.

Pessimists today see in the world’s ongoing conflicts and chaos evidence that these essentialist visions have been vindicated. Yet while the post-Cold War world has indeed remained conflict-prone, the conflicts themselves have not followed the predictions of any one particular pessimist. In 2017, for example, the Iraqi government crushed a formal bid for Kurdish independence. Now, after a decade of bloodshed, Damascus seems poised to retake control of Syria. Particularly revealing was a recent article that declared “the past two decades have uncomfortably proved [Huntington’s] perceptiveness” before adding, as a caveat, “[e]ven if civilizations per se are not clashing.” The point, it seems, is that there’s definitely some clashing going on, and that’s all the vindication Huntington needs.


For some authors, maps ultimately seem less important for their content than as a symbol of humanity’s atavistic nature. In recent years, Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate and Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World have shown the popularity of this approach. Marshall, like Kaplan, uses maps and geography not as a coherent explanatory factor but as a chance to revel in upending liberal internationalist naiveté. Russia, he argues, is expansionist and authoritarian because it lacks natural borders, while China is the exact same way because it has them. The real point, it turns out, is that both countries’ success serves as a rebuke to effete good-governance types in the West.

Tellingly, Marshall begins his book by recounting his experience as a war reporter in Kosovo, where he wondered why NATO forces ultimately stopped at the Ibar River:

I was working with a team of Serbs in Belgrade at the time and asked what would happen if NATO came: “We will put our cameras down, Tim, and pick up guns” was the response. They were liberal Serbs, good friends of mine and opposed to their government, but they still pulled out the maps and showed me where the Serbs would defend their territory in the mountains, and where NATO would grind to a halt. It was some relief to be given a geography lesson in why NATO’s choices were more limited than the Brussels PR machine made public.

Marshall’s invocation of the Balkan map as a metaphor for the limits of liberal internationalism recalls a short story by the English satirist H.H. Munro from a century earlier. During the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), Munro, better known as Saki, sketched a brief dialogue between “the Wanderer” and “the Merchant.” As the Merchant expresses platitudes about “good government” and the cruelty of war, the Wanderer waxes nostalgic about watching an earlier Balkan conflict play out in his youth. “I remember a sunburnt, soldierly man putting little pin-flags in a war-map, red flags for the Turkish forces and yellow flags for the Russians,” he says. “I remember the day of wrath and mourning when the little red flag had to be taken away from Plevna.”

Without giving the Merchant time to interject, the Wanderer goes on to worry that “modern war” would “destroy and banish the very elements of picturesqueness and excitement that are its chief excuse and charm.” Every conflict in the Balkans, he notes, ends with “a shrinking of the area of chronically disturbed territory” and “an intrusion of civilised monotony.” If “the Turk” were finally “driven out of Europe,” then “the dust of formality and bureaucratic neatness” would settle over the region. In place of “prowling wolves” and “Komitadje bands,” the Wanderer imagines how dreadfully dull the headlines would become: “Socialist Congress at Uskub, election riot at Monastir, great dock strike at Salonika, visit of the Y.M.C.A. to Varna.”

Risk geopolitics are certainly more fun to read about than the alternative, and they make for sharper and more compelling maps. But they also come at a cost. When World War I broke out, Munro, then 44, eagerly enlisted despite being overage. In 1916, he was shot in the head by a German sniper at the Somme. Hopefully, it was an end that the Wanderer would have appreciated and one that we can still avoid today.

Nicholas Danforth is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.