Used to be hard. Used to be hard to imagine the map as something fungible, malleable, swiftly and easily changeable. Used to be hard even to conceive of except under extreme circumstances – such as all-out regional or even global war.
But that was then. This is now. Now the world is, manifestly, different. This year alone, just in the last few months, have been not one but two changes in the map. Moreover neither of these changes is minor, inconsequential. Both are major and both have significant geopolitical implications.
At least it can be said of the first – the seizure by Russia of Crimea from Ukraine – that it was done in the conventional way. Russia is a country, and a powerful one at that, with a national government and an identifiable head of state. It is, in other words, in the old, familiar mold. It is a state actor with its own national interests, which it will act on unless somehow held in check, either literally by, say, a credible threat of the use of force, or by international norms such as respect for national boundaries.
The second change in the map in 2014 is of course the de facto obliteration of the border between Syria and Iraq – and, indeed, for all we now know, the obliteration of both countries, period. Unlike the first change in the map, this one was engendered not by a state actor, but by a non-state actor that, until a couple of months ago, most Americans had never even heard of. It is telling that even now there is no agreement on the name. Some refer to this non-state actor as ISIS, and some, especially members of the administration, call it ISIL. Significantly this non-state actor refers to itself as a state – the Islamic State or, simply, IS. It obviously assumes at least for public consumption that the map has already been redrawn. It obviously assumes a done deal.
So far the world has been powerless to change the map back. So far the world has been powerless to stop both a conventional state actor and a decidedly unconventional non-state actor from redrawing the map as they see fit. A sobering reminder as if we needed one that the world has changed and that for all of America’s military might, it has not been able to preclude the map from changing in ways that are at odds with its own national interests.