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SONENSHINE: The world is a ball of geographic confusion

Pseudo-states and strange bedfellows blur borderlines

- - Friday, January 24, 2014

Were it not so deadly serious, it would be satirical. The United States is losing its sense of geospatial positioning. We may be one of the few "countries" left in the world — replaced by a series of pseudo-states, groups and strange bedfellows.

Imagine having to teach geography in 2014, let alone understand it. That spinning globe we used to use, with color-coded countries and bright borders, national flags and easy-to-pronounce places hardly seems useful. We may need a 2014 Guide to Groups within Countries.

Start with the Arab Spring a few seasons ago. Libya fell. Moammar Gadhafi was found in a hole. (Or was that Saddam Hussein in the hole?) We barely know who is running Libya today — governmental ministers or militias?

In Egypt, there has been Hosni Mubarak, Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood. Who won? Who lost?

Syria is the most urgent case defying our notion of a country. Most observers can hardly make sense of who is fighting. Bashar Assad still runs the place and seems to have no interest in stepping down. The rest is a blurry mess of images and names — jihadists, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, the al Nusrah Front and a host of coalitions that don't seem very coalesced.

Iraq is challenging its own geography. U.S. troops fought to liberate citizens from the yoke of tyranny and gave Iraqis back their country. Now extremists have taken parts of that territory and are flying their own flag. That is confusing. (And what's with the Kurds — is Kurdistan a real place?)

Lebanon is now a country with a northern part run by Western-style bankers and politicians and a southern portion that is constantly lobbing missiles at Israel. It sounds like an uneasy marriage.

While we are in the Middle East, is there going to be a "two-state solution?" We know that Israel is a state. The Palestinians have announced that they are a state, too. What does it take to gain entry into the club of countries these days?"

Africa has really become geographically confusing, as well as tragic. It is hard to make sense of the Sudan story for the casual reader. Is South Sudan one country — or two? Who is fighting whom? Which side are we on? And what ever happened to Darfur?

Even Asia has its share of geographic challenges. China is China. Taiwan is Taiwan. Tibet is — well, the place where the Dalai Lama is from. And don't ask Americans who owns Hong Kong.

Thanks to Dennis Rodman, most of us know that North Korea and South Korea are separate countries, despite the fact that their national anthems got mistakenly switched around during the last Olympics. Speaking of the Olympics, Sochi is understood to be part of Russia, but I challenge any American sports enthusiast to tell me how far Sochi is from Moscow. Or whether the Northern Caucasus are singular or plural.

South Asia is becoming more familiar. We are fascinated with Burma, or Myanmar, or whatever they call it. We want to visit that country except for those parts with clashes with Rohingyas.

Pakistan remains dangerous. Afghanistan is messy. We are not exactly sure who lives in Kabul and Kandahar and whether we like Hamid Karzai.

India is a growing tourist destination for Americans, but don't try to name the nine states within India. (And, yes, there is a slight rift going between our two countries.)

By the way, Kashmir remains a "disputed territory" and not in most guidebooks.

Iran is now our new favorite place to discuss at dinner. It is still one country. They seem to speak English there. Americans know we have a strained relationship with Iran from all those hostage movies, but we remain fascinated with all things Persian.

America's top destination remains Europe. It has countries we can visit — museums and hotels and attractions, such as the changing of the guard. We love British dramas and Shakespeare, and although most people can't explain the difference between England and the United Kingdom and where Scotland belongs, we know that Ireland is a wonderful place for tourists.

Just don't ask about Yugoslavia or Serbia — most don't know which one still exists, let alone where Bosnia-Herzegovina is and what the status of Kosovo is. They do remember, thanks to those colorful rings, that the Olympics took place once in Sarajevo.

Thank God for Mexico and Canada. The former is south of our border and is one gorgeous country with beach resorts (and a few danger zones for thugs and drugs). Canada is to the north, and we can drive over that border and see Niagara Falls. (But what about that Toronto mayor?)

In all, we simply have to accept the fact that planet Earth still looks wonderful in aerial views of continents and big oceans. As you get closer, buckle your seat belt. The geography gets confusing. Just be happy we now can travel "virtually" anywhere and that nobody is going to give you a pop quiz.

Have sympathy for all the foreign policymakers who have to craft a U.S. strategy toward these regions and players. Cheers for 2014 and whatever countries or non-countries emerge.

Tara Sonenshine is former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and currently a distinguished fellow at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.