Cartographers today, when asked to produce a map of a given country, focus almost exclusively on the territory within the recognized borders of that country—a disastrous practice which has contributed to numerous failed policies and countless deaths. Whether a nuclear war will also result from this vast cartographical oversight remains to be seen. At the very least, large warning labels ought to be legally required on such maps, something like the labels on cigarette packages, if future crises are to be averted. Better yet, current country maps would be largely replaced by a new breed of “around maps” which balance focus on the internal with careful attention to external context.
If we had been using such maps ten years ago, perhaps the Bush administration would have thought twice before occupying both Afghanistan, to the east of Iran, and Iraq, to the west of Iran, simultaneously. More relevantly, American and European negotiators today might not spend so much time scratching their heads wondering why Iran is suddenly interested in refining uranium. If current negotiators would consult maps of around Iran instead of maps of Iran, they might recognize that their time would be better spent thinking about the implications of an Iranian nuclear program than in hoping a country with hostile forces on both sides can be dissuaded from developing some sort of meaningful military deterrent to invasion.
Unfortunately, our thinking about Iran typically stops at Iran’s borders. Through a happy accident in English-language alphabetization, some hardworking government officials do consider Iran and Iraq in the same day, but Afghanistan, though equally close physically, is banished by a conspiracy between cartographers and the alphabet to a separate compartment in our consciousness.
I’ve considered suing cartographers at large for malpractice on behalf of the United States—I’m not in it for the money, mind you (although I do plan to retire off my .5% share of the multibillion dollar settlement I anticipate). I just think that someone ought to pay for what has been lost to the epidemic of myopia that has us seeing one country at a time and missing what goes on just across borders.
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