The German political geographer Friedrich Ratzel once wrote that “Great statesmen have never lacked a feeling for geography… When one speaks of a healthy political instinct, one usually means a correct evaluation of the geographic bases of political power.” Similarly, the great British geopolitical thinker Halford Mackinder praised statesmen who possessed “geographical capacity”, which he defined as a “mind which flits easily over the globe, which thinks in terms of the map, which quickly clothes the map with meaning, which correctly and intuitively places the commercial, historical, or political drama on its stage.”
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press has published a fascinating oversized book that is part atlas and part encyclopedia. Edited by Malise Ruthven and including contributions by Andrew Avenell, Henry Bewicke, Caroline Chapman, and Elizabeth Wyse, Carving Up the Globe provides brief summaries of diplomatic agreements throughout history and shows the results of wars, geopolitics, and diplomacy on a plethora of colorful maps.
In the book’s introductory essay, Ruthven, a former editor with the BBC Arabic Service and World Service who has written extensively on Islam and Islamic fundamentalism, traces the genesis of diplomacy to the 18th century BCE, when Mesopotamian envoys “traveled between royal courts to communicate matters of war and peace.” He identifies history’s first recorded treaty as the Treaty of Mesilim (2550 BCE), which established borders between “the warring kingdoms of … Lagash and Umma.” An accompanying map shows those kingdoms and others grouped along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia.
The book includes such well-known diplomatic agreements as the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, where Pope Alexander purported to divide the world between Spain and Portugal (this was further clarified by the 1529 Treaty of Saragossa); the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ushered in the era of state-based international relations; the Treaty of Utrecht in the early 18th century that recognized the rise of Britain as a commercial and maritime power; the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which established a diplomatic mechanism to maintain the balance of power in Europe after the wars of the French Revolution and Empire; and the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, where the great powers tried but failed to institute diplomatic means to avoid a second global conflict.
The editors and contributors, to their credit, do not leave the Asia-Pacific out of their atlas of diplomacy and geopolitics. For example, a nearly full-page map depicts the world in 1 CE showing an expansionist Han Empire in China and noting that China was “opening up to their Asian neighbors and establishing diplomatic relations as well as the Silk Road, the overland trading route with the Roman Empire.” Another, smaller map, depicts the nearly equally-sized Chinese and Tibetan Empires at the time of their peace treaty in 822, which, the contributors note, “marked the beginning of the Tang dynasty’s decline.” A larger map shows the world in 1400, with the powerful Ming dynasty controlling China after the expulsion of the Mongols. This was the time period during which Admiral Zheng He undertook maritime exploration and increased China’s overseas trade. That same map depicts the still powerful Mongol Empire to the north and northwest of China and Timur’s expanding empire in Central Asia. Another map and brief summary explains Russia’s eastward expansion in the 17th century that encroached upon Manchuria and resulted in the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, which established the Russo-Chinese border “along the Argun River and the Stanaovoy Range.”
By 1800, the world map shows the massive Qing Empire in China colliding with the growing presence of Britain in India, and Dutch and French colonies in the East Indies. This collision of empires eventually led to the Opium Wars and the subsequent “unequal treaties” that weakened the Chinese Empire, granted spheres of influence to foreign powers, and led to the so-called “century of humiliation” that only ended with the Communist triumph in October 1949. The book includes a large map showing foreign control of numerous Chinese ports on rivers and the eastern seas in 1890.
The list could go on and on, and includes maps and summaries of treaties and agreements involving Japan, British India, and the nations of Southwest and Southeast Asia and Oceania up to 2017, as well as international treaties and agreements related to arms control, climate change, human rights, and civil aviation.
The editor and contributors do not neglect any portion of the globe. The book is a comprehensive reference for treaties and their geopolitical causes and consequences. It helps us, in Mackinder’s words, better understand “the realities of the round world on which we must practice the intricate art of living together.”