Maps and legends

‘Russia is governed by semi-deranged confidence men who dupe their fellow citizens into believing in their nation’s geopolitical greatness’

Tim Congdon

Everyone knows that statistics can lie and ought to be damned for it, but maps are rarely condemned in the same way. But maps, too, can be vehicles of deception. An easy mistake is to assume that the size of a nation’s territory on a map of the world is correlated with its population and economic weight. The seemingly logical further move is to attribute geopolitical significance to nations that are large in cartographic terms and to deem those that are small as of no importance.

Two cartographic illusions appear often in current debates. The first is the exaggeration of Russia’s international power role. According to Vernon Bogdanor, writing on “Europe’s Nato problem” in the Spectator of February 23, 2019, “There are four major power blocs in the world — the United States, Russia, China and the EU.” Bogdanor ought to know his stuff, as he is Professor of Government at King’s College London. But, in fact, on all the relevant criteria except one Russia is a pipsqueak.

A nation’s ability to produce goods and services is fundamental, because only from national production can a proportion be directed to military purposes and transformed into “hard power” in warfare. Data from the International Monetary Fund show that in 2018 Russia’s gross domestic product was $1,576 billion, less than that of Germany ($4,029 billion), the United Kingdom ($2,809 billion), France ($2,795 billion) and Italy ($2,087 billion). The GDP of the United States, at $20,513 billion, was 13 times as large as Russia’s.

Russia is so far behind in economic terms that its leaders (and, more surprisingly, Professor Bogdanor) are deluded if they think their nation today has — or could have — the same weight in global affairs that it had just after the Second World War. Given that the US and the nations of the European Union produce roughly 25 times more than Russia, and given that on average the US and the EU spend about 2.5 per cent of GDP on defence, military expenditure in Russia would have to be on a wartime footing — at half of GDP — to be comparable in size. President Putin may have his admirers, but both he and they are living in the past.

The truth is that nowadays Russia is governed by semi-deranged confidence men who dupe their fellow citizens into believing in their nation’s geopolitical greatness and vulnerability. It therefore spends a higher share of GDP on defence than Western nations. Nevertheless, statistics published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies show that in 2018 Russian military expenditure, at $63.1 billion, was only just above the UK ($56.1 billion), France ($53.4 billion) and Germany ($45.7 billion). So Russia was far behind the total of the three largest West European nations ($155.2 billion). (The only criterion on which Russia remains a “major power” is that it has far too many nuclear weapons, but only a few defence specialists know whether these weapons would be effective against American missiles and electronics.)

Bogdanor is not alone in deeming Russia a “major power bloc” when it is nothing of the sort. How does the mistake arise? Surely the trouble comes from the vast space occupied by Russia on a world map, particularly a world map using the Mercator projection. Russia, or rather Siberia, sprawls over Eurasia and seems to dominate its geography. But most of Siberia is uninhabited and of little value economically, and — to repeat — Russia’s economic weight and military expenditure are so small that it is a pipsqueak compared with the West.

The second cartographic illusion is closer to home. A common theme from Remainers in the Brexit debate was that “Britain is too small to survive alone in the 21st century.” Again, the origin of this belief must be the visual trickery played by maps. In a map of Europe, Britain’s offshore islands appear both peripheral in location and modest in scale, while in a map of the world Britain is tiny. The elderly may remember the maps of their childhood, when much of the world was coloured pink and constituted the former “British empire”. Perhaps, for those who want Britain “to punch above its weight” or whatever, the contrast between those maps and the maps of today re-emphasises how insignificant Britain now is, and the cogency of the case for Britain to combine with its European neighbours.

But let us be clear. Most of the world’s nations do not belong to the EU, and they get along fine. The essence of Brexit is that the UK ceases to belong to the present international grouping of 28 EU nations and assumes the same geopolitical status (of independence from the EU) that characterises the remaining 160 or so nations. Escape from the clutches of the European Commission, the European Council, the European Court of Justice and the rest may be a little tedious for the moment. But may I recall the obvious? These institutions have no power or authority over the most of the world, and — as I said — most of the world gets along fine.

Is Britain too small? The pink areas on a world map may no longer sprawl over Eurasia, Africa, etc, in the Russian fashion, but the UK still produces more and has greater military capacity than at least 150 of the world’s non-EU nations (including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, with which we share a head of state). If they can survive and flourish outside the EU, so can we.

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