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“Geographical size not only influences how countries view themselves; it also determines how they interact. The wrong mix of sizes can be disastrous for international equilibrium. One could argue, for example, that this was a factor in both world wars. Or as Henry Kissinger succinctly put it: “Poor old Germany. Too big for Europe, too small for the world.” It was precisely this problem of geopolitical girth that exercised the mind of Leopold Kohr, a 20th-century Austrian academic whose work inspired both modern political anarchism and the Green movement.”

When I visited Cuba, I contemplated this–although, yes, Castro cheated by manipulating the Cold War–from such a tiny tiny country, he made a huge impact across the entire world. Today, Cuba has the population of the province of Ontario, Canada.  But leaders of Ontario have never impacted world events the way this tiny little island in the Carribean did, back in the 1960s.  Again, had the Cold War not existed, perhaps it would not have been possible. But, small countries would ally–much as they did in European history, ganging up on each other to enforce whichever desired will…

Geographically tiny England, took over it’s island, then 1/4 of the world…

-rudhro

Kohr Principles

By FRANK JACOBS
June 5, 2012

Unless you’re North Korean or Lou Dobbs [1], you probably don’t think about your country’s borders every day. Yet those borders — or at least their scope — can have a profound effect on how you think about your country and its place in the world.

If you live in a large country, this may give you a certain perspective on, say, matters of land management (“Drill it, build it — we’ve got plenty of space!”) or even global self-confidence (“Shush, or we’ll call in an airstrike”). The same applies, conversely, to living in a small country, which perforce limits the size of your national ambitions (have you ever heard of an Irish space program? [2]) and the weight of your punch on the international stage (hence never any Malawian vetoes on the United Nations Security Council [3]).

Geographical size not only influences how countries view themselves; it also determines how they interact. The wrong mix of sizes can be disastrous for international equilibrium. One could argue, for example, that this was a factor in both world wars. Or as Henry Kissinger succinctly put it: “Poor old Germany. Too big for Europe, too small for the world.”

It was precisely this problem of geopolitical girth that exercised the mind of Leopold Kohr, a 20th-century Austrian academic whose work inspired both modern political anarchism and the Green movement.

Kohr was born in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, an Austrian village directly on the border with Germany, in 1909. After brilliant studies in law and political science at universities in Innsbruck, London and Vienna, in 1937 he became a freelance correspondent from the frontlines of the Spanish civil war. There, he befriended George Orwell and shared a writing desk with Ernest Hemingway. He also experienced first-hand the short-lived anarchist experiments in governance, in Catalonia [4] and elsewhere in republican Spain.

These brief flickers of an idealism that ran counter to an otherwise totalitarian age — crushed between the rock of Communism and the hard place of fascism — would continue to inspire Kohr’s writing and thinking. Barely escaping the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938, Kohr fled to America. After a brief stint working in a Canadian gold mine, he made his way down to the United States and a resumption of his academic career.

The guiding principle of Kohr’s work was, like that of his friend the economist E.F. Schumacher, “Small is beautiful” [5]. In 1941, while working for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, Kohr wrote, “We have ridiculed the many little states, now we are terrorized by their few successors [6].”

In 1943 Kohr secured a professorship at Rutgers, where he taught for 12 years, during which time he finished his central work, “The Breakdown of Nations.” Published first in Britain, in 1957, the book develops his theory of the optimal size of polities: “There seems to be only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness.” Size was the root of all evil: “Whenever something is wrong, it is too big.”

Unsurprisingly, Kohr’s guiding principle was anarchism, “the noblest of philosophies.” But its inherent nobility, he recognized, also made it utopian: a truly anarchist society could do away with governments and states only if all individuals were ethical enough to respect one another’s boundaries. Kohr cleverly turned this utopianism upside down, from weakness to strength: any party, any leader, any ideology promising utopia is automatically wrong, or lying [7]. Acceptance of utopia’s unattainability, in other words, is the best insurance against totalitarianism.

But if the ideal state cannot be attained, at least it can be approached, Kohr thought, by reducing the scale of government. Which sounds a lot like the famous quote from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”: “That government is best which governs least.” But in Kohr’s vision, smaller government should mean, first and foremost, a smaller areato govern. In such smallness, greatness resides. Counterintuitive as that may sound, didn’t Greece and Italy have their Golden Ages when they were divided into countless city-states? Not a coincidence, according to Kohr: smaller states produce more culture, wealth and happiness.

It might be easy to confine Kohr’s non-violent anarchism to the salon, where, over a fine glass of sherry, quixotic ideas may be lofted and shot down like intellectual clay pigeons. But he thought his gradualist approach eminently practicable, and tried to put it to good use in the field.

During his long career, Kohr supported the independence movements of Puerto Rico, Wales and Anguilla [8], and opposed grand unification projects like the European Union. He appealed for the breakup of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, long before they happened. And he publicized his ideas about how such small states should be formed and governed. He even devised a concrete upper limit for “smallness”: “The absolute maximum to which a society can expand without having its basic functions degrade, is about 12 to 15 million people.”

The answer was “not union, but division”: in a world where companies merge into megacorporations and countries into unaccountable supra-states, Kohr’s vision is both counterintuitive and refreshing. One of his 10 basic laws is the so-called Beanstalk Principle: For every animal, object, institution or system, there is an optimal limit beyond which it ought not to grow. In other words: “too big to fail” is a contradiction in terms. The real solution is to make countries (and companies) too small to fail [9].

But the trick is not just to divide, but to divide wisely. For, as Kohr liked to quote, “The dose makes the poison” [10]. Cut up a continent wrong, and you end up with, well, Europe. To demonstrate, Kohr included a few hypothetical maps in “The Breakdown of Nations.” On a map of North America, he superimposed a Euro-style division, skewed toward imbalance. A map of Europe was likewise redivided to convey an American sense of balance on the Old Continent.

Joe Burgess/The New York Times

The strength of the American federation, Kohr thought, rested in no small part on the genius of its division: into states of roughly equal size. How different American history could have coursed, if the Union had looked like this:

* A Coastal State consisting of the three states on the Pacific Coast, plus Nevada: large enough to be self-contained, its orological [11]isolation from the rest of the States underlined by its institutional separation.

* Montana, consisting of seven Rocky Mountain states, serves as a natural and political barrier between a more populous west and an even more populous east.

* Isola, the name of which both abbreviates “isolation” and is Italian for “island,” comprises 14 states in the Midwest. The implication is that this state, landlocked though it is, can get by on its own.

* Texas: the only state large enough to be big enough on its own.

* Louisiana: a smallish state in a strategic location — the Mississippi estuary — no doubt torn apart and fought over by its larger neighbors, notably Isola, looking for access to the sea.

* Southland, a congregation of nine Southern states — or eight Southern states, plus Kentucky, if you’re into the whole historical accuracy thing.

* Atlanta: eight states, including all of New England, plus New York and Pennsylvania.

* Smaller states that are either the cockpits or the time-out zones for the bigger players: “Virginia” (i.e. West Virginia), Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Rhode Island.

War would have ensued, as it did in Europe. So what if Europe could have been sliced up like America had been? It takes a lot more effort to eradicate from your mind’s eye the underlying borders on the map of Europe, and believe these straight lines. But the effort to do so is interesting.

Joe Burgess/The New York Times

Here, at least, we have a Europe of little states. No Germany, France, Spain — all countries that have at some point tried to dominate the entire continent (Russia is conveniently left out of the scope of this map).

* Ireland is one, but Britain is divided.

* The Iberian Peninsula is cut up in five pieces, one of which does resemble Portugal.

* A single line divides Northern European states from southern ones from just north of Belgium to the north of Ukraine. A bit like the Parallel 36’30″ North, which in the United States forms or skirts every state from the Atlantic to the Utah-Nevada-New Mexico tripoint.

* Kohr’s lines seem to ignore ethnic divisions, but sometimes cut ghostly reminders of existing countries: a rectangular Netherlands is there, as is a crude Austria and an almost perfectly preserved Denmark. Is the imprint of Europe’s old (and, perhaps not coincidentally, smallest) countries so indelible that they areincontournable, even for Kohr?

Kohr’s geopolitical musings are unique in that they impose the border patterns of Europe and North America on each other. But they are not alone in hypothesizing what the world would look like if the borders of these two key continents looked different.

In 1992, Freddy Heineken — yes, he of beer-brewing fame — devised Eurotopia, a Europe divided into 75 regions, based on Kohr’s ideas. And much earlier, revolutionary France produced a proposal for geometrically identical départements [12] prefiguring Kohr’s Europe map.

But North America has proved a much more versatile canvas for proposals and ideas to reorganize the continent. From C. Etzel Pearcy’s proposal for a 37-state union, over Joel Garreau’s “discovery” of the Nine Nations of North America, to even the 12 districts of Panem, in the fictional universe of “The Hunger Games”: Americans seem keen to explore how different borders might give them a different idea of themselves. As odd as some of Kohr’s ideas may seem to modern American readers, perhaps they are more familiar than most people realize.

Frank Jacobs is a London-based author and blogger. He writes about cartography, but only the interesting bits.


[1] North Korea’s draconian border controls are a necessary complement to its spartan ideology; Lou Dobbs helped popularize the idea that the United States border is as leaky as a sieve.

[2] Actually, Ireland does have a space program – of sorts. In 1980, it co-founded the European Space Agency, and every rocket launched by Europe’s answer to NASA has had an Irish flag painted on its side… as well as the flags of the other countries in the organization, by now 18. All ESA members value the multiplier effect of their pooled resources. In 2012, ESA has a budget of $5 billion, of which Ireland contributes 0.4 percent. On its own, Ireland’s $20 million would cover just one-sixth of the average cost to launch a single Ariane 5, ESA’s workhorse satellite-delivery rocket.

[3] The Security Council’s five permanent members, who also have veto power, are the United States, Britain, Russia, France and China. The composition of this veto-wielding quintet still echoes who won World War II. Occasionally, there’s talk of expanding the Security Council’s permanent seats (and veto powers) to better reflect a changed world. The shortlist usually names Germany, India, Japan and Brazil (the so-called G4, who support one another’s candidacy), and professes support for an Arab and an African country. Suggestions vary: South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt. But never Malawi.

Nevertheless, “small” states can have an impact on the world stage, either by engaging in so-called “niche diplomacy” (e.g. Canada’s efforts against land mines [the “Ottawa Process”] and Norway’s efforts for Middle East peace [the “Oslo Process”]), or by acquiring nuclear weapons (see, again, North Korea).

[4] Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” is an excellent, if passionately partisan, introduction to the Catalonian experiment.

[5] Kohr helped popularize that slogan, which Schumacher would use as the title for his 1973 best seller. In fact, much of Schumacher’s work was inspired by Kohr’s ideas, and he completed the book in Kohr’s house in Aberystwyth, Wales. A related principle of Kohr’s was “slow is beautiful.”

[6] Before its abolition in 1806, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation consisted of more than 300 independent states. This unruly agglomeration would give way to the German Empire, more streamlined with its 27 territories with varying degrees of autonomy (kingdoms, free cities, grand duchies, duchies, an imperial territory). Any semblance of local autonomy was absent from the highly centralized Nazi state that followed it.

[7] Sounds like that quote from André Gide: “Believe those who seek the truth, doubt those who find it.” But if that’s true, why would we believe it?

[8] Anguilla seceded from the British Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis in 1967, declaring independence in 1969. Kohr, at that time lecturing in nearby Puerto Rico, actively supported the so-called “Anguilla Project.” A British military intervention in 1969 helped turn back the clock on the island, which now remains a British dependency (while St Kitts and Nevis achieved full independence in 1983).

[9] Some other Kohr principles: the Law of Peripheral Neglect (governmental concern, like marital fidelity or gravitational pull, diminishes with the square of distance); the Population Principle (as the size of a population doubles, its complexity quadruples); and the Self-Reliance Principle (self-reliant communities are less likely to get involved in war than those who depend on global trade systems).

[10] Dosis facit venenum, a quote borrowed from Paracelsus, who used it in a medical context.

[11] Relating to the study of mountains.

[12] See Strange Maps No. 159: Squaring the Hexagon: France’s Rectangular Départements.

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