Symbolism and Reality in Geopolitics

November 27, 2016

Tom Franklin made the finals of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for a photograph he’d taken the previous September of three Manhattan firemen. The image’s strength is not least its unintentional evocation of Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo from the Battle of Iwo Jima. Both pictures feature men intent on the same activity — raising a flag. In Britain, this is to be done ‘briskly’, Tim Marshall’s new book, Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags, tells us, as opposed to lowering, which should be done ‘with consideration’. The book begins with a description of Franklin’s photo, and concludes with analysis of the UN’s role in the world, as informed by its flag, which is famous for attracting conspiracy theorists. The symbolism of the former reference, and the insight of the latter, summarise the essence of Marshall’s book: it is indeed a study in ‘power and politics’.

Every country has a flag, and those flags retain potency, whether that’s seen as something to be criticised — Emily Thornberry sounding off on Twitter about the Union Jack’s appeal to white-van men — or celebrated — Mo Farah draping it round his shoulders for a victory lap. The first level of flags’ representation is simple. They typically denote a set of people; most of the flags Marshall discusses are national. In Worth Dying For, he quotes Graham Bartram’s claim that, if 100 people were asked to provide a symbol of the UK, 99 would bring flags, and one, a teapot. And, in a talk at Policy Exchange last week, he contended that, ‘if you want to understand a country, understand its symbols’.

As expected from the writer of the highly-acclaimed Prisoners of Geography, Marshall’s new book explores those symbols through the prism of geopolitics. At Policy Exchange, he described his first comprehension of geography’s political significance. Seeing a Bosnian village set on fire, he realised that, while such arson might usually be classified as ‘mindless violence’, it wasn’t mindless at all: destroying the village would win the valley; winning the valley would win the area. Geography is power. In his subsequent reportage for Sky News, Marshall emphasised that. Now, he points out, others are catching up: ‘geography has returned to foreign policy’.

Marshall provides pub-quiz-winning points for burgeoning vexillologists, too. Worth Dying For recounts the development of the Chinese silk that ‘allowed flags as we know them today to flourish’, and its dissemination along the silk route. He tells us that the dots on Portugal’s flag represent the stigmata; that one of China’s five smaller stars presciently represents ‘patriotic capitalists’; that the EU’s is Schrödinger’s flag — it ‘is, and at the same time is not, the European flag’; that Nepal’s double triangle is the sole non-quadrilateral (he lists its manufacturing instructions); and that the only nation whose flag features a modern weapon — an AK-47 — is Mozambique.

Then, there are families of colours and motifs — from Scandinavian crosses; to pan-Slavic red, white, and blue; to the ‘colours of Arabia’, which Marshall explains by referencing the fourteenth-century Safi al-Din-al-Hili: ‘White are our acts, black our battles, green our fields, and red our swords’. And Africa is resplendent in Marley-esque red, gold, and green — inspired by the flag of Ethiopia, the only uncolonised African country — later joined, thanks to Marcus Garvey, by black.

To demonstrate how flags accentuate attitudinal differences, Marshall played a clip of a multi-tasking American artist singing The Star-Spangled Banner to spectators at a hockey game while painting a reproduction of the Iwo Jima photo — the occasion’s ‘anthem, iconography, and words’ encapsulating the American sentiment that the flag is that of the allegiant people, shown in the messaging of Reagan, Warhol, and Springstein. Britons, in contrast, Marshall said, are often ‘taught to be embarrassed’ by their flag, making it hard — as seen, perhaps, by Brexit — to know ‘how deep’ that sentiment runs.

America’s flag unifies. The world’s most powerful country is so big, Marshall reminded us, that it can trade with itself — yet size brings division. Elsewhere, unity is seen in those families of flag colours, each representing a geographical bloc. Some blocs are beginning to work together more closely within Europe, Marshall contended: Scandinavian countries, for instance, approaching Brussels en masse, and quietly discussing the possibility, or necessity, of their own trading group.

Marshall also focused on geography’s role as a determiner of history, through the example of Russia, and the ‘weak point’ of the North European flat plain, where both Napoleon and Hitler attacked. Dr Jamie Gaskarth (described by the event’s chair, Professor John Bew, as ‘one of the few in British universities writing seriously on British foreign policy’) said Marshall’s expertise was in helping us to empathise. ‘Geography’, Gaskarth said, reminds us ‘why unnavigable waterways might create problems of economic development’. But to what extent, he asked, can geography be overcome? How much should we excuse a country’s actions, based on its geography?

The darker side of national identity also featured during discussion of the rise of the far right. Not unlike De Gaulle, Gaskarth proposed that nationalism is what happens when patriotism feels ‘superior’. Sweden, Marshall told us, is significant: there’s ‘an old-fashioned idea of them as cuddly, Abba, Volvo — but they have one of the most warlike pasts, and there’s a real growing case of nationalism’. Germany’s AfD, he added, ‘will be in the Bundestag next year’. Quite recently, people might have struggled to name a far-right European party aside from the Front National; Marshall showed a list of eight or nine to prove that most would now recognise many more.

Bew, the head of Policy Exchange’s Britain in the World project, concluded the event with what he called a ‘provocative’ question: the Irish were willing to suffer lower living standards for their national identity — were the Scottish? These questions will only become more pressing as our increasingly technologically-linked, yet seemingly increasingly emotionally-divided world advances. Flags will rise, and flags will fall, but their symbolism is unlikely to flail.

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