My hero Mark Twain once quipped that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. The estimable humorist could've substituted "maps" for "statistics" and his joke would ring just as true.
Trouble is, it's hard to faithfully depict a globe on a flat surface like a printed page. That creates abundant opportunities for mapmakers to, if not lie per se, then at least to shape perceptions for aesthetic or political effect. The best way to keep an accurate view, short of keeping a globe handy, is to consult a variety of different maps that portray the world from different vantage points. The more perspectives the better.
The venerable Mercator projection is an egregious offender, if only because it's so ubiquitous. It distorts the size of geographic features in extreme northern and southern climes, exaggerating not just their dimensions but the landmasses' seeming importance. And where should the map be centered to catch the observer's eye? Patriotic American cartographers once inscribed the prime meridian through Philadelphia, New York, or Washington, DC, signaling that the new republic lay at the origin of a new, better political system. Maps sold in the United States long showed North America at the center while splitting Eurasia, and the Indian Ocean, between the extreme left and right sides of the page. That makes sense if you're a business selling maps to American customers. But it can mislead.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Sometimes the effort to mold opinion is overt, meant to serve present political needs. For instance, the artist Richard Edes Harrison published a series of maps during World War II with the aim of exciting elite and popular sentiment for the war effort. Harrison's genius was figuring out the right projection to send a political message. My favorite is his map of the North Atlantic. Viewed from the right angle, the broad Atlantic looks like a roughly diamond-shaped inland sea. Message: North America and Europe occupy the rimlands of the same inland sea, so transatlantic unity is a must. The idea of a North Atlantic community carried over into the Cold War, helping make the founding of NATO possible when America might have retreated back into splendid isolation.
Why belabor such trivia? Think about the notion of a pivot to Asia. On a Mercator map, a pivot implies a wholesale, 180-degree shift of forces and policy attention from Europe to Asia. Looking westward to Asia means looking away from Europe, right? That's what a glance at the map implies. This thought is profoundly unsettling for many Europeans, who have protested their abandonment long and loudly.
But look at the pivot on a polar azimuthal equidistant projection centered on the North Pole. You're basically looking down on the top of the world. (Think the UN logo.) Seagoing forces from the west coast of North America trace an arc through the Pacific Ocean into East Asia. But forces bound from the east coast for the Indian Ocean trace an arc through the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, and Red Sea. Now plot the two tracks on the map — one enclosing Eurasia along one coast and one along the other — and it looks like America is hugging Eurasia. And we all love a group hug, don't we?
It seems the pivot needn't leave Europe so forlorn after all. To borrow from Mark Twain once again: reports of America's demise as an Atlantic power are greatly exaggerated.