Geopolitical issues in technical writing

February 15, 2012 by Paul Henry in Technical Documentation

I write a lot about how malicious software (malware) and computer security issues affect users in different countries around the world. In addition to being an important topic as well as a fascinating one in its own right, it’s given me an appreciation of the many considerations a writer faces when writing for an international audience about international topics.  Here’s a by-no-means-comprehensive look at some of the geopolitical issues that make my professional life a little harder, along with some suggested guidelines that I hope can help make yours a little easier.


What is a country?

Is Taiwan a country? Is Scotland a country? The West Bank and Gaza Strip? Puerto Rico? The question of what constitutes a country, nation, or state is a thorny one, and trying to answer it can trap the unwary writer.

For starters, even those three terms don’t always mean what we think they mean. In traditional usage, the word nation has connotations of ethnicity and community, rather than territory (as in “the Cherokee Nation”), while country and state can both refer to either fully sovereign entities, like the United Kingdom or the United States of America, or to constituent territories within larger entities, like the country of Scotland or the state of California. In most cases, though, country and nation can be treated as synonyms for sovereign state—itself a difficult term to define, but one that we understand to mean a defined territory with a permanent population and a widely recognized government that is not subordinate to another state.

In practice, unfortunately, the issue of sovereignty is often thorny, complex, and politically charged, and different parties often disagree hotly about whether a given territory is a sovereign state or not. Complicating the matter, some states refuse to formally recognize others for political reasons, and sometimes states even have diplomatic relations with governments-in-exile that don’t exercise any territorial control at all. Legal fictions such as these are sometimes necessary for effective diplomacy, but they can cause headaches for technical writers, who must often deal with the world as it is, rather than as squabbling diplomats would have it be.

Less controversially, writers often have a need to refer to certain subnational entities as being functionally equivalent to sovereign states in some way. For example, geographic statistics are often collected and collated using ISO 3166-1 codes, which mostly correspond to sovereign states but also to a number of dependent territories and other areas. Data that uses these codes might have one entry for the United States and a separate entry for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, for example, which has its own code. Referring to a list that includes both codes as “a list of countries” would therefore not be correct. Similarly, the list of country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) maintained by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) includes codes such as .gl for Greenland, a constituent country of Denmark, and .eu for the European Union, among others.

To deal with these inconsistencies, publications often standardize the use of terms such as “countries and regions” or “countries and other areas,” which allow writers to combine references to sovereign states, disputed states, and subnational entities without causing controversy. (I have a personal fondness for “locations” as an umbrella term, which makes up in usability what it may lack in precision. There’s plenty of room for disagreement about whether Taiwan—to pick one example out of many—is a country, but few will deny that it is a location.)

What’s in a name?

Even if sovereignty is not at issue, writers can sometimes unwittingly create confusion or cause offense by using a disfavored, incorrect, or ambiguous name for a country or region. Some organizations have a geopolitical office that works to ensure that all institutional communications meet appropriate standards for terminology. If you’re lucky enough to be working with such an institution, this office should be able to give you guidance on using the right name. Likewise, if your organization uses a house style guide, check to see if it includes a list of approved names.

Otherwise, you may have to find an authority to rely on. The World Factbook, published by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, is a widely respected compendium of statistics about countries and other regions. The World Factbook is a fine authoritative reference for geographic information, although writers outside the United States should be aware that it follows U.S. State Department protocols regarding country names, which differ in some cases from the policies used by other governments. Nevertheless, if you’re targeting a U.S. audience and haven’t been given another authority to use, it can’t be beat.

For writers elsewhere, consider consulting the website of your country’s foreign ministry for a quick and simple guide to terminology and spelling. The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, among others, all maintain lists of officially recognized country name standards or fact sheets.

When you are writing for an international audience—and bear in mind that writing for the Web often means targeting an international audience by default—you might not want to rely on exclusively national sources. The United Nations website includes a list of UN member nations with English-language versions of their names. This can be a pretty good guide to what the countries themselves prefer to be called, although the formality of some of the names can be a bit awkward (for example, “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” when just “North Korea” would do). Other potential authorities include the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the International Monetary Fund.

Some examples of terminology issues that can trip up an unsuspecting writer:

  • East Timor. One of the newest nations in the world, this small country in Southeast Asia was usually referred to as “East Timor” in English-language news reports during its struggle for independence from 1999 to 2002, but its government prefers Timor-Leste, the Portuguese language version of its name; the governments of the U.S., U.K., and Canada, among others, have chosen to observe this convention as well.
  • Ivory Coast. Similarly, the government of this country in West Africa prefers the name Côte d’Ivoire in all languages.
  • Congo. Two countries in Central Africa share this name: the Republic of the Congo (capital: Brazzaville), and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (capital: Kinshasa), across the Congo River to its south and east. Traditionally, “Congo” usually refers to the Republic of the Congo, but the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which was called Zaire from 1965 to 1997) is much larger in both area and population, so it’s usually best to use the full name when writing about either one. Sometimes writers call them Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa to distinguish between them, but these names are not official.
  • Guinea. This one’s a toughie. There are four countries with the word “Guinea” in their names: Guinea, in West Africa (capital: Conakry); Guinea-Bissau, immediately to its north (capital: Bissau); Equatorial Guinea, on the west coast of Central Africa (capital: Malabo); and Papua New Guinea, in the Oceania region north of Australia (capital: Port Moresby). Papua New Guinea comprises the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, the western half of which belongs to Indonesia. And in South America there’s Guyana, a country on the Caribbean Sea, and French Guiana, an overseas department of France. French Guiana is not the same thing as French Guinea, which was the colonial name of Guinea (Conakry) until that country gained its independence in 1958.
  • Macedonia. “Macedonia” refers to both an independent country in the Balkans and a region of Greece to its southeast. The country calls itself the Republic of Macedonia, a name Greece contests. Since 1993, the country has been known in international contexts by the unwieldy name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (mercifully abbreviated as “F.Y.R.O.M.” or “F.Y.R.O. Macedonia”). The governments of the U.S., U.K., and Canada recognize the “Republic of Macedonia” name, while Australia and New Zealand recognize the longer name. When working without a style guide, use the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia when writing for international publication, and your country’s preferred usage otherwise.
  • Burma. Officially Myanmar, the name preferred since 1989 by the military junta ruling the country and used by international bodies such as the United Nations. The United States and several other countries don’t recognize the legitimacy of this government, and continue to use “Burma.” As with Macedonia, use the UN-recognized name when writing for international publication, and your country’s preferred usage otherwise.

Flags and maps

FlagsWriters know that graphics can do a lot to make dry text feel more vivid, memorable, and real. In the hands of a careless or uninformed writer, though, graphics like flags and maps can do more harm than good. Always take care to ensure that any such graphics are presented in as correct, respectful, and uncontroversial a manner as possible.

Not all flags have the same proportions. The flag of Switzerland is square, while the flag of Qatar is more than 2½ times as long as it is tall. And the flag of Nepal isn’t even rectangular—it’s a five-sided shape that resembles two triangular pennants. When possible, try to replicate the specified dimensions of each flag. The World Factbook and the Flags of the World website are good resources for flag information.

Be careful when using flags as part of a larger graphic motif, as misuse of a flag can offend some readers. For example, the flag of Saudi Arabia includes the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith (often translated as “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah”). The shahada is considered sacred and should be treated with respect—avoid using this flag in abstract designs or overprinting it with other text.

Writers and user interface designers are often tempted to use flag images to represent languages in multilingual contexts, but this approach is fraught with problems. Which flag should you use to represent English-language content—that of the U.K, the birthplace of English, or of the U.S., the home of the largest English-speaking population? Better to avoid the issue and use something else to indicate languages, like ISO 639 language codes.

Maps can be particularly problematic, especially when they depict disputed regions. Raymond Chen, a Microsoft developer and popular blogger, explains why a popular feature had to be removed from Windows 95:

In the original release of Windows 95, you could change your time zone by clicking on the map, and the time zone you selected would highlight. Similarly, you could change your Region Settings by clicking on the world map. This was one of those little touches that made Windows 95 that much more fun to use.

But we had to remove those features within months of release, even though we based both of the maps on the borders officially recognized by the United Nations.

In early 1995, a border war broke out between Peru and Ecuador and the Peruvian government complained to Microsoft that the border was incorrectly placed. Of course, if we complied and moved the border northward, we’d get an equally angry letter from the Ecuadorian government demanding that we move it back. So we removed the feature altogether.

The time zone map met a similar fate. The Indian government threatened to ban all Microsoft software from the country because we assigned a disputed region to Pakistan in the time zone map. (Any map that depicts an unfavorable border must bear a government stamp warning the end-user that the borders are incorrect. You can’t stamp software.) We had to make a special version of Windows 95 for them.

Embargoed countries

The U.S. and other countries have economic sanctions and trade embargoes in place that prohibit citizens and corporations from doing business with certain other countries, which can require special handling in some circumstances. Compiling a list of embargoed countries can be difficult, because some embargoes are comprehensive while others only apply to certain areas of trade.

Currently, the United States imposes full or partial embargoes against a number of countries, including Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Myanmar, North Korea, and Syria. The U.K., Canada, and other countries have their own lists. Where applicable, check to see if there are any embargoes in place that may affect your writing.

The existence of a trade embargo between two countries or regions does not imply a lack of diplomatic recognition, and vice versa. For example, Taiwan has formal diplomatic relations with few states because of its dispute with the People’s Republic of China, but trades freely with many of the same countries that decline to recognize it diplomatically.


China is one of the most important markets of the 21st century, and writers should take special care when addressing a number of issues that involve China.

Two entities formally claim to be the legitimate government of the land of China: the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which controls the Chinese mainland and has its capital in Beijing, and the Republic of China, which controls the island of Taiwan and has its capital in Taipei. The geopolitical dispute between these two entities is complex and very sensitive, and rather than make recommendations, I’ll just highlight a few of the specific things that writers should keep in mind:

  • Both the Republic of China and the PRC accept “Taiwan” as a name for the island between the Taiwan Strait and the Pacific Ocean.
  • The English-language website of the Taiwanese Government Information Office tends to use “Republic of China” and “ROC” to refer to the government, and “Taiwan” to refer to the island, its people, and its culture. Western sources are more likely to use “Taiwan” for both the land and the government. “Republic of China” can be confusing and ambiguous in Western contexts.
  • Taiwan sometimes participates in international bodies and competitions under the name “Chinese Taipei,” at the insistence of the PRC. This is not a popular name in Taiwan and could be seen as excessively deferential to the PRC if used in technical writing.

When I write for clients, my preference is to treat the two entities as I would treat two separate and independent countries or regions, one on the mainland called “China,” and one on the island of Taiwan called “Taiwan.”

The status of Hong Kong and Macau (or Macao), two former European colonies that were returned to China in the 1990s, is another potentially sensitive subject. The relatively high degree of autonomy granted to both areas, as well as the cultural and economic differences created by a century of colonial rule, often make it appropriate to consider them separately from the rest of China in various contexts, but they are not fully sovereign entities, and writing that fails to make this distinction can be seen as insensitive. China designates these two areas as Special Administrative Regions (SARs), and many organizations follow suit, referring to them as Hong Kong SAR and Macau SAR.

Israel & Palestinian territories

The status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is another highly sensitive and controversial topic.

Since the Oslo Accords in 1994, the body with internationally recognized de jure control over most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been the Palestinian Authority (or Palestinian National Authority), and sometimes this can be used as an acceptable name for these territories in lists of countries and regions. Using “Palestine” as an identifier for any state or region post-1948 could be taken as an indication of support for Palestinian statehood. In the past the West Bank and Gaza were frequently called “occupied territories,” but this usage has fallen out of favor in recent years. My preference is to refer to the territories as West Bank and the Gaza Strip individually, or “the Palestinian territories” collectively.

Maps should not depict these territories either as fully independent or as integral parts of the State of Israel. Mapmakers usually use dashed lines or special shading to depict the territories as disputed. The Palestinian flag, a horizontal tricolor of black, white, and green with a red triangle at the hoist, has been acceptable to Israel as the flag of the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords, and can often be safely used to represent or identify the territories.


Kashmir is a disputed region in the Himalayas that is claimed by India, Pakistan, and (in parts of eastern Kashmir) China. Each country exercises de facto control over part of the region. India claims the entire Kashmir region, and requires that maps show all of Kashmir as Indian territory. Similarly, Pakistan requires that maps distributed there show Kashmir as disputed. (This was the issue that tripped up the original release of Windows 95, as noted earlier—India and Pakistan observe different time zones, and the map clearly showed Kashmir lying within the Indian time zone.)


Maps published by the United Nations and other international groups generally represent Kashmir as disputed territory, and sometimes also show the internationally recognized control lines between the territories administered by the three disputants. When writing either for international publication or for local publication outside India or Pakistan, it’s usually best to follow this approach. Depicting India or Pakistan in isolation (that is, without showing the surrounding territory or bodies of water) can be tricky. One approach I’ve tried in the past has been to use a graphical motif that artfully crops each country’s borders within a frame, as shown in the mockup here—an approach that can be used to conveniently avoid showing northern India or northeastern Pakistan.