Defining what makes a country

In quite a state

How many countries in the world? The answer to that question is surprisingly difficult

APPLY online for visa-free entry to the United States and the Department for Homeland Security offers 251 choices for “country where you live”. The wide but rum selection includes Bouvet Island, an uninhabitable icy knoll belonging to Norway in the South Atlantic; South Yemen (which stopped being a state in 1990); and the “Neutral Zone”—a diamond-shaped bit of desert between Saudi Arabia and Iraq that vanished after the 1991 Gulf war.

That is the trouble with such lists. Places that are not real states at all end up on them. And places that approximate a bit more closely to countries (at least in their own eyes) may be absent. America’s list, for example, excludes Abkhazia and South Ossetia, self-proclaimed states that broke away from Georgia with Russian backing. Just three other countries—Nicaragua, Venezuela and the islet of Nauru—recognise those breakaway statelets as independent. Meanwhile nobody at all in the outside world seems ready—yet—to give southern Sudan a label of its own, though that day may not be far off.

Private-sector lists are just as odd as those compiled by governments. Hotmail offers 242 “countries/territories” from which you can register an e-mail account. Web-savvy penguins may be pleased that Bouvet Island is on the list. But human beings in Kosovo (recognised by 65 states) and Western Sahara (more than 80) will search in vain for their homeland.

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Any attempt to find a clear definition of a country soon runs into a thicket of exceptions and anomalies. Diplomatic recognition is clearly not much guide to real life. In the early years of the cold war most countries recognised the Chinese regime in Taiwan (“Free China”) while the mainland communists (“Red China”) were isolated. Now the absurdity is the other way round. The number of countries with formal diplomatic ties to Taiwan has shrivelled to just 23—mostly small, cash-strapped islands. Yet Taiwan is not just a country, but a rather important one. Under mainland-pleasing names such as “Chinese Taipei” it is a member of the Asian Development Bank and the World Trade Organisation, and an observer at some OECD panels. It has nearly 100 “trade offices” around the world.

If diplomatic recognition is not the main thing that marks out a country, what does? Is it the ability to issue passports that are of some use to the holder, or simply actual control of a stretch of land? Again, the picture is cloudy. Legitimacy, physical control and the capacity to issue documents that other people accept don’t always coincide. For example, lots of countries that do not recognise Kosovo accept travellers bearing its passports. For decades, Lithuania’s exiled diplomats issued usable passports even though their country was under Soviet rule. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a do-gooding outfit with crusader roots, issues not only passports but postage stamps (and has diplomatic relations with over 100 countries). Its territory is just two nice buildings in Rome. Vatican City, an enclave of just 44 hectares in the middle of Italy’s capital, is only a little bigger—but it very much sees itself as a sovereign state (see article). Yet the Vatican’s diplomats serve the papacy—the Holy See—rather than the state where it is based. And the See, not the statelet, is an observer at the United Nations.

Not that presence or absence from the UN is much help to anyone seeking clarity. Israel joined the world body in 1949, but 19 of its 192 members do not accept the Jewish state’s existence, and many avoid uttering its name, preferring formulas like “Zionist entity”. A third of UN members do recognise Kosovo, but the UN itself does not.

Living in limbo

In reality, UN membership is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for functioning statehood. Being outside the UN means that Kosovo is still waiting for its own internet domain name, phone prefix and chance to play international football. But Taiwan, recognised by even fewer countries, manages to have all three.

The Turkish-backed administration in northern Cyprus proclaimed independence in 1983 but it has been recognised only by Turkey and remains in a state of partial economic isolation. Attempts have been made to start direct air links with Britain, but in 2009 a court ruled that this would contravene international law which gives the island’s internationally recognised government (which controls the Greek-speaking part of the island) sovereignty over its airspace.

A German thinker, Max Weber, defined statehood as “the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence”. That may be a practical approach but it doesn’t end the confusion. Chaotic Somalia spectacularly fails to meet this criterion, yet still counts as a sovereign state. Yet its northern bit, Somaliland, has met this standard with increasing impressiveness since it declared independence in 1991. It has a currency, car registrations and even biometric passports. But only private firms such as DHL, a courier company, link it to the outside world. International postal service requires membership of the Universal Postal Union, which for non-members of the UN need approval by at least two-thirds of that body’s members. The African Union refuses to recognise Somaliland’s independence because it dislikes changing any African borders. Outsiders hold back until African countries change their minds.

One reason for confusion is simple laziness. Deleting countries that have disappeared or places that have always been uninhabited should be easy (the Department of Homeland Security blames out-of-date historical data for its list and says it will change it soon). But sheer inertia, and a feeling among many sovereign states that changes of boundary and status set a bad precedent, makes changes less likely.

How far a populated patch of land qualifies as a country is ultimately a subjective question for politicians; it will never be settled by lawyers in a way that everybody accepts. And the fact that there are degrees of recognition—ranging from full diplomatic ties to virtually denying a state’s existence—gives governments a calibrated set of tools which can be used to reward good behaviour and penalise bad.

And whatever diplomatic theory says, life goes on. Taiwan is celebrating a friendly resolution from the European Parliament, and dishing out aid to Haiti. Kosovo rents dialling codes from Monaco and Slovenia. A football championship for teams from unrecognised countries is due to start next month in Malta. And a delegation of senior politicians from Somaliland had a friendly meeting at the White House on April 3rd. Presumably they had squared things with immigration control.

from the print edition | International

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