What is a country? Is it a place like the United States that is recognized by all other countries and is a member of the United Nations? Is it, like Kosovo, a place that is recognized by most of the world’s powers but isn’t a UN member? Where does Taiwan, which has its own government and its own military despite being claimed by China, fit? And where does all this leave places like Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan, many of whose citizens have voted to secede over the objections of the countries they’re currently part of?
“Really, when we’re talking about a country, we’re talking about a political territory with a population, a government, and legally recognized boundaries that indicate or grant sovereignty,” Rebecca Richards, a lecturer in international relations at Keele University in the U.K., said in an email. “They are the legally determined shapes on a map.”
But, as she pointed out, it’s a bit more complicated than drawing lines.
“We generally accept that we know that a state has sovereign recognition when it gains membership to the UN—it’s acceptance by the international community,” said Richards. And the fact is that though the UN has 193 countries it considers member states, a number nearly four times higher than it had at its founding in 1945, the overwhelming majority of new members joined in the 1950s and ’60s, when European nations shed their Asian and African colonies; and in the ’90s, following the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Only two new states have joined the UN since 2000: Timor-Leste and South Sudan. There are several reasons for this—mostly legal and political rather than purely geographical.
The 1933 Montevideo Convention, which set out the modern rules of statehood, says a country should possess a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the ability to enter into relations with other countries.
“Montevideo was written at the start of the end of empire and colonization, so it’s not too much of a leap to say that it reflects the sign of the times or what was expected to come,” Richards said. “It makes sense to have legal space for the creation of new states with the assumption that recognition will automatically come at the point of decolonization. And that is what happened for most post-colonial states that gained their independence in the 20th century.”
But in the second decade of the 21st century, the world is looking much different: There are more countries as well as many separatist movements. Most would-be states satisfy at least one of the criteria laid out by Montevideo: They have a permanent population. Some would say they have a defined territory, as well, but that would likely be challenged by the government of whichever territory they are trying to secede from. Some may even possess the ability to enter into relations with another country. An example of this is Taiwan, which has a defined territory, a permanent population, and a government with the ability to conduct foreign relations—subject to some limitations—but which is not considered sovereign by most countries in the world and is not a UN member.
There is another, perhaps more important reason why new states are rarely formed—or, if they claim independence, are rarely recognized by others. The parent state, under international law, must cede the territory.
“Existing sovereign states are not very keen to give up their territory. And other sovereign states are not keen to recognize new states without the parent state’s permission,” Richards said. “Doing so without the parent state relinquishing its sovereign claim over that territory would not only raise serious questions about the norm of sovereignty, but it would also set what many states would see as a dangerous precedent. Who would want to start the establishment of practice that said it was OK for an external actor to take away territory and give it to someone else?”
It’s not an academic question for the dozens of countries that have their own secessionist movements. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Spain, where the impasse over Catalonia is only the latest territorial problem to arise in recent years, has not recognized Kosovo, which broke away from Serbia in 2008. Most countries, including the U.S., recognize Kosovo, but because Russia and China, both veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, don’t, it is not a UN member state—and hence not viewed as sovereign under international law. Kosovo’s other challenge is that Serbia, the country from which it was carved, refuses to accept its independence.
This kind of impasse helps explain why Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan’s attempt at self-determination may not go anywhere for now. Both places enjoy widespread domestic support for independence, but the central governments in both Madrid and Baghdad, respectively, are opposed to letting it go forward. And a reason for their opposition is one of the very same reasons those territories want to secede in the first place—the central government benefits from their economic output. But this doesn’t mean the new states would be economically viable on their own. And they face opposition not only from their parent states but also the countries surrounding them—in the case of Catalonia, members of the European Union, and in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey, Iran, and Syria.
“So in this way, the right of self-determination is superseded by sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Richards said. “You can declare independence (an act of self-determination), but unless sovereign control over that territory is relinquished by the parent state, that act of self-determination is more than likely to end in something short of sovereign statehood.” This can be seen with the current political impasse in Catalonia: The government in Madrid is threatening to withdraw the autonomy Catalonia currently enjoys as punishment for the referendum, which was deemed illegal by Spain’s constitutional court.
The countries that have joined the UN since 1945 did so under conditions that haven’t been repeated in the cases of Catalonia and Kurdistan. When the former colonies became independent, they did so with the approval (in many cases won over decades at great cost) of the countries they had been part of. The dissolution of the Soviet Union involved the peaceful redrawing of borders; in the case of Yugoslavia’s successor states (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Macedonia), Timor-Leste’s secession from Indonesia and South Sudan’s from Sudan, it involved negotiated peace settlements with parent countries. Absent a repetition of any of these conditions, it is hard to see how new countries can be born. Indeed, since 1945, only Bangladesh in 1971 and the states created by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in 1990s ultimately resulted from unilateral declarations of independence, and only after wars were fought to prevent it.
Herein lies a conundrum: How do nation states and the international system address calls for independence in a system that doesn’t really encourage them? One model is greater sovereignty within borders: Veneto and Lombardy, two of the wealthiest regions in Italy, voted over the weekend in favor of greater autonomy. The results were nonbinding, but they may be hard for the government in Rome to ignore. Ironically, it’s precisely this kind of autonomy that Catalonia had, found insufficient, and now stands on the verge of losing.