Notes: A License to Print Money

Young countries just starting out find the world’s burgeoning nationhood industry ready to helpperhaps too ready

ANYONE WHO has been associated with the planning of a wedding has at some point been struck by the contrasting world views of the couple at its core and the professionals on its periphery. For the couple, the wedding is a putatively once-in-a-lifetime event, the happy if unpredictable culmination of parallel chains of causality over the millennia. For the florists, the photographers, the caterers, the clerics, the couturiers, the bakers, and the musicians, the wedding is just a day on the job—no different, really, from thousands of other days. One encounters divergences of this kind on many important occasions (in the delivery room, at the funeral home), and it is at once disconcerting and reassuring to realize that situations of unique personal moment are to a large degree also matters of routine—that surrounding every existential exclamation point is a group of competent professionals to whom the occasion is merely a comma.

This is a lesson that the leaders of Slovenia, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, and all the world’s other new countries have in recent months been learning, possibly to their relief. However bloody or traumatic a country’s path to independence, once independence has been achieved the world community matter-of-factly takes things in hand.

In New York the United Nations conducts orientation programs for the new country’s delegation. The mayor’s office assists with the arrangements for a headquarters and for housing, and provides maps and restaurant guides. In Montreal the International Civil Aviation Organization approves a three-letter call sign for use by the new country’s airline. In Washington the State Department elevates to embassy what was once a consulate, and makes sure that the U.S. Army Band has on file an arrangement of the new country’s national anthem. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank send missions to the new country to offer economic advice and teach its leaders how to borrow large sums of money. At the National Geographic Society, cartographers make the appropriate changes on the large globe in Explorers Hall. Here and there, émigré groups issue announcements extolling the contributions of the new country’s sons and daughters. Lawyers make themselves available to write the new country’s constitution, soldiers to train its military, consultants to coach its office-seekers.

ONE OF THK most important services of which new countries may avail themselves—and almost always do—is the printing of money. A society may have gotten along for years with some homegrown currency regime, such as the use of large millstones for money by the Yap Islanders, but with the conferring of independence new countries invariably want something that can more easily be slipped to a customs inspector or a maitre d’. I hadn’t realized it until recently, but no more than a few dozen countries actually print their own currencies. The rest— about a hundred and thirty countries—have to find someone to do the printing for them. As with other trappings of sovereignty, this turns out to be no problem: a handful of companies exist to do just that. The biggest, Thomas De La Rue, of London, prints currencies for about a hundred countries, including most of the members of the British Commonwealth. The United States Banknote Corporation, of New York, and Giesecke and Devrient, of Munich, each print the currencies of about ten countries. The remaining business falls to manufacturers in Canada, France, the Netherlands, Argentina, and a few other places. It’s a small, close-knit world. Several dozen artisans do all the engraving, a few mills supply all the paper, one company in Switzerland supplies most of the ink, and the printing is usually done on intaglio presses built by another Swiss company, Giori.

Business is plentiful for the currencyprinting companies even when the world is relatively stable: because of normal wear and tear, each of the fifty billion or so banknotes in circulation at any one time must be replaced after about a year (sooner in tropical climes), at a cost of about two cents apiece. But, as one might imagine, periods of chaos can be a boon to the industry. A bout of hyperinflation or counterfeiting in a country can mean that all its currency must be replaced. Political upheaval can have the same result. After the Islamic revolution, in 1979, Iran decided that it wanted to replace all its paper money, because the money bore a portrait of the exiled Shah. After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the former Eastern Bloc countries replaced money that displayed Communist symbols. Zambia will eventually be ordering new money now that Kenneth Kaunda, who appears on the old money, is gone from the presidency. This sort of turnover occurs fairly regularly.

The recent outbreak of nationhood is a more unusual development, nothing like it having been seen since the era of decolonization, in the 1950s and 1960s. Croatia, whose sovereignty has been recognized by the European Community, introduced its own currency, the dinar, late last year; Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are following suit with, respectively, the kroon, the lats, and the litas. The currency of all four countries is being printed abroad. Although the countries whose athletes made up the Unified Team at the Winter Olympics are sticking for the moment with the Russian ruble, no one will be surprised if some of them eventually place orders for new money. (Ukraine has a deal in the works with the Canadian Banknote Company.) The procedures are surprisingly simple. The new country provides its printer with a list of the denominations it needs and pictures of the strange animals and arcane luminaries that are to grace the bills. It pays the company up front with some kind of real money. A few months later the country is in business, its cities awash in banknotes.

THE PROLIFERATION of support services for neo-nations makes one wonder: has the world, without giving any real thought to the matter, made it too easy for places to become countries? An argument has roiled social science for years about whether the U.S. welfare system encourages a variety of unwholesome behaviors, and it may be time to raise a similar question about the family of nations. Regardless of the answer, it does seem that ambitious people with a few million followers who look like them and talk like them are having progressively less difficulty getting diplomatic plates for the car.

I have no wish to undo what is done; places that have gone the route of grim self-determination should be allowed to live with the consequences. But it may be useful to adopt certain criteria that prospective new countries must hereinafter meet before being upgraded, in the eyes of the world, from provisional status to true sovereignty. Several come to mind. The country must have won an Olympic medal in an event that is not the bobsled or the luge. It must be home to a filmmaker whose lyrical evocation of childhood and loss was a sleeper at Cannes. It must have a locally famous rock star who sings in the native tongue. It must at some point in its history have produced an epic poem that can now be bought in a Penguin edition. It must have the national character to have produced a cadre of vocal dissidents, and the wisdom to have eventually packed them off to Berkeley. Its army must have served with distinction as a UN peacekeeping force—outside the country itself. Two of the army’s commanders must be graduates of West Point or Sandhurst. A restaurant featuring the country’s cuisine must exist somewhere in the United States outside New York City.

The likelihood that a geographic entity capable of meeting these few criteria will go on to become a burden seems highly remote. Upon receipt of a hardcurrency bond to ensure payment of its diplomats’ parking tickets abroad, we may safely say to such a place, Welcome to the club.

—Cullen Murphy