The "Country" Question

By: Justin Millman


Flag of the U.S.     Flag of Spain

     The concept of a “country” is something manufactured by political scientists and philosophers to describe an evolving geopolitical landscape that is no longer dominated by kingdoms and empires. For the most part, the term “country” is not used by governments or countries themselves but rather by the general world population, because the term serves a purpose that does not exist at the higher strata. In its general use, “country” is used to refer to a sovereign geopolitical entity that exists in a defined location in the world. Here, we generally take “sovereign” to mean “self-governing” and “independent of others’ oversight” in a way that excludes the likes of California, British Columbia, and Paris from the classification. Thus, there are clear limits on what can and can’t be a “country” despite the fact that its general use is not inherently all that restrictive. That begs the question: what is a “country”?

     Efforts to codify criteria for what I’ll call “countryhood” have, in the past, done their best to boil down the essence of the term “country” into a short list of checkbox statements. The most notable of these efforts was the 1933 Montevideo Convention, which was agreed upon at the 7th International Conference of American States. (For those of you who remember your U.S. history: this was the same conference at which FDR and Secretary of State Cordell Hull announced the so-called “Good-Neighbor” Policy.) Signed in the Uruguayan capital, the Montevideo Convention specified four criteria that all entities must meet in order to be considered a country: 1) a permanent population; 2) a defined territory; 3) a government; and 4) the ability to interact with other countries and enter relations therewith. This proclamation became known as the Declarative Theory of Statehood and, while not internationally binding or enforceable by any means, formed the basis for “countryhood” going forward.

     There are a couple of issues with the four points listed in the Montevideo Convention. First, many of the terms are not operationalized and are instead left debilitatingly vague. Does a single person constitute a population, or is there some minimum threshold before the first point can be met? What does “permanent” mean? Who gets to decide what the “country’s” territory is as needed in the second point? What constitutes a government? In addition to these questions that arise from the lack of clarity in the Convention, another issue arises out of the fourth point. If the ability to enter into relations with other countries is necessary to be recognized as a country, how did the first country come to be? As we all learn from an early age, one cannot define a term with itself.

     This is when historical perspective comes into play. The Convention was adopted in 1933, the 13th year of the League of Nations. So it is easy to argue that a “country” as used in the fourth point simply refers to one of the members of the League of Nations. For example, the United States – most definitely a country, both today and in the 1930s – never joined the League but had international relations with most League members, including Australia and the United Kingdom. Using “a member of the League of Nations” in place of “country” in the fourth point, we get a pretty inclusive set of “countries” of the world as the world sat in the 1930s.

     So we solved the tautological reasoning problem, but the others – namely, those that revolve around non-operational definitions – still persist. Take, for example, an American university such as the University of Michigan (where I currently go to school). The faculty members and university-affiliated workers surely constitute a permanent population, not to mention the semi-permanent student body that cycles approximately one-fourth of its ranks out each year and replaces them with freshmen. The campus boundaries of the university are very well-defined, which is important for, say, marijuana citations. The University of Michigan definitely has a government, whether you look at the Central Student Government that is responsible for clubs to the administrative government headed by President Schlissel. And lastly, the university has the capability to enter into relations with other accredited countries: for example, the ROTC program through the university is a relationship between the college and the U.S. military. Because the wording of the Montevideo Convention is so vague, we can circumvent common sense and declare that the University of Michigan is, in fact, a country.

     So clearly the Montevideo Convention has some shortcomings; as everyone would quickly agree, the University of Michigan is not a country by any stretch of the imagination. So what differentiates my college from Mexico; why is the latter a “country” but the former isn’t? One might be tempted to say that Mexico is a country because it has its own currency, but this leads to issues because 1) the University of Michigan does indeed have a unique form of currency, Blue Bucks, that are acceptable at various restaurants and shops on campus; and 2) in some instances (such as Brunei, Singapore, and Malaysia) multiple entities everyone agrees are countries use the same currency. And this game can be played with almost every criterion you suggest. Transportation? My university has its own endogenous transit system. Culture? We have traditions, holidays, and local cuisine just like Spain. Citizenship? Enrolling in the university makes you a university student; you get an ID card and everything! So if it’s not some specific thing (or specific things) that make something a “country,” what is it?

     Well, let’s keep looking at the university example. The reason that nobody considers the University of Michigan a country is because nobody considers it a country. Now that may seem like circular reasoning, but it really isn’t. The issue boils down to this: even though the concept of a “country” isn’t super important on a macro scale (as I mentioned in the opening and will further explain shortly), the concept of a “country” is actually defined on a macro scale. We use the term “country” to categorize geopolitical entities into a blob so that we can say, All of these things are really similar and act alike and should therefore be treated in similar ways. If you asked anyone in the United States government whether or not the University of Michigan (or any other university) constituted a “country,” they’d probably laugh in your face and call security; the same would probably occur if you asked a representative of any other foreign nation. Since the University of Michigan is not recognized anywhere in the world as a country, we do not consider it one.

     It is this recognition that, I argue, forms the fundamental basis for the use of the term “country” in everyday language. Note that this distinction is important: I am not talking about the political use of the term, the legal use of the term, or anything else. The use I’m referring to is the one that is implied when you ask a friend, “How many countries have you visited?” You don’t expect them to count Oregon, nor would you want them to say that visiting the British Virgin Islands counts. At the macro level – when dealing with international relations, foreign law, and the like – the term “country” really holds little gravitas. When the United States decides whether or not to recognize a foreign entity as a country, dozens and dozens of factors influence that decision; it is not a coincidence that most of those factors line up with what we, the general population, believe constitutes a country. The difference is that while governments may have on handcuffs when it comes to recognizing a geopolitical entity as a country, the general population has no such restrictions.

     So it’s recognition that forms the basis of defining a “country.” But whose recognition? To answer this, recall what we did earlier to hack the fourth point of the Montevideo Convention: we invoked the League of Nations as an equivalent class to our “country” class. We can do the same thing here with the United Nations, the successor organization to the League of Nations. There are currently 193 member states in the U.N., and all of these are universally recognized by the general population as countries. Furthermore, because of the U.N.’s role in international relations and global politics, it makes sense to use its members’ opinions as the baseline for our decision making. And this is what we do, for the most part: the more U.N. member states that recognize a non-member entity as a country, the more likely we too are.

     But recognition can be a tricky thing. Six members of the United Nations are currently unrecognized by at least one U.N. member state: Armenia (1), China (21), Cyprus (1), Israel (32), North Korea (2), and South Korea (1). This fact illustrates that pursuing universal recognition among the U.N. member states is too high a goal, for it would theoretically exclude these nations from inclusion. Although it was implied that membership in the United Nations implied “countryhood,” notice that I never actually said this. The members of the United Nations should be held to the same standards as non-members, with the idea that the criteria we set up for “countryhood” should result in a set of “countries” that very closely matches the U.N.’s membership.

     187 members of the U.N. are recognized by 100% of the member states, so these 187 will be included in our final list of “countries” no matter where we place the lower threshold. Of the remaining 6 that we wish to include, the lowest percent-recognition score is for Israel at about 83%. So, as long as we put our threshold at 83% or lower, we will capture all these other 6. Logically, it should be at least a simple majority; since we have an odd number of U.N. member states, we can say that the minimum possible threshold value should be 50%. Whether you put it at 50%, 60%, 75% or 80% is up to you; the higher you go, the stricter your opinions on “countryhood.”

     For now, let’s go with the most liberal number and put our threshold at 50%. Doing this nets us three additional countries: Kosovo, Palestine, and the Vatican City. Kosovo is a small breakaway region of Serbia that is recognized by 108 United Nations member states (~55.9%), including the United States, Australia, much of continental Europe, and Saudi Arabia. Palestine, of course, is the hotly contested region in the Middle East whose borders and existence are denied by Israel. Palestine is currently recognized by 114 member states (~59%). The lack of total recognition in both of these cases is due to staunch nationalism and international alliance-making, the political handcuffs that I alluded to earlier. But for the common speaker, the term “country” surely applies to all both of these entities. In the case of the Vatican, every United Nations member state recognizes the Vatican City (also known as the Holy See). The Vatican is considered an observer state in the United Nations (as is Palestine), but is not a member state for various reasons that have to do with its status as the seat of the Pope. By every layperson’s definition, the Vatican is a “country”; our threshold-recognition system acknowledges this.

     There are several entities that our 50% threshold leaves out to dry. For example, the disputed region of the Western Sahara, on the northwestern coast of Africa, is recognized by only 46 United Nations member states (~23.8%). South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both breakaway regions from the Caucasus country of Georgia, are recognized by a meager 4 U.N. members (~2.1%). Northern Cyprus, which considers itself to be independent of the Mediterranean island nation and United Nations member state of Cyprus, is recognized only by Turkey (<1%). Other than the fact that most people have never even heard of these places, this lack of recognition (falling below our generous 50% threshold) is the primary reason for people not considering these entities “countries” in the same was we consider Paraguay, Liberia, and Tuvalu “countries.”

     There is one other entity that is recognized by at least one U.N. member state but is nonetheless excluded by our 50% threshold, and this one best highlights the macro-level handcuffing I spoke about earlier. Taiwan, the well-known island nation east of mainland China and north of the Philippines, is recognized by only 22 United Nations member states (~11.4%). The reasons for this are more than clear: China, which claims dominion over Taiwan, refuses to hold relations with any nation that recognizes Taiwan. As China is one of the world’s superpowers and a key figure in the international economy, global market, and general world scene, it is not surprising that many U.N. member states fear the Chinese threat. Yet by every other possible measure, Taiwan is a country; China does not actively operate Taiwan, a key distinction that differentiates it from, say, the autonomous relationship that Puerto Rico (definitely not a “country”) holds with the U.S. Taiwan highlights how the threshold-recognition system is not perfect; sometimes, we must use our common sense and understanding of the world to mitigate macro-level bullying.

     So our count now sits at 197, a solid size and one that includes every “country” on the globe. You would be hard-pressed to find any other geopolitical entities that people consider “countries” that haven’t even been mentioned here. In fact, this list of 197 perfectly matches the list used by the online trivia giant Sporcle for their flagship Countries of the World quiz and all other country-related material. A blog post by the head of Sporcle in 2013 explained their reasoning for using the list that they do, and it almost nearly mirrors the rationale I’ve just explained.

     Some entities that haven’t been mentioned because they aren’t recognized by any U.N. member states are Somaliland, Transnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Most lists of disputed nations or countries with limited recognition will list these three as well. Other entities that won’t appear on any countries list are overseas or autonomous territories; these include the likes of Greenland, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands (British and U.S.), Bermuda, Tokelau, French Guiana, Aruba, Niue, Tahiti, the Isle of Man, the Azores, Macau, and dozens of others. These entities are very clearly territories of their parent nation, often having a solid amount of autonomy but nonetheless being dependent on their parent for currency, protection, and top-tier-level governance.

     A final case that needs to be discusses is that of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Island. These four are often referred to as “countries of Great Britain,” but this is a huge misnomer. These four are no more countries in their own right than Québec or Texas are in Canada and the United States. Although each may have its own government, language, sports teams, and nationalism, they are wholly dependent on the United Kingdom for their currency, for protection, and for international relations. None have any recognition from United Nations member states, and their inclusion on countries lists is often due to Americans’ ignorance about the intricate workings of Europe. (A note: the case of these constituent nations is somewhat similar to Hong Kong in China. I’m not discussing Hong Kong here because this is already a very long article, but Hong Kong isn’t a country either for similar reasons.)

     Of course, there will always be debate. Residents of the “non-countries” I listed could very well gather pitchforks and demand my head for saying that their home is not a country. And, in many cases, it really doesn’t matter; one person deciding that the Cook Islands are a country isn’t going to affect much change on the global level. But it’s interesting to think about how such everyday categorizations are formulated in our minds, especially for something that is so understood as the concept of a “country.” And I’m sure you learned the names of a few new places as well.

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Blue Tag Icon AustraliaRed Tag Icon ChinaOrange Tag Icon CountryYellow Tag Icon KosovoBlue Tag Icon Montevideo ConventionRed Tag Icon PalestineOrange Tag Icon RecognitionYellow Tag Icon Sporcle
Blue Tag Icon TaiwanRed Tag Icon TerritoryOrange Tag Icon United NationsYellow Tag Icon Vatican City

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