The Cartel of States.

AuthorLemieux, Pierre
PositionInvisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood - Book review

Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood

By Joshua Keating

296 pp.; Yale University Press, 2018

What are "invisible" countries and why is it so hard to create new, "visible" ones? Joshua Keating tries to answer those questions in his new book, aptly titled Invisible Countries. Keating is a journalist, currently an editor at Slate and previously at Foreign Policy. He defines a country as "a piece of land that has been separated from the rest of the earth's landmass by political boundaries agreed upon by the world countries as a whole." A country is also a land dominated by a recognized state--that is, a recognized monopoly of force. Some of these states correspond to nations, a nation being a "community of sentiment." As for nationalism, he quotes philosopher Ernest Gellner, who says it is the "political principle which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent," "political" meaning organized as a state.

From Abkhazia to Liberland / Keating observes that some "countries" are not formally recognized, while others that are recognized do not have "real" states. Some of the former have all or most of the attributes of recognized countries: Abkhazia and Somaliland are two examples.

Abkhazia is a Russian-backed enclave that fought the government of Georgia in a bloody civil war in the 1990s. It is now, for all practical purposes, an independent country run by its own government. But it is only recognized by a handful of states.

The fact that both Georgia and Russia maintain claims on Abkhazia illustrates that there is no room in the (political) world for a new country. All the land is now occupied or claimed by some state, except for "one remote slice of Antarctica" and a small number of minor exceptions. Such has been the accepted world order for a century.

Somaliland, which broke away from Somalia a quarter-century ago, "has all the trappings of countryhood," writes Keating. It is a "stable and mostly functional country" and "pretty freewheeling." "There's no pirate activity along Somaliland's shores," he notes, only along the Somalian coast. A USAID news report last February said Somaliland's last presidential election, for which the agency provided assistance, was a success. Somaliland was even an independent country for one week in 1960 before its legislature voted to unite with Somalia, a decision that most Somalilanders seem to regret.

Somaliland cannot become a real country today simply because it is not internationally recognized as such by other official states, including the United States. Perhaps instead of providing "voter education, ID cards, and polling equipment," as the USAID bulletin boasted it had done, the U.S. State Department should now push for the country's recognition.

Keating, who admits to not being a libertarian (though he seems to have potential), likes to tease them: "Libertarians curious about what a basically functional society would look like with a bare minimum of both services and regulations...

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