States, Peoples, and Partition

In class two weeks ago, one of my professors confronted us with an intriguing question: how many states should there be? It’s a question I’ve not really considered.  I’ve put lots of thought into how many there are but I never thought seriously about my ideal map of the world.  If you were starting from the current world map, what would be the criteria you could use to break off a piece of state? To deal with the question of how many there should be, we should probably establish how many there currently are.  This is no easy feat – in fact, in order to achieve it, we need to go down one further level and ask the even more basic question.

What Is A State?
A state needs to have many things.  First and foremost, it needs to have a government, even if that government doesn’t have much control over its territory (see: Somalia).  That government should, secondly, claim control over a certain defined amount of territory, and thirdly, it should be able to exercise control over the territory.  Hence governments in exile (such as Tibet) do not count, because they control no actual territory; neither does the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.  Most importantly, the government should claim independence and be able to exercise it (the declarative theory of statehood), otherwise you risk including autonomous regions and provinces as sovereign states.

Flags of the UN member states outside the General Assembly [image from Wikimedia].
Notice that, by this definition, a state does not have to control all of the territory it claims – thus the Republic of China is a state because it has exclusive control over the island of Taiwan, even though that island represents a fraction of the land the RoC government claims (all of mainland China, plus those bits of India, Pakistan, Russia, and so on which the current Chinese government ceded its claims to; the RoC doesn’t recognise their authority to do so).  It’s just important that it controls a reasonable amount of it.

Armed with that definition, we can return to the first supplementary question, and again ask: how many states are there in the world today? The conventional answer – 193 – is not satisfactory because that is simply the number of sovereign states which are represented at the United Nations, and as we have just covered, that is not the defining characteristic of a state.  I would say that there are 206 states:
– The 193 UN member states;
– the 2 UN observer states, one widely-recognised (Vatican City) and one with limited recognition (Palestine);
– two ‘states in free association’ with New Zealand (the Cook Islands and Niue), which would be otherwise classed as dependencies if not for the fact that they have been granted independent access to a number of UN agencies;
– and 9 de facto states with varying degrees of international recognition.  Some of these (Taiwan, Kosovo, and Western Sahara) are recognised by dozens of UN states and appear on most international maps.  Of the rest, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are recognised by Russia and a handful of other UN states, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria are recognised only by each other and the aforementioned Russian protectorate states, Northern Cyprus is recognised only by Turkey (which occupies it).  Somaliland is recognised by nobody, although it is ironically probably the best-run of the limited-recognition states except for Taiwan.

A Transnistrian passport [image from Wikimedia].
So there we have it.  There are 206 countries in the world.  If we’re talking about how many countries there should be, we are probably imagining that all these countries would be internationally-recognised and not shut out of the global community in the way that many unrecognised states have been, so let’s first of all assume that all 206 countries have become UN member states.  Well done.  Now what?

The Partition Debate
Well, all we’ve actually achieved so far is to describe the current situation.  In fact, the question of how many countries there should be comes down to a corollary of the question I asked earlier – not “What is a country?” but “What should a country be?”, or rather, “Which areas of land should be sovereign states?” This is far more difficult, and (I’m warning you now) doesn’t really have an answer, but the sort of criteria you could use to justify creating a new state – things like preventing war or genocide – are an interesting jumping-off point to explore the general academic debate about whether it is ever justified to create a new state artificially in order to resolve a conflict.

In essence, this discussion is connected to the academic and policy debate over partition and its benefits and disadvantages.  Since the end of the Cold War, the issue of partition has become surprisingly relevant.  Before 1990, with two balanced global powers preventing the UN from getting usefully involved in regional or local conflicts, the idea of an internationally-mediated partition was impossible because no international group could have been assembled which would be allowed to carry out the job.  Furthermore, the concept of partition was associated more with disastrous British attempts to divide Palestine and India, examples which nobody wanted to follow.  However, since the dismembering of Yugoslavia and the USSR, international involvement in conflicts has spiralled, and partition has become correspondingly popular as a solution for fights we view as ‘intractable’.  Apart from the Yugoslav example, Bosnia has been internally partitioned, Kosovo was separated from Serbia, Iraqi Kurdistan became de facto independent, and South Sudan separated from the rest of Sudan after a referendum.  Compared to a history of absence, this is a startling new development.

The most common argument against the acceptance of partition as a means of solving conflicts is that is weakens the international consensus over the inviolability of borders.  Since the 1950s, aided by the establishment of the UN and the independence of dozens of African states who declared that their borders, while artificial, could not be redrawn without widespread slaughter, there has been a general respect for existing boundaries.  Even when the USSR and Yugoslavia collapsed, internal borders were used as the foundation of the emerging states.  Partition scholars worry that by casually dividing a state which has suffered ethnic war, we weaken that consensus.  Furthermore, since it is unlikely for a state in civil war to decide to partition itself, international powers are required to involve themselves.  A weakened respect for international borders might allow regional powers to use separatist movements to carve up unruly neighbours.  Defenders of partition, who fought back vigorously against this claim, have been somewhat mute in the aftermath of Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008, and the subsequent declarations of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence later that year.  That the Crimean declaration of independence in February openly cited Kosovo as a precedent was a further embarrassment.

Primordial Ethnicity
Not only is the blanket acceptance of partition potentially destructive, it is also based on a faulty understanding of ethnicity and the role of the state.  Both the international academic advocates of partition and those who argue for the independence of particular regions (Scotland and Catalonia, for example) rely on an implicitly European conception of the design and function of a state: a state is an area of land in which a people live; most inhabitants of that land are members of that people, and most of the members of that people live on that land.  Hence the French live in France, the Danes live in Denmark, and the Bulgarians in Bulgaria, and there aren’t a great many of them outside those places.  What could be simpler?

Well, for a start, how many peoples are there in the world? 208? 300? 500? Several thousand? Does each ethnic group of Africa get its own state? What about places in which ethnicities are mixed – do you resort to semi-legal internationally-organised ethnic cleansing? An ethnicity is not monolithic, so how would you deal with mixed-race people who stand between national groups?

The present relatively clean situation we have in Europe was achieved in the aftermath of the deportations, exterminations, ethnic cleansing, and genocide of World War Two.  Six million Jews were killed, twelve million Germans deported into what is now Germany, and the entire nation of Poland (with its inhabitants) was shifted 160 miles east.  The borders of Eastern Europe are arguably no more natural than those of colonial Africa.  Where anomalies remain (the former Yugoslavia, Hungarian populations in Romania and Slovakia, Ukraine) they continue to cause tension and conflict.  In recent decades, the conception of a state as ‘belonging’ to its ethnic people is becoming more problematic as the number of immigrants to Europe soars.  For all that we might think we have come a long way since the 1930s, in no small measure we have become tolerant because we haven’t needed to be.

An ethnographic map of Europe in 1896, from the Times Atlas. Notice the spread of Germans throughout what is now Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, and so on, the presence of Greeks in Turkey, and the total absence of anything recognisable as modern Poland [image from Wikimedia].
Many partition advocates tend to misunderstand the root causes of many ethnic civil wars, attributing them to primordial hatred which simply cannot be overcome without a physical barrier in the form of an international border.  Hutus and Tutsis, Muslim and Christian Arabs, Arab and Jews, Indians and Pakistanis, and Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs have all been fighting since time immemorial, and nothing we can do will stop them.  This sort of view seems to take all too literally exactly the sort of explanations that parties to ethnic conflicts use to justify their actions.

No self-respecting nationalist or separatist movement is going to stand there and say, “No, honestly, we’ve got along with the others for a very long time, but at the moment the economy’s not so good, so we’re feeling a bit riled up.”  An ethnic war, although it might seem intractable, cannot begin without some short-term economic or political factor.  Solutions which may have seemed temporary at the time – the separation of Kosovo, the de facto independence of Iraqi Kurdistan – are now virtually irreversible, even though the governments whose abuses led to international intervention have been out of power for at least a decade.

In the end, what many people argue for in the partition debate is not an end to partition but a re-evaluation of its usefulness and the establishment of a framework for situations in which it would be used.  The readiness with which Kosovo’s declaration of independence was accepted by many Western nations is just as self-serving as Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  The idea that Kosovo is some sort of sui generis unique situation and doesn’t create a legal precedent is rubbish.  It is very difficult to make the case that partition nowadays is applied in an even and uniform manner, unless that manner is hypocrisy.  But then, which tool of international politics could you not say that about?

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