In 1944, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People drew up a list of complaints. The Allied powers had met at Dumbarton Oaks to lay a foundation for the creation of the United Nations. But, in the postwar world that the conference-goers envisioned, the imperial powers would continue to rule over their colonial subjects; the end of the war would not bring freedom for these people. W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the NAACP’s diplomatic liaisons to the conference, pointed out that under these terms “the only way to human equality” would be “through the philanthropy of masters.” He saw in the emergent order the roots of an arbitrary, anti-democratic system of states. Despite the universalist rhetoric of the United Nations’ framers, the great powers would only acknowledge the legitimacy of some peoples, foreclosing that same recognition for others.
In his new book, Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood, Joshua Keating traces that disparity through the decades that followed. The book is a global study of contested nationalisms—institutions whose national status is, for various reasons, in a state of flux. The five cases he focuses on are Abkhazia, a war-wearied separatist area of northeastern Georgia; Akwesasne, a Mohawk territory that sits on both sides of the internationally recognized US-Canada border; Somaliland, a semi-autonomous region of northern Somalia; Iraqi Kurdistan, whose national status is a perennial tetherball of recent Middle Eastern proxy wars; and Kiribati, a sinking island nation in the Pacific Ocean. As well as these five cases together, he includes anecdotes about other aspiring states such as the uninhabited Balkan micronation of Liberland—so named for its dogmatic commitment to libertarian governance—that demonstrate the blurry boundaries of modern nationalism.
A staff writer at Slate, Keating is an established student of the idiosyncratic. His old blog at Foreign Policy was a daily record of the odds and ends of international relations: messy soccer disputes, futuristic technological achievements in middle-income economies, dispatches from global street culture. Invisible Countries extends Keating’s thesis that unusual cases can illuminate the major principles in world politics. In justifying his approach, he explains: “I wanted to go to the rare spots on earth where those rules”—of national recognition and territorial integrity—“don’t apply, where the system breaks down.” What these cases show is the contradictions on which the system is built—how, more than seven decades after the UN Charter’s creation, the philanthropy of the masters is as fickle as ever.
The set of criteria for modern statehood has its origins in the 1930s. Keating begins with the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, which, signed by 19 countries in North, Central, and South America in 1933, describes the four features of a state: a population, a territory, a government, and “capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” Most international legal scholars view this secular, legal definition as a step forward from previous religious, dynastic, or imperial justifications for state rule. In contrast to these previous ideas of statehood, the modern state is now the partial product of a rules-based international consensus. In theory—if not necessarily in practice—this consensus guards against the constant, violent competition for territory and status that preceded the twentieth century’s world wars.
But the apparent simplicity of the Convention’s criteria is deceptive. Population, territory, and government are easy categories to define. By contrast, capacity for relations with other states is something of a tautology: In effect, the internationally recognized fact of statehood makes a state. This means that, in order to gain recognition, an aspiring state must get the collective support of the community of states.
This creates all manner of problems for aspiring nationalists. As Keating demonstrates, the creation and legitimation of nation-states are subject to the ebb and flow of strategic competition between the world’s strongest states. That is, some national movements just find themselves on the wrong side of the United States, Russia, China, or another Great Power with inviolable global authority. The Republic of Abkhazia, for example, can demonstrate a defined population, territorial integrity, and autonomous governance; however, the US government’s support for the Georgian government makes Abkhazian independence a non-starter. Palestine, the Xinjiang region of western China, and Iraqi Kurdistan each count among the close-shave national movements that follow Abkhazia’s “but for the grace of the powerful” example.
The island nation of Kiribati finds itself bound up in global geopolitics in a different way. Kiribati has been a recognized state since it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1979. Its national status is threatened, however, by the effects of climate change. As sea levels rise, Kiribati—along with other members of the Alliance of Small Island States, a multilateral coalition of low-lying coastal and island countries—is losing its land mass to the sea. In Keating’s book, former Kiribati president Teburoro Tito compares life on the island to “ants making a home on a leaf floating on a pond.” In response, Kiribati diplomats and other ASIS member states at the United Nations are urging a collective solution to global climate change. But these small nations, which stand to lose most from climate change, have had little success in convincing the world’s largest economies—and carbon emitters—to adopt the climate policies and emission standards on which the future of Kiribati depends.
The power imbalance that Du Bois cautioned against is a defining feature of the community of nations. Whether they are striving for international recognition of their borders, or mobilizing international action to preserve them, the less powerful countries find themselves at the mercy of the international community’s most powerful members and their interests.
Why, despite the relative rigidity of the world’s borders, do national movements still seek recognition from powerful states and their international institutions? For one, the romantic promise of the nation-state is resilient. For the citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan, Palestine, and Catalonia, independence—specifically, internationally-recognized independence—represents partial restitution for a perpetual history of mass violence and political marginalization by leaders other than the nation’s own.
National recognition is a way to level a cosmic imbalance that privileges some communities’ collective identities—and suffering—over others. In 1821, Byron wrote “The Isles of Greece,” an impassioned defense of the Greek nation’s independence claims. He decries the brutality of Greece’s oppressors, past and present: “I dream’d that Greece might still be free; / For standing on the Persians’ grave, / I could not deem myself a slave.” Like Byron, today’s nationalists grant the experience of national unity a metaphysical power.
In his chapter on Akwesasne, for example, Keating asks a Mohawk scholar, Taiaiake Alfred, to describe his vision for modern Mohawk nationalism. Alfred explains, “We already are sovereign in a philosophical sense.” The idea of becoming a state would in some ways mean accepting someone’s else definition of legitimacy, sacrificing a “part of who we are.” The system of international politics that sets borders and defines states has long worked to undermine the rights of indigenous communities like Akwesasne. The claims of bigger, more powerful countries over Akwesasne land is simply the latest phase in a history of violent territorial conquest. On the other hand, internationally-recognized status for the Akwesasne would give them a way to reclaim control over their lands, and prevent future encroachments.
Statehood also brings enormous economic advantages. Full members of the international community of states gain access to a system of relatively unfettered global commerce, as well as privileges like reciprocal visa agreements. Without these, the business of globalization could not function smoothly. In unrecognized countries, even simple transactions can quickly become difficult. Political and commercial leaders in Somaliland, which bills itself as an oasis of stability in the Horn of Africa, face a catch-22: Somaliland needs international investment to make independence from Somalia economically viable, but their status as a semiautonomous region makes it difficult to attract that investment. And in Akwesasne, as Keating describes, uncertainty over which regulatory regimes actually govern the economy both constrains commerce and creates incentives for illicit activities, such as cigarette smuggling, which bring few benefits to the broader Akwesasne society. For many, the promise of statehood lies is the possibility of a viable economic future.
But there can also be a cynical side to nationalist aspirations. If the international system of states can often seem more like a club than a community, then premium membership in that club allows a country’s elites to access significant personal, political, and, in many cases, economic and financial benefits. In 2011, the year South Sudan became independent, the country’s government received $435 million from international donors; the following year, that quantity almost tripled. The average South Sudanese citizen sees a negligible quantity of these donor funds; a 2016 report by a Washington-based corruption watchdog demonstrated that, in the half-decade since independence, South Sudan’s factious elites siphoned millions of dollars from the public coffers of the world’s newest country.
Unfortunately, such a disparity in wealth between political elites and citizens is a common feature of new and aspiring states across the world. In Iraqi Kurdistan, anti-government protests have drawn attention to the Kurdish leaders’ distribution of oil revenues to governing patronage networks despite the region’s financial crisis. The rent-seeking of these elites in no way invalidates the moral legitimacy of their movements’ national cause. It does, however, help to explain why nationalist leaders continue to pursue independence despite near-insurmountable political obstacles.
If there is one shortcoming in Keating’s expansive survey, it is that his narrative of modern self-determination gives little voice to the people who have to navigate life in the world’s contested nations. Keating’s interviewees are frequently the most outspoken advocates for his “invisible countries”: nationalist leaders, delegates to international organizations, or prominent movement activists. Yet, within each of communities that Keating discusses, there are groups whose understanding of the would-be nation, its benefits, and its potential shortcomings differs widely.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, for example, members of the Yazidi minority have long struggled to maintain their political and cultural autonomy, as both members of and communities apart from the broader Kurdish nation. For some Yazidis, Kurdish groups such as the peshmerga fighters have been their communities’ first line of defense against violent threats like those the minority group faced from the Islamic State in 2014. Many others in the Yazidi community, however, see little hope for full Yazidi political and cultural rights under an independent Kurdistan. Even as the international aspirations of nationalist movements come into clearer view, Keating could do more to describe the people that new boundaries would exclude, and how.
At its core, Invisible Countries is a book about how the drama of nation-building transforms and is transformed by the politics of the world stage. These disputes touch every aspect of international relations, from interstate conflict to the World Cup. But the drama of what some scholars call “banal nationalism” is no less important to the modern future of nationhood. What and how people eat; how they worship; how they play; whom they love and whom they hate: these, and not the two-thirds vote of the UN General Assembly, are the substance of the modern nation-state. Without these daily expressions of tradition and community, both the would-be and the well-established nations fade into abstraction.