Who gets to say what counts as a country? — Charles Crawford — Aeon

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Very interesting article

There are only two questions in politics: who decides? and who decides who decides? Every country solves these questions in its own way, be it through democracy, autocracy or dictatorship. But however it answers, the same dilemma emerges again at a deeper level. Who gets to say what is or is not a country?

For most of human history, nation states as we now recognise them did not exist. Territories were controlled by powerful local people, who in turn pledged allegiance to distant authorities, favouring whichever one their circumstances suited. In Europe, the tensions in this system eventually led to the Thirty Years’ War, which killed eight million people and only ended in 1648 with a thorough revision of the relationship between land, people and power. The resulting set of treaties, known as the Peace of Westphalia, introduced two novel ideas: sovereignty and territorial integrity. Kings and queens had ‘their’ people and associated territory; beyond their own borders, they should not meddle.


Under this new dispensation, the modern state emerged as an entity in itself, distinct from its ruler. A dense forest of international laws and procedures grew up. At the heart of this forest, two principles circle each other like tigers. The first is self-determination: the idea that an identified ‘people’ has the right to run its own affairs within its own state. The other is territorial integrity: the notion that the borders of an existing state should be difficult to change. Self-determination is dynamic or turbulent: it is all about overturning political conditions deemed to run against the will of the local inhabitants. Territorial integrity is pragmatic and cautious: better the devil you know.

States have a keen instinct for self-preservation; they don’t want their existing borders to be challenged except under tightly controlled conditions, so it is not easy for self-determination to trump territorial integrity in any given case: where might such a precedent lead? Nevertheless, the surge of events sometimes means that existing borders no longer work. When such a situation arises, the best way forward is general agreement between powerful local leaders and the wider international community that a new order is needed. The result, in the best case, is new borders that all other states recognise. The convulsive collapse of European communism led to 15 new states emerging more or less peacefully from the former Soviet Union. Czechoslovakia likewise divided politely into two new states.

Ancient or not so ancient borders

States either win global recognition and a flag at the United Nations, or they don’t. Kosovo is either part of a modern Serbia, or it isn’t. Once Washington, London and other capitals decided to recognise Kosovo within its Yugo-era borders — in the face of strong opposition from Moscow, Beijing and many other important power-centres — all options for a single-state solution were lost. We could have reached into the European and global bran-tubs of precedent to find something that might work: Swiss-style cantonisation, or EU-supported power-sharing, or new ‘entities’ echoing the Dayton deal in Bosnia, or far-reaching autonomy such as Greenland enjoys under Denmark. Generous financial assistance and technical support could have launched the new deal.

Who judges?

Thus today’s diplomatic stalemate that divides the planet. Kosovo in effect vetoes Serbia’s European Union bid. Serbia makes it clear that, without its blessing, Kosovo won’t join the EU or the UN. This deadlock over territory and allegiance is one that the wily princes, dukes and bishops drafting the Peace of Westphalia would easily recognise.

No diplomat can be surprised that so many capitals round the world refuse to follow the clumsy lead of the US, London and Brussels on this issue. The vast majority of the countries that have not recognised Kosovo don’t care about Kosovo or Serbia. For these countries it’s not about Balkan bickering — it’s about their own security. Yes, some minority communities want to run their own affairs. But territorial integrity underpins the way the whole world works: grave dangers come from trashing that fundamental principle in the face of serious international objections. It’s one thing to amputate parts of your gangrenous leg yourself. It’s quite another for NATO to lunge in, wielding a rusty hacksaw. Good grief, who might be next? Syria?