Redrawing the Map
South Sudan may be independent, but new countries are becoming increasingly rare.
On July 9, the world welcomed the independence of South Sudan and marked one of the more significant events in international geopolitics — the creation of a new country. If, as expected, the new state is admitted for U.N. membership this week, it will become the body’s 193rd member.
South Sudan’s independence has caused some excited announcements that we are witnessing a "wave of self-determination" in the world, as Parag Khanna put it on this website in January. With entities like Palestine, South Ossetia, Somaliland, and Darfur pushing for sovereignty, Khanna writes, "Within a few decades, we could easily have 300 states in the world." Writing at the Atlantic, journalist G. Pascal Zachary sees South Sudanese independence as evidence that "the process of Africans inventing and discovering their own political boundaries has finally begun, after some 50 years of waiting."
But the fact is, rather than an age of "cartographic stress," as Khanna has put it, the current era is a relatively stable one in terms of the movement of borders and the creation of new states. The global excitement that has surrounded South Sudan’s arrival is really a reflection of how rare the creation of new states has become. To put it another way: If you purchased a world atlas at any point during the second half of the 20th century, within five years it would have been missing at least half a dozen new countries. In the last decade, it has become a much safer investment.
The past few centuries of human history have almost been defined by the rise and decline of empires and the establishment and dissolution of states. A map of Europe from 1700 shows a patchwork of defunct nation-states like Bavaria, Mecklenburg, Savoy, and Tuscany, as well as bodies like Denmark and the Ottoman Empire that still exist but with radically different boundaries and, in some cases, different names.
Today, Europe may be at odds over monetary policy and immigration, but since the disruptions of the immediate post-Cold War years, the continent’s borders have proved remarkably fixed and stable. Barring unforeseen catastrophe, they seem likely to remain so in the near future. Exceptions, such as the secessionist ambitions of Belgium’s Walloons, are generally covered in the international media as eccentric curiosities.
Globally, the 21st century has seen the creation of only four new countries with wide international recognition, including South Sudan. (The others are Montenegro, East Timor, and Kosovo — though the last is still not a U.N. member state owing to Russian opposition.) That seems pretty paltry compared with the 1990s, when the Soviet Union broke up into 15 new countries and Yugoslavia exploded into five (now seven). Or take the monumental changes from 1960 to 1962, when 23 African countries won their independence from European powers.
The handful of countries seeking sovereignty only underscores the point. Palestine will likely push for membership when the U.N. General Assembly meets in September. This could have major implications for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but in geographic terms it won’t change much: Over 100 countries already recognize Palestinian independence; a U.S. veto will prevent full U.N. membership (the General Assembly may try to override the veto, but this would not have legally binding force); and Israeli troops and settlements aren’t going anywhere.
The other territories pushing for a seat at the table of nations only underscore the point. Places like Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, and Western Sahara exist in what journalist Graeme Wood calls "Limbo World" — de facto independent, but unlikely to gain general international recognition. (The recent diplomatic back-and-forth over whether the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu would join the august company of Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru in recognizing Abkhazia was illustrative of just how far these countries have yet to go.) So though it’s conceivable that the number of widely recognized states could reach 195 or 196 in the next couple of decades, 200 seems far-fetched and 300 nearly inconceivable.
There are a number of factors that could be contributing to this trend. One is the dramatic decline in both interstate conflict and wars of national liberation over the last few decades. Another is that, in contrast with the British Empire, the Soviet Union, or even the United States of the early 20th century, today’s great powers seem less interested in acquiring additional territory. (Although it’s not about to give up Tibet or compromise on international recognition of Taiwan, China’s international ambitions are more geared toward harvesting commercial opportunities and natural resources than planting the flag.)
In most cases, this is a good thing: Countries rarely part with territory peacefully, and wars over territory cost millions of deaths in the 20th century. But in the case of Africa, where most of the country borders were determined more by agreements between European powers than local ethnic or geographic factors, a growing body of scholarship suggests that a bit more divisionism might be a good thing. Pierre Englebert, a professor of African politics at Pomona College, notes that despite Africa’s brutal political violence since independence, it has remarkably few secessionist conflicts. The "artificiality" of Africa’s borders has obviously driven ethnic conflict in places like Sudan and Congo, and recent research suggests it may have impeded economic progress as well. But as Zachary writes, "In the Congo, Cameroon, and elsewhere, breakaway movements have petered out, exhausted by a lack of international support and, most cruelly, a failure of African imagination."
It’s possible that South Sudan could set a new precedent — the ever-hopeful Somaliland government certainly sees it that way — but on closer inspection it seems more of an anomaly. Although far less economically and politically developed than many "Limbo World" territories, the Juba government won its sovereignty thanks to a confluence of factors, among them a brutal 22-year civil war; the widespread support and interest of the international community, including Christian groups and George W. Bush’s administration; and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s desire to make a conciliatory gesture to the international community while facing war crimes charges for his government’s conduct in Darfur. And once the honeymoon phase ends and it becomes clear just how hard it is to build institutions from scratch for one of the world’s least-developed countries, foreign governments and aid groups may not be so anxious to repeat the experience elsewhere.
So, with a handful of exceptions, the countries on today’s map are likely to remain constant, at least for the foreseeable future. We may not know what the future holds for the world’s 193 countries, but at least we have a pretty good idea of what they will look like.