Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What is a state? a nation-state? a country?

I used to use a lesson that asked students to determine the differences between and similarities among countries and multi-national corporations. It was a thought-provoking exercise.

Similarly, the editors at The Economist ask us to think about what we mean when we say "country." It's a reminder of why political science asks us to be precise in our terminology. It's also a reminder of the ambiguity involved in comparative politics. (Remember Ambiguity and nuance?) So, what is your definition of a country? a state? a nation-state? a nation?

In quite a state
How many countries in the world? The answer to that question is surprisingly difficult

APPLY online for visa-free entry to the United States and the Department for Homeland Security offers 251 choices for “country where you live”. The wide but rum selection includes Bouvet Island, an uninhabitable icy knoll belonging to Norway in the South Atlantic; South Yemen (which stopped being a state in 1990); and the “Neutral Zone”—a diamond-shaped bit of desert between Saudi Arabia and Iraq that vanished after the 1991 Gulf war.

That is the trouble with such lists. Places that are not real states at all end up on them. And places that approximate a bit more closely to countries (at least in their own eyes) may be absent. America’s list, for example, excludes Abkhazia and South Ossetia, self-proclaimed states that broke away from Georgia with Russian backing…

Private-sector lists are just as odd as those compiled by governments. Hotmail offers 242 “countries/territories” from which you can register an e-mail account. Web-savvy penguins may be pleased that Bouvet Island is on the list. But human beings in Kosovo (recognised by 65 states) and Western Sahara (more than 80) will search in vain for their homeland.

Any attempt to find a clear definition of a country soon runs into a thicket of exceptions and anomalies. Diplomatic recognition is clearly not much guide to real life…

If diplomatic recognition is not the main thing that marks out a country, what does? Is it the ability to issue passports that are of some use to the holder, or simply actual control of a stretch of land? Again, the picture is cloudy. Legitimacy, physical control and the capacity to issue documents that other people accept don’t always coincide. For example, lots of countries that do not recognise Kosovo accept travellers bearing its passports...

[P]resence or absence from the UN is [not] much help to anyone seeking clarity. Israel joined the world body in 1949, but 19 of its 192 members do not accept the Jewish state’s existence…

A German thinker, Max Weber, defined statehood as “the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence”. That may be a practical approach but it doesn’t end the confusion. Chaotic Somalia spectacularly fails to meet this criterion, yet still counts as a sovereign state…

How far a populated patch of land qualifies as a country is ultimately a subjective question for politicians; it will never be settled by lawyers in a way that everybody accepts. And the fact that there are degrees of recognition—ranging from full diplomatic ties to virtually denying a state’s existence—gives governments a calibrated set of tools which can be used to reward good behaviour and penalise bad.

And whatever diplomatic theory says, life goes on. Taiwan is celebrating a friendly resolution from the European Parliament, and dishing out aid to Haiti. Kosovo rents dialling codes from Monaco and Slovenia. A football championship for teams from unrecognised countries is due to start next month in Malta. And a delegation of senior politicians from Somaliland had a friendly meeting at the White House on April 3rd. Presumably they had squared things with immigration control.

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At 7:49 AM, Blogger narrator said...

This points out that there are many fewer definite answers than schools pretend, and that we need to teach students to question questions

- Ira Socol

At 7:53 AM, Blogger Ed Webb said...

When I posted a link to this on Twitter, Ira Socol drew my attention to a recent post of his on this topic that may be of interest to the Teaching Comparative readership: http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2010/01/answering-questions-with-questions.html

At 10:19 AM, Blogger Ken Wedding said...

"This points out that there are many fewer definite answers than schools pretend..."

And that is one of the big reasons I think Comparative Politics is such an important course for American high schoolers.


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