What It Takes to Be a Nation


© Eddie Gerald / Demotix/Demotix/Corbis

Not to get all existential on you, but what does it mean to be a “real nation”? As it turns out, people have been trying to answer that question for the last 400 years.

In 1648, a bunch of super powerful men—the Holy Roman Emperor, the Habsburgs, King Louis XIV’s high-heeled diplomats, to name a few—got together and signed two treaties, which later became known as the Peace of Westphalia, creating an international system in which only sovereign states, and no semi-state-ish minor provinces, had the power to wage war and conduct trade.

Three hundred years later, in 1934, a different bunch of powerful men got together at the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States with a related agenda: to iron out what the heck it meant to be a sovereign state in the first place.

The resulting treaty defines a state as having the following:

a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

It noted specifically that “the political existence of a state is independent of recognition by other states.” So by that definition, lots of breakaway territories, like Abkhazia or Somaliland, could be considered full-fledged states right now, but some existing states – like the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, for example, which has no territory – is not.

But here’s the zinger: Article 11 of that treaty forbids the use of military force to obtain sovereignty, and by that criterion, virtually none of the breakaway regions in the world would be real countries. And for that matter, neither would the United States. Remember that whole Revolutionary War thing?

Bottom line? Many of the wannabe countries in the world are already the real McCoy by some definitions. But they’ll only get the rights and privileges of “real” nations when most of the international community recognizes them, which is what just happened in South Sudan.