Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood. By Joshua Keating. Yale University Press; 296 pages; $26 and £20.
VIT JEDLICKA spent five years trying to reshape Czech politics in his own libertarian image before he had a better idea. Why change his country when he could just create a new one? Thus the Free Republic of Liberland was born, on 2.7 square miles (7 square km) of riverbank between Croatia and Serbia. Liberland has a constitution (taxes are optional), an ersatz embassy and an online citizenship application form. So what makes it different from the United States, or Bangladesh, or Malta? Joshua Keating, an American journalist, visited several aspiring countries to understand which make the cut, and why.
For much of human history, boundaries were temporary, shifting as empires rose and fell. But since 2000, only a handful of countries have joined the world map. This status quo is imperfect, to say the least. “It locks in the decisions made by colonists in the 19th century in both Africa and the Middle East,” Mr. Keating writes in “Invisible Countries”. “And it contains ambiguities and prolonged stresses that can be exploited by both non-state actors like ISIS and revisionist powers like Vladimir Putin’s Russia.”
As evidence, he points to places such as Somaliland, officially part of impoverished, fractious Somalia. Somalilanders say their link to Somalia is tenuous, a fluke of a border drawn decades ago. Somaliland boasts all the trappings of statehood, including a flag, a currency, diplomatic missions and a border. It is much safer than Somalia; yet because it is unrecognized, it cannot obtain international aid and resources. It struggles to recruit doctors and teachers. “Nobody should be denied access to health, human rights and development because of the name of their country,” Edna Adan, an activist, complains.
Akwesasne, a Native-American community of 12,000 nestled between America and Canada, faces a similar struggle. Because its neighbors do not recognize its sovereignty, entering the territory can involve long waits. “Trying to operate an ambulance service in three jurisdictions is challenging,” says Grand Chief Abram Benedict of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. Police pursuing fugitives “can’t come over here and arrest someone because they’re in another country.”
Despite the wrinkles, though, the current dispensation may be irreplaceable. Most of the world’s land belongs to someone; shifting borders would mean violence and instability. And the record of new countries is patchy. South Sudan declared independence in 2011, with the support of powerful allies and the UN. But it foundered. A political feud escalated into a civil war, which has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions more.
Mr. Keating offers few answers, but he raises good questions. As secessionist movements flourish in Europe, and climate change threatens to obliterate littoral states, the issue of what it means to be a nation is acquiring new salience. “They say Liberland is a virtual country,” Mr. Jedlicka observes, “but so are all the other ones.”