Tag Archives: statehood

The Instability of States

We tend to think of states as fairly stable and long-lasting institutions. But a new video tracing the rise (and fall) of states in Europe from 1000AD to the present highlights the importance of national boundaries. What’s of particular interest is the relatively brief period in which the map looks like it does today. At just over 3 minutes, it’s a fun way to introduce the concept of statehood in your IR and comparative classes.

The UN Security Council, the General Assembly, and Palestinian Statehood

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said today he would seek UN Security Council recognition for a Palestinian state.

Palestinian leaders are expected to take their bid for statehood to the United Nations next week, potentially provoking a diplomatic showdown that could have serious consequences for Israel, Palestine, and the United States.  The UN Security Council has the power to approve Palestine’s admission as a full member state, but the United States is one of five veto-wielding permanent members of the council (along with Russia, China, Britain, and France), and the U.S. has promised to veto any resolution approving Palestinian statehood.  The U.S. and Israeli position is that Palestinian statehood should be achieved through direct negotiations with Israel.  Despite this veto threat, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said today that he would seek Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state.

While the Security Council effort is destined to fail, Palestine could gain a partial victory through the UN General Assembly.  The General Assembly has the power to upgrade Palestine’s status from “observer entity” to “observer state,” and such a resolution will almost certainly succeed since each UN member state gets one vote in the General Assembly (the majority of member states back Palestinian statehood).  As this article at Politico notes, “with that enhanced status, the Palestinians could take some actions against Israel, including filing cases in the International Criminal Court [ICC].”  The prospect of ICC charges stemming from Israeli actions is discussed here.

A Foreign Policy article entitled “ Train Wreck in Turtle Bay” describes the costs to all parties of a diplomatic clash over Palestinian statehood: “A diplomatic confrontation is not in the interest of any party. For Israel, it could prompt an outburst of public anger and possible violence in the occupied territories that would be a security challenge at home and deepen its growing isolation abroad. For Palestinians, it could mean a return to more restrictive forms of control by Israeli occupation authorities, more checkpoints and roadblocks, as well as other forms of retaliation, including punitive economic measures. For the United States, it risks bringing back traditional anti-American sentiment front and center to Arab political discourse at a time when the country has been increasingly perceived as a positive force standing with the people against dictators.”

What do you think?  Is the Palestinian effort to achieve statehood through the UN a wise idea, or will any statehood effort be counterproductive if it does not first gain Israel’s approval?

How do we “Recognize” a State?

The South Ossetia crisis continues.  Yesterday, the Russian government announced yesterday that it would recognize the two (former?) Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Nato’s Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, condemned Russia’s move, saying it was a “direct violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions regarding Georgia’s territorial integrity” and cautioning Russia that “Nato firmly supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia and calls on Russia to respect these principles.”
South Ossetia and Abkhazia have long demanded independence from Georgia.  But Russia’ recognition of the two has some important implications.  The 1933 Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States outlines the four fundamental criteria for statehood. According to the treaty,

The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications:
(a) a permanent population;
(b) a defined territory;
(c) government; and
(d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

The requirement that a state have the “capacity to enter into relations with other states” has usually been interpreted as meaning a state is recognized by other states.  Unilateral recognition is not usually sufficient.  Thus, Russia’s recognition of the two regions as independent states does not necessarily make them states.  And the hesitation of other countries to follow suit suggests that further movement towards statehood may not be forthcoming.  Recognition by the United Nations has usually been used as shorthand for meeting this criterion. But some states may choose not to participate as members of the United Nations (e.g., Switzerland), while others may be excluded for political reasons (e.g., Taiwan). 

Deciding whether a state is a state or not can be surprisingly difficult.  Some states fail to meet all of the criteria, particularly if we also carry over Weber’s definition that a state “possess a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.”  By that definition, countries like Iraq Afghanistan, and Somalia would also not qualify, despite their membership in the United Nations.

Given this difficulty, it is also difficult to get an exact count on the number of states in the world.  There are currently 192 members of the United Nations.  The United States, however, recognizes 194 (including the Vatican and Kosovo, which are not recognized by the United Nations).  Taiwan may also be added to the list.  Palestine aspires to statehood, and the Palestinian government is recognized by many countries, but is not included in the total.

Statehood for South Ossetia?

If you’ve never heard of South Ossetia before this week, you’re probably not alone.  The region was an Autonomous Oblast (think county, but with a bit more independence) within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic until 1990, when the Soviet Union broke up.  Georgia claimed ownership of South Ossetia, but the region declared its independence from Georgia in the early 1990s.  Since then, it’s had its own separatist government which hoped to negotiate independence from Georgia.  Despite two popular referenda which approved independence, the government of Georgia refused to grant independence, and no other country has recognized South Ossetia’s claim.

Why all this fuss over independence, autonomy, recognition, and statehood?  The state has long been the central unit of analysis (and has frequently been viewed as the most important actor) in political science.  The Nation-State—where the boundaries of a physical territory and government correspond to the boundaries of a group of people with a common national identity—has traditionally been the ideal-form of state.  But nation-states have also been exceedingly rare, as the boundaries of nations and states rarely correspond.  In the modern world, perhaps only a few states are truly nation-states: Japan, Portugal, and Iceland. 

Far more often, the boundaries of nation and state do not correspond.  Thus we get stateless nations (the Kurds, the Palestinians) and multinational states (Belgium, the United Kingdom, China).

But the nation-state continues to be viewed as the highest form of political order.  As a result, there is the constant threat that multinational states will tear themselves apart, as separate nations each seek to secure statehood.  The Basques in Spain have been seeking independence for decades.  Belgium always seems on the verge of disintegration, as the Flemish and the Wallonians contest the meaning of Belgian.  The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe removed the lid from simmering demands for autonomy.  Witness the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 or the violent demise of Yugoslavia into at least seven separate states (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and the disputed Kosovo) in the early 1990s.

The breakup of the Soviet Union afforded many opportunities for similar demands to be placed on the new states.  South Ossetia represents one example of these tensions, intensified because of competing U.S. and Russian interests in the future of Georgia, which are at the heart of the fighting that broke out this week.