Courtesy Reuters

Who Gets a State, and Why?

The Relative Rules of Sovereignty

In international politics, sovereignty still rules. Recent crises in Kosovo, Georgia, and Gaza are reminders that recognition as a sovereign state is the golden ring that political leaders hope to grasp. Recognition offers even small and weak communities a wealth of benefits, including international status, diplomatic protection, possible control over natural resources, seignorage (the right to print money and sell other assets such as flags of convenience and Internet domain names), and access to foreign aid from richer states and international financial institutions. 

International recognition is not contingent on such physical attributes as geographic size or population. Nor does it depend on effective governance or even complete political autonomy. Andorra, for example, is a full member of the United Nations, yet the country -- which is sandwiched between Spain and France -- covers little more than 300 square miles and has a population of only 83,000. Its joint heads of state are the president of France and the bishop of Urgell in Spain. Two of the four members of its constitutional court are appointed by France and Spain.

Andorra is hardly the smallest state to enjoy international recognition. That distinction belongs to Nauru, an island in the South Pacific with just over 10,000 citizens and a land area of 13 square miles. Thirteen UN member states have populations under 100,000, and 30 have populations under 500,000. Somalia has a seat at the UN and a substantial population of around six million but lacks an effective government. Taiwan, meanwhile, a well-governed and prosperous political entity with a population of more than 20 million, is recognized by only about 20 states (out of more than 190).

Although political leaders want international recognition, they may not want full independence. The member states of the European Union are all internationally recognized as sovereign but have voluntarily entered into treaties that compromise their own national autonomy. For the major European powers in the 1950s, especially Germany and France, integration was a path to peace as well as prosperity; for the new member states from Central and

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