The Washington Quarterly

The Mystery of Phantom States

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Summer 2012 issue of The Washington Quarterly.

In almost every region of the globe, there is a phantom state hovering like an apparition among the more corporeal members of the international system. Some of their names sound like the warring kingdoms of a fantasy novel: Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Nagorno—Karabakh and the Dniester Moldovan Republic. Others, such as Gaza/Palestine, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, or Taiwan, dominate the headlines. These polities look like real countries to their inhabitants, who salute their flags and vote in their elections. Some even field armies, issue visas, and collect taxes. But they are largely invisible to international legal institutions, multilateral organizations, and global trade regimes. The reason is that they lack formal recognition, or what a political scientist would call ‘‘external sovereignty.’’

Over the last 20 years, the status of the world’s phantom countries has been literally a matter of life and death: stoking wars, fostering crime, keeping weak states weak, presenting a diplomatic conundrum to major powers, and raising the age-old question of what kinds of polities deserve to be legitimate players in a global system of sovereign states. However, serious discussion of these phantoms usually collapses into name-calling. Some unrecognized countries are derided as separatists, terrorist havens, or mafia-run enclaves. Others are praised as the home of freedom-loving citizens seeking liberation from despots. Treatments by judges and international lawyers have usually been more sober, but they too have been most interested in testing the legitimacy of a particular bid for independence by a state-like claimant. Such debates are also good for business. A large Washington-based network of lobbying firms and consultants works to help unrecognized governments make their case to the White House, Capitol Hill, think tanks, and defense contractors. One need only visit the website of the Republic of Nagorno—Karabakh or open a holiday card from the Republic of Abkhazia to see how the marketing of a country’s aspirations and grievances depends little on whether it has a seat at the United Nations.

But where do these wraiths come from, and why do they insist on hanging around? If the currency of world politics is mutual recognition official membership in the club of sovereign nations why have these non-state states proven to be such durable parts of the international community? The evidence seems to point in an uncomfortable direction.

While the bedrock of the global order is the ability of sovereign countries to enter into relations with their own kind, the rise of phantom states suggests that formal sovereignty has lost some of its cache´. How to balance respecting state sovereignty with the desire to advance other noble principles, such as human rights, is an old debate. It has been at the heart of many of the major regional crises of the last two decades, from Kosovo to Libya to Syria. Yet the real challenge to the sovereignty principle comes not from advocates of what in Davos jargon is now called ‘‘R2P’’ the international community’s ‘‘responsibility to protect’’ civilians from their own governments via muscular intervention or forceful peacekeeping. Rather, the challenge to sovereignty comes from the rather successful and deeply self-interested makers of phantom states. In other words, what happens to the foundations of international relations if you can get by just fine as a president or an average citizen by living in a country that nobody believes really exists?

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