What once may have been a matter of warfare, today is managed by the complex “rules” of international recognition. In this video, I describe how the most recent entrants to the international system gained their status, discuss the cases of partially-recognized states (like Palestine and Kosovo) as well as potential new states that have yet to gain recognition.

South Sudan, Montenegro and Timor-Leste are the three most recent states to gain full international recognition – as indicated by UN membership – in 2011, 2006, and 2002 respectively.  Although Montenegro’s split from Serbia was through referendum, not violence (and instigated by Serbia), each country was the result of nationalist mobilization, and in the case of South Sudan and East Timor, decades of civil war.  In the case of civil war, international mediation led to a peace settlement that included the agreement by the former state to recognize the territory’s independence. 

These countries all shared certain characteristics:

  • A clear, pre-existing administrative boundary (a federal subdivision)
  • Political leaders interested in mobilizing the public along religious or linguistic differences to gain power
  • Each state also held a referendum to seek public approval for independence. 

Since Sudan, Serbia, and Indonesia did not object to recognition of these new states, their paths to UN membership were straightforward. Not all potential states have such a smooth path.

South Sudan and East Timor came into existence at the end of long peace negotiations.  Where parties have agreed to a cease-fire, but negotiations have not gone further than that, we sometimes get partially recognized states, like Kosovo, which is accepted as a state by around half the countries in the world.  Serbia has not accepted Kosovo’s independence, and international recognition largely follows the old fault-lines of the Cold War.  There are several unrecognized mini-states (like Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Caucasus) that Russia supports as leverage over other nations as well.

Palestine is in similar limbo.  While prospects for a so-called “two state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are dim at the moment, the idea behind this is that after negotiating a peace deal, each nation would formally recognize the other as an independent state.  While Trump Administration policy has been weak in its support for the two-state solution (focusing on Arab recognition of Israel in the absence of an agreement, to recent success with the UAE and Bahrain), the idea is that the U.S. would hold out recognition of a Palestinian state until this peace deal is complete.

Other places may have institutions resembling a state, but no formal recognition.  The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq is a good example.  While the Kurds have long held dreams of an independent state, and do have a formal administration within the state of Iraq, they are unlikely to attempt to declare independence without approval from their international patrons (notably, the United States).  While some argue that Kurdish independence is their due as loyal allies through multiple conflicts in Iraq – I am skeptical they will declare independence.  Since there are Kurdish populations in neighboring Turkey, Iran, and Syria that might seek to join an independent Kurdistan, secession would likely lead to a further escalation of conflict in the region.  The KRG is currently relatively stable and prosperous, which might be lost with independence.

The final big source of states-in-waiting is the European Union.  As Europe has moved toward greater integration, regions within its member states have sought greater autonomy.  The argument in places like Scotland and the Basque Country has been that as long as the successor state remains within the EU, secession will have a minimal impact on the economy and international relations.  The discussion of a “Europe of Regions” has quieted in the face of rising populist nationalism – and referenda by member states about leaving the EU as a whole – and it has changed in content.  Early debate focused on ethnic and linguistic rights for sub-national units (as with the Basque Country), while those regions seeking independence today (like Scotland and Catalonia) tend to emphasize economic rights over national identity.  To date, though, secessionist movements in the EU (and Quebec in Canada) have failed to win enough popular support – when referenda have been held that meet a minimum turnout requirement, independence has failed to win a majority, and regional governments have received more autonomy rather than independence. 

So it’s not easy for potential new states.  Full international recognition of new states is rare and peaceful secession even rarer.  But state formation is no longer simply a matter of waging war to establish a border.  Wars for independence have only succeeded when international mediation leads to recognition, and states have only formed along prior administrative boundaries.