On Sept. 25, 2017, Iraqi Kurdistan held its long-awaited referendum on independence. The region had been semi-independent since the end of the first Gulf War but had long sought to become a full-fledged, internationally recognized state. The Kurds had attempted independence, and been thwarted in those attempts, numerous times before, from the aftermath of World War I, through the Cold War, to the first Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But ISIS’s invasion of Iraq in 2014, and the subsequent collapse of Iraq’s state institutions, had made Kurdistan’s dream look more feasible than ever: It was a lot harder for Iraq to make the case for its territorial integrity when it literally didn’t control much of its own territory.
As a non-Arab minority, Kurds were targeted by ISIS’s campaign of genocide. With heavy assistance from the U.S., they also became the most effective military force retaking territory from the group. In the summer of 2014, they took control of the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, which had previously been under Iraqi government control before it was taken over by ISIS, and this is where they decided to hold their referendum. When I visited Kirkuk in the summer of 2016, Kurdish flags and posters for Kurdish political parties were everywhere. Kurdish peshmerga security force patrolled the city’s bazaar. The governor’s palace was one of the most heavily fortified buildings I’d ever been in. Getting in required traversing a warren of blast walls, barbed wire, and checkpoints with multiple security checks and pat-downs by armed guards. The message was clear: Now that they had taken Kirkuk, the Kurds weren’t giving it up. “If Kurdistan were to become independent, I think it has to have Kirkuk in it,” the governor, Najmiddin Karim, told me.
But just days after the referendum, in which 92 percent of voters supported independence, Iraqi security forces aided by Shiite militias retook the city and other areas the Kurds had recently recaptured. Thousands, including Karim, fled Kirkuk. The United States, long an ally of the Kurds, more or less shrugged, with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad putting out a statement saying it supported the “peaceful reassertion of federal authority, consistent with the Iraqi constitution, in all disputed areas.” The region’s airport was closed to international flights and its borders blockaded. While the Kurds eventually reached a peace deal with Baghdad this spring, they ended up with less territory and less autonomy than they had before they held the vote.
For the Kurds, this was just one more in a series of frustrations in their long quest for independence. But it was also a sign of what’s becoming an inescapable rule of world politics: It’s more or less impossible to create a new country. As I write in my new book, Invisible Countries, for which I traveled to Kurdistan in 2016, the world map has been in a state of stasis for about a quarter of a century, with few new countries created and the borders of existing ones staying fixed. In many ways, this has been a good thing for international stability. But the fixed nature of the world map is deeply frustrating to groups like the Kurds, who feel vulnerable or marginalized in their recognized nation, and don’t have a state to call their own.
Kurdistan isn’t the only wannabe state that’s had the door slammed in its face in the past year. Just a few weeks after the Kurdish referendum, more than 92 percent of voters who took part in a controversial referendum in Catalonia backed independence from Spain.* Spanish authorities attempted to shut down the voting with riot police, tear gas, and rubber bullets. After the Spanish federal government refused to negotiate independence, the Catalan parliament unilaterally declared independence on Oct. 27, while at the same time, the government of Spain invoked a never-before-used article of the constitution to take direct control over the wayward region’s government. Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont fled Spain to avoid arrest on charges of rebellion and is currently fighting extradition from Germany. Like Kurdistan, Catalonia appears likely to end up with less independence than it had before voting for it.
More examples: Immediately after Britain voted to withdraw from the European Union, there was talk among political leaders in Scotland, which voted firmly against Brexit, of holding a new referendum on independence. But public opinion among Scots has shifted against the idea and their leaders have backed off. Elsewhere in Europe, there’s little appetite for full-on secessionism. For instance, the Northern League, the far-right party that once advocated independence for Northern Italy, has had far more success since rebranding itself as just the League and focusing more on preventing immigration—a much more effective form of nationalism these days. It’s now part of the coalition government ruling Italy.
Of all the groups seeking a fully independent state, the Palestinians are probably the best known and most heavily covered. But while a growing number of countries are now recognizing Palestine as independent—more than 70 percent of U.N. member states and nearly all of Asia, Africa, and South America call the territory occupied by Israel “Palestine”—a true two-state solution leading to full Palestinian independence, or an end to Israeli military occupation and settlement construction, has never seemed less likely.
The gold standard of unrecognized countries is Taiwan, a wealthy, democratic country that enjoys strong—if unofficial—relations with other governments. During my book research, officials in not-quite-countries like Somaliland and Abkhazia often pointed to the prosperous and democratic Taiwan as evidence that they could develop into stable, prosperous societies even without international recognition. The U.S., after all, has close political and economic relations with Taiwan and even just opened a new de facto “embassy” there, despite formally recognizing it as ruled by Beijing under the “one China policy.” But China’s growing international clout is putting increasing pressure on Taiwan’s independence. The number of countries formally recognizing Taiwan fell below 20 in May, after China offered the Dominican Republic $3.1 billion in loans and investments to switch its allegiance to Beijing. China has also been ramping up pressure on private companies not to refer to Taiwan as an independent country in their marketing material. The country’s unique international status is becoming less tenable, and full independence a much more remote and unlikely prospect than it once was.
All over the world, country creation has slowed to a trickle. From the end of World War II, to the year 2000, the number of independent countries in the world nearly quadrupled, as dozens of new states were created out of colonial empires in Africa and Asia, and the end of the Cold War led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia into smaller units. But in the 21st century, only three newly independent countries—East Timor, Montenegro, and South Sudan—have been admitted to the United Nations.
What changed? For one thing, most of the obvious new countries—land once controlled by colonizing empires—have already been created. The vast majority of the new states founded in the second half of the 20th century were former colonies of European powers. Those empires had become politically untenable and morally indefensible, and often, particularly in much of Africa and the Middle East, it was the European powers themselves that drew the borders for the new states. And while these borders were often far from ideal, drawn with little regard for the distribution of ethnic groups on the ground, leading to decades of conflict, they’ve mostly been left in place. Dividing countries or redrawing borders now would require governments to give up territory—not far-flung overseas possessions but contiguous land—something they almost never do without a fight. It doesn’t help that the world’s multilateral institutions, including the European Union, African Union, and United Nations, generally frown on secessionism. So do the world’s major superpowers.
America nearly always opposes the breakup of existing countries. That was even the case, though it’s often forgotten today, during the breakup of the Soviet Union. But there are exceptions. The U.S. was a major backer of South Sudan’s independence in 2011 though that country’s descent into civil war and state failure has come to be seen as a cautionary tale for backing the independence of countries whose institutions aren’t ready for it. The U.S.
also backed independence for Kosovo—now widely recognized though not a U.N.
member state—which has been used as a precedent for Russia’s Vladimir Putin to justify the annexation of Crimea and other foreign ventures. Russia is the primary foreign backer—and military occupier—of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as the main supporter of Ukrainian separatists. As part of its quest to needle Western hypocrisy and undermine its rivals, Russia may be the world’s most secessionist-friendly superpower. It has hosted conventions for nationalist movements from around the world and even been accused of backing Texas and California secessionist movements in the United States. But Russian support for secessionists has lately started to backfire: Reports of Kremlin interference were used by opponents to attack Catalonia’s independence movement. As for rising power China, given its own problems with nationalists in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, the last thing Beijing wants to do is normalize secessionism.
The reluctance of world governments and international organizations to support independence movements and border changes is understandable. Normalizing secessionism and border changes on the grounds of ethnic identity is a recipe for more conflict. Minority groups throughout the world could be encouraged to take up arms in search of states of their own. Existing countries could use self-determination as a pretext to invade their neighbors—think of how Vladimir Putin has justified the annexation of Crimea on the grounds that the region is historically Russian, an argument that apparently makes sense to the president of the United States. In the past century, millions died in wars between sovereign states over territory, often justified by arguments like these. And peaceful separations or unifications of countries—Czechoslovakia or Germany, for instance—are the historical exception. Bloody debacles like the partition of India and the breakup of Yugoslavia are far more common. It’s just easier, and safer, to leave the map as it is.
But in a world where human rights are tied to citizenship, the virtual impossibility of creating new countries leaves marginalized minority groups—the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Uighurs in China, the Kurds in Iraq—at a disadvantage. The current map of the world may be the best option for the majority of the world’s population, but that doesn’t mean it works for everyone. A look at the sectarian and ethnic violence currently wracking several countries in the Middle East and Africa is evidence enough of that.
Our current borders, however, are not necessarily fixed. Unprecedented levels of global migration, new technologies eroding traditional notions of sovereignty, and the reshaping of the Earth’s landmass by climate change could place new pressures on the borders of existing countries. That might be welcome news for nationalist movements throughout the world, who have long chafed under what they see as the oppression of arbitrary borders. But we may also soon come to miss the relative stability of an era when we could take the world map for granted.
Update, June 26, 2018: This article was updated to clarify that while that more than 92 percent of participants in the Catalan referendum backed independence, this was not representative of the region’s whole population because of low turnout.