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The End of the World Map as We Know It?

Journalist Joshua Keating's new book takes a hard look at what it means to be a country today—and how notions of statehood may be on the brink of change.
A general view of the livestock market in Hargeisa, Somaliland, on August 18th, 2018.

A general view of the livestock market in Hargeisa, Somaliland, on August 18th, 2018.

Imagine you're a tourist in New York City. Among the many things you'd like to see—the Statue of Liberty, a Broadway show, innumerable museums—is the United Nations. You've already organized your visit online, so on the day of your tour, you show up, one hour early, per instructions, to go through security. At this point, you have to show a government-issued photo ID. You present your passport, and you're in. Unless you're a Taiwanese passport holder, that is. A security measure, introduced in 2016 at China's request, says that visitors can enter with IDs that have been issued by a U.N. member or observer state. Taiwan is neither; and China has long contested the very idea of an independent Taiwan; that is, a Taiwan distinct from mainland China. Your passport is no good here. Is your country even a country?

Joshua Keating's new book, Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood, takes readers to places, like Taiwan, that are grappling with crises of international identity, from the breakaway, semi-autonomous country of Abkhazia to a Mohawk community smack on the United States–Canada border. Keating offers a clear-eyed look into what it means to be a country today—in an age when it's become more difficult to forge new states—and how, increasingly, the notion of statehood is being challenged in unexpected ways. Keating also zooms in on the consequences for people living in geographical gray zones, and the book emphasizes that it's not only borders we're talking about; it's also people's livelihoods, and lives.

Keating bookends his analysis with scenes from an international soccer match—not the FIFA World Cup, but the much more obscure ConIFA World Football Cup. The difference between these tournaments, Keating explains, is that the latter is a competition among "countries that most people don't consider countries at all." The tournament host in 2016 was Abkhazia, which broke from Georgia in 1993; despite having distinct cultural traditions and even its own language, Abkhazia is recognized only by a handful of countries as independent. Why? To an extent, Abkhazia is an emblematic product of geopolitical rivalries: After the five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, Moscow recognized the independence of Abkhazia and of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia—"partly a tit-for-tat response to the U.S. recognition of Kosovo over Serbian and Russian objections," Keating writes. For years, Abkhazia has hovered in diplomatic limbo and been largely treated by Georgia and the West as a puppet state, with Russia pulling the strings.

The persistent struggle of would-be states like Abkhazia and Taiwan to achieve widely recognized statehood brings us to Keating's deeper point: Since the end of the Cold War, the world has entered a period of "cartographical stasis," or "a freezing in place of the map as it existed at the end of the 20th century." Importantly, there are losers in this stasis: "It locks in decisions made by colonists in the 19th century in both Africa and the Middle East, and it contains ambiguities and prolonged stresses that can be exploited by both non-state actors like ISIS and revisionist powers like Vladimir Putin's Russia," Keating writes. He offers several explanations for this hardening. For one, the most obvious sources of new countries—such as the breakup of the multinational Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, the end the Soviet Union, and the self-determination of former colonies—have been tapped out. "After the empires left the stage," Keating explains, "any future redrawing of borders would require existing countries to give up territory—not possessions thousands of miles away populated primarily by people of a different cultural or racial group, but areas within their own borders." Further, Keating suggests that the ebbing of costly interstate war has helped cement this era of uneasy stasis.

Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood.

Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood.

Of course, the motivations of major powers play a tremendous role in the ossification of the world map too. In particular, over the past century, Keating writes, the U.S. has increasingly turned into the planet's "primary guarantor of stasis. Even as it has intervened militarily throughout the world, it has nearly always preferred to leave existing national borders in place." Perhaps surprisingly, this truth also holds for America under President Donald Trump: In December of 2016, as president-elect, Trump acted as though he might flout the U.S.'s long-observed "One China" policy, which acknowledges the Beijing government's authority over Taipei, but he has since changed course (though, as I learned during a recent trip to the island nation, Trump's initial devil-may-care approach to the policy still makes him remarkably popular among many Taiwanese).

Notably, Keating also offers a forward-thinking portrait of several "invisible countries" whose very existence ought to make us seriously question what a country can look like. Take Somaliland, a self-declared country located in the Horn of Africa. Though it has many of the trappings of statehood—its own flag, its own currency, its own government—no foreign government formally recognizes it as a sovereign state. "If Somaliland isn't a country," Keating asks, "then what is?" There's also Kiribati, a deeply isolated island nation of 33 atolls in the Pacific. But it may be on the brink of disappearing in the not-so-distant future: Keating cites a Kiribati government report stating that, by 2050, significant portions of the country's highly populated atoll of Tarawa could be consumed by rising seas, while smaller islands could be swallowed up even sooner. As a result, the Kiribati government is considering various survival strategies, such as relocating the country's inhabitants. Keating wonders: "If a country no longer exists in physical form, can it still exist as a political unit?"

Crucially, Invisible Countries isn't simply intellectual sport. Keating mixes his historical and political investigation with intrepid reporting that centers those people who are navigating the apparent cracks along world borders. Mikhail Sebastian, for instance, is one of more than 12 million stateless people globally. Though not initially allowed to travel outside the U.S. (a condition of his work permit), in December of 2011, Sebastian unintentionally did just that. On a trip to American Samoa, an unincorporated U.S. territory with its own particular immigration system, he also visited the independent Western Samoa; when he tried to return, U.S. authorities informed him that he had self-deported. He was then marooned for more than a year on American Samoa. As Sebastian told Keating in 2016, statelessness is an issue that the U.S. prefers to ignore. Referring to Myanmar, where the Rohingya, a mostly stateless Muslim minority, are facing what the former U.N. Commissioner on Human Rights has called a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing," Sebastian asks: "What authority do you have to tell Myanmar what to do when you can't help stateless people here in the United States?"

With Invisible Countries, Keating is making the case for a human-centered approach to the world map. When existing countries prove incapable of supporting people within their borders, he writes, "our first impulse should be to ask how [those countries] can be improved, not simply to state that they must be preserved."