Who Gets to Have Their Own Country?

Who has the right to claim independence? In the end, it boils down to having the support of other nations.

This episode of The Inquiry, Who Gets to Have Their Own Country?, provides timely perspective to some of my recent pondering about nationhood and national identity.

Beginning with the upcoming independence referendums in Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia, then looking back at the case studies of Kosovo and East Timor, and finally examining the current situation in Somaliland, The Inquiry strings together these stories and attempts at statehood to wrestle with a deceptively simple question: who has the legitimate right and ability to claim independence? When do assertions of national independence actually work? And what are the variables involved in their success?

A key insight of this program is that the principles of autonomy and self-determination, decolonization, uti possidetis juris, and the principle of territorial integrity find themselves in regular contradiction. In the end, there is no steadfast “rule” as who can be a nation. There is no rule book.

But one thing does seem clear: to be a state is to be recognized as a state by other states. As circular as this logic may be, it seems to be principle grounds of geopolitical equilibrium worldwide. Who gets to have their own country? Host James Fletcher concludes, “It’s all about who you know.” Nationhood is a self-perpetuating concept — a status that can only be endowed by other nations.