People Without Nations, Nations Without People

The future of the Westphalian system is full of unanswered questions.


Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood, by Joshua Keating, Yale University Press, 296 pages, $26

Yale University Press

You are, I am confident in declaring, reading this within the boundaries of a nation. Virtually every square inch of land on the planet (with the partial exception of Antarctica) has been assigned to one polity or another—as have the world's people. We are all citizens of a country. That is the easily digested story we have been told since childhood.

Almost as easy to understand is the answer to the question, "What if you don't like the country you're in?" You can leave it for another country, or you can make a new one. The history of the last century is rife with examples of peoples creating new states: There's Yugoslavia. There's the cluster of countries where Yugoslavia used to be. If the map doesn't suit you, then draw a new line on it.

In Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood, Joshua Keating looks closely at this simple story—and shows not only that the accepted narrative does not capture the true shape of the world but that the consensus underneath that narrative is eroding. A brief and historically anomalous period of stable international borders is coming to an end.

Keating, formerly of Foreign Policy and now of Slate, begins by exploring the emergence of the modern nation-state. He moves from the Treaty of Westphalia, which undergirds much of modern international law, to the U.S. Declaration of Independence and then onward to colonialism, Wilsonian self-determination, the Cold War, and our current era. This opening flirts with some fascinating questions, but cramming such a huge swath of political history into 40 pages doesn't leave room for thorough answers. Keating arrives too abruptly at Westphalia, and he limits himself to Europe. He doesn't give 19th century nationalism room to breathe. He notes the stability of the Cold War era without discussing the period's nuclear stalemate or the growth of international trade and soft power.

Having briskly set the stage, the author brings out a parade of curiosities. First are the Knights of Malta, a relic of the medieval era that maintains the trappings of sovereignty (strained even further since Pope Francis has imposed his authority on the order) without any territory except a couple of embassies. He visits Akwesasne, a Mohawk community that spans the U.S.-Canada border and tries to balance the authority of both states with its own. He muses on the case of Somaliland, a poor but stable country attempting to secede from Somalia against the wishes of the world community, which fears a repeat of the disaster in South Sudan. He registers as an "electronic resident" of Estonia. He meets with the self-proclaimed president of Liberland, a small parcel of land on the Serbia-Croatia border that neither state claims and that Liberland's libertarian founder therefore asserts is terra nullius and subject to his territorial control.

These examples are exceptions that prove the rule. The Westphalian system has withstood much stronger threats, and the book begins picking up its pace as it moves toward a crisis that might equal the greatest challenges the nation-state has faced.

The strongest sections of Keating's tour come as he slows down to examine larger questions. He's on familiar ground talking about Kurdistan, the prototypical "nation without a state," and it shows. He walks deftly through the confusing web of conflicting loyalties and authorities in the Kurdish parts of Iraq and Syria. He looks at the interests of the major players in the region, and at their attempts to deny or encourage Kurdish aspirations. Arab refugees from the war against ISIS have swelled the populations of Iraqi Kurdistan and Syrian Rojava, even as the Kurds in those two places have vastly expanded the size of the territories they hold.

A fascinating aside on the stateless people of the world ultimately leaves the reader asking questions. Keating introduces individuals without nations, such as those born in the Soviet Union who never applied for citizenship in one of its successor states. What about the growing global refugee population—is a Kurd fleeing Syria still a Syrian? What about her child, born in Greece? The book, which includes some events from 2017, does not mention the Rohingya crisis on the Bangladesh-Burma border, which dramatically highlights this problem. Keating also glosses over Palestine, the world's most prominent nation without a state.

As flaws go, there are worse ones than raising interesting questions that aren't fully answered, but this happens again and again throughout the book. A breezy visit to Abkhazia doesn't do enough to explore a rising trend: Russia's exploitation of nationalist rivalries to maintain a shadow of the buffer zone it enjoyed in the days of the Russian Empire and then the USSR. Putin maintains a military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, republics unrecognized in the West and carved out of the republic of Georgia. The same playbook was followed to carve Transnistria out of Moldova, to carve Lugansk and Donetsk out of Ukraine, and even to assist Armenia in carving Nagorno-Karabakh out of Azerbaijan. The Russian annexation of Crimea was the culmination of this campaign, although whether it is the end is far from certain.

The rise of conflicting world maps—just as Western maps refuse to acknowledge Transnistria, maps in Russia do not recognize Kosovo's secession from Serbia—is worrying. A border that moves depending on who's telling you where it belongs is nothing new, but in a world where borders are as stable as they have ever been, any threat appears large. Keating touches on this briefly as he discusses the Spratly Islands, where China is literally building up its presence by constructing thousands of acres of new land. International law doesn't recognize a claim to an exclusive economic zone based on artificial islands, but by building on existing reefs China is attempting an end-run that, backed by a lot of money and the diplomatic clout it buys, will succeed, at least in the short term.

Meanwhile, some natural islands are disappearing. Keating ends his tour in Kiribati, a vast nation of low-lying atolls and islands that could become uninhabitable within decades as oceans rise. Having purchased land in Fiji, its plans to continue as a government without a territory are starting to ripple through international law. Can the Kiribati people maintain some sort of virtual citizenship? Once in exile, will they keep their seat at the U.N. and other bodies? Can they retain political and economic control over what amounts to a seabed? Will international law change to recognize artificial islands built on a country's former site? The academic question of a nation-state without a state could become less academic sooner than we think.

That leads us to Keating's last and largest question: How might changes in the physical world impact the political world? As coastlines and climates change over the coming decades, people will move and bring with them a host of new dilemmas. How will today's powers react to tomorrow's crises?

Here again, Keating asks more than he answers. He gives lavish attention to the eccentrics, romantics, and rebels challenging the simple narrative of the nation-state, but not to their opponents. We're told the African Union opposes the adjustment of borders, but we never meet anyone who works there. We're told the United States uses its influence to discourage secession, but Keating never talks with a diplomat, a World Bank official, or anyone else deploying hard and soft power to maintain the status quo. It's like a movie whose villain is never on the screen.

This omission highlights another issue: The book devotes almost no attention to the real power of the nation-state. The anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott has shown how lines on maps do not always translate into the lived reality of states' subjects. At the same time, treaties and trade pacts have eroded the legal boundaries between nations while globalization and the digital revolution have made the world much smaller. As states are threatened by a more homogenized world culture, by rivals that provoke with impunity within their borders, and by the logic of a market that demands an endless, frictionless flood of goods and services across borders, it is little wonder that a populist reaction has arisen. Keating does frustratingly little to digest all this.

Despite such flaws, Invisible Countries is a worthwhile read. It challenges ideas that have long lived as quiet assumptions in our heads. It suggests that things will change soon—that the minor flaws with and exceptions to the Westphalian system are not aberrations but harbingers. Keating never settles long enough on any one point to give truly satisfying answers. But if his book ultimately leaves too many questions open, it remains a useful starting point for the discussions we must begin.

NEXT: Brickbat: Leaving a Bad Taste in Your Mouth

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  1. I have always wondered why the Westphalian system should be so durable. Is this literally the best answer that anyone could possibly imagine for how to organize different people into different states? It was one answer that served its purpose for ending the Thirty Years’ Wars in Europe. But why should it be so relevant today? I would imagine a more libertarian and decentralized version would allow people to choose their nationality among competing states wishing for their “business” (tax revenue) based on the “services” that it provides. Let the individual be the most sovereign unit, not the nation.

    1. The system isn’t for the benefit of the people. It’s for the benefit of the nations. The monopolies on force agree not to step on each others toes, and to allow others to abuse their people with impunity. That means they can abuse their own people with impunity.

      1. Yeah pretty much. Westphalia promotes and extends the coercion of the state. So why should it be given such deference in libertarian circles again?

        1. Who gave it deference? All I saw was a review of a book.

          1. Well, the Trumpkin nativists are pretty into it.

            1. Yeah that is what I was referring to, in part. But not just with them. Lots of people it seems, are wedded to perpetual Westphalian state of affairs (no pun intended).

            2. And Obama and Clinton weren’t? I guess except for stepping on the toes of the 7 or 8 undeclared wars they launched during Obama’s presidency. OK, you win.

      2. I get all sorts of benefit from the USA. Otherwise, I would not live here.

        I’m rich. I’m healthy. I get to say what I want without fear of political retribution. I get to do what I want as long as I dont hurt others.

        America is awesome!

        1. America is awesome!

          Was this from before or after it was made great again? Was it great prior to 2017?

          1. America has always been Awesome compared to all other nations.

            America can be great again compared to how great it was.

        2. I get to do what I want as long as I dont hurt others.

          LOL. Good one.

          1. Sorry, you dont.

            I have a great life because I want a great life.

        3. I get to do what I want as long as I dont hurt others.

          So you’re an anarchist who wants absolute liberty? Because that’s what you always say to people who say freedom means not asking permission and obeying orders.

          1. Nice try, Sarcasmic.

            I want to pay taxes. They pay for roads and the military. Libertarianism there.

            I get to travel and do a bunch of fun stuff with family and friends.

            1. I don’t see why roads need to be public, but I do agree that we need a military. For defense anyway, not to police the world. That’s what minimal government means. Minimal. Government. As in courts, national defense, enforcement of contracts and property rights, and that’s about it. Not to be confused with the anarchistic straw man that you set on fire whenever you see words that you don’t understand.

              1. Roads dont need to be public, but they are. I voluntarily pay taxes for that. Roads could be privately paid for.

                Courts, military, federal police, administration of government property, some kind of spy agency.

                No social security, medicare, medicaid, Obamacare, HUD

                75%+ less than what we spend on now.

                You always throw out half-assed insults even when you like some of what I say.

                I am Libertarian, so I want tiny and limited government. You are for a different kind of volunteer boss organization.

                1. I throw out half-assed insults as you insist I’m an anarchist, despite my a-fucking-greeing about wanting a tiny and limited government. Minimal is just another way of saying tiny and limited.

                  of a minimum amount, quantity, or degree; negligible.
                  “a minimal amount of information”

        4. I get to do what I want as long as I dont hurt others.

          Yeah… that’s a laugh. As long as doing what you want doesn’t involve any of the plethora of arbitrarily proscribed personal behaviors, sure. How many victim-less crimes are on the books?

          1. Sorry, other people dont have fun in life responsibly. They are missing out.

            I could write a book on all my adventures. Granted some took place in less Nanny and Police State times but I have loads of fun even when we are Making America Great Again.

        5. Really? When I remodeled my kitchen the government tried to tell me how many electrical outlets I had to install.

      3. “I would imagine a more libertarian and decentralized version would allow people to choose their nationality among competing states wishing for their “business” (tax revenue) based on the “services” that it provides.”

        I would imagine chocolate cows would taste fantastic but, alas, they do not exist.

        It is pointless to dwell on systems that do not exist and show few to zero signs of coming into existence. Westphalia exists. Globalization exists. These are things to grapple with and deal with, not imaginary utopias.

    2. But national borders matter because… Culture, or MAGA, or because too many brown people or something or other.

      Sadly, I’ve been the witness of many a “libertarian” (or a paleoconservative) tie his or her arguments in a knot to defend the actions of the State –the aggressive, criminal actions– against peaceful people who just want to improve their lot by engaging in BETTER trades in a foreign land, without specifically defending the State per se, but nevertheless defending it, using the most absurd non sequiturs. That is, otherwise brilliant people, sounding like apologists for hate and violence against individuals, under the guise of defending culture or (the most laughable) “property rights”, the last one he best example of chutzpah when they make the claim that immigrants are guilty, by merely existing, of taking welfare benefits from the same State they say should violently block these immigrants from entering the country, using the same money the State takes from people under different excuses or even without an excuse. Some property rights defenders they are.

      1. It’s like they completely lose their mind when it comes to immigration.

        They will be the first ones to tell you that the government is corrupt, coercive, abusive, wasteful, inept, etc., etc., and they will advocate for lower taxes, lower spending, smaller police state, getting rid of the surveillance state, upholding the Constitution, etc., etc. – right up until it comes to foreigners. THEN, the coercive state can do no wrong in keeping out the dirty filthy furriners. Raise taxes, raise spending, get those surveillance drones going, hire an army of border patrol agents and IRS agents, do whatever it takes to kick those immigrants out!

        1. To be fair, they also expect the government to help foot the bill for their lifestyle. Remember how annoyed people got when I complained about having to pay for all their babysitting?

        2. It’s like they completely lose their mind when it comes to immigration.

          These so-called “paleoconservatives” (or yokeltarians) tend to resemble the old “national conservatives” of Europe who yearned nostalgically for a nonexistent past of racial/ethnic harmony and traditional values. They hated both the leftists who preached revolution and the liberal centrists who supported free markets and parliamentary democracy. Sometimes they supported liberal policies like lower taxes and economic deregulation, although it was usually in opposition to left-wing programs.

          They resemble the clerical fascists in interwar Europe, like Schuschnigg’s Austria (pre-Anschluss) and Metaxas’ Greece. A pain in the ass for leftists and non-conservatives, surely, but generally insular and anti-expansionist. They mostly formed authoritarian governments during a “crisis” (usually a failed or fake left-wing uprising) that got conveniently extended for however long. Ironically, many of those authoritarian regimes were far more liberal than the feudal-aristocratic institutions they nostalgically longed for.

          They’re not Nazis by any means. The Nazis had many supporters (initially) from the national conservative movement, and arguably could trace its lineage to them, but they were totalitarian and revolutionary whereas the national-conservatives were more counterevolutionary and revanchist. But quite a few Nazis did get their start in the national-conservative movement.

    3. But why should it be so relevant today?

      Because like it or not, it IS what exists. It’s perhaps interesting and fun to imagine different scenarios unfolding in future.

      But if the goal is to improve actual human lives today, it generally has to be done within the framework of the existing nation-state. And for most situations, it is truly pointless to create imaginary counterfactuals and only improve things that way.

      And there is also a very very sad ACTUAL history of what happens when alternate realities are created. The people who create those are usually sociopaths – and that will almost always be the case in future too. And the results are the countless refugees and ethnic cleansing and genocides where individuals have to flee for their lives from that sociopath who is creating their version of a utopia where they can be ‘the individual who is the most sovereign unit’.

      1. “And there is also a very very sad ACTUAL history of what happens when alternate realities are created. The people who create those are usually sociopaths – and that will almost always be the case in future too. And the results are the countless refugees and ethnic cleansing and genocides where individuals have to flee for their lives from that sociopath who is creating their version of a utopia where they can be ‘the individual who is the most sovereign unit’.”

        This is ultimately what makes me a libertarian leaning conservative. I know too much history to be blinded by utopian nonsense. Radical change in pursuit of utopian nonsense invariably ends with blood spilled, lots of it. Sometimes blood needs to be spilled and individuals need to stand up for themselves and their futures, but that is not America or Americans. Radical change in America would only bring death and suffering as we have it pretty fantastic now so no thanks for radical change.

  2. I don’t like to be Westphaliasplained to.

  3. Sounds like an interesting little book! (I can’t wait for the movie, starring Meryl Streep as Ferdinand III.)

  4. We’ll keep the USA as a nation with borders, thanks.

    1. Re: lovecons…who are you kidding?

      We = xenophobic assholes and lc1789.

      Political borders are lines on a map placed there by conquerors. At best, they become the territorial delimitations between crime organizations people call, amusingly, states. At worst, they become excuses to treat people like pests and not like, well, people.

    2. USA! USA! USA! USA!

  5. No comment on the independent nation of Landonia?

    1. Do its prairies feature little houses? Do its highways terminate in heaven?

  6. One quibble: A nation is a group of people, a state is a political entity. A nation can exist without a state (ex. Kurds, Tibet, aborigines, etc). And a state can exist without a nation (ex. post colonial Africa/ME).

    1. You damn right Maine is a state without a nation! Fuck ’em; we don’t want the quirky bastards!

      1. I’ll take them, but they need to merge with the other states into the State of New England first.

        1. Fuck that.

  7. This is awfully complex and confusing. We can’t have people running around without countries, making up countries, vanishing countries, etc.

    There can be only one final solution: one world government.

    Ha! You can’t even make that complicated, it’s just that simplistic!

  8. People often gloss over the example of Chiapas, where, to the best of my knowledge, no Mexican policeman or soldier has stood on Zapatista controlled territory for 20 years. Even elsewhere in Mexico, the federal government’s grasp on cities, states, and regions can be tentative. I’ve been in cities where the Federales refused to let the local police carry guns. I’ve been in other Mexican cities where the Federales have tried to disarm the local police and failed.

    Just because the federal government passes a law doesn’t necessarily mean it will be enforced anywhere.

    That’s just an example of Mexico, but that situation can be even more pronounced elsewhere in central and South America. Just because other countries respect your international borders doesn’t mean the federal government has control of the territory within those borders. It just means that other nation states don’t necessarily claim that territory–although sometimes that isn’t true either. Then I consider Brexit, the laughing stock that is the Paris Agreement, I see NATO become increasingly feckless in the face of Putin’s aggression, etc., etc.

    1. The nation state is only a threat insofar as it can inflict its will. The bigger threat to me is the new tools available to the nation state in terms of surveillance and control. Think of all the things Google, Facebook, your ISP, et. al. know about you, and understand that they’ll turn that over to the government whenever they’re asked. It won’t be long before the government knows and tracks everything about us, and why wouldn’t they use that information? It’s amazing to me that some people both a) oppose a gun registry and also b) support E-Verify. Yeah, it’s possible to both support the Second Amendment and oppose illegal immigration, but it’s not possible to both support using the government to track us and oppose using the government to track us.

      The nation state will use the information it collects about you in practical ways, and everything there is to know about is being collected.

      1. “It won’t be long before the government knows and tracks everything about us, and why wouldn’t they use that information?”

        China is already dabbling in this. They will roll this system out to encrust the Communist Party on the top in China and rule over their people Brave New World style. Give them the illusion of freedom.

        It honestly disturbs me a lot that the same will happen everywhere all across the world. I do not even see how it will be possible for it not to happen. It is possible to happen so I think it will inevitably happen.

  9. Can we separate the concept of nation (and citizen) from geography? Can people form allegiances and legal relations without moving?

    1. Allegiances? Yes. It’s called being a traitor, and it is punishable by death.

  10. Really fantastic article, I am actually surprised how good it was. Thanks for the read!

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