Four Easy Steps To Make Your Own Country The tiny Pacific island of Nauru has joined three other countries in recognizing the breakaway Black Sea territory of Abkhazia, population 215,000. Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy explains what makes a country, and what a would-be state will do to become one.
NPR logo

Four Easy Steps To Make Your Own Country

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Four Easy Steps To Make Your Own Country

Four Easy Steps To Make Your Own Country

Four Easy Steps To Make Your Own Country

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The tiny Pacific island of Nauru has joined three other countries in recognizing the breakaway Black Sea territory of Abkhazia, population 215,000. Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy explains what makes a country, and what a would-be state will do to become one.

Read Joshua Keating's 2008 Article In Foreign Policy, "How To Start Your Own Country In Four Easy Steps," and his post, "Nauru Recognizes Abkhazia"


Big news today in international diplomacy: Nauru established diplomatic relations with Abkhazia. Abkhazia, you say? What's that? And where is Nauru? Well, for those of you not up on your geography, Abkhazia is a disputed territory on the Black Sea claimed by Georgia. And Nauru is a pacific island nation that comprises all of eight square miles and 11,000 citizens. And with Nauru, Abkhazia is now considered a sovereign nation by four - count them - four countries, the others are Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela. So what makes a country? What will a rogue territory or a breakaway province do to become one? And what's the price of diplomatic recognition?

Joshua Keating, associate editor of Foreign Policy magazine, demystified the process for all you would-be presidents for life in his piece, "How to Start Your Own Country in Four Easy Steps." And he joins us now on the phone from his office. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. JOSHUA KEATING (Associate Editor, Foreign Policy Magazine): Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And that key country in that list of those who have recognized Abkhazia seems to be Russia.

Mr. KEATING: Yes. And pretty much all the other countries that have recognized Nauru have done so mainly to curry favored with Russia. It was pretty explicit in Nauru's case. From what was reported, they were paid about $50 million in aid in order - in exchange for recognizing Abkhazia.

CONAN: And that breaks down to $3,500 for every citizen on Nauru.

Mr. KEATING: Not a bad deal.

CONAN: Not a bad deal. If we could make such a deal, we might recognize Abkhazia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEATING: Yeah. We were joking in the office today about - for what price we would auction off FP's recognition of your breakaway territory.

CONAN: And Nauru is an impoverished island state whose greatest resource is the phosphate deposits, as they're gently described. They are the deposits of seabirds that were left over tens of thousands of years, and have been minded for use as fertilizer, that's almost gone. And apparently all they have left to sell is diplomatic recognition.

Mr. KEATING: Yes. And I tried to pull a similar stunt with Taiwan in 2002. They promised to break off relationships with Taiwan in exchange for some aid from China. And then three years later, switched back and - so they've gotten quite adept at playing one side against another in these recognition battles.

CONAN: And why is recognition important?

Mr. KEATING: Well, recognition is important because it's essentially all that separates a legitimate state from me putting a flag on my cubicle and declaring it a sovereign nation. There are six rules under international law for what defines a state, but it's really in the eye of the beholder. You know, for instance a place like Abkhazia, the only thing that separates that from Kosovo, say, is that Kosovo's recognized by dozens of countries, whereas Abkhazia is recognized by only four.

CONAN: So Kosovo has more friends than Abkhazia.

Mr. KEATING: Exactly. But still no U.N. membership because of Russia's veto power, so Kosovo's existence is still very much in dispute as well.

CONAN: And as you put it in your piece at one time, all somebody needed generally from the - to get recognition from the United States was to be anti-communist. And as you point out in Kosovo's case, a finger in the eye of the Russians still doesn't hurt.

Mr. KEATING: Right, certainly. And during the Cold War, we had these sort of recognition battles where the existence of North or South Vietnam or Korea or East or West Germany really depended on what side do you asked. Then, of course, the U.S. recognized Taiwan as the legitimate government of China for many years.

CONAN: And it indeed had a permanent seat on the Security Council.

Mr. KEATING: Yes, that's true.

CONAN: Until it didn't.

Mr. KEATING: Right. Yeah. It's sort of funny in a way how a country like Taiwan for decades can be considered a legitimate nation but when these geopolitical realities shift, all the sudden they don't exist anymore.

CONAN: We're talking with Joshua Keating, associate editor of Foreign Policy magazine about the curious state of diplomatic recognition. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And there are places that would, well, die to be recognized by Nauru, Northern Cyprus among them.

Mr. KEATING: Sure. Northern Cyprus is recognized by Turkey and I believe a few other Middle Eastern countries, but not generally recognized. And - yes, so it's going to be interesting to see. I would expect because of the success of this operation they just pulled with Russia, I wouldn't be surprised to see Nauru trying to sell their recognition to some other countries, perhaps Somaliland and Puntland which are two breakaway regions of Somalia.

CONAN: And those indeed have declared themselves independent but that's just step one in finding yourself to be a sovereign nation.

Mr. KEATING: Right. And they have declared independence, and they have a somewhat sovereign government and even relationships with other countries, say, trade with Saudi Arabia for instance. But that doesn't yet mean they're recognized under international law.

CONAN: And it takes those bilateral recognitions, a lot of them, before you get the ultimate nationality verification, and that's membership in the United Nations.

Mr. KEATING: That's true. And not only bilateral recognitions, but relationships with superpowers, as Kosovo is learning.

CONAN: Indeed but it does take a vote of what, 60 percent of the general assembly for you to be accepted, something like that?

Mr. KEATING: Yes. Yes. And again any member - any permanent member of the Security Council can veto it.

CONAN: So you better be friends with France, Britain, Russia, China and the United States?

Mr. KEATING: Right. And Taiwan, of course, applies for membership nearly every year. And every year is turned down.

CONAN: And indeed, you point out that there are some other entities, as I think they're called, that do apply for membership and are not quite member states of the United Nations.

Mr. KEATING: No, that's true. Even some American Indian tribes at various points tried to apply for membership and not been accepted, but there are some oddities even in the U.N. though. There's the Sovereign Order of Malta, which is a Catholic order based in Rome whose territory is just a few buildings, but they happened to have diplomatic relationships with about a hundred countries and not full membership but observer status at the U.N. which really goes to prove all you really have - that the best thing to do to be recognized is just to last for a long time. The Sovereign Order is of almost 900 years old. So you can maintain de facto independence for long enough, your chances do improve.

CONAN: They should just - if they finally get recognized and accepted as a member of the United Nations, they should declare the name of their state persistence perhaps.


CONAN: Then there are places that are in political disputes. For example, some would recognize Palestine as a country, some as an entity.

CONAN: Of course. And Palestine is an example of a territory that's not generally recognized as a country but still manages to carry on diplomatic relations, of course. Everyone recognizes Mahmoud Abbas as a world leader. And he travels around and meets with the president, which you could not say of places like Abkhazia.

CONAN: Let's get Vincent(ph) on the line. Vincent calling us from Oakland.

VINCENT (Caller): Hi. My question is what are the advantages of being recognized officially as a country, say, by United Nations or by several nations? What - for instance, what advantages in terms of protection, in terms of diplomatic relation and that kind of thing? What are the advantages of doing - of that status?

CONAN: And we have to begin by ruling out the two great advantages which is you get to design a flag and print some money with your picture on it. But go ahead, Joshua.

Mr. KEATING: Right. Well, the main advantage is you're recognized under international law which means, for the most part, countries won't want to invade you and will instead want to have good relationships and trade with you. But, of course, you know, a number of countries are able to pull that off even without recognition.

Kurdistan, for instance, is a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq and manages to carry on pretty good relationships with many other territories, and the Kurdish lobby is very influential in Washington even though it's not technically considered a country.

CONAN: Vincent, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

And of course, you can be recognized and still be invaded. Doesn't protect you completely, though other people can then leap to your defense if they should choose to do so, which happened I guess, in the case of Kuwait, famously. And Kosovo, of course, was a province when it was defended by, not by the United Nations, but by NATO. In any case, Joshua Keating, thank you very much.

Mr. KEATING: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Joshua Keating is a geographical oddities buff and associate editor at Foreign Policy magazine. And he joined us today from his office.

I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.