Some important notes on the countries of the world
Look, it’s an extract from my upcoming book!
On 16 September, my first book, The Compendium of (Not Quite) Everything, will hit the shelves, not to mention the e-book readers and audiobook listening apps. I am, as you can readily imagine, excited and petrified in pretty much equal measure.
Despite having had over 18 months to think about this, I have still not managed to come up with a decent answer to the question, "What is your book about?" because the honest answer is, "Potentially everything". There are nearly 100 different entries in it, ranging from creation myths to some notes on penguins to the important question of who brings presents at Christmas in different countries around the world. (I’ve included the book’s full contents list at the bottom of this email.) But showing is better than telling, and the nice people at Wildfire, an imprint of Headline Publishing Group, said I could offer the subscribers to this newsletter an exclusive early sample.
So, here are two entries from the book. These are, obviously, copyrighted: please do not repost or share this extract elsewhere. But please do feel free to pre-order the book from Waterstones, Amazon or Foyles, and to persuade friends, family members, passing strangers etc. to do the same.
And with that: on with the show.
How many countries are there in the world?
You’d think this one would be easy, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong. As with so many things in both politics and geography, the number you get depends on how you define your terms.
Part of the problem here is that, in English at least, we tend to use the words ‘country’, ‘nation’ and ‘state’ interchangeably, when they do not in fact mean the same thing. Broadly speaking:
A territory with its own government, institutions and population.
As above, but with the right and capacity to make treaties with other sovereign states (Delaware is a state, but it cannot sign a non-aggression pact with France).
A people with a shared history or culture, who generally occupy a specific piece of territory, but can be in the form of a diaspora.
A state in which cultural boundaries helpfully align with political ones.
A word that, rather unhelpfully from the point of view of precision of either language or thought, can be used to mean almost any of the above depending on context.
All of which means that there are states that are not sovereign, nations that are not states, and patches of land that are neither but don’t fold neatly into other states either.
So – how many ‘countries’, whatever that means, are there in the world? Here, correct as of 2020, are some possible answers.
An easy one to start off with, this is the number of members of the United Nations. That is as close as we’re likely to come to an uncontested list: if something is a member of the UN, it’s a sovereign state by definition.
UN member states, plus two permanent observer* states, which can contribute to debates but not vote on resolutions.
One of these is the Holy See, more commonly, if wrongly, known as the Vatican, which is the only fully independent nation to have actually chosen not to join the UN. Despite having all the necessary qualifications for full membership, it’s never applied on the grounds that it could entangle it in things, like politics and the use of force, which the Papacy doesn’t really think it has any business being involved in (at least, not in this century).
The other permanent observer state is more contentious: Palestine, whose campaign to become the newest UN member state (‘Palestine 194’) in 2011 was opposed not just by Israel, which saw it as an attempt to shift the balance of power in the conflict between the two, but also a number of other countries including Germany, Canada and the US. Eventually, the UN rejected the application, but did announce that all documents would henceforth refer to the ‘state of Palestine’ as a compromise.
* Actually, quite a lot of bodies have observer status at the UN General Assembly. Most of them are non-state actors: intergovernmental bodies like the EU or Commonwealth Secretariat, NGOs, development banks, the International Committee of the Red Cross, that sort of thing. But for our purposes here, we’re only interested in the actual states.
This time we’ve added states claimed as part of other states, but not in practice controlled by them, and whose independence is recognised by at least one other state, even while it’s bitterly opposed by others. The six additions to the list are: Taiwan, Western Sahara, Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Northern Cyprus.
To that list we can add three more places that effectively act as independent countries, even if they’re not recognised as such by anybody (or, at least, anybody whose own independence is recognised). Those are Artsakh, a territory in the South Caucasus also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, officially recognised as part of Azerbaijan; Transnistria, a breakaway from Moldova; and Somaliland, officially an enormous chunk of Somalia.
(This is the point at which we leave the realm of politics behind and start dealing with places that are definitely not independent countries but pretend to be in certain specific contexts.)
The number of nations recognised by the International Olympic Committee, whose rules are rather more flexible than the UN. The new additions involve overseas territories of the US (Puerto Rico), UK (Bermuda), the Netherlands (Aruba) and New Zealand (the Cook Islands); the disputed territories referenced above, alas, are generally not allowed to participate.
Palestine has also competed at the Olympics, incidentally – but the Holy See has yet to attend, which is a pity because that would be brilliant.
The number of places that are members of the international football association FIFA, and so are eligible for the World Cup. A number of territories not classed as full-blown sovereign states compete independently at football, most notably the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom – that is, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
(This is quite silly now, but in the name of completism:)
Countries or territories with alphanumeric codes from the International Organization for Standardization of the sort you’ll find in dropdown menus online, and which provide the two-letter country codes (.jp, .de, .uk) you’ll find in web addresses.
Territories that have their own ISO codes despite not being independent countries include Christmas Island (an Australian external territory), French Polynesia (118 South Pacific islands that make up a semi-autonomous territory of France), Greenland (an autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark), the United States Minor Outlying Islands (mostly in the Pacific, with a few in the Caribbean, too) and Antarctica (classified here as everything below the 60th parallel south).
By the point we’re debating the sovereign status of some bits of ice-covered rock mainly inhabited by penguins, however, it’s clear we’re stretching the definition of ‘country’ a bit too far. So, let’s settle on saying that, at the time of writing, the number of countries is somewhere between 194 (UN members plus the Holy See) and 204 (everything with a plausible claim), and move on to talking about them.
Flagpole diplomacy: On a largely unnoticed arms race
Some countries compete through sport. Others through war. For a period last century, the superpowers even competed through the space race. But largely unnoticed for the last few years, a number have been fighting in an altogether weirder, not to mention more phallic, arena. Since early this century, countries – especially authoritarian ones, in the Arab or former Soviet world – have been competing to host the world’s tallest flagpole.
Some flavour of the spirit of this exercise can be found in the Korean ‘flagpole war’ of the 1980s. In the run-up to the 1988 Summer Olympics, to be held in the capital Seoul, the South Korean government erected a 97-metre flagpole in Daeseong-dong, the only occupied village left in the country’s demilitarised zone. The national flag it flew weighed 130kg.
Not to be outdone, North Korea – with which, no peace treaty ever having been signed, the south has technically been at war since the 1950s – raised another in the ‘Peace Village’ of Kijong-dong: this one was 160 metres tall and flew a flag weighing 270kg. The two poles are barely 2km from one another. (It’s a similar story with the 122-metre Wagah flagpole in Pakistan, incidentally: that was a response to the 110-metre one built just 3km away at Attari, across the border in India.)
True connoisseurs of flagpole diplomacy (not least the people who manufacture giant flagpoles: see below) however, may question whether North Korea’s effort really counts. Tall though it is – a 160-metre skyscraper can easily fit 50 or more storeys – it’s not a single, free-standing pole, but a sort of radio mast with a flag on the top.
The battle to build the tallest unsupported flagpole did not take off until 2001, when the emirate of Abu Dhabi installed one 122 metres high on its seafront. Within just a couple of years that had lost its record to two Jordanian flagpoles in succession: first to one in the capital of Amman, then to another, commemorating the 1916 Arab Revolt, on the seafront at Aqaba, where it can be conveniently seen from the nearby Israeli holiday resort of Eilat.
And so the race has continued, with other flags in Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan taking it in turns to claim the crown. The largest now is in Jeddah, the second largest city of Saudi Arabia. It weighs 500 tons, stands at 171 metres tall, and flies a 570kg Saudi flag that is 50 by 33 metres – roughly a quarter of a football pitch – in size.
All of these record-breaking unsupported flagpoles, incidentally, have been built by a single company: a US defence contractor called the Trident Support Corporation, which didn’t so much corner the market as create one,* and which also, as it happens, persuaded Guinness World Records that the North Korean flagpole didn’t really count. Given the American contribution to this important new realm of diplomacy, it seems almost disappointing that the tallest flagpole in the US is a titchy 120 metres tall – and that it was built by an insurance company in Wisconsin.
† Actually, the exact date of the Korean flagpole war has proved surprisingly hard to pin down. Suffice it to say, it was over before the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
*‘We didn’t identify a gap in the market; there was no market,’ co-founder David Chambers told Vice in 2014. ‘We fell into the first pole and, all of a sudden, boom – we created a market. We created our own demand.’
The contents pages
So what else is in the book, you ask? Well: wonder no longer:
Or, if you fancy getting some fresh nonsense like this in your inbox every week, you can