TWV: The book took you to a diverse set of places — a remote Pacific atoll, a town on the U.S.-Canadian border, a soccer tournament on the Black Sea — that all have rather different political realities. What was the uniting vision here?
Keating: For my day job, I write about international politics and take these things called “countries” as the basic unit, the main actor, without often giving much thought to whether each of these units is the same thing. Obviously I don't mean “the same” in terms of economic or military power, but we tend to assume there's a set of criteria out there for what makes a country a country.
There have been attempts to reach such a definition in both international law and political theory. But the closer you look, the more you realize it's more of an “I know it when I see it” sort of thing. There are plenty of places that don't meet the generally accepted criteria for statehood but are still called countries, “failed states,” a number of places that, to a large extent, do meet those criteria — government, territory, permanent population — but are not recognized as such. The examples in the book are all quite different, but they're all places where the rules break down and ambiguity creeps in.
One of the big takeaways is that we live in a world where the existing international borders are rarely — with a few notable exceptions — to be seriously challenged or questioned. The world map has remained pretty unchanged for the last few decades, and it's hard to see where it will significantly change in the future.
I've been working on this topic for a few years, and when I started out I had this idea that maybe that didn't really matter so much. With free trade, the Internet, increased levels of migration, borders were becoming more irrelevant anyway. Obviously, it's looking less that way now as we see hard-line nationalist movements taking power in several regions. But it's notable that these nationalists (again, with some exceptions, Russia being the biggest one) don't talk much about expanding their country's territory, as they might have in previous eras. You could say it's a more inward-looking nationalism, closing up the borders and keeping the world out.
I opened the book thinking that after you traveled to places yearning for recognition, you'd be making a case for more new nation-states, for self-determination and secession. But you don't.
People assume that just by traveling to these places and giving a relatively sympathetic portrayal of the people who live there and why they're striving for statehood, I'm endorsing secessionism. I'm really not. The fact that this period of what I call “cartographical stasis” has been relatively peaceful and stable, at least in terms of interstate war, is not a coincidence. Countries rarely go to war over territory these days, and that's a good thing.
The track record of peaceful partitions is not a great one. For every Czechoslovakian “velvet divorce,” there are far more examples like Yugoslavia or the partition of India where redrawing boundaries led to border conflict and ethnic cleansing. South Sudan, the world's youngest country, is certainly a vivid case of how independence doesn't eliminate a state's underlying instability. Even in places like Kurdistan and Somaliland, which are stable and relative success stories in their regions, it's not hard to see the risk factors. After writing the book, I'm more skeptical than ever of the idea that we can eliminate ethnic conflict just by redrawing borders. Wherever you draw a new line, someone's going to find themselves on the wrong side of it.
But this book also isn't a defense of nation-states, right?
You sometimes hear certain states described as “artificial,” implying that others are “natural.” But it's not generally the case, unless maybe you're talking about Iceland or something. According to one sociologist's estimate, less than 10 percent of U.N. member countries are truly nation-states in the sense that they are overwhelmingly inhabited by one group. And states that are more homogeneous — an issue that has come to the forefront in the backlash to refugee resettlement in Europe — often got that way through decades of border conflict and ethnic cleansing. That being said, nation-states are the model we have, and I don't exactly have a better alternative.
And yet we may need to start imagining alternatives. You visited a country that may literally disappear from the map.
This is a real scenario for the country I visited, Kiribati, and other small island states, where people are starting to think about how they can preserve their economic and political rights if they have to leave their homes en masse because of climate change. One solution for Kiribati is a relocation of its population to Fiji, but that raises so many new questions: Will they still have a seat at the U. N.? Who gets access to what was their maritime territory?
Countries have ceased to exist as political entities before, but the territory and people remain, just under new rule. A nation truly vanishing is something new, and I think something that people have a hard time wrapping their heads around — including people who live in Kiribati and some of their leaders. I can sympathize. It's not easy to contemplate your country disappearing. It's not even that easy to ask about. This isn't something we're quite ready to think about yet, but we may have to — sooner than we'd like.