By Daniel Byman and Charles King
Three years ago this month, Russia and Georgia fought a brief and brutal war over an obscure slice of mountainous land called South Ossetia that had declared its independence from Georgia. Flouting international law, Russia stepped in to defend South Ossetia and later formally recognized the secessionists as a legitimate government. Hundreds died and thousands of refugees fled the disputed region.
The 2008 war demonstrated the explosive potential created by the presence of phantom states: places that field military forces, hold elections, build local economies and educate children, yet inhabit the foggy netherworld between de facto existence and international legitimacy.
With about 70,000 people, South Ossetia is one of the smallest of these oddities of international politics. Its fellow breakaway republic, Abkhazia, has approximately 250,000 (these numbers are disputed). Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria are two others in the former Soviet Union. To the south are the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus; the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and the self-functioning territory of Somaliland. A half dozen other patches of land could be added to the mix; together, they are home to approximately 40 million people.
Phantom states stoke wars, foster crime, and make weak states even weaker. Nagorno-Karabakh is lauded by Armenia and loathed by Azerbaijan, leading all sides to stockpile arms in case of renewed violence. The unsettled status of Northern Cyprus weakens the economic prospects of all Cypriots and strains relations between the European Union and Turkey, Northern Cyprus’s chief supporter. And although Somaliland has been an island of effective governance in anarchic Somalia, its unrecognized status has discouraged aid and investment.
Phantom countries frequently emerge from wars, and are sustained by the threat of further fighting. In Gaza, Hamas has waged an off-and-on war with Israel even as it has cracked down on local crime and picked up the trash.
Leaders of phantom states champion the right to national self-determination while the countries from which they seek independence stress the need for stable borders. Stuck between these incompatible principles, phantom governments tend to point out uncomfortable precedents and double standards and latch on to foreign patrons. Indeed, most phantoms survive in part because of external support. Moscow is the power broker in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while Armenia holds sway over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Taiwan shows one way out of this conundrum; despite existing in a state of legal uncertainty, it has thrived. From 1949 to 1971 the Nationalist government in Taiwan held China’s seat at the United Nations and was recognized by most world governments. Since the 1970s, however, no major power has formally recognized Taiwan and it remains a source of tension between the United States and China. Yet, in the past four decades, Taiwan has become an economic powerhouse, a model of democratic transition from authoritarian rule and a responsible member of the international community — all without a seat at the United Nations.
The key was engagement. Taiwan’s economic and strategic importance pushed the United States, China and other great powers to tiptoe around — and sometimes even embrace — its unsettled legal status. Legitimate but unrecognized, a real country but not independent, Taiwan has demonstrated the positive power of creative ambiguity.
A similar approach could work elsewhere. Phantom governments are often corrupt, run by warlords and plagued by drug trafficking and other illicit trade. But transparent government, free elections and a peaceful foreign policy are as vital for phantom states as they are for real ones. If phantom governments behave well, they should be offered a path toward legitimacy by the world’s major powers. Economic and political reforms can proceed parallel to, and even bolster, discussions over sovereignty.
By insisting on territorial integrity, the United States and other countries forgo the chance to turn phantom states into responsible players. So long as phantoms are denounced as separatists or outposts of illicit commerce, the international community has little opportunity to hold their leaders accountable. And treating them as mere eccentricities means that phantom states have little reason to care about the international order.
Even when a phantom state becomes a genuine state, the problems don’t necessarily end. Eritrea, which seceded from Ethiopia in 1993 after years of war, is a warning. It has since fallen into tyranny, fought a border war with Ethiopia in which many thousands died, and supported the brutal Shabab militia in Somalia. Although Eritrea is independent, it remains a source of instability.
To avoid another Eritrea, the international community should push phantoms to reform rather than focusing exclusively on seeking statehood. Otherwise, millions of the world’s citizens will linger in legal and political limbo — rebels with a cause and soldiers with a ready-made grievance — while their neighborhoods remain at risk of war.
Daniel Byman is a Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, an Professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University with Charles King. Byman served on the 9/11 Commission staff and is author of A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism.
A version of this article originally appeared in the New York Times.
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