If you wanted to know how many countries there were in the world it should be a pretty easy thing to find out. Go to a map, count all the countries, and voila!
However, it isn’t even remotely close to being that simple. Defining what is a country is extremely difficult and has been a point of contention in many wars and conflicts.
Find out the problem of determining out how many countries are in the world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Before I start, let me make the following disclaimer: With the following places I’m about to list, I’m not claiming that any of them are independent or sovereign. My goal is simply to explain their disputed status and the controversy surrounding them. I am not picking sides. So if you happen to live in one of these places or are in a neighboring country, don’t send me any emails.
If we wanted a starting point for this discussion the best place to start is the United Nations. The UN is the club of countries and if you wanted to find out how many countries there were the easiest thing to do would just be to ask the UN.
As of the time I am recording this there are currently 193 countries in the United Nations. We will use this number as our starting point. If you are a country and you’re in the United Nations then it is safe to say that you are in fact a country.
The problem is that the opposite is not true. If you’re not in the United Nations it doesn’t mean that you’re not a country. The best example of this is probably Switzerland which didn’t become a member of the United Nations until 2002 but that doesn’t mean they weren’t a country before 2002.
Once you get beyond the 193 countries things start to get messy, because you are dealing with overlapping claims of sovereignty.
Countries are often recognized based on mutual recognition by other countries. Based on international recognition there are currently three territories that are recognized by over 100 different UN member states but are not members of the United Nations themselves.
They are Vatican City, Palestine, and Kosovo.
The reason why these countries are not in the United Nations has to do with the unique setup of the UN. In the United Nationals Security Council, any permanent member has the right to veto any UN resolution including adding new members.
In the case of Palestine membership would be vetoed by the United States. In the case of Kosovo, it would be vetoed by Russia. The Vatican has never really tried to join but it almost certainly would be vetoed by China which is one of the few countries in the world with which it has no diplomatic relations, and it is one of the few countries which recognize Taiwan.
Both the Vatican and Palestine are observer members of the United Nations, which means they can attend the parties but they can’t actually vote.
(Side note: I’m not going to go into detail explaining in the difference between the Holy See, which is officially what has diplomatic recognition, and Vatican City. I’ll save that for another episode as it is beyond the scope of this episode..)
So, if we take the UN Countries, plus these three, that puts us at 196.
However, we aren’t even close to really answering the question yet. From here, things start to get really murky and confusing.
There are several places which may be considered countries insofar as they control their own borders and have their own governments, military, and currency, yet few or no other countries recognize them.
First, we need to address the issue of Taiwan. Unlike other places in this category, Taiwan doesn’t claim to be an independent country. It claims to be China. Like all of China. The case of Taiwan is special because they have a competing claim with the People’s Republic of China, as to who actually is China.
When the UN was founded in 1945, the Republic of China was one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. The Republic of China is what Taiwan calls itself and it dates back to the Chinese Civil War, which they lost.
The problem was of course, they weren’t really China or representing the vast majority of Chinese people. The People’s Republic of China had over a billion people and full control of the country on the ground. Taiwan was only an island with a few million people. They might have claimed to represent all of China, but they really didn’t.
In 1971, the UN recognized the People’s Republic of China as the Chinese representative, and the Republic of China (aka Taiwan) went from being a permanent member of the security council to being left out of the United Nations entirely.
Nonetheless, even though Taiwan isn’t in the UN, does not have observer status, and has never declared itself to be independent, it does have some international recognition by 18 small countries. It also has de facto control of its borders, its own currency, military, and its own elected government.
It is also allowed to compete in the Olympics and in international football competitions as Chinese Taipei.
So if we recognize its de facto control of its own territory, that puts us at 197.
But if we were to include Taiwan, why wouldn’t we include other countries which have de facto control over their territory as well?
There are several places which are countries insofar as they control their own borders, and have their own governments, military, and currency, yet almost no other countries recognize them. These include:
South Ossetia – A breakaway part of the Republic of Georgia which borders Russia. It is recognized by 5 UN member states, one of which is Russia.
Abkhazia – Another breakaway part of the Republic of Georgia which borders Russia. Also recognized by 5 UN member states, one of which is Russia
Transnistria – A sliver of land sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine on the eastern side of the Dniester river. Not recognized by any UN member states, who recognize it as being part of Moldova.
Artsakh (aka Nagorno-Karabakh) – An Armenian populated region which was part of Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union Fell. Not recognized by any UN member state, including Armenia.
Somaliland – The northern part of Somalia, they have total autonomy, their own currency, and have even had elections with a peaceful transition of power. Nonetheless, no other country recognizes them.
Western Saraha (aka the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) – Formerly the Spanish Saraha, the Spanish left in 1975 without transitioning the region to independence. Morocco controls most of the territory, although no other country recognizes its sovereignty over it.
The stories behind every one of the places I just listed could be an episode unto itself, and maybe someday it will. Suffice it to say that they all are de facto independent, but almost no one recognizes them as such.
If we include all of these places as countries, we are now at 204. However, we aren’t yet done.
New Zealand has two territories which are all but independent. The island of Niue and the Cook Islands are both small territories that totally control their own fate.
They are independent members of international organizations such as UNESCO and the World Health Organization and can sign their own treaties.
They have diplomatic ties with about 2 dozen UN member states and the EU.
Basically, they can do what they want, including entering treaties with foreign powers, and New Zealand has publicly stated that they would not stop them if they wished to declare independence and join the United National.
But they have stopped short of doing so because all of their citizens currently are also considered citizens of New Zealand, and that, plus other financial benefits, would be lost if they were to fully declare their independence.
With Niue and the Cook Islands, that puts us at 206 countries, which certainly is all of them, right?
HA. We are just getting warmed up.
Now we have to delve into autonomous territories. Autonomous territories are places that exist in a quantum state of being a country and not being a country.
The best-known example would be Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is a territory of the United Staes. It is a part of the US, but it also isn’t. The people who live there are US citizens, but Puerto Rico doesn’t have representation in the federal government, so it isn’t quite a part of the US in the same way that Florida is. The same is true for Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marians Islands. All of which, also have separate Olympic teams.
American Samoa is very similar, with the only difference being that people there are not US Citizens, but are considered US Nationals. That means they can freely travel and work in the United States, but if they wish to vote while living in the US, they would have to become naturalized citizens.
Greenland and the Faroe Islands are part of the Kingdom of Denmark but are considered autonomous countries within the realm.
By the same token, Aruba, Curacao, and St. Maarten are countries in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but the Caribbean islands of Bonaire, Saba, and St. Eustatius are considered parts of the country of the Netherlands which is in Europe.
Hong Kong and Macau are Special Administrative Regions of China, with their own currency, passports, and Olympic teams.
Britain has territories with varying degrees of independence in Anguilla, Montserrat, the Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, British Indian Ocean Territory, Ascension Island, Tristan da Cunha, St Helena, and tiny Pitcairn Island. Some of those territories have their own Olympic teams and some don’t.
I haven’t even mentioned the three crown dependencies which are Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man. None of which are part of the United Kindom, nor are a territory of the United Kingdom, yet are tied to the UK via a direct union with the Crown, aka The Queen.
….and to top it all off, the country of the United Kingdom itself is made up of four different countries: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, all of whom get separate teams in the World Cup. Its countries in countries. The UK has achieved country inception!
So, as you can see, the question of “how many countries are there?” is a lot more complicated than just looking at who has a seat in the United Nations. There really is no right answer.
The base number that most people use is 193, but it’s also pretty obvious that there are more than 193. The question is how many more do you think should be considered countries, and that will remain an open question subject to debate.