The Mystery of Phantom States

Washington Quarterly (with Daniel Byman)

The rise of phantom states suggests that formal sovereignty has lost some of its caché. What will happen to the foundations of international relations if you can get by just fine by living in a country that nobody believes really exists?

“In almost every region of the globe, there is a phantom state hovering like an apparition among the more corporeal members of the international system. Some of their names sound like the warring kingdoms of a fantasy novel: Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Nagorno—Karabakh and the Dniester Moldovan Republic. Others, such as Gaza/Palestine, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, or Taiwan, dominate the headlines. These polities look like real countries to their inhabitants, who salute their flags and vote in their elections. Some even field armies, issue visas, and collect taxes. But they are largely invisible to international legal institutions, multilateral organizations, and global trade regimes. The reason is that they lack formal recognition, or what a political scientist would call ‘external sovereignty.’ “