If you have ever sat through the opening ceremony of the Olympics on the television (and if you haven’t, give it a go, it’s really good), you will probably have found yourself wondering where some of those countries are in the world. There are likely to be plenty that you have never heard of before, and while they may only be fielding one single competitor, their team will enter the stadium under their flag with the same pomp and ceremony as much bigger countries like USA, Australia and Russia.
This sort of event may lead you to wonder just how many countries there are in the world? This would seem like a simple question that on the face of it a quick Google search would be able to give you a definitive answer to. However, you would be wrong. The answer is far more involved than you might realise. To look at how many countries there are let us take a look at what a country is.
What is the definition of a country?
There are a few definitions of what a country is floating around so let us take a quick look at them:
- “A political state, nation or its territory” (Merriam Webster Dictionary)
- “An area of land that has its own, government, Army etc… (Cambridge Dictionary)
- “A nation with its own government, occupying a particular territory.” (Oxford Dictionary)
- “An area of land that has or used to have its own government and laws” (Oxford Learner’s Dictionary)
Four different dictionaries, four slightly different definitions. While these do give a good idea of what constitutes a country, for the purposes of our question lets delve a little deeper.
The Geography Site gives a bit of a clearer insight into how a government determines what makes a country. Very briefly these are
- The Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (1933): says that a “the state as a person of law needs the following:
- A population that is permanent
- A territory that is defined
- A government as well as
- The ability to enter discussions with other states
In article 3 of the convention it mentions that this statehood can be separate to recognition of the state by other states, for example a county can exist even if not everywhere recognises it as a country (a little confusing but we will need this later!)
- The Declarative theory of statehood – this is based around the four points of the Montevideo Convention
- The constitutive theory of statehood – a country or state is defined in international law only if other states recognise it as sovereign. Even if you do not have a permanent population or control over your territory you are a country if other countries say you are.
With so many anomalies it is easy to see why the answer to what might seem like a simple question can vary depending on who you ask.
Most people would simply check Google for the answer!
What does Google say?
Years ago, when people wanted to know the answer to a question like this they would have turned to the encyclopaedia, or similar, and been given a clear answer. Now with the wonders of the internet we can simply ask Google.
According to Google, there are 195 countries in the world now. 193 of these are member states of the United Nations (UN), and the other 2 are what it refers to as “non-member observer states” these are the State of Palestine and the Holy See (Vatican City). The United Nations is, in fact, a pretty good place to start so let’s take 195 counties as their total. And, in case you were wondering, the biggest of these is China with a population of around 1.44 billion and the smallest the Holy See with a population of 801.
The United Nations
This would seem a good place to start with answering our question. After all, it is the top answer that appears in Google when you search. However, there could be said to be a couple of issues with the list.
The United Nations does not recognise Taiwan as a country and believes it to be represented by China. Taiwan is recognised by 22 other countries as a country in its own right so we really should add it to the list. Now we have 196 countries.
The United Nations does not recognise Kosovo as a country either but 109 other counties (over half the countries in the world, according to the UN, do). Officially, the Republic of Kosovo the country is a state in southeast Europe that is partially recognised. It is subject to a dispute over territory with the Republic of Serbia. Adding Kosovo to the list brings us to 197 countries.
While to many other countries the United Kingdom is just one country, the response of anyone from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would be less than polite! So, we really should add those to the list as well. Our new total stands at 200.
200 seems like a nice round number so let’s stop there….. shall we? Maybe not….
Remember, we said we would come back to those countries that can be considered a country even if not everywhere recognises them as such? Well, we have already added Taiwan and Kosovo and even the counties that make up the UK, but we really are not done just yet.
There are quite a few disputed territories all over the world. Some of these, while wanting to be independent from the country they are currently a part of, have not yet achieved that independence. For example, Catalonia are very much a part of Spain although they continue to fight for independence. We won’t – at this present moment – be adding them to the list.
The country declared itself independent from Somalia in 1991. However, no other country recognises it as such and it is still considered to be a part of Somalia.
2.The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus
With a declaration of independence dating back to 1983 this country is only recognised by Turkey (a UN member state). Officially, it is still considered to be a part of Cyprus.
Independence was declared in 1991. It is recognised by 3 non-member states of the UN (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria) but no member states. It is officially a part of Azerbaijan.
4.Transnistria / Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic
Independence was declared in 1990. It is not recognised by any UN member states but is recognised by Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, 3 non-member states. It’s officially considered to be a part of Moldova.
Independence was declared in 1991. This country is recognised by Russia, Nicaragua, Nauru, and Venezuela (UN member states) as well as 4 non member states Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, and Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. It is still officially part of Georgia.
6.Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic/Western Sahara
Independence was declared in 1976. This country is recognised by 47 member states of the UN (it used to be recognised by a further 37) and by South Ossetia. It is, however, still officially a part of Morocco.
Independence was declared in 1999. This country is recognised by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru (all UN member states) and the 3 UN non-member states of South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh. It is another country that is still officially considered to be a part of Georgia.
Founded autonomy in 1992 and recognised as autonomous in 2005, this country has its own regional government. The capital city, Erbil, has diplomatic relations with 32 countries and there are Kurdistan embassies all over the world. No visa is needed to visit the country for most western countries, unlike Iraq which does need a visa. It really does seem like this one is a country in its own right.
- Cook Islands
People in the Cook Islands hold New Zealand passports and New Zealand is officially responsible for the foreign affairs and defence of the Cook Islands. They are recognised by 11 UN member states. Since 2016, the Cook Islands is one of just three states that participate in specialised agencies for the UN whilst being neither a member nor observer state of the UN.
Like the people of Cook Island, Niuean’s hold New Zealand passports and New Zealand has official responsibility for foreign affairs and defence of Niue. The country is recognised by 7 member states f the UN and is one of the three states that take part in UN specialised agencies whilst not being a member or observer state of the UN (the third state is Kosovo).
One interesting thought that comes to mind from this list of disputed territories is that there are several that are only recognised by each other. The list read a bit like the reciprocal voting of the Eurovision Song Contest!
If we add these 10 disputed territories to the list, then our new total is 210 countries.