On July 9, the world welcomed the independence of South Sudan and marked one of the more significant events in international geopolitics -- the creation of a new country. If, as expected, the new state is admitted for U.N. membership this week, it will become the body's 193rd member.
South Sudan's independence has caused some excited announcements that we are witnessing a "wave of self-determination" in the world, as Parag Khanna put it on this website in January. With entities like Palestine, South Ossetia, Somaliland, and Darfur pushing for sovereignty, Khanna writes, "Within a few decades, we could easily have 300 states in the world." Writing at the Atlantic, journalist G. Pascal Zachary sees South Sudanese independence as evidence that "the process of Africans inventing and discovering their own political boundaries has finally begun, after some 50 years of waiting."
But the fact is, rather than an age of "cartographic stress," as Khanna has put it, the current era is a relatively stable one in terms of the movement of borders and the creation of new states. The global excitement that has surrounded South Sudan's arrival is really a reflection of how rare the creation of new states has become. To put it another way: If you purchased a world atlas at any point during the second half of the 20th century, within five years it would have been missing at least half a dozen new countries. In the last decade, it has become a much safer investment.
The past few centuries of human history have almost been defined by the rise and decline of empires and the establishment and dissolution of states. A map of Europe from 1700 shows a patchwork of defunct nation-states like Bavaria, Mecklenburg, Savoy, and Tuscany, as well as bodies like Denmark and the Ottoman Empire that still exist but with radically different boundaries and, in some cases, different names.
Today, Europe may be at odds over monetary policy and immigration, but since the disruptions of the immediate post-Cold War years, the continent's borders have proved remarkably fixed and stable. Barring unforeseen catastrophe, they seem likely to remain so in the near future. Exceptions, such as the secessionist ambitions of Belgium's Walloons, are generally covered in the international media as eccentric curiosities.
Globally, the 21st century has seen the creation of only four new countries with wide international recognition, including South Sudan. (The others are Montenegro, East Timor, and Kosovo -- though the last is still not a U.N. member state owing to Russian opposition.) That seems pretty paltry compared with the 1990s, when the Soviet Union broke up into 15 new countries and Yugoslavia exploded into five (now seven). Or take the monumental changes from 1960 to 1962, when 23 African countries won their independence from European powers.