Phantom States

My colleagues Dan Byman and Charles King have a great and instructive piece in the New York Times on phantom states, which they describe as:

[..] 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.

They use Taiwan as an example of how a phantom state could work well and argue that lessons can be learned from this experience:

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.

It is not so difficult to come up with a list of reasons why their other examples are quite different from Taiwan in consequential ways. Yet, the idea of providing some path to legitimacy (if not necessarily sovereignty) conditional on “behavior” is provocative. It is interesting that they both blame the U.S. and others for insisting on territorial integrity (although see Kosovo) and phantom states for being overly obsessed with sovereignty. The implication is that the the world needs a kind of formal “second division” of entities that are not quite states but that could be promoted to the big leagues if they behave well (although the Taiwan example suggests that life in the second division can be persistent and reasonably pleasant, though if we go the promotion route, perhaps rules for relegation should be discussed too.) Now let me say that I am rather skeptical of rule-based arguments about sovereignty but interesting and important to think about nonetheless.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Erik Voeten

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.