What is a country? Glad you asked.
The Sporcle Geography Standard and what makes a country a country.
When you were a kid sitting in a classroom staring at the map on the wall, you might have gotten the idea that the world had a certain permanence. We certainly did. The thing was attached to the wall…with bolts. It’d be pretty hard to change something with that kind of solid mounting. You didn’t have the ponder the question – what is a country? Of course, the real world couldn’t be further from the truth. Borders, boundaries, place names and our knowledge of the planet changes every day, and so can our definition of what makes a country.
Trivia is much the same way. It may seem that when you have a set of answers that are either right or wrong, there should be some kind of permanence there, or at least some kind of cut and dry way for determining them. Unfortunately, the ambiguity that springs forth from everyday life also bleeds into trivia and directly into a question like “What is country?”
Almost every day on Sporcle we get variations on that question. Since we released the Countries of the World back in 2008, we’ve added 2 countries to our quiz, and had to consider our position on many other candidates. So to try to further explain and give a deeper understanding of our site, and the way we make decisions now and into the future, we’d like to give you an inside look on how we judge: “What is a country?”
The primary issues for determining ‘What is a Country’ on Sporcle
- Foreign recognition is not universal: There are no fewer than 16 states that have foreign recognition issues. They fall into a variety of categories, ranging from states that nearly no one recognizes (Somaliland) to states that nearly everyone recognizes and are members of the United Nations.
- Universal recognition is NOT a valid litmus test: We can’t wait for unanimity. If we did, South Korea, North Korea, Israel, Cyprus, Armenia and the People’s Republic of China would all be left off the quiz. There are still 23 countries that have no established relations with the PRC and 22 UN members that have no relations with Israel. One (Pakistan) fails to recognize Armenia, one (Turkey) fails to recognize Cyprus, one (North Korea) fails to recognize South Korea and three (South Korea, France and Japan) fail to recognize North Korea.
- U.N. Membership is NOT a valid litmus test for exclusion: There is no dispute anywhere that the Vatican is a valid, independent governing nation. To leave the Vatican off of a “Countries of the World” quiz is to have an incomplete quiz and people could very rightfully complain that the quiz is inaccurate without the Holy See on it. That the nation chooses to maintain independence by not participating in the U.N. makes it no less a nation. Switzerland did not join (for similar, though non-religious reasons) until 2002, yet no one would argue that the Swiss have been an independent nation since the Swiss constitution of 1848, if not since the Swiss confederation of 1291.
So, how should Sporcle handle nations that are in dispute? Obviously, with the information above you can see that Geography on Sporcle is never going to be cut and dry, so let’s tackle the question of – what is a country- over each issue individually:
Nations we recognize on Sporcle:
- U.N. Member States: While the lack of U.N. membership should not exclude a nation from being included (see #3, above), the existence of U.N. membership is a sign of widespread recognition that the entity is a valid, independent nation. Therefore, the 193 members of the United Nations are included in our quiz.
- Vatican City: There isn’t any dispute about the Vatican. It’s an independent, self-governing nation whose status in the U.N. is currently that of a non-member observer state.
- Kosovo: Kosovo is recognized by 76 states. The U.N. administers peace and recognizes it as being separate from Serbia. Even though it is not a U.N. member, it is a member of the IMF and the World Bank and considered independent by the Nobel committee. It’s completely self-governing, and nearly all of North America, Western and Central Europe, Australia and Japan recognize Kosovo as an independent country.
- Taiwan: The situation here is made very confusing by the fact that the PRC refuses to have diplomatic relations with any country that formally recognizes Taiwan. As such, most nations take no official position or make incredibly ambiguous statements about the relations between Taiwan and the PRC or between their own country and Taiwan. Presidents Reagan and Bush and even PRC leaders have slipped and referred to Taiwan as an independent country. Though Taiwan is recognized by 22 states, the tug-of-war over small-nation recognition has little to do with politics and much to do with economic assistance from China and Taiwan. However, as Taiwan is self-governing and maintains distinct political and trade relations with nearly every major country (save the PRC), we recognize it as its own separate country.
- Palestine: Palestine is recognized by 131 states. The map of nations recognizing Palestine is essentially the reverse of the Kosovo map. Almost all of Eastern Europe, Africa, S. America and Asia recognize the nation. The U.S., Canada, all of Western Europe, Japan and Australia do not. Until November 2012, Palestine was known as an observer entity in the U.N. and we didn’t believe that status was legitimate enough for inclusion. However, when the U.N. voted to award it non-member observer state status, a continued decision to leave Palestine off of the quiz would put our site in a situation in which it included two nations (Kosovo, Taiwan) that have less U.N. recognition than Palestine and one (Vatican City) that has basically the same status (Non-member observer state). While we recognize that the situation on the ground in those nations varies considerably, the level of U.N. international and multinational recognition compelled us to add Palestine.
Nations we do not currently recognize on Sporcle:
- Western Sahara: At one point 83 U.N. members had recognized the independence of Western Sahara. However, many have withdrawn that because there is a referendum pending on the issue. The African Union says it’s a nation, the Arab League says it’s not. The U.N. has it on the list of non-self governing territories. Until we see more international support, or a change in U.N. status, Western Sahara will not be included.
- Somaliland, North Cyprus, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria: Not one nation recognizes Somaliland. Only other entities on that list recognize Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistra. Abkhazia is recognized by only five U.N. members (including Russia). South Ossetia is recognized by only four U.N. members (including Russia). North Cyprus is recognized by only Turkey and the U.N. has specifically said that recognition is invalid. None of these countries are represented on our countries of the world quiz.
- England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland: While these four are referred to as countries in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, they are no more independent nations than the state of Texas or California. They don’t handle their own national defense or foreign relations, and they do not have a place in the U.N. outside of the UK. These four countries are not included.
- Greenland: While Greenland is largely autonomous in many ways, it is not itself a member of the U.N. and still officially part of of the kingdom of Denmark. Its area is represented as Denmark.
- French Guiana: We’ve tackled this in a separate post, but in short: French Guiana is an overseas department of France, and it is considered an integral part of that country.
As always, please let us know if you have any questions or comments about our quizzes or blog in the comment section or at our Feedback page.
Now that you can answer the question, What is a country? – Go play the countries of the world quiz.
Editors' Note: Portions of the post 'What is a country?' were written by longtime Sporcler Hejman prior to our decision to add Palestine to 'Countries of the World'. We appreciate this and his many other contributions to Sporcle over the years.