When does a nation begin to exist? An interesting question, when you think about it. One of relevance seeing as Russia recognized the existence of the independent nations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia yesterday over the vehement objections of the Republic of Georgia, which considers these to be regions of itself.
It may not be as easy as it seems to decide when a nation has been “born” or created. The answer may be that it depends a lot on who you are asking.
Take the USA, for instance. The American Revolution did not begin on July 4, 1776. The shooting war for independence began nearly a year before that. Nationalism on the part of Americans began well before that and there had been calls for independence from Britain as early as the 1660’s. July 4, 1776 is the official date upon which the colonies formally declared their independence, although the decision to declare independence was made by the Continental Congress on July 2. At various points in the war, nations such as France, the Netherlands, Morocco, and Spain recognized the United States. And there was no doubt that the United States was a separate and independent nation by 1787, when Great Britain entered into a treaty with it.
So what about Georgia itself? It was organized out of the kingdoms of Iberia and Colchis in 1008. That kingdom became annexed by Russia bit by bit throughout the 19th century, and then revolted against Russia and became the Democratic Republic of Georgia in 1918, under British protection. When the British went away in late 1920, the Soviets came right in, and Georgia and was assimilated into the Soviet Union in 1921. This lasted until 1991, and although Georgia declared independence from the USSR in May of 1991 that process was not complete and formalized until December of that year — and then there was a coup and ultimately, in 1995, a former Soviet leader took over until he was deposed and a new Constitution recognized in 2003.
Abkhazia, for its part, has had a government in exile since 1993. South Ossetia has had a breakaway movement seeking independence from Georgia since 1995. Now, in 2008, Russia says that it recognizes the independence of those regions. It does so explicitly referring to the creation of an independent Kosovo (a nation that Russia refuses to recognize).
Diplomatic recognition is a clue but not a surefire indicator. We do not diplomatically recongize the government of Cuba, for instance, but there is no doubt that Cuba is an independent nation. There are other odd international entities out there, too — Cyprus, for instance, remains partially Turkish, partially British, partially U.N. administered, and partially “independent” (but really dependent upon Greece). It is difficult to consider that Christmas Island is part of France as opposed to Mexico, but that’s pretty much its status. Antarctica is subject to a number of overlapping claims from various nations but all those claims are in abeyance and technically the entire continent is not organized into any nation-state. Taiwan I’ve talked about recently. Various nations — say, Spain’s relationship to Catalonia and the Basque territories — grant particular regions of their territories autonomous status, reserving only the right to collect minimal taxes, to make treaties for the area, and to use the land for national defense. And there are incipient nations, like Palestine, which see people who have formed a national identity but have not yet organized independent governments — and at least the Palestinians now have some territory they can point to and say “This is Palestine,” which is more than some other nationalist groups can say about their corners of the world.
As Eric Posner points out at Volokh Conspiracy, in the wake of World War II there were about 60 nations in the entire world; that number has nearly quadrupled in the two and a half generations since Yalta. Part of that is due to the breakup of the Soviet Union; part of it is due to the breakup of the British Empire. But when there were only 60 nations, international politics and international law were significantly easier to navigate. In an ideal world, we would have fewer nations, not more. But in an ideal world, people would be able to set aside their ethnic and religious differences and concentrate on more rational sorts of collective regional interests. That’s simply not the way the world is evolving.