01 January, 2013

How Many Countries Are There in the World in 2014?

This post, originally from 2011, has been updated for 2014.

How many countries in the world?
A free world political map published by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency
One of the most basic questions for map-lovers is, "How many countries are there in the world?" As it turns out, the answer depends on how you define "country". Here are six of the most common answers, each correct in its own way:

195 Widely Recognized Sovereign States
In most situations, "country" is taken to refer to a sovereign nation-state. Sovereignty - the idea that a country is completely and independently controlled by its own government - is a sticky issue that has been under debate for the last 2,000 years. But for convenience, most mapmakers and references bypass the sovereignty issue and just look at which countries are internationally recognized as being sovereign. This means that most of the other countries in the world officially accept them as sovereign nation-states (there's admittedly some circular logic involved here, but for the most part it works out, because the majority of recognized countries have a reasonably high level of real sovereignty).

The most common way to count "internationally recognized sovereign states", and the method used by most world maps and publications, is to first count members of the United Nations, then count non-U.N. members who are still allowed to sit in on U.N. meetings as official observer states:

U.N. Members: 193
U.N. Observer States: 2
Total: 195

These are the countries you'll see on most world maps, and on most lists of the world's countries. In addition to U.N. membership or observer status, these 195 states are also mostly recognized by all of each other's governments, with a few exceptions. The two U.N. Observer State countries are Vatican City (represented by the Holy See) and Palestine. If you want to know the names of all 195 of these countries, Wikipedia maintains a complete list.

201 States With At Least Partial Recognition
There are also several more states which have partial diplomatic recognition - acceptance by one or more U.N. participant countries, but not by the U.N. as a whole. These states, such as Taiwan and Kosovo, are usually labeled on world maps as disputed territories or special cases rather than full countries. The extent of their international recognition varies wildly, from recognition by just one other country (as in the case of Northern Cyprus) to recognition by nearly half of U.N. members (as with Kosovo).

U.N. Members: 193
U.N. Observer States: 2
States With Partial Recognition:
Total: 201

These states' level of actual real-life independence varies, but the same is true for the U.N. member countries (for example, Taiwan's sovereignty situation is nearly the same as U.N. members North Korea and South Korea). The main difference is just a matter of recognition by other countries and the U.N. The six states with partial recognition are Taiwan, Western Sahara, Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Northern Cyprus. Wikipedia includes these states in its list of Other Sovereign States, which also includes some countries with no recognition at all (see next paragraph).

204 Recognized or De Facto Independent States
In addition to those states with full or partial recognition, there are at least four more states that operate as independent countries without any diplomatic recognition from any U.N. members. These are often referred to as "de facto" independent states. "De facto" is a term borrowed from Latin to mean "in actual fact" (similar to "unofficially"), as opposed to "de jure", meaning "by law" (similar to "officially"). They, along with many of the partially recognized states, are also referred to as "breakaway states", because they were formed by seceding from other (usually U.N.-member) countries. However, they are in fact governed completely independently from the countries that claim them (despite news media tending to refer to them inaccurately as "semi-autonomous", a term meaning "partly self-governed").

U.N. Members: 193
U.N. Observer States: 2
States With Partial Recognition:
Unrecognized De Facto Sovereign States: 3
Total: 204

Although they are not recognized by any U.N. members, these states may be recognized by each other or by some of the partially recognized states. Despite lacking any U.N.-member recognition, they may in fact be more stable and in-control than some U.N. members (like Somalia or Afghanistan). The three unrecognized de facto independent states are Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, and Somaliland. Wikipedia includes these states in its list of Other Sovereign States, which also includes the partially recognized states from the section above. Although the issue is up for debate, both Wikipedia and I have chosen not to include states that have extensive de facto sovereignty but have never claimed independence (such as Puntland), nor entities whose status as any kind of state, sovereign or not, is questionable (such as Sealand).

204 Olympic Nations
Although political scientists might not look to sporting events to define what countries are, the Olympic Games are the biggest exposure to the world's diversity of countries that many average people get. They might be confused, then, when their world atlas only lists 195 countries, while the Olympics regularly claim to represent over 200 nations. This is because the Olympics don't require all of their "nations" to be independent countries. Dependent territories belonging to other countries have sometimes been allowed to create their own National Olympic Committees (NOC), which can then be recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). States with only partial diplomatic recognition can also sometimes be recognized by the IOC.

NOCs of U.N. Member States: 192
NOCs of U.N. Observer States: 1
NOCs of Partially Recognized States: 1
NOCs of Dependent Territories: 10
Total IOC-Recognized NOCs: 204

The only U.N. member not represented in the IOC is the newly independent South Sudan, which has not yet had time to form a national committee. About half of the dependent territories that participate in the Olympics are overseas possessions of the U.S. (such as Puerto Rico) and the U.K. (such as Bermuda). Some marginally dependent territories, such as the Cook Islands and Aruba (connected to New Zealand and the Netherlands respectively), are even referred to as "countries", though they do not claim full independence. The only partially recognized state admitted to the Olympics is Taiwan (which is required to call itself "Chinese Taipei"). For more on the Olympic Nations, see Parade of Nations: Which Countries Are (and Aren't) in the Olympics.

209 FIFA Countries Eligible for the World Cup
FIFA, the international soccer organization that administers the World Cup and other tournaments, includes even more teams than the Olympics do. For most of its history, FIFA, like the IOC, didn't require independence or international recognition of its member states. Now they're a bit stricter, and rarely admit teams representing dependent territories; but any team which is already a member is allowed to stay. Based on tradition, FIFA also allows the "constituent countries" of the U.K. (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) to compete as separate teams, even though they aren't independent states.

Teams of U.N. Member States: 186
Teams of U.N. Observer States: 1
Teams of Partially Recognized States: 1
Teams of U.K. Constituent Countries: 4
Teams of Dependent Territories: 17
Total FIFA Member Associations: 209

You may notice that not all 193 of the U.N. member states are included. That's because there are several very small countries that aren't members, plus the U.K. (replaced by its "constituent countries"). Vatican City, one of the U.N.'s non-member observer states, also does not participate in FIFA tournaments or in the Olympics. For more information, see Which Countries Are (and Aren't) Part of FIFA?

249 Country Codes in ISO 3166-1
Many organizations use short two- or three-letter "country codes" to represent different countries or nationalities. Often, these codes are based on ISO 3166-1, a standard specification of codes published by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). These codes, like us for the United States, bz for Belize, and iq for Iraq (there's also a separate set of three-letter codes) are perhaps most famously used for internet domain names, such as http://somewebsite.jp for websites based in Japan. Based on data from the U.N., they exclude some unrecognized or partially unrecognized states, but they include pretty much everything else imaginable, from independent countries, to dependent territories, to uninhabited island territories - there's even a code for Antarctica!

U.N. Members: 193
U.N. Observer States: 2
States With Partial Recognition:
Inhabited Dependent Territories: 45
Uninhabited Territories: 6
Antarctica: 1
Total: 249

The above categories are my own - no subcategories are defined in the ISO standard. Obviously, some of the places on the list are regions that few people, if anyone, would call "countries." But if you're ever wondering why there are so many "countries" on some lists, now you know! The Wikipedia page for ISO 3166-1 has the full list, along with little colorful flags.