What defines a country, and how many are there?

Scan from dictionaryWith the large amount of travel I have done throughout my life, I often get asked ‘How many countries have you visited ?’. I usually give a stock standard answer of ’somewhere just under 100, I’m not really sure’. I then walk away pondering ‘What is the exact number?, do I include places such as the Vatican City or Puerto Rico, and what really defines a country anyway ?’ I am aware that there are 192 member states of what we know as the United Nations, but is this the definitive list? My first port of call was to look up the word ‘Country’ in the dictionary, and the further you look in relation to this topic, the more confusing it gets.

  • The word ‘country’ in the dictionary brings a definition of, ‘a nation with its own government, occupying a particular territory’.
  • The word ‘territory’ in the dictionary brings a definition of, ‘an area of land under the jurisdiction of a ruler or state’
  • The word ’state’ in the dictionary brings a definition of, ‘a nation or territory considered as an organised political community under one government’
  • The word ‘nation’ in the dictionary brings a definition of, ‘a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory’

Confused yet?

First of all, there is no mention of Taiwan on the UN list, there is no doubt that politics is excluding this one. I also believe there are many other places that fit the definition of a country that are also excluded from the UN list, purely and simply because of their size. For example, lets take a place that Liza and I visited back in 2006, the Cook Islands.

The Cook Islands are self governed, geographically separated and have no cultural or historical tie to New Zealand, but are not included in the United Nations list of 192.

I believe the main reasoning behind this is economics. If the Cook Islands were to cut all ties with New Zealand it could mean economic suicide, as they would then be faced with the cost of maintaining their own defence, and the economic aid coming from New Zealand would also be reduced. To me it seems that the United Nations list is somewhat flawed, in relation to the definitions provided above. Although this is a somewhat complex subject, there must be a more appropriate list that includes some of the places that I believe are countries, but not on the UN list of 192, for various reasons.

I did some further research and looked for a more appropriate list that is more closely related to the above definitions. When I was younger I had a keen interest in Amateur Radio. I thought to myself that, ‘this hobby must have some sort of standard list of countries’, and this list would not be compromised by politics or economics. It seems that there are several lists used in this field and they are somewhat sporadic, and not completely standardised world wide. The list’s also included places that would not fall within the definitions above. Where too from here I thought? I have always been one for standards, coming from a trade background.

A quick Google search unearthed the ISO, or International Organisation for Standardisation.

With a little more searching on the ISO website I discovered what I’d been looking for. With it’s headquarters in Geneva Switzerland, the ISO is an international standard setting body, that produces world wide standards on everything from Building and Construction methods to, yes you guessed it ‘Country Lists’.

The ISO 3166 standard contains a list of names of countries and geopolitical entities, together with the code element developed for each one. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying this list is the true and definitive list of countries, but my personal view is, it’s a better list by way of definition (as described above) than that of the United Nations standard list of 192. As of 2007, the list contain’s 246 countries (a PDF copy of the list can be found here). So next time somebody ask’s you ‘how many countries have you visited?’, you can now give the response. ‘Do you mean United Nations member states, or from the ISO 3166 list?’ After which you will probably get a blank stare back.

Anyway, thats my 2 cents worth.

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