“What’s wrong with just starting your own country?”
That’s the question my friend and mentor, the late Bob Kephart, used to ask rhetorically when he became particularly irked by political maneuvers in Washington, D.C. or elsewhere.
It’s not a new idea. Our own quest for a new country began nearly three decades ago, with the discovery of a book entitled How to Start Your Own Country. The author, Erwin Strauss, wrote this book in a sardonic, tongue-in-cheek style. Yet his case studies of new countries gave readers encouragement to start their own.
That said, there are two almost insurmountable obstacles to forming your own country:
Getting anyone to take you seriously (diplomatic recognition, etc.)
Defending your territory from incursions by more powerful neighbors
Take the Principality of Sealand, for instance. Sealand is a six-acre “country” founded on an abandoned World War II gun platform in the North Sea 7.5 nautical miles off the English coast. In 1967, Roy Bates and his wife Joan took up residence there. As the platform at the time was located in international waters, “Prince Roy” proclaimed Sealand an independent country, introduced a national flag, and began selling passports.
Not surprisingly, the British government didn’t think much of the idea. There were even cabinet-level discussions as to whether to reclaim Sealand by force. In the end, Britain extended its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles, reincorporating Sealand into its domain.
Prince Roy and Princess Joan have since passed on, but their son, Prince Michael, is now Sealand’s caretaker. And while Sealand passports are no longer for sale (indeed, in 1997, 150,000 were revoked), you can still become a Sealand Lord, Lady, Count, Countess, Duke, or Duchess, starting at just $44.99.
Roy Bates established Sealand by declaring it beyond the sovereign authority of any other country. That obviously didn’t work too well. But there is one proven way to successfully form a new country. And that’s to find a powerful benefactor.
Take Panama, for example. Spain claimed the region where Panama is located more than 400 years ago, but in 1819, its inhabitants joined a war for independence led by Simón Bolívar. Two years later, it became the northernmost outpost of a country calling itself the Republic of Gran Colombia, composed of what are now Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela.
Gran Colombia was racked by political disputes, and it broke up in 1830. Panama then became part of Colombia, where it remained until the United States became interested in building a canal across the Isthmus of Darien, a narrow strip of land separating North and South America and lying between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
In 1902, Congress passed a law authorizing the purchase of the assets of a French syndicate that previously had tried to build a canal across the isthmus. The United States and Colombia then signed a treaty granting the United States a perpetual lease on the land over which the canal was to be constructed. But Colombia never ratified the treaty.
What happened next was a textbook lesson in geopolitics. What was then considered northern Colombia had rebelled against Colombian rule several times, most notably in 1840-41 and in 1885. President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged secession and promised American support. In 1903, the Republic of Panama came into existence. Its government promptly signed a treaty with the United States authorizing construction of a canal and for US ownership of the land on either side of it. The canal was completed in 1914. It’s been in continuous use ever since, although the United States ceded ownership in 1999.
Today, we see a similar dynamic at work in the case of Somaliland, a 68,000 square mile region carved out of the northern territory of the war-torn African nation of Somalia. While Somalia claims sovereignty over Somaliland, its government exercises no control over it. Unlike Somalia itself, which is racked by violence and corruption, and is the base of an Islamic insurgency group called Al-Shabab, in Somaliland crime is low and terrorism is almost non-existent. A series of peaceful elections has reinforced democratic rule for 30 years. It has its own currency and issues its own passports.
While the world continues to acknowledge the corrupt government of Somalia, Somaliland has quietly prospered, despite lack of international recognition.
More recently, Somaliland has gained a powerful new patron – once again, the United States. Later this month, Somaliland’s foreign minister is scheduled to visit Washington D.C. for discussions with the State Department. Like Panama, Somaliland has a key strategic location; in its case, the horn of Africa on the Gulf of Aden. Several former US officials, including at least three former State Department Africa specialists—have announced their support for deepening ties with Somaliland. They believe stronger links would help counter Chinese influence in this region.
It also doesn’t hurt that Somaliland has armed forces comprised of around 100,000 troops—more than enough to defend itself against an invasion by Somalia. That’s a lesson those interested in creating their own country might want to note. While there’s no shortage of ideas for new countries, the problem in most cases isn’t a lack of vision, but a lack of military might. Not to mention the possibility that successfully creating your own paradise on earth is no guarantee that other countries will recognize you.
Of course, your new country doesn’t necessarily need to be of this world. For real independence, you may want to terraform a planet. Mars is an obvious choice, and it’s far enough from Earth that even the most powerful nations would be hard-pressed to mount an invasion force. All you’d need to actualize this is imagination, a huge amount of money, heavy doses of cutting-edge technology, and the determination to see it through.
And if someone else gets there first? Well, there’s always Proxima b. That’s a rocky planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun—about 4.25 light years away. Proxima b is within the “habitable zone” of Proxima Centauri, which means that liquid water could exist on its surface and potentially even support an alien population.
While with current technologies it would take thousands of years to reach Proxima b, Christian theologians are already debating if aliens on this planet and others have souls that need saving. But the vision we prefer is one where our descendants establish what could be the first truly free planet in the galaxy.