Do You Speak State?

International diplomacy looks like an invite-only club, but that hasn’t stopped some people from trying to join

King Danny the First awaited a response by post, a letter through the mail slot. Another day of waiting, another day of independence. Danny Wallace, who declared sovereignty for the Kingdom of Lovely in a letter delivered to the British Government, with Tony Blair’s name on the envelope, had been waiting for an official reply to his declaration of independence for quite some time. That reply would never come. One can imagine the overworked staff at 10 Downing Street opening the piles of mail sent to the Prime Minister and immediately discarding Danny’s letter, but that non-response would have diplomatic repercussions.

“So far I haven’t heard any news so I guess that everything is okay,” wrote King Danny on his Kingdom’s (now-defunct) website. Had the Prime Minister, via his non-response, just tacitly granted King Danny sovereignty over his entire territory (an east London apartment)?

King Danny was not the first sovereign to venture into the diplomatic unknown. Take for example the Sovereign State of Forvik which, unlike the Kingdom of Lovely, claims a not-insubstantial territory (one of the smaller Shetland Islands) usually understood as British. Stuart Hill, the self-proclaimed Steward of Forvik, argues that historically the Shetland Islands were not part of Scotland but Norway (only in temporary trustee status to Scotland), which was the basis for their inclusion in today’s United Kingdom. His Sovereign State of Forvik is meant as a pilot project to convince others of this tyrannical historical oversight and lead the Shetland Islands to independence.

Hill’s letters to the Queen and other British authorities have often received replies (all catalogued on www.forvik.com). However, these replies generally involve his questions being forwarded to another office, as civil service bureaucrats instinctively recoil from his unorthodox set of claims. The letters – from Buckingham Palace, from the driver’s license agency, from tax agencies, and so on – telling him that his concerns will be addressed by another office or that penalties have been dropped have been taken by Hill as de facto recognition of Forvik. The government of the United Kingdom is aware of him and his claims, and has not actively disputed them. As far as Stuart Hill is concerned, “So far, no authority has challenged the legality of my actions. The longer this continues the more they acknowledge the validity of my position.” Therefore, long live Forvik!

These two examples demonstrate the raw power of diplomatic speech. Usually, a country is understood as existing if other countries recognize it as such. One country speaks to another, who replies. This act reinforces sovereignty and our world composed of states continues to spin around the sun. Lovely and Forvik (and many others like them) have managed to befuddle the British authorities by speaking directly to them, in their own diplomatic language. To ignore this diplomatic act, or to reply? Either is a concession.

There is perhaps something uniquely British in the authorities’ polite refusal to speak plainly here. Perhaps nobody will point out that King Danny lacks clothes for fear of offending the Queen. But these micronations litter the globe, with particular clusters in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. And they do not limit their diplomacy to their host country. Rather, they have built up a parallel system of diplomatic relations, both with each other and inside the traditional world of statecraft.

The League of Secessionist States links together 40 of these virtual countries, as do a number of other online forums. Organizations like the LoSS provide a space in which micronations can hail one another, recognizing each other as sovereign. Posting on the discussion boards of these forums is thus an act, not only of recognition, but also of an exercise of the sovereign right to recognize other sovereigns. There are other opportunities for mutual legitimation that parallel traditional diplomacy, such as participation in the United Micronational Olympics, and the exchange of gifts between micronational leaders.

It would be a mistake to think that this is an entirely parallel system of states, with each real facet of diplomacy mimicked by a micronational doppelganger hovering just off stage. The world of traditional diplomacy is not as sealed to outside influences as it would like us to believe. For instance, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) is a membership organization composed of various minority groups and secessionist movements that helps facilitate their representation within the United Nations. At its General Assemblies representatives of these groups, which include Iranian Kurds and the Sulu of the Philippines, meet and practice diplomatic activity. They elect their presidency, propose motions, and adopt resolutions. It would be easy to disregard this motley grouping of unrepresented nations as minor league, but just like in baseball sometimes you get called up to the majors. Estonia was a member of UNPO prior to gaining independence from the Soviet Union. Recalling its history, Estonia sometimes helps UNPO get its point across at the real United Nations.

There are other ways in which the spaces of traditional diplomacy connect with the world of micronations and unrecognized states. Self-declared citizens of micronations—who usually receive citizenship in exchange for a donation—often establish embassies or consulates within the countries they inhabit. For the Kingdom of Lovely, all that was required to establish an embassy was to take a photo of the Kingdom’s flag inside your house and upload it to the online community. For the Kingdom of North Sudan, the creation of embassies has real-world significance.

A furor erupted in July 2014 when Jeremy Heaton, a father from Virginia, proclaimed the Kingdom of North Sudan in 800 square miles of no-man’s land between Sudan and Egypt. Having travelled there and planted a flag purportedly so that his seven-year old daughter might be a real princess, he then followed King Danny’s playbook by notifying both Egypt and Sudan of his action as well as applying for UN Observer Entity status. He still awaits reply. However, Heaton’s romantic (and blind to the racially charged history of colonialism) gesture masked a more useful plan: to create a libertarian territory in which financial services could thrive without regulation, based on a new digital currency (Neapcoin). What is of interest is the interplay between his real embassies (his newest embassy, in Denmark, is headed by an investment expert) and his diplomatic recognition of the Free Republic of Liberland, a Balkan libertarian micronation. Heaton’s choice of embassies and ambassadors—bridging between the real world and that of micronations—seems calculated to bring together ideological fellow travellers from different countries. Heaton hopes to gain $2 billion of investment for his fledgling micronation from the global investor class. The weaving together of real world flows of money and tiny zones of non-regulation (a few servers located in the Sahara desert) can be a potent mix, and here North Sudan may follow in the footsteps of other micronations associated with banking fraud, such as the Dominion of Melchizedek.

The permeable wall between fully recognized countries and other diplomatic actors can be breached for many reasons. In some cases, the aim is not to validate a micronation or other marginal diplomatic actor, but rather to buttress a traditional country. This is the case with the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, which dates to 1980. In that year Israel declared Jerusalem (both East and West) to be its capital, “complete and undivided.” This decision was contrary to international law, given the contested ownership of East Jerusalem (which had been conquered in 1967). Lest the location of their embassies lead to a tacit endorsement of this move by Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom and many other countries moved their embassies to Tel Aviv. This diplomatic maneuver undercut Israel’s claims to East Jerusalem and called into question its territorial legitimacy in international law.

Into this gap stepped a global community of Christian Zionists, who see the Jews as God’s chosen people and therefore deserving of support in their efforts to govern the land given to Abraham in the Old Testament (which purportedly includes East Jerusalem and the West Bank). They formed their own embassy in Jerusalem, offering support for Israel’s territorial integrity in the language of diplomatic recognition. Founded in the location of the former Chilean Embassy (which was moved to Tel Aviv) and with a staff of 50, the International Christian Embassy—Jerusalem (ICEJ) is funded by and represents evangelicals in almost 80 countries. As such, it does not intend to claim statehood for the geographically dispersed people on whose behalf it speaks, but ironically it seeks to provide the legitimacy of full statehood to Israel by drawing on the power of diplomatic speech. The mere existence of the ICEJ, like King Danny’s letter, is an intervention in the world that draws force from the existing language of diplomacy.

If North Sudan and the ICEJ seem to be clear counterfeits, while Britain and Israel seem clearly to be states, it would appear easy to distinguish between the real and the counterfeit. This is not so. Somalia was still recognized as a state during the entire period of its civil war despite functionally fragmenting into several countries for over two decades. Meanwhile, other functioning countries are excluded from the state system, or at best only partially included. South Ossetia is recognized by four UN member states, while 21 recognize Taiwan. One-hundred and eight UN members recognize Kosovo, while 135 recognize Palestine. There is a certain farce-like quality to quantifying recognition in this way; for instance Taiwan’s recognition rises when it contributes development aid to small Caribbean states and declines when the People’s Republic of China does the same a few years later. What to make of these countries, lying somewhere in between the UN and UNPO?  The experts cannot agree.

The problem then, is not that the Kingdom of Lovely is trying to shoehorn its way into the world of states, nor that Taiwan cannot be universally hailed as sovereign. Our world encompasses all sorts of political units, each with their own unique history and peculiar characteristics. The problem lies in trying to cram all these forms into the narrow, restrictive box of the state. All is arbitrary and those with the loudest voices, the biggest guns, and the most money often tell us what they decide. An expansive view of diplomacy would not limit it to the formal practices of a state’s international relations, but would include all attempts by individuals, or groups of people, to legitimate others and in so doing be legitimated. To conduct diplomacy is to recognize simultaneously the difference between people, and their fundamental similarities. In doing so, we help construct a shared humanity that is not limited to the differences imposed by borders and governments. Diplomacy can be an act of creation, calling forth new political possibilities where previously there had been none.

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