Buy me a country

When the Maldives suggested a couple of years ago that it was considering buying land on the South Asian subcontinent should the island chain become uninhabitable due to effects of climate change, it hit the headlines as an illustration of the existential threat that climate change posed to entire island states, not least in the legal and political terms of what ‘sovereignty’ is taken to mean (see a recent law conference hosted by the Marshall Islands here). But it also struck a chord of interest because the idea of a state buying land from another seems a somewhat alien idea today, when it was once an unremarkable part of the diplomatic toolbox.

An Economist piece a couple of weeks ago offers a brief survey of this normative shift:

“Hellenic opinion was outraged last year when Frank Schäffler, a German politician, advised “bankrupt Greeks” to “sell your islands…and sell the Acropolis too!” That is hardly practical politics: as long as Greece remains a democracy, the political, and perhaps biological, lifespan of a leader who proposed hauling down the flag over even the tiniest Aegean outcrop would be measured in hours.

“The furore obscured what Mr Schäffler was proposing: lease, commercial sale or a transfer of sovereignty…But just imagine that the exasperated northerners were dreaming of something more radical: fully ceding sovereign authority.

“Territorial swaps for cash seem unthinkable today. But they were once common, especially when European powers were jostling for land in the New World. The United States’ 1803 purchase of the Louisiana territory from Napoleon for $15m (now $312m) is the most famous case. Germany bought the Caroline Islands, in the Pacific, from Spain in 1899 for 25m pesetas ($107m today). And during the first world war America paid Denmark $25m ($530m) for what are now the United States Virgin Islands, mainly to stop Germany buying them.

“In an era of self-determination sales of territory have come to seem anachronistic. But leases, involving a de facto transfer of control, are common. In 2010 Russia extended a deal granting Finland a canal for 50 years, and gave Ukraine concessions worth €30 billion to park its fleet at Sevastopol for 25 more years. Michael Strauss of the Centre for Diplomatic and Strategic Studies in Paris sees “no obvious reason” why countries have stopped buying and selling land. “It’s a totally legitimate way for sovereignty to change under international law.””

“Sovereignty” is the rallying cry of diplomats and politicians everywhere, and flag-waving trumpts the wallet, as David Cameron, fresh from exercising a British veto at the latest European crisis summit, well knows. Governments seeking to buy land from other countries might have entirely reasonable justifications for doing so, but the selling government is probably going to have a lot of explaining to do to its domestic audience – not least the inhabitants being asked to vacate the parcel of land in question, or to become citizens of the buying state.

The rigidity of the norm of territorial integrity and more importantly, the idea of fixed, unmalleable borders remains constant in this regard, reinforced in particular by those countries decolonized over the past century for whom territorial integrity can still be far from secure and any potential shifts are viewed suspiciously. (The irony may be, as the normative evolution in favour of the responsibility to protect suggests, while peaceful transfers of legal sovereignty remain taboo, its violation or forfeit on humanitarian grounds has become more legitimate.)

And while leases, as the Economist article illustrates, may allow de facto, but not de jure transfers of sovereignty, these seem to be limited to rather functional purposes – military bases and transport corridors rather than large-scale population movements. Rather than sovereign transfers, the open seas might substitute for the absence of unclaimed territory, as the recent interest in permanent seaborne ‘seasteading’ communities independent from government authority highlights, creating new claims of sovereign self-government. The possibility of buying me a country, however, might still be some distance away.

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One thought on “Buy me a country

  1. ndm lees says:

    I have an intuition might be related to the shift from pre-modern, dynastic conceptions of sovereignty under which territory is the patrimony of the ruler to modern nationalist notions of sovereignty under which national identity is strongly identified with the soil of the motherland. Territory moves from being something which can be bargained over to something sacred. This makes the idea of surrendering territory as unthinkable as surrendering the standard was to Roman legionnaires.

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