Esta página no está disponible en español.


Nationhood: Putting Out More Flags


MAY 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

At some point Monday, the Democratic Republic of East Timor will be born as an independent and sovereign country just like all the member states of the United Nations and also Switzerland, which is not in the United Nations. But that is another story.

This story is that 27 years after Portugal relinquished colonial control over East Timor, and after Indonesia tried to take the region by force, the persistent aspirations for independence of most of the 800,000 East Timorese have now triumphed. It is expected that once the new government in Dili files its application the United Nations will accept it as its 190th member.

So, starting tomorrow, East Timor is a country. This is obviously a big deal for its citizens and for those who sympathized with its struggle for self-determination, but meaning no disrespect, it seems like a good time to ask: what does it mean to become a country? What do you get? What can you do? And once you have sovereignty, exactly what do you do to maintain it?

Ralf Dahrendorf, a sociologist and the former director of the London School of Economics, has thought quite a bit about state-building and has written about it as a three-stage process. The first, which he calls the "hour of the lawyers," is when new constitutions are written, including basic rights and the rule of law. There has been a lot of this going around – not only with new states, like East Timor, but with some old ones that needed to come up with new charters after Communism collapsed.

The second stage, which Lord Dahrendorf identified in an article, involves the creation of a market economy, with the adoption of measures to protect and promote competition and adopt a social safety net.

The third phase centers on the establishment of civil society, the building of "substantial sources of power outside the state and, more often than not, against the state."

How long will all this take? According to Lord Dahrendorf, the first stage might last some six months, the second, six years and the third, 60 years. By this reckoning, most countries are not currently mature.

After all, back in 1945, when the United Nations first started, there were only 51 countries in the international organization. Since then 138 more came into being. And some of the original members, like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, collapsed with their fragmented parts turning over new leaves – constitutionally, economically and in their attitudes to civil society.

So, naturally, a lot of what brand-new and recycled states first emphasize is constitution writing. Herman Schwartz, a constitutional law professor at American University, has closely watched and often advised on the process in emerging nations like the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Mongolia and South Africa. "Everyone was different," he observed. "Usually they tried to go back to something in their own history – either real or imagined. In Bulgaria, for example, a unicameral legislature had been traditional, so they favored that."

In South Africa, Professor Schwartz said, skilled lawyers drew up a singular system in which the legislature elects a national president. "With a unifying leader like Nelson Mandela," he said, "that made sense."

But what can a state focus on once it has drafted its charter and before it has developed a well-functioning free economy or built up civil society, particularly if external and internal enemies are leaving it alone? Well, there is always flag waving, patriotic anthems and the modern derivative of heraldry like postage stamps and national Internet domain designations.

One of the more colorful passages in the East Timorese constitution spells out the significance of the handsome new flag that will be flying over the country. The yellow portion reflects "the period of colonialism"; a black triangle stands "for the obscurantism that needs to be overcome." The red background denotes "the struggle for national liberation," and a white five-pointed star in the black area signifies peace.

JUST as international lawyers advise on constitutions, there presumably are international designers eager to land a national account to come up with a new flag and national logo. But local political leaders often keep such matters under their own control. On the eve of the independence of Grenada, for example, in February 1974, Eric M. Gairy, the man who was to become prime minister, was proudly showing off a brightly colored drawing that featured an armadillo rampant. He said he had designed it for the country's coat of arms.

Such symbols are, of course, important for both nation-building and state-building. In some cases they can also translate into cash. For years, the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has contracted out the production of exotic postage stamps. These are sold to stamp collectors all over the world, bringing appreciable returns to the national treasury. Some Bhutanese stamps play music, others are three dimensional and many have subjects that have nothing to do with Bhutan, like reproductions of Impressionist art or portraits of Albert Einstein and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Even more innovative was the island state of Tuvalu's sale of the rights to its national slice of cyberspace. Thinking that the country's domain suffix of .tv would be a much sought-after address, a Canadian entrepreneur agreed to pay $50 million over 12 years to the government of Tuvalu. As of last year, the entrepreneur had paid $18 million, which reportedly raised the tiny country' s gross domestic product by 50 percent.

As for anthems, there is a tantalizing Web site ( where the national hymns of 193 countries can be heard while English translations of the lyrics are shown. Another section offers anthems of 35 regions where the idea of becoming a country has varying appeal, from Chechnya and Tibet to Puerto Rico and Gibraltar. Predictably, there is a good deal of repetition, with many anthems alleging that God happens to favor their countries. Poland's anthem sets a standard for modesty and reduced expectations with its refrain claiming, "Poland is not yet lost while we are still alive." A few others recall the tempo and spirit of "Hymn to Freedonia," the stirring Marxist anthem from "Duck Soup."

Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist of such Broadway shows as "Fiorello!," says he has never written a real anthem. "I would love to do it," he said, "but I would have to feel passionate about the theme." Great anthems like "The Star Spangled Banner" and the "Marseillaise" "were written by people who were carried away," he added. "It's not the sort of thing you can commission from a close friend or relative of the leader."

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback