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How did they do it?

And are there any people or companies today who could become a sovereign state if they wanted to?

Could Jeff Bezos start his own country and become a sovereign state? How would he do it, and would anyone try to stop him? Who would try to stop him, and how would they do it?

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    What makes you think that a company or person can become a sovereign state? – Chris Rogers Dec 14 '19 at 14:26
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    As far as I know, there is no unclaimed land in the world (though some land is claimed by more than one country), and International Law governs the seas. I doubt the UN would recognize a single-person nation (though the Holy See of Vatican City comes close). Of course, if you define "sovereign state" to mean "even if the UN doesn't recognize it", it's possible and people have tried it: abc.net.au/news/2017-02-10/meet-the-micro-nations-of-australia/… – user2565 Dec 14 '19 at 16:38
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    @barrycarter There are a handful of places; mostly where logically it would follow that the states in question didn't have a claim over more desirable territory. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – richardb Dec 14 '19 at 17:00
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    What would be the difference between a sovereign state and a company once the company becomes a sovereign? :) – JonathanReez Dec 15 '19 at 1:38
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    If you can take ground and hold it you can proclaim whatever you want. Amazon would only gave to out gun a weak country to claim sovereignty. – acpilot Dec 16 '19 at 4:29

15 Answers 15

32

A monarch by definition is the sovereign:

A monarch is a sovereign head of state in a monarchy. A monarch may exercise the highest authority and power in the state […] an individual may become monarch by conquest, acclamation or a combination of means.

As (possibly) said by France's Louis XIV:

L’État, c’est moi.

or, in English:

I am the State.

Such monarchs are literally above the law:

Sovereign immunity, or crown immunity, is a legal doctrine by which the sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong…

In its older sense, sovereign immunity is the original forebear of state immunity based on the classical concept of sovereignty in the sense that a sovereign could not be subjected without his or her approval to the jurisdiction of another.

There are two forms of sovereign immunity:

  • immunity from suit (also known as immunity from jurisdiction or adjudication)
  • immunity from enforcement

There are numerous such monarchs throughout history. It's debatable that the UK's Queen Elizabeth II is legally still one even to this day.

In Shakespeare's Henry V, the King of France refers to King Henry V of England literally as "England" itself many times:

King of France

For England his approaches makes as fierce

and

King of France
From our brother England?

All Jeff Bezos would have to do is buy a lot of land, declare himself King/Caliph/Emperor/Khan/Shah/Pharaoh/… and then successfully defend his kingdom/caliphate/empire/… from anyone and everyone who disagreed.

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    Successfully defend—that’s the tricky part. Even trickier is getting another country to recognize you. – WGroleau Dec 15 '19 at 4:25
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    @WGroleau If you own land, have an army that is able to defend it, and have an economy that is worth trading with, getting some people to recognize you and then have others follow is just a matter of time. The question is what do you bring to the bargaining table? If you have something, you'll get recognition. – Polygnome Dec 15 '19 at 9:36
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    It would take a heck of a lot of land to make the other two even possible. San Marino, Andorra, Liechtenstein, etc. exist because by the time anyone nearby was big enough to threaten them, conquest had become unfashionable. – WGroleau Dec 15 '19 at 16:54
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    The Shakespearian terminology is still in use. I was at Cambridge university at the same time as Prince Charles who held the title of "Prince of Wales", and was referred to in documents such as examination results as "Wales, C". AFAIK the same principle is used for younger members of the royal family who have served in the armed forces. – alephzero Dec 15 '19 at 18:32
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    @Polygnome It is perhaps not quite so easy to obtain recognition; the Republic of China (Taiwan) has land, an army that defends it, and a large economy, but very few countries internationally will recognise it for political reasons. In general there are quite a few unrecognised or limitedly recognised states that are de facto sovereign, including Taiwan, Somaliland, Northern Cyprus, etc. – Fengyang Wang Dec 16 '19 at 20:23
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The British East India Company would seem to come close. From Wikipedia:

By 1803, at the height of its rule in India, the British East India company had a private army of about 260,000—twice the size of the British Army, with Indian revenues of £13,464,561 (equivalent to £225.3 million in 2018) and expenses of £14,017,473 (equivalent to £234.5 million in 2018). The company eventually came to rule large areas of India with its private armies, exercising military power and seizing administrative functions. Company rule in India effectively began in 1757 and lasted until 1858, when, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Government of India Act 1858 led to the British Crown's assuming direct control of the Indian subcontinent in the form of the new British Raj.

However British law established that its legal sovereignty was on behalf of the Crown and not a separate sovereignty in its own right. In particular British law was still supreme: the Company could not pass its own laws. In some areas the Company administered civil law, but criminal law generally stayed with either the local ruler or the British government.

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    So it was running at a loss of ~£550000 per year? – DrMcCleod Dec 15 '19 at 13:00
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    @DrMcCleod My understanding is the East India Company didn't only do business in India. So if "Indian revenues" just means money made in India, and the expenses are overall, that could make sense. It's really strange to explain it that way though. I'm pretty sure eprints.lse.ac.uk/37829 is Wikipedia's source for that data, if you want to dig in more. – Justin Dec 15 '19 at 17:27
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    @DrMcCleod The figures given are for 1803 only. It may have run at a profit in other years. – Paul Johnson Dec 15 '19 at 17:33
  • I didn't think that the East India Company could be considered sovereign until I read your post and the Wikipedia link. Can you attach the following quote from Wikipedia that shows that "sovereign" is an accurate term? "the Company could act as a sovereign power on behalf of the Crown" – Jetpack Dec 15 '19 at 18:52
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    @Jetpack That only shows that sovereign isn't an accurate term, that their "sovereign power" was only delegated by the Crown. True sovereignty can't be taken away simply by passing a law. – Ross Ridge Dec 15 '19 at 21:24
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No list is complete without the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (a.k.a. Dutch East India Company).

Some excerpts from the Wikipedia page:

The Company, for nearly 200 years of its existence (1602–1800), had effectively transformed itself from a corporate entity into a state or an empire in its own right

...

The company was historically an exemplary company-state rather than a pure for-profit corporation.

and

In its foreign colonies, the VOC possessed quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, strike its own coins, and establish colonies.

The VOC had its own flag, which is a combination of the Dutch flag at that time and the VOC logo:

VOC Flag

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    I remember reading somewhere that the ability to strike your own currency was one of the key ways to recognize the legitimacy of a state. If your coins were recognized by others, then you were officially a "country". – thanby Dec 17 '19 at 16:20
  • Paul Johnson's answer about the British EIC says that, at least as a legal fiction, they exercised their sovereignty on behalf of the Crown. Do you know if it was the same case for the Dutch VOC? – divibisan Dec 18 '19 at 16:28
  • @divibisan The Dutch were a republic at the time - so literally taken the answer is clearly 'no' as there was no Crown. The Dutch Republic was a federation of provinces - governed by the merchant class as there barely was any nobility - fighting for its independence. Formally, the Staten-General (the federal government) had supervision; In practice, this was in name only. – Sjoerd Dec 18 '19 at 22:10
28

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is almost definitely the best example that's still in existence.

It was founded in Jerusalem in 1048 by Italian merchants as a church and a hospital. Not quite a modern company, but definitely not a country either. At several points in their history, they managed to hold sovereignty over land (first Cyprus, then Rhodes, then Malta). Today, they no longer have land, but they're still recognised as a sovereign entity by 108 countries, e.g. being allowed to have embassies with extraterritoriality, and issue passports and licence plates recognised by those other countries. They also have observer status at the United Nations.

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16

Take a look at the Wikipedia article on micronations.

What you do is stake a claim to some territory - which doesn't have to be actual land, it could e.g. be a platform on the sea, a ship, etc - and then declare independence. Now you get to make your own laws, issue your own currency, and so on. Jeff Bezos could in principle do this.

As for who would stop him, it's the already-established countries. If Jeff Bezos is staking out a claim in the continental United States for example, then the US is not likely to approve. They will say their territorial integrity cannot be violated, they will demand Jeff Bezos continue to pay taxes, and back up their demands with military force. Then Jeff Bezos gets to wage a "war of independence" which he'll undoubtedly lose, and the micronation becomes annexed back into the US.

In principle Jeff Bezos could establish a micronation in international waters, in which case countries are less likely to "annex" the new micronation, but then few people would actually care. After all, who would treat with a country that consists of a random floating platform with no national resources and nothing of value? Instead, the people of that "country" have to engage with other countries, which means they will need to continue to hold citizenships of those countries, and then the actual relevance of the new country becomes close to zero. The currency/passports it issues would be useless pieces of paper that nobody would accept, it could cease to exist and nobody would blink, etc.

Edit: the Republic of Minerva is an example of such a micronation established by a rich businessman that met a quick end by annexation.

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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principality_of_Sealand for example does all of this—but as far as I know, no other country recognizes it. – WGroleau Dec 15 '19 at 4:30
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    Jeff Bezos would have the problem that since the US taxes its citizens' worldwide income, the IRS would be on his case. – richardb Dec 15 '19 at 9:09
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    Then Jeff Bezos gets to wage a "war of independence" which he'll undoubtedly lose [citation needed] – mgarciaisaia Dec 16 '19 at 18:20
  • @richardb That's the case for anyone who holds US citizenship, but it doesn't preclude you from being a citizen of another county, or even being its head of state. If the Queen of England for some reason had US citizenship, she'd have to pay US taxes, but I fail to see how that's relevant. Either Bezos keeps dual citizenship in the US and Bezosland and pays US taxes, or just renounces US citizenship entirely, meaning he has no tax liability to the US. Whether you owe US taxes is only related to whether you're a US citizen; other citizenships you hold are irrelevant. – Nuclear Wang Jan 8 at 16:37
  • @NuclearWang As Allure's answer says, you can claim your farm in Nebraska is your sovereign territory but when you stop paying US taxes, then Uncle Sam will forcibly disagree. It then goes on to discuss setting up a micronation in international waters. I was observing that because the US is one of the few countries that claims universal tax jurisdiction for its citizens, that plan doesn't work either. – richardb Jan 8 at 23:10
12

The most practical route is probably via a (hostile) takeover of an existing state.

William I, Duke of Normandy, succeeded in this approach in 1066. He assembled a mercenary army promising to pay them from the spoils of conquering England.

A modern billionaire, if he so wished, might be able to install himself as ruler of some minor state by bribing the ruling elite. In practice, it would probably be simpler to rule via a local puppet. In some tax havens, this may already have happened, though the control remains carefully hidden via a network of shell companies, etc.

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    This was attempted in modern times in Equatorial Guinea. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. And yes, this is also the plot of "Dogs of War" by Forsyth. – Paul Johnson Jan 9 at 10:50
  • @PaulJohnson, universally known (in the UK at least) as the "wonga coup"! It was a disastrous failure for the perpetrators. More broadly, the problem is that political rule is not the same as business rule, and it operates under different constraints - you can't just sack citizens that you don't like, and those citizens who don't like you may kill you. For example, the failed Vietnam War cost the US the better part of $1tn in economic income, and they could afford to lose it. Someone like Bezos with a share income of only about $100m, would be dispatched handily by any local warlord. – Steve Jun 14 at 14:46
12

Other answers give good examples, but an outstanding case of an individual creating his own country for his own benefit was king Leopold II of Belgium and the Congo Free State. King Leopold, not in his official role but as a private individual, successfully managed to explore the Congo basin and have its sovereignty over it recognised by other countries.

The White Rajahs of Sarawak are an smaller but less sad example. A British sailor was ceded a small area of Borneo in 1841 by the sultan of Brunei and he and his descendants expanded it to a large tract of North Borneo.

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    I immediately thought of Leopold - arguably the most practically evil man who ever lived. [Well surpasses Hitler and his fellow travellers IMHO]. And a far closer example than most others. – Russell McMahon Dec 16 '19 at 2:46
9

The Hanseatic league mostly around the Baltic was statelike.

The Hanseatic League was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in Northwestern and Central Europe. Growing from a few North German towns in the late 1100s, the league came to dominate Baltic maritime trade for three centuries along the coasts of Northern Europe. Hansa territories stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland during the Late Middle Ages, and diminished slowly after 1450.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanseatic_League

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    I don't think this counts: the starting point for the Hanseatic League was the city-states, not the guilds. – Mark Dec 15 '19 at 19:36
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    @Mark Yes, but the city states belonged to HRE, different kingdoms around the Baltic or similar but due to the HL they more or less become an independent empire with their own navy and army. – d-b Dec 15 '19 at 19:40
7

I believe that the Holy See (i.e. the Pope) could fulfill your requirements.

The accompanying state (Vatican City) is often seen as the relevant entity. However, one should consider that the pope is an absolute monarch, the papal legates and the seat in the U.N. assembly refer to the Holy See, not the Vatican. The Vatican also only exists because of the pope (because the pope should not be subject to another nation).

Vatican City / Holy See is always a special case in international law. Another case would be the Sovereign Order of Malta, which could be seen as kind of a sovereign corporation.

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    How is the Holy See a person or a company? They had an unusual start by being donated a piece of land but that is not that different to some independence movement that manage to negotiate independence with the state they belong to. – d-b Dec 15 '19 at 15:10
  • @d-b Vatican is its country. It even had its own currency until adoption of the euro. – grovkin Dec 15 '19 at 15:54
  • @grovkin Yes? Why do you target me with that comment? I have visited the Vatican. – d-b Dec 15 '19 at 19:38
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    @d-b the Holy See is the person (or office) of the pope himself. In a sense, the pope is a country for himself. I am also not talking about the papal states, but the modern incarnation (the papal states were annexed by Italy and the Vatican created in 1929) – Chieron Dec 15 '19 at 20:50
  • I know but that doesn't make him a country. He is like any regular absolute monarch. – d-b Dec 15 '19 at 22:10
5

A sovereign nation is defined by two criteria:

1. Maintained territorial integrity.

1.1. The easiest way to establish unchallenged territorial integrity is to find a place in international waters where nothing is taken away from a specific nation. The logistical and territorial disadvantages of that approach are obvious though.

1.2. The best route to establishing territorial integrity on land is to buy territory. Land has been traded between nations in modern times (Alaska). Your best bet would be to approach an absolute monarch with money trouble and aim at land which does not have any apparent value (bummer!). If the oil prices continue to fall the Arab Emirates would be such a candidate. You may need to grant ongoing resource exploitation rights to the original owner though as a condition for the trade. But overall this should be one of the few ways to peacefully establish territorial sovereignty.

1.3. I'm not sure whether this qualifies, but you can hijack a country. This resembles the United States' South America policy in the second half of the 20th century (Chile, El Salvador). In order to prevent international intervention you should choose a country without resources or geo-strategic value (bummer!) that nobody is really interested in. You bribe the military into a coup and install your own people as government. Your main problem will be that the military will have final say in all matters; you will have to bribe them more than your competitors into supporting you long enough that you can install your own officers and eventually reduce their power and influence without creating their opposition.

1.4. Taking land away from somebody is a lot harder. In order to get an impression of what this entails we can look at Israel, a synthetic state established about 70 years ago. The neighbors weren't happy and the displaced original population is still hostile three generations later, even though they never set foot on their ancestors' land and even though the country is mostly desert devoid of resources. Israel had to fight a major war to defend its existence. It would not be here today without its own strong army and its ally, the U.S. Takeaway for land-based new nations:

  • You need an army of a strength matching that of your combined neighbors.
  • You need a strong ally, best would be one of the nuclear powers.

2. International recognition.

This is what my "ah, the sovereign state" comment aimed at. Your sovereignty hinges on formal recognition by other countries, preferably including those which have the determination and means to defend you. Formal recognition includes exchange of ambassadors, recognition of IDs and possibly a vote for inclusion into the U.N. The more of these criteria are met, and by more countries, the better. There is a wide grey spectrum though: Often a country is only recognized by its immediate allies but not by any other countries; their sovereignty is questionable.

Other indicators are often only symbolic to the point of being illusionary. For example, just the fact that nobody has invaded your apartment or farm in a while does not make it a sovereign territory. Issuing passports has no significance whatsoever unless they are recognized by other countries.

As a rule of thumb your country will be recognized by other nations if they have an advantage from doing so; and the complement is also true: Countries for which your recognition would be a disadvantage will try everything to prevent it. (Examples are West Germany not recognizing East Germany, mainland China and Taiwan, the two Cypruses, and Israel fighting the recognition of the Palestinian territories.)

Sovereign nation cookbook

If you don't find anyone to buy territory from:

My best bet to establish a sovereign country on land would be to hijack a warlord's organization in one of the failed African states (which are for historical reasons weak and awkward agglomerations with low cohesion anyway), find a suitable territory that has no significant mineral resources (bummer!), bribe the national government (which shouldn't be hard) into tolerating you and establish a peaceful rule including your own tax administration which taxes really little (because you have money already). Because your place is stable and works really well (as opposed to its surroundings) and you provide real good internet (you f-cking own the internet satellites, right?) you lure tax-savvy financial investors into your territory. Chances are you are close to the equator; then you could provide a rocket launch site, perhaps starting with the ten launches per day for your own internet satellites. Since you are the cheapest launch option this would make a lot of people and governments semi-dependent on you. This way you build an influencer group who supports and lobbies for your quest to become fully sovereign, which essentially at this point means to be recognized by other people. After a few decades of running the place successfully, on the way defending it against rogue generals and the occasional competing warlord, other nations will perhaps start to recognize you in order to be on your list of countries eligible for favorable business conditions, and your grandchildren or great-grandchildren may eventually send the first envoy to the U.N.

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2

Liechtenstein is worth looking at. During a power struggle Liechtensteins arranged to buy out some land and have it directly under the emperor (instead of as a part of another constituent of the empire). After a couple of centuries empires and confederations fell apart and it it left Liechtenstein single not within another country.

That scenario is closest to plausible that I could imagine. US still has some land that is not a part of a state. It's unlikely that they will sell a land full of people (like Guam), but they could sell something smaller like the Midway Atoll to Jeff Bezos, suppose, for a cosmodrome. If US then happened to fall apart, it might remain as a separate country of Bezos.

In fact, Palmyra atoll is in such a state already - part of it is owned by a private company. It's unlikely US will release their sovereignity over that land, but if it collapses, you might have Palmyra in UN some day.

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  • Leopold was "more plausible" - perhaps more than any other. – Russell McMahon Dec 16 '19 at 2:49
  • @RussellMcMahon I was thinking of "plausible" in a sense of Bezos doing it. I think Liechtenstein-like scenario is more likely to happen in the future than a Leopold-like one. – Džuris Dec 16 '19 at 3:09
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    Yes. I was addressing "Has any ..." – Russell McMahon Dec 16 '19 at 3:14
  • Somehow similar are the cases of Monaco, Andorra and maybe San Marino. – glglgl Dec 16 '19 at 18:44
2

There is a small sliver of unclaimed land in the Sahara desert between Egypt and Sudan. It's called Bir Tawil. Here's the Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bir_Tawil

A person or company could, conceivably, travel to this territory, claim it, and they'd then be a sovereign state. No other country wants this territory, and Egypt and Sudan are the ones you'd have to go through to get to it.

Whether anyone else would recognize you, that's another story.

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    This wouldn't work. Currently neither country wants it, but only because they have competing claims elsewhere. As with other peaceable border disputes, they recognize that it belongs to one of them, they just maintain it isn't theirs and would kick anybody else out since they may have to settle for it in the future. – gormadoc Dec 17 '19 at 16:19
0

Swami Nithyananda a self proclaimed god man owns a private island and claims to be the first Hindu Sovereign Nation.

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0

The french Antoine de Tounens declared himself king of the Royaume d'Araucanie et de Patagonie in 1860 before being arrested in 1862. Chile and Argentina never recognized this kingdom but it did have some support in the mapuche people. Since then several french nationals have claimed to be descendant of Tounens and thus suitor to the throne.

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-4

There is a very thin boundary between Gazprom and the government of the Russian Federation. Wikipedia lists a former Prime Minister of RF and the current energy minister of the RF as members of Gazprom's board. Since this entanglement has been growing over the years, it can certainly grow to the point where the RF government and the Gazprom board are one and the same.

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    I don't think your Gazprom example counts. That just means Gazprom is owned by the state, as most public utilities are in socialist/communist societies. It doesn't mean Gazprom itself is a state. – F1Krazy Dec 15 '19 at 10:34
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    @F1Krazy Russia is neither socialist nor Communist. If anything, it's staunchly anti-communist. – grovkin Dec 15 '19 at 13:04

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