Kingdom of the Netherlands

The Netherlands Is No Longer a Low Country: Conundrums of Geopolitical Classification

highest point in the netherlands?

highest point in the netherlands?composite countries sovereign states composed of constituent countriesThe modern Netherlands forms the heart of the so-called Low Countries, a historical region composed of the flat and watery delta formed by the Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt, and Ems rivers. As the name suggests, the Low Countries have no mountains. On WikiAnswers, the second-highest-rated response to the question, “What is the highest point in the Netherlands?” is simply, “Nope, we don’t have mountains. Large hills is the best we can do.” The first return, however, is strikingly different, referencing Mount Scenery, a precipitously sloped volcano that reaches 870 meters (2,800 feet) in elevation. Mount Scenery became the Netherlands’ highest point on October 10, 2010, when the Caribbean island of Saba, which essentially is Mount Scenery, was transformed into a “special municipality” of the Netherlands.

The incorporation of Saba, Bonaire, and Saint Eustatius into the Netherlands transformed the basic parameters of the country in several regards. The demographic change was relatively minor; the Netherlands’ population jumped by 18,000. More significant were shifts to the country’s geography; its southernmost and westernmost points were suddenly relocated by thousands of miles. The Netherlands also became, in part, a tropical land.

Such changes may seem trivial, but the reformulation of the Netherlands’ Caribbean holdings opens a fascinating window onto some surprisingly tricky issues of geopolitical conceptualization. What does it require for a formerly separate area to fully become part of a country—not just in legal terms but also in the popular imagination? No one doubts that Hawaii is fully part of the United States. Likewise, the French overseas departments, including Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, are by all accounts integral portions of France. But Saba, Bonaire, and Saint Eustatius are “special” municipalities of the Netherlands, and remain distinctive in a more profound sense than that of sheer distance from the mainland. While the use of English as the language of public school instruction in Saba and Saint Eustatius is odd enough, it is the official status of the US dollar that really sets the three islands apart. The relationship maintained by the Netherlands proper with Saba, Bonaire, and Saint Eustatius is in some ways similar to that between China proper and its “special administrative regions” of Hong Kong and Macao, both of which have their own currencies. Although Hong Kong certainly falls under the umbrella of Chinese sovereignty, whether it is an integral part of China is another matter. It is not treated as such by the CIA, the World Bank, and other many other international agencies, and is instead accounted as a separate though subordinate unit.

Similar conundrums of geopolitical classification are posed by a number of other European outliers, starting with the Dutch anomalies of Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten. Legally defined as “constituent countries” of the Kingdom of the Netherlands,” these three islands are too autonomous to be counted as integral parts of the Netherlands (whose westernmost point is said to be Bonaire, not the more westerly island of Aruba.) Greenland is treated in a similar manner. Denmark is never regarded as including this “constituent country;” if it were, Denmark would jump to thirteenth rank in the standard list of countries by area. Yet the relationship between the United Kingdom and its “constituent countries” – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – is completely different, entailing much tighter linkages. Geographers would never think of excluding Scotland from a depiction of the United Kingdom the way we habitually exclude Greenland from Denmark.

In short, the concept of “constituent country” is inherently muddled, meaning different things in different sovereign states. Further extensions of the category provide no clarity. French Polynesia is sometimes described as a constituent country of France, just as the Cook Islands and Niue may be said to form constituent countries of New Zealand, yet none of these Pacific polities is legally defined in such terms. Officially, the Cook Islands form a parliamentary democracy in “free association with New Zealand,” which retains sovereignty. Yet the three countries that exist in similar “free association” with the United States (the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau) are all considered independent, and are in fact members of the United Nations.

The upshot is that the term “Netherlands” is now an inherently ambiguous geopolitical category. It might refer just to the European heartland, or it might include the three Caribbean special municipalities as well. But the “Kingdom of the Netherlands” explicitly includes as well as the three Caribbean constituent countries (Aruba, Curacao, and Sint Maarten). To put it differently, the Netherlands is not to be confused with the Kingdom of the Netherlands, of which it is merely one constituent country. And to make matters even more complex, the European portion of the Netherlands is often referred to in casual parlance as Holland, even though this term, strictly speaking, denotes only two of the country’s twelve provinces (North Holland and South Holland).

As always, the political division of the world turns out to be far more complex than it seems at first glance.

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Is a Country Necessarily a Sovereign State?

In the United States, the most common word used to designate the sovereign entities that make up the world geopolitical order is “countries.” In common parlance, a country is the same thing as a sovereign state, which can also be called a “nation” or a “nation-state.” To be sure, the connotations of these words sometimes differ, with “country” often emphasizing geographical expanse, “nation” often emphasizing people, and “state” often emphasizing government. But in general, the terms are used interchangeably. If one Googles the questions “what is the world’s largest nation?” and “what is the world’s largest country?,” most answers will specify whether they refer to “largest” in terms of area or population.

Academic definitions of these terms, however, remain distinct. As a result, the conceptual slippage between common usage and formal discourse can generate confusion. Strictly speaking, a country is not necessarily the same thing as a sovereign state, as several areas that are defined as countries are actually subdivisions of sovereign “composite kingdoms.” Thus Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark are the three countries that together constitute the Kingdom of Denmark, just as Aruba, the Netherlands Antilles, and the Netherlands are the three constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (although the Netherlands Antilles is scheduled to be dismantled and reorganized later this year). But while Aruba and the Faroe Islands are classified as countries by their own governments, they are not sovereign states.

In regard to the Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island, confusion on this score often leaves Americans scratching their heads about the actual meanings of such terms as England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom. England remains a country but it has not been a kingdom, or a sovereign state, since it merged with Scotland in 1707. The three constituent countries of England, Scotland, and Wales together formed the kingdom, and sovereign state, of Great Britain from 1701 to 1801, when it merged with Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. That kingdom, in turn, yielded to the current sovereign state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1927, when the Republic of Ireland gained independence. Adding to the confusion is the existence of Crown Dependencies like the Isle of Man (which are not parts of the United Kingdom yet remain under its sovereign umbrella), as well as the fourteen less autonomous British Overseas Territories.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is thus a sovereign state composed of four constituent countries that extends its sovereignty over a number of associated territories. But the situation is actually more complicated than that, as this state’s monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, reigns over a still larger area, serving as the official head of state for no less than sixteen separate states. Most members of this unofficial “Commonwealth Realm” (not to be confused with the larger Commonwealth of Nations) are small independent Caribbean states, but it also includes such sizable countries as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea.

Canada, like the other commonwealth realms, is never classified as anything but a fully independent, sovereign state, and for good reason, as its ties to the British monarchy are purely symbolic. But from a historical perspective, the continuing relationship generates some interesting paradoxes. “When did Canada gain independence?” for example, is essentially an unanswerable question. Canada became self-governing in 1867, but it did not formally gain the right to amend its own constitution without the approval of the British Parliament until 1982.

A kingdom can thus include several countries, but a country can also include several kingdoms, as we shall see next in Monday’s post on Uganda.

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