Micronations in International Law: How US Policy Could Improve the Fortunes of Upstart Libertarian Countries
After years spent toiling as an activist against the tide of Czech politics, Vít Jedlička concluded that it would be easier to build a libertarian nation from scratch somewhere else. In April 2015, he declared that a new country called the Free Republic of Liberland would be founded on unclaimed land on the Danube River.
Legal scholars Harry Hobbs and George Williams reject the prevailing perspective that Liberland and other similar initiatives are “mere oddities” that are “more suited to humour than serious study.” The status of micronations under international law and their prospects in the years ahead are the focus of Hobbs and Williams’s book Micronations and the Search for Sovereignty, published in 2022 by Cambridge University Press.
Micronations and the Search for Sovereignty is the first comprehensive book-length academic treatment of micronations. The challenge of defining a micronation speaks to why the topic has garnered limited scholarly interest. The lack of a universally accepted legal definition of a state leaves upstart entities like micronations with an ambiguous legal status.
The book provides a coherent definition of micronations that fits within the current realities of international law. The authors consider micronations to be state-like entities that fall short of statehood but can be placed on a “statehood spectrum.” The central feature of micronations is that they “express a claim of sovereignty despite the absence of any basis in domestic and international law for that claim or for their existence.” Micronations declare themselves nations. They “perform and mimic acts of sovereignty” by, for example, defining citizenship rules, writing constitutions, and printing currencies. They “adopt many of the protocols of nations,” such as deploying diplomats around the world.
Using this criteria, Hobbs and Williams identify about 135 territorial micronations that have operated throughout history, albeit in widely varying form and function. These do not include virtual or simulated micronations, which are generally beyond the scope of the book’s inquiry.
Common motivations for launching a micronation help explain why libertarianism is at the heart of the global micronationalism story. The primary motivation is frustration with state authority. Although libertarians are hardly the only political faction with grievances over taxes and regulation, statist trends throughout the West have led influential libertarians to conclude that conventional political engagement is unlikely to yield sufficient progress in downsizing government. Starting a new nation is a natural extension of the principle of the libertarian exit. Libertarian billionaires such as Peter Thiel have devoted not only financial resources to micronations, but also the skill and capabilities needed to promote them through tourism, attention-seeking stunts, and acts of resistance. Libertarian civil-society groups around the world are advocating for the expansion of diplomatic ties with micronations.
The authors’ analysis leads them to mixed but mostly pessimistic forecasts for micronations. On the one hand, they argue that the “future of micronationalism is bright” because even the mixed success of micronations to date will continue to inspire further activity. These efforts are bolstered by appeals for legitimacy that raise compelling questions about international legal personality. Technological advances are turning floating autonomous sea colonies into a more realistic prospect, yet the status of artificial structures existing outside national jurisdictions remains unresolved. Micronationalist ambitions also add another facet to the overarching international law question, unsettled in the International Court of Justice and other venues, of when precisely secession is legal. The persistence of micronations in litigating these types of issues, Hobbs and Williams maintain, forces “renewed consideration as to why some political communities are accepted as states, and others are not.”
Ultimately, however, Hobbs and Williams regard micronations’ quest for sovereignty and statehood as an “impossible dream.” They point to the ways states tend to respond to micronationalist ambitions. Fearful that micronations will encourage secessionist challenges, states routinely seek to “decisively quell incipient challengers” without fear of sanction by international organizations and other nation-states. For this reason, no micronation to date has successfully transitioned into a recognized state. These ongoing attempts Hobbs and Williams assess are “remote.”
Although precedent supports the authors’ conclusions, Hobbs and Williams might have foreseen a wider array of scenarios had they given more consideration to the revisionary potential of United States statecraft. In an American-led world order, US policy has the potential to shift international norms unilaterally. US recognition of micronations is highly unlikely in contexts where such a step would conflict with the foreign policy of powerful US allies. But in its traditional spheres of influence, the US may have a freer hand to legitimize micronations in the context of different legal regimes and multilateral relations.
Consider autonomous model cities and special economic zones, which enjoy autonomy but remain under the jurisdiction of states. Hobbs and Williams see little prospect for these entities transforming into micronations because their backers “are not interested in international legal personality but in commerce.” Hobbs and Williams cite as a case study Honduras’s Zones for Employment and Economic Development (ZEDEs). The Honduran ZEDEs’ disproportionately libertarian investors, the authors predict, would be satisfied with the framework negotiated by the Honduran National Congress in 2013, in which investing companies oversee tax regimes and domestic services while remaining subject to Honduras’s constitution and the country’s foreign policy. Statehood, the authors argue, is not only unnecessary but could distract from the “primary goal” of making money.
However, Honduras’s decision to repeal the ZEDE framework shows how the tenuous legal status of special economic zones can invite US concern. Threats by Honduras’s far-leftist Castro administration to expropriate American investments in Próspera and other ZEDEs have drawn notice in Washington. Letters by senators on the Foreign Relations Committee as well as the State Department’s Investment Climate Statements argue that a Honduran expropriation of US investments would violate the Dominican Republic–Central America–United States Free Trade Agreement and the US-Honduras bilateral investment treaty.
US investors in Próspera are not currently pushing for independence from Honduras. Likelier responses by Washington would involve tamer measures aimed at withdrawing US and International Monetary Fund aid to Honduras. Yet with tens of millions of dollars in foreign investment at stake, a hard left turn in Honduran politics and insufficient remedies through international arbitration institutions could push Próspera to contemplate the micronation route over time.
US recognition of micronations could be destabilizing, but findings in Micronations and the Search for Sovereignty lend credence to moves in this direction. Failures by the international community to recognize demands for national sovereignty have led secessionist movements around the world to adopt violent strategies of resistance, resulting in civil wars, refugee crises, and the proliferation of black markets. Micronations are taking a different approach. While challenging traditional concepts of statehood, they do so, in the authors’ words, “largely by engaging in the rituals of statehood rather than contesting them.” These strategic choices may reflect micronationalists’ philosophical commitments, but micronationalists’ rationale may weaken if international actors persist in denying even micronations’ most benign aspirations.