Can a country 'die'?

Of course, a country can simply cease to exist if it is divided, conquered, or absorbed into another country. And we may soon see our first examples of entire countries becoming uninhabitable due to environmental factors. 

But economist and FP contributor Edward Hugh has something else in mind, prompted by a look at Ukraine's current demographic trends:

In all cases of low fertility societies young population exodus is a problem, but in Ukraine’s case it is well nigh lethal. The country has a little over 45.5 inhabitants and the population is shrinking by 330,000 per year. Besides the birth/death deficit emigration obviously contributes significantly to this sharp downward demographic trend.

Even without emigration the population would be falling, since the birth rate is around 1.3 (well short of the 2.1 replacement level) and far more die each year than are born, but the fact that so many also chose the exit route raises deep and preoccupying questions about the future of such countries.

He continues: 

So where does all this lead. Well it leads me personally to ask the question whether it is not possible that some countries will actually die, in the sense of becoming totally unsustainable, and whether or not the international community doesn’t need to start thinking about a country resolution mechanism somewhat along the lines of the one which has been so recently debated in Europe for dealing with failed banks. [...]

In fact populations dying out is nothing new in human history if we move beyond the most recent world delineated by nation states. In hunter gatherer times populations occupied increased or reduced proportions of the earth’s surface as climate dictated. In more modern times, islands have been populated or become depopulated according to economic dynamics (think the Scottish coastline). More recently, it is clear the old East Germany would have become a country in need of “resolution” had it not sneaked in under the umbrella of the Federal Republic. Why people should find the idea of country failure so contentious I am not sure, perhaps we have just become accustomed not to have “hard” thoughts.

Applying the argument many apply to banks, unsustainable countries “deserve” to fail, don’t they? Why should the US or German taxpayer have pay to keep them afloat? Naturally, including Spain in this group of countries that can only now salute Cesar as they prepare to die my seem extreme, but just give it time. 

I expect (should I say “predict” in the Popperian sense, since this argument IS empirical, and is surely falsifiable) the first countries to die to be in Eastern Europe, with the most likely candidates to get the ball rolling being Belarus, Ukraine and Serbia. But then gradually this phenomenon will spread along the EU periphery, from East to South. Latvia’s own president said recently that if the net outflow of population was not stopped, within a decade the country’s independence would not be sustainable. I don’t think he was exaggerating.

I tend to be more of a glass-half-full guy when it comes to whether societies can adapt to falling populations. At the very least we should acknowledge that population trends can by reversed. Before the shale gas revolution it would have been hard to predict that North Dakota -- the third least populous state -- would have the fastest growing population in the U.S. In the 1950s, it would have been hard to predict that today people would be using the term "urban prairie" to refer to Detroit. 

But Hugh's question is an interesting one to consider. I suspect that even in the bleakest, Children of Men-style population scenarios, most countries would fight to the bitter end before surrendering their sovereignty. The exception might be places like Ukraine that have a relatively recent experience as part of a larger geopolitical entity and a large ethnic population with ties to a neighboring country. 

A country couldn't be liquidated quite as neatly as a company -- even if the state goes away, there's still a chunk of land and some people living on it to deal with. The main obstacle to countries being "dissolved" may be that other countries may not want to take on the responsibility of dealing with them -- what country really wants to take on a new sparsely populated, economically stagnant region?

Of course, as some predict, the future may hold a decline of the nation-state model itself, but then we've got bigger questions to deal with.

Via Marginal Revolution 

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images