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I pose a question with a seemingly simple answer: How many countries are there in the world?

That should be a piece of cake.  Just count up the number of countries on the map.  Or look at the roster of United Nations members.  Surely that would yield the definitive number, right?

Well, actually, it’s surprisingly difficult, if not impossible, to come to a definitive number, as the following video from one of my favorite YouTube accounts, CPGrey, explains:

The problem is that when you start taking a close look at world maps you’ll see quite a few discrepancies.  Borders of countries vary depending on who wrote the map, because of a number of disputed territories around the world.  If we wanted a “definitive” source, we might turn to the U.N., but even that membership list does not quite reflect reality.  The U.N. has 193 members, but Vatican City, the smallest independent country in the world, is not included.

Adding further complications, several areas in the world technically belong to one country, but are de facto independent.  They are effectively self-governing, and are recognized as independent countries by some of the other countries in the world, but not all.  These quasi-independent areas include Transnisitia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.  The second two of these places are claimed by Georgia, and their location is shown on the following map:

Abkhazia and South Ossetia shown within Georgia (via Wikipedia)

This situation creates a bit of trouble for the cartographer striving for objectivity.  Do you show these two places as independent countries, implicitly supporting their claims of sovereignty?  Or do you side with Georgia and most of the international community and show them merely as autonomous areas within Georgia?  One cannot completely avoid politics in cartography.

As the video indicates, this creates tension for foreign policy as well.  These quasi-countries were born of recent or current military conflicts.  Recognizing one of them as independent or not means taking a side in that country’s conflict, and any decision you make will anger the other side.  A notable example is Taiwan, which the U.S. does not officially recognize as a country so as not to damage relations with mainland China.  But for all intents and purposes, the U.S. still treats Taiwan as a separate country, without referring to it as such.  So does it get added to the total or not?  Should the criteria for being included on the list of countries be legal recognition by the rest of the world? Or simply being acting and being treated like a de facto country?

It soon becomes clear that there is no way to come to a definitive number of countries in the world, since there is no universally accepted definition of country.  There are 193 U.N. members, 195 countries recognized by the US State Department, and 204 countries that regularly participate in the Olympics (including many non-independent territories, such as Puerto Rico).

So how can anyone conclusively answer this question?  My suggestion is to just say “about 200”, and you’ll be close enough.