(Co-author: A. Ahram) De facto states are political entities that possess control of territory but lack international recognition. Such entities appear to violate the norm of border fixity and the principle of territorial integrity in multiple ways. The mere existence of these de facto states seems to represent a thorn in the side of the contemporary state system as a whole. The breakaway of one state is just a step on the slippery slope, what some have recently referred to as the “Kosovo precedent.” Once emboldened, secessionist movements threaten to rip apart every state, particularly those whose provenance is already based on shaky colonial foundations. Ultimately, the entire international system could founder.
In this memo we draw a distinction between bounded and unbounded de facto states based on the differing relationships of various de facto states to the basic principles of the international system. Most de facto states are distinctly bounded. Their ruling elites lay claim to a specific piece of territory, and they derive their legitimacy from a clearly defined notion of peoplehood. In contrast, unbounded de facto states recognize no territorial limits in their understanding of peoplehood.
Both bounded and unbounded de facto states are necessarily motivated by exclusionary definitions of peoplehood. But bounded de facto states make inherently limited and sovereign claims in the name of a specific “core group.” These core groups are typically defined by ethnic, religious, linguistic, tribal, racial attributes, and/or cultural practices. Unbounded states are motivated by equally discriminating narratives about a core group, but with a twist: they lay claim over the globe. Such unbounded narratives take many forms and have many protagonists, including the global proletariat in the Communist narrative and, more recently, the Islamic ummah (nation) for the Islamic State.
Though damaging to the parent state(s) that previously encompassed them, bounded de facto states do not spell the demise of the international system as whole. In contrast, “unbounded” de facto states, despite their rarity, appear to disrupt the entire international system. These political entities, such as the Islamic State with its religious underpinnings—like many previous revolutionary states and/or organizations—are the ultimate revisionist players in the international system, seeking to undo the very foundations of sovereignty. Over time, though, these unbounded players can gradually learn the “rules of the game” and become reconciled to and integrated within the international system.