What does it mean when we say that a “country” has done or achieved something? Let’s look at a couple of examples:
- “Country X successfully launched a major space probe.”
- “An underdog team from country X wins a major sport competition.”
- “Country X attacks country Y.”
What or whom exactly are we referring to by “country”? Whom should we congratulate on the achievement? Whom can we blame for the war?
By “country”, do we mean its people? After all, it’s their money, by means of taxes, that was used to build and launch the probe. But, would it be correct to say that the “people” launched the space probe, since most people of the country might not even know that a probe was being launched, let alone be active participants in the decision to launch said probe? Similarly, what if most of the population of country X doesn’t play the said sport, or doesn’t want to attack country Y? If we consider the country to be defined by its people, can we really say that “country” X did whatever it did?
Or, by “country”, do we mean the specific people who were responsible for performing the action? Like the scientists and engineers and other support staff involved in launching the probe. Like the team and the coaches and relevant sport authority in winning the championship. Like the armed forces, the soldiers who actually go into the battlefield? These people are the ones who actually execute the job, so it makes sense to attribute the launch / win / war to these people, right? But then, do these people have the authority to make these decisions? Does a soldier really want to attack another country? Can the most brilliant bunch of top scientists and engineer launch a space probe without government approval and funding?
So, does that mean that by “country”, we mean its government or whatever other entity is in power? One might say that a government is elected by the people. So, equating a country to its government, is basically the same thing as equating the country to its people indirectly. But I’m not talking just about a democracy; in the general case, one has to consider other forms of government as well – dictatorships, monarchies, etc. In which case, the governing entity may not be controlled or influenced by the majority of the people of the country. Even in the case of a democracy, the majority of the country’s people may not agree with the elected government on all of its decisions. I doubt if there’s one country in the world, where the majority of the people have actually supported a decision to be the aggressor in an act of war, ever. It is the people in power who make these decisions to launch the space probe, to allow people to compete internationally, and to declare war on another country. It doesn’t seem right to attribute these actions, and the results thereof, to the general population of the country.
One might think, “This is it! It’s the government of the day that’s responsible for everything.” I did, at first at least. Before I realized that, in today’s highly globalized, capitalized and integrated world, when governments rise and fall with the market, when elections are fought and won on the back of huge “donations” from corporations, when “puppet” governments are just a facade for non-state actors and even other countries in some cases, can we really attribute the actions of a “country” to the official people “in power”, i.e., the government? Certainly not in all of the cases, right?
So then, who is to receive the bouquets / brickbats for the actions of a “country”? Truth is, I’m not sure. It’s a very complex problem, and there doesn’t seem to be any clear answer, not to me at least. And even if one could somehow define what or whom one is referring to by “country”, I think the answer would be subjective to that individual, or might even depend on the context in which one was talking.
When the meaning of a “country” itself is not clear, I think we should be careful where and how we use this word. For “positive” situations, for convenience purposes, it might be okay to say: “country X launched a space probe.” But when it comes to the more “serious” matters, how we phrase an event or action becomes important. One thing we could do is to try and express our thoughts via more concrete facts. So, instead of just saying, “country X attacked country Y”, we could say: “soldiers belonging to country X attacked soldiers of country Y”.
It might seem too much effort over too little a thing, but I think in today’s world – a world on edge on everything, where sensitivities can be hurt over the smallest of issues – it’s a very small price to pay if it can help in any way at all in maintaining and managing a sensible environment for everyone.
Regardless of whether one thinks it makes any difference at all or not over how the word “country” is used, I think it’s definitely worth thinking about what it means for oneself.