Calculating the number of countries in the world may seem like it should be a simple task, but it is one that quickly becomes fraught with political, geographical, and socio-economic difficulties. Depending on the source, the number of countries can vary quite considerably, and there is no universal agreement on the total.
However, many people look to the United Nations as the most reliable source, as for a country to become a member of the U.N. requires a considerable process of assessment and voting by existing members. A country applying for U.N. membership must receive consent from all five permanent member countries of the Security Council (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China), in addition to receiving approval from a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly.
At present, the U.N. recognizes a total of 197 countries. This includes 193 member countries, two U.N. observers (Holy See (Vatican) and Palestine), and Taiwan and Kosovo, each widely regarded as self-governed territories. Taiwan, in particular, is recognized as having significant economic resources. However, it should be noted that China regards Taiwan as being part of its territory, as does Serbia with Kosovo. Both are good examples of the political sensitivities involved in defining what makes a country, particularly when the area involved shares contested space, such as in the case of Palestine.
It is also worth noting that some well-established countries haven't always been members of the U.N., which complicates using U.N. figures. For example, Switzerland joined the U.N. in 2002, but few would argue over Switzerland's status as a sovereign state long before this date. It can therefore be useful to look to other internationally-recognized organizations for country data, such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
When looking at a map of the world, it may seem relatively easy to determine areas of the globe that look like they should be countries. For example, Greenland, a large island between the north Atlantic and Arctic oceans, certainly looks like it ought to be a country. However, Greenland is not a U.N. member country and, while it controls many of its own domestic affairs, it is, in fact, ultimately controlled by Denmark, a much smaller European country thousands of miles away.
Even the United Kingdom, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and a strong global economic player, is simply the collective name for the constituent countries of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, all of which have varying levels of devolution and each of which has a complicated political history with England, including territorial disputes that continue to this day.
All of this demonstrates that it is not so simple to determine the exact number of countries there are in the world, and the constantly changing nature of politics means that issues around sovereignty are unlikely to ever be fully resolved as the ever-shifting forces of globalization continue to redefine the meaning of nationhood.
The table below shows 232 because it includes territories and regions that have some elements of self-governance but are not considered sovereign states.