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space (spās) n. 1. space beyond the atmosphere of the earth.

prag·ma·tism (prgm-tzm) n. A way of approaching situations or solving problems that emphasizes practical applications and consequences.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005


As I have been pondering the fate of a lunar colony this Christmas, I came across an idea. What is sovereignty? The diction says:

Freedom from outside interference and the right to self-government

Well that answers that. More to the point how does a group gain sovereignty?

Over the past few months, I have read more than a few novels on Moon colonies. Most notably, Ben Bova’s Moonwar and Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. In these, and most other novels, the lunar citizens are forced to declare independence and fight a war for their freedom.

Since I am on vacation this week, I have given myself the freedom to dwell on philosophical what-ifs for a little while. And having done that, I have found myself asking, what makes a country sovereign?

Is it simply the will to declare as a collective the will to determine your own destiny? Or is it the point at which other countries recognize your sovereignty? At worst it is when the primary opponent of your independence gives in.

To answer this question in my most Socratic fashion, let us examine some historical examples of groups of people declaring sovereignty.

Let me premise this by saying, I am in no way a historian. But let us consider for a moment, when did the United States of America become a self-governing nation? Was it at the signing on the Declaration of Independence? Perhaps it was when the war was over. I may have even been when we, as a collective, decided to separate ourselves from England and stopped obeying their laws.

Think you have the answer. Well how about this one? When the southern states withdrew from the union, were they sovereign? Did they, in fact, create a new nation? Or, because they did not when the war, were they never an independent nation.

In a more modern example, when did Iraq become a sovereign nation? When the US troops rolled into Baghdad or at the last elections? When Sadam was found and put on trial? Maybe they still aren’t a sovereign nation.

Okay, great political philosophy discussion, but what does this have to do with space exploration? What does sovereignty mean for colonist on another “celestial body?” If all the nations of the Earth said “You can not be sovereign,” does that make them not sovereign?

To say it more generally, does a group’s right to self-govern depend on other countries’ willingness to accept their sovereignty? When a group of lunar colonist decide to quote the immortal words of Whitney Houston and tell the Earth to “kiss my ass,” are they subject to a treaty other countries signed.

Can a group of countries 225,000 miles away take away a person’s right of self determination? Do people even have a God given right to self determination? If people, in fact, have a right to determine how they are going to be ruled, what treaty could take that away?

I am curious about your thoughts on this.


zztop said...

I'll be blunt and say it solely depends on the power of the group or nation to obtain and maintain self-government whatever form that takes.

History is full of countries and empires taking over the weaker lands for their own use. These tensions exist today, and they will in the future. Just because most European countries have learned to co-exist peacefully now, doesn't mean that they will continue to do so. Even if they do, other nations driven by pride, lust for power, or sheer necessity to survive, will declare war on a weaker state.

Specific to the moon, it currently enjoys an isolation comparable to the new world four centuries ago. If settled, they will initially be very dependent and controllable. But, if the Lunarians can achieve some level of self-sufficiency, then they have a window of opportunity to declare and maintain independence. If the Lunarians militarize rapidly, they may even be in a position to dominate the earth's nations.

Brian Dunbar said...

See for a nice discussion on what sovereignty means in the modern (post Westphalia) era. Good reference for a layman I think.

In practical terms you have sovereignty when you exercise control over territory you claim and are recognized by independent powers as sovereign.

Which is, granted, something of a chicken and egg argument. What makes a country sovereign? Force of will, mostly, plus outside assistance, or at least benign neglect.

Self sufficiency is nice, but not needed.

In terms of the 19th century the Republic of Texas was not self sufficient. No manufacturing, the economy was completely agricultural. Everything was imported from the United States or home made. Yet the Republic existed for 10 years as a sovereign country, recognized by several European powers, fought (limited) wars and so on.


That extra-terrestrial communities would seek self-government is not a given - the American Revolution was something of a new thing in the world, enabled by special conditions that obtained in the British Colonies. The general rule of thumb was that colonies would be ruled from the Metropolitan and always would be; provision was never made for independence.

For that matter the genius that permitted the growth of the United States was the Northwest Ordinance, permitting territories to apply for state hood on an equal footing with established states. We see this as the rule not the exception that it is.

Would an extra-terrestrial community seek independence? Depends on how they see themselves. People going to settle the frontier and who don't expect to come back are going to demand self representation if they're coming from an Anglosphere tradition.

If you're just heading out for a few years to make your fortune you won't care, or if you come from a culture that does not encourage civil rights - if you're a peasant here you'll be a peasant there.

Glen said...

Three things occur to me on the subject of sovereignty. 1) Tribalism. Since the time when humans were hunter gatherers they formed mutual assistance groups based on division of labor. They quickly identified as 'us' and readily indentified competing tribes as 'them'. Defense and ecconomics were the priorities. Modern humans are no different and future ones will be the same.
2)Human Nature. This one is tricky, but one constant is 'Alpha-Male'. Testosterone was a vital element in ensuring survival of the species and genetic continuance. Chiefs, Pharoahs,kings, prime ministers, presidents, CEOs ad infinitum to establish their own power bases so rebellions are inevitable. Sovereignty means ownership.
3) economics and resources. If there are energy sources and natural resources from which to create wealth, there will be a desire to posses it for oneself. Sponsoring governments and coporations will resist attempts to sever the financial arrangement. Whether private security forces or interested governments are employed, there will be violence. Ultimately the colony will prevail assuming it is an evolutionary, (sociologically), advance. Such was the case in 1776 America. The Moon is sufficiently difficult to get to to provide some military advantage and isolation as was the Atlantic ocean at one time.
I would prefer that sponsors of colonies would nuture them until they were self sustaining then grant them independence with out the strife.

jay said...

sovereignty to me lies in the instant and for the entirety of time an indevidual refuses to be governed or be supportive of anything but his or her own concience.i was always a conciencouse objecter and registered as such when i turned 18 when those letters from selective service came.however with sovereignty it seems to me that while being legally exempt without repercussion from taxes is the practical and moral thing to do since i do not believe it is my needs or morals these taxes go to maintain and at best would still be funding the imposition of my views on others,it seems to me controdictory to say that sovereignty could be granted by anyone else.i live as a free man or a conquered one .it's ironic to have to claim just shows what statis you were previously in case you were one of those who thought you were free becouse you were brought up with a blasphemouse definition of the word.i read somewhere once that you legally give up sovereignty when you accept a social securety number.interesting since you aren't even old enough to speak!