Ruling the World: The sci-fi assumption of 'Government Earth'

by Tom Grundy

Ruling the World: The sci-fi assumption of ‘Government Earth’
October 10, 2019 Tom Grundy

In Babylon 5, ‘Earth Dome’ controls the planet. In The Expanse, the United Nations rules the Earth. Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets rules civilisations spanning many worlds, as does the Hegemony of Man in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. We seem to accept and expect that the idea of ‘countries’ will one day disappear — but how might this come about?

A ‘global’ or civilisation-wide government is a mainstay of classic science fiction. The idea that, as mankind’s borders recede into the cosmos, Earth will become a single administrative entity seems oddly intuitive. But Earth today is an anarchy of sovereign states, few of which seem eager to cede their autonomy to a supernational body. From where we’re standing, it is far from obvious how ‘Government Earth’ might come to pass. 

Earth currently hosts 195 ‘countries’, defined as territories with their own borders and total sovereignty over the area as well as the population they enclose. No one country (in theory) can exercise legitimate control over any other — internationally, the situation is anarchy. 

There are  supranational bodies, like NATO, but these tend to be either practically toothless or limited in scope — for example, a free trade area or mutual defence agreement. 

So how likely is ‘Government Earth’? 

Do you have a flag?

What about a future in which space expansion leads to even more independent nations? For example, there could soon be a nation of The Moon, or Mars. It is easy to imagine an Asimovian scenario in which second-generation settlers on those worlds begin to resent the shackles of mother Earth and agitate for autonomy. As Asimov suggests in The Gods Themselves, it might only take one baby to be born in a colony for thoughts of self-determination to rise in a previously-quiescent population of scientists.

There is historical precedent for this in colonialism. Would the Nation of the Moon, the Republic of the Asteroid Belt, or the Federation of Mars join the United Nations, I wonder?

Another option might be for the countries as we know them today to persist into the future, as humanity’s borders expand. In the Commonwealth Saga by Peter F. Hamilton, the nations of Earth use wormhole technology to claim new planets far away, such as a planet called The Democratic Republic of New Germany. Potentially these colonies could be founded as scientific outposts from the mother country, but rather than treated as a vassal territory, they might be embraced and represented as a core part of the nation itself — perhaps even playing host to the state’s centre of government. 

This option necessarily means that geography is decoupled from the concept of the ‘state’. Something called ‘Finland’ could mean both a small bit of the land on the northern hemisphere of Earth as well as a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. It is interesting to wonder what the term ‘country’ might mean in those circumstances. 

The third option might be called a ‘mega-United Nations’ (UN) — the voluntary, unanimous establishment of a supernational governing body ruling Planet Earth, relegating countries as we know them today to something like states in a federal system. The UN is probably the closest thing the Earth has to a global government — and does have an armed ‘peacekeeping’ force (the Blue Helmets) — but its power derives from collective assent and therefore disappears as soon as unanimity is lost among the five-member Security Council.

The UN itself was created in 1945, at a unique moment in world history. The Second World War had just ended. This had happened a mere couple of decades after the first one, and had seen the world’s first deployment of weapons capable of levelling entire cities. Many governments worldwide, for the first time in the history of our species, decided that the stakes were now too high (and the cost too great) for nationalism — it was time for something above nations, to keep the peace between them. 

The fact that, after a half-century of the bloodiest warfare and greatest loss of life the world had ever seen, the UN was the only result is evidence enough that countries are a sticky idea. Over the decades since, as the depredations of the Second World War have slowly turned from memory to history, nationalism has grown again. Any governing body needs the support of the governed to exist, and humans seem to be much more loyal to the idea of the geographically and culturally-defined nation state than they are to a rootless union.

Indeed, the UN is not at present viewed with enthusiasm by the most powerful and populous nations of Earth, most of whom have become stridently nationalistic in recent years. It is difficult to imagine a revanchist Russia, for example, agreeing to be bound by the diktats of an international body, or China’s increasing economic muscle submitting to be subject to rules it only helped to write. Even America — the architect of the current international rules-based order — seems to resent its role as an arbiter of that system, a position many countries view as a gross privilege. With many countries currently racing to gain a stake in space, if anything their national identities and pride in their sovereignty seem to be growing.

And this could, possibly, lead to the fourth option: hegemony. It is conceivable that, if the United States had retained the political will to dominate space through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, their lead today in the ‘final frontier’ might have been unassailable. The ‘Star Wars’ program of missile defence coupled with permanent outposts in space might have led to a dominance of the Earth’s skies that, while not technically a global government, would yield enough influence and power that it might as well be. A state with the resources and the will to exploit the first mover’s advantage in space could become so influential and dominant that it could dictate terms without risk of a hot conflict. Arguably, this chance has now been lost: the list of states attempting ambitious missions in space is growing, and private enterprise appears to be dictating the pace of change.

The fifth option, and perhaps the most obvious, is empire — the forced union of previously-autonomous territories by one expansionist power. In other words, another World War. 

Historically, the largest areas under a single government have been empires. Empires have two practical benefits in terms of governing large tracts of territory: one, by nature they are not paralysed by the disparate wants of their composite countries; and two, the means by which they are established become the method for their control and administration. Armies are effective at keeping populations pliable, and military infrastructure can translate smoothly to civil government infrastructure. The Roman Empire was established by superior armed force; and the presence of that same armed force, with the continent-spanning communication networks and infrastructure it brought, helped sustain the empire in peacetime. 

But warfare today isn’t like that. In the nuclear age, countries are like people standing waist-deep in petrol, each holding a lit match — the odds of another World War that leaves anything left to govern seem slim.

How big could a single state be?

The largest empire in history was the British one, which spanned about a quarter of the globe at its height in the early 20th century. The upper limit to the size of a state is probably a function of technology — how quickly can a message be sent from the centre to the outlying regions? Better technology allows for distances to shrink; with globalisation it is common to hear people talk about the world ‘getting smaller’. In a real way, places are not separated by distance, they are separated by time — the time it takes for a message to travel. It is conceivable that, if communication between the outlying reaches of a state and its administrative centre was quick and rich, a single country could be very large indeed.

Larger than a planet, perhaps? Probably not; electronic communication and satellites may have allowed us to send messages across our own planet in the blink of an eye, but at present our understanding of nature suggests that the speed of light might be a real hard limit on the speed of communication. If so, the absolute fastest a message could reach a planet orbiting our closest neighbour star would be more than four years. It seems unlikely that a colony on a world orbiting Alpha Centauri would not decide to govern themselves rather than wait that long for orders from Earth.

It comes down to practicality

A ‘country’ is something defined on a map; a ‘nation’ is a body of people with a shared sense of cultural identity. When the borders of these two do not align, tension and strife ensue. The reason counties exist in the forms they do, by and large, is because their geography and circumstances permit unified control. When this ceases to be the case (due to distance, geography, war, or culture) countries tend to cease to exist, split into parts, or otherwise remain unstable and difficult to govern.

This is probably because of the fundamental nature of humans. We are naturally governable under certain circumstances, due to our collective psychological characteristics. To illustrate simply: it may be possible to govern X number of people if you can get a message across the territory in Y time and the people in question share Z cultural characteristics. As long as humans as a collective entity behave recognisably, we can assume that ‘countries’ will emerge according to shared culture and administrative practicality into the future. 

So how likely is it that the fate of humanity is to be unified under a single government? For what it’s worth, my bet is probably for option one. ‘Government Earth’ is only likely to arise by conquest or after an incredibly destructive war. If neither of these come to pass, what we are more likely to see is the status quo, writ large: a cornucopia of nations, divided and defined by whatever geography they find themselves in, scattered amongst the stars.