Astropolitik: A Hypothetical Near Future


On a three dimension plane, where does a country end? If nations have such things as air space then the question of how high that space goes must be asked.

In the present day we have agreed that while satellites can be the property of a nation or a corporation-and so Earth orbit itself seems to be a neutral zone-this could change. Trump’s much derided ‘space force’, while hugely preemptive and likely just a PR gig for the time being, is still a very real future we Earthlings will face in the future should our technological capacity (and ability to support it) continue growing. This may provoke some kind of renegotiation for space and the power projection and militarization of it.

My personal hope would be that we could, in fact, put our Earthly differences aside when in the vast leagues of the solar system. But I know from history that hope is a hopeless bet. So long as there are multiple advanced nations on Earth a future of a solar system wrapped up in our power politics is very likely.

The Earth rotates of course, so unless we wanted to deal with the annoyance of an eternal airspace that oscillated throughout the cosmos based on Earth’s spin it seems most likely to me that competing space powers of the near future would seek to carve out distinct ‘zones of influence’ (mostly for mining and research stations) in specific locations. The earlier powers to Space Race 2.0 would have a huge advantage in finder’s keepers–though this could inspire the first offensive combat fleets from the late coming revisionist powers to take their fair share in turn. Certain asteroids and moons with deposits of useful materials would be the first stage of potential conflict zone. Whichever nation (or multinational) which held these in the long term would be given in turn a huge boost to their position back on Earth.

Keep in mind that one difference between all of this and present terrestrial warfare would be timing. War is faster and more instantaneous now than ever before…but that is just on Earth. Space itself and the distances under our present technological limitations drag out the pace of operations. Even information warfare that could be effectively conducted at the speed of light would no longer seem as instantaneous as it does back home, with such actions now having to be measured in light minutes and hours. Speed would matter more than anything else, including speed of physical weapons. Perhaps some kind of electronic equipment frying wave is the first attack followed by guided kinetics. The levels of sophistication in any conceivable future probably argue for a focus on larger, durable, and versatile vessels.

Let us push a few more hypothetical generations out. As a species we have managed to outdo my expectations and actually started the process not only of solar system colonization, but of terraforming. This means colonies are not little space-supplied pockets of experts but rather baby societies in the making with a self sustaining populations and basic tech levels.

It seems quite possible that if there were multiple nations on Earth with space-faring capacity, there would be nationally oriented colonies. Far less likely than see expensive and possibly pointless war between colonies on different celestial bodies, we would see multiple national colonies on the same most valuable celestial bodies. Think the Seven Years War in North America. So if Mars and Europa are the best place for colonists you would have multiple competing colonies on each. Geography, and geopolitics, come back into the fore in this new and more established phase of astropolitik. The underwater colonies of Europa, for example, moving towards negotiation over the space between the ice shelf ceiling and the sea floor in diplomacy with fleets of submarines to bolster their claims. The open nature and low gravity of Mars might be a boon for vehicles who can change from high to low altitude with great speed for a variety of technical purposes which could, in turn, be harvested strategically.

Of course, as  colonizing itself becomes easier with logistical improvements new colonies might bud off from the older ones which diverge from national origin and become ideologically or sectarian based. Political dissidents, religious fanatics, utopian experimenters, escaped prisoners, etc. This is the kind of future phase extremely well portrayed by my personal favorite computer game, Alpha Centurai, despite that game starting out with the initial settlement already being ideological rather than national. Think Pitcairn Island, the Gulla culture, Iceland being settled and then settling Greenland, the Qara-Khitai Khanate, etc.

But if the core assumption of geopolitics is that geography shapes the strategy (and historically, the people) of a place then this colony on colony rivalry eventually might give way to greater levels of solidarity against Earth. Food and basic tool production, once achieved on the colonies, makes them more functionally autonomous. The various second tier non-national colonies begin to influence their mother societies (for better or worse). Colonial conflicts might increasingly become more akin to civil wars, where one faction seeks to take the entire body of settlements for itself, or remove some kind of dangerous local pest, rather than its mother nation. Mother nations back on Earth, in turn, might themselves collapse leading to colonies being stranded, independent, or being absorbed by others. New home grown factions topple loyalists allied with the Motherworld to make new deals and institute reforms unwanted by home base.

In the end, the distances, assuming we never develop the truly impressive drives made necessary for storytelling in so much of science fiction (it does seem improbable to happen anytime soon from today’s vantage point) practically ensure many colonies become independent. Some might go a Qin Dynasty route with a Shi Huangdi type figure forcibly unifying and then making a whole celestial body uniform. Others might be anti-Earth (or anti-other colony) coalitions that are domestically autonomous. Some might descend into total city-state style colony on colony warfare once a common external threat is no longer viewed as possible. A truly successful terraforming project coupled with exploitation of some new abundant locally available resource might even see a colonial power come to rival or even out-class Earth itself…which might in turn be a boon for peace on Earth as the common, now properly ‘alien’ threat might just bring those fractuous nations of Earth together for once.

Of course, Africa begat humanity and the Middle East begat urbanized agrarian civilization, and those have never yet unified in the face of outside threats so…there is always the chance that powerful colonies than completely reverse the process and begin fighting with each other on Earth over slices of Earth proxies and junior partners. You have to admit, there is a certain humorous irony in that. Especially if it eventually ends up creating Pan-Earth-Solidarity through anticolonial resistance to the occupation of the ex-colonies.

For this entry I was keeping solely with what seems realistic for a future expanding multi-polar humanity to achieve. In the future I might consider a less reality rooted hypothetical of faster-than-light transport and what it would mean for an interstellar empire or a few of them. If you are new to the blog and want to see the few other times I have talked about science fiction you can find my take on Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and IR theory (specifically neoclassical realism) here, and the overlooked but interesting concept of geopolitics and anticolonial war in Heavy Gear here.