McGill University’s Ram S. Jakhuand and Kuan-Wei Chensay say there is an urgent need to rethink what constitutes a nation
IT IS HUMAN DESTINY to journey into the unknown, visit unvisited places and colonise uninhabited spaces and, irrespective of daunting obstacles along the way, to keep moving forward. We do so out of curiosity, out of necessity. Hari-vamsa, a Vedic scripture dating from the first or second centuries BC, speaks of planetary systems inhabited by humans. Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky professed that “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.” Though human migration to and settlement in space remain fiction for most, it is fast becoming reality. From the launch of Sputnik I to permanent habitation on-board the International Space Station, to plans for space mining, and even Mars colonisation, space offers boundless opportunities for scientific, technical, social, economic, and civilisational progress. Coupled with such benefits and progress must be new ways to organise society and the polity. Nations come and go, and inevitably nations will form in the vastness of space.
Today, there is an urgent need to rethink what constitutes a nation. The founding of Asgardia, the first space nation (though not state yet) of humanity, prompts us to reflect on our often-troubled past, contemplate the challenges and concerns we face in the present, and lay down the foundations for us to envision a peaceful and sustainable future on earth and in space.
THE SEEDS OF A NATION
The idea of a nation has evolved, and no doubt will continue to evolve with time, and with changing circumstances. Throughout human history, the idea of a nation arouses unity and community, and triggers political sensitivities. Wars are waged in the name of nationhood, conflicts continue to ravage or brew in parts of the world as peoples, unified by their shared beliefs and visions of a common future, struggle for acceptance, and recognition. Historically grounded on terrestrial concepts like territory and sovereignty, nationhood is often seen as the antithesis, or perhaps prelude, to statehood and proper recognition.
Indeed, the post-World War II governance of international relations is founded on and centred around the institutional mechanism of the UN. Nations came together and agreed to be governed by a body of international laws and norms that further ‘common ends’ of international peace and security, friendly relations and cooperation, of ‘solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character,’ and ensuring ‘respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all,’ (UN Charter, Article 1). These noble goals are reflected in the Declaration of Unity of Asgardia, and enshrined under the Constitution of Asgardia, which outline the aim to ‘promote peace in space and permanent peaceful settlement of the Universe’ as underpinning the ‘common and permanent foundations of the self-identification of Asgardian citizens,’ and lays down the political and legal framework of humanity’s ‘first independent, free, unitary’ and ‘transethnic’ space nation.
The building blocks of a new nation in space requires a sufficient populace inhabiting some form of physical structure in space, or even colony on a celestial body, that has the requisite facilities to ensure the continued sustenance and survival of the human population. Each community or nation in space would have to identify and address its own needs and aspirations, and formulate a unique governance structure underpinned by strong political and legal institutions to meet such needs and aspirations. To function and interact with other entities on the international plane, each community or nation would have to develop relations with other space communities and with nations and international organisations on earth. For this, they would have to develop diplomatic arrangements and seek observer status at, or membership of, earthly institutions. Though at current such recognition may be challenging, history demonstrates that the ‘law of nations’ evolves and adapts to meet emerging realities, trends and challenges.
SPACE NATION OF THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE
The late Stephen Hawking observed that the human race would not have a future if it does not migrate into space. With climate change, epidemics, exponential population growth, and unforeseen astronomical hazards, life on this ‘Pale Blue Dot’ is increasingly precarious. We must look to space for humanity’s survival.
In Global Space Governance: An International Study, a seminal work to be presented at the UN this June, dozens of experts from across the globe and across disciplines underlined the viability of human presence in space must begin with a critical examination of historical experiences and errors. Terrestrial preoccupations with sovereign interests and short-term exploitation must defer to public and equitable interests, and the needs of future generations on earth and in space. Humanity’s future requires mindfulness, foresight, and a revolution in thinking beyond the political and legal confines of the traditional nation-state. In the face of global issues and challenges on earth and in space, only global dialogue and long-term solutions can ensure the sustainability and survival of peoples of all races and creeds.
Indeed, much of the failures of the modern state in many parts of the world can be attributed to the imposition of artificial borders, institutional frameworks and ideologies that have little bearing on the wills and realities of the governed. The creation and recognition of nations has often been the result of long struggles. But nationhood need not continue tracing its origins to failed political experiments, atrocities that ‘shock the conscience’ of humankind, or be the end-goal of long-standing struggles for acceptance. Asgardia is different, for it is a trans-national effort that transcends existing terrestrial and historical conceptions of nationality and citizenship, of territory and sovereignty, to establish a ‘digital nation’ of citizens on planet Earth.
Asgardia’s founding objectives are noble and intrinsically related to the rapid expansion of humanity’s exploration and use of outer space. From satellite broadcasting to telecommunications, from global positioning and navigation to remote sensing activities to monitor, prevent, and mitigate consequences of natural disasters and environmental degradation, it is clear humanity’s future is inseverable from the great potential outer space, and celestial bodies like our Moon and asteroids, have to offer.
Asgardia’s commitment ‘to ensure the peaceful use of space, to protect the earth from space hazards, and to create a demilitarised and free scientific base of knowledge in space’ is not mere fantasy. It is a vision of a future free from ‘the scourge of war’ and outdated geopolitics, and for the common benefit of humanity. Asgardia’s political, legal, and social structure, though admittedly still under construction, deserve encouragement, recognition and more importantly positive ideas for improvement. The building blocks of the first space nation have already been laid: the first satellite, carrying Asgardia’s constitution and national symbols, and messages from its 100,000+ citizens, was launched in late 2017; democratic elections will be held to usher in Asgardian parliamentarians to represent 13 electoral districts based on geographic and linguistic representation of all Asgardians; and many concrete plans are being forged in this gradual process of space nation-building. These processes and institutions bring together, enshrine and protect a collective consciousness based shared visions and values transcending earthly social or political status, origin, or nationality.
“Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.” Locksley Hall, Alfred Lord Tennyson
Seeing our home planet from space, “envoys of mankind” experience what is termed the ‘overview effect.’ It is the overwhelming realisation that we are part of a universe that is greater, and grander, than the petty beliefs, conflicts, and borders dividing us. On this ‘Pale Blue Dot,’ in the face of calamities, natural or human-made, we stand united by our common vulnerability, fragility and humanity.
This commentary hopefully prompts dialogue about what a nation in the twenty-first century entails. Drawing inspiration from those rousing words of Abraham Lincoln that the nation “of the people, by the people and for the people” founded on noble and shared values ‘shall not perish from earth,’ such a nation would indeed thrive in space. Asgardia’s vision to look forward and outward, into the future and into the great unknowns of space, offers a refreshing perspective on nationhood — a notion that has long troubled, inspired and brought together people throughout history on Earth.
On the eve of a giant leap toward human migration into and habitation in space, it is up to us – scholars, diplomats, scientists, labourers, and ordinary concerned human beings alike – to forge a new nation that is unfettered by past mistakes and terrestrial modes of thinking. We need to do so for our own sake, for the sake of succeeding generations, and for homo sapiensto become a space-dwelling species.