Statehood, legal and practical considerations


The primary purpose of Lagrangian Republican Association is the establishment of an independent and sovereign republic in space. However, what is sovereignty? And what is a state? These questions are of great importance for every movement aimed at the colonization of space, whether in free space or on Mars. In this post we will discuss several issues related to statehood and sovereignty.

What is a state

Basically there are two theories regarding the definition of what constitutes a sovereign state. The first theory is known as the constitutive theory. According to this theory an entity is only a sovereign state within the framework of international law, if and only if such entity has been recognized by other states as a sovereign state.

Under the constitutive theory, the definition of a sovereign state is recursive. It presumes the existence of prior states, of course this was not a big issue back in 1815 when this theory was developed. However, it is a theoretical problem if we want to study states and international relations.

Because of such issues, the declarative theory of statehood was developed. Instead of depending on formal recognition by other states, political scientists and politicians have decided to look at certain empirical characteristics of states. According to the declarative theory, as formulated by the Montevideo convention, a sovereign state has to meet the following criteria: 1. a defined territory, 2. a permanent population,  3. a government and 4. being able to maintain relations with other states.

Whilst during the 19th century and the early 20th century the constitutive theory was more popular, the declarative theory is currently the most generally accepted theory. However, the latter is not entirely without problems. The first three criteria are mostly uncontroversial, the problem is with the fourth.

What does being able to maintain relations with other states actually mean? As we all know, states and governments are made of people. And people are naturally able to communicate with other people.The basic question is whether we can imagine an entity which meets 1, 2 and 3, while failing 4. We might argue that two persons are unable to communicate with each other, if they do not share a common language. However, even if two humans do not have a shared language, they can still have a limited degree of communication.

Another reason why a state might not be able to conduct relations with other states, is isolation. A few centuries ago, populations living on isolated islands were not able to maintain relation with populations across the ocean. But would this say that a thoroughly isolated polity is not a state, just because of its inability to communicate with other similar polities?

A strict application of the declarative theory, can be used to prove that a world state cannot exist. Although a world state does meet the first three criteria, it fails to meet the fourth. However, this failure is only due to the simple fact that such world state is unique, since a world state covers all humanity there can be no other states besides the world state. Since you cannot establish and maintain relations with non-existing states, a world states is not able to conduct relations with other states. Ergo, a world state is not a state, and since this is a contradictio in terminis a world state cannot exist.

We might speak of a de jure state if a polity is a state under the constitutive theory, if it has been recognized as such by others. And we can speak of a de facto state if a polity meets the criteria of the declarative theory. Most states are both de jure and de facto states.

It follows that a space settlement can be considered to constitute a state. After all, a space settlement has a certain territory (a space habitat) and a permanent population. And most space settlements would have some kind of government.


The question of sovereignty is mostly about to what extent states are sovereign. Some authors have argued that states are absolutely sovereign in respect of their domestic matters. This means that the internal affairs of a state are not the business of other states. In other words, a state has only authority over its own internal affairs and is not allowed to meddle with the similar affairs of other states. This is in essence the classic concept of sovereignty.

In modern times, i.e. after WW II, some people have argued that a state’s authority to manage its own affairs is limited by human rights. According to some interpretations of this conception of sovereignty states might intervene in the internal affairs of other states in order to protect human rights. This doctrine is known as the responsibility to protect. However, we believe that this is a very dangerous doctrine, since it can easily be abused to circumvent to prohibition on waging wars of aggression.

Sovereignty is not a simple matter of fact. States with a strong military defense have a better ability to defend their independence than states without strong military capabilities. Most modern states are unable to defend themselves adequately against military aggression from one of the great powers.

This is the reason why new states are eager to gain formal recognition of other states. International recognition of a state, is not just a polite welcome into the international community. When a state formally recognize another state, the former states explicitly that it will respect the sovereignty of the latter. If a state has been recognized by many other states, it can reasonably assume that there will be some state which will be willing to help that state, in case of a military conflict. This is why there military alliances, states either seek protection of a great power or they organise a common defense in order to defend the members against aggressors.

Space settlements will benefit from the large distances in outer space. This will make them less vulnerable for military aggression and unlike terrestrial nations, space settlement can be moved in case of need. This would increase the factual sovereignty of space colonists. But maintaining good relations with multiple great powers, will certainly help space colonies to survive.

State succession

The succession of states is a complicated topic. States are not static entities, they are dynamic. The population of states is always changing, citizens are born, they die, they emigrate or new immigrants are settling in the state. Also the territory of states is subject to change, sometimes a part is breaking away in order to form a separate state or to seek adherence to another state. Sometimes states will merge into a larger state, or a state has been dissolved into multiple smaller states.

The formation of new states on the territory of old states, has consequences for the relation with third states. Suppose a state A is split into two new states, B and C. And suppose that state D had a treaty with A. The question is are states B and C still bound by the treaty between A and D? And what about the embassies of A? Similar problems happen when there is merger of states into a new state.

We also have to distinguish between the change in regime and state succession. A regime change, for example when Nepal became a republic after two centuries of monarchy, is essentially nothing but a reorganization of an existing state. When a state adopts a new constitution, such as France did in 1958, no one would argue that the state has ceased to exist and that a new state has come into existence.

Some people have tried to codify the rules of state succession, I think however, that this would prove to be futile. First, there is the problem what to do with succession of states who were not parties to the Vienna Convention on the Succession of States in Respect of Treaties. One might argue that when a state ceases to exist, it also ceases to be a party to any treaty. The Vienna Convention is a treaty itself, and therefore might not be binding to the successor state(s).

Further every case of state succession has its own features, any attempt to standardize it would be have an adverse effect. Instead of providing a smooth transition between states, such standard rules might frustrate a smooth transition. Therefore it would be better to deal with state succession on a case-by-case base.

It’s unclear how succession of states will work in Space.

See also:

Federalism and Space colonization

3 thoughts on “Statehood, legal and practical considerations”

  1. I have learnt something new today, how or rather the conditions to met as a state and theories around statehood.
    I like this.

    1. Most of this, is what you get in the first lecture of a course on international relations as part of a BA program in political science.

  2. I’m also interested in the concept of statehood. Having watch the breakup of several synthetic states in recent history, the subject is very much of interest to us all. With the devolution of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, for instance, we’ve seen a collapse of imposed central government and a discarding of colonially imposed boundaries. Some of these transitions have been easier (and less bloody) than others.
    As regards point 4 of the declarative theory, the ability to sustain relations with other states, I tend to think in terms of interpersonal relations. Is a state able to comport itself with sufficient aplomb that other states will accept it and include it in the conversation? States, like people, can be pariahs, too (I’m thinking in terms of North Korea). Global interdependence tends to regulate certain state behaviors, just as societal bonds tend to keep most people in line with their peers.
    At some level i think it also boils down to a game of “king of the hill”, as well. If nobody wants your hill bad enough to take it from you, fine then: you are the king. If you are the best one at managing you hill’s territory and resources and your citizens are crying out for your head on a stake you are a statesman and you serve the collective good, both inside and outside your state.

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