Sovereign Nations as Interacting Molecules

Alvin M. Saperstein
Wayne State University

This is a time of growing populist nationalism in the U.S. and in several European nations, a time of growing unilateralism and suspicion of multilateralism or internationalism, a time of growing emphasis on the concept of national sovereignty. But emphasis on sovereignty in the past has frequently led to war -which, for many, was an acceptable outcome. The growing international destructiveness of war, caused by the “progress” of technology, human ingenuity, has led many to seek ways of avoiding deadly international conflict and hence trying to put limits on national sovereignty. Some have sought to achieve these limits via the creation of an overarching world power – a “world government”, either by force of arms, by peaceful mutual agreement, or by some combination of the two. Many doubt the feasibility of this hope. Is it possible for the many independently sovereign nations to reach a stable, mutually comfortable, arrangement without an overpowering external force? This is a “social science” problem, but it may be that some productive insight into its resolution may be derived from the “physical sciences”.

The word “science” in the designation of “political science” implies that this academic discipline wishes to apply the scientific methods pioneered by the “natural sciences”: observation; experiment; theory creation; further observation and experiment to test, modify, extend or reject the theories; application of the theories to practical problems. As a physical scientist, I am in no position impartially to judge the success of political science as a science. I can, however, suggest analogies to concepts that have proven useful in physics and hope that they will prove heuristically useful to some of the conceptual or practical problems facing the political science of international relations. I suggest that a collection of ideally “sovereign” nations acts much like the elastically colliding molecules of an “ideal gas”—chaotically and violently interacting with each other. However, the constraints of our modern, nuclear-armed world modify this ideal sovereignty so that a collection of “real” nations, like a set of real molecules, which may condense into a liquid and then an ordered solid, may undergo a spontaneous transition to an ordered system which rules out the violent interactions that have been so characteristic of the international system of the past.

Sovereign Molecules

In an ideal gas, molecules are entities that interact with each other only upon direct contact (“collision”) as they move among each other through physical space. The only forces between molecules occur at the peripheries of the molecules at the instant of collision: the individual molecule extends no force, exerts no influence, at any distance from itself. Furthermore, the collisions are elastic: they exert no influence upon the interiors of the molecules participating in the collision and are completed at the instant they commence. Excepting the instantaneous moment of impact, these ideal molecules do not “know” of each other’s presence; the interior of each of these molecules is never “aware” of the existence of the others. The result of these elastic collisions among many molecules, confined in a finite enclosed space, is molecular chaos—completely disordered motion of the individual molecules (no discernible pattern). In an unbounded space, the molecules rapidly distance themselves from each other. Appropriate averages over these random motions lead to the usual ideal gas laws (Boyle’s Law – at a constant temperature, the pressure of a gas is inversely proportional to its volume; Charles’ Law – at a constant pressure, the volume of a gas is directly proportional to its absolute temperature). These laws successfully describe the behavior of real gasses at sufficiently high temperatures—that is, when the average energy, per real molecule, is sufficiently great.

Real molecules exert long range forces upon each other—their influence extends far beyond their individual peripheries. This influence extends to the interior of the interacting molecules and is also extensive in time—the influence both over external motions and internal affairs extends over finite durations of time. When the temperature is high enough, the motions of these real molecules cannot be distinguished from those of ideal ones. The energies of their individual motions so far exceed the energies of their mutual and internal interactions that the latter cannot be noticed. They still display the random violent motions of ideal gas. However, as the mean molecular energies are lowered (that is, as the temperature is decreased), the extended mutual influences of the molecules allows the spontaneous occurrence of order. The energies of mutual attraction begin to countervail against the energies associated with the random flying apart of the molecules. They begin to “clump” together rather than strive to fly apart; the gas begins to liquify. At sufficiently low temperatures, structural patterns of molecular position and motion are formed—patterns commonly described as “crystals” – the gas has “frozen” into a solid. These intrinsic, ordered, patterns are not the result of any imposed templates or overall “planning and negotiation.” They just “happen” when the circumstances are right. The ordered motion of molecules in a crystal is “collaborative”—all move together: “all for one and one for all,” though it must be kept in mind that all relative motion does not cease in a real crystal at a finite temperature. The molecules still “jiggle” around their respective equilibrium positions.

Sovereignty of Nations

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines “sovereignty” as a “supreme power, especially over a body politic”, or “freedom from external control.” The power of sovereign government over its people or territories is “unlimited in extent.” A sovereign nation can treat its people and its territories as it wishes. The government of the People’s Republic of China, or of Myanmar, can hence legitimately complain about infringement upon their sovereignty by a world that enunciates horror at those government’s massacre of their own citizens. A sovereign United States, “of an unqualified nature,” can shrug its shoulders with legal impunity as the acid rains generated in its territories destroy the lakes and forests of a sovereign Canada, “having undisputed ascendancy” over its land and waters. Sovereign nations, ideally, have absolute authority of their own territory and no authority at all over the territory of others. There is no overlap of sovereignty except by the deliberate projection of force onto the territories of others-which, of course, is an act of war. War does not respect sovereignty.

A collection of such ideal sovereign nations, on the finite surface of the Earth, is a group of non- influencing entities, immune in their interiors to the activities of others, interacting only briefly and violently at their peripheries. Such as system is chaotic—without order: “The international systems, whether it is dominated for a time by six Great Powers or only two, remains anarchical—that is, there is no greater authority than the sovereign, egoistical nation-state” (Kennedy, Paul. 1987. The Rise and Decline of Great Powers. New York: Random House, page 440; emphasis added). The analogy between such a system and an ideal gas, as described in the previous section, seems very close, including the tendency of both systems to push out to fill the entire available space: the gas pushes to its container walls, exerting a pressure upon them; the nations push out over the non-nation territories of the globe, colonizing or incorporating them. Also, like ideal molecules, the definitions of the ideal sovereign nation give no hint as to the origin of its sovereign nature: sovereignty just “is.” Actually, of course, molecules are created by intermolecular collisions—chemical reactions; sovereignty also is created by interactions—wars—between states or “tribes”, between feudal lords and warriors, between peoples and states or lords.

Limits to Sovereignty

In the nuclear age, even small nations may challenge the viability of the interior capital cities of distant superpowers. (Israel may be able to threaten Teheran with nuclear devastation delivered by its own Jericho II ballistic missiles or by its US supplied F-16 aircraft; eventually it may be able to similarly strike Moscow. Similarly, Pakistan can threaten New Delhi and India can threaten Karachi. Even now, France or Great Britain possess the capability of destroying Moscow or Beijing with ballistic missiles launched from underground silos or submarines. Of course, the major nuclear powers, possessing large stocks of immensely powerful nuclear weapons with the means to project them anywhere in the world regardless of natural or man-made defensive barriers, have the capacities to destroy each other., all the rest of the nations, and perhaps all of humankind as we know it via radioactive fallout and/or “nuclear winter”. A nation that cannot even guarantee the survival of its own citizens, much less its own survivability as an entity, cannot be said to be free “from external control.” Even without nuclear weapons, nations can inflict grievous harm upon each other via the long-range delivery of potent chemical and biological weapons as well as with the precision placement of “conventional” explosives (e.g., Seoul remains at the “mercy” of North Korea’s massive conventional artillery stocks). And how can we say that its power over its territories is” unlimited” when the nation, big or small, may not even be able to protect its peacetime commercial air—land—and waterways from death and disruption at the hands of “terrorists” representing other nations, or not nations at all? The 2016 U.S. national elections have shown how difficult it is to guarantee the validity of its own political processes from the interference of other nations. (Supposedly, there were also recent attempted international interferences in French and German national elections.)

Given the destructiveness that even a very small, “weak” nation can inflict upon its neighbors, nations who themselves are firm believers in national sovereignty do not willingly extend that concept to neighbors. And these neighbors, and the rest of the world, may accept these restraints—giving up the “good” of sovereignty for the “good” of peaceful quasi-sovereignty. If the Palestinians ever hope to achieve statehood without destroying Israel, it will only be by the acceptance of severe restrictions as to what military power they may create and maintain upon their national territory, surely a great limitation on the usual “undisputed ascendance” over its lands and peoples. (And Israel will have to give up some of its absolute authority over the surface and sub-surface waters of the region and its sea coast.)

But “acts of war,” whether in “peace” or wartime, nuclear or otherwise, are not the only infringement upon conventional “sovereignty.” Can a nation be free “from external control” when a good part of its land, resources, communication facilities (such as “Facebook”), and productive capacities, belong to other nations, when many of the tools necessary for defense and economic well-being in a modern, technological age, must be acquired from other distant nations, when many of its people can only be productively employed and gain a livelihood under the direction and control of citizens of “foreign” nations?

Economics and long-range projection of weapons are not the only constraints upon traditional sovereignty. In a finite world, the resources—for example, oil from internal or external sources—used by one nation in advancing its comfort and well-being, are used up and no longer available to other people’s when they become capable and wish to exploit the same portion of the earth’s goods. Fish caught in the Pacific by Japan are no longer available in Peru; in fact, with the prevalent over-fishing, they may not be available to anybody! Nations can, and do, poison the air, waters, and lands of their neighbors either intentionally, or inadvertently via usual economic activities.

Furthermore, the harm may not come from a neighboring nation—the source may be “generic”! The fluorocarbons leaking from an automobile air conditioner in an American city contributes to the “hole in the ozone layer” over an Australian citizen. The burning of rain forests in Brazil contributes to the global “greenhouse effect”, warming the atmosphere, melting the polar icecaps, thus contributing to droughts in the farmlands of the American Midwest and floods in the impoverished sea plain of Bangladesh. The generation of peaceful Ukrainian nuclear-electric power in the then Soviet Union has led to the destruction of the livelihoods of peaceful Lapp reindeer herders in northern Sweden.

Hence even without war (the customary creator and destroyer of the nation-state and the usual accomplice of the system of sovereign states) or warlike acts, sovereignty—as customarily defined—is a fiction of the modern age. Nations do have profound influences upon each other even in peacetime, upon the peoples as well as the governments of the rest of the world. The completely anarchic system of states, which is the corollary of the existence of the individual sovereign state, is also fictional. Many actions, having significant impact upon domestic life, are done “in concert” by the various nations—even competing ones. (Even in the midst of deadly combat, Iraq and Iran met to discuss oil production quotas and prices.) There is already considerable “order” and restraint—some things are “just not done” even though the “power” to do them exists. And the ordering is becoming stronger.

Order of Nations

It is usually assumed that the alternate system to the present anarchic system of completely sovereign states is one of order through world government. Such a single government could come about with the planned conquest of all other states by one of the super-powers. However, given the fact that even one of the smaller nations, acting in its own defense, could destroy a superpower, admittedly committing suicide in the process, it seems unlikely that a viable world order will result from military conquest.

An alternative to military ordering is economic domination of the many by the one. But the modern “high tech” world is very unstable. Today’s small nations become tomorrow’s economic superpowers while the economic giants of today fritter away their tomorrows via the uncontrolled accumulation of debt, the disintegration of their societies’ physical, cultural, and educational infrastructure, and the growth of domestic disorder. Hence a planned economic ordering also seems unlikely.

Many assume that a formal ordering of the world will come about as a result of diplomatic negotiations among governments if not by conquest or economic domination. After reaching agreement on the templates for world order via long, tedious, and agonizing negotiations, nations would presumably diminish their individual sovereignties in a carefully orchestrated, step-by-step, non-spontaneous process. But there is no evidence that such a process is under way, and no reason to believe that any foreseeable government would acquiesce to such a process or such a resulting constraint upon their dignities and perquisites. It seems very unlikely that the nations of the UN are going to get together, like the states of their post-revolutionary American Confederation, in a deliberately planned surrender of sovereignty to a greater sovereign whole. In fact, at present, there is much evidence that some nations are striving to go in the opposite direction.

And yet order grows—apparently spontaneously. Citizens’ groups create ties among themselves that function even when their respective governments are not in communication. There are groups that share common cultural and environmental interests across national borders: international art associations, chess groups, scientific collaborations, music societies, whale watching associations, and so on. These groups engage in no governmental activities, but in meeting to share their activities they also share and intertwine their national commitments to some extent. Other citizen groups may engage in governmental activities but meet internationally on a nongovernmental basis: international associations of police, firemen, game wardens, bankers and financiers, manufacturers, natural resource producers, and so on. In the process of non-officially aligning their professional activities and outlooks, they create ties among their nations in spite of the wishes of their respective governments. Then there are the activities of international commerce and industry that transcend national boundaries in manifold manners, many of which are unknown to their formal governing bodies but create strong constraints on the sovereign nature of these governments. Finally, there are the quasi-governmental interactions in which citizen groups meet and negotiate in parallel to, sometimes instead of—official governmental delegations: United Nations support groups for example. And, of course, there are the citizen groups of one nation set up explicitly to influence the citizens and governments of another nation: differing groups of Guatemalans in the United States to manipulate American policy towards that unhappy nation, Polish American organizations lobby for greater American participation in Poland’s economic recovery, and so on. There is no overarching plan to all of these diverse processes, no formally preconceived model of the end of the process, no explicit template to which the international structure is being shaped.

And yet, apparently spontaneously, the nations are being shaped to each other, the rough edges which might dangerously abrade each other are, “peacefully”, themselves being abraded away. The ability and inclination of the sovereign nation to be sovereign—to behave free of external constraints, as if there were no other nations present—seems to be lessening (in spite of the expressed desires of some present governments pushing in the opposite direction), driven by the greater inclination to survive and prosper. We have not planned the final order of states; we may not be able to anticipate or control the ordering, but an ordered system seems to be replacing the chaos of classical sovereignty. The resultant order will probably not imply the disappearance of conflict—violent or otherwise—between and within states. There may still be considerable “jiggling” about their final equilibrium states, but the jiggling energy will not be enough to destroy the ordered states—if we survive to reach such an order.

Hence, pushing the analogy between molecules and nations beyond ideal gasses to real gasses, spontaneously (without a prior universal agreement upon, and establishment of, an overarching, omnipresent, all-powerful world government), we may see the evolution of order from disorder, and the development of a non-violent world commonwealth from the anarchical threats of nuclear violence. In spite of the apparent occasional pushes to international disorder, multilateralism may still triumph in the end.

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.