Could a Mars colony become a nation? That question was posed by Michael Byers, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia in a Washington Post article. Byers’ answer to his question was yes. A body of international law has evolved over time that recognizes the rights of people to self-determination. That right is one reason a lot of former European colonies are now countries. The other reason is that the locals were often prepared to fight for that right and, after World War II, the Europeans were too exhausted to do much about it.

Indeed, going back farther in history, the United States was born when the American colonies decided that they didn’t want to be part of the British Empire anymore and fought a bitter war to make their desires stick.Thus, if the majority of the inhabitants of a Mars colony were to declare independence, they should have it, in Byers’ view.

Self-determination in practice

To be sure, the right to self-determination has not been universally recognized. It took the fall of the Soviet Union to make countries out of the Ukraine (now under attack by Russia), Kazakhstan, and a number of other places that used to be Soviet Republics. The Kurds have been fighting for independence for decades but haven’t achieved it because Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and now the Islamic State object.

The Catalonians want their own country, but the Spanish object. The Palestinians want their own country, but at the cost of the Israeli's losing theirs. Indeed, the Canadian province of Quebec at one time wanted to break away and start a French-speaking republic in North America, but the Canadian government objected since it might have meant the breakup of the country.

To illustrate how sticky things might be, let us suppose at some future date that SpaceX’s Elon Musk establishes his private Mars colony and, after a while, it declares itself a country. What would be the territory of that country? Would it encompass the entire planet or just land around the settlement that it could reasonably control?

What if some other group landed on another part of Mars and declared itself to be a country as well? That is the sort of situation that starts wars if they are allowed to go out of control.

If the right to self-determination supersedes the Outer Space Treaty, as Byers suggests, a loophole is created through which a great deal of mischief can be made. The Outer Space Treaty forbids those countries which have signed it from claiming celestial bodies such as the moon or Mars as sovereign territory and placing military weapons on the same, but suppose the following scenario:

A group of colonists land on Mars (or the moon, for that matter) and declares themselves an independent state, applying for recognition by the United Nations, and so on.

Let us go further and suggest that this new country enters into a series of treaties with a great power on Earth, including free trade, mutual defense, and giving companies from said Earth country leasing rights for minerals. The Earth country establishes a military base on Mars to help the new nation defend itself, a clear violation of the Outer Space Treaty, but consistent with the new nation’s right to self-determination.

Let us go further in this thought experiment and suggest that the Mars Republic, in the fullness of time, applies to be a state of the United States or a province of China. That would be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty some would say. But the Martians have the right to self-determination others would say.

The Americans would point to the examples of Texas and California. Newt Gingrich, who once imagined creating new states of the Union, smiles wherever he might be at the time. Some might conclude that someone has done an end run around the Outer Space Treaty and someone might be right,

In short, we have a look at some of the foreign policy tangles of the latter part of the 21st Century.