SeaSteading makes for great theorizing. It is an idea that has yet to be sullied by the unfortunate limitations of reality. However, while we policy types talk, others are doing the actual work to turn dreams into reality. Sam Bhagwat, the CFO of BlueSeed, and his partners are on the ground floor of the flagship attempt at real-world seasteading. I had the chance to virtually sit down with him on Wednesday, getting an on-the-ground perspective of the attempt to build a 1000 person seastead off the coast of Silicon Valley. We talk about the law, future communities at sea, seasteading’s international appeal, and his personal drive to be involved.
I started out the week with a few of my own thoughts and an interview with Randy Hencken, Executive Director of the Seasteading Institute, who was gracious enough to reach out and participate in our discussion.
In “From Jules Verne to Sir Julian Corbett” Viribus Unitis provided a worse-case scenario for rogue sea-based nations, and along with LT AJ Kruppa’s “Sea-based Nation Security” delved into the issues of warfare and maritime security among city-state platforms. LT Kurt Albaugh took a similar tack and pondered the potential use of sea city-states as Afloat Forward Staging Bases and launching pads for military operations in “Bridging the Moat.”
One common issue posters grappled with was the applicability of international law to the concept of seasteads. As it stands, international law in the form of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) throws up many road blocks for seasteads and sea-based nations.
Ian Sundstrom pointed out that UNCLOS doesn’t grant man-made structures their own EEZs, reducing the resource incentives for a seastead to transition from a flagged vessel to a micro-nation; LTJG Hipple noted UNCLOS has established rules for the mining the deep-sea bed in international waters; and, multiple posters discussed both the necessity of flagging a seastead as a vessel (if only for their own protection) and the restrictive effects of existing states’ territorial waters, contingency zones, and EEZs on placing a new sea-based nation.
All this illustrates the importance and real impact international law can have on maritime security and the health of a nation’s economy. It also suggests the benefits to be gained by influencing international law to one’s own advantage – as Randy Henrickson himself pointed out. This is something done through enforcement of international customary law, for example freedom of navigation transits through international straits, or by having a seat at the table when negotiating the terms of treaties or helping to enforce, interpret, or implement them. True, a nation (even a sea-based nation) can violate the rules, but there are courts and international mechanisms which can make it very painful on the pocket-book to do so (whether or not a signatory), through negative trade rulings, banking sanctions, or exclusion from certain markets. In short, those hoping to seastead or create a sea-based nation have a lot of work to do not only in creating new experiments in government, but in changing or gaining acceptance for new international norms.
The preferable flag for seasteads will vary based both on their location and their future intent. Those seeking to eventually declare themselves a fully fledged micro-nation would do well to choose a flag of convenience. While flags of convenience provide only the bare minimum of legal security against other states and criminal enterprise, they do promise minimal interference both in the short-term and the day when a seastead attempts to gain acceptance as a micro-state. The navies and coercive powers of Panama and Liberia are, sorry to say, not particularly fearsome. Additionally, the lack of security provisions of the flag state can be balanced by recourse to the legal systems (and militaries) of the seatead’s own citizens – at least until they become members of their new micro-nation.
For those seeking to create a seastead near the EEZ of another nation, there are a couple options, each with its own advantage, if autonomy short of independence is acceptable. First, the seastead could seek the flag of the major port – this would greatly lower the cost of doing business with what will likely be the seastead’s major trading partner and critical logistical support hub. Second, the seastead could seek the flag of a “champion powerful enough to coerce non-interference,” as CDR Hodges put it. This could be a nation looking for a major trading hub, a nation looking for a military foothold in the region, or some combination of the two.
Sovereignty and Resources:
No matter what route seasteads take to attempt the transition to micro-nations or harness the resources of international waters, the difficulties they will face are daunting – but not insurmountable.
A clear mechanism for the transition to micro-nation would be preferable. Perhaps with minimum qualifications such as self-sufficiency, a written constitution, a minimum population level (and a hefty “application fee”). Whether or not the sea-based nation was mobile would also factor in, with a permanent residence likely gaining greater acceptance. A successful qualification could be awarded territorial waters an EEZ, and a zone in which it can mine the deep sea bed. These distances could be specifically delineated on a case-by-case just as the 200nm EEZ was created out of whole cloth. A sea-based micro-nation could be its own form of sovereignty with its own legal conditions rooted in international law. Here I turn the question to you – what other sorts of qualifications do you think should be applied?
In reality we are likely to see more muddled development, with some seasteads gaining recognition by one set of nations, and others another. The aforementioned powerful champions will likely aid those with cultural ties, hold out the promise of co-developing resources, or offer a military or economic foothold as described above – presenting seasteads with the trick of charting their course to true sovereignty in a sea full of sharks (but such is the case of diplomacy everywhere).
Lastly, seasteads may also experiment with what are really old models of armed forces, by requiring all hands or all citizens to be ready to defend themselves against attack (see picture), they may require new citizens to spend a spell in dedication to the nation (universal conscription), or they may just hire out mercenaries. The size, economic-base, wealth, technological level, form of government, and relative security will all play a role in determining the form of the armed forces.
It’s also important to remember that not every seastead or sea-based nation will be floating, but many will, and that will make them particularly vulnerable to any sort of attack. The morality of bombing/torpedoing such a target might be equated to sinking dual-use ocean liners and might force the type of hybrid maritime/urban warfare Viribus Unitis discussed – especially if the sea-based nation develops few offensive or stand-off weapons to justify an initial bombardment.
We may hear more about sea-based nations in the future, with another interview or two in the works. And for those of you in the DC area, don’t forget our meet-up Wednesday, from 6-10pm at District Pi Pizza, where you’ll have a chance to meet a few of the posters and discuss in person the writing. We’ll also have an informal poll from the week for the Best Written, Most Original Thought, and Most Persuasive pieces.
Biomining the Sea
Seasteads are intended to be entrepot that trade in the capitol of the mind: new ideas, technologies, and management styles both public and private. Scarcity is the mother of invention, and on platforms with no natural resources, innovation and expertise are the only tradable commodity… but that will not be the case for long.
Innovations in the field of biotechnology are leading to the more efficient use of microorganisms to leach minerals straight from the sea as a byproduct of fresh-water production. I discussed biomining as a tool for commanders attempting to use battlefield refuse for 3D printing, but on a larger scale it produces a duel-win scenario for Seasteads looking for a supply of both water and profits to support their sea-borne society. While many nations have claims to the vast mineral wealth of the sea-floor, none lay claim to the water-borne mineral content of the high seas. UNCLOS does state in general terms the wealth of the sea being for all people’s, but such stipulations would be too vague to implement if even the institutions existed to enforce them. The minerals of the sea are an open resource, without claim or contract, to be claimed by seasteaders.
This brings to mind a society that may look very much like our friends, the Australians. Australia is an innovation hub, most recently producing the first single-atom transistor. This is the primary vision of today’s Seasteaders. Australia is also blessed with with abundant resources. The Australian mining industry is booming supported by the hardy entrepreneurial spirit of prospective miners. There is a hearty internal migration of workers out to isolated mining camps to make their fortune. However, most Seasteads will not be glorified roaming country clubs supported by the existent wealth of their monied passengers; they’ll be commercial experiments. No matter how advanced, they will be constrained and distant places like the FIFO camps of Australia. With sea mining, however, Seasteads can add the mineral wealth of the sea around them to the income from the advances developed onboard.
Glimpses of the Future
Seasteading will lead to a bevy of new technologies driven by self-sustainment and efficiency. From mining the sea to water production to electricity generation and retention to recycling. All these developments inadvertantly make Seasteading a model for future space travel. Although under far friendlier circumstances than a cold, radiation-bombareded death vacuum, the efficiencies found by communities living at sea will no doubt find application to our future missions in space. The same bio-mining procedures for the sea could be used on far-off bodies where it is easier to bring a small culture of microorganisims that can be grown to necessary size, rather than the bulky equipment necessary to process ore. As the conventional modes of business are overturned in an attempt to colonize new portions of our own planet, we will be preparing ourselves to colonize others.
Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.
So the trappings of life under the thumb of your home country have finally forced you to the seas. Why not strike out to the pristine, untouched mineral-rich reaches of the Arctic? Climate change in the far north may soon open the long-sought Northwest Passage which will allow ships summer time passage from Europe to Asia a fraction of the travel time. Oil exploration is booming with all the big oil companies vying for their slice of the pie. Increased shipping capacity could mean a black gold mine for your tiny floating kingdom, if you can find a place to put it.
This map shows just how complicated the Arctic seascape really is. Russia has already planted their flag at the North Pole sealed in a titanium capsule. They are still working out the particulars on the definition of their continental shelf, which may validate their claim of the pole and a huge swath of the frozen north. But don’t forget, once clear of Russian claims you still have to contend with Danish, Norwegian, Canadian, U.S. and Icelandic territory. A sea-based nation could benefit from partnership with any of these nations for security and export potential, assuming any of them would be interested in having a little neighbor to the north.
An Arctic sea-base would mean a harsh existence for its inhabitants. Long periods of cold and darkness would require advanced climate control. Keeping the whole thing afloat on or amid constantly shifting polar ice and occasional liquid water would require clever flotation systems. Yet all the expense of setting up this sea-base will be worth it. Othershave made significant investment with seemingly impractical logistical hurdles but still continue to make the far north work, there is such a huge economic incentive to do so.
Creating a sea based nation in the Arctic could provide a tiny floating country with vast mineral wealth and, if the climate models pan out, an easy way of getting it to market. And as of this writing, the Somali pirate threat to the Arctic is pretty much non-existent, good news for security.
Sea-based Nations (SBNs) are only a small manifestation of much larger trends in the post-Westphalian world. Libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and panarchists have long discussed different options – from colonizing the sea or space to simply creating non-territorial nations – as alternatives to the current nation-state system.
These aspirations found a home amongst Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires, with Peter Thiel, one of the co-founders of Paypal, at the forefront. Peter initially built Paypal to be a new, international currency similar to Bitcoin, but was hindered by legislation. Nonetheless, the aspiration to create non-state options remains – and more importantly, those pursuing such this vision seem to have both the brainpower and the money to bring it to fruition.
Hence, operating on the assumption that new states will at some point appear in one shape or another, it’s in the interests of the U.S. to embrace them rather than alienate them. And, we have a golden opportunity to do so through the seasteading movement. Even though Peter Thiel & Co are libertarians seeking to escape the grips of the government, they’re also U.S. citizens and affluent, having contributed a great deal to the U.S. economy and its corporate leverage around the world. As Ian Sundstrom pointed out in his post on the subject, “Who would benefit most from Seasteading?” every ocean-going vessel must fly the flag of an existing nation. It would be tempting for libertarians to choose a country with basically no law – let’s say Somalia – but if the U.S. Government offers some degree of legislative autonomy in combination with a security pact, that’s likely to be a more tempting option.
Experiments of this sort have been continuing in the U.S. for hundreds of years, the best-known example being the Navajo Nation, a semi-autonomous Native Tribal territory occupying parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. The Navajo Nation has its own constitution and laws, but the United States still asserts plenary power. Likewise the U.S. and many small Pacific maritime entities have entered into various forms of Compacts of Free Association, providing near-autonomy and legal and foreign defense in exchange for relatively small set of prescribed laws and limitations on their actions. Somaliland is another interesting experiment of semi-autonomous semi-anarchism that works, in the regional context, surprisingly well. To be sure, there are plenty of areas of potential conflict between the U.S. Government and new SBNs in addition to the host of other problems previous CIMSEC bloggers duly pointed out – including security, international competition etc. However, there are also many benefits. It’s easy to see the pragmatic possibilities of expansion in the seas for overcrowded nations or those threatened by rising sea levels, as well as the worth of strategic outposts for others. But the core benefit for America is vastly different in my opinion…
America is a pioneering nation, which was built on the virtue of individual entrepreneurs innovating and exploring. Now these individual have taken that spirit of innovation and seek to apply it to new forms of governance. As Randy Hencken, the Director of the Seasteading Institute, mentioned in his CIMSEC interview earlier this week, seasteads might provide the ideal opportunity to test new governance models. The traditional form of the nation-state is slowly losing its momentum due to globalization, which helps humans bypass the controls of and necessities for states, we want to be on the leading edge of what comes next – however the post-Westphalian transition happens. It may be seasteading, or it may be other forms of governments – and in whatever shape or color they come, they’ll still need to work with, and to a degree rely on, current nation states. The seasteading movement is in its very early, shaky phase, and now is the ideal time for the U.S. Government to lend it a hand, work to form coherent legislation, and help the movement to influence international conventions. Just like the pioneers once discovered America, it’s now time to discover other forms of governance.
Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof (CEO, Shabakat Corporation and President, SIC Group) is a Swedish research and communications entrepreneur. She began a strategic communication company carrying out campaigns for the U.S. Military in Afghanistan, Wise Strategic Communication (WSC), and started a second company in Libya and Egypt, Shabakat Corporation, during the Arab Spring.
Serious SeaSteading has primarily been the vestige of free market pioneers, entrepreneurs looking for a freer, more open space to conduct business. An important part of that ideal is personal sovereignty: life, liberty, and property. For a giant sea-going vessel, property will be a huge issue.
Can seasteaders truly own their state-rooms, their offices, or their facilities? Those familiar with ship-board life realize the amount of maintenance that often needs to be done in order to keep a ship sound. A normal suburban neighborhood doesn’t need to manage the distribution of weight amongst the properties to ensure landworthiness and structural integrity. Obviously, heavy weight and modification restrictions will apply to property. In this light, how would a seastead be governed? It is easier to leave your neighbors to their own devices when what they own and where won’t cause you to heel or when their home modifications won’t cause your deck to buckle. A homeowners’ association is bad enough when your poorly cut lawn won’t potentially undermine the integrity of the neighborhood’s fire-fighting systems or the water-tight integrity of hull frames.
Can a seastead ever be the libertarian paradise their conceivers wish it to be? Taxes alone may be excessive due to the the constant maintenance necessary for a huge metal hull in which a whole community is living day-to-day. The wear-and-tear would be greater than on any cruise ship. Additionally, along the line of thinking about national sovereignty brought up by CDR Hodges, what happens to the citizens of a seastead during periods of necessary hull repair? Ship’s return to dry-dock in order to have critical maintenance accomplished. How would nations grant access rights to seasteaders in a maintenance period? How do the sovereignties of two nations accomodate each other when one is dry-docked in another? If certain seasteaders are not allowed off the ship while in certain ports, would they essentially become accidental prisoners? Who would accept a refugee nation if their vessel were damaged beyond repair?
The problems with seasteading reach far beyond the black-box problems of how the ship-as-whole exerts influence over it’s surroundings legally, politically, and kinetically. When one transplants a community of free-thinking individuals onto a ship for more than the temporary joys of a pleasure cruise, the constraining dictats and harrowing risks of a life at sea must set the conditions for its survival. The challenge will be building a nation that cruises without treating the community like a crew.
Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.
To me, one of the more interesting assertions made by Randy Henrickson in his CIMSEC interview was this: “To avoid legally being a pirate, seasteads will have to flag themselves with the flag of an existing nation and partner up. As seasteading matures and grows, we foresee seasteads eventually breaking off when they have enough of their own economic power and population to no longer need to be binded to existing governments, when they’re at a point where they can be recognized by others as a micro-nation.”
There are a couple of interesting elements here: first, the notion that activities which are legal and even encouraged when done under the aegis of a flag might be considered illegal if done without such protection (although, depending on the specific activities Henrickson contemplates, piracy might not be the specific crime); second why would a nation be willing to “spin-off” an economically fruitful “micro-nation” whether at sea or on land?
This second question underscores the ambition of the seasteading project. Up to this point in human history, every time a new nation-state has emerged, it has been tied with a specific piece of territory. And, unfortunately, most newly sovereign states have experienced some degree of violence in achieving their independence. Whether independence was achieved by revolution, decolonization, or partition, a greater or lesser degree of political violence has frequently accompanied it, either before or shortly after independence. Partly, this stems from the physical, historical, and emotional attachment that human beings have to territory. Partly it stems from the challenges of identity in forming both a nation and a state. But it also stems from the economic benefit that the larger nation derives from activity within the smaller territory. To suppose that a flag state would willingly give up the economic benefit they derive from a productive seastead may be a bit optimistic.
Of course, the flag nation willingly letting go is only half the problem facing a seastead as it tries to make the transition to micro-nation. If the emerging nation is not recognized by the international community, either broadly, or at least by a champion powerful enough to coerce non-interference, the seastead is left for all practical purposes as a ship without a flag (which may be what Mr. Hencken meant by a pirate vessel). Established U.S. statutory and case law, as well as some international law, suggests that such a vessel enjoys no protection against any state which seeks to exercise jurisdiction over it. A flagged vessel enjoys the sovereign protection of the flag state; an unflagged vessel or a vessel flagged to a nation not recognized as sovereign has no such protection.
That sovereignty is really the heart of the question. A seastead seeking to transition to a sea-based nation is trying to manufacture sovereignty where there previously was none. On the day before transition, the seastead is effectively a ship—a little shard of another nation’s sovereignty acting on a global commons. On the day after, the ship has ceased to be a shard of another nation and has become a nation in its own right—a small one, to be sure—but a nation with all the same rights, responsibilities, and sovereignty of any other nation.
Michael Walzer, an influential thinker on just war theory and international relations, offers a view on morality in the international system, centered on the concept of sovereignty. Drastically simplified, Walzer offers the view that the only crime in the international system that justifies the use of force is aggression, which he defines as the violation of a nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. While some aspects Walzer’s theory are not universally accepted, he neatly encapsulate a powerful school of thinking which highlights a couple of challenges that the aspiring seasteader, especially of the mobile variety, must overcome.
First, sovereignty has traditionally been closely aligned with territorial integrity. Inherent in the notion of territorial integrity is, well, territory. How do you define sovereignty and territorial integrity in the case of a platform that is inherently mobile and not tied to any territory at all? Whatever other challenges may attend the new nation of South Sudan, no one in the international community is worried that the nation will decide to pick up the country and move because they like the climate, resources, or economic opportunities better in Morocco. If a seastead were to maneuver into the EEZ of a coastal nation, whose sovereignty would have precedence? Outside of an EEZ, why should other sea-faring nations accede to a new entity exerting sovereignty over a portion of the sea that was previously open to everyone? If the sea based nation wanted to move elsewhere on the high seas, would they exert sovereignty over that new location, too?
The Second—and by my view the more difficult challenge—is explaining the incentive for the international community to accept the sovereignty of a newly formed sea-based nation at all. While the threat may be small, the aspiring nation offers a potential challenger for resources, ranging from seabed minerals to the tax revenues brought in by businesses. With sovereignty comes the right to defend that sovereignty—what incentive does a coastal state have to welcome the introduction of another armed power into their region? It would also be surprising if Palestinians, Kurds, or others national groups who lack both territory and sovereignty do not raise some objection to the justice of granting sovereignty to a seastead with little of the cultural, political, and social identity that marks a nation, while they themselves remain disenfranchised. If a seastead wants admission to the club of nation-states, they will likely need to explain how the club will benefit by their membership. While not insuperable, this will be a high bar to reach.
CDR Doyle Hodges is a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy. He has commanded a rescue and salvage ship in the Pacific and a destroyer in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Middle East. He is the Chairman of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Seamanship and Navigation Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the U.S. Naval Academy.
 For a good discussion of the challenges of statehood without nationhood, see Lemay-Hébert, N., 2009, ‘Statebuilding without Nation-building? Legitimacy, State Failure and the Limits of the Institutionalist Approach’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding’, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 21-45. For a good discussion of the necessary components of nationhood see Anderson, Benedict Imagined Communities. New York: Verso. 2006.
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