One day when we fly in our spacecraft to an alien planet and meet with their leader, I have always naturally assumed that there would be one, i.e. a single government representing the planet. So, an alien would perhaps be surprised when visiting Earth that there are more than 190 countries.

I wonder if perhaps it is inevitable that we will end up with a single authority, or if there is a natural reversion to a fragmented world, perhaps in the same way that large conglomerated companies become difficult to manage and often end up in decline or split up.

e.g can we draw conclusions about the benefits of smaller countries or larger countries generally, e.g. political stability, health, growth, crime

  • $\begingroup$ This question, while interesting, does not seem to have any particular worldbuilding context. (And yes, I see that you threw in the words "spacecraft" and "alien". Nice try.) Please check out the help center and tour for good information on kinds of questions that get best reception here. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Oct 10 '18 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ I think this does have worldbuilding context. When building a world, it's important to know why the world is the way it is. Why is it that in most science fiction, worlds have monolithic governments? There must be some advantage to small countries which would enable a universe to have planets which are not monolithic, and knowing that advantage will be important when designing a universe which deviates from normal science fiction trends. $\endgroup$ – boxcartenant Oct 10 '18 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ Also, welcome to world building, Andrew! $\endgroup$ – boxcartenant Oct 10 '18 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Aaron I saw your comment after I posted my answer. ;) Good thinking $\endgroup$ – boxcartenant Oct 10 '18 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Andrew I agree it is pessimistic, but mostly realistic. One nit though: I don't think that we "must have" different governments because of irreconcilable views in theory, as I think we could get around that. I think though that we end up having that in practice because the majority of people want to force everyone else to live according to their own standards. Anecdotally: I feel oppressed in my day to day life as I cannot live the way I want though my preferences do not harm others. People like to control others, and it is difficult to get them to give that up, so they refuse to agree. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Oct 10 '18 at 23:46

People tend to disagree about how the government should be run. There may be two perfectly functional, but incompatible systems of government, both of which provide for the general equity and prosperity of the people.

For example, suppose everyone in country A is a nonradical capitalist religious nationalist, but everyone in country B is a liberal secular socialist, and the two countries absolutely refuse to cooperate with one another. Also, for the sake of argument, suppose that those two systems fundamentally "work" when everyone in the country agrees about it. Furthermore, suppose that the countries are not at war. They may remain peacefully isolated from one another indefinitely. But if you tried to unify those two nations under a single government, which style of government would it be? The ideals of the people are incompatible. Both sides would accuse the other of being corrupt or immoral at various levels of the government, and neither group would ever be satisfied. Civil unrest tends to grow when people feel that they are not given freedom to test the merits of their own ideals.

By separating political ideological groups, granting them individual plots of land whereupon they can exercise their own style of government at will, we enable them to express their political theories in their purest uncompromised form, which is the only true test of the viability of their political theory. These isolated tests are a practical and natural method for vetting out political theories which don't work. If multiple meritorious systems are found to exist, then its best to allow them to exist, so that people inclined towards this or that system can vote with their feet, to achieve better happiness by living in a land which exemplifies their ideals.

This is actually the type of thinking which led to the Federation of the USA. The U.S. Federal government was originally intended to simply moderate trade, maintain peace, and organize defense among states. The federation would allow individual states to be sociopolitical petri dishes where different systems could be fully vetted out by local governments, organized and represented by the people living there, according to the various ideals of the people. America was originally considered to be 50 separate countries under a united federal "state" system, simply to maintain peace.

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    $\begingroup$ "... originally considered 50 separate countries under a united federal state system" And according to many people, it still is and bullies are stopping it from being exercised correctly. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Oct 10 '18 at 22:33
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    $\begingroup$ I'm absolutely certain that by the time the U.S. of A. had 50 states the question whether the states were sovereign powers or merely administrative subdivisions had already been forcefully settled for quite some time. The small town of Appomattox comes to mind. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 10 '18 at 22:46
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Yeah, that's fair. I'm no history buff, and I'm not sympathetic to the south as I understand it, but I'd like to think, on the grounds that legal assertions are related to moral assertions, that the forceful imposition of one government over a conscientiously objecting people does not settle the issue; it only postpones it. $\endgroup$ – boxcartenant Oct 10 '18 at 23:03
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    $\begingroup$ @boxcartenant: I did not mean to sound as if I had any sympathies for the unionist or the secessionist side -- from my point of view, the War of Secession happened in a faraway foreign country. All I meant to say is that after the War of Secession the U.S.A. embarked on a process of systematically reinforcing the idea that it is one country, and the political autonomy of the constituent states has been systematically diminished. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 10 '18 at 23:09
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    $\begingroup$ Exactly right. I would add further -- its better to allow nations to be independent even if their political theories are known to be wrong. Because if they aren't allowed to run their experiment peacefully, the only option you give them is violent rebellion. People who think free speech or self-government are only allowed "if you're right" miss this point. We can all have one government, or we can live together in peace -- not both! $\endgroup$ – workerjoe Oct 11 '18 at 14:10

This began as a comment, but it got longer and longer, and it eventually overflowed the boundaries of the comment box; so I wrote it as an answer, with the hope of providing some baseline introduction to the subect.

  • "I have always naturally assumed that there would be one, i.e. a single government representing the planet"

    Governments do not represent anybody. What governments do is govern. It is lawyers, representatives, senators, and, most importantly, ambassadors who represent people, constituencies, and sovereign powers.

    In a very large country, such as the United States of America, a typical citizen is governed concurrently by four governments: the national government, the state (or, in Russia, the federal subject) government, the county government, and the town or city government. These governments have a certain degree of autonomy and independence from each other, may have conflicting interests, and may enforce conflicting laws and regulations. In an enourmously large country, such as the Russian Federation, there is a supplementary level of governance, a "provincial" government between the federal subject government and the county government; that makes five levels. Some countries may have more levels. Only in the tiniest smallest countries there is only one government.

  • For purposes of interfacing or negotiating with foreigners or space aliens, multiple independent sovereign powers can be represented by one common embassy or negotiating team. If such an assembly of powers is temporary and special-purpose it is called a coalition; when more permanent it is called a confederation, or some kind of "union", or even an "empire" (such as the Holy Roman Empire or the British Empire which never ever had one government). Notably, coalitions or confederations do not have "governments", because they are assemblages of sovereign powers who have agreed to work together in certain aspects, either on ad-hoc basis or on a more permanent basis.

    (Note that some sovereign powers, extant or historical, are calling or have called themselves confederations; for example, the Swiss Confederation. This is just how they call themselves, and carries no special meaning.)

    For example, in Europe we have a large-ish loose confederation named the European Union, comprising 28 (or soon to be 27) sovereign powers. The E.U. has its own institutions and a complicated apparatus, but it does not (and cannot) have a government.

    • In certain aspects, the E.U. as a whole is represented by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, currently (in October 2018) Federica Mogherini.

    • In other aspects, the whole E.U. is represented by the President of the European Council, currently (in October 2018) Donald Tusk.

    • In yet other aspects the Union may be represented by other people, depending on the task at hand; for example, for purposes of negotiating the exit conditions of the United Kingdom, the Union is represented by Michel Barnier with the title of European Chief Negotiator for the United Kingdom Exiting the European Union.

  • So when spacefaring aliens meet with a representative of a planet, be they an ambassador, or a chief negotiator, or whatever job title, that person does not necessarily belong the one government of the planet. It may be that the planet actually is united in an extremely large polity, with or without a federal structure; but it may also be that for the purpose of discussing with the space faring aliens the sovereign powers of the planet have joined into a temporary coalition and have agreed to be represented by a common team lead by one common ambassador.


When you meet with a representative of an alien planet all you know is that they represent the planet. You don't know whether they represent the planet as one unified sovereign power, or as a special-purpose assemblage of sovereign powers. Don't make unwarranted assumptions about the polity represented by the representative, for you may guess wrong and miss important opportunities.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the information, I have tried to upvote but dont have sufficient points, sorry. $\endgroup$ – user56205 Oct 10 '18 at 23:12
  • $\begingroup$ That view of government is very narrow. You might want not to include things from being called government based on dictionary definition, but in practice and in theory a government is not that simple. There are many different forms of government, and the dictionary definition only covers the majority experience. I could suggest many things in support, but comment limitations. Calling yourself sovereign doesn't mean the UN or EU does not govern you if you submit to decisions made by its members. So you might not technically be wrong, but I think you have limited yourself. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Oct 11 '18 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Aaron: The United Nations Organization governs nothing and rules nothing; it is a talk shop, a place where ambassadors meet to talk about things before they officially talk about things. Simple questions: how large a budget does the federal government of the U.S.A. control? About 20% of the American GDP. Conclusion: the federal government actually runs the country. How large a budget does the E.U. control? About 1.2% of the combined GDP of the member states. Conclusion: the E.U. has significant but hardly decisive influence. How large a budget does the U.N.O. control? Zero. Conclusion... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 11 '18 at 19:27

Frame challenge: Earth currently does have a single government over practically the entire planet just like your example alien planet does.

In our case: the difference is that the United Nations, which encompasses enough of the planet population that you could call it the planetary government, does not have the ability to do very much. But if we were to start relations with some ET planets and it was a transparent affair, then it probably would go through the UN.

In ET's case: the one-world government you suggest they have probably does also have smaller sub-divisions. Whether they call them a "country" or not has little meaning. So even if they have a one world government, their local planetary structure would probably be similar in many ways. The primary difference might only be in how much authority the one-world government has over the smaller units.

Further frame challenge!

This also assumes that a planet is supposed to act as a unified whole and that a territorial hierarchy is followed easily. But lets look briefly at a few other cases.

A planet could have two competing top-level governments. This is actually another common theme in sci-fi stories, where the population of the two halves of a planet are unified separately into two half-planet governments which are generally at war in those stories.

What about when people start to colonize other planets? Do you expect Earth, Mars, Venus, Europa, and whatever else is colonized to each have their own planetary government, or maybe even one system-wide government? But what if there is 1 Earth government, 1 Mars government, and the people of Earth and Mars independently colonized Venus and Europa? Now Venus is split, but it cannot be fixed into a 1-world government because it is governed by two separate governments which are already 1-world governments independent of each other, and likewise for Europa.

What about when ET races mix? So let's say your ET planet somehow managed to get everyone to get on the same page, have the same preferences and agree on a government and set of rules. But now ETs from some other planet which are different from them start moving to their world because they have a loose immigration policy, but these other ETs have different values, drastically different. That ET planet might not be able to be a 1-world government after all.

What about when multiple ET races independently colonize the planet you just discovered? Similar to the previous case, but let's say the planet you just discovered was not the original home world of any single ET race to begin with. It has 15 different colonies on it, each from a different race of ETs. They are not likely to have a 1-world government, especially if each one of them is still governed by their home world.

Disengaging from frame challenge...

To get strictly back to what you were asking about for a moment, just think about any huge empire that fell in history. Rome is the obvious one. Later on England and Spain controlled huge portions of the planet during the colonial times. But historically governments which grow to control most of the known world eventually lose control because they are over-extended. There is your data, sort of.

You might be able to argue that this is no longer the case in the current age when we can talk face to face with people on opposite sides of the planet by video conferencing and when you can move yourself anywhere in the planet within a day or two or have armies or relief efforts in place in days or weeks.

So now we have the technical capability to manage planet-scale governance. But even now the growth of political hierarchies has been stunted because of the differences between people.

Case study 1: United States of America

In the United States of America, there is already much opposition at the state level to the federal government - and there is opposition at the city/county level to the state level in many places. There have been multiple threats and movements in the USA recently for states to secede from the US and by counties to secede from their states, because the higher level government is opposed to their values.

Many states actually did try to secede in the 1800's, hence the civil war. More recently, significant groups of people (but not significant enough to succeed) from multiple states have called for secession again, many of them in Texas and other southern states.

Several counties in Colorado tried a few years back to start a process to split Colorado into two states.

Lots of people express a similar desire in New York state since the democrats outnumber the republicans just enough to dominate the politics despite most of the democrat-supporting populace inhabiting a much smaller area in and around New York City.

Case study 2: European Union

The same thing is being seen in Europe. Brexit is the obvious example. But again, just like in the US, it runs even deeper: there is often talk at lower levels of government of leaving the country, such as the Scottish independence referendum which came close to succeeding last time.

So even now that we have the technical capability and some people have tried to take the government hierarchy to the next level again, we are seeing that the differences between people is causing those attempts to either stagnate or break back apart into local governments again.

To overcome this, you need to get everyone on the same page. That is something that millions, if not billions, of people try to do every year, so we have possibly Trillions of failed attempts to get groups of people to figure out some sort of compromise between their preferences. This is not a good track record.

The track record is further stained if you look at individual communications. Right here on StackExchange you can see people refuse to get along with those of differing opinion every day, and that is despite the fact that StackExchange is not a good medium for that. You see it worse if you go elsewhere.

I think the most likely way you could even attempt to make that work without breaking apart (I'm going off into proposing political theory now, so I'll try to make this brief) is to borrow an idea from the Romans and let different regions manage themselves. We started to have that mentality in the United States of America as the federal government was not supposed to be able to control the states, but that has not been the practice in recent generations.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks Aaron (again apologies I can't upvote) $\endgroup$ – user56205 Oct 10 '18 at 23:39
  • $\begingroup$ There is no way in a million years that if ETs land, the UN is going to be in charge of communicating with them. The UN is not a government. Unless the ETs land right in China, I think it's almost certain that the USA will take the lead. (And even if they land in China, still maybe so.) $\endgroup$ – workerjoe Oct 11 '18 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Joe That depends on how public it is. I can easily see the US wanting to, and even trying to, and if it is not kept public and transparent enough that would make it easier to control. But if it is public and transparent enough, and/or ET wants to deal with the planet as a whole instead of in part, then many countries will be demanding a unified diplomacy. The public outcry all around the world would be so great that the US - and any others who might want unilateral control - might not be able to get away with it. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Oct 11 '18 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Joe Also, the UN is a government. It is a different kind of government than what the vast majority of people are used to, but there are many kinds of government. The UN meetings involve a collection of representatives from member nations, basically similar to a senate, and they have influence (very minor influence, but influence nonetheless) over the entire planet, and they have limited military capability. A severely handicapped thing is still a thing. Saying "the UN is not a government" is like saying "a blind quadriplegic is not a human." $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Oct 11 '18 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ No, the UN is not a government. It's a diplomatic forum and some cooperative activities, but has no power over member states, nor any specific mandate. The fact that it appoints countries like Saudi Arabia to its "Human Rights Council", becuase of turn-taking, underlines how unserious it is. And what you usually see at the UN is the majority (lots of small, corrupt, dictatorships) out-voting developed, civilized nations on toothless resolutions (mostly denunciations of Israel). No one would want that body to represent us in serious matters. Not even the dictators or ambassadors, I'll bet. $\endgroup$ – workerjoe Oct 11 '18 at 20:25

I think decentralisation is proven to be more resilient than a single power centre with a command and control approach. Three levels of government with a municipality , state and federal is better suited to make localised decisions rather than get everything vetted from top command. This would just delay communication and top command wouldnt even be close to the problem to give good outcomes.

Divesting power to the edges but guided by a constitution is a better way to govern. My view is that , this is also the natural tendency

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Big empires always became unmanageable at some point, breaking up into smaller countries. As progress goes by, managing capabilities are improving, and it is conceivable now that an entire planet can be managed by a single government.

However, at the same time people's desire for independence is growing up. If safety is not a concern, and living standards are high, people would rather live in a small country that better represents their identity.

European Union -type of organizations are probably the way to go, where some aspects are handled by a central government while individual countries maintain their independence.

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  • $\begingroup$ The European Union essentially is a country. Like the United States of America, it was a collection of independent states which came together to let a single centralized government set some limited controls over some politics of international importance. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Oct 10 '18 at 22:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Aaron the key word here is "some" $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 10 '18 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Aaron: The E.U. is a very loose confederation of sovereign countries. It does not have a government, it does not have a common foreign policy; it actually has quite limited competencies. The U.S.A. is centralized politically, with the states being largely autonomous economically; in the E.U. the converse is true, the union is primarily economic, with the member states keeping full political independence. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 10 '18 at 23:03
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP The specific things being controlled are different, but many of us still see it as being essentially the same. And the EU is even more similar to the original US, where the US was to protect interstate economics while member states kept political independence. And they intended to protect some human rights and help militarily, though many European nations are already allies via multiple alliances (some of them even with non-EU members, such as via NATO). So the US has grown into more over time, but the EU might too. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Oct 10 '18 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Aaron: Yes, obviously. It is common knowledge that many people, including some powerful politicians, are working towards transforming the E.U. into the United States of Europe, especially now that the U.K. (who was the most obstinate opponent of the idea) is leaving. But I was speaking of the E.U. as it is now. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 10 '18 at 23:44