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Background: A near future world very similar to our own, with two large power blocs (like USA vs USSR back then) in cold war situation, with many proxy wars and small conflicts. The third power is a somewhat small country, with advanced science level generations ahead of the rest of the world.

Players:

  1. Power block Alpha is an alliance of nations lead by a powerful nation similar to modern China: a single powerful party in control and frequently manipulates information inside its own country.
  2. Power block Beta is a group of powerful corporate controlling countries from the shadows; at a glance it looks like typical democratic countries, however in truth they perform frequent black ops operations, bribery, hiring mercenary, etc. with money.
  3. Third power, Gamma nation, is a technocrat lead by a science committee. Their top priority is scientific progress, and have a top secret facility only known to small group of people that helps researchers to research things much, much faster. They have a small, albeit powerful army, though mainly for guarding their borders and will lose in an all-out-war with either power block. For extremely dire situations, they also have the best special force in the world mainly for espionage, sabotage and assassination.

Situation: Since Gamma is so advanced in science but since it lacks the amount of resources needed to guard its independence, they sell their knowledge to both power blocks or other countries in exchange for top scientists, money, resources, or even land. To keep its independence, Gamma sells different technologies (mostly military) to both power blocks (although this is the latest by the world's standard, those technologies are way behind Gamma's latest). The world knows about this, but either power block is afraid of directly attacking Gamma as they can completely cut off trade ties and fully help the opposing power block, AND afraid of WMD that Gamma hides as its last resort option.

So the main question is, will this kind of diplomatic relations work out well for Gamma? Or will it immediately collapse?

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    $\begingroup$ Sort of like the early foundation stories, but on a single planet? $\endgroup$ – Guran May 9 '17 at 8:42
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    $\begingroup$ This reminds me of the comic/satiric novel, The Mouse that Roared see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mouse_That_Roared $\endgroup$ – Catalyst May 9 '17 at 9:49
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    $\begingroup$ You can freely say their name: Russia, USA, and Japan. $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles May 9 '17 at 11:15
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    $\begingroup$ You're really describing Britain during most of the Industrial Revolution. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 9 '17 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ I clicked this Q just to comment similar to @jamesqf. The general idea you have of a small nation being a super-power not only can happen, but it has happened. For a while, England dominated the world even though it's just an island off the coast of Europe. At other times in history, other small nations have done similar. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk May 9 '17 at 20:20

11 Answers 11

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A scientifically advanced micro-nation could rise to something like superpower status, but it would not do so by selling weapons to the other superpowers. Instead, it would rise by giving something vitally necessary to the peoples of all nations, freely or at an extremely low price which current providers cannot match.

For example, a micro-nation with a unique understanding of cold fusion and room-temperature superconductors could give electricity to the world for one one-hundredth of its current cost while still making a profit. After a few years of such generosity, all other electricity providers will have collapsed, leaving the little nation with a monopoly on a critically needed resource.

At that point, no other country on the planet, superpower or otherwise, can ignore the micro-nation's authority. Any who try, can be defeated by the flipping of a switch. Neither of the bigger super powers can allow the other to conquer or even destroy the micro-nation. What the micro-nation provides is too vital for either side to live without, so each super power must defend the micro-nation against any enemies.

Each side may start to rebuild their collapsed power production industries in order to regain their autonomy, but during that rebuilding effort, the micro nation will be branching out into other sources of authority. It's genetic scientists will start offering low cost food and advanced medicines. Free wi-fi internet access and entertainment television for the planet. Free cargo transport via enormous fusion powered barges and dirigibles. A sufficiently advanced technological country could make itself indispensable in a variety of ways.

And in the process, it makes itself too precious to destroy... too precious to let any enemy conquer... and ultimately, to precious to disobey.

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    $\begingroup$ This quite reminds me of the early years of the First Foundation on Terminus. $\endgroup$ – LSerni May 9 '17 at 13:33
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    $\begingroup$ The proper equivalent in Dune is The Guild prior to the arrival of Paul. By having a strangle hold monopoly on interstellar transportation they were "to precious to disobey", despite their lack of their own standing army. It can work, but only if the existing super powers are foolish enough to let the micro-nation acquire its first crucial monopoly. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor May 9 '17 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Henry Taylor: that’s not foolish. If you don’t take the cheap energy of that micro-nation, you’ll have expensive energy, which will give you a significant disadvantage over the other super power which takes the cheap energy. $\endgroup$ – Holger May 9 '17 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ So, kind of like what modern-day Saudi Arabia wants to be with OPEC and oil? $\endgroup$ – Stephen S May 9 '17 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ Nations are not generally complete idiots. Many European nations have strategic reserves of oil and gas, and keep their coal mines operational with government subsidies even though they are no longer profitable - exactly so that in case of some global emergency, they can expand production and satisfy at least the most immediate energy needs. $\endgroup$ – Tom May 10 '17 at 8:59
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Surely

England, and later, the UK, has mostly done so all throughout its history. Being a small country in an island, it has changed shirts and switched sides constantly to keep a balance of power in Europe - preventing any European nation to become too powerful.

England managed to get more or less its way by having a large navy. Even if the european powers they faced were much stronger than them, they could not easily attack Britain because of the Royal Navy. In your setting, the existence of WMD is a deterrent enough to guarantee that, even if powers A and B agreed to ally against C, they would do so only in economical warfare, but not full invasion. And economical warfare against a much more advanced economy is not going to work unless they are completely dependent on several resources they lack of. It will always be easier for power C to sell its advanced tech products to anyone than preventing the trade for powers A and B. Even with an embargo, it will only skyrocket the black market prices.

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    $\begingroup$ It seems to me that you are ignoring the fact that navies cost money. And britain got lots of money out of colonization. And that's not an option in this setting, unless i am mistaken. $\endgroup$ – Burki May 9 '17 at 10:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Burki England was used as an example. In the OP's setting, WMD's take the place of the navy. However, even before colonization England tried to have a navy more powerful than the rest of the european countries, even if it meant having a paltry army. Before fighting France and Germany, England was opposing Spain at a time when Spain had a colonial empire, and England had none. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft May 9 '17 at 10:33
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    $\begingroup$ Another real world example is the Dutch Republic, which in a hundred years went from a small territory of the Holy Roman Empire to an economic superpower. $\endgroup$ – Kys May 9 '17 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ Hong Kong was and Singapore is an example of a very small nation with disproportionate power due to trade. Singapore is so resource-poor they literally import water! straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/… $\endgroup$ – Jason Bray May 9 '17 at 17:43
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Let's discuss a few things first.

In your setup, your country Gamma is scientifically advanced. Okay. No problem there. But the level of superiority you are describing does not sound very plausible.
For a brief moment in time, it is conceivable that a breakthrough in one specific field or one other could bring them way ahead of their competitors, but science mainly works by:
a) standing on the shoulders of giants, i.e. building upon the ideas and the research of other scientists, and
b) peer review. That means you join the forces of many people who are themselves experts in the same field, and
c) money. Like in: huge, enormous, fantastically large amounts of money. And some extra, if possible.

Now, being a small country intrinsically means you have fewer people. Having ten times more people gives you (roughly speaking) a ten times higher chance of having a genius born in your country. It also gives you ten times more peer review. and ten times more giants on whose shoulders you can hop around.

Granted, your country Gamma can hire lots of them. But even if they quintuple their numbers of researchers, either of the other country still has twice as many.

That leaves money. Contrary to common belief in western contries, at least since the 90s or so, money has to come from "real work". That is, from fruit grown on fields, things manufactured in workshops, etc.
Some small countries currently excel in something best described as piracy, i.e. finding ways of funneling the revenue of other people's work into their coffers, but while that makes a lot of people in those small countries very rich, this wealth still is not that mch compared to the combined average wealth of a ten times larger country. And creating more money, so you can spend it on the scientists and their apparatus, becomes a necessity. True, you can produce fancy stuff with your advanced knowledge, but eventually your customers run out of money to buy stuff with. So this is by no means an endless source of income.

But back to being so very much advanced:
Physics tells us that systems tend to acquire entropy ( = shed energy and order). For your scenario, that means containing so much knowledge in a small space is an energy-rich and orderly state, and you will need to add energy to prevent your knowledge from spreading, since spreading would be the natural thing for knowledge to do.

Scientists often like to talk with other scientists about their findings. If they didn't, they would not be scientists, by definition (see: peer review). Also, those large and strong neighbours will have a highly intrinsical motivation to increase the entropy on your pool of knowledge (a.k.a. espionage). So you will need to spend absurd amounts of energy on maintaining that state of superior advancement.

Summary

You can have the state of affairs as you describe them, but not for long.

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    $\begingroup$ I disagree with your premise that money comes from "real work". If this were true, agrarian and manufacturing based economies would be the richest in the world, but history, especially recent history, shows this is not the case. Trade-based societies have time and again risen to the top. The United Kingdom during colonization and Singapore are pretty huge examples of small countries and populations with little innate production becoming very rich. Even China only became rich in the last 20 years or so because it finally started trading with the rest of the world. $\endgroup$ – Visfarix May 9 '17 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Visfarix if you look closely, all examples of rich societies have become rich by exploiting others. $\endgroup$ – Burki May 9 '17 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure your paragraph on entropy is really true. Entropy increasing applies to closed or approximately closed systems (e.g. the solar system approximately or the universe precisely). The earth is very very strongly not a closed system and so entropy being required to increase does not apply to it (the existence of life clearly shows this) $\endgroup$ – Richard Tingle May 9 '17 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Burki Yes usually through trade. Production of raw materials and goods does not make a country/people rich UNLESS it is coupled with trade. And even if a country/people don't have many raw materials/goods that they can produce, they can still become rich by engaging aggressively in trade. $\endgroup$ – Visfarix May 9 '17 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Burki I'm not saying that you don't need real goods for trade to work. I'm saying that real goods by themselves don't have as much value without trade. Because merchants charge more for goods than it cost to produce/attain them, they get more value out of those goods than the original producer. That builds up in time, and builds up more quickly if you maximize profit. The countries/people that ignore trade will lag behind the others because they are purposely reducing the value of their goods and limiting their resources. This applies to all three power blocks. $\endgroup$ – Visfarix May 9 '17 at 15:39
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Your premise is quite hard. However, there are ways we can slow technological development if we're willing to make your blocs considerably different. Otherwise why would the outcomes be any different? Hopefully some historical context and examples will help to make something closer to the spirit of your idea; though I feel the stated implementation isn't going to be enough!

You say Alpha bloc is like China. I propose we think of Maoist China, or perhaps the Chinese empire before European empires started meddling. Perhaps consider isolationist Japan too. In these cases Alpha bloc doesn't care about the rest of the world. It's a big, traditional, agrarian society, and even if Gamma bloc are trading with them, it's proportionally small enough of a contact to never bother the regime or change mass consciousness. Unless of course Gamma bloc decided an opium war or two is a good idea. The regime may control heavy industries a few steps behind Gamma bloc's own (Maoist Chinese technology during the Korean war), but may also have little regard for or ability to innovate them. Their size and weight of numbers is enough to make the prospect of war undesirable. Land war in Asia and all that.

Beta bloc you describe as democratic. Perhaps they too are agrarian, but in this case more like America's Antebellum deep south, or the city states of ancient Greece. These societies value democracy (under their own terms) but their economies are tied up with agrarian industries, maybe even slavery. That is their tradition, and they're quite happy about it.

Alpha and Beta are both deeply socially conservative, further accentuated by their dependence on agriculture. There's simply too much vested interest in things staying the way they are. What's more, Gamma doesn't have the numbers to be able to conquer either; especially if they're selling both sides basic weapons systems.

Gamma bloc is more like Venice, or Industrial revolution Britain. It is a vast trading empire with a tiny homeland, which values knowledge, and importantly uses this to leverage control. They sell weapons abroad but perhaps these weapons are less capable than their own versions. And of course they never permit their scientists and engineers to leave (like Venetian glass makers); they are intellectual isolationists, permitting trade and travel with restrictions on certain places and people. Because Gamma are not capable of conquering Alpha and Beta, perhaps neither side considers them an existential threat (even with WMD), and so isn't in a rush to catch up technologically. Not that their societies could help it if they tried.

That balance might work, as ultimately Alpha and Beta have their own business to attend to, while Gamma sails about making lots of money and enjoying the fruits of its own research. So long as Gamma doesn't actually try and impose itself upon Alpha and Beta, there's no reason that either society would be forced to change. And thus the technological differences would accentuate over time. Phases of modernisation come to old large powers through shock moments, like the opium wars for China, or the Crimean war for Russia.

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You do so by not giving them power in a form that can be acquired by force.

If you give them advanced technology, the other power blocks don't even need their army, they can simply abduct a couple scientists and their families in a covert operation.

If you give them money, an army can invade, take that money, and leave again.

So you give them something that cannot easily be taken by force:

  • The most obvious choice is Religion. Imagine the Vatican in a world of many strong believers. When block A captures the Vatican, the Pope may escape to block B, or die, and the believers in block A will be very unhappy with their leaders.
  • Another choice is a unique position in trade, as the middle man for trade between block A and block B. Annexation by either block will cease trade between the blocks.
  • Yet another choice is the country being an influential member of an unstable alliance of smaller nations. Nobody can say for sure if the alliance would come to the rescue of the country if it were attacked by either power block, but it serves as a deterrent.
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Cultural inertia, historical background, and the willingness of the biggest superpowers to maintain the status quo.

There are several real world countries, which, although not "third greatest superpowers", have significantly more political influence than what their size would indicate. Exaggerating them a little, they could be good templates for such a superpower.

  • The Vatican, for example, although it is less active in world politics as it once was, it has considerable influence despite being less than a square mile in size. You don't want to piss off millions of Catholic voters in your country.

  • Israel. Even disregarding conspiracy theories that claim it has absolute control over every aspect of our lives, Israel does in fact have much more political influence (and lobbying power in the media) than what its sheer size alone would indicate. Among other factors, due to its unique history and a large diaspora of rich and influential people in many developed countries, and the fact that you usually don't want to be called an antisemite.

  • Other relatively small countries, like Switzerland or Monaco, can be important due to many world-spanning banks and other important organizations having their headquarters there, or as a meeting ground of rich, influential people. Such a country could be used in your story as a neutral meeting ground, allowing to organize shady deals between the two major superpowers, getting significant local power in return.

Having a lot of soft power (cultural inertia, religious significance, historical legitimacy), being the seat of many global financial organizations, being in a good geographical spot, and having good defenses (less military strength than the two major powers, but enough to make any invasion a Pyrrhic victory, especially if you possess nuclear weapons) can make a country have significantly more political power than what any other country of similar geographical size and population could achieve.

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Gamma invented the internet, controls the world's internet infrastructure, manufactures most microchips in use . Gamman software is used all over the world and Gamma has tremendous cyber warfare capabilities that they clandestinely demonstrate to alpha and beta. Should be enough to hold alpha and beta in check.

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The small country can play a big role in keeping the equilibrium among the powers, and therefore will keep existing.

Let's say we can quantify the strength of each block and the number gives an exact forecast of the outcome of an attack (the higher one wins), and let the values being

  • Alpha 100 Strength Units
  • Beta 90 Strength Units
  • Gamma 20 Strength Units

Since no block can be stronger than the other two allied together, and since alliance is the only way to defeat an aggressor, we have that there is no convenience in attacking or in closing an alliance to attack.

This will ensure the existence of the Gamma block despite its evident inferiority.

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In addition to other great answers, you might further limit Alpha's and Beta's scientific capabilities by adding some fundamental flaws to their cultures and societies. Those flaws would be hard to get rid of and would cripple their ability to progress in the same time.

There might be:

Caste system. "no, you can't do science since your father is a janitor". This would effectively limit the country's mind pool to such extent that tiny Gamma might have higher amount and quality of scientists then huge Alpha. This would also allow Gamma to import talents from Alpha as those people are not perceived as valuable by the Alpha's government since they are from lower castes. Also it is important that Alpha would not be willing to implement the same equality policy as Gamma because an attempt to do so would meet fierce opposition from a large part of Alpha's society.

No education for women. "Kinder, Kuchen, Kirchen" way of thinking effectively halves available mind pool. Again, since women are not perceived as valuable human beings by Beta's government, they are not going to prevent "export" of some of them to Gamma. In the same time, an attempt to implement Gamma's policy in this area will be treated as absolutely immoral and unacceptable by Beta's society.

Slavery. "Why would I need a machine when I can deploy a hundred of slaves instead?". Again, slavery reduces mind pool and also prevents technological advancements. It is hard to abolish (since while providing huge benefits in long term, it also ruins slavery-based economy and creates major social problems in short term) while Gamma might further strengthen itself by purchasing some of unfit to hard work and rebellious (but smart) slaves to set them free and provide them with an education.

Religious taboos. "No combustion engines: it is said that coal is great, but oil is the Earth's blood and must not be spelt ever. And no cybernetics: it is said that when people create a machine thinking like a human, it will trigger the end of the world. No this. No that.". Cutting off research in several vital areas would effectively cripple the whole scientific development for the country. They might make some initial advancements in some fields, but inability to do cross-discipline research would slow them down eventually.

Having these or other similar limitations, Alpha and Beta could still be extremely powerful because of their numerous and highly indoctrinated population, while free and open nature of Gamma would give her a scientific boost. It is also important that being both stronger in raw power and indoctrinated, both Alpha and Beta would see Gamma's culture as inferior to them and would despise implementing any of those Gamma's beneficial policies. Even if they recognize that Gamma's policies are more effective and decided to implement some of them at some point, they will find that this would affect the very core of their way of life, so every such implementation attempt would be highly opposed by the majority of their own population and it will take them several generations to at least catch up.

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This would only work temporarily. To make it lasting it has to expand, perhaps annexing peacefully or otherwise it's immediate neighbours. You can't control other leadership any other way but taking over as leaders. You can't say, 'if you don't do X, 10 million of your people will starve to death before you can get to us.' Leaders don't care, if you challenge their authority they'll throw resources at eliminating you. If you have something necessary to their economy there will be constant attempts to either copy it, steal it, or just outright take it.

Stalin said 'One death is a terrible tragedy, ten million is just a statistic.'

But power structures are always fluid anyway, so if it could survive as a superpower for 50 years that's pretty good going.

The biggest danger is always from within, ambitious people not getting what they want will use whatever means necessary to get it. And the more power a place has, the more outside powers will be happy to assist, covertly or even overtly.

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So gamma nation - let's call them Japan - is technologically advanced related to Alpha - let's call them USA - and Beta - let's call them Russia.

Gamma is playing safe using the "you bad bad country, you did us wrong" card toward the Alpha and the "you wanna conquer us? we all die and you get nothing" towards the Beta.
As both Alpha and Beta are more interested in trying each other in different theatres they don't mess with Gamma because it's not worth losing the technology they get from there.

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  • $\begingroup$ That is survival, and some tiny amount of influence, but not power. $\endgroup$ – Mad Physicist May 9 '17 at 14:03

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