A little while ago we talked about some international law issues related to S.H.I.E.L.D. This time we’re going to talk about the stories where superpowered characters wind up actually running countries, and some of them quite peculiar countries at that.
The basic question here is “What constitutes a sovereign state?” The answer is basically “What other sovereign states recognize to be sovereign states.” If that seems a little circular it’s because it is: as a defined legal concept, sovereignty dates back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War between just about everybody in Europe. Still, this is definitely know-it-when-you-see-it territory. In fact, territory, literally speaking, is probably something that’s required. Sovereign states may hem and haw over whether or not they recognize a particular institution or set of institutions as being sovereign over a particular piece of real estate, but it’s very, very unlikely that sovereignty is going to be recognized in a government that has no exclusive physical control over a discrete land area. Indeed, having that exclusive control is basically all you need to be a de facto state.
I. “Normal” States
With that said, there are a number of comic book stories that involve sovereign states of one sort or another. Some of these are pretty unremarkable, legally speaking. Latveria, ruled by Doctor Doom, is a fictional nation in the Marvel universe carved out of Romania and Serbia, mostly the former. During Dr. Doom’s rule it was a dictatorship/absolute monarchy, a form of government which, while increasingly unfashionable today, does still exist. Latveria, for all intents and purposes, is just another small European nation unfriendly to US interests. It stands with half a dozen or so other nations in that respect, including Serbia and some of the former Soviet republics, depending on how the winds are blowing on any given weekday. But Latveria is presumably official recognized by the United States and other modern governments, and if Neil Gaiman’s 1602 is any indication, it’s been around as an otherwise normal sovereign state for at least four centuries. So far, there isn’t much to say here. Latveria does not present any legal issues the State Department doesn’t already handle every day. The whole mad-dictator-using-supernatural-powers thing is a bit unusual, but it isn’t a strictly legal problem. This also probably goes for the dozen or so fictional African nations in various Marvel continuities: they may as well be a real country for all the difference it makes.
II. “Hidden” States
But what about Wakanda, the fictional, technologically advanced African nation ruled by T’Challa, aka the Black Panther? Wakanda is also called “The Hidden Land,” and it is largely closed off from the rest of the world. The fact that the country has existed for thousands of years without regular contact with the outside world is… problematic because recognition is a big part of what makes a state sovereign.
If Wakanda exists inside the putative borders of at least one other country, then there is a potential for conflict, possibly even war, with those nations if Wakanda’s existence becomes known to the wider world. Not that the other countries are likely to be able to win that war, but states don’t readily let go of territory where possible, and antagonistic neighbors are inconvenient even if they aren’t a military threat. Even the weakest of countries can make things diplomatically and logistically difficult for their neighbors (see, e.g., Somali pirates).
Alternatively, Wakanda might exist outside the borders of other countries, though that supposes some extraordinary method of concealment to avoid the “hole in the map” problem. That’s especially hard in the era of satellite mapping. But if Wakanda reveals itself under those circumstances, then unless some powerful countries promptly recognize Wakanda’s sovereignty, there might be a land grab by neighboring countries fighting over the new territory and its rich natural resources (e.g. vibranium).
Again, this would hold true for almost any state which has hidden its existence from the outside world. As long as they stay hidden, which will require an increasing amount of effort in today’s world of satellite surveillance, they’ll be okay. But as soon as someone learns about them, there could be all sorts of problems.
III. Underwater States
Things are different still with underwater nations. Aquaman and Namor occupy their respective universes’ instantiations of Atlantis, which somehow survived its submersion thousands of years ago. In addition to the problems facing hidden states in general, these pose the additional problems of not actually being on dry land. International waters are a rather fraught issue in international diplomacy, as they represent access to the world’s shipping lanes, an invaluable economic and military resource. Territorial waters, i.e. waters where states exert the full force of their sovereignty, extend twelve miles from the low-tide mark, while contiguous zones, where states may exert some limited authority mostly related to border protection and customs activities, extends twelve miles beyond that. the exclusive economic zone goes all the way out to two hundred miles from shore, and in that range a state may exert exclusive control over economic activities like drilling, fishing, etc., but it may not prohibit or interfere with transit or just hanging around.
But all of these definitions are based on the low-tide mark. What are the territorial waters of Atlantis, which has no low-tide mark, being completely underwater? Even if one were to simply grant the same sorts of rights as land-based nations, where do the borders of Atlantis start and stop? The edge of the city? Some distance beyond? There isn’t exactly a natural feature—on the surface anyway—where one could draw an obvious line, nor are there going to be other countries with which to define a border. Even if a ship were trying to respect the borders, without GPS or a really good navigator, it would be almost impossible to tell when you were trespassing, even by hundreds of miles.
It’s possible that other nations might not recognize that Atlantis has territorial waters at all, as it would be pretty inconvenient to do so. States are accustomed to having pretty much free reign in the Atlantic, so a huge hole in the map defined solely by law created to respect Atlantean territorial claims might not be of much interest to other states. One could always make the argument that Atlantis is free to do whatever it likes on the ocean floor provided it does not interfere with surface traffic, but even then 1) why would Atlantis agree to that, and 2) what about submarine traffic? And given that Atlantis would probably need to be willing to go to war to get what it wants, would it? Could it? Namor has certainly launched an attack on more than one occasion, but that never seems to go very well. No, it would probably be best for all involved if the undersea kingdoms kept to themselves and did not advance any territorial claims. International disputes like this one have historically been solved with armies.
A lot of the fictional nations in comics stories don’t present any particular legal problems: redrawing territorial lines happens with some regularity even in the real world. Even since the Peace of Westphalia, one is hard-pressed to come up with a decade when national boundaries didn’t change somewhere. But adding in the possibility of countries that have been hidden for long periods of time or, even worse, exist under the surface of the ocean, makes things a lot more complicated.