Interplanetary Relations: Liberal Internationalism in the Star Trek Universe

By Kathryn Wallace

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The Starlight Room by James Vaughn

There is a remarkable amount of literature comparing theories in international relations and the adventures of the 1960s sci-fi series, Star Trek. This show is classic science fiction, with tight and brightly colored uniforms and unconvincing alien makeup, hilariously outsized and antiquated technology, and predictable, but still enjoyable story lines. There is a brave and debonair commander, Captain James T. Kirk, his loyal, logical, and half-human, second-in-command, Mr. Spock, and the sardonic Dr. McCoy. The main cast is rounded out with the satirical, stereotypical Scotsman, Chief Engineer, Montgomery Scott and the only constant female officer, Lt. Ohura, the Communications Officer, whose real life actress, Nichelle Nichols’ continued presence on the show was the result of encouragement from an encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr.

As you enjoy the mere three seasons of Star Trek: The Original Series, you’re immediately compelled to support the Starfleet crew’s five year mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, [and] to boldly go where no man has gone before.” You quickly learn that the USS Enterprise is just one of the countless starships in “The Federation’s” vast fleet. The United Federation of Planets is the future’s interstellar governmental and military body, much like a futuristic combo-pack of today’s United Nations (UN) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It is Gene Rodenberry’s liberal conception of a Utopian enforcement and management mechanism which ensures universal liberty, rights, and equality among its 150 participating members and space at large. Rodenberry, known for his optimistic take on international affairs, predicts that Earth will evolve into a peaceful and wholly democratic planet which will help to establish the Federation merely 200 years into the future.

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Star Trek Galactic Quadrants and Major Political Forces in that Universe by Codehydro

Much like modern-day multilateral organizations, the Federation is a cross-cultural amalgamation, formed in the wake of a devastating and widespread war, where the dominant military and political members have the strongest visible influence – the Federation Council and President are both located on Earth. It operates under the notion that all members have accepted and adopted an identical conception of human rights and governance, although this remains a polemic issue among the mere 193 countries in the United Nations today. These standards are unmistakably the moralistic ideas of American exceptionalism, exemplified by Episode #52, “The Omega Glory,” where Kirk’s crew encounters a planet in which a war, which is inextricably similar to that of the Cold War, destroyed the Kohms and Yangs (read Communists and Yankees), and reverted their society back to a heathenistic, garbled interpretation of American society today. At the end, Captain Kirk finds the Preamble of the US Constitution, and after a moving monologue about the benefits of a democratic, equal society, the simple people agree to abide by these “holy words.” In this futuristic Utopian society which has remarkably intertwined the governance of more than 100 planets and countless nations and likely thousands of constitutions, the United States Preamble is somehow the most important document to which a struggling society should adhere.

Unlike the UN, the Federation follows a fundamental guiding principle, the Prime Directive, which forbids any interference in the natural development of primitive civilizations. The UN makes no distinction of development status in the inclusivity of its members, nor in the determination of necessary military intervention. Chapter VII, Article 39 of the UN Charter allows for intervention in order to “maintain or restore international peace and security.” No matter the disparity between the development of the nations involved, the UN is given a figurative go-ahead to intervene for the good of all, a big no-no according to the Prime Directive.

In The Original Series, Captain Kirk often sidesteps this directive in order to protect the human rights, dignity, and liberty of these societies, while his trusty second-in-command consistently reminds him of the integrity and necessity of the rule and the Doctor roars his support from the background. As a Starfleet Captain, Kirk struggles to balance the diametrically oppositional perspectives of Spock and McCoy, in an attempt to uphold the universal truths of “good” and “right” established by the United Federation of Planets.

After watching enough Star Trek, marathon-style, intermixed with current events and news, reality and Rodenberry’s 1960s liberal logic begin to comically intertwine. How would the Federation confront a militaristic society with a strong centralized government which covertly conquered a small portion of an independent planet? In hypothetical Episode 2014, “The Annexation of Crimea,” The Enterprise would likely arrive at the planet before the confrontation occurred, to “explore [the] strange new world.”

Hoping to remain unnoticed, Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy would beam down, in disguise along with a couple of expendable members of the crew. They would encounter a beleaguered society of Ookers, recently liberated from the dominance of the former United Celestial States of Russies (UCSR).  Through various adventures and mishaps, the crew would discover that the UCSR had prevented the attempted development and separation of the Ooker planet from the UCSR’s sphere of influence. The Russies would have tried to coerce the Ookers back into their fold, with resource withdrawal and subsequent full-planet blackouts, heightened pro-Russie rhetoric transmitted directly to the Ookers, and the appearance of pro-Russie militants upon the Ooker planet. The Federation would have warned Captain Kirk of the potential conflict, instructing him to remain neutral, but supportive, and to only engage in the event that the aggression tread on strategic Federation territory.

But such requests would be to no avail. Taking into consideration the oft mentioned dire situation of the Ooker people by Dr. McCoy, and considering Mr. Spock’s logical entreaty to adhere to the tenants of the Federation’s Prime Directive, Captain Kirk would send a communication to Starfleet, informing it of his departure from interstellar policy, and engage in defensive military action to protect the human rights, dignity, and freedom of the Ooker people. Interstellar policy would not prevent Captain Kirk from making bold and dangerous moves, and catapulting the Federation into an interstellar war with the Russie Empire. Although the Russie’s would possess compatible offensive capabilities to The Enterprise and would threaten mutual destruction of both civilizations, in the end, because Kirk would be fighting for the “good” of all species, his suicidal move would lead to the peaceful conquest of the Russies, their eventual adoption of the Federation’s common conception of good and right, and the autonomy of the Ooker planet. Passionate McCoy would applaud the Captain’s actions, far overstepping the mandate of the Prime Directive. Although hesitant at first, Spock would loyally follow the orders of his captain, brilliantly modifying the plan in order for it to succeed. In the end, he and the Federation would recognize that Kirk’s actions were justified and effective in upholding the spirit of the Prime Directive.

Beyond the basic understanding that Star Trek is an imagined, futuristic sci-fi television series, and with the consideration that the Federation was modeled after the same utopic liberal ideas as the UN, why do they function so differently? Captain Kirk, arguably the moralistic center of the UN member states would have made efforts to balance the Spocks and McCoys of the multilateral organization. McCoy would bellow that the human rights of the people of Crimea were being violated, and it was their duty, as human beings, to intervene. Mr. Spock would logically refer Kirk to the legal and political constraints of such action, but would be swayed by Kirk’s conviction to uphold the same norms of good and right that they all hold dear. If modern international conflict were to be settled by Star Trek: The Original Series guidelines, the UN would always intervene in order to protect what is “right.”

However, unlike the Federation, the UN continually redefines the conception of right, good, and liberty. Member states balance each other in an unpredictable manner, which leads to a realistic, and sometimes not-so-happy ending. The dynamic character and cultural heterogeneity of the real world prevents the UN from acting like the United Federation of Planets.

Of course, there are critiques of the liberal internationalist comparison and further developments to these ideas using the later series of Star Trek (here, here, and here).


Bio PicKathryn A. Wallace is a Master’s Candidate at the Patterson School studying diplomacy with a concentration in Latin America. She is particularly interested in issues relating to women’s and reproductive rights. Feel free to contact her for potential opportunities at www.linkedIn.com/in/kathrynawallace/.

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