Star Wars, Science Fiction, and Foreign Policy

Happy Star Wars launch day! As the newest film in the Star Wars franchise is exciting fans around the globe, it’s also offering a unique opportunity for foreign policy scholars: attempting to shoehorn Star Wars parallels and metaphors into foreign policy debates.

It’s certainly easy to do. Over at Foreign Policy, authors examine why the rebel victory at Endor may not have been the decisive battle it initially appeared:

Much of the chaos following the Rebel Alliance’s victory was predictable. Its wartime leaders were overwhelmingly focused on avoiding missteps and destroying their vastly more powerful enemy while ignoring the problems of violence, factionalism, and criminality that plague post-conflict environments across the universe.

You don’t have to work hard to see the clumsy historical metaphor here: the rebellion’s victory gave way to a ‘failed democratic transition,’ with the Rebel Alliance unable to turn their victory into a durable political settlement. In a post-Arab Spring world, the parallels are obvious.

Others examine Luke’s path to radicalization from his first encounter with Obi-Wan (a charismatic mentor with a strange new religion), to his return home to find his family killed by the Empire (presumably by drone strike), to his decision to join the rebels and overthrow the government. When the movie was initially released at the height of the Cold War, a decision to join the rebellion and fight the ‘evil empire’ was heroic. Today, with parallels to ISIS, it can seem less clear-cut.

Some commentators have gone even further, asking whether the Empire was really so bad. Neoconservative icon Bill Kristol noted on twitter that the Empire was a liberal regime with meritocracy and upward mobility. The post-Arab Spring Middle East certainly lends some credence to the idea that even a dictator might be better than chaos, though it requires us to overlook the Empire’s many war crimes.

But what each of these accounts gets wrong is their assumption that Star Wars should be interpreted as a representation of today’s world. Sure, the zeitgeist influences writers, directors, and musicians. Yet the great strength of the science fiction and fantasy genres has always been the ability to explore complex political issues, including foreign policy, in a setting distinct from today’s world.

HBO’s Game of Thrones presents a fantastical world with dragons and wights. But at heart, the story is about power, territory, and what people are willing to do for it. It’s hard to describe author George R.R. Martin as anything other than a pure Hobbesian realist, exploring the consequences of the anarchy that follows the demise of state authority.

Recent dystopian films illustrate the workings of non-democratic societies - The Hunger Games is fundamentally about the ways in which authoritarian regimes keep their population in line – while shows like Battlestar Galactica illustrate the unpleasant compromises societies at war often make within themselves and with the enemy.

With greater space, science fiction books can explore these issues more effectively. Robert Heinlein’s classic works focus on issues as diverse as Starship Troopers’ military-dominated society, and the asymmetric warfare required of a small colony (the moon) trying to escape a larger empire. Despite its futuristic mileu, Joe Haldeman’s Forever War is one of the best fictional explorations of the difficulties veterans face when returning home from war. And in Iain M. Banks’ culture novels, we find both a utopian socialist society, and the disturbing implication that its existence relies on a willingness to engage in covert, morally questionable actions.

The point is: don’t read too much into pundits’ claims that Star Wars is a metaphor for today’s politics. Science fiction’s strength is its ability to explore different governance structures, wars, societies, and political trade-offs in context. So if you want to understand politics, you shouldn’t just read philosophers and theorists. Start with Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, or Morgenthau. Continue with Heinlein, Herbert, Orwell, Asimov, Banks, Stephenson, and Gibson.  

And may the force be with you.